February 20th, 2017

Reggie Hits No. 500

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.

February 19th, 2017

Satchel Paige Joins the Indians

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.

February 18th, 2017

Football and Comedy

Football, a brutal sport symbolizing man’s primal quest to conquer territory, offers humor as compelling as the viciousness of Dick Butkus, the grace of Lynn Swann, and the agility of Walter Payton.

Necessary Roughness exemplifies the underdog theme, a common focus in sports films.  Film critic Roger Ebert noted, “I fell for it again this time, because it was well done, and because the movie doesn’t try to pump itself up into more than it is, a good-humored entertainment.”

Starting from scratch after a corruption scandal, which includes recruiting violations and steroid abuse, forces the firing of its coaches and the expulsion of its players, except one, the Texas State Fighting Armadillos hires Coach Ed “Straight Arrow” Gennero.  A lack of players forces him to rebuild by employing “iron man” football, where the same players take the field on offense and defense.

At the heart of the team is a player who might have ranked with Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Terry Bradshaw as one of the best quarterbacks ever.  Paul Blake, on the verge of entering college, quit football to take care of his family’s farm after his father died—a decade and a half ago.  To pass the time, Blake throws footballs at a scarecrow that he dresses with a football jersey.

Necessary Roughness utilizes the device of gathering misfits coming together to win the game against a superior opponent.  Blake throws the winning touchdown to Charlie Banks, the only player remaining from the corruption-laden squad.

Little Giants, too, relies on the underdog story, pitting the O’Shea brothers—played by Ed O’Neill and Rick Moranis—against each other.  Kevin O’Shea is a former Heisman Trophy winner, hence, a football legend in his hometown of Urbania, Ohio.  Now a pee wee football coach, Kevin prides himself on leading the best players Urbania has to offer.  Danny, meanwhile, strives to lead the misfits cast off by Kevin.  During halftime of the climactic game between Kevin’s Little Cowboys and Danny’s Little Giants, Danny tells a story about how he beat Kevin racing their bikes down Cherry Hill, an iconic part of Urbania.  It only happened once, but it proves that you only need “one time” to score a victory.

A trick play called “Annexation of Puerto Rico” helps the Little Giants defeat the Little Cowboys, despite the latter’s superiority.

The Replacements told the story of the fictional Washington Sentinels during a players strike.  Shane Falco finds another shot at football stardom when he replaces Eddie Martel as the Sentinels quarterback.  A college phenom, Falco suffered an ignominious defeat in a bowl game, burned out quickly in the professional ranks, and wonders what might have been.  Jimmy McGinty, the newly hired coach, recruits Falco along with other players who, under other circumstances, would never get a second look.  Or a first one, probably.

Martel crosses the picket line, though the players don’t have the same respect for him that they do for Falco.  McGinty sends in Falco, the Sentinels win, and another underdog football story ends in victory.

Gene Hackman, Keanu Reeves, and Brett Cullen played, respectively, McGinty, Falco, and Martel.

On his web site www.brettcullen.com, Cullen revealed his awe at standing on the field at Nextel Stadium—which served as the Sentinels’ home stadium—with the film’s location manager.

“I call him the first night I got into Baltimore and said, ‘Let’s get together.  I’d been there for a day,” Cullen explained.  “So, we had dinner at McCormick and Schmidt’s and after dinner we got in his car and he said, ‘Come on, I want to show you something.’  We drove over to the stadium, which was completely dark.  We went around to the back entrance and he flashed his badge to security and they let us in.  We walked onto the field and out to the 50-yard line in the Ravens stadium, and you look at all those seats being full, and you’re playing football and you’re in a fishbowl and everyone’s screaming at you—it’s a lot like being a gladiator.  I saw it and went, ‘I get it now.’  That was real thrilling for me.  That was one of those moments before we started doing the picture that I went, ‘Wow this is going to be cool.'”

The Longest Yard stars Burt Reynolds, James Hampton, Michael Conrad, Bernadette Peters, and Eddie Albert.  This 1974 film centers on a game between prisoners and prison guards.  It’s fixed, though—the warden ensures a victory for the guards by threatening Paul Crewe, played by Reynolds.  Crewe, a former pro quarterback, was known to fix football games.  In turn, the prisoners think he’s thwrowing this game for some kind of bribe.  All is going according to the warden’s plan until Crewe decides to turn against the warden.

