March 25th, 2017

Hilltop Park’s First Game

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.

 

March 24th, 2017

Wynn, World Series, and White Sox

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.

March 23rd, 2017

Rick Monday’s Star-Spangled Play

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.

March 22nd, 2017

Taft, Titanic, and Taking the Field

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.

March 21st, 2017

Elysian Fields, Alexander Cartwright, and the Knickerbockers of New York

With civic pride running as deep as the Hudson River abutting it, Hoboken boasts a singer who defined the standard for American popular music, an Italian festival dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, and a Beaux-Arts train terminal built by the once iconic Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad.  Respectively, these cornerstones are better known as Frank Sinatra, St. Ann’s Feast, and Hoboken Terminal.

For baseball fans, Hoboken occupies vital territory in the National Pastime’s genesis.  This jewel of New Jersey was the location of the first official baseball game, according to lore—it happened on June 19, 1846, when the New York Nine defeated the Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields; the score was 23-1.

Alexander Cartwright spearheaded the creation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club during the previous September.  It was a turning point that established rules, including the setting of a diamond shape with 90 feet separating the bases, the recording of an out when a fielder possesses the ball on a base rather than the runner being struck by the ball, and the equaling of three strikes to an out.

In his 1969 book Baseball: An Informal History, Douglas Wallop described the barometer of 90 feet as optimal.  “Had the distance been, say, ninety-two feet, stealing second would have been so difficult as to be seldom achieved,” wrote Wallop.  “Had it been eighty-eight, stealing second might have been too easy.  Few baseball players in history—Ty Cobb and Maury Wills chief among them—have had the speed and base-stealing technique to give the runner the upper hand, and even they made no mockery of it.”

These were not, however, measures easily created.  “Even the steps the Knickerbockers did take toward organization and uniformity were made reluctantly,” stated baseball historian Peter Morris in his 2008 book But Didn’t We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870.  “According to [Knickerbocker Duncan] Curry, when Alexander Cartwright proposed standard rules: ‘His plan met with much good natured derision, but he was so persistent in having us try his new game that we finally consented more to humor him than with any thought of it becoming a reality.'”

Cartwright’s place in baseball history may not rest on bedrock, however, in light of recent scrutiny.  In her 2009 book Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Legend, Monica Nucciarone peels away the layers of Cartwright’s involvement in baseball’s embryonic phase, resulting in a chronicle with a different conclusion than the one learned by every generation of baseball fans since the Polk administration.  It is an example of the continuing examination of myths, legends, and facts comprising history.

In his review of Nucciarone’s book for the Summer 2011 issue of Journal of Sport History, Thomas Altherr wrote, “Several baseball historians, including John Thorn and Randall Brown, have already undercut the Cartwright theories and attributed more influence to other Knickerbockers, such as Daniel Adams, William Wheaton, and Daniel Brown.  Nucciarone’s work should now inspire the complete toppling of the Cartwright mystique.”

Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, has excavated 19th century baseball history for countless books, articles, and lectures.  “The length of the baselines was imprecise, although latter-day pundits have credited Cartwright with divine-inspired prescience in determining a distance that would yield so many close plays at first,” wrote Thorn in his 2011 book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.  “Sometimes referred to in histories of the game as an engineer even though he was a bank teller, and then a book seller, Cartwright was further credited with laying out the game on a diamond rather than a square.  Yet even this was no innovation in 1845.”

Wheaton, Adams, William H. Tucker, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth form a quartet with “legitimate claims to baseball’s paternity.  They were all present at the creation, although no lightning bolt attaches to any given date, and all played with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York,” added Thorn.

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

March 20th, 2017

Baseball, Las Vegas, and Area 51

Glitz, glamour, and gambling—escalated, somewhat, by gaudiness, garishness, and greed—fuel Las Vegas.  It is, after all, a desert metropolis built on a foundation of fantasy.  It is also where Elvis Presley made his live performance comeback after eight years of concentrating on movies and albums; where Frank Sinatra led a group of his former Army buddies to rob five casinos on New Year’s Eve in the original Ocean’s 11 film; where the television shows Las VegasDr. VegasCrime StoryVegasVega$CSI, and The Player were set; where the Partridges made their professional début in The Partridge Family; and where Michael Corleone sought to expand his family’s operations by buying out casino owner Moe Greene in the 1972 movie The Godfather.

A destination city for vacationers looking for a hint of sin—if not sin incarnate—Las Vegas also offers recreation for its natives; baseball lovers have the 51s ball club, which traces its genesis to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League.  From 1903 to 1972—except for the 1919 season, which they played in the Pacific Coast International League—the Beavers formed a cornerstone of the PCL.

