Archive for March, 2017

The Death of Lou Gehrig

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.  So said a fictional version of Babe Ruth in the 1993 film The Sandlot.

Lou Gehrig, undoubtedly, belongs in the latter category.  Stricken by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the Yankee slugger died on June 2, 1941 at the age of 37.  His was a story reminiscent of A.E. Housman’s poem To An Athlete Dying Young.

An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune stated, “Facing with a simple courage the appalling disease which was to kill him, he made, in the final years of his life, one of the best parole commissioners New York Has had.  He had a knack for the friendly kindness which such a task requires.”

Associated Press’s obituary described Gehrig as “a big, handsome dimple-cheeked fellow who always looked the picture of health.  He stood 6-feet-1 inch and weighed 205 pounds.  Playing every game became a fetish with him and because of this, or because of his naturally careful habit, he trained more faithfully than almost any other player in the major leagues.”

Gehrig contrasted teammate Ruth, he of the gargantuan appetite for life’s sensual pleasures.  In his 2012 book Pinstripe Empire:  The New York Yankees From Before the Babe To After the Boss, Marty Appel wrote, “He was Ruth without drama, Ruth without nightlife, Ruth without scandal.  He lived with his parents.  He said things like ‘swell’ and ‘gosh.’  He had muscles to spare when players did no weight training and tended to be lean and lithe.  He could read and write in German.  Lou Gehrig would become the idol of every boy who loved baseball for his quiet presence, clean standards, and heroic deeds.  He was polite and humble.  He would park his car three blocks from Yankee Stadium to avoid notice.”

Although Gehrig played a handful of games in 1923 and 1924, he began his trek toward legend status on June 1, 1925, when he played in the first of 2,130 consecutive games, which earned him the nickname “Iron Man.”  It was an era of Yankee dominance; during Gehrig’s career, the Bronx Bombers racked up seven American League titles and six World Series championships.

Gehrig’s output earmarked the Yankee lineup as fearsome—.340 career batting average, leading the major leagues in RBI four times, and 23 grand slams.  And that’s just a sample of the thunder that Gehrig created with his bat.  In 1995, Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Gehrig’s streak record.  Alex Rodriguez has surpassed Gehrig in grand slams.

On July 4, 1939, the Yankees hosted Lou Gehrig Day.  It is best remembered, perhaps, for Gehrig declaring that he’s the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

In a 2003 article for mlb.com, Mark Newman opined about Gehrig’s statistics if ALS hadn’t struck him.  “Conservatively speaking, it would have been reasonable to project another 500 hits, 350 runs, 90 doubles, 30 triples, 100 homers, 350 RBIs and 300 walks in those three years,” wrote Newman.  “He would have passed Ty Cobb as the all-time leader in runs scored.  He would have been around the 600-homer mark.  He would be the all-time leader in RBIs, not Hank Aaron.”

Gehrig’s death prompted the nickname “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” for ALS.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 2, 2016.

Jake, Wild Thing, and Willie Mays Hayes

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

Nothing lasts forever.  Even losing streaks.

Major League, a 1989 film, depicts a fictional version of the Cleveland Indians, a team which, like the real Indians ball club as of the film’s release date, has not won an American League pennant since 1954.  It centers on three characters—veteran Jake Taylor, a former All-Star catcher in the sunset of his career; rookie Rick Vaughn, an ex-con with devastating speed on his fastball; and Willie Mays Hayes, a cocky but amiable outfielder who claims to “play like Mays and run like Hayes.”

At the beginning of the film, the players’ battles emerge—Jake has bad knees, Rick has no control, and Hayes is not fast enough to beat the throw from the catcher when he tries to steal second.  Indians manager Lou Brown, the former manager of the Toledo Mud Hens for 30 years, deduces that Rick’s lack of control emanates from nearsightedness; wearing glasses solves the problem, though it does not shed Rick of his “Wild Thing” nickname, inspired by his initial inability get the ball in or near the strike zone.