In his memoir But Enough About Me, Reynolds exposed his method of filming at a real-life prison—Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.  “I’d filmed in prisons before, and I knew it was essential to have the inmates on your side, so in addition to building a football field complete with bleachers, we had six basketball courts installed on the yard.  I also knew from experience that every prison has its inmate leadership, so I went to the top man and made him my stand-in.  His name was Ringo.  He looked like a Brahma bull with glasses and he was serving ninety-nine years for manslaughter and kidnapping.

“Six months later I was in Nashville shooting W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings when who should appear at my trailer door but Ringo.  There were a couple of state troopers guarding me, and I was afraid of bloodshed if they knew who he was, so I sent him to James Hampton’s trailer.  Ringo told Jimmy that he’d decided ‘to take a vacation.’  The next time I saw Ringo, he was leaning against a wall watching us shoot a scene.  A week or so later I heard that he was back at Reidsville, in solitary confinement.

M*A*S*H, based on the novel by Richard Hooker, revolves around the antics of the doctors, nurses, and enlisted men at Mobile Army Surgical Hospital #4077 during the Korean War.  A football scene gives real-life NFL player Fred Williamson an opportunity to showcase as Dr. Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones, a neurosurgeon who also played professional football for the 49ers.  Through Jones’s tutelage, the 4077th team creates sufficient confidence to place a bet with the rival team from the 325th Evacuation Hospital—with one catch, however.  Hawkeye devises a scheme to keep Jones out of the game for the first half.  Then, the 4077th will get larger odds from the 325th, bring Jones into the game, and receive a windfall upon victory.

In his review of M*A*S*H for the New York Times, Roger Greenspun wrote, “In one brief night scene, some MASH-men and the chief nurse meet to divide the winnings of the football game.  In the distance, a jeep drives by, carrying a white-shrouded corpse.  The nurse glances at it for a second, and then turns back to her happy friends—and we have a momentary view of the ironic complexities of life that M*A*S*H means to contain.”

Forrest Gump features the title character as an outstanding kick returner for the University of Alabama.  In turn, he becomes an All-American football player.  After college, Forrest becomes a war hero in Vietnam, a ping-pong champ, and a shrimp tycoon.  In his review for the New York Daily News, Dave Kehr commended director Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks, who played the title character, on creating Forrest’s life journey from the 1950s to the 1980s.  “With Hanks’ graceful and creative performance at the center (his first role since his Oscar for ‘Philadelphia’), Zemecks combines a mastery of wide-screen composition, camera movement and long-term patterns of theme and image to create na original and deeply moving experience,” wrote Kehr.  “The sweetly sentimental and the unbearable grotesque exist side by side, with little to mediate between them.”

An episode of The Odd Couple features Alex Karras as a guest star.  In the episode “That Was No Lady,” Felix engages in a romance with a woman named Melanie, who shares his passion for New York City’s culture.  Unbeknownst to Felix, Melanie is the wife of Jarrin’ Jake Metcalf, a football star, who’s working with Oscar on his autobiography.  When Felix wants to confront Jake because love has made him strong, Oscar responds, “Strength has made him stronger.”  In the end, Melanie returns to Jake leaving Felix with wonderful memories that hopefully dull the pain of heartbreak.

Silent film star Harold Lloyd stars in The Freshman, a comedy about a college football player.  The Turner Classic Movies web site lauds the film’s production qualities, sourced to Lloyd’s attention to detail:  “The Freshman lacks the high stakes of Keaton’s comedies and the pathos of Chaplin’s struggles but it doesn’t lack for comic invention or filmmaking polish.  Longtime Lloyd collaborators Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmeyer direct and his regular writing team (Taylor, Ted Wilde, John Grey, and Tim Whelan) provide the story, gags and titles, but this is Lloyd’s production down the line and lavishes all the time and money necessary to perfect every gag.  The campus backgrounds are filled with students, the big dance has Lloyd maneuvering through throngs of couples while quite literally tearing his suit apart (a hilarious sequence that builds to a predictable yet comically perfect gag finale), and the big game looks like ti was shot at a real championship match.  Throughout it all, every last extra seems to hit their marks and react on cue.”

