Archive for October, 2016

1920: A Year of Tragedy and Scandal

Monday, October 31st, 2016

Just a few days before the 1920 World Series between the Brooklyn Robins (also known as the Dodgers) and the Cleveland Indians began, Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson turned rumors to fact about gamblers reaching their tentacles into the clubhouse to choke the oxygen of purity from baseball.

Cicotte and Jackson testified before a Chicago grand jury that eight White Sox players “fixed” the 1919 World Series in exchange for payment from gamblers who bet heavily on Chicago’s opponent, the Cincinnati Reds.  It was an emphatic blow to baseball’s soul.  Another dark event occurred in 1920 baseball, tragic because of its finality.

On August 16th, the Indians’ Ray Chapman got hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch in a game against the Yankees.  The setting was late afternoon, top of the 5th inning.

Thinking the ball hit the bat, Mays fielded it and threw to first baseman Wally Pipp.  Chapman took three or four steps, then collapsed.  Although he walked off the field, with assistance, the Indians’ shortstop died early the next morning in the hospital.  Chapman’s obituary in the New York Times cited Yankee skipper Miller Huggins surmising that Chapman’s spikes got caught in the dirt, thereby preventing him from moving out of the way.

Another theory espoused that Chapman simply did not see the ball because it was scuffed, dirtied, or otherwise marred either by a pitcher or through regular play.  In that era, snow white baseballs were not in terrific supply during a game.  By the later innings, a game ball could be discolored, even misshapen.  Consequently, a batter might have difficulty perceiving the ball, judging its speed, and avoiding its contact.

In the twin wakes of the White Sox betrayal and the Chapman tragedy, a 6’3″ pitcher, lanky yet muscular, strode to his citadel, the Ebbets Field pitching mound.  Richard William “Rube” Marquand, nicknamed by a sports writer after pitching great Rube Waddell, received the task of opening the World Series for Brooklyn.

Four days shy of his 34th birthday, Waddell gave up three runs to the Indians ball club, still mired in grief over the Chapman death.  It was all the fodder needed.  Brooklyn lost the game 3-1, its lone run scored by future Hall of Famer Zack Wheat.  Ignominy fathered for Brooklyn in Game 5 when Indians second baseman Bill Wambsganss made an unassisted triple play, the only one in World Series history.

Brooklyn lost the 1920 World Series to Cleveland, five games to two games.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 31, 2013.

 

Ralph Houk: Filling Casey’s Shoes

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

When Ralph Houk took over the manager job for the New York Yankees, he had big shoes to fill.  Casey Stengel’s shoes.

Houk guided the Yankees from 1961 to 1973, then took the helm of the Detroit Tigers from 1974 to 1978.  He finished his managerial career with the Boston Red Sox.  His Beantown tenure lasted from 1981 to 1984.

But Houk’s rookie season as manager stands out.  1961.  It was the first season after Stengel’s run of World Series championships earned by the pinstriped Adonises of the Bronx in 1947, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1956, and 1958.

A World War II veteran, Houk played a backup role to Yogi Berra after the war.  He saw sporadic action:  91 games from 1947 to 1954.  Then, he managed the Denver Bears of the American Association from 1955 to 1957.  The Bears won the AA championship in 1957, an indication of Houk’s instincts.

The 1961 Yankees dominated baseball, compiling a 109-53 record.  Elston Howard hit .348, Whitey Ford ratcheted a 25-4 record, and Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record with 61 fingers.

For most of the season, Maris raced with Mickey Mantle toward Ruth’s record.  A shot, albeit given by a reputable doctor, triggered an infection, which sidelined Mantle for the end of the season.  Mantle hit 54 home runs before this happened.

Houk documented the ’61 season in the 1962 book Ballplayers Are Human, Too.  In Chapter 5, “Let ‘er Roll, Gang!,” he describes the awe inspired by Yankee Stadium on Opening Day.  “I’ve read that wearing the Yankee pinstripes gives a player the feeling he’s on top of the baseball world,” wrote Houk.  “Believe me, it’s the Stadium that makes you feel you’ve got to do your best.  The Stadium looks like a historical building from the outside, one that’s been standing there a long time and will remain there forever, like the Coliseum in Rome.  Baseball history has been made in the Stadium.  A fellow wants to make more baseball history there—that’s the way I felt that day.”