In 1973, the team’s tenure shifted to Spokane, where it became the Indians.  After the 1982 season, the Indians moved to Las Vegas and underwent a name change—Stars.  This label lasted until 2001, when the 51s name emerged.  Future stars have populated the 51s, including Jayson Werth, Nomar Garciaparra, and Andruw Jones.

Las Vegas’s baseball team takes its name from Area 51, a part of Nevada about 150 miles from the famed Las Vegas Strip—the stretch of road with the iconic “Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign.

Area 51—also known as Groom Lake—is the subject of conjecture, controversy, and conspiracy.  UFO believers maintain that the United States government houses aliens, alien spacecraft, and time travel experiments at Area 51.  NASA’s Administrator Major Charles Bolden—the top of the space agency hierarchy—dismisses those theories.

“There is an Area 51.  It’s not what many people think,” said Bolden in a 2015 article by Sarah Knapton for Great Britain’s newspaper The Telegraph; Knapton is the paper’s Science Editor.  “I’ve been to a place called that but it’s a normal research and development place.  I never saw any aliens or alien spacecraft or anything when I was there.

“I think because of the secrecy of the aeronautics research that goes on there it’s ripe for people to talk about aliens being there.”

In 2013, the Central Intelligence Agency released a declassified report affirming the existence of Area 51 at Groom Lake; theretofore, the United States government maintained silence about it.  “The report, released after eight years of prodding by a George Washington University archivist researching the history of the U-2 [spy plane], made no mention of colonies of alien life, suggesting that the secret base was dedicated to the relatively more mundane task of testing spy planes,” wrote Adam Nagourney in his 2013 article “C.I.A. Acknowledges Area 51 Exists, but What About Those Little Green Men?” for the New York Times.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 16, 2016.

March 19th, 2017

Jim Palmer’s No-Hitter

Jim Palmer began his major league career in 1965, when the Braves played their last season in Milwaukee, the Astros unveiled the Astrodome, and Bert Campaneris became the first player to play all nine positions in a major league game.

Throughout his 19 seasons—all in a Baltimore Orioles uniform—Palmer racked up pitching achievements like a Marylander devours crabs.  Often.

  • World Series championships (1966, 1970, 1983)
  • American League Cy Young Awards (1973, 1975, 1976)
  • 2o-win seasons in all but one year between 1970 and 1978
  • Led the American League in innings pitched (1970, 1976, 1977, 1978)
  • Led the major leagues in shutouts (1975)
  • Led the American League in earned run average (1973, 1975)
  • Led the major leagues in earned run average (1975)
  • Led the American League in victories (1975, 1976, 1977)
  • Led the major leagues in victories (1975, 1976)
  • Led the American League in complete games (1977)
  • Led the major leagues in complete games (1977)

On August 13, 1969, the future Hall of Famer added a rare jewel to his crown—a no-hitter.  In an 8-0 shutout of the Oakland A’s, Palmer contributed with his bat as well as his right arm—a single, a double, a run scored, one RBI, and a walk that started a five-run tally in the seventh inning.  Associated Press began its account by emphasizing the 23-year-old right-hander “continuing his amazing comeback” after being on the disabled list; the no-hitter brought Palmer’s 1969 record to 11-2.

It was a glorious day for Baltimore.  Boog Powell rapped two hits and scored a run.  Brooks Robinson knocked a three-run home run—it was his only hit of the day.  Don Buford went three-for-four with two RBI.  Paul Blair and Frank Robinson had one RBI apiece.

After two years of limited work because of “assorted back and shoulder miseries,” described by AP, Palmer had an impressive 9-2 record in 1969 before tearing a muscle in his back, which prompted a stay on the disabled list beginning on June 29th.  When Palmer returned to pitch against the Minnesota Twins on August 9th, spirits lifted from Mount Washington to Fells Point.  It looked like the physical challenges were in the rear view mirror as Palmer notched a 5-1 victory over the fellas from the Twin Cities; he threw for six innings.

Palmer’s no-hitter occurred while the world experienced terrific events, with the adjective being used for both its original meaning as a derivation of the word “terror” and its adjusted meaning to describe something extraordinarily good.  In the four weeks prior to Palmer’s feat, Charles Manson masterminded a mass slaughter of Sharon Tate and six others, Apollo 11 made the first successful manned moon landing, and upstate New York prepared for a festival described as “3 Days of Peace and Music” at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel—the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

With a 109-53 record in 1969, the O’s had a 19-game differential from their closest competitor—the Detroit Tigers had 90 wins and 72 losses, respectable but not enough to eclipse the marshals of Memorial Stadium.  The New York Mets defied expectations by defeating the Orioles in the 1969 World Series, taking five games to accomplish the task.

