April 18th, 2017

Cooperstown’s Hall of Fa(r)mers

Given America’s roots as an agrarian nation, it is appropriate that the legend of baseball’s birth begins in a Cooperstown cow pasture; Doubleday Field, just a baseball throw from the Hall of Fame, occupies the spot where the myth—long since debunked—of Abner Doubelday inventing baseball began.  It provides, at the very least, a nexus between farmers and the village’s world-famous icon located at 25 Main Street.

Goose Goslin worked on his family’s farm in southern New Jersey before journeying to the major leagues, which began by playing for DuPont’s company team.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968, Goslin retired in 1938 after 18 seasons.  Among his career statistics:

  • .316 batting average
  • 2,735 hits
  • .500 slugging percentage

The Hall of Fame web site quotes Goslin regarding his humble beginnings:  “I was just a big ol’ country boy havin’ the game of my life.  It was all a lark to me, just a joy ride.  Never feared a thing, never got nervous, just a big country kid from South Jersey, too dumb to know better.  Why I never even realized it was supposed to be big doin’s.  It was just a game, that’s all it was.  They didn’t have to pay me.  I’d have paid them to let me play.  Listen, the truth is it was more than fun.  It was heaven.”

Tom Seaver tasted success with a World Series championship, three Cy Young Awards, and 311 wins.  His palate presently determines quality of wine in Seaver Vineyards.  In a 2005 article for the New York Times, Eric Asimov profiled Seaver’s venture.  “I wanted to keep my name off it, so the wine could make its own name.  My daughter said, ‘Dad, you’re not living forever.  Your grandchildren will be running it one day.  You’re putting your name on it,'” Seaver explained.

Carl Yastrzemski spent his formative years working on his family’s Long Island potato farm before embarking on a career spent entirely in a Red Sox uniform.  He became a Boston icon, racking up:

  • 3,419 hits
  • .285 batting average
  • 452 home runs

On Yaz Day at the end of the Red Sox slugger’s last season—1983—Yastrzemski reminded, “I’m just a potato farmer from Long Island who had some ability.  I’m not any different than a mechanic, an engineer or the president of a bank.”

Ty Cobb, a member of the first Hall of Fame class, inducted in 1936, had farming in his DNA, thanks to the Cobb family farm in Georgia.  Knowsouthernhistory.net reveals that the future star gained respect from his father during one summer when he worked extra hours as punishment for pawning two of his father’s books—he needed the money to fix his glove.  “The fields looked good, and were growing well.  For some reason, this brought about a change in the older man’s attitude toward Ty, one that the young man never forgot.  W.H. began to confide in Tyrus about the market for cotton, the work animals, and the crops.  Thrilled with the sudden change in treatment from his father, Ty hurried out and won himself a job at a local cotton factory.  He ate up the information about growing, baling, processing, and marketing the crop and shared all that he learned with his father.  In turn, the Professor was happy with the boy making an effort to mature, and their bond strengthened.”

Tragedy struck the Cobb family when Ty’s mother mistook her husband for a burglar and shot him dead.  She was acquitted at trial.

In addition to Cooperstown’s farm connection, films have used farms as settings.  In the 1991 film Talent for the Game, Angels scout Virgil Sweet discovers Sammy Bodeen, an Idaho farm boy.  Bodeen’s promise is heightened in the public’s mind by a marketing campaign designed by Angels management.  It looks to be futile when Bodeen suffers a horrible first inning in his début before settling down, thanks to Sweet, who dons catcher’s gear for the second inning and calms Bodeen with empathy in a conference on the mound without anyone else figuring out his masquerade; Sweet catches Bodeen’s first career strikeout, presumably, the first of hundreds.  Thousands, perhaps.

In the 1984 film The Natural, the story of Roy Hobbs ends with a shot of him playing catch with the son of his paramour, Iris, on her farm.  The poster for The Natural depicts a photo of this scene.

