Archive for January, 2017

Betting, Blindness, and Baseball

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Baseball is a game of sounds.

The crack of the bat.  The roar of the crowd.  The shouts of the vendors.

Radio announcers, of course, provide sonic backdrops from optimism lacing spring training to tension surrounding the World Series.  Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully, Red Barber, and scores of other broadcasters became civic fixtures by keeping fans informed of balls, strikes, and outs.

In the M*A*S*H episode “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce imitates an Armed Forces Radio Network announcer to deceive the deceiver—Major Frank Burns listens to a late night broadcast of a Dodgers-Giants game, makes bets with unknowing colleagues at Mobile Army Surgical Hospital #4077 before the rerun of the broadcast, and collects generous windfalls.

Blinded by an accident when an attempt to fix the nurses’ “temperamental gas heater” results in an explosion, Hawkeye adjusts to his newfound sightlessness after being treated by Major James Overman, the ophthalmologist from the 121st Evacuation Hospital.  A patient blinded by a grenade blast, Tom Straw, a high school English teacher from San Francisco, bonds with Hawkeye, who gets assistance from his colleagues in navigating the challenges of blindness—Radar, the Company Clerk, reads his mail; Maxwell Klinger, a corpsman trying to get a Section 8 discharge by dressing in women’s clothes and Margaret Houlihan, the 4077th’s Head Nurse, guide him around camp; and Dr. B. J. Hunnicutt, Hawkeye’s bunkmate and fellow surgeon, offers emotional support.

It’s a journey of revelation for Hawkeye, who queries Dr. Overman whether he would get to keep his nickname.  To Hawkeye’s wonder, blindness elevates the acuity of other senses.

“When Dr. Overman comes in here and unwraps my package, I hope to God I’ll have my sight back.  But something fascinating has been happening to me,” he reveals to B.J.  “One part of the world is closed down for me.  But another part has opened up.  Sure, I keep picturing myself on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers, but I’m going through something here I didn’t expect.  This morning, I spent two incredible hours listening to that rainstorm.  And I didn’t just hear it, I was part of it.  I bet you have no idea that rain hitting the ground makes the same sound as steaks when they’re barbecuing.  Or that thunder seems to echo forever.  And you wouldn’t believe how funny it is to hear somebody slip and fall in the mud.  It had to be Burns.  Beej, this is full of trap doors, but I think there may also be some kind of advantage in this.  I’ve never spent a more conscious day in my life.”

Hawkeye deduces the gambling scheme devised by the persnickety Burns by recruiting B. J., Radar, and Klinger to broadcast a fictional play-by-play of an Indians-Yankees game through the camp’s electronic equipment.  The next day, Dr. Overman returns from the 121st Evac, removes Hawkeye’s bandages, and, along, with the 4077th’s staff, celebrates the restoration of sight.

When the bettors learn the real score of the game, they chase Burns for their winnings.  As B.J. and Hawkeye witness the pursuit, the former declares that the previously blinded surgeon is a lucky guy.

“Yeah, I got lucky twice,” responds Hawkeye.  “First, I got the chance to see without my eyes and then I got ’em back.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 14, 2016.

Aspro the Astro

Monday, January 30th, 2017

Bob Aspromonte fit nicely with the cultural paradigm built upon a “boys will be boys” philosophy in the 1960s, the decade when Joe Namath swaggered while Dean Martin swigged, offering touchstones for male fantasies of being famous and female fantasies of being in the orbit of an Alpha Male planet.

A lifetime .252 hitter, Aspromonte spent most of his 13-year career with the Houston Astros né Colt .45s. A couple of months before the Colt .45s inaugurated Major League Baseball in Houston, Mickey Herskovitz of the Houston Post profiled the Brooklyn native in a February 1, 1962 article titled “Colts’ Bob Aspromonte Favorite of the Ladies.  “The Brooklyn bachelor is so handsome that you hate him instantly…except that Bob won’t let you.  He never loses his sunny humor, no matter how much kidding he gets about being a ladykiller,” wrote Herskovitz.

A 1969 profile by Al Thomy in the Sporting News queried about Aspromonte’s single status.  “Interviewing Bob Aspromonte in a posh restaurant staffed by micro-mini clad young ladies, is not unlike trying to carry on a conversation with a harried sultan in a chattering harem.  It is most difficult to keep his attention,” wrote Thomy in “Most Eligible Bachelor…How About Aspro?”