Houk ends the book by describing a conversation with clubhouse attendant Pete Sheehy after the Yankees beat the Cincinnati Reds in the 1961 World Series.  Sheehy, a Yankees fixture, began his career with the legendary 1927 Yankees featuring Ruth’s record of 60 home runs, in addition to Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Earle Combs.  He stayed with the team till his death in 1985 at the age of 75.  The ’61 Yankees, according to Sheehy, deserve more than honorable mention in Yankees history.

“An incredible year,” wrote Houk.  “Think of it, not one beef from a player, not one phone call from someone who says one of your players is down somewhere causing trouble.  Nothing but great games, great pitching, the greatest of all hitting…and Rog’s…”

Sherry then interrupts the skipper.  “I been around here a long time.  I’ve seen ’em all since the Babe’s day.  I never seen a team like this.”

Houk responds, “That’s just what I mean.  No manager ever had a team like this.  What an incredible gang of ballplayers!  What an incredible year!”

1961.  Incredible.  Magical.  Legendary.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 15, 2013.

Biz Mackey: Baseball’s Unsung Mentor

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

Without James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, there would be no Roy Campanella.

A three-time National League MVP and an eight-time National League All-Star, Campanella played for the Baltimore Elite Giants when Mackey managed the team.  Campanella was 15 years old, not even old enough to drive.  He held his own in the Negro Leagues, thanks to Mackey’s tutelage.  “Biz Mackey was the master of defense of all catchers,” said Campanella.

Mackey’s introduction to Campanella is lost to history.  But Neil Lanctot surmises how these baseball icons met.  In Campy, his 2011 biography of Campanella, Lanctot poses the theory that Mackey was hurt, thereby in need of a replacement catcher for the Giants circa late 1930s.  Mackey learned of Campanella through the baseball grapevine.

Without Biz Mackey, there would be no Monte Irvin.  No Larry Doby.  No Don Newcombe.

When Mackey managed the Newark Eagles in 1940-1941, he mentored these future major league players who led integration in the major leagues by the end of the 1940s.  Fired by Eagles owner Effa Manley after the 1941 season, Mackey returned to play for the Eagles in 1945.  Mackey batted .307, a stellar batting average made even more impressive by his age—48.  Manley hired Mackey to manage the Eagles in 1946.  His governance led the Eagles to champion status in the 1946 Negro League World Series against the Kansas City Monarchs.  Newark’s tenure as the home of the Eagles ended just two years later; the team moved to Houston, where it played in 1949-1950 before disbanding.

Fired by Eagles owner Effa Manley after the 1941 season, Mackey returned to play for the Eagles in 1945.  Mackey batted .307, a stellar batting average made even more impressive by his age—48.  Manley hired Mackey to manage the Eagles in 1946.  Under his governance, the Eagles beat the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Negro League World Series.  Its tenure in Newark ended two years later—the team moved to Houston, where it played in 1949 and 1950 before disbanding.

Born in Eagle Pass, Texas—the first American settlement on the Rio Grande River—Biz Mackey never reached the major leagues as a player or a manager.  But his influence is questionable, if not properly recognized.  Biz Mackey got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, decades after his baseball career ended.

Mackey did, however, receive accolades from his peers in the baseball community other than the Hall of Fame entry.  The book Blackball Stars cites Cum Posey as saying that Biz Mackey is the all-time best black catcher, including Josh Gibson on Posey’s Homestead Grays ball club.  Posey’s praise of Mackey over Gibson is like the Steinbrenner clan saying that the best shortstop of the 1990s was Nomar Garciaparra, not Derek Jeter.

Scholars, historians, and enthusiasts of the Negro Leagues will know of Raleigh “Biz” Mackey and dozens of other players that don’t get the marquee recognition of Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson.  Mackey deserves to be recognized in the pantheon of Negro League icons who played before Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in 1947, not only for his achievements on the baseball diamond, but also for his mentoring of those who changed the game of baseball.

Biz Mackey died in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 30, 2013.