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

March 18th, 2017

The Last Eagle

Once upon a decade—the one that introduced Elvis Presley, car tail fins, and McDonald’s franchises—a ballplayer blessed with speed, grace, and athleticism rivaling Orsippus’s climbed to the apex of baseball, popular culture, and media.

The year was 1951.  The place was New York City.  The ballplayer was Willie Mays.

Talent alone does not make a major leaguer, however.  Responding to this reality, Leo Durocher, manager of the New York Giants, selected a member of his Polo Grounds posse to shepherd the 20-year-old Mays upon the rookie’s ascension from the Minneapolis Millers—the Giants’ AAA team.

Monford Merrill Irvin.  Monte.

In his 1975 book The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff, Thomas Kiernan wrote, “Irvin not only accepted responsibility for Mays, he took the move as a challenge.  For the first time as a Giant he had a teammate who, it appeared, was every bit as talented as he was.”

Under Irvin’s tutelage, Mays matured into the professional that Durocher et al. hoped he would be.  “Irvin would instruct Mays on game situations, shout out which bases the rookie should throw to, position against each enemy hitter—to make it easy for Mays to turn what would be extra-base hits with anyone else in center field into outs,” stated Kiernan.

Irvin played in the Negro Leagues before desegregating the New York Giants with Hank Thompson in 1949.  Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, testified, “Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team.  We all agreed, in meeting, he was the best qualified by temperament, character ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age, experiences ad physique to represent us as the first black player to enter the white majors since the Walker brothers back in the 1880s.  Of course, Branch Rickey lifted Jackie Robinson out of Negro ball and made him the first, and it turned out just fine.”

Appropriately, Manley’s statement is on Irvin’s Baseball Hall of Fame web site page.

Irvin led the Eagles to the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series championship against the Kansas City Monarchs—a shining moment for the kid from Orange, New Jersey, for whom playing playing baseball was oxygen.

When Irvin died on January 11, 2016, he took with him the status of being the last living monument to the Eagles.  In a statement, Mays said that his mentor “was like a second father to me.”

Jerry Izenberg, an iconic New Jersey sports writer, eulogized Irvin in the Star-Ledger, which gained international recognition when Tony Soprano ambled down his driveway in a robe and slippers to pick it up, often thumbing through the pages for the latest news on mafia arrests.

Decades after his career in the Negro Leagues, Irving maintained joyousness that could light up Chancellor Avenue.  Irvin’s exclamations occurred repeatedly in conversations with Izenberg, who recalled the thread of joy running through them, including an excerpt of a conversation from the early 1990s:  “I played in three countries.  I played in two World Series.  But I never found anything to match the joy and the laughter those years with the Eagles brought me.”

Monte Irvin retired with a .293 batting average after eight seasons in the major leagues; the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him in 1973.  “I hope my induction will help to ease the pain of all those players who never got a chance to play in the majors,” stated the man largely responsible for the career of Willie Mays.

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

March 17th, 2017

Wee Willie Keeler’s Best Year

Wee Willie Keeler, a diminutive Baltimore Orioles right fielder measuring 5’4″ and 140 pounds, declared of his success, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ’em where they ain’t!”  In 1897, he did it 239 times for a .424 batting average.  Both stats led the major leagues—he repeated this achievement in 1898 with 216 hits and a .385 batting average.

1897 was, indeed, a career season for Keeler, whose seasonal achievements at the plate also included:

  • Tied career high in doubles (27)
  • 2nd highest number of triples (19)
  • 4th highest number of RBI (74)
  • Career high .464 on-base percentage
  • Career high .539 slugging percentage
  • Career high 1.003 on-base plus slugging percentage
  • 44-game hitting streak (National League record tied by Pete Rose in 1978

Among Keeler’s skills, power was absent—he had zero home runs in 1897.

In addition to Keeler, Baltimore’s 1897 squad burst with supremacy at the plate.

  • Jack Doyle, First Baseman (.354)
  • Hughie Jennings, Shorstop (.355)
  • John McGraw (Third Baseman (.325)
  • Joe Kelley, Left Fielder (.362)
  • Jake Stenzel, Right Fielder (.353)

Because the Orioles’ lineup overflowed with skilled batsmen, Keeler’s prowess, though formidable, may not be easily discerned.  “The chief obstacle for evaluators of the Keeler legacy is that his prime years came with a juggernaut that was stocked with too many good hitters for pitchers to pitch around him and in an era that afforded him advantages that players who followed him as little as ten years later no longer enjoyed,” wrote baseball historian David Nemec in Volume 2 of his 2011 tome Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900.

Keeler began his career in 1892 and, as Nemec points out, benefited from the allowance to “tap or chop pitches foul without having them counted against him as strikes” during his first seven seasons.