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

April 17th, 2017

The Début of Gilmore Field

Boosted by cheers from Hollywood stars supporting the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, Gilmore Field débuted as a ballpark on May 3, 1939.  Among the famous fans:  Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, and Rudy Vallee.  “Glamour was furnished in the person of beautiful Gail Patrick, star of the cinema and wife of Bob Cobb, the restaurateur, and one of the sponsors of the home team,” reported Read Kendall in the Los Angeles Times.  Garbed in a red and white sports outfit, her black hair flowing from  beneath a red baseball cap, Miss Patrick threw the first ball.  “Comedian Joe E. Brown essayed to catch it and Jane Withers, juvenile screen actress, did her best to try and hit it.  But the pitches were wild and their stint was finally halted to allow the game to get under way after all the ceremonies had been completed.”

The Seattle Rainiers beat the home team 8-5.  Seattle hurler got pounded for 14 hits, but the Stars couldn’t overcome the deficit, although a ninth inning rally provided a glimmer of hope.  Down 8-3, the Stars scored two runs and had the bases loaded with two outs when left fielder George Puccinelli flied out to Seattle centerfielder Bill Lawrence.

Babe Herman—in the waning years of a career that saw stints with the Dodgers, the Reds, the Cubs, the Pirates, and the Tigers—batted .317 in ’39, which was his first of six seasons with the Stars.  His batting average stayed above .300 in each season.  Herman’s performance in Gilmore Field’s first game was not indicative—he went 0 for 5.  Ernie Orsatti, in his last season of playing professional baseball, knocked out a hit and scored a run when he pinch hit for pitcher Jimmie Crandall in the major leagues—all with the Cardinals—and five seasons in the minor leagues.  A native of Los Angeles, Orsatti finished his career after the ’39 season:  he also played for the Columbus Red Birds that year.  Orsatti’s career batting average was .306.

Wayne Osborne, Bill Fleming, and Lou Tost took the mound for the Stars.  Osborne got the recorded loss.  Their battery mate, Cliff Dapper, was the only .300 hitter for the Stars in ’39.  He did not, however, play in the Stars’ first game at Gilmore Field.

1939 was the second season for the Stars, a team previously known as the San Francisco Missions, the only Pacific Coast League team without its own ballpark.  While owner Herbert Fleishhacker transported the team to the environs of southern California, his newly hired team president, Don Francisco, sought Gilmore Field as the site for planting the Stars’ flag.

“Plans were announced to convert Gilmore Stadium, owned by oilman Earl Gilmore and used primarily for football and midget car racing, into a home for the team, which had been rechristened the Stars,” wrote Dennis Snelling in his 2012 book The Greatest Minor League:  A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957.  “However, as spring training approached, Don Francisco deemed it woefully inadequate.”

Hence, Francisco struck a deal with the Los Angeles Angels to use Wrigley Field for 1938, which also saw the unveiling of the Rainiers’ home field, Sick Stadium, named after owner Emil Sick.

Gilmore Field was demolished in 1951.

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

April 16th, 2017

Kyle Chandler, Kelly Rutherford, and “Homefront”

Before he received tomorrow’s newspaper today in Early Edition, before he coached the Dillon Panthers in Friday Night Lights, and before working for the Monroe County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office in Bloodline, Kyle Chandler portrayed the All-American archetype Jeff Metcalf from the fictional River Run, Ohio on Homefront.

Airing on ABC from 1991 to 1993, Homefront boasted an ensemble cast portraying life in a Midwestern town after World War II.  It harkened back to the 1946 movie The Best Years of Our Lives, which revolved around soldiers returning from World War II to their fictional hometown, also in Ohio—Boone City.

Jeff played for the Cleveland Indians.  During 1946 spring training, he meets the older and wiser Judy Owen, a bartender played by the lovely Kelly Rutherford, who has aged about 25 minutes in the 25 years since Homefront premiered; Rutherford’s body of work on television includes Melrose PlaceThe DistrictThreat MatrixGossip GirlNash BridgesThe Mysteries of Laura, and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.