Attention by females, though an ego boost, mattered not to performance on the baseball diamond.  “All this talk about being a bachelor and the Valentino of baseball doesn’t help a bit when I make an error,” explained Aspromonte in the Thomy piece.  “It comes back at you from the stands pretty often.  Once in Houston, after a bonehead play of mine, a fan yelled out, ‘Hey, Hollywood boy, what are you doing out there on a baseball field?  You ought to be in pictures!'”

Aspromonte started his career in 1956 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing one game.  After spending three seasons in the minors, Aspromonte rejoined the Dodgers, in Los Angeles by this time.  A two-year tenure in Tinseltown gave Aspromonte a gateway to starlets, though discretion was the better part of valor for the baseball bachelor.  “I don’t like to throw names around,” Aspromonte told Thomy.  “Frankly, I am not interested in having people know my private business.  But I will say I have met actresses who are delightful companions, intellectually stimulating and have intense interests in their careers.”

Houston selected Aspromonte in the National League expansion draft for 1962, the same year that the New York Mets débuted, filling the void created when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated the Big Apple for California.

During his tenure in Houston, Aspromonte entered Texas baseball lore when he knocked three home runs to fulfill promises to Bill Bradley, a 12-year-old who suffered blindness and later enjoyed the restoration of eyesight; it is a feat particularly noteworthy because Aspromonte, though a reliable hitter, hit 60 home runs in his entire major league career.  Bradley bestowed favorite player status upon Aspromonte while listening to the team’s games on the radio.

Aspromonte played seven seasons in Houston, two in Atlanta, and one in New York with the Mets.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 13, 2016.

Rusty Staub: Bonus Baby

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

When Daniel Joseph Staub signed a major league contract, he fell under the “bonus baby” nomenclature.  Nicknamed “Rusty” by a nurse upon his birth on April 1, 1944, Staub became so known.  In a 1967 article for Sports Illustrated, Gary Ronberg cited Staub’s mother in revealing the story behind the dubbing:  “‘I wanted to name him Daniel so I could call him Danny for short,’ said Mrs. Staub, who is, of course, Irish.  ‘But one of the nurses nicknamed him Rusty for the red fuzz he had all over his head, and it stuck.'”

Staub, all of 17 years old, signed with the nascent Houston Colt .45s in 1961 as an amateur free agent while the team prepared for its 1962 début.  In his Houston Post column “Post Time,” Clark Nealon used the Post‘s February 26, 1962 edition to highlight Staub.  Quoting Brooklyn Dodgers icon Babe Herman, Nealon wrote, “He runs well, handles himself well, has good hands.  He needs some work in the field, but that’ll come.  I like the way he swings the bat.”

Playing with the Durham Bulls in ’62, Staub hit 23 home runs, compiled a .293 batting average, and won the Carolina League’s Most Valuable Player award.  In 1963, Staub elevated to Houston for his first major league season—he played in 150 games, batted .224, hit six home runs.  A stay with the Oklahoma City 89ers in 1964 provided seasoning for the red-haired bonus baby—Staub tore apart the Pacific Coast League with a .334 batting average after 60 games.

In the September 19, 1964 Sporting News article “Return of Rusty:  Staub Rides Hot Bat Back to .45s,” Bob Dellinger reasoned, “Staub, perhaps the No. 1 boy in Houston’s renowned youth movement was farmed to the Class AAA club in mid-July with a double-dip objective.  First, he could play every day and perhaps build up his confidence at the plate; second, he could gain valuable defensive training in the outfield.”

Further, Dellinger exposed Staub’s perception of the demotion to the minor leagues:  “Sometimes it seems like the world is coming to an end, but maybe it just starts over.  I believe I will be back—better prepared physically and mentally.”

Staub played in a little more than half of Houston’s games in 1964, garnering a .216 batting average.  His performance at the plate improved for the remainder of his Houston tenure—batting averages of .256, .280, .333, and .291.  Staub also played for the Expos, the Mets, the Tigers, and the Rangers in his major league career, which ended after the 1985 season.  His time in an Expos uniform began with the team’s inaugural season—1969—and lasted three years; he also played part of the 1979 season in Montreal.  Upon arrival, Staub enjoyed a newfound respect.  In his 2014 book Up, Up & Away:  The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos, Jonah Keri explained, “They urged Staub to become the face of the team, and an ambassador to the community.  This was a challenge he happily embraced.

