Archive for February, 2017

The Indomitable Zack Wheat

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Zack Wheat churned out hits with the reliability of Henry Ford’s assembly line, which débuted the Model T in 1908, a year prior to Wheat’s introduction to the major leagues.  From 1909 to 1926, Wheat flourished as a member of Brooklyn’s National League squad with various nicknames in the press—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Robins, Flock.  Wheat played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1927, his last season.

Dodgers through the decades have achieved more fame, acclaim, and worship than Zachariah Davis Wheat, certainly.  Sandy Koufax pitched his way into Cooperstown with four no-hitters; Jackie Robinson earned civil rights icon status when he broke baseball’s color line in 1947; Tommy Lasorda declared his passion for the Dodgers at every opportunity; Fernando Valenzuela ignited Fernandomania during the summer of 1981; Don Drysdale struck fear into National League batting lineups, then parlayed his stardom into guest appearances on television sitcoms and a broadcasting career; Steve Garvey enjoyed an All-American image until it got sullied with a nasty divorce complemented by publicity regarding extramarital affairs and illegitimate children; Duke Snider defined power with each of his 407 career home runs; and Roy Campanella displayed courage, dignity, and inner strength in facing paralysis after a horrific car accident.

Wheat, surprisingly, often remains sidelined in discussions of Dodger greats.  A lack of recognition for Wheat’s performance belies a remarkable career output placing Wheat as the #1 Dodger in the following categories:

  • Career hits (2,884)
  • Doubles (476)
  • Triples (171)
  • RBI (1,248)

Wheat racked up a .317 batting average in his 19-year career, broke the .300 mark 14 times, and won the 1918 National League batting title with a .335 batting average.

A deeper dive into Wheat’s statistics reveals arcane nuances reflecting his excellence, which further enhances the value of the left fielder who batted left, threw right, and became a Brooklyn fixture.  OPS statistics—On-Base Plus Slugging—offer a baseline measure for ballplayers.  Additionally, Gray Ink grades on the number of times that a ballplayer’s achievements place in a given category’s top 10.

Baseball-reference.com states, “Wheat’s Adjusted OPS scores are not particularly high for a Hall of Famer, but on the other hand he was a well-rounded player.  His Gray Ink score (which is the 27th highest of all time) shows that he was commonly in the top ten in the National League—in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, among other stats, and he also stole over 200 bases in his career.  As a defensive player, his range was good for many years until he began to age.  He never played any position but outfield during his major league career, and almost never appeared in any outfield position than left field, which he owned for many years in Brooklyn.”

In the 1916 World Series, which Brooklyn lost to the Boston Red Sox, Wheat did not perform to his usual standard—he batted .211.  Wheat fared better in the 1920 World Series, achieving a .333 batting average.  It was not, however, enough—the Cleveland Indians beat Brooklyn in seven games.

Wheat’s approach to physical fitness lacked even a whiff of dedication.  “I smoke as much as I want and chew tobacco a good deal of the time,” said Wheat.  “I don’t pay any attention to the rules for keeping in physical condition.  I think they are a lot of bunk.  The less you worry about the effect of tea and coffee on the lining of your stomach, the longer you will live, and the happier you will be.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Zack Wheat in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 23, 2016.

Baseball, Aerospace, and the Lancaster JetHawks

Monday, February 27th, 2017

Nestled in the Antelope Valley of California, about 70 miles from Dodger Stadium, the Lancaster JetHawks of the California League play in a ballpark labeled, quite appropriately, the Hangar.

Antelope Valley is one of the focal points for America’s aerospace industry.  In October 2015, Northrop Grumman won a massive contract for building stealth bombers.  Melody Petersen and W. J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times reported, “In the months leading up to the highly anticipated decision, Northrop had told local government officials that it planned to build much of the plane at the sprawling complex of hangars and runways in Palmdale known as Air Force Plant 42.”