Rutherford’s worldly Judy and Chandler’s naïve Jeff, whom she nicknames Buckeye, after his home state, have a passionate connection.  Though it’s not consummated, the arc toward fulfillment is clear as a sunny day at Jacobs Field when she says, “I said I had to lock up.  I didn’t necessarily mean lock up after you’re gone.”

It threatens Jeff’s relationship with his fiancée, Ginger, a budding radio star—she discovers them in Jeff’s room, albeit fully clothed.  Ultimately, Jeff and Ginger wind up with each other, a knee injury forces Jeff out of baseball, and Judy moves to River Run, where she has an affair with the wealthy Mike Sloan, who is roughly a generation older.  Jeff rebounds from the knee problem to earn a place in the Indians’ minor league system.

Homefront aired for two seasons, depicting the life and times of the folks from River Run in the years 1945 to 1947.  This, of course, leads to question marks hovering over Jeff’s character:  Would he have played on the Indians’ World Series championship team in 1948?  How would Larry Doby, who made his début as the first black player in the American League, have affected—or ignited—Jeff’s view of racism?  How would River Run be affected by the introduction of television as a mass medium, thanks to Texaco Star Theatre premiering in 1948, with Master of Ceremonies Milton Berle as the first television star?

Rutherford symbolizes a throwback to the decade when Humphrey Bogart played a casino owner in Casablanca, Spencer Tracy played a fictional presidential candidate in State of the Union, and Fred MacMurray’s insurance agent conspired with Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale to kill her husband for money in his life insurance police in Double Indemnity.  Movies from that era appeal to Rutherford.  “Every once in a while, I need to have my fix,” said Rutherford in an interview with Susan King of the Los Angeles Times in 1994.  “I think it’s mainly when I need inspiration I look at the old pictures.  I don’t find it as much in the new stuff.  I love Carole Lombard.  I think she’s wonderful.  Gloria Grahame was really great.  Garbo.  Dietrich.  People knew how to create an illusion.  Now everything is very realistic and straightforward.  Everyone’s grunge.”

Chandler, too, enjoys an affinity for the classics.  In a 1993 article for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Chandler told Enquirer scribe John Kiesewetter about growing up outside Atlanta on a family farm, where Ted Turner’s television station WTBS aired the work of Bogart et al.  “Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable—there was a whole world there from the ’40s that I grew up watching.  It opened up that world to play with inside my head, and it was one of the main things that made me interested in acting.”

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

April 15th, 2017

The Hall of Fame Case for Gene Autry

Gene Autry wore many hats, proverbially speaking, besides the cowboy dome piece in his movies:

  • Owner of Los Angeles television station KTLA from 1963 to 1982
  • Original singer of the Christmas standard Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Army Air Corps officer and Air Transport Command pilot during World War II
  • Owner of Melody Ranch, a 110-acre site formerly known as Monogram Movie Ranch (bought in 1953, sold nearly 100 acres and used the remaining land for Western movies and television series)
  • Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show
  • The Adventures of Champion radio show (about Autry’s horse Champion)
  • Radio stations
  • Television stations, in addition to KTLA
  • Rodeo
  • Record company

Baseball fans, however, knew Autry primarily as the man who planted a Major League Baseball flag in Orange County, California; Autry, once a part-owner of the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, was the first owner of the California Angels ball club—originally named Los Angeles Angels—which had its first season in 1961.

