Archive for December, 2016

Rhapsody in Blue and Orange

Saturday, December 31st, 2016

Débuting concurrently with the New York Mets in 1962, the song Meet the Mets struck the tone—no pun intended—required to capture excitement for New Yorkers still suffering from the exodus committed by the Giants and the Dodgers after the 1957 season.  Music, indeed, is a powerful conduit for emotion, inspiration, and passion.  A title from the soundtrack to the Elvis Presley movie Speedway conveys the power of music—There Ain’t Nothing Like a Song.

Imagine Rocky Balboa without the accompaniment of Bill Conti’s masterpiece Gonna Fly Now.  Imagine the television show The Wonder Years without Joe Cocker’s rendition of I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends as the theme song reflecting the show’s late 1960s and early 1970s setting awash in nostalgia.  Imagine a baseball game without the National Anthem.

When the Mets front office executives chose Meet the Mets in a contest involving 19 entries, it carved a foothold for worshippers in a culture colored blue and orange.  Written by Ruth Roberts and Bill Katz, Meet the Mets immediately conveyed an invitation to become familiar with the th nascent National League team through its title.

This new squad created to fill the void, heal the wound, and revive the fervor in New York City’s baseball psyche needed an identity for a National League fan base knocked on the canvas by the twin blows of Horace Stoneham and Walter O’Malley moving the Giants to San Francisco and the Dodgers to Los Angeles, respectively.  Meet the Mets fulfilled its obligation to render affection for an infant team with a highly significant number of players past their prime—and many who would never see a prime.

Meet the Mets uses lyrics harmless for a pre-feminist society soaked in the traditional dynamic of a father working and a mother staying home to take care of the kids, clean the house, and volunteer in the community, perhaps for the PTA.  Undeniably, the lyrics indicate a message to the male baseball fan, ignoring the female populus.  Or at least submitting it.  Advocating for a man to have his kiddies and his wife join him in a day at the ballpark symbolized the male dominance structure reinforced in the Eisenhower decade of the 1950s through popular culture, for example, the television shows Leave It to BeaverFather Knows Best, and I Love Lucy.  Today, the lyrics seem antiquated. Condescending, even.

In a 1963 critique, New York Times scribe Leonard Koppett analyzed how classical music icons might have fared in creating a song for the team.  “Think of the Mets as they really are,” wrote Koppett.  Puccini would have oversentimalized them; Wagner could write for the Giants or perhaps the Yankees, but not the Mets; Beethoven would have become too furious; Brahms, poor soul, would have tried and tried; Verdi might have captured the essence of a Chris Cannizzaro and a Cookie Lavagetto, but a Charles Dillon Stengel would have been beyond him.

“Only Mozart could have done it, because, like so many others, would have loved the Mets—with genius added.”

A new version of Meet the Mets débuted in the mid-1980s with an updated arrangement plus lyrics indicating the appeal of the Mets throughout the New York City metropolitan area, with the exception of the Bronx, however, because of its status as the Yankees’ home.  Certain tribal loyalties set by geographical boundaries cannot be crossed, not even by the power of a song.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 16, 2015.

The Black Sox: Fact vs. Fiction

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out provided the source material for the eponymous 1988 movie written and directed by John Sayles, who also played sportswriter Ring Lardner.  Starring Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Bill Irwin, Gordon Clapp, Clifton James, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Tighe, David Strathairn, and John Mahoney, Eight Men Out revived the debate about the involvement of eight White Sox players in fixing the 1919 World Series as part of a conspiracy engineered by gangsters.  Scandalized, the players suffer eternal banishment from Major League Baseball, thanks to a 1920 ruling by the newly installed baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Jim Murray, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, clarified the undercurrent of Eight Men Out.  “They say baseball pictures don’t make it at the box office,” wrote Murray.  “Well, this isn’t about baseball.  It’s about greed and ignorance and betrayal.  The Lou Gehrig story, it ain’t.  The actors are wearing baseball uniforms, but they could be wearing Roman togas.  Their story is universal, timeless.  It’s as old as Adam and Eve.  It’s an immorality play.  Man loses to temptation—again.”

Praising the aura in Eight Men OutChicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Sherman wrote, “With the exception of a few lapses into Hollywood sappiness, director/writer John Sayles does a nice job of sticking to the facts as recorded in Asinof’s book,”  He added, “Sayles captures the tension and ambivalence of the eight players as the conspiracy grew and was revealed.”