Cleveland’s roster also includes Roger Dorn, a third baseman oozing arrogance; Pedro Cerrano, a voodoo-worshipping slugger with the power of Zeus and a weakness against breaking balls; and Eddie Harris, a veteran pitcher resorting to putting substances on the ball, including mucus.

Rachel Phelps, the ex-showgirl widow of Indians owner Donald Phelps, has no interest in winning.  Rather, she wants the team to lose so attendance plummets below 800,000 for the season, a benchmark allowing her to break the contract with Cleveland requiring the Indians to remain in the city.  Then, she will move the team to Miami.  To execute her plan, Rachel hires misfits like the aforementioned trio, reduces team luxuries, and observes the destruction.

When Lou discovers Rachel’s ploy, he reveals it to the team.  Initially depressed, the team rallies behind Jake’s admonition—”Win the whole fuckin’ thing.”

Once barely mediocre, the Indians steamroll through the American League, resulting in appearances on the covers of Sports Illustrated and People, an American Express commercial, and a string of headlines boasting victories.  Their season ends in a tie with the Yankees, forcing a one-game playoff for the American League Eastern Division championship.

Major League exemplifies Chekhov’s Gun, a literary theory positing, in the words of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story.  If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.  If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

With the game on the line, Lou calls in Rick from the bullpen to face Clu Haywood, the Yankee slugger dominating American League pitchers.  Three straight fastballs notch a strikeout for the Indians, leading to the bottom of the ninth.  Hayes gets on base by running out a ground ball, and then promptly steals second base.

As Jake steps into the batter’s box, he has a brainstorm—rather than hit away, which everyone from the Yankee outfield to the ushers expects, he wants to bunt.  After clearing it with Lou through sings, Jake points to center field, thereby drawing cheers from Cleveland’s faithful fans and deep ire from the Yankee pitcher, who throws at Jake’s head.  Without dusting himself off, Jake does it again.

His bunt surprises the Yankee third baseman and allows him the time to run it out, providing his knees hold out.  Jake’s grimace as he runs to first base and slow motion filming emphasize his pain. Barely, he beats the throw, and then collapses on the ground.  Hayes scores, the Indians win, and Cleveland celebrates.  Rachel, in turn, remains in Cleveland.

Jake’s ploy has additional significance—at the beginning of the film, when he stands at home plate in the empty stadium, he imagines hitting a home run to win a game and rounds the bases.

Providing comic relief in Major League is Bob Uecker as broadcaster Harry Doyle, a possessor of puns, jokes, and sarcasm.  When an opposing player hits a home run, Doyle says of a Cleveland outfielder, “Tomlinson’s gonna need a visa to catch this one.”

Jake’s romantic interest is Lynn, a Cleveland librarian and a former girlfriend harboring resentment for past indiscretions.  Though engaged, with a wedding date of October 3rd, which happens to be the same date as the playoff game, she has a tryst with Jake.  At the end of Major League, she catches his attention in the stands, waves her left hand, to indicate no wedding ring, and embraces him.

Somewhere, Chekhov is smiling.  Maybe he’s even an Indians fan.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 31, 2016.

Mickey, Whitey, and the Class of 1974

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

During the summer of 1974, excitement charged the air.  We watched with wonder when Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the Twin Towers, with dismay when President Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal, and with awe when the Universal Product Code débuted to signify a touchstone in the computer age.

For baseball fans, the Baseball Hall of Fame induction marked the summer.  In this particular instance, two Yankee icons, polar opposites in their upbringing but thick as thieves in their friendship, ascended to Cooperstown.  Mickey Charles Mantle and Edward Charles Ford.  The Mick and Whitey.

Mantle—the Yankee demigod with 536 home runs—thanked his father in his induction speech.  “He had the foresight to realize that someday in baseball that left-handed hitters were going to hit against right-handed pitchers and right-handed hitters are going to hit against left-handed pitchers; and he thought me, he and his father, to switch-hit at a real young age, when I first started to learn how to play ball,” explained the Oklahoma native.  “And my dad always told me if I could hit both ways when I got ready to go to the major leagues, that I would have a better chance of playing.”