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

February 17th, 2017

The Men Who Portrayed Babe Ruth

To say that Babe Ruth was a dominant force is like saying that Mount Vesuvius spewed a little lava.

Firmly stands the Babe in popular culture, in part because of portrayals in films.  “The pattern of the drama, with its Horatio Alger stamp—rags to riches and romance—is obviously contrived, and the personal characterizations are all of them second-grade stock,” wrote the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther of the 1948 movie The Babe Ruth Story.   “Mr. [William] Bendix is straight from the smoke-house and Claire Trevor pulls all the heart-throb stops as a little showgirl who marries the great man and sticks by through thick and thin.”

Bendig was a character actor famed for “playing all manner of lugs, both loveable and dangerous,” according to his biography on the Turner Classic Movies web site.  Credits include the Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat, the Abbott & Costello movie Who Done It?, and the 1964 thriller Seven Days in May.  Perhaps Bendix’s best-known role was the title character in the 1950s television series The Life of Riley.

Babe Ruth, a 1991 NBC tv-movie, starred Stephen Lang as the Babe, Donald Moffat as Jacob Ruppert, and Bruce Weitz as Miller Huggins.  Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times lauded, “Lang has some of the size to play Ruth and, with tutoring from Rod Carew, the right-handed actor has developed a fairly convincing left-handed stroke and, with makeup, a prominent nose to match.”  Richard Huff of Variety also praised Lang—“he does his job convincingly.”

Art LaFleur played Babe Ruth in a dream sequence in the 1994 film The Sandlot.  Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, the best player on his sandlot baseball team, has a dream in which he talks with the Yankee slugger, who offers him advice on confronting “The Beast,” a dog guarding the house belonging to the baseball field’s neighbor; balls are gone forever when the kids hit them over the fence.  One particular ball poses a major problem for Scotty Smalls, a newcomer who’s unfamiliar with baseball—he brings a ball owned by his stepfather to the sandlot; it’s signed by Babe Ruth.  When Benny hits it over the fence, it’s gone forever.  Presumably.

Ruth’s ghost counsels Benny, “Everybody gets one chance to do something great.  Most people never take the chance, either ’cause they’re too scared or they don’t recognize it when it spits on their shoes.  This is your big chance, and you shouldn’t let it go by.  Remember when you busted the guts out of the ball the other day?  Someone’s telling you something, kid.  If I was you, I’d listen.”

As Ruth disappears, he offers final words of inspiration:  “Remember, kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends.  Heroes get remembered.  But legends never die.  Follow your heart, kid.  And you’ll never go wrong.”

Eventually, “The Beast” is discovered to be a friendly, humongous dog named Hercules.  His owner is a former Negro League ballplayer, portrayed by James Earl Jones.

In the 1992 film The Babe, John Goodman embodied the Sultan of Swat.  Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote that Goodman was “ideally cast.”  In an interview with Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune, Goodman offered insight to Ruth’s boisterous, almost childlike nature.  “I don’t think the Babe had an underlying meanness,” said Goodman.  “It was maybe an emptiness in the middle.  I read an interesting quote that I tried to use as much as I could.  Somebody who knew him quite well was asked about him, and he said, ‘You know, I don’t think Babe ever loved anybody in his life.’  I based most everything on Robert Creamer’s outstanding … biography.  For example, I watched a lot of old film, but I could never figure out how to do Ruth’s home-run trot until I read a simple description of it in the book, and I was in.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 6, 2016.

February 16th, 2017

Brooklyn, Baseball, and Broadway

Jackie Robinson has inspired an abundance of portrayals in popular culture, unsurprisingly.  Examples include Blair Underwood in the 1996 HBO tv-movie Soul of the Game, Chadwick Boseman in the 2013 movie 42, and the man himself in the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story.

In The First, a 1981 Broadway musical, David Alan Grier projected Robinson’s travails in breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  Grier, later known for the 1990s sketch comedy television show In Living Color on FOX, received plaudits from theatre critics, along with the other cast members.  Frank Rich of the New York Times noted, “The casting of all the principals is good.  In his Broadway debut, Mr. Grier gives us an impassioned, strong-voiced and tough-minded Jackie Robinson—not an impression, but a real performance.  Though the role of Rachel Robinson hardly exists in the script, the striking Lonette McKee manages to fill her with vitality and warmth.  The sandpaper-voiced David Huddleston captures both the idealism and pragmatism, as well as the humor, of Branch Rickey.”