Sherman also commended ex-White Sox outfielder Ken Berry, the film’s technical adviser, for accuracy in the game scenes.  Citing Sayles’s need for “perfection,” Berry recalled a scene for Sherman involving Charlie Sheen, who played centerfielder Happy Felsch, one of the infamous eight players.  “We had a play where Charlie had to make a throw to the plate, and the runner was out, but the umpire called him safe,” Berry said.  “It was a bang-bang play.  We did 10 takes, and Charlie’s arm was about to fall off.  But on the 10th take, Charlie made the perfect throw.  That’s the way John wanted it.  He went out of his way to portray the game as it was.”

D.B. Sweeney strove for authenticity in his portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and, perhaps, the most vilified of the “Black Sox” of 1919.  Training with the Minnesota Twins’ farm team in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sweeney greatly improved his baseball skills.  In a 1988 feature article about Sweeney in the New York Times, George Vecsey detailed the actor’s journey in playing Jackson.  Quoting Sweeney, Vecsey wrote, “The first week, I couldn’t do anything in the batting cage.  But I got a batting tee and set it up on the hotel, and after a week I started to make contact.  Don Leppert and Dwight Bernard were coaching there, and they helped me a lot.  Cal Ermer would come through and give me pointers.  By the time I left there, I had more power from the left side than the right.”

As with any movie concerning historical events, facts are sacrificed for artistic license, continuity, and time.  In the 1950 movie Jolson Sings Again, a sequel to 1949’s The Jolson Story, Larry Parks plays legendary performer Al Jolson.  Told about the interest in a movie about his life, Jolson dismisses the importance of factual accuracy in favor of his story’s emotional impact.

Eight Men Out replaces fact with fiction at several points in the story.

During a trial scene, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey testifies that he “informed [American League] Commissioner Ban Johnson” about the “possibility of a conspiracy.”  Comiskey explains that his suspicions occurred “shortly after the series began.”  However, he found “hearsay” after hiring private detectives.

Actually, the American League and the National League do not have commissioners; Ban Johnson was the American League’s president.  Further, James Crusinberry of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Comiskey “was not on speaking terms” with Johnson, so he approached National League President John A. Heydler after the first game because he believed his players fixed the series.

On September 26, 1920, Comiskey testified to this action.  Heydler confirmed it upon arriving in Chicago to testify.  “Commy was all broken up and felt something was wrong with his team in that first game,” quoted Crusinberry of Heydler.  “To me such a thing as crookedness in that game didn’t seem possible.  I told Comiskey I thought the White Sox were rather taken by surprised, that perhaps they had underestimated the strength of the Cincinnati team.

“The matter was dropped for the time.  That day the Reds won again and we moved to Chicago for the third game.  Comiskey called me on the telephone early that morning, and with John Bruce, secretary of the national commission, I went to his office at the ball park.  Once more he stated he felt sure something was wrong.”

Crusinberry added, “Comiskey also called Heydler into conference after the second game, more thoroughly convinced that certain White Sox players were trying to throw the games to Cincinnati.”

However, accuracy abounds in the scene regarding Comiskey’s initial belief that rumors of a fix did not amount to fact.  On December 15, 1919, I.E. Sanborn of the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted Comiskey:  “I am now very happy to state that we have discovered nothing to indicate any member of my team double crossed me or the public last fall.  We have been investigating  all these rumors and I have ha men working sometimes twenty-four hours a day running down clews [sic] that promised to produce facts.  Nothing has come of them.”

Another example of fictionalization involves White Sox player Dickie Kerr telling manager Kid Gleason that he saw Gleason pitch a no-hitter against Cy Young—Gleason never pitched a no-hitter.

Of course, the apocryphal quote “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is, perhaps, the best example of fiction replacing fact.  Eight Men Out would not be complete without depicting a kid expressing disappointment in Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox.  The authenticity of this iconic quote is dubious, at best, because of the lack of evidence.  Nonetheless, it is part of baseball lore.

As a companion to Asinof’s book and the movie, Bill Lamb’s book Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation analyzes the legal angles of the 1919 World Series fix.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 13, 2015.

New Jersey’s Major League Teams

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

New Jersey, sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia, divides its baseball loyalties, typically, with the top half of the state rooting for the former’s teams and the bottom half for the latter’s.  Briefly, on two occasions, the Garden State had a major league team of its own.