“Staub’s first step was to learn to speak French—some French anyway, somewhere between knowing what his own nickname meant and true fluency.  He’d go out to lunch with francophone friends and insist that they speak French the whole meal.”

Montreallians bestowed the nickname “Le Grand Orange” upon Staub.

A New Orleans native, Staub was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1989.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 12, 2016.

The Trade

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants enjoy synonymity—you can’t think of one entity without the other.  It wasn’t always that way, however.

Big Six, as Mathewson became known, began his major league tenure with the Cincinnati Reds.  John Brush owned part of the Reds and the Giants—a formerly permitted financial arrangement in the paradigm of the major leagues—and devised the plan to send Mathewson to New York.

The article “What if Christy Mathewson had remained a Red?” on the Cincinnati Reds official web site explains, “Brush had long had designs on owning the Giants and was actively negotiating to take control when Christy Mathewson was signed by New York in 1900.  Mathewson struggled in six games with the Giants and was summarily sent back to the minor league club he had been acquired from.  The Reds jumped at the chance to sign him and did so for $100.  Brush knew what he had in Mathewson and also knew that he wanted him to be pitching in New York when he took over the Giants.”

Brush’s plan involved trading Mathewson to the Reds for Amos Rusie, nicknamed the “Hoosier Thunderbolt.”  Rusie’s Hall of Fame plaque states, “Generally considered fireball king of nineteenth-century moundsman, notched better than 240 victories in ten-year career, achieved 30-victory mark four years in row and won 20 or more games eight successive times.  Led league in strikeouts five years and led or tied for most shutouts five times.”

Rusie, towards the end of his career, invoked the rare device of holding out.  Consequently, he did not play in 1896, 1899, or 1900; an 0-1 record in 1901 finished his tenure in the major leagues.

In the 1979 Sports Illustrated article “When Amos Rusie Was on the Mound Cathers Didn’t Get the Lead Out,” Al Rainovic extolled Rusie’s prowess.  “Rusie was easily the fastest pitcher major league baseball [sic] had seen,” declared Rainovic.  “Even though a pitcher in the 1890s had to get three untouched strikes to record a strikeout, Rusie marched them back to the benches at the then imposing rate of one every two innings.  In 1889 when the National League decided to drop Indianapolis and Washington and go with eight clubs instead of 10, Rusie and seven other players were sold for an estimated $60,000 by Indianapolis to New York.”

It was a curious trade, given Rusie’s waning years.  In his 1988 book The Giants of the Polo Grounds: The Glorious Times of Baseball’s New York Giants, Noel Hynd examined the circumstances.  “Why, then, did Brush want Rusie?  He didn’t,” posited Hand.  “Brush already knew he was on his way to New York and that was where he wanted Mathewson.  In the meantime, however, he wished to safeguard Matty’s contract before [Giants owner] Andrew Freedman could double-cross him.”

In the first season after the trade, Mathewson flourished with the Giants, compiling a 20-17 record, striking out 221 batters, and notching his first of two no-hitters.  Mathewson’s endurance manifested as well; the hurler completed 36 of 40 games—this, after going o-3 with the Giants in 1900.

Mathewson’s 1901 season forecast greatness, which resulted in a career win-loss record of 373-188, more than 2,500 strikeouts, and membership in the first group of Baseball Hall of Fame inductees in 1936.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 11, 2016.

Houston Blasts Off

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Houston ignited its major league status with victory.  On April 10, 1962, the Colt .45s overtook the Cubs 11-2 at Colt Stadium.  Bob Aspromonte, Al Spangler, and Román Mejias each scored three runs in the bout while Norm Larker and Hal Smith scored one apiece.

Bobby Shantz pitched a complete game, allowing five hits for the heroes of Chicago’s North Side.  Houston traded Shantz to the St. Louis Cardinals in May, prompting the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to publish the article “Acquisition of Shantz Produces Lefthanded Depth for Cardinals.”  It revealed a possibility that will shock the hearts of St. Louisans today because of a contemplated trade of a future Cardinals legend:  “[Cardinals general manager Bing] Devine tried hard to pry Shantz from the new Senators after they obtained him from the Yankees in the 1960 player pool.  Bob Gibson, then having his troubles, was among those offered to the Senators for Shantz.”