However, Rich was less laudatory of the play, which covered the same ground that 42 did three decades hence; it débuted on November 17, 1981 and closed less than a month later.  Rich wrote, “While this show offers about five minutes of good baseball and a promising star in David Alan Grier, its back is broken by music, lyrics, book and direction that are the last word in dull.”

A lack of endorsement from the Gray Lady is to a Broadway show what a stake is to a vampire’s heart.  The 1982 movie Author! Author! illustrates this point with bluntness wrapped in humor concerning the opening night of a Broadway play.  Referencing theatre critic Stewart Klein of New York City’s WNEW-TV (later WNYW-TV), a character says, “Let me tell you.  In this town, you don’t get a rave from the New York Times, you close.  I don’t care if Klein was enthralled, enraptured, and reached orgasm.  Without the New York Times, we’re dead.”

In my 2015 book Our Bums:  The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture, McKee graciously shared her experience.  “[Rachel Robinson] was so very warm, magnanimous and supportive during the entire process,” McKee said.  “And I still believe that the play and any stories about Jackie Robins and other trailblazers are important for all of us.  After all … how can we know who we are and where we’re going until we know where we’ve been and who the heroes were that paved the way for us.  The Robinsons are important civil and human rights leaders.”

Noted baseball author Robert W. Creamer reviewed the play for Sports Illustrated, acknowledging that it “does an admirable job of presenting a momentous occasion in American sport and, for that matter, American history.”

Further, Creamer explained, “I saw The First two nights after it opened, after the derogatory reviews had appeared.  I eavesdropped at intermission and after the final curtain, trying to find out what the audience thought.  Repeatedly, I heard people say, almost with embarrassment, almost apologizing for being so gauche as to disagree with the critics, ‘I like it.’

“So do I.”

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

February 15th, 2017

Urban Faber’s World Series

Urban Clarence “Red” Faber played in the 1917 World Series like Andrew Carnegie governed the steel industry—with dominance.  Faber spearheaded the Chicago White Sox to a World Series championship by winning three games against John McGraw and the New York Giants.

Before the World Series began, Chicago Daily Tribune sports writer I. E. Sanborn analyzed Faber’s ability. “He has a world of stuff and a deadly curve to mi with his spit ball, but is inclined to wildness,” wrote Sanborn.  “Faber’s one failing is a tendency to put too much on the ball when an opponent first faces him.  The result, if the man is a good waiter, is a near base on balls, compelling Faber to let up and put the ball where the batsman wants it.”

After winning the first game, the White Sox sent Faber to the mound on October 8th for the second game.  Chicago won 7-2, compiling 14 hits to New York’s eight; neither team had a home run.  With the score tied at two apiece after the second inning, Chicago put five runs on the scoreboard in the fourth inning.  Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson each had three hits; their combined RBI total of three would have been enough to win the game—Weaver had one RBI and Jackson had two.

Sanborn underscored Faber’s performance, running error, and hometown pride.  “Red Urban Faber made Cascade, Ia., famous the world over as long as the world may last,” wrote Sanborn.  “Not only did the Cascade ido pitch as strong game, for which he long will be remembered, but in the fifth inning he staged a classic ‘Barry’ by trying to steal third base, which already was occupied by Buck Weaver, and that feat never will be forgotten.  ‘A thousand, thousand years’ from now it will be dug up by the historians as the feature of the 1917 world’s series.”

Faber lost the fourth game, then returned to the mound two days later.  Chicago beat New York 8-5 as both teams put on hitting displays—14 hits for Chicago, 12 hits for New York.

In the sixth and deciding game, Faber evidence Sanborn’s forecast.  In the New-York Tribune, W. J. Macbeth wrote, “His was a style made to order for a batting outfit of the Giant Kind if [Manager John] McGraw’s sluggers had only patience.  Faber tried to put everything he had on every pitch.  When a pitcher does this, as a rule, he affects his control.  It was so with Faber yesterday.  But the Giants simply refused to permit the Chicago twirler to ‘dutch’ himself.  If New York batters had been patient it is more than likely Faber would have been in hot water often.”