In 1873, the Elizabeth Resolutes played in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, which existed from 1871 to 1875.  Also known as the National Association, it was a precursor to the National League, which débuted in 1876.  Disputes concerning the NA’s status as a “major league” continue amongst historians, scholars, and enthusiasts.  But for the purpose the Elizabeth squad’s story here, it shall be considered a “major league.”

Playing home games in Waverly Fairgrounds—a product of the imagination, expertise, and dedication of agriculturalist James Jay Mapes—the Resolutes compiled a 2-21 record, failing to draw crowds necessary to sustain appeal.  In the June 21, 1873 edition of the New York Times, an article highlighted a deficit in marketing efforts as the culprit:  “The game between the Mutuals, of this City, and the Resolutes, of Elizabeth, N.J., which was played on the Union Grounds yesterday afternoon, was very poorly advertised, and consequently poorly attended, there not being more than 500 persons present.”  The Mutuals pounded the Resolutes, winning the game 9-1.

Hugh Campbell pitched both victories for the Resolutes in 1873.  Compiled and edited by David Nemec, the book Major League Profiles: 187-1900, Volume 1, The Ballplayers Who Built the Game, highlights Hugh Campbell’s major league genesis:  “In several 1872 exhibition games against NA teams Campbell had fared reasonably well.  These outings gave the Resolutes confidence that they could compete in the 1873 NA, but it was illusory.”

Campbell’s brother Mike played first base on the 1873 Elizabeth Resolutes; the Campbell brothers had also played together on amateur teams.

The Newark Pepper occupied a slot in the short-lived tenure of the Federal League, a third major league, which existed for two seasons—1914 and 1915.  The team originated in Indianapolis as the Hoosiers in 1914, won the Federal League championship, and migrated to Newark for the 1915 season under the auspices of team owner Harry F. Sinclair, an oil and banking magnate.  Sinclair had been a principal owner in Indianapolis.  He bought the remainder of the team after the 1914 season concluded.

Future Hall of Famer Bill McKechnie played third base for Newark and managed the team for part of the season, achieving a 54-45 record.  He was 27 years old.  McKechnie’s managerial career included pennants with the Pirates, the Cardinals, and the Reds—he is the only manager to win pennants on three different National League teams.  With World Series titles for the ’25 Pirates and the ’40 Reds, McKechnie became the first manager to win a World Series championship with two teams.

Edd Roush, another Hall of Famer, played outfield for the 1915 Pepper.  In 1962, the Hall of Fame inducted McKechnie and Roush, along with Jackie Robinson and Bob Feller.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 9, 2015.

The 18-Inning Game

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

From 1928 to 1943, Carl Hubbell, a New York Giants pitcher who enjoyed the nickname “The Meal Ticket” because of his prowess on the mound, built a Hall of Fame career on his left arm.  Pitching against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 2, 1933, Hubbell added a legendary feat to his credentials when he threw an 18-inning shutout.  Facing the Cardinals, a 1930s baseball dynasty nicknamed “The Gashouse Gang,” Hubbell dominated.  It was the first game of a doubleheader, ending with a 1-0 score.

“The Cardinals were completely baffled by Hubbell and were at his mercy the whole way.  Over the eighteen innings they collected only six hits, four being of the scratch variety,” wrote Richards Vidmer in the New York Herald Tribune.  “He didn’t issue a single pass, only one Cardinal progressed as far as third base, and only three others got as far as second.  He struck out twelve.  The Cards waged a grim battle, but Hubbell never for an instant faltered.”

Hubbell’s opposition proved formidable.  James “Tex” Carleton hurled sixteen scoreless innings.  Jess Haines relieved Carleton, pitching one scoreless inning and then allowing the fatal run in the following inning.  Vidmer pointed out that the contest was three innings shy of the record for a scoreless game.  A 2-0 game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Braves lasted 21 innings on August 1, 1918.  A 1946 Reds-Dodgers game took 21 innings to finish, but it ended in a tie.

In the New York Times, John Drebinger recalled that it was the longest 1-0 game measured by innings, tying a 1918 Senators-White Sox contest; the Senators won.  Drebinger added that an 18-inning game in 1882 between National League teams Providence and Detroit ended in a victory for the latter squad.  Additionally, Drebinger praised Hubbell while giving an honorable mention to Carleton, whose performance was equally stunning, if not more so, considering the shortened break from the mound.  “As he had beaten the Giants in the opening game of the series on Thursday, it was not his turn to pitch,” wrote Drebinger.  “Yet he requested that he start, despite only two days of rest, and for sixteen rounds kept the straining Terrymen away from the plate.”