According to the JetHawks web site, the Hangar—originally called Lancaster Municipal Stadium when it débuted in 1996—cost $15 million to build.  Outside the Hangar, an F/A-18 Hornet symbolizes the region’s aerospace link.  NASA donated the Hornet to the city of Lancaster, which installed it at the ballpark.

Proximity to Edwards Air Force Base, about 30 miles from the Hangar, gives the JetHawks another rationale for a team name connecting to the region’s culture, a common branding device for sports teams.  For example, the New York Knickerbockers moniker refers to the name of the fictional narrator in Washington Irving’s novel A History of New York.

Further, the JetHawks enjoy a space affiliation with the Houston Astros team, which changed its name from Colt .45s in 1965 to reflect Houston’s status as aerospace’s epicenter; the Astros label reinforces Houston’s space connection.

Aerospace Appreciation Weekend is an annual promotion for the JetHawks, underscored by bobbleheads of aerospace icons as giveaways.  Honorees include astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Fred Haise, and Jerry Ross.

In 2014, Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney led an ownership group to buy the JetHawks.  Kerr and Mooney also own the Northwest League’s Vancouver Canadians.  “There is a strong foundation to build from here in Lancaster and with the experiences and success we’ve enjoyed in the Northwest, we hope to take the JetHawks brand and bring it to not only our longtime fans, but to a whole new generation,” said Kerr, as reported by milb.com.

Mooney promised, “Our journey in baseball will notice an increased effort to make this organization something they can be proud of.”

Additionally, milb.com reported on the present ownership group led by Peter A. Carfagna, who praised, “We have enjoyed our stewardship of the JetHawks franchise and, upon closing, are excited to hand the reins of the franchise to an experienced group of individuals who will build on the successes we have enjoyed in recent years.”

Abdication of the JetHawks aegis did not, in any way, mean a divorce from Minor League Baseball.  Carfagna clarified that his group would keep its ownership of the Midwest League’s Lake County Captains in Eastlake, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb.

The Kerr-Moooney syndicate is the third owner of the JetHawks, which began operations in 1996.  In the October 11, 1995 Times article “JetHawks Nickname Flies in Lancaster, but How Will the Mascot Walk?,” logo designer Daniel Simon explained, “They liked the concept of the hawk and concept of the jet.  But if it’s a jet, that’s just a jet, and if it’s a hawk, that’s just a hawk.  If you have the combination, that’s unique.”

The JetHawks team has aerospace in its DNA—the Riverside Pilots played in Riverside, California from 1993-1995, before transitioning to Lancaster.  Prior to Riverside, though, no aerospace connection existed; the team played in Reno, Nevada from 1955-1992.  During its tenure in the Biggest Little City in the World, the team enjoyed the label Silver Sox, except for the 1982-1987 period, when it was Padres.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 20, 2016.

Vic Willis, the Boston Beaneaters, and the Last No-Hitter of the 20th Century

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

Vic Willis, he of the assonant moniker, hurled with the intensity of a Nor’easter whipping across the Charles River.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, Willis compiled a career 249-205 win-loss record, achieved a 2.63 Earned Run Average, and pitched in 513 games.  His 13-year career began with the Boston Beaneaters, for whom he played from 1898 to 1905.  Then, he called Pittsburgh home for four seasons, winning more than 20 games for the Pirates in each season.  Willis ended his career in 1906, with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Willis came charging out of the gate in his rookie year, notching a 25-13 record.  In addition to Willis’s performance, 1898 was an explosive year for Boston’s pitching staff:

  • Fred Klobedanz (19-10)
  • Ted Lewis (26-8)
  • Kid Nichols (31-12)

The Beaneaters won the 1898 National League pennant with a 102-47 record.

After his first two seasons, Willis had a record of 52 wins, 21 losses.  In 1900, he did not fare as well.  A 10-17 record belied Willis’s proficiency on the mound.  In his indispensable two-volume series Major League Baseball Profiles:  1871-1900, baseball historian David Nemec explains that rather than adhere to the ritual of spring training in southern climates, Willis opted for working out instead with Boston catcher Boileryard Clarke in the Princeton Gym.  “Arm trouble” resulted.