Three unearned runs in the fourth inning provided a sufficient cushion to win the game.  Final score:  4-2.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Faber in 1964, along with Luke Appling, Heinie Manush, Burleigh Grimes, Miller Huggins, Tim Keefe, and John Ward.  Faber’s page on the Hall of Fame web site indicates the respect showered by McGraw, who said, “That fellow has a lot of stuff.  He’s got the best drop curve that I’ve seen along the line for some time.  And his spitter is a pippin’, too.”

After a 20-year career, Faber retired with a  254-213 record, 3.15 Earned Run Average, and 111 home runs allowed; he won 20 games or more in three consecutive year, 1920-1922.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 28, 2016.

February 14th, 2017

Chuck Connors, Branch Rickey, and “What’s My Line?”

Before he governed North Fork, New Mexico with a Winchester rifle on ABC’s The Rifleman, Chuck Connors played in the major leagues.  It was, however, a short stint—one game for the Brooklyn Dodgers and 66 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1949 and 1951, respectively.  His journey to Hollywood resulted from his geographic base.  In Connors’s 1992 obituary, Bruce Lambert of the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Connors had a lackluster sports career, but his towering height of 6 feet 5 inches and his square-jawed masculinity made him a natural for rugged acting roles.  When his struggling athletic career landed him with the Los Angeles Angels, a minor-league [sic] baseball team, he began picking up minor movie parts and soon gave up sports.”

Connors also played for the Boston Celtics.

The Rifleman ran for five years, from 1958 to 1963, starring Connors as rancher Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as Lucas’s son, Mark.  Lucas helped North Fork’s sheriff keep the peace from intruders seeking to do harm.  The Rifleman‘s popularity carved a prominent foothold in the vast array of western-themed television shows in the 1950s and the 1960s, including GunsmokeBonanza, and Rawhide.

In a 1959 profile of Crawford, the St. Petersburg Evening Independent explained the dynamic between Crawford and Connors.  “An avid baseball fan, Johnny doesn’t miss a chance to skip dancing, singing and acting lessons to root for the Los Angeles Dodgers, which, he tells you with much gusto, is his favorite team,” stated the Evening Independent.  “He particularly relishes working with Chuck Connors, who formerly played with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  As Johnny expressed it:  ‘Chuck has taught me lots of special little things about baseball.  Like how to hold my bat, and how to field the ball and run the bases.  he and I are real close.  I go out to his house to play ball with him and his sons and swim in their pool.”

Connors reunited with his former boss in the Dodgers organization—Branch Rickey—during the September 13, 1959 episode of What’s My Line?, a game show hosted by John daly, where panelists deduced a guest’s occupation through a series of “yes or no” questions.  On occasion, the panelists failed to guess correctly.  Celebrity guests often used fake voices while the panelists wore eye masks to prevent immediate identification.

At the time, Rickey devoted his energy, acumen, and stamina to forming the Continental League.  Although it ultimately failed to launch, the league’s demise caused the expansion of the National League to Houston and New York in 1962.

After panelist Arlene Francis correctly guessed Rickey’s identity, a conversation ensued regarding the new league.  Rickey the Continental League’s president, assured that the enterprise would flourish with a target start date of 1961 and a 154-game schedule.  “Inevitable as tomorrow morning,” declared Rickey.

New York, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, and Toronto already had Continental League rights.  When Daly asked about the remaining three slots and potential contenders, Rickey clarified, “More than we can fill.  The embarrassment is in the field of exclusion rather than inclusion.  We shall have a very difficult time in choosing the other three.  In fact, we are now laboring hard, at the moment, to choose a sixth one, which will be announced surely in the next few days.”

Connors graciously acknowledged Rickey’s impact on his life.  “I remember Mr. Rickey, who actually gave me my career in baseball,” stated Connors.  “And it’s a pleasure to see him again.”

“It’s a pleasure to see you, too,” responded Rickey.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 27, 2016.

February 13th, 2017

Beyond 61*

When Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle battled for supremacy in the single-season home run category in 1961, the spotlight that shone on them placed the excellence of the Yankee ball club in the shadows.  Elston Howard had a career high .348 batting average, Whitey Ford went 25-4, and Tony Kubek accrued a 19-game hitting streak in June.  Ford won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award for his outstanding performance—the left-handed hurler won two games and blanked the Reds for 14 innings.