With overwhelming power, Mantle compiled dazzling statistics:

  • Led the major leagues in runs scored (five times)
  • Led the major leagues in walks (five times)
  • Led the American League in home runs (four times)
  • 2,401 games played
  • 9,907 plate appearances

Mantle’s aplomb came with a cost—strikeouts.  #7 led the American League in strikeouts five times and the major leagues three times.

Like Mantle, Ford spent his entire career in a Yankee uniform.  Where Mantle came from the Dust Bowl, Ford came from the city.  Queens, specifically.  After achieving a 9-1 record in his rookie season of 1950, Ford lost two seasons to military service.  He returned in 1953 without skipping a beat, ending the season with an 18-6 record.

Mantle and Ford played together on the World Series championship teams of 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, and 1962.

Joining the pinstriped legends were—as a result of the Veterans Committee’s votes—Jim Bottomley, Jocko Conlan, and Sam Thompson.

Bottomley, a first baseman, played for the Cardinals, the Reds, and the Browns in his 16-year career (1922-1937).  He was not, to be sure, a power hitter—his career home run total was 219.  But he sprinkled 2,313 hits, resulting in a .310 lifetime batting average.  Bottomley led the National League in RBI twice, in hits once, and in doubles twice.

Conlan was the fourth Hall of Famer from the umpiring brethren.  In his 25-year career, Conlan umpired five World Series, six All-Star games, and three tie-breaking playoffs.  Conlan’s page on the Hall of Fame web site states, “He wore a fashionable polka dot bow tie and was the last NL umpire to wear a chest protector over his clothes.  Besides his attire, Conlan was known for his ability to combine his cheerful personality with a stern sense of authority.”

Sam Thompson was a right fielder for the Detroit Wolverines and the Philadelphia Phillies from 1885 to 1898.  In 1906, Thompson played eight games with the Detroit Tigers.  Thompson finished his career with a .331 batting average—he led the major leagues in RBI three times, in slugging percentage twice, and in doubles twice.  Thompson also led the American League in hits three times—in one of those years, he led the major leagues.

The Special Committee on the Negro Leagues okayed the inclusion of center fielder Cool Papa Bell, who played for:

  • St. Louis Stars
  • Kansas City Monarchs
  • Homestead Grays
  • Pittsburgh Crawfords
  • Memphis Red Sox
  • Chicago American Giants

In Mexico, Bell played for:

  • Monterrey Industriales
  • Torreon Algodoneros
  • Veracruz Azules
  • Tampico Alidjadores

Bell’s speed was legendary; speed inspired his nickname.  Ken Mandel of MLB.com wrote, “While still a knuckle balling prospect in 1922, he earned his moniker by whiffing Oscar Charleston with the game on the line.  His manager, Bill Gatewood, mused about how ‘cool’ his young player was under pressure and added the ‘Papa’ because it sounded better, though perhaps it was a testament to how the 19-year-old performed like a grizzled veteran.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 24, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Tommy John

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Forget about the 288 wins.

Forget about the four pennant-winning teams.

Forget about the pioneering surgery that bears his name.

You might as well.  The Baseball Hall of Fame voters have.

Thomas Edward John, Jr., the Terre Haute native who stayed in his hometown to attend college at Indiana State University, stands overlooked and undervalued for his contributions to baseball.

In his 26-year career, John pitched for:

  • Chicago White Sox
  • Los Angeles Dodgers
  • New York Yankees
  • California Angels
  • Oakland A’s

He led the National League in winning percentage in 1973 and the major leagues in 1974; played on the Dodgers’ National League pennant-winning teams in 1974, 1977, and 1978; played for the American League champs in the strike-shortened season of 1981—the Yankees.