Further, a leap to the American League, perhaps prompted by Boston’s 66-72 record in 1900, failed to launch.  “Willis then made his critical career-changing mistake.  That winter, he agreed to jump to the rival American League and signed a contract with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s.  But in March TSN  [The Sporting News] observed that he had ‘flopped back to the big league,’ after Boston threatened legal reprisal and perhaps raised his salary to compete with the A’s offer,” writes Nemec.

Willis threw a no-hitter for Boston on August 7, 1899 against the Washington Senators.  Boston Globe sports writer Tim Murnane wrote, “The solitary hit off Willis was not worth the name. The ball went along the ground from [Senators pitcher Bill] Dineen’s [sic] bat as harmless as a robin at play until [Beaneaters third baseman Jimmy] Collins reached for it, when it jumped to one side and was safe.”

Although it stands as a no-hitter, the game’s box score in the Globe indicates a hit for Dinner.  Further, a headline for Murnane’s story states, “Only One Hit Off Willis in the Full Nine Innings.”

Boston beat Washington 7-1.  Murnane wrote, “The visitors scored their only run in the first, on two bases on balls, [Beaneaters catcher Marty] Bergen’s side throw to second and a putout.”

In 1899, Willis had the best Earned Run Average in the major leagues—2.50.

“Tall, graceful workhorse with sweeping curve” is the description of Willis on his Hall of Fame plaque.  Workhorse, indeed.  Willis scored at least 20 wins eight times.  In 1902, Willis led the major leagues in:

  • Games pitched (51)
  • Games started (46)
  • Complete games (45)
  • Innings pitched (410)
  • Saves (3)
  • Batters faced (1,652)
  • Strikeouts (225)

In addition to Willis, the Hall of Fame inducted Richie Ashburn, Leon Day, William Hulbert, and Mike Schmidt in 1995.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 19, 2016.

The Great Brawl of ’84

Saturday, February 25th, 2017

Not since the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre had Chicago seen an eruption of violence like the one on May 27, 1984 at Wrigley Field—okay, not quite an apt comparison.

A three-run homer in the second inning of a Cubs-Reds game ignited the fury.  With Leon Durham and Mel Hall on base, Ron Cey smashed a Mario Soto pitch into the left field stands.  Umpire Steve Rippley called it fair, which prompted outrage from the Cincinnati bench.  Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune cited the viewpoint of Reds third baseman Wayne Krenchicki.  “I was the first one to confront him.  I could see in his eyes he wasn’t sure.  He didn’t say one word when I protested,” said Krenchicki.

The wheels fell of the wagon.  Immediately.  While the Cubs celebrated, the Reds protested that Cey’s knock was foul.  A reversal of the ruling triggered outrage from Cubs manager Jim Frey and third base coach Don Zimmer.  Wrigley Field’s famed bleacher bums responded by throwing debris onto the field.

Cubs announcers Harry Caray and Steve Stone debated the validity of a protest.

Caray:  “I would imagine that this game is going to be continued under protest by the Cubs, though.”

Stone:  “Well, I don’t think you can protest a judgment call.”

Caray:  “Well, whose judgment call are we talking about?  The judgment of the third base umpire or the judgement of the home plate umpire?  Now whose jurisdiction is it?”

Stone:  “Well, it’s still a judgment call at any rate because it’s not an infraction of the rules and you cannot protest a judgment call.”

Caray:  “Well then why don’t you let the plate umpire call them all?  Why do you have the third base umpire who’s that close, who runs down the line because the jurisdiction of the call is his, otherwise he wouldn’t even bother to go down the line?”

Stone:  “But he can and has been on many instances overruled as is the case right here.”