Autry’s journey to ownership began, as financial successes often do, in the wake of disappointment.  When the Los Angeles Dodgers switched radio broadcasters from Autry’s KMPC to rival KFI in 1959, an opportunity emerged.  A new American League franchise in Los Angeles would be a ripe opportunity for KMPC, particularly because of its sports broadcasting pedigree.  A former ballplayer raised the ante.  “Joe Cronin had known Autry since Gene’s barnstorming rodeo days over two decades earlier.  Cronin, now president of baseball’s American League, wondered if Autry was ready to tame the Wild Wild West’s newest franchise in L.A.,” wrote Robert Goldman in the 2006 book Once They Were Angels.  “Autry jumped at the opportunity.  It was a perfect fit, as not only did Autry love baseball, but he also had an impeccable reputation as a businessman and a person of integrity.”

And so, the mogul who grew up dirt poor in Oklahoma pioneered American League baseball on the West Coast.

And yet, the icon born Orvon Grover Autry is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Autry’s tenure as the Angels’ owner spanned decades, from the last days of the Eisenhower presidency to the first days of the Internet becoming a mainstream tool for information.  When Autry sold the Angels in 1996, he left a legacy difficult to match and easy to applaud.  His length of time made him a baseball fixture.  His integrity made him a model of comportment for businessmen.

Tom Yawkey is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so—he spearheaded the renovation of Fenway Park in the 1920s.

Walter O’Malley is in the Hall of Fame, which causes havoc in the hearts of Brooklynites, who see O’Malley as a betrayer for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles.  His transit to Los Angeles after the 1957 season paved the way for Autry and other owners to establish teams west of St. Louis, theretofore the westernmost metropolis with a Major League Baseball team.

Barney Dreyfuss is in the Hall of Fame, a membership for the former Pirates owner resulting from many achievements, including being a proponent of the World Series; the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates played in the first World Series in 1903.

Gene Autry is not in the Hall of Fame, despite his steadfast ownership.

Devotion to the fans stands out.  Not content to simply have a financial ledger in the black.  Autry poured “his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion.  He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died,” wrote Myrna Oliver of the Los Angeles Times in Autry’s 1998 obituary.

In 1982, the Angels retired 26 as Autry’s number to reflect being the “26th Man” on the roster, which has a limit of 25 players.  It was a sign of respect that Autry also earned from owners, fans, stadium workers, players, and baseball executives across Major League Baseball.  Such is Autry’s emotional connection to Angel Nation that the phrase “Win One for the Cowboy” resonates from Angel Stadium to Aliso Viejo, from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano.

Cooperstown awaits.  Patiently.

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

April 14th, 2017

10 Things I Love About Oriole Park at Camden Yards

It is the birthplace of The Star-Spangled Banner, the resting place of Edgar Allen Poe, and the place where a stadium constructed during the nostalgia-soaked 1980s defines the paradigm for retro ballparks.

Baltimore.

Petco Park, PNC Park, and several others, indeed, have Oriole Park at Camden Yards in their DNA.  It began the erasure of the circular goliaths built in the 1960s for multiple sports, changing the game of ballpark architecture for urban planners, government officials, and fans.  Shea Stadium hosted the Jets and the Mets.  Going to the “Vet” for a sports fan meant either a Phillies game or an Eagles game.  Memorial Stadium gave Baltimore a home for the Orioles and the Colts.

Oriole Park ushered in a back to the future approach to creating a space where baseball can flourish.