In eras gone by, when more pitchers stayed on the mound for the entire game, John led the major leagues three times in shutouts:

  • 1966 (5)
  • 1967 (6)
  • 1980 (6)

With just 12 wins short of the magic number—300—John stands on the cusp of Cooperstown; peers Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer were inducted with 287 and 268 wins, respectively.  One can presume that at least 12 games in a 26-year career fell victim to a combination of error, lack of prowess at the plate, and a manager’s strategic errors.  It’s an interesting point, but, in the end, you are what your record is.  And John’s 288 notches in the win column stand as impressive.

It is, perhaps, the breakthrough surgery that Dr. Frank Jobe performed on the hurler in 1974 that is the most significant factor in an argument for John’s Hall of Fame membership.  At the time, Jobe was the Dodgers’ orthopedist.

Tommy John surgery rebuilds the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) by using a tendon from another part of the body.  A torn or ruptured UCL can immediately put a period at the end of a pitcher’s career.  Only an injury warrants the surgery.  It is not a procedure for improving performance.

John won more games after the surgery than before it and played on three All-Star teams (1978-1980); his only other All-Star appearance happened in 1968.  To be a pioneering patient for a surgical procedure that’s become as much a cornerstone of the game as corporate-sponsored stadia.  Had Tommy John not gone under Dr. Jobe’s knife, somebody else would have.  Eventually.  But John took the risk.

When would another pitcher have been the first if John had stepped away from baseball?  1975?  1980?  How many careers have been saved because John opted for Jobe’s cutting edge idea?

Treating a UCL problem with Tommy John surgery has become de rigeur.  Hall of Famer John Smoltz sat out the 2000 season to recover from the surgery.  At his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2015, Smoltz warned teenage pitchers against going under the knife.  “I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old.  That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sports.  That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports.  Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way.”

Smoltz is the only Tommy John surgery patient inducted into the Hall of Fame.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 22, 2016.

Kingman’s Performance

Monday, March 27th, 2017

Never at a loss for words, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda uncorked a verbal geyser of “F” word variations in response to a reporter’s inquiry on May 14, 1978.  Dave Kingman earned the privilege of setting off Lasorda by going yard three times and tallying eight RBI in that day’s Cubs-Dodgers game.  It was a display of power awing the 31,968 attendees at Dodger Stadium in the same month that Pete Rose notched his 3000th hit, Al Unser won his third of four Indianapolis 500 races, and Ron Guidry went 5-0 on his way to an American League Cy Young Award season with a 25-3 record.

After the Cubs’ 10-7 victory, secured by Kingman’s three-run homer in the 15th inning, sports reporter Paul Olden of KLAC radio asked Lasorda, “What’s your opinion of Kingman’s performance?”

And that’s pretty much when the wheels fell off the wagon.

“What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance?  What the f*** do you think is my opinion of it?  I think it was f****** horse****!  Put that in!  I don’t f******…opinion of his performance?  Jesus Christ, he beat us with three f******* home runs!”

That is merely the beginning of a monologue that lasts approximately 90 seconds, with Lasorda repeating the phrase “opinion of his performance” in disgust.

Frustration is often a signal of respect—such was the case with Lasorda, who admitted, “He put on a hell of a show.”

Richard Dozer of the Chicago Tribune remarked upon Kingman’s recent respites—none sparking delight—after showing signs of slump busting in a Cubs-Padres game.  “Kingman had two hits that night, then was benched against right-hander Gaylord Perry and against Don Sutton of the Dodgers,” reported Dozer.  “This did not please him anymore than being waved to the bench defensively on several occasions earlier this year.”

Kingman caught a Dusty Baker “wicked liner near the foul line” for the Dodgers’ last out of the ninth inning.  “It’s just a part of contributing,” declared Kingman.  “Some people around here think I can’t play defense, but maybe they’ll change their minds.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Ross Newhan quoted Kingman about his day of glory, noting the slugger’s association with Los Angeles dating back to his USC days.  “I consider this my home,” said Kingman.  “It’s always a great feeling to come back to Dodger Stadium.  I can’t put it into words.  It’s one of the most beautiful parks in either league.  The whole atmosphere is pure baseball.”