In their second major league game, the Colt .45s beat the Cubs 2-0.  Hal Woodeshick started the game, left in the ninth inning, and received a victory because of Dick Farrell’s relief.  With a 5-16 record for 1962, Woodeshick turned things around for 1963—he ended the season at 11-9.  In the June 5, 1963 edition of the Houston Post, Clark Nealon used his “Post Time” column to praise Woodeshick’s rebound:  “It is to say that the development of Lefty Hal Woodeshick of the Colts is the most amazing mound feature of an amazing first two months.  It’s one thing to be a moundsman of established ability and reputation and to turn in great performances as part of a very noticeable trend.

“It’s another to have been something of a frustrated workman all your career, and then to suddenly become a paragon of effectiveness and consistency.  And this is what Woodeshick has done in a manner to top not only the Colt staff but the entire National League at this writing.”

Woodeshick has the distinction of earning the first victory in the Astrodome, which hosted its first game on April 9, 1965—it was an exhibition pitting the newly named Astros against the Yankees.

The Colt .45s beat the Cubs 2-0 for the third game of the three-game series.  Richard Dozier of the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote, “The Chicago Cubs fled Texas by air at dusk today, puzzled by their sudden mediocrity, dazzled by Houston’s left handed pitching, and imbedded in ninth place—a position new even for them.”

Colt Stadium, Houston’s major league ballpark until the Astrodome eclipsed it, remains a fond memory for those who were there in ’62.  “Although Colt Stadium would soon be pushed into the shadows of the Astrodome, it still had its share of unforgettable quirks,” describes the Houston Astros web site.  “One of the most obvious of these quirks lied in the stadium seats that had colors ranging from flamingo red, burnt orange and chartreuse, to turquoise.  Also unique to Colt Stadium, female ushers were dubbed ‘Triggerettes,’ and parking attendants wore orange Stetson hats with blue neckerchiefs and directed cars into sections named ‘Wyatt Earp Territory,’ ‘Cheyenne Bodie Territory,’ and ‘Matt Dillon Territory.'”

Though off to a prodigious start for their inaugural season, the Colt .45s finished at 64-96.

version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 9, 2016.

The First Fan

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

William Howard Taft invented—unintentionally—the seventh inning stretch, Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to continue Major League Baseball during World War II, and George W. Bush skyrocketed American morale after the 9/11 attacks when he threw out the first pitch of the 2001 World Series.

Baseball pulsates through the presidency, indeed, whether it’s Ronald Reagan sitting in the dugout of an Orioles game or Harry Truman being the first president to attend a night game.

It all started with Benjamin Harrison in 1892.

On the eve of the Republican National Convention—which took place in Minneapolis from June 7-10, 1892—Harrison churned through his presidential duties, despite tension surrounding the possibility of not being selected to represent the party in the upcoming election.  The Washington Post reported, “If the President was worried about the turn of affairs at Minneapolis he failed to let that worriment be detected by any one who conversed with him.  Secretary [of Agriculture] Rusk, upon leaving the White House, said that Mr. Harrison was not at all disturbed by the rumors that had emanated from the convention city but was, on the contrary, in the best of spirits and had spent a very pleasant day.”

After an inquiry by [Secretary of State John] Foster about attending the Cincinnati-Washington baseball game at Boundary Field, President Harrison acquiesced.  Foster’s baseball fandom manifested in restlessness—the Cabinet member “paced up and down the big stone port of the White House, now and then glancing at his watch, fearful that he would be too late to see the first game,” reported the Post.  The Reds beat the Senators 7-4.

It was the first presidential visit to a major league game.

Harrison lost the 1892 presidential election to Grover Cleveland.  Had the political winds shifted in the Democratic Party, Harrison might have faced a baseball fan—Senator David B. Hill of New York ran for the nomination.  A Post profile of Hill on June 5, 1892 described the senator’s nighttime activities as a combination of work and play.  “Night is Hill’s favorite time for work, and he manages to do considerable after he is through with callers.  That is the general programme [sic] of the New York Senator’s days.  He varies them by going to the theater, of which he is more than fond, and he has patronized the Washington theaters continually.  Then he is a baseball crank, it must be confessed, and finds time to get out to hurrah for the diamond kings very often.”