  1. The statues of Oriole icons are amazingly detailed.  When observing Jim Palmer’s left leg extended just before releasing the ball, you almost think the statue will come to life.  Brooks Robinson stands in a slight crouch, waiting for a line drive or ground ball.  Earl Weaver, hands in back pockets, appears ready for another argument with an umpire.
  2. The Baltimore Sun has an electric sign past center field with its shortened name—The Sun.  When there’s a hit, the “h” flashes.  An error prompts the “e” to flash.
  3. Baseball-themed plaques dot Eutaw Street outside the outfield perimeter, marking the spots where balls have landed.  One plaque sits on the exterior of a restaurant—Ken Griffey, Jr. knocked that dinger during Home Run Derby of the 1993 All-Star Game.
  4. A statue of Babe Ruth stands outside an entrance, reminding entrants that, while the Bambino found pitching success in Boston and earned legend status with home runs in New York, he is a Baltimorean.
  5. Cal Ripken, Jr. made baseball history at Oriole Park in 1995, when he eclipsed Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games.
  6. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass at Oriole Park when he visited Baltimore on his 1995 trip.  The NBC television show Homicide features Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher, watching the Pope’s visit on television.
  7. On April 6, 1992, President George H. W. Bush threw out the first pitch for the first game at Oriole Park.  It was a fitting moment for the former first baseman for Yale.
  8. Baltimore’s rich train legacy permeates the ballpark.  Beyond right field, the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Warehouse stands as a testament to the city’s transportation past, occupied present by team offices.  Camden Yards is the site of the B&O’s rail yard in days of yore.
  9. DaveThe West Wing, and The Wire contain scenes at Oriole Park—the first two offerings focus on fictional presidents throwing out the first ball.  In an episode of House of Cards, the fictional vice president, Frank Underwood throws out the first ball; Kevin Spacey, an Orioles fan, plays the devious Underwood in the series.
  10. Baltimore’s communal feeling surrounds Oriole Park.  Its aura is one of friendliness.  Its history, one of the richest in baseball.  Major League Baseball planted a flag in Baltimore when the St. Louis Browns moved after the 1953 season, but it was not the first MLB team for the city.  Dating back to 1882, Baltimore had a major league presence.  When a game takes place at Oriole Park, it continues a legacy ignited by John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, and Wee Willie Keeler; bolstered by Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Jim Palmer; and cemented by Cal Ripken, Jr., Eddie Murray, and Earl Weaver.

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

 

April 13th, 2017

Baseball, Humor, Home Runs, Healing, and 9/11

Tragedy demands a release.  When David Letterman took his spot at the Ed Sullivan Theatre for his first show after the September 11, 2001 attacks, he let us know that it was okay to laugh.  The shock of the attacks was beyond immense, defying description of the emotional impact.  There were no words.  There are no words.  There will never be enough words.  Laughter, if only for a moments eased the pain.

Friends added an accessory to Chandler and Joey’s apartment—a big American flag.  Its presence, without mention, indicated the innate quality of patriotism that an attack on the homeland can generate.  We can give blood.  We can offer comfort.  We can wear a symbol showing that America is united.  E pluribus unum.  Out of many, one.

Mike Piazza’s home run in the first Major League Baseball game since the 9/11 attacks gave an escape sorely needed.  Would a game matter again?  Would we be able to cheer again?  When the Mets and the Braves took the field on September 21, 2001, those questions seemed unanswerable.  An extra shot of patriotic adrenaline moved through the veins of players, fans, and everyone else in attendance during The Star-Spangled Banner.  A game that may appear meaningless reminded us that sports and entertainment are distractions from the challenges, obstacles, failures, setbacks, stumbles, and disappointments of life.  During a national tragedy, sports and entertainment are vital to the national morale.  For just a few moments, we can remember what it’s like to cheer, to laugh, and to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Saturday Night Live, a New York City institution, began its first post-9/11 show with Paul Simon singing The Boxer while the city’s first responders stood as stoic as oak trees.  Mayor Rudy Giuliani and SNL creator Lorne Michaels had an iconic moment after the song.  Michaels inquired, “Can we be funny now?”  Millions of viewers wondered the same thing.

“Why start now?” responded Giuiliani.

It was, of course, a tongue-in-cheek exchange perfectly suited for an extremely tense period in the nation’s history that will never be forgotten.

In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush said, “It is my hope that in the months and years ahead life will return almost to normal.  We’ll go back to our lies and routines and that is good.  Even grief recedes with time and grace.”  Learning to laugh again and cheer once more are the first steps of that recession.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 21, 2016.