Caray:  “Well, what I’m saying is if you can’t protest a judgment call, you certainly can protest the fact that one umpire’s judgment says it’s fair and the other umpire’s judgment, who is not the umpire who is empowered normally to make the call, says that it was a foul ball.  The other guy who usually is empowered to make the call says it’s a fair ball.  And he was much closer to the play than the other guy.  I would protest anyway.  I don’t care whether…how many times do you win a protest anyway?”

Stone:  “You’re never going to win the protest.”

As Caray and Stone bantered in the WGN broadcast booth and the Cubs manager, coaches, and some players argued with the umpires, Cey remained on the bench, observing the chaos.

And the rage escalated.  Soto had already bumped Rippley before his teammates held him back.  Ultimately, he got ejected, which set him off further—he sprung out of the dugout.  Further, he tried to go after fans with a bat before being restrained.  Jim Frey and Larry Bowa shouted at the umpires so loudly, passersby on Sheffield Avenue could hear them.  Cubs outfielder Mel Hall held back his manager.

Frey’s Cincinnati counterpart, Vern Rapp, then discussed the situation with the umpiring crew:

  • Home Plate:  Paul Runge
  • First Base:  Randy Marsh
  • Second Base:  Bob Engel
  • Third Base:  Steve Rippley

Things cooled down for a few minutes.  And then a bench-clearing brawl broke out with the force of February winds off Lake Michigan.  “What a rhubarb!” exclaimed Caray.

The umpires reversed Cey’s home run.  In the do-over at bat, Cey lined to Reds shortstop Tom Foley.

Soto received a five-game suspension from National League president Chub Feeney, the Cubs lost the game 4-3, and Chicago’s North Side had yet another ignominious moment in its baseball annals.

Wally Altmann, a St. Xavier College sophomore, caught Cey’s home run ball.  “From the position that he might have been standing the ball did look fair from where he was.  But where we were standing, it was foul,” explained Altmann to Caray and Stone.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 18, 2016.

The Lone Star Years of Román Mejías

Friday, February 24th, 2017

During the Colt .45s’ inaugural season—1962—Houstonians could point to few bright spots in the team’s 64-96 record.  Román Mejías was one of them.

Mejías played in 146 games, swatted 162 hits, and finished the season with a .286 batting average.  Initially a product of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, the Cuban outfielder broke into the major leagues in 1955.  A year prior, he noticed a 55-game hitting streak for the Pirates’ minor league team in Waco, Texas.

In his article “Mejías of Waco Batting .345 of Pirate Farm Club” in the August 11, 1954 edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald, Oscar Larnce spotlighted the phenom’s talent.  “I don’t see how Mejías can miss.  He can do everything and is improving every day.  He was in Class D last year, then jumped into a tough Class B league and still gets better,” said Buster Chatham, the Pirates’ business manager, as quoted by Larnce.

Mejías spent six seasons with Pittsburgh, never playing in more than 96 games.  In 1960 and 1961, he played a total of seven games.

On Opening Day in 1962, Mejías clocked two home runs and notched six RBI to help the Colt .45s start Houston’s major league status with a victory over the Cubs. Mejías’s ability did not, however, result in selecting for the first All-Star game of 1962.  In an article for the Pittsburgh Press about Mejías’s All-Star situation, Les Biederman noted that Mejías led the Houston ball club at the plate—.317 batting average, 20 home runs, 54 RBI.

Little by little, Mejías learned English.  “New man.  I disgusted last year when Pirates send me to Columbus,” he explained in the Biederman article.  “I feel I can play in majors and never have real chance.  Figure no more chances but Houston take me and now new man.

“No swing bad balls anymore.  Not always strikes but no way to reach for ball can’t hit.  No more wait for ball over middle of plate.  Can’t get hit with bat on shoulder.”

Houston’s baseball fans embraced the slugger.  In his article “Mejías’ Season of Milk, Honey?” in the May 30, 1962 edition of the Houston Chronicle, Zarko Franks wrote, “Few will argue with Mejías’ popularity with the fans back home.  The roar of their voices when he comes to bat is sufficient testimony.”