Kubek praised Howard—the first black player for the Yankees—in an assignment for Time magazine.  He took on the task of photographing his teammates during spring training and opining on them.  “What won us the pennant was Whitey Ford,” declared Kubek.  “[Manager] Ralph Houk and [pitching coach] Johnny Sain decided that he would pitch every fourth day, and he ended up winning the Cy Young, with a 25-4 record.  Elston Howard called him the Chairman of the Board, and in 1961—when we were coming off that crushing loss to the Pirates in the 1960 Series—that’s exactly what he was.  Whitey was the real deal.”

Kubek was an unsung Yankee, earning respect within the clubhouse and on the diamond for his leadership.  It was something the press either ignored or overlooked.  In the 1975 book Dynasty:  The New York Yankees, 1949-1964, Peter Golenbock wrote, “Kubek shunned publicity and for years even refused to appear on the Red Barber postgame shows.  Though Kubek was the heart of the Yankee infield for half a dozen season, his reticent made him almost invisible in the media, and his complete absence of flair or color prevented him from attaining the recognition of some of his equally talented teammates.”

Additionally, Golenbock noted, “Kubek was a player everyone took for granted, and his true value was ascertained only after he retired in 1965.”

In the 1961 Sport magazine article “Have the Yankees Held Back Howard?” by Barry Stainback, Howard attributed his power to batting coach Wally Moses.  “We decided in the spring that I ought to close my stance and ease up on my swing, I was swinging my head off the ball,” explained Howard.  “Moses told me to swing with my arms—use my wrists—not my body.  I also began using a heavier bat, a 36-inch, 35-ounce one.  I used to use a 33-ounce one.”

Ford led his fellow pitchers in pinstripes as they overwhelmed the American League:

  • Bill Stafford (14-9)
  • Ralph Terry (16-3)
  • Rollie Sheldon (11-5)
  • Luis Arroyo (15-5)
  • Jim Coates (11-5)

The Yankees won the American League title with an eight-game cushion to distance themselves from the Detroit Tigers.  Another World Series championship followed when the Bronx Bombers beat the Reds in five games.  Golenbock surmised, “It is doubtful that any team in baseball history, with perhaps the 1927 Yankees the exception, could have beaten them in this world series [sic], the quality of Yankee play from both regulars and substitutes was so incredibly good.  The 1961 team was a most awesome machine.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 26, 2016.

February 12th, 2017

New Owners in the Bronx

During the waning days of World War II, ownership of the New York Yankees transitioned—Dan Topping, Del Webb, and Larry MacPhail grouped to purchase the Yankees on January 26, 1945 from the heirs of Colonel Jacob Ruppert.  $2.75 million changed hands for 86.88 per cent, according to the New York Herald Tribune‘s Rud Rennie, who also reported that team president Ed Barrow sold his 10 per cent interest to the Topping-Webb-MacPhail trio for “an estimated $250,000.”  Ruppert’s brother George, nephew Ruppert Schalk, and niece Anna Dunn owned the remaining 3.12 per cent.

Financial realities for Ruppert’s estate generated the sale.  Rennie wrote, “Ever since Colonel Ruppert died, the sale of the club has been necessary to realize funds for the administration of the estate.  The government’s appraisal of the estate was prohibitive to the sale of the club.  Eventually, the government agreed to use the sale price as the real valuation.”

Topping’s life seems like fodder for a B-movie during the studio system era.  In the Topping biography for the Society for American Baseball Research Baseball Biography Project, Daniel R. Levitt and Mark Armour wrote, “Dan Topping enjoyed a ‘sportsman’ lifestyle we seldom see anymore in America, one founded on inherited wealth, some athletic ability, and active involvement in professional or other sports.  The life also often entailed a playboy youth and multiple attractive socialite wives.  Topping fit the mold perfectly.

Further, Topping added a celebrity factor to his persona when he married ice skating icon Sonja Henie.

Funded by his success in construction, Del Webb diversified his portfolio with his ownership stake in the Yankees, which, in turn, aided his construction projects.  In his 1999 obituary of Webb, A. D. Hopkins of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote, “Yankees tickets clinched deals for corporate construction contracts and made Webb a friend to senators with porkbarrel [sic] projects to build.”