Of Hubbell, Drebinger wrote, “But it was Hubbell who commanded the centre of the state.  The tall, somber left-hander rose to his greatest heights, surpassing even his brilliant no-hit classic of 1928.  He pitched perfect ball in twelve of the eighteen innings yesterday, with not a man reaching first base.”

Drebinger’s use of the moniker “Terrymen” is a reference to Giants skipper Bill Terry.

Hubbell dominated the National League in his prime, pitching five consecutive seasons of at least 20 victories from 1933 to 1937.  In the 1933 World Series, Hubbell won two games—he completed both of them.  One was a 2-1 contest lasting 11 innings.

The Giants won the second game of the doubleheader, also by a score of 1-0.  Dizzy Dean pitched for the Cardinals on one day’s rest against Giants ace Roy Parmelee who had a 13-8 record in 1933.  Ironically, Parmelee went to St. Louis in 1936, his only season in a Cardinals uniform—he went the distance against the Giants in a 1-0 shutout; it was a 17-inning game.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 2, 2015.

The Midnight Massacre

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Not since 1957, when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, had baseball in New York City suffered an emotional blow equivalent to the impact on June 15, 1977, when the New York Mets committed an unpardonable sin in the eyes of the Flushing Faithful by trading Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Midnight Massacre.

Seaver in another team’s uniform did not compute.  It was an incongruous thought.  Blasphemous, even.  Imagine Mickey Mantle playing for the Cleveland Indians, Sandy Koufax playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, or Al Kaline playing for the Chicago White Sox.  Nicknamed “The Franchise” for his importance to the team, Seaver was synonymous with the Mets.  Beginning in 1967, the Mets flourished in Seaver’s glorious achievements in the National League, including Rookie of the Year Award in 1967, three Cy Young Awards, and five seasons leading the league in strikeouts.  Indeed, Seaver was a cornerstone of the 1969 World Series championship team and the 1973 National League championship team that pushed the World Series against the dynastic Oakland A’s to seven games.

But the relationship between Seaver and the Mets frayed by June of 1977.  A media item severed it.  During Seaver’s 1977 contract negotiations, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote, “Nolan Ryan is getting more now than Seaver, and that galls Tom because Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver long has treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother.”

Young doubled down by attacking Seaver’s integrity:  “It comes down to this: Tom Seaver is jealous of those who had the guts to play out their option or used the threat of playing it out as leverage for a big raise—while he was snug behind a three-year contract of his choosing.  He talks of being treated like a man.  A man lives up to his contract.”

Three decades after the trade that sent Seaver to the Reds—in exchange for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, and Dan Norman—Daily News sports writer Bill Madden penned a retrospective of the events leading to the trade.  Seaver shared his insights for the piece:  “That Young column was the straw that broke the back.  Bringing your family into it with no truth whatsoever to what he wrote.  I could not abide that.  I had to go.”

It was the boiling point in a tumultuous relationship with Mets Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant, for whom Young advocated.  In the Madden article, Seaver said, “There are two things Grant said to me that I’ll never forget, but illustrate the kind of person he was and the total ‘plantation’ mentality he had.  During the labor negotiations, he came up to me in the clubhouse once and said: ‘What are you, some sort of Communist.’  Another time, and I’ve never told anyone this, he said to me: ‘Who do you think you are, joining the Greenwich Country Club?’  It was incomprehensible to him if you didn’t understand his feelings about your station in life.”

The Seaver trade devastated Mets fandom.  In the June 17, 1977 edition of the New York Times, Murray Schumach wrote, “The anger of New Yorkers was no secret at Shea Stadium, where the switchboard was flooded with telephone calls, mostly of protest, many of them very abusive in what was admittedly the strongest display of anger ever recorded in one day at the switchboard.”

Seaver returned to the Mets for the 1983 season, inspiring Young to revive the volcano that triggered Seaver’s demand for a trade.  In the December 22, 1982 edition of the New York Post, Young opined, “It took me half a column to get to this, didn’t it.  This is the tacky part when Tom Seaver asked the Mets to renegotiate his contract, which had two years to run.  Don Grant said no.  Tom Seaver had every right to ask for a new contract, and Don Grant had every right to say no.  Tom Seaver couldn’t accept that.