Because of political strife in Cuba during the early years of Fidel Castro’s regime, Mejías suffered a separation from his wife, son, daughter, and two sisters for 14 months.

After the ’62 season, the Colt .45s traded Mejías to the Red Sox for Pete Runnels.  Fenway Park’s brain trust commenced brainstorming to bring the Mejías clan into the United States.  Boston Globe sports writer Hy Hurwitz reported, “The Red Sox very quietly went about assisting Mejías in his plight.  There was no publicity on the Mejías predicament by request of certain officials who felt that any publicity might endanger the family’s chance for release from the Castro-dominated island.

“Exactly how much the Red Sox and owner Tom Yawkey did for this 31-year-old man will never be told.  Yawkey won’t let it be told.”

However it was accomplished, the Red Sox organization did its legacy proud in securing safe transport for Mejías’s family in March 1963.

Mejías ended his career in a Red Sox uniform after the 1964 season.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 17, 2016.

22 Innings, 7 Hours

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

Baseball, unlike other sports, has no boundary of time.  On June 24, 1962, the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers issued a reminder at Tiger Stadium.  It took 22 innings, seven hours; an epic test of endurance inched the players toward completing the contest, which ended in a 9-7 Yankee victory.  At the time, it was the longest game in elapsed time, a record that has since been broken.

43 players participated—21 Yankees, 22 Tigers.  Each team used seven pitchers.  Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson had the most at bats (11), Tiger left fielder Rocky Colavito had the most hits (7), and Yankee third baseman Clete Boyer and Tiger right fielder Purnal Goldy tied for the most RBI (3).

Jack Reed punctured the standoff with a two-run homer, his only round-tripper in a three-year career.  Reed’s smash came off Phil Regan, “a righthander with a herky-jerk delivery,” as described by Tommy Holmes of the New York Herald-Tribune.

A replacement for Mickey Mantle in the later innings of Yankee games, Reed had a career batting average of .233 through 222 games.

In his “Ward to the Wise” column in the New York Daily News on April 18, 1963, Gene Ward highlighted Reed, with the subtitle “The Unknown Yankee.”  “It doesn’t seem possible a man can play with the Yankees and remain an unknown,” wrote Ward.  “But the 30-year-old Reed, in his 10th year with the organization, is unknown only in the sense that kids don’t gang up on him for autographs and his name isn’t emblazoned in headlines.  He never has been a regular, although he appeared in 88 games last year, compiling a .302 BA, and his chances to play come only when Mantle or Maris turn up ailing.

“But as far as the Yankee brass is concerned, and [Yankee manager Ralph] Houk in particular, Reed is a known and valuable quantity.”

Indeed, Houk offered high praise about Reed’s baseball skills.  Intangibles received equal acclaim.  “He’s a college graduate and highly intelligent.  He likes to talk baseball.  I never receive bad reports on him and he never gripes.  He’ll pitch batting practice and he’ll take second infield,” said the Yankees skipper.

Reed’s dedication was apparent.  Ward quoted, “It’s a privilege to work for an organization like this and to play under a man like Mr. Houk,” said the man who wore #27 in pinstripes.

Five years after Reed homered into baseball history, Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press revealed that the marathon game’s seven-hour length benefited from a slight nudge.  As the game’s official scorer, Falls held the power to change history.  And so he did.

In his April 1, 1967 column, subtitled “A Writer Discovers That Fame’s Fleeting,” Falls described looking at the clock after Reed’s dinger—it appeared to show 8:29 p.m., which gave the game a length of six hours, 59 minutes.  “But my clever little mind was still working sharply,” wrote Falls.  “I figured:  ‘Who’ll ever remember 6:59 as the longest game in baseball history.

“So I shouted out the time.  ‘Seven hours!’  All the guys applauded.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 15, 2016.