Kingman’s magical day provides a snapshot of strength, e.g., 442 career home runs, 35 or more home runs in a season six times.  Power had a cost, however.  It came in the currency of strikeouts for the Illinois native, who compiled a .236 batting average in his 16-year career.  Two outstanding years show the terrific contrast.

1979

  • Led the major leagues in home runs (48)
  • Led the National League in slugging percentage (.613)
  • Led the National League in on-base plus slugging percentage (.956)
  • Led the National League in strikeouts (131)

1982

  • Led the National League in home runs (37)
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts (156)

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

Buster Keaton, Yankee Stadium, and “The Cameraman”

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Silent film star Buster Keaton earned the nickname “The Great Stone Face” because of his superhuman ability to maintain composure while disaster reigned around him; the quadrant of presidential faces on Mount Rushmore had more animation.  AP’s 1966 obituary of Keaton stated, “Unlike Mr. Chaplin, he was never sentimental and he never resorted to maudlin pathos.  He turned a granite face to the wildly comic and nightmarish cries that befell him—and he always prevailed over impending doom.”

In his 1928 silent film The Cameraman, Keaton plays the title role—an aspiring cameraman at MGM with a crush on the secretary to the executive in charge of newsreels.

An extended scene features Keaton miming a baseball game at Yankee Stadium after learning that the Yankees are in St. Louis on a road trip.  In one part, Keaton imitates a batter getting knocked down, shouting at the pitcher, and hitting an inside-the-park home run capped by a headfirst slide into home plate.  Keaton’s sprint around the bases provided the opportunity to showcase the grandeur of Yankee Stadium, which is arguably more imposing without a game; its emptiness reinforces its size.  Keaton’s baseball fandom, legendary in the filmmaking community, undoubtedly inspired the Yankee Stadium scene.

In a striking bit of coincidence, The Cameraman premiered during the Yankees’ Midwestern road trip of September 15-30, which began with the Bronx Bombers taking on the St. Louis Browns, followed by the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Detroit Tigers.

Keaton, a comedy legend, followed an exacting blueprint to obtain laughs.  Though comedy is a craft and not a science, it comes pretty close to the latter.  In the September 16, 1928 edition of the New York Herald Tribune, the article “Buster Keaton On the Timing Of the Laugh” explains that The Cameraman is the “feature at the Capitol this week” before launching into Keaton’s detailed explanation of comedy.  Of particular importance is the insight regarding the beginning of the story.

“For instance, in the opening scenes of ‘The Cameraman’ I’m picked up alone in front of the New York City Hall,” states Keaton.  “I get a customer for a tintype picture, and, just as I’m about to snap the camera—this is carefully indicated by timed pauses—in rushes a crowd and upsets the works.  This, then, is topped by confetti and the disclosure that a famous character is coming along.  In rush the newsreel cameramen and I get tangled up in their camera tripods.  Between each development we had to figure just where a laugh might come in and how long a pause was necessary to take care of this.”

The Cameraman is a highlight in Keaton’s impressive body of work.  A downward trajectory ensued.  “After the success of The Cameraman, Keaton begged MGM for his own independent unit, but the studio refused,” wrote Lisle Foote in her 2014 book Buster Keaton’s Crew:  The Team Behind His Silent Films.  “His films became less and less funny, and even [director Edward] Sedgwick couldn’t stop the slide in quality.  The changes in comedies with the coming of sound, Keaton’s personal troubles, and the difficulties of working within a large and bureaucratic studio all contributed to the decline of Keaton’s films.”

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

Hilltop Park’s First Game

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

Yankee history—a farrago of excellence, myth, and icons—began, in fact, in Baltimore.