April 12th, 2017

Football, Fuller, Fleckum, and “A Face in the Crowd”

The tale of Lonesome Rhodes is a cautionary one.  Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd revolves around Rhodes, a drunk with a gift for guitar playing, singing, and folksiness.  Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries discovers Rhodes in an Arkansas jail while airing a live broadcast titled A Face in the Crowd for her uncle’s radio station.

Patricia Neal plays Jeffries and Andy Griffith plays Rhodes.

Seeing the appeal of the down-home Rhodes, Jeffries creates a radio show for him. Soon, Rhodes skyrockets, ultimately getting a television show in New York City.  Fame infects Rhodes, who grasps his power with deftness.  When a general sees up the potential for Rhodes to affect the electorate, he matches the celebrity with Senator Worthington Fuller whom Rhodes dubs “Curly” to make him more accessible to the plain-speaking, God-fearing, simple-minded voter.

Jeffries falls for Rhodes’s lusty approach to life.  When Rhodes returns home to Piggott, Arkansas to judge a drum majorette contest, he catches the attention of 17-year-old Betty Lou Fleckum.  And vice versa.  Jeffries is heartbroken, when Rhodes comes back to the Big Apple with Fleckum as his bride.

Lee Remick plays Betty Lou.

It arks her first real step toward realizing that Rhodes barrels through life like a tornado without any regard to others and with one goal in mind—satisfaction.  He is no different than when Jeffries discovered him in the jail.

Schulberg penned a description of his research for the New York Herald Tribune, which published the article about a week and a half before the film’s premiere in late May.  Research included conversations with “200 TV personalities, TV directors and producers and advertising directors.”

Television, according to Schulberg, represented a powerful force for public opinion but a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.  “I’m encouraged to think that in Lonesome Rhodes we have hit on a truly representative figure.  Naturally our Lonesome must be an individual in his own right, but from our talks it does seem that he represents the dynamic-mercurial quality of TV success.”

When Jeffries reaches her breaking point with Rhodes, she raises the sound level over the closing credits of his show, thereby uncovering Rhodes’s real self, displayed by his vocalizing nasty descriptions of his audience.  Those who adored him withdraw their devotion faster than Jesse James leaving a robbery.  When Jeffries reveals her part in his demise, Rhodes, from his penthouse, screams at Jeffries not to leave him; accompanied by former Rhodes writer Mel Miller, author an upcoming exposé Demagogue in Denim, Jeffries disappears into the Manhattan night.

Walter Matthau plays Miller.

Kazan filmed the drum majorette contest on the Piggott High School football field in Piggott, Arkansas.  “The northeast Arkansas community was chosen because of its connection to the legendary Ernest Hemingway, who lived and visited there when married to Piggott native Pauline Pfeiffer,” states Arkansas.com.  “Otto ‘Toby’ Bruce of Piggott, a friend of and assistant to Hemingway, heard of the project after meeting Schulberg in Key West while visiting the author.  Bruce suggested Piggott, director Elia Kazan and Schulberg visited, and they decided it was the place to shoot.”

The 1990s CBS situation comedy Evening Shade mentioned Piggott High School’s football team as an opponent of the Evening Shade team coached by Wood Newton, former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Burt Reynolds plays Newton; football credentials dotted Reynolds’s body of work, including playing college football and starring in two football-themed films in the 1970s—The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough.

Another football connection to A Face in the CrowdGriffith’s legendary stand-up comedy routine What It Was, Was Football, which depicts an unknowing person’s introduction to the gridiron.  Griffith concludes, “And I don’t know, friends, to this day, what it was that they was a-doing down there, but I have studied about it, and I think that it’s some kindly of a contest where they see which bunch-full of them men can take that punkin [sic] and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other’n [sic] without either getting’ knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’!”

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

April 11th, 2017

Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, and the Olympics

Baseball’s nexus with Hollywood had a center point in Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field on February 28, 1932 for a charity game benefitting America’s Olympians; the ’32 Summer Olympics—which took place in Los Angeles—inspired two comedy icons to combine their celebrity and passion for baseball in a civic minded cause.  Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton spearheaded the teams.