When Cleveland resigned his post as New York Governor, Hill, a former New York governor, earned the ire of some quarters for holding dual offices. On April 7, 1892, the New York Times declared, “He showed a contempt for common decency in holding the office of Governor for ten months after his term in the Senate began, and he left his seat in that body vacant for more than a month after the season of Congress opened.  He used that time in carrying out the infamous scheme for stealing a majority in the State Senate, and afterward secured the elevation of his most subservient and useful tool in the performance to the bench of the Court of Appeals, thus putting a dark stain upon the judiciary of the State.  Since he took his oath as Senator he has hardly spent two consecutive days in the Senate, and has taken no useful part in any of its proceedings.  He showed himself intent only upon selfish political schemes of his own.  He tried to bully a committee of the House into making a report favorable to retaining one of his devoted henchmen in the seat to which he was plainly not entitled.  Then he went off on a trip to the South, the sole object of which was to drum up delegates for himself to the Democratic National Convention.  That hunt was a dismal failure and only resulted in exposing to the Southern people his lack of principle and courage and turning them against him.”

Harrison’s presidency included appointing four justices of the United States Supreme Court, admitting six states to the union, and codifying the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Land Revision Act.  While Harrison’s ignition of presidential attendance at professional baseball games began a ballpark tradition, the sports world enjoyed other landmark events in 1892, including the playing of the first basketball game, the founding of the Liverpool Football Club, and the creating of the Stanley Cup—thanks to a proposal by Lord Stanley of Preston.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 7, 2016.

Cy Young’s Perfect Game

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

It’s appropriate the first perfect game in the 20th century belongs to the pitcher whose moniker adorns baseball’s most prestigious award for hurlers.  Denton True “Cy” Young.

Young’s feat on May 5, 1904 decimated the Philadelphia Athletics, secured a 3-0 victory for the Boston Americans, and provided the “treat of a lifetime” as described by the Boston Daily Globe.  Two pitchers threw perfect games in the 19th century, but the Globe drew distinction between their achievement and Young’s:  “Comparing the phenomenal performance of Cy Young to that of John M. Ward and Lee Richmond is like comparing the speed of a crew in a working boat to that of the same crew in a racing shell.”

The Globe continued, “The pitchers 20 years ago ran about the box with no restrictions and let the ball go from a distance of 45 feet, while now the pitcher is practically tied to the  pitching slab 60 feet distant.  Since the performances of Ward and Richmond every new rule has been made with a view to hampering the pitcher until now great performances are the result of head work [sic] and phenomenal skill, such as was shown by Young in the game against the hard hitting Athletics on Thursday.”

Richmond and Ward also benefited from the allowance for pitchers to run before releasing the ball and the granting of a walk after seven balls.  By the time Young threw his perfect game, baseball had both eliminated the running start and restricted a walk to four balls.  George Edward “Rube” Waddell pitched for Philadelphia—he flied out to centerfield for the last out of the game.  Though he dominated Boston in his most recent start—allowing one hit—Waddell scattered 10 hits and gave up two runs on Young’s perfect day.

A misconception about Young’s name manifested with the tag “Denton Tecumseh Young” in the press—a 1939 Associated Press article gave Young an opportunity to clarify:  “My dad, who soldiered with a captain named True in the civil war [sic], decided to call me ‘True’ in memory of his pal.  Back in the old days I always signed by name Denton T. Young.  It was in 1904 that Bob Unglaub, who played first and third base at Boston when I was there, started that ‘Tecumseh’ stuff.”

While training in Little Rock, Young’s teammates gave him a party for his 43rd birthday.  “The boys gave me a loving cup and the name on it was ‘Denton Tecumseh Young.’  I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by objections, so the newspapers carried my name the same way.  Unglaub said later, when I told him about it, that he thought my name was Tecumseh because he had heard some of the boys call me ‘The Chief,'” explained Young.

Cy, of course, became a shortened moniker for Cyclone, an indication of Young’s pitch speed.  In addition to the perfect game, Young pitched no-htiters in 1897 and 1908, led his league five times in number of wins for a season, and holds the record for most number of career wins—511.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Young in 1937.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 5, 2016.