After two seasons in the city abutting Chesapeake Bay—1901 and 1902—the Orioles departed for New York City, a result of Frank Farrell and Bill Devery buying the defunct operations for $18,000.  New York’s team became the Highlanders—later, the Yankees.  Baltimore, in turn, lacked a major league ball club until 1954, when the St. Louis Browns moved there; once again, the city boasted a team known as the Orioles.

Washington Heights in upper Manhattan hosted the Highlanders at the new stadium called American League Park; its location earned the label Hilltop Park.  On April 30, 1903, the Highlanders inaugurated their new home with a 6-2 victory over the Washington Senators.  Ban Johnson, the American League’s president, threw out the first ball.

Building the field was not, in any way, an endeavor easily accomplished.  “It wasn’t very impressive,” recounted Marty Appel in his 2012 chronicle Pinstripe Empire:  The New York Yankees form Before the Babe to After the Boss.  “It would be a haul for fans to get to this field, and they would expect something worthy of the journey, worthy of a paid admission.  The new team had to give them a product that felt big-time.  And the clock was ticking.”

Indeed, fans attending the Highlanders-Senators contest saw a field requiring attention.  “Although the stands have not yet been completed, the occupants of the half-finished structures seemed to be perfectly satisfied with the seating arrangements,” reported the New York Times.  “While the big gathering was not over demonstrative [sic], the absence of fault finding was in itself an assurance to the management that the patrons fully appreciated the difficulties which beset the new club and due credit was given to the almost herculean efforts of the officials who had accomplished so much in such a brief time.

“The diamond, newly sodded and rolled to perfection, was the only spot in the big field which could not be improved.”

Lacking the benefits of mass transit to the environs of the ballpark, fans nonetheless journeyed for a formidable turnout.  “When the game was called there were fully fifteen thousand people present, a remarkable number, considering that the rapid transit road will not be completed this season, and that the spectators had to come on surface lines,” stated the New York Herald Tribune.  The Times reported the attendance as 16,243.

Wee Willie Keeler scored three runs for New York’s nascent squad.  Highlanders hurler Jack Chesbro held the Zeusian power of Ed Delahanty in check by not allowing a hit for the Senators slugger; Delahanty led the American League in 1902 with a .376 batting average, in addition to leading the major leagues in doubles, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

The Highlanders left seven players on base.  The Senators, nine.  Elapsed time for the game stood at ninety minutes.

In their first season, the Highlanders drew more than 211,000 fans to place 7th of 8th in the American League.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 30, 2016.

 

Wynn, World Series, and White Sox

Friday, March 24th, 2017

Not since Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven others received lifetime banishments from baseball had White Sox fans suffered a collective depression akin to the one on October 8, 1959—Chicago’s beloved team from the South Side lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the transplanted team from Brooklyn in its second year of basking in the southern California sunshine.  And so, the Windy City shrugged its big shoulders as a dream of a World Series championship became a daymare punctuated by the formidable batsmen from the City of Angeles.

With a 22-10 record, veteran right-hander Early Wynn propelled the White Sox to a World Series birth; Wynn’s number of wins led the major leagues in 1959.  The man whom Ted Williams called “the toughest pitcher I ever faced” criticized the press as the White Sox prepared for Game Six, which turned out to be the deciding game.  “They made us look like a lousy ball club just because we’ve had some bad experiences in that circus grounds they call a ball park out there,” said the 39-year-old hurler of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in an article penned by Richard Dozer for the Chicago Tribune.  “They’ve been saying we ought to try to get into the their major league.”

This statement referred to the Continental League, an idea spearheaded by Branch Rickey.  It ultimately failed, but gave rise to National League expansion in 1962 with the Houston Colt .45s (later Astros) and the New York Mets.

Game Six was Wynn’s third time taking the mound in the series.  He blanked the Dodgers 11-0 in Game One, held at Comiskey Park.  Though Wynn started Game Four, he did not get credited with the 5-4 loss.