Ebbets Field: More Than A Stadium

Friday, October 28th, 2016

A baseball shrine débuted in 1913, one in a string of ballparks ushering in a new era for the National Pastime.  Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, and Chicago offered modern facilities for the fans.    In Brooklyn, a new stadium became a second home for borough residents from Canarsie to Coney Island.  Ebbets Field.  Home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

When the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season, Ebbets Field’s days were numbered.  Their spirit amputated, Dodger fans mourned the loss represented by the soulless void of a silent Ebbets Field.

Obsolete and vacant as a once gloried dominion of baseball excellence, Ebbets Field no longer served a valuable function.  What began as the innovative brainchild of then owner Charles Ebbets in 1913 aged into an archaic edifice.  Once a nucleic fixture for Brooklyn, Ebbets Field balanced on the precipice of ignominy.  Its storied life ended in 1960 with demolition that placed an arctic exclamation point on the end of an already frosty sentence—the Brooklyn Dodgers are no more.

If fans run their fingers over the memories, they feel scars that never fully healed and, consequently, trigger a bittersweet though palpable aura.  Bitter for the abandonment.  Sweet for the memories.

Vividly, they recall Jackie Robinson’s fiery, pigeon-toed style of running, Carl Furillo’s master of baseball caroms off Ebbets Field’s idiosyncratic right field wall, and Roy Campanella’s powerful swaths of National League pitching.

But the memories are more than homages to a great baseball team that patrolled the verdant pasture at 55 Sullivan Place, an address that no longer appears on Brooklyn’s Post Office rolls.  For those who saw the Dodgers play in the Jackie Robinson era, the memories reveal a depth of love betrayed in Shakespearean proportions.

Walter O’Malley’s decision to move the Dodgers a continent away from Brooklyn, a felonious act in the hearts and minds of the Dodger faithful, anchored in a sweetheart deal—the power brokers of Los Angeles gave O’Malley the real estate of Chavez Ravine in an exchange for the environs of the city’s Wrigley Field.  Not since Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island for 60 guilders on behalf of the Dutch had a land deal bared incalculable value for the land’s new settlers.

Dodger Stadium eclipsed Ebbets Field in look, feel, and modernity.  Its wavy outfield roof, capacity for approximately 56,000, and seat colors evoking a southern California warmth—yellow, light orange, turquoise, and sky blue—did not look anything like Charles Ebbets’s brick-faced structure that was a breakthrough for pre-World War I baseball, but a relic for the Space Age.  O’Malley’s new facility represented the post-World War II era, when migration to newly created suburbs forced travel by car, thereby creating a need for parking spaces at stadium.  Ebbets Field was a ballpark sandwiched into one city block with a capacity hovering around 36,000 and approximately 700 parking spaces.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 15, 2013.

The Hall of Fame Case for Bill Buckner

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

“Little roller up along first.  Behind the bag!  It gets through Buckner!  Here comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

Vin Scully’s broadcast of Mookie Wilson’s 10th inning ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series sends chills through the hearts of Red Sox Nation.  Buckner, a journeyman baseball player, gained immortality because Wilson’s grounder went through his legs.  In the hearts and minds of baseball fans, Buckner’s error lost the World Series for the Red Sox.

Never mind that Buckner might not have beat Wilson to the bag even if he fielded the ball.

Never mind that the Red Sox committed tactical mistakes leading up to Wilson’s at bat.

Never mind that the Mets victory in Game 6 tied the World Series at three games apiece—the Red Sox had a chance to win the series with a victory in Game 7.  Alas, they did not.

But one error, despite its fame, does not define a career.  Buckner may even be worthy of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Outrageous?  Statistics say otherwise.

Using a four-point paradigm of hits, doubles, RBI, and batting average, Buckner’s numbers compare nicely to some other Hall of Famers.  The four points are based on:

  • hitting ability (number of hits)
  • hitting power (number of doubles)
  • clutch hitting (RBI)
  • consistency (batting average)

Bill Buckner played 2517 games between 1969 and 1990 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, California Angels, and Kansas City Royals.  A first baseman and left fielder, Buckner racked up 2715 hits, 498 doubles, 1208 RBI, and a .289 batting average.