The Tragedy of Ken McMullen

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

When Dodgers third baseman Ken McMullen suited up for the 1974 season, he carried the weight of widowerhood on his 6’3″ frame—McMullen’s wife, Bobbie, died of cancer on April 6th, the day after the Dodgers opened the ’74 season.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in May, 1974, Bobbie McMullen had surgery, but her pregnancy with a third child posed a highly significant problem—cobalt treatments would necessitate an abortion, which the McMullens didn’t want.  She waited until after the birth for the cobalt treatments.  Additionally, Bobbie McMullen had chemotherapy and a dialysis machine when her kidneys weakened from the medication.  She passed five months after giving birth.

Chicago Tribune sportswriter John Husar interviewed Ken McMullen about his wife’s death for an article published on October 1, 1974, as the Dodgers headed into the post-season, eventually facing the Oakland A’s in the World Series; the boys from Chavez Ravine lost in five games.  McMullen clarified his openness about his wife’s death.  “I do get perturbed at people who think I just want sympathy or to have my name in print,” McMullen said.  “I don’t know why I talk about it.  I guess I just want people to know I had a wife who was the bravest and strongest person I’ve ever known—or ever will know.”

He also acknowledged the Dodgers’ success as a key point in confronting the tragedy.  “It was important to me to be on a team, winning, struggling and getting here to the World Series,” McMullen revealed in an article for the Associated Press.  “It helps to take your mind off things.”

Indeed, work can be a powerful antidote to emotional devastation caused by losing a loved one.  Although McMullen wanted to stay with his wife as spring training approached for the 1974 season, his wife urged him to go to the Dodgers’ facilities in Vero Beach, Florida.  In the Husar article, McMullen said, “I don’t know why.  I really didn’t ask her.  What she said was, ‘I would like you to stay but I know you can’t.’  If she would have said anything other than that, I would have stayed.  But now I think she was saying it was better to keep playing and not sit around and wait.”

Road trips, too, provided an escape.  In an October 8, 1974 article for the New York Post, Maury Allen highlighted McMullen’s emotion-filled odyssey.  “I had to get away,” McMullen said.  “That was the only place I could really relax.  For a while, the guys wouldn’t ask me to go out.  They didn’t want to do or say anything that would upset me. Then they realized things had to be as they were before.”

Though a formidable pinch hitter—McMullen had four game-winning hits in 1973—Ron Cey emerged as the Dodgers’ regular third baseman.  Tragedy diminished the importance of baseball to McMullen, who benefited from a support system including his sister, brother-in-law, and parents—they shared care taking duties concerning the McMullen children.  “After everything I’ve been through, worrying about playing regularly hardly seems important,” said McMullen.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 3, 2016.

The Amazing Season of Timothy Keefe

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

In 1888, Timothy Keefe won 19 consecutive games for the New York Giants.  Or did he?

On July 16th, Keefe left the mound in the second inning of a game against the Chicago White Stockings—he played the rest of the game in the outfield.  Buck Ewing, the Giants catcher and field manager, moved Keefe to protect him from wearing out during a fantastic pitching streak.  At the time, a pitcher did not need to be on the mound for a minimum of five innings to receive an official victory in his record.

Keefe’s outstanding performance, despite the squabbles that may arise regarding the impact of the July 16th game, underscored a fantastic year for the Giants as they penetrated the National League competition to meet the St. Louis Browns in the World Series.  New York’s beloved team emerged as the champion.

When the season began, though, Keefe created clouds of question marks that hovered over the New York sunshine when he held out for a higher salary.  In the April 11th edition of the New-York Tribune, Keefe remained fortnight but firm in his quest.  “I was just thinking about taking a train for Boston,” revealed Keefe.  “I guess I will remain over, however, a day or two, and see if the difference in salary cannot be settled.  I want $4,000 and will sign with the club when I get it and not before.  I am satisfied with the New York Club and have always been treated right by the management, but I think I am worth that amount to the club and will not sign until I get it.  I don’t want my release, and neither do I want to go to any other club.  I would rather play in New York than any place else in the country.”

Tribune editorial on April 15th praised the hurler, who went 35-12 in 1888.  “Keefe is a wonderful pitcher, of course, probably the best in the country today.  The local club cannot very well get along without him, and he never loses sight of that fact.”  Further, the newspaper took the position that Keefe and John Montgomery Ward, another holdout, would reach a compromise with the team’s management.

They did.