Bobby Valentine, Tommy Lasorda, and the 1970 Spokane Indians

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Among its symbols, Spokane boasts The Historic Davenport Hotel, the Bing Crosby Theatre, and the Monroe Street Bridge.  They are, to be sure, propellants of the city’s physical, cultural, and architectural landscapes.

Baseball contributes an equally significant identifier to this foothold of the Inland Northwest.

And so it was—and continues to be—with the 1970 Spokane Indians.

Indians shortstop Bobby Valentine won the Pacific Coast League MVP Award, with a .340 batting average, 211 hits, and 122 runs scored.  IN a 2015 Hartford Courant article by Owen Canfield, Valentine praised Tommy Lasorda, the Indians manager, for offering positive reinforcement at a low point.  “After one particularly tough fielding game for me, he came into the locker room and said to the other players, ‘Go and get yourselves a pen and paper and get Bobby’s autograph, because some day he’s going to be great.'”

At the time, the AAA Indians belonged in the Dodgers’ minor league hierarchy.  Lasorda, of course, succeeded Walter Alston as the Dodgers’ manager, stayed at the helm for the next 20 years, and became a Chavez Ravine icon.  Spokane was a highly significant facilitator for the Dodgers—Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, Von Joshua, Joe Ferguson, and Charlie Hough played for the Indians before getting called up to “the show.”

In his 1985 autobiography The Artful Dodger, written with David Fisher, Lasorda described his strategy of converting ballplayers to different positions—Davey Lopes, for example.  “He was a bona fide, blue-chip, big league prospect,” explained Lasorda.  “His only problem was that he was an outfielder, and the organization had an abundance of talented outfielders.  We needed shortstops and second basemen.  Since Russell and Valentine were already working out at shortstop, I told Davey I wanted to make him a second baseman.  He resisted the idea at first, but once I’d convinced him he would get to the big leagues a lot faster as an infielder, he accepted it.”

Lopes became a mainstay of the Dodgers infield in the 1970s, along with Ron Cey at third base, Russell at shortstop, and Garvey at first base.

In 1970, the Indians notched a 94-52 record, captured the PCL’s Northern Division by 26 games, and won the PCL championship by defeating the Hawaii Islanders in a four-game sweep.

From 1958 to 1972, the Indians belonged in the Dodgers organization, with subsequent affiliations to Texas, Milwaukee, San Diego, and Kansas City.  The team’s genesis began, effectively, on December 2nd, when the Dodgers and the Giants agreed to pay $900,000 in damages to the PCL for transporting into the league’s territory upon their exoduses from Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively.

A three-team move followed, rearranging the Los Angeles Angels to Spokane, the San Francisco Seals to Phoenix, and the Hollywood Stars to Salt Lake City.  Hollywood and the other PCL teams—Vancouver, Seattle, Sacramento, Portland, San Diego—split the $900,000 equally, receiving $150,000 apiece.

Of the realignment, Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times clarified, “Long Beach, which has been a strong bidder for the Hollywood franchise, has no chance of landing it.  Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, among others, are solidly opposed to the beach city because of its proximity to Los Angeles.”

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

How Marvelous Marv Became a Met

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Hobie Landrith holds the distinction of being the first New York Met, selected on October 10, 1961 in the expansion draft that populated the lineups of the nascent Mets and Colt .45s.

When the Mets took the field at the Polo Grounds the following April for their first regular season game, Landrith started at catcher.  His was a philosophy embracing the importance of communications between battery mates.  During Landrith’s time with the San Francisco Giants, Will Connolly of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Landrith in a 1959 column subtitled “Hobart Landrith’s An Articulate Gent” describing the relationship:  “Apart from the finger signals, the pitcher and catcher should talk it over in tight spots—and almost every inning is a critical one these days.  I run out to the mound to eliminate any indecision on the pitcher’s part, and mine.  Some batsmen have to be pitched to very carefully.”