Bill Mazeroski, second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, played 2163 games from 1956 to 1972.  His career numbers:  2016 hits, 294 doubles, 853 RBI, and a .260 batting average.

Phil Rizzuto, shortstop for the New York Yankees, played 1661 games from 1941 to 1956.  His career numbers:  1588 hits, 239 doubles, 563 RBI, and a .273 batting average.

Johnny Evers of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play fame played for the Chicago Cubs, Boston Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, and Chicago White Sox from 1902 to 1917 with one-game stints in 1922 and 1929.  His career numbers:  1659 hits, 216 doubles, 538 RBI, and a .270 batting average.

Yogi Berra played catcher for the New York Yankees from 1946 to 1963 and returned to the major leagues in 1965 with the New York Mets.  He played four games in the ’65 season and 2120 games in his major league tenure.  His career numbers:  2150 hits, 321 doubles, 1430 RBI, and a .285 batting average.

To be fair, offensive output in the traditional categories is not the only benchmark for Cooperstown.

Mazeroski earned eight Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess.

Rizzuto was a master of the bunt, often used sacrificially to advance runners.

Evers made his name on defense in the most hallowed of double play combinations.

Berra won the American League Most Valuable Player Award three times, played on the American League All-Star team 15 times, and exemplified the importance of defense in the catcher position.

Still, Buckner’s performance during a career lasting more than 20 years deserves further scrutiny by the baseball writers making the ultimate call on the worthiness of a player getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Based on statistics, Buckner’s entry is viable.

Statistics, after all, are stubborn things.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 31, 2013.

Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up To Be Baseball Pitchers

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Baseball pitchers in fiction seem to have a black cloud hovering over them.

Once an ace relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Sam “Mayday” Malone is a recovering alcoholic on Cheers.  Sam owns the eponymous Cheers, a bar where he is revered for his exploits on the baseball diamond and his womanizing success that would make Casanova green with envy.

From time to time, Sam falls off the wagon.  Occasionally, he reveals that his one-night stands, hookups, and flings are pale attempts to fill his inner loneliness.  Booze, most likely serves the same purpose.

Kenny Powers is Sam Malone without a conscience.  He makes John Rocker look like a poster boy for unity on Eastbound & Down.  Powers uses steroids to improve his performance and cocaine to relax.  After getting kicked out of baseball, Powers determines to make his way back to the big leagues by starting in the minors.  But his laser-focused approach on himself without regard to family and friends redefines selfishness.

Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh has a right arm like a cannon in Bull Durham, but his immaturity, cockiness, and lack of baseball knowledge may prevent him from handling the pressure of being a major league pitcher.  Enter Crash Davis, a veteran minor league catcher with a roster of credits including numerous minor league teams, unparalleled baseball wisdom, and 21 days in the majors.  Crash sands off Nuke’s rough edges, a responsibility handed to him the parent ball club.  But the job is neither easy nor fun.  His dreams of a major league career have evaporated, more painful because Nuke doesn’t appreciate his opportunity.

Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn of the Cleveland Indians has a right arm that could put him in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He’s also an ex-felon prone to lack of control over his fastball—hence, the “Wild Thing” nickname.  Prescription glasses solve Vaughn’s wildness problem.

Bruce Springsteen’s unnamed pitcher in Glory Days cannot do anything but live in the past.  Once upon a time, he could throw a blazing fastball.  But now, all he does is talk about the glory days of his high school baseball career.

No commentary about pitchers with problems would be complete without Charlie Brown of Peanuts.  He idolizes Joe Shlabotnik, a player with a .004 batting average.  He pitches on a baseball team with a knack for losing.  And, perhaps from the stress, he has a rash on the back of his head that looks like the stitching on a baseball.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 15, 2013.

Tactical Strikes: Baseball and the American President

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

When President George Walker Bush threw out the first pitch at that most hallowed of baseball cathedrals—Yankee Stadium—on October 30, 2001, the eyes of the world focused on him.  The setting was Game 3 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks, just a few weeks after the blindsiding 9/11 attacks and just a few miles from Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan.  It was a surreal moment that demanded an elevation beyond ceremony.

President Bush threw a perfect strike.  And a tactical one, as well.