Keefe’s 1888 statistics reflect his dominance—leading the major leagues in winning percentage (.745), shutouts (8), and strikeouts (335).  Additionally, Keefe’s 1.74 Earned Run Average led the National League.

It was a time full of glory in New York.  To begin his 1952 book The New York Giants: An Informal History of  Great Baseball Club, Frank Graham described the 1880s from its societal elements to its grimy underbelly.  “This was New York in the elegant eighties and these were the Giants, fashioned in elegance, playing on the Polo Grounds, then at 110 Street [sic] and Fifth Avenue,” wrote Graham.

“It was the New York of the brownstone house and the gaslit streets, of the top hat and the hansom cab, of oysters and champagne and perfecto cigars, of Ada Rehan and Oscar Wilde and the young John L. Sullivan.  It also was the New York of the Tenderloin and the Bowery, of the slums and the sweat shops, of goats grazing among shanties perched on the rocky terrain of Harlem.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 1, 2016.

Matthau, Madison, and Buttermaker

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

In the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a former minor league ballplayer with the unenviable task of managing a team consisting of loudmouth Little Leaguers.  Matthau’s rumpled persona matches the Buttermaker character like lox matches cream cheese.  Perfectly.

Buttermaker’s Bears squad, though initially pitiful, nearly beat the Yankees in the North Valley League of southern California, thanks to star pitcher Amanda—a daughter of an ex-girlfriend of Buttermaker—and Kelly Leak, a star athlete who looks and acts like he’s auditioning to be the next James Dean.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie comes by most of its comedy fairly easily.  Matthau is, of course, an engaging performer, and the role’s a good one for him as he sits in the dugout, hung over and bleary-eyed, watching his Bears come out of the first inning 26 runs behind.  The kids are good, too; [director Michael] Ritchie sees them in a fairly tough and unsentimental way, and lets them use the sort of dialog we’d like to think 12-year-olds aren’t familiar with.”

Contrary to the myth of A-list stars isolating themselves while not filming, Matthau engaged with the kids’ families on set.  In a 2005 Tampa Bay Times article, Keith Niebuhr quoted Gary Lee Cavagnaro, who played the Bears catcher.  “As far as the adults, Walter Matthau (coach Morris Buttermaker) was in a class by himself.  As great as he was around the kids, he was even better around the moms.  Behind the field, the tree-lined area between the field and the concession stand, the mothers would camp out there.  And during off time, Walter would come out with Jack Lemmon occasionally and do an old vaudeville routine, which would keep the mothers in stitches.

In The Odd Couple, Matthau translates his portrayal of New York City sports writer Oscar Madison from the stage to the screen.  Matched with Art Carney in the play, written by Neil Simon, Matthau received plaudits in Walter Kerr’s New York Times review.  “He is a gamut-runner, from grim, to game to simple hysteria and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western seat he is magnificent,” wrote Kerr.  Additionally, the noted critic praises, “But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catcher’s mitt.”

Carney portrays television news writer Felix Ungar, Oscar’s friend, who suffers from a martial rift, which sends him into an emotional tailspin.  Finding refuge at Oscar’s apartment, Felix exemplifies domestication that Martha Stewart would envy.  When Felix’s dedication to cleanliness borders on obsessive, frustration overwhelms Oscar.  In a monologue bathed in a combination of pathos and hilarity, Oscar confesses, “I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up.  Everything you do irritates me.  And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me.  You leave me little notes on my pillow.  Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.  ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes.  F. U.  Took me three hours to figure out F. U. was Felix Ungar!”

In the movie, Matthau plays against Lemmon, his co-star in several films, including Grumpy Old MenThe Fortune Cookie, and The Odd Couple II.  All’s well that ends well—at the end of The Odd Couple, Felix exorcises his marital ghosts and spends time with the attractive Pigeon sisters while Oscar, in an example of Felix’s habits rubbing off, admonishes his poker buddies to keep the poker table clean.

Matthau passed away in 2008.  Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times revealed the reality behind the actor.  Citing Lemmon, Downey wrote, “Fact is, says the actor whose finicky Felix Unger played opposite Oscar, they were an odder couple than some realized, for the Matthau he knew was a fragile figure, susceptible to ailments of all kinds, with a pinch of hypochondria thrown in, who would cringe and bruise if a stranger made the mistake of slapping him on the back.

“Lemmon says: ‘He was Felix.'”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 28, 2015.