“That’s how I saw it, that’s how I wrote it.  You signed the contract, live with it.  Play the two years left at $225,000, then hit the free agent market and make your millions.  It’s there, waiting.”

Young’s analysis ignored Seaver’s honor, symbolized by acceptance of a 20% pay cut for the 1975 season after a lackluster 11-11 performance in 1974.  It was part of a “gentleman’s agreement” designed in September 1974 between Seaver and the Mets front office.  In the January 22, 1975 edition of the New York Times, Joseph Durso quoted Seaver in detailing the circumstances surrounding the salary drop:  “Don Grant and I were talking one day and he brought it up.  No, I wasn’t disturbed that I got a cut after one bad year.  The ball club’s been very good and honest with me, and I with them.  They paid me a good amount of money last year and I didn’t pitch up to that amount.”

In 1975, Tom Seaver went 22-9, won the National League Cy Young Award, and led the National League with 243 strikeouts.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 15, 2015.

Stan Musial’s Three MVP Awards

Saturday, December 24th, 2016

Stan Musial is a St. Louis icon and a national treasure, ranking with the Gateway Arch, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and Campbell House Museum.  Without flash, Musial carved a career of steadiness, superiority, and significance.  From 1941 to 1963, excluding 1945 for military service, Musial garnered:

  • 3,630 hits
  • 475 home runs
  • 725 doubles
  • 177 triples
  • Nearly 2,000 runs scored
  • 20 consecutive appearances in the All-Star Game
  • .331 career batting average

It’s a template by which brilliance in the batter’s box may be measured.

Stan Musial died on January 19, 2013 at the age of 92, prompting the requisite obituaries soaked with nostalgia for an era before free agency, television contracts measured by a dollar sign plus nine numbers, and World Series games played only in prime time.

“He was easily the greatest player St. Louis has ever had, and he was properly feted as a living legend in Cardinal country,” wrote Cliff Corcoran in the article “Musial deserves to be remembered as one of baseball’s best” for Sports Illustrated‘s web site on January 20, 2013.  “To the rest of the United States however, his modest, jovial nature seemed to undermine his importance.  In his later years he was seen as a kindly old man in a red blazer, always quick with a smile and his harmonica, but he never demanded the reverence of surly legends like Williams and DiMaggio, or tragic figures like Mantle and Clemente, or icons of struggle and defiance like Aaron and Mays.  It probably didn’t help that the enduring image of Musial from his playing days was not one of power or grace but of his unusual hunchbacked batting stance.”

The kid from Donora, Pennsylvania achieved an honor reserved for a rarefied few.  And he did it three times in the same decade.  Musial won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1943, 1946, and 1948.  His first award crowned a season of leading the major leagues in key categories:

  • Hits (220)
  • Doubles (48)
  • Triples (20)
  • Batting average (.357)

Further, he only struck out 18 times in 700 plate appearances.

In 1946, the first year for Major League Baseball after World War II, Musial earned his second dubbing as MVP for the senior circuit after leading the major leagues in three of the same categories:

  • Hits (228)
  • Triples (20)
  • Batting average (.365)

Facing the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals won in seven games, but they did it without Musial’s formidable bat.  “Neither Stan Musial nor Red Schoendiesnt matched his work at the plate during the season, but Harry Walker, a .237 hitter during the year, hit .412 in the Series, and the catching duo of Joe Garagiola and Del Rice combined for a .360 average after batting a joint .250 during the season,” wrote Jerome M. Mileur in his 2014 book The Stars Are Back: The St. Louis Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox, and Player Unrest in 1946.

Musial earned his third MVP distinction with a dominant performance repeating his leadership in all the categories from his 1943 feat:

  • Hits (230)
  • Doubles (46)
  • Triples (18)
  • Batting average (.376)

1948 was also a turning point in Musial’s career.  In his 2011 book Stan Musial: An American Life, George Vecsey wrote, “He had always been a hitter.  In 1948, Musial became a slugger.”

Vecsey added, “Suddenly Stan Musial could hit home runs.  He had come up to the majors as an insecure stripling, slapping at the ball to avoid being exposed and shipped back to Donora.  Then during the war, to satisfy the admirals and the sailors in Pearl Harbor, he had exaggerated his crouch, stayed in it longer, and swung for the fences.  Now, after [Cardinals team physician] Dr. [Robert] Hyland removed his appendix and tonsils in October 1947, Musial began hitting the ball farther, more often.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 8, 2015.