It was a symbolic act showing the world that America would neither be intimidated nor dissuaded.  Not by terrorists.  Not by wartime.  And the baseball setting was appropriate as a step toward healing.

In the movie Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones captured the essence of baseball’s connection to the country:  “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray.  It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

A former owner of the Texas Rangers, President Bush had a tangible connection to the National Pastime.  Other presidents also enjoyed a genuine nexus to baseball.

President George Herbert Walker Bush—George W. Bush’s father—played on the Yale baseball team.  As president, he went to an Orioles game with Queen Elizabeth in a gesture of social diplomacy.

President Taft unknowingly invented the 7th inning stretch when he rose from his seat during a game.

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon threw out first balls from their box seats for the hometown Washington Senators.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt perpetuated baseball during World War II.  With the country absorbed in the daily actions of American forces in Europe, North Africa, and the South Pacific during World War II, Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter dated January 14, 1942 to President Roosevelt inquiring about continuing the leagues’ operations during the crisis.

FDR responded the next day.  He gave Landis a green light to continue baseball for morale:  “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.  And that means they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

Baseball suffered a drain of its players, however.  Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, and Stan Musial reported for duty along with more than 500 other players.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 30, 2013.

 

Jackie Robinson’s Inner Strength

Monday, October 24th, 2016

On October 24, 1972, Jack Roosevelt Robinson died.  Nine days prior, he declared, “I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”  The setting was Game 2 of the ’72 World Series; Robinson threw out the first pitch.  Another Robinson—Frank—fulfilled the wish in 1975, when he broke the racial barrier in managing.  Cleveland, appropriately, was the site for this Major League Baseball milestone; Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League when he took the field on July 5, 1947 for the Indians, a little less than three months after Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Technically, the Dodgers’ #42 was not the first black player in the major leagues.  Moses Fleetwood Walker holds that distinction.  He played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884, his only major league season; the AA is considered to have been a major league.  In the decades succeeding, baseball’s powers that be had an unwritten yet firm rule banning black players until Dodgers executive Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson.

The 2013 movie 42 showcased Robinson’s achievement.  He played under duress that would have broken a lesser man, but his fierce competitiveness combined with natural talent changed the minds, hearts, and maybe even the souls of those who taunted him.  “Robinson could hit and bunt and steal and run.  He had intimidating skills and he burned with a dark fire,” states Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer, the legendary chronicle of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers.  “He wanted passionately to win.  He charged at ball games.  He calculated his rivals’ weaknesses and measured his own strengths and knew—as only a very few have ever known—the precise move to make at precisely the moment of maximum effect.  His bunts, his steals, and his fake bunts and fake steals humiliated a legion of visiting players.  He bore the burden of a pioneer and the weight made him more strong.”

42 depicts a scene lifted from real life involving Ben Chapman, the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager.  During a Phillies-Dodgers game in 1947, Chapman hurled taunts at Jackie Robinson that were more vicious than any fastball.  Mr. Robinson suffered them.  Again and again.  Bench jockeying was one thing, but Chapman’s version was laced with venom the likes of which most people had ever witnessed.

Branch Rickey saw Chapman’s hatred as an asset, uniting the Dodgers behind Robinson, who acceded to having his picture taken with Chapman upon Rickey’s request to cool possible media heat of Chapman’s remarks.  In his autobiography I Never Had It Made, Jackie Robinson elaborates his view of the Chapman incident.  “Privately, I though Mr. Rickey was carrying his ‘gratitude’ to Chapman a little too far when he asked me to appear in public with Chapman.  The Phillies manager was genuinely in trouble as a result of all the publicity on the racial razzing.  Mr. Rickey thought it would be gracious and generous if I posed for a picture shaking hands with Chapman.  The idea was also promoted by the baseball commissioner.  I was somewhat sold—but not altogether—on the concept that a display of such harmony would be ‘good for the game.’  I have to admit, though, that having my picture taken with this man was one of the most difficult things I had to make myself do.”

Vincit qui patitur is a Latin proverb meaning “He who endures will conquer.”

Jackie Robinson endured.  Jackie Robinson conquered.

A version of this article originally appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 16, 2013.