Sporting a 90-40 record, Baltimore’s 1897 team finished 2nd in the National League.  Despite the team’s success in the 1890s, conflict resonated, especially between McGraw and Keeler.  “McGraw, always needing a target, liked to pick on Willie Keeler, the only Oriole littler than he was,” wrote Burt Solomon in his 1999 book Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball.  “Willie was a city boy and a happy one.  Mac, raised an hour and a half by rail from Syracuse, had grown up hard.  Mac had a talent for manipulation, even a need for it, and a knack for not letting it trouble him any.  Willie cared nothing about things like that.  He wanted to do his job as well as he could and to have fun, not necessarily in that order.  Sharpening his spikes, he believed, was something a gentleman did not do,” continued Solomon.

Keeler died on New Year’s Day in 1923; his Orioles teammates went to Brooklyn’s Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel for a requiem mass—a former tormentor was among those in attendance.  “Tears stood in the eyes of John McGraw, manager of the world’s champion Giants and a team mate [sic] of Keeler’s on the famous Orioles of the 90s, as he viewed his old body,” reported the Washington Post.

Keeler played for the Giants, the Bridegrooms, the Orioles, and the Yankees in his 19-year career.  2,932 hits, .341 batting average, and .415 slugging percentage boosted him to Cooperstown—the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Keeler in 1939.  On his plaque, below the name and the visage, stands Keeler’s famous quote “Hit ’em where they ain’t!”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 8, 2016.

March 16th, 2017

Savannah’s Bananas

When James Oglethorpe led the settling of Savannah, Georgia in 1733, he used a geometric shape for the layout—squares.  Robert Johnson has the distinction of the first square being named after him; Johnson—South Carolina’s colonial governor—and Oglethorpe were friends.  Savannah expanded to 24 squares; Johnson Square is the largest.  Urban development caused the destruction of two squares.

Savannah’s squares, essentially, consist of eight blocks—four residential and four civic.  But it is a square turned 45 degrees that occupies a firm footing in Savannah’s history, culture, and leisure—a diamond.  Well, a baseball diamond.  Grayson Stadium.

In the year that Grayson Stadium was constructed—1926—under the moniker of Municipal Stadium, Babe Ruth smashed home runs in his prime, Walter Johnson won his 400th game, and Mel Ott made his major league début.

Savannah native Colonel William Leon Grayson was the inspiration for the ballpark’s name.  In his 1917 book A Standard History of Georgia and Georgians, Volume 5, Lucian Lamar Knight wrote, “Colonel Grayson represents a long line of military men, and while his own active field service was confined to a brief campaign during the Spanish-American War, he has for years been active in organizing and maintaining Georgia’s militia, and his work was the basis for a tribute from one of Georgia’s governors, who once said that no braver, more efficient or more reliable officer ever held a commission from the state than Colonel Grayson.”

Since its inauguration, Grayson Stadium has been home to several minor league teams:

  • Savannah Indians (1926-1928, 1936-1942, 1946-1954)
  • Savannah Athletics (1955)
  • Savannah Redlegs (1956-1958)
  • Savannah Reds (1959)
  • Savannah White Sox (1962)
  • Savannah Senators (1968-1969)
  • Savannah Indians (1970)
  • Savannah Braves (1971-1983)
  • Savannah Cardinals (1984-1985)
  • Savannah Sand Gnats (1996-2015)

When the Savannah Bananas of the Coastal Plain League took the field in 2016, the team’s first season, it carried the torch for baseball in the Hostess City of the South.  A wood-bat collegiate summer league with 16 teams, the CPL takes its name from the Class D league that existed from 1937 to 1941 and 1946 to 1952; the CPL shelved its business during World War II.  2016 was the league’s 20th year.

“We had heard that the Sand Gnats were potentially leaving, so we came to Savannah a couple of times to see what a baseball game looked like here,” said the Bananas’ president, Jared Orton, before the 2016 season.  “It’s a beautiful city with a majestic ballpark that’s full of baseball history.  We can celebrate that with a new chapter of Savannah baseball.

“Obviously, we cannot use traditional names, for example, Indians.  So, we narrowed down the possibilities to five and then sent them to Studio Simon for logo designs and colors.  When we saw the Bananas logo and name together, it was a no-brainer.  The name is easy to say, recognize, and market.  So, we can build our brand identity around it.

“One of the things we’re planning is a historical timeline in Grayson Stadium’s concourse to honor baseball in Savannah, including the most famous players to ever have played here.  Babe Ruth is one example.

“We’re focused on integrating the Bananas into Savannah’s culture.  That’s been the most challenging and fun aspect about launching the team’s operations.  We’re constantly meeting with business and community leaders to build and reinforce our relationships and friendships.  Our goal is to make the Bananas games fun for the fans.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 4, 2016.