The Death of Babe Ruth

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

Like the man whose life it honored, Babe Ruth’s funeral was gigantic.  “The Babe is no longer breathing, but the fans will always talk about him,” wrote Hy Hurwitz in the Boston Globe upon the Babe’s passing in 1948.  “Talk about him because of his run-in, suspension and fine by the late Miller Huggins, only half of Ruth’s size, but a man who made it possible for Ruth to realize manhood.  Talk about him because he never turned down an autograph request or a trip to a hospital to visit a sick patient.”

George Herman “Babe” Ruth died on August 16, 1948.  6,000 mourned at Ruth’s funeral in and around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, perhaps New York City’s most famous religious site, within a Ruthian home run of Rockefeller Center and the New York Public Library’s Main Branch in midtown Manhattan.  Ignoring the rain, another 75,000 lined the streets in St. Patrick’s environs.  Newspapers recounted Cardinal Spellman’s prayer:  “May the Divine Spirit that inspired Babe Ruth to overcome hardships and win the crucial game of life animate many generations of American youth to learn from the example of his struggles and successes loyally to play their positions on all American teams, and may his generous-hearted soul through the mercy of God, the final scoring of his own good deeds and the prayers of his faithful friends, rest in everlasting peace.  Amen.”

Hardships began in Baltimore, Ruth’s hometown, where the father of the future slugger owned a bar.  Ruth, apparently, was incorrigible at a terribly young age, so his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, an institution serving problem children.  He was nine years old or thereabouts.  Versions vary regarding the impetus for Ruth’s enrollment in St. Mary’s.  Ruth biographer Robert W. Creamer wrote, “Another story, the origins of which are vague, says that one day during a brawl in the Ruth saloon a shot was fired.  No one was hurt, but an indignant neighbor got in touch with city authorities, declaring that the saloon was not a fit place to raise a child.  As a result either the city insisted or the parents themselves decided that the increasingly wayward boy should be removed from his unwholesome environment.”

Ruth left St. Mary’s when he was 20 years old, after a scout discovered his ability to smash baseballs over the fences.  He played in the major leagues from 1914 to 1935, amassing devotion from fans enthralled by his achievements, including the stunning season record of 60 home runs in 1927; it stood until 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs.  Ruth’s death reignited that wonder, as is common with the passing of a legend.  “It had to come sometime, of course,” wrote Arthur Daley in the New York Times.  “But Babe Ruth seemingly had acquired a cloak of immortality as if he were a demigod who had sprung from Zeus.  He was not an ordinary mortal even in life.  Now in death he will assume still more grandiose proportions as an almost legendary figure.”

Ruth’s impact on the game cannot be measured by his statistics alone, though they are legendary.  Career numbers include:

  • .690 slugging percentage
  • .342 batting average
  • 714 home runs

Further, as a pitcher for the Red Sox before he became a power hitter, Ruth held the record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the World Series until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.  Immeasurably, Ruth injected excitement into a game scarred by the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  When he swatted American League pitching for round-tripper after round-tripper, fans delighted.

Ruth’s skill with a bat turned baseball toward a new era.  The New York Herald Tribune eulogized, “His slugging prowess inspired imitators and the emphasis shifted from the tight tricks of the sacrifice, the squeeze, the stolen base, the playing for one run, to the long hit which would clean the bases, the one big inning.  It worked on every ball club in the country, but nobody could do it like the Babe, who began it.”

Ruth lay in state at Yankee Stadium for two days before the funeral at St. Patrick’s.  It was an opportunity to pay respects in the baseball shrine nicknamed “The House That Ruth Built.”  Thousands came.  “Aside from a few public officials, such as City Council President Vincent Impellitteri and Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons, these were the kind of people who might have sat in the stands to watch the Babe hit one of his tremendous homers, or strike out with gusto,” wrote Murray Schumach in the New York Times.  “The enormous line that waited patiently outside the Stadium, might have been mistaken for the bleacher line.  There were few limousines in the vicinity.  These people had come by elevated and subway, apparently straight  from work.  Many men were in shirtsleeves.”

On August 20th, the day of Ruth’s funeral, the New York Yankees defeated the Washington Senators decisively—the score was 8-1.  Yankee icon Joe DiMaggio attended Ruth’s funeral while the team prepared in Washington for a game against the Senators.  Quoted by Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune, DiMaggio said, “The Babe must have been more than just a great ball player to have so many people think so much of him.”