Players from the Cubs, the Giants, and the Pirates took the field in front of approximately 8,500 fans, according to the Los Angeles Times.  Brown’s team won 10-3 in the six-inning contest.  It was nearly over as soon as it began—six Brown players scored in the first inning.  The Times reported, “The game was called to permit Rogers Hornsby and his Cubs to catch the Catalina Ferry.”  The rosters included Lloyd Waner, Pie Traynor, Carl Hubbell, and Grover Cleveland Alexander.  Keaton and Brown also participated, as did Jack Oakie, another member of Hollywood’s comedy group.

Brown and Keaton incorporated baseball into their respective bodies of work.  Fireman Save My ChildElmer the Great, and Alibi Ike offer Brown as a skilled rube.  Keaton filmed a legendary segment at Yankee Stadium for his silent film The Cameraman—he mimed players at different positions.  Brown’s love for the National Pastime stuck in his DNA—his son Joe L. Brown was the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976, a period of Steel City baseball legends, including Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Roy Face, Willie Stargell, and Al Oliver.

Keaton’s comedy was universal, timeless, and groundbreaking.  The Muskegon, Michigan native formed the comedy cornerstone of the silent film industry, along with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, and Fatty Arbuckle, to name a few.

A few months before he died, Keaton explained how he saw his comedy appeal to the current generation; Times writer Henry Sutherland chronicled this insight in the 1966 obituary for the filmmaker, nicknamed “The Great Stone Face”for his ability to maintain composure during chaos in his films.

“Two years ago we sent a picture to Munich, Germany using old-fahsioned subtitles with a written score,” Keaton said.  “This was ‘The General.’  It was made in 1926, and hell, that’s 39 years ago.

“But I sneaked into the theater and the laughs were exactly the same as on the day it was first release.”

Wrigley Field graced television and theaters before its demise in the 1960s.  It was where Herman Munster tried out for the Los Angeles Dodgers under the watchfulness of Leo Durocher.  It was where baseball scenes in The Pride of the Yankees were filmed.  It was where baseball’s greatest sluggers matched powers at the plate in Home Run Derby, a syndicated television show in 1960—Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, and Ernie Banks were among the competitors.

Considered a hitter’s park, Wrigley Field hosted its first game in 1925.  The California Angels played their home games at Wrigley Field in their début season—1961.  Dodger Stadium was the team’s home field for the next four seasons, until Angel Stadium’s début in 1966.

Today, Gilbert Lindsay Park stands on Wrigley’s grounds.

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

April 10th, 2017

Hank Aaron’s Last Home Run

As America recovered from its Bicentennial hangover, Hank Aaron clubbed a home run in the Brewers-Angels game on July 20, 1976.  It was not, in any way, a cause for ceremony.  It was, however, highly significant.

Aaron’s solo smash off the Angels’ Dick Drago was his last home run, though nobody knew it at the time.  Hammerin’ Hank followed George Scott’s solo home run, one of 18 blasts that Scott swatted in 1976.  Jerry Augustine got the win for the Brewers—his first in more than a month—scattering five Angel hits in seven innings.  It capped a streak of five consecutive losses for Augustine, who had a 9-12 record, 3.30 Earned Run Average, and WHIP of 1.299.

Aaron, Scott, et al. belted 12 hits against the Angels; Von Joshua, Tim Johnson, Darrell Porter, and Robin Yount scored the other Brewer runs.  Johnson, the Brewer second baseman, had an outstanding 3-for-3 day.  In the eighth inning, relief pitcher Danny Frisella replaced Augustine.

When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974 by hitting his 715th home run, every dinger afterward became, simply, icing on top of frosting.  His round-tripper in the Brewers’ 6-2 victory over the boys from Anaheim was his 755th home run; Aaron hit 10 home runs, batted .229, and racked up 62 hits in a rather uneventful 1976 season for the Brewers—a 66-96 record garnered 6th place in the American League East.