Trailing the Dodgers three games to two, the White Sox were poised to even the series in Game Six.  It was a crucial moment for Wynn et al.  “The White Sox are in excellent position for pitching.  Wynn worked only three innings, a victim of semi-liners, pop hits and fielding blunders by his teammates in a four-run third inning,” wrote Edward Press in the Chicago Tribune, absolving Wynn of blame for the Game Four loss.  “So the 39-year-old butcher should be sharp.  He is still dunking his elbow in the whirl pool.”

Alas, it was not meant to be for the White Sox.  1959 belonged to the Dodgers.  Game Six secured the first World Series title for Los Angeles’s National League team, thanks to 13 hits and nine runs.  Wynn took responsibility.  “I threw some bad pitches,” said Wynn in an article by Robert Cromie for the Chicago Tribune.  “But I did nothing different today.  I thought I had pretty good stuff, and I wasn’t tired.  There were no effects from the two-day rest or anything.”

Wynn’s ’59 performance earned him the Cy Young Award.  It was the culmination of a season of excellence in the autumn of his playing years—he retired after the 1963 season with a lifetime 300-244 win-loss record.

Led by manager Al Lopez, the White Sox compiled a 94-60 record in 1959, spurred by future Hall of Famers Wynn, second baseman Nellie Fox, and shortstop Luis Aparicio.  Fox racked up 191 hits, notched a .306 batting average, and led the major leagues in plate appearances (717).  Aparicio’s prowess resulted in 157 hits, 98 runs scored, and a league-leading 56 stolen bases.

Lopez, himself a Hall of Famer, managed the Cleveland Indians from 1951 to 1956 and the White Sox from 1957 to 1969.  The Hall of Fame inducted Lopez in 1977.  When he took the reins in Chicago, the team became known as the “Go Go Sox” because of an emphasis on speed instead of power.  Lopez lived just long enough to see the White Sox bring a World Series title to the South Side in 2005—the team’s first championship since 1917—he died four days later.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 29, 2016.

Rick Monday’s Star-Spangled Play

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Old Glory.  Stars and Stripes.  Star-Spangled banner.

America’s flag is, for some, a sacred fabric.  Rick Monday represented those devotees during a Cubs-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium on April 25, 1976, when he prevented a duo—father and son—from igniting the red, white, and blue banner on the outfield grass.

In a 2006 article by Ben Platt for mlb.com, Monday said, “My thoughts were reinforced with my six years in the Marine Corps Reserves.  It was also reinforced by a lot of friends who lost their lives protecting the rights and freedoms that flag represented.”

What followed put an exclamation point on the ribbon rescue, which received an extra infusion of national pride during America’s bicentennial year.  “It was a very quiet moment,” described Monday.  “A smattering of applause as they got these two guys off the field.  And it got quiet again.  And if memory serves correctly, from one part of the stadium, I don’t know where, and then from another part, and then from another part, and then kind of collectively, people began to sing ‘God Bless America.'”

When Monday swiped the flag, which had already been dosed with lighter fluid, America’s psyche had suffered a series of rabbit punches during the past two decades—more than 58,000 servicemen dead and thousands others wounded in the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon; the Cuban Missile Crisis; four students shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard during a war protest at Kent State University; two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford; two oil crises; inflation; race riots; and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cynicism abounded, laced with fear.  Bobby Kennedy offered hope, which crumbled when Sirhan Sirhan murdered him in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after Kennedy’s victory in the California Democratic primary.  “Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence,” said Kennedy.  “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.  And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.”

Would that it were so.  Optimism about America teetered with each headline.

Hence, Monday’s act, though only occupying a few seconds, triggered a patriotic catharsis for the 25,167 in attendance, plus those watching the game on television, listening to it on radio, or learning about it in the next day’s sports pages.

The Dodgers beat the Cubs 5-4 on that April day.  Monday knocked three hits, scored two runs, and notched one RBI.  But snatching the flag from imminent torching captured headlines and hearts—and continues to do so.