Attending the funeral left a small window of time for travel to Washington, though.  Fortunately, DiMaggio had the help of legendary bar owner Toots Shortchanged and CBS Chairman William Paley.  “Shortchanged yelled at Paley, who was driving on Madison Avenue in his limousine.  Paley got out and turned the car over to DiMaggio so that he was able to get to LaGuardia Airport,” wrote Rennie.

DiMaggio also got a boost from his flight crew.  Rennie added, “American Air Lines held flight 307 for ten minutes.”

Entering the game in the third inning, DiMaggio went one-for-four with no runs scored and no RBI.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 21, 2015.

Baseball in Appalachia

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

A minor league baseball treasure resides in the heart of Appalachia.  West Virginia may be known for its natural resources—coal, logging, natural gas—but its roots in baseball date back more than 100 years.  Charleston began its professional baseball history in 1910 with the Statesmen, a Class D team i the Virginia Valley League.  The following year, the Statesmen played in the Class D Mountain State League.

The latest incarnation of professional baseball in West Virginia is the Power, a label that began with the 2005 season.  Concurrently, the team created five mascots—Axe, Gusty, Pyro, Hydro, Charlie.  In 2010, Chuck replaced all five.  A yellow creature with a bowler and an eye patch, Chuck is a hallmark of Power baseball.  The eye patch is highly significant because it pays homage to the Power’s parent team—the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In the Charleston Daily Mail article “New Power mascot dons bowler”—dated September 1, 2010—Zack Harold describes Chuck’s initial appearance:  “After weeks of anticipation, the West Virginia Power baseball team debuted its new mascot—a furry, yellow, bowler-hat wearing creature named Chuck—during Tuesday night’s game.

“Chuck made his grand appearance in the middle of the second inning, riding into Appalachian Power Park on a Suzuki four-wheeler.  The Davisson Brothers Band welcomed him to the stadium with a special adaptation of their song Big City Hillbilly.

Appalachian Power Park houses the Power.  Noting the financial realities demanding a change in venue for Power home games, the team’s web site states, “Modern baseball economics could not survive in Watt Powell Park and several groups worked to preserve the game in Charleston.  From political support and work with the Economic Development Grant Commission to WVWINS, a community action group that mobilized local fans and businesses to back the project, an East End ballpark was put on the map.  Appalachian Power would quickly agree to take on the naming rights to the new 23 million dollar facility.”

Change continued with the team’s branding.  Charleston’s professional baseball history has several labels, though there are gaps:

  • Statesmen (1910-1911—Virginia Valley League in 1910, Mountain State League in 1911)
  • Senators (1913-1916, Ohio State League)
  • Senators (1949-1951, Central League)
  • Senators (1952-1960, American Association)
  • Marlins (1961-1964—International League in 1961, Eastern League in 1962-1964)
  • Charlies (1971-1983, International League)
  • Wheelers (1987-1994, South Atlantic League)
  • Alley Cats (1995-2003, South Atlantic League)
  • Power (2004-Present, South Atlantic League)

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 7, 2015.

The Hall of Fame Case for Steve Garvey

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Steve Garvey, to the consternation of certain factions of Dodger Nation, is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  A stalwart first baseman with the Los Angeles Dodgers and, in the latter years of his career, the San Diego Padres, Garvey accumulated career statistics meriting inspection for entry into baseball’s shrine.

In his 19-year career, Garvey notched 2,599 hits.  Though he did not reach the magic number of 3,000, the statistic is close enough when considered with excellence further reflected in his selection to the National League All-Star team 10 times—eight as a Dodger, twice as a Padre.  More pointedly, Garvey’s eight All-Star appearances as a Dodger were consecutive, indicating a rare consistency usually seen in those with careers crowned with a plaque in Cooperstown.  Additionally, Garvey won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1974 and four consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1974 to 1977.

Garvey’s career batting average of .294 adds weight to an endorsement for Hall of Fame inclusion.  A mere difference of .006 points from the hallowed .300 batting average barometer ought be considered unimportant, especially when combined with the other statistics.  Also significant is Garvey’s National League record of 1,207 consecutive games played.  Post-season play adds weight:  World Series appearances with the Dodgers in 1974, 1977, 1978, and 1981; the Dodgers won the World Series in the strike-shortened ’81 season.  Garvey won another World Series ring with the Padres in 1984.