At age 42, Aaron retired after the 1976 season with outstanding career statistics:

  • 3,771 hits
  • 2,174 runs scored
  • 13,941 plate appearances
  • .305 batting average
  • 2,287 RBI (major league record)
  • Led the major leagues in RBI four times

Henry Louis Aaron clocked his first major league home run on April 23, 1954.  Throughout the next two decades and change, Aaron faced the pitching gods of Major League Baseball—Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Gullett, Roy Face, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, Vida Blue, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts.  When he went yard, it was the definition of power against power.  Tom Seaver’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site recalls Aaron’s statement of Seaver being “the toughest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Aaron’s last home run occurred during the year that the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1964; Chicago Cubs outfielder Rick Monday snatched an American flag from two trespassers about to burn it in the Dodger Stadium outfield; the Chicago White Sox played in shorts for one game; Ted Turner became the sole owner of the Atlanta Braves; the second incarnation of Yankee Stadium débuted after two years of renovations; Philadelphia Phillies third baseball Mike Schmidt knocked four home runs in a game against the Cubs; original Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz sold the team that began its life as the Colt .45s; Dodgers manager Walter Alston resigned after 23 years at the helm in Ebbets Field and Chavez Ravine; and the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays began selecting players for the following year’s American League expansion.

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

April 9th, 2017

The Landmark Case of Ludtke vs. Kuhn

In the 1970s—the decade of disco, Watergate, and bell bottom pants—the women’s rights movement escalated to a new level, continuing a legacy ignited by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida Harper.

Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match underscored the women’s movement.  More than a sports event, it was, indeed, an occasion of spectacle, news, and social commentary.  “I was playing to prove that men and women had the same entertainment value, which is why we should be paid equally,” wrote King in her 2008 book Pressure Is A Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes, co-written with Christine Brennan.

Barbara Walters became the first female anchor of a network news broadcast when she combined with Harry Reasoner to co-anchor ABC’s nightly news program, CBS hired Jane Chastain as the first female national sportscaster for NFL games, and Melissa Ludtke became the first female journalist allowed in a Major League Baseball team’s locker room.

Ludtke’s journey took her through a legal battle that highlighted an additional burden for women to compete in sports journalism.  It hinged on equal access to athletes, coaches, and managers—if the locker room paradigm excluded female reporters, then they would not have the same opportunity as male reporters to get quotes, insights, and background information from players.  A level playing field, pardon the expression, would not exist.

“We saw the women’s movement emerging in the political realm and the nation had just come out of the civil rights movement,” says Ludtke, then a reporter for Sports Illustrated.  “In our court case, we relied on the Fourteenth Amendment and a number of precedents developed in legal arguments and judicial decisions about racial discrimination.”

Ludtke’s lawsuit for equal access took her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  In Ludtke vs. Kuhn, Judge Constance Baker Motley—who had argued many key civil rights cases as an NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Attorney—reasoned, “By definition, female reporters who are excluded from baseball clubhouses are not given the same access to the news and newsmakers as their male colleagues and competitors.  This denial of equal access places female reporters at a severe competitive disadvantage because they miss stories witnessed or heard by male reporters inside the clubhouse, because they are unable to take advantage of the group questioning inside the clubhouse and because they are unable to talk to some players at all.”

One of the defendants, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, led the policy of exclusion.  At issue in Judge Motley’s court were privacy for players, due process, and state action—a financial connection between New York City and Yankee Stadium had been established during the rebuilding of the iconic ballpark in the mid-1970s.  Kuhn’s positions suffered under legal scrutiny.

Motley ruled, “The undisputed facts show that the Yankees’ interest in protecting ballplayer privacy may be fully served by much less sweeping means than than implemented here.  The court holds that the state action complained of unreasonably interferes with plaintiff Ludtke’s fundamental right to pursue her profession in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

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