In a 2006 interview for mlb.com, Monday explained, “From time to time, people ask, ‘Are you upset because you spent 19 seasons in the major leagues and you’re known primarily for stopping two people from burning the flag?’  If that’s all you’re known for, it’s not a bad thing at all.  It solidified the thought process of hundreds of thousands of people that represented this country in fine fashion and lost their lives.”

Rick Monday played with three teams in his career:

  • 1966-1971:  Athletics
  • 1972-1976:  Cubs
  • 1977-1984:  Dodgers

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 25, 2016.

Taft, Titanic, and Taking the Field

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

1,517 people died when the Titanic plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic in 1912; a valued presidential adviser was among the men, women, and children that perished—Major Archibald Butt.

In a written statement dated April 19, 1912, President William Howard Taft eulogized, “His character was a simple one in the sense that he was incapable of intrigue or insincerity.  He was gentle and considerate to every one, high and low.  He never lost, under any conditions, his sense of proper regard to what he considered the respect due to constituted authority.  He was an earnest member of the Episcopal Church, and loved that communion.  He was a soldier, every inch of him; a most competent and successful quartermaster, and devotee of his profession.”

Butt, a member of both the Taft and the Theodore Roosevelt administrations, voyaged on the Titanic with his housemate, Francis Davis Millet, who was a painter, a sculptor, and a journalist.  Another member of Washington’s power circle, “Millet served as vice chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, a committee that has review over the ‘design and aesthetics’ of construction within Washington, D.C.,” states the National Park Service on its web site.  “The commission is also partly responsible for the design and plan of the National Mall, just a short walk from the fountain.”

NPS.gov also affirms that Millet, married with three children, had “several same-sex relationships in his life.”  Rumors about a homosexual relationship surround the duo; by all accounts, Butt and Millet are the only United States government officials to die on the Titanic.  Sculpted by Daniel Chester French, the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain on the Ellipse honors them.

Distraught by Butt’s death, Taft declined to attend Opening Day for the Washington Senators on April 19th—four days after the Titanic sunk.  “It was a crowd prepared to be enthusiastic, but the blight of the saddest story of the seas’ history could not be cast off.  One year previously President Taft had attended, throwing the first ball, and Maj. Archie Butt had been with him in the chief executive’s box,” reported Joe S. Jackson in the Washington Post.  “Yesterday the President could not be present for obvious reasons, and the many friends of his late aid were forced to absent themselves in deference to his memory.  Vice President [James] Sherman was there, and as the representative of the administration and of official life here, threw the first ball out onto the diamond.

In 1910, Taft inaugurated the tradition of throwing out the first ball.

The Senators blanked the Philadelphia Athletics 6-0 to kick off the 1912 season, an impressive feat considering the A’s were the World Series champions.  Walter Johnson struck out eight, walked two, contributed two hits to the Senators’ tall of 10, and stranded six A’s on base.  Except for the sixth inning, the A’s never had two players on base.

1912 was a banner year for Johnson, who overpowered American League lineups like a sledgehammer to a thumbtack; the “Train” led the major leagues with:

  • 303 strikeouts
  • .908 WHIP (Walks + Hits / Innings Pitched)
  • 1.39 ERA

It was the first of four times that Johnson had the best ERA in the major leagues.

Another 1912 standout for the Senators was outfielder Clyde Milan, who led the major leagues with 88 stolen bases.  In addition, Milan stood tall against American League batters in several categories:

  • Tied for 3rd in singles
  • Tied for 2nd in games played
  • 9th in runs scored
  • 3rd in at bats

Washingtonians rejoiced in the Senators’ record of 91-61 in 1912.  Though respectable, it trailed the Red Sox by a highly significant margin—Boston’s ballplayers notched a 105-47 record, led the American League in attendance, and defeated the New York Giants in the World Series.

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