A strong case can be made for Garvey’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  It is, however, a case as yet unpersuasive to the voters.  In his 2012 ESPN.com article “Steve Garvey’s reliability forgotten” Steve Wulf declared that a Hall of Fame plaque for Garvey is unlikely, given off-the-field exploits.  “What happened to Garvey is partly schadenfreude:  Writers turned on him for a complicated personal life that smudged an image so golden that he once had a middle school named after him,” wrote Wulf.  “But he’s also one of the great players from that period who have been hurt by the inflation of statistics fueled by the increasing use of PEDs, which happened to coincide with the HOF eligibility for the earlier era.”

The “complicated personal life” involves extramarital affairs, two illegitimate children, strained relations with his two daughters from his marriage to television news personality Cindy Garvey, and a divorce that captured headlines.  Consequently, Garvey’s image, once thought to be purer than Ivory soap, shattered into shards.

In the November 27, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated, the article “America’s Sweetheart” by Rick Reilly with Special Reporting by Kristina Rebelo depicts the foundation of Garvey’s “Mr. Clean” status.  “He had mail to answer, business contacts to cement, a moral obligation to be at every Cub Scout banquet and Kiwanis dinner.  He believed in doing the Right Thing.  His parents smoked, but he never did.  His teammates swore, but he never did.  Cyndy says that when he was having trouble throwing in his first years as a Dodger, people would call and scream insults at him.  He would listen to everything they had to say and then hang up.  Punishment is important.  Yet in 1983, when he broke the National League record for consecutive games, he took a $15,000 ad in the Los Angeles Times to thank the fans.

“But maybe sometimes he has confused responsibility to family with responsibility to fans.”

Whether Garvey’s denial of membership by the voters is sourced in scandal or statistics—or a bit of both—is a matter of debate.  If the former subject is believed to be inconsequential in future votes, the latter subject deserves another examination.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 27, 2015.

 

Hank Aaron Hits #715

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

It was a glorious moment.

On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, previously thought unassailable, when he hit his 715th career home run.  Aaron’s historic blast occurred during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves; it was the first home game of the 1974 season for the Braves.

When Aaron knocked an Al Downing pitch over the left field fence in the fourth inning to create a new home run record, he triggered a celebration with enough energy to power the state of Georgia.  In the article “End of the Glorious Ordeal” in the April 15, 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated, Ron Fimrite wrote, “It ended in a carnival atmosphere that would have been more congenial to the man he surpassed as baseball’s alltime [sic] home-run champion.”

Indeed, Babe Ruth was gregarious with an appetite for life that could not be matched, measured, or modulated.  Aaron, in contrast, had a quiet dignity.  In the April 11, 1974 edition of the Atlanta Daily World, Charles E. Price wrote, “A player who dresses at the plate, waiting to get to the plate before adjusting his helmet, only to take an unassuming stance at the plate, Hank then has the appearance of any other player.”

Fimrite, too, opined on Aaron’s contrasting demeanor.  “This is not the sort of party one gives for Henry Aaron, who through the long weeks of on-field pressure and mass media harassment had expressed no more agitation than a man brushing aside a housefly.  Aaron had labored for most of his 21-year career in shadows cast by more flamboyant superstars, and if he was enjoying his newfound celebrity, he gave no hint of it.  He seemed to be nothing more than a man trying to do his job and live a normal life in the presence of incessant chaos.”

In his autobiography I Had A Hammer, Aaron recalled that he and his wife, Billy, hosted a party after the historic game.  Before the party started, as he enjoyed some quiet, Aaron realized the true impact of his achievement.  “When I was alone and the door was shut, I got down on my knees and closed my eyes and thanked God for pulling me through,” wrote Aaron.  “At that moment, I knew what the past twenty-five years of my life had been all about.  I had done something that nobody else in the world had ever done, and with it came a feeling that nobody else has ever had—not exactly, anyway.  I didn’t feel a wild sense of joy.  I didn’t feel like celebrating.  But I probably felt closer to God at that moment than at any other in my life.  I felt a deep sense of gratitude and a wonderful surge of liberation all at the same time.  I also felt a stream of tears running down my face.”

Hank Aaron began his major league career with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954; the Braves moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season.  Aaron stayed with the Braves organization through the 1974 season, and then finished his career with the Milwaukee Brewers.  Aaron retired after the 1976 season with 755 home runs.  It remained the major league record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007.  Bonds retired after the 2007 season with 762 home runs.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 8, 2015.