MacPhail was a baseball legend by the time he invested in the Yankees.  As General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds, MacPhail introduced night baseball to the major leagues.  During his tenure in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ front office, MacPhail forged an unbreakable link with the fans.

In a 1941 profile for The New Yorker, Robert Lewis Taylor wrote, “Bellicose, red-faced, and clownish, he is the idol of a community which demands such qualities of its heroes.  The people there are comfortable in the knowledge that MacPhail will take care of all disparagers of their baseball team.  He never disappoints them.  His command of vituperation and eagerness to battle for the Brooklyn team have made him, by extension, a kind of borough defender.”

After the 1942 season, MacPhail departed from baseball to join the war effort as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Service of Supply.

Upon the purchase of the Yankee ball club, MacPhail asserted his leadership.  In the 1987 book The Roaring Redhead:  Larry MacPhailBaseball’s Great Innovator, Don Warfield wrote, “As the season started it became more and more evident that there was really only one person running the show.  The quiet and talented Barrow, newly elected to the title of Chairman of the Board, became extraneous and pretty much a figurehead.  In reality, it was no one’s fault.  When MacPhail was involved in an enterprise, especially when he was an owner of a third of that enterprise and its president, there was really not much authority left to go around.”

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

February 11th, 2017

September, 1965

In the ninth month of 1965, baseball fans reveled in the aura of excellence displayed at major league ballparks.

Ernie Banks, the jovial Cubs shortstop, whose trademark suggestion “Let’s play two!” indicates pure delight in playing baseball, knocked his 400th home run.  Appropriately, it happened in Wrigley Field rather than during an away game for Chicago’s beloved Cubbies.

Dave Morehead came within a baseball stitch of pitching a perfect game for the Red Sox.  Rocky Colavito punctured the hopes of Bostonians when he drew a walk in the second inning of an Indians-Red Sox game, which had a measly attendance of 2,370.  A no-hitter remained in sight as Vic Davalillo strode to the batter’s box in the top of the ninth, pinch hitting for Dick Howser.  When Davalillo’s grounder bounced off Morehead’s glove, the no-hitter flirted with jeopardy.

Morehead retrieved the ball, threw to first baseman Lee Thomas, and watched with relief as first baseman Lee Thomas scooped the lowly thrown sphere from the dirt.

Bert Campaneris played all nine positions in a game for the A’s, Willie Mays reached the milestone of 500 home runs, and Mickey Mantle enjoyed a day in his honor to commemorate his 2,000th major league game.

Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game against the Cubs, relying on a scant 1-0 lead—it was the fourth no-hitter for the Dodgers phenom.  In his account, Charles Maher of the Los Angeles Times quoted Koufax:  “You always know when you’ve got a no-hitter going, but you don’t particularly pay any attention to it early in the game.  In the seventh, I really started to feel as though I had a shot at it.

“But I still had only one run to work on.  I still had to win the game.”

Koufax offered compassion to his Cubs counterpart, Bob Hendley.  In his 1966 autobiography Koufax, written with Ed Linn, the legendary hurler wrote, “I sympathized with him only as a fellow pitcher, only in retrospect, and—most of all—only when we were in the locker room with the game safely won.”

In Maher’s report, Koufax said, “It’s a shame Hendley had to get beaten that way.  But I’m glad we got the run or we might have been here all night.”

Vin Scully, the Dodgers announcer for generations since the team’s last days at Ebbets Field, cemented the occasion in his radio broadcast by highlighting the time.  In her 2002 book Sandy Koufax:  A Lefty’s Legacy, Jane Leavy wrote, “Baseball is distinguished by its lack of temporal imperatives.  Nine innings take what they take.  Scully intuitively understood that locating the game in time would attest to its timelessness.  Always, he gave the date.  This time, he decided to give the time on the clock, too, so that Koufax would remember the exact moment he made history.”

In the Midwest, joy enveloped one major league city while wistfulness dominated another one.  The Minnesota Twins—formerly the Washington Senators until the 1961 season—won their first American League title.  Milwaukeeans, meanwhile, said goodbye to the Braves as the team headed to its third major league city—Atlanta.

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