Landrith’s vocal quality was a subject of a 1951 scouting report for the Cincinnati Reds:  “‘Pepper pot’ little backstop who brings to the major leagues a brand of on-the-field chatter comparatively unheard since the days of ‘Gabby’ Hartnett.  Shrill voice behind plate can be heard all over park.”

As the pioneering member of the Mets, Landrith holds sacred ground.  Fertile, it was not.  In early May, the Orioles traded Marv Throneberry to the Mets for a player to be named later and cash; a month later, the Mets named Landrith.  Financial strength provided the impetus.  “[O]ne of Throneberry’s most compelling charms was his availability for cash, one of the few departments in which the Mets are in string contention for league leadership,” wrote New York Times sports writer Robert Lipsyte, citing team president George Weiss.

Throneberry’s performance was anything but marvelous, the alliterative adjective that became synonymous with the first baseman and right fielder.  When Throneberry died in 1994, New York Times sports writer George Vecsey recalled, “There was the day that Marv hit a two-out triple with the bases loaded but was called out for missing first.  Even though nearly everyone in the Mets’ dugout saw Marv miss the base, Casey Stengel, the manager, started arguing with the first-base umpire anyway.  During the exchange, another umpire walked over and said, ‘Casey, I hate to tell you this, but he also missed second.'”

As a ’62 Met, Throneberry played in 116 games, batted .244, and struck out 83 times.  His career ended after the 1963 season.

Throneberry became a pop culture icon through his appearances in the famed Miller Lite television commercials of the 1970s and 1980s featuring, among others, Rodney Dangerfield, Mickey Spillane, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Bob Uecker.

In one commercial, Throneberry appears with Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford and Billy Martin.  Deford says, “There’s one guy I can’t write anything bad about, His unique brand of baseball has made him a living legend.”  Other plaudits follow.

Throneberry is not in the commercial until the end.  It’s the payoff after the setup—Martin thinks that Deford’s comments are targeted to him.  When Deford gives a Miller Lite to Throneberry, the former Met issues the commercial’s punch line:  “Cheer up, Billy.  One day, you’ll be famous just like me.”

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

Reggie Hits No. 500

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Reggie Jackson was the King Midas of baseball.  Everything he touched turned to gold.

The Kansas City A’s had a 62-99 record in 1967, Jackson’s rookie season.  But Jackson only played in 35 games.  When he became a starter, the A’s won three World Series championships, never had a losing season, and enjoyed the “dynasty” label.  In 1973, Jackson won the Most Valuable Player Award, an honor duplicated in 1977, during his Yankee tenure.

Jackson left the A’s after the 1975 season, spent a year with the Orioles, then played for the Yankees in a five-year run that resulted in two World Series championships.  In the 1977 World Series, Jackson hit three home runs in one game.  Celebrations in the South Bronx could be heard from Manhattan to Montauk.

When his sting in the South Bronx ended, Jackson landed in Anaheim, where he bid farewell to baseball after the 1987 season.  Jackson reached a milestone in an Angels uniform, smacking his 500th home run on September 17, 1984.  It elevated Jackson into the pantheon of the 500 Club, whose membership to date consisted of Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx.

Jackson’s dinger contributed the only run in a 10-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals.  There was a circular quality to the moment.  Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times noted that Jackson hit his first major league home run against the Angels and his 500th in Kauffman Stadium, where he played for the Kansas City A’s, long since transported to Oakland.  Additionally, the 500th home run happened on the 17th anniversary of the first time Jackson went yard.

Gerald Scott of the Los Angeles Times quoted Jackson about the pitch:  “I was very, very elated going around the bases.  I said thanks (to myself) to Bud Black because he’d given me a pitch to hit.

“It was a 7-0 (lead) pitch.  It was a ‘room service’ fastball.  I just wish we could’ve been winning.  I wish it could’ve been a seven-run homer.”

Black, a formidable hurler for the Royals, compiled a 17-12 record, 3.12 ERA, and 140 strikeouts in 1984.  Jackson’s home run was one of 22 that Black allowed in the year that saw the débuts of the Huxtable family, a Beverly Hills cop named Axel Foley, and undercover detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs working for the Miami Police Department’s Vice Division.

Jackson had signed with the Angels after Yankee owner George Steinbrenner did not guarantee the slugger a place in the starting lineup as an outfielder.  It is a good bet that the Yankees would have continued Jackson’s recent role as a designated hitter.

Joseph Durso of the New York Times reported on Jackson’s optimism upon closing the the deal with Angels owner Gene Autry.  “I’m very happy to join a club that really seemed to pursue me and wanted me,” said Jackson.  “With the Angels, I get a chance to play.  I guess with everything being equal, the most difficult decision for me was whether to go to Baltimore or California.  Both clubs have really fine people.”

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

Satchel Paige Joins the Indians

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was, to be sure, past his prime when the Cleveland Indians signed him in 1948.  An icon of the Negro Leagues, Paige reportedly signed on his 42nd birthday, making his major league début two days later.  Pitching against the St. Louis Browns, Paige entered the game in the fifth inning—he hurled two innings, allowed two hits, and frustrated the Browns.  Left fielder Whitey Platt, a .271 hitter in 1948 with 123 hits in 123 games, “had been so fooled that he threw his bat far down the third base line,” wrote A.S. “Doc” Young, Sports Editor for the Cleveland Call and Post.

Aggravation manifested after the game for the Browns, despite the victory.  Young described, “Over in the Browns’ dressing room, Manager Zack Taylor was still muttering about the ‘hesitation’ pitch, the one where Paige practically completes a follow through before releasing the ball.  That pitch, Paige said, was legal 20 years ago!”

Although the Indians lost the game 5-3, Paige’s performance overshadowed the defeat.  It was a formidable start for the next chapter of a storied career; the Indians beat the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series.

In Paige’s Society for American Baseball Research biography, Larry Tye—author of the 2009 book Satchel:  The Life and Times of an American Legend—wrote, “His 6-1 record was neither a joke nor an afterthought; it was the highest winning percentage on an outstanding Indians staff and a crucial factor in the team capturing the pennant, which it did by a single game over the Red Sox.  Each game he won had fans and writers marveling over what he must have been like in his prime and which other lions of blackball had been lost to the Jim Crow system of segregation.”

Two tv-movies depict Paige.  HBO’s Soul of the Game, a 1996 offering starring Delroy Lindo, revolves around the decision to select the first black player for the major leagues; Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige are the primary contenders.  In the New York Times, Caryn James praised, “But unlike most baseball movies, this one resists melodrama and saccharine inspiration most of the time.  Mr. Lindo, who has had powerful smaller roles in films like ‘Malcolm X’ and ‘Clockers,’ proves himself to be one of the best leading actors around.  In scenes between Paige and his wife (Salli Richardson), he is at once a realist about the pervasive racism of society and a relentless optimist about his own potential.  Though more saintly than his biographers would have it, this Paige deserves to be the deeply humane hero Mr. Lindo makes him.”

In 1981, ABC aired Don’t Look Back:  The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige.  Starring Lou Gossett, Jr., Don’t Look Back benefited from Paige’s insight.  Ken Watts of Associated Press explained, “As technical adviser, the flamboyant Paige gave Gossett valuable insight into his character.  In some parts of the film, shots of Gossett are intercut with actual footage of Paige on the mound.  The resemblance is so strong, it is difficult to separate the two.”

Paige reflected on his career while watching Gossett retreat it.  “Me and the rest of ’em (Negro League players), we had to stay around for so long before we was recognized as anything, if you want me to tell you the truth,” stated Paige.  “Bitter?  Naw.  We never had much of anything, but we did have lots of fun.  If I had to do it all again, I’d do it exactly the same way.”

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