Posts Tagged ‘1949’

Baltimore, Frank Robinson, and the Year of the Orioles

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

It was the best of baseball.  It was the worst of baseball.

On the 9th day of the 10th month of the 66th year of the 20th century, it ended—the subject being the World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Baltimore emerged as champions, triggering elation throughout the metropolis named for Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore—the first Proprietor and Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland.  It was not supposed to happen.  At lest it was not supposed to happen the way it did, with the Orioles blanking the vaunted Dodgers squad for a 4-0 sweep—three games were shutouts:

  • Game 1:  5-2
  • Game 2:  6-0
  • Game 3:  1-0
  • Game 4:  1-0

In turn, the Orioles elevated their status in Baltimore’s sports hierarchy.  “This season’s feats of the Orioles, who leaped from crisis to crisis and still won the pennant, and who brought the exciting Frank Robinson to the city as a counter attraction to the demigod Johnny Unitas, balanced the ledger more than a bit.  The Colts may not have lost their eminence, but the city’s fans and newspapers have learned that there is another team in town,” wrote Shirley Povich, whose words in the Washington Post started the day for sports fans in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Ushered to Baltimore in a trade with Cincinnati after the 1965 season, Robinson swatted his way through American League pitching in his first year as an Oriole:

Led Major Leagues

  • Runs Scored (122)
  • Home Runs (49)
  • Slugging Percentage (.637)
  • On-Base + Slugging Percentage (1.047)
  • Total Bases (367)

Led American League

  • RBI (122)
  • Batting Average (.316)
  • On-Base Percentage (.410)
  • Sacrifice Flies (7)

Robinson won the American League Most Valuable Player Award and the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.  It was a vindication, of sorts.  “I wanted to have a good year especially to show the people in the front office there [in Cincinnati] that I wasn’t washed up, and I wanted to show them by having a good year,” said Robinson in an Associated Press article published in the Baltimore Sun on October 10th.

“And I wanted to show the people, the officials, the city of Baltimore they were getting a guy who still could play baseball.”

For the Dodgers, blaming and shaming arrived with gusto.  Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, for example, lobbed verbal grenades spiked with sarcasm, as was his wont.  Murray’s piece titled “The Dodger Story:  A Classic Case of Ineptitude” brought forth a wheelbarrow full of bon mots.

On the Dodgers’ hitting woes:  “Their batting average cannot be seen with the naked eye or figured under the decimal system.  Guys who weigh that little get to ride horse races.”

On Don Drysdale:  “He deserved better, but the Dodgers’ invisible attack, the worst exercise in offensive futility since Mussolini’s invasion of Greece, left him like a guy who thinks his whole platoon is crawling through the brush with him until he whispers and gets no answer back.  The Dodger ‘attack’ would have to be twice as loud to be dignified as ‘whispering.’  They hit the ball as if it was a cantaloupe.”

On the Dodgers’ post-season Japan trip:  “They are now taking the act to Japan where, when the Japanese get a load of them, they may want to reopen World War II.”

Stocked with blue chips nearly as strong as the Dow 30, the Dodgers suffered a downturn that was unavoidable, arguably—Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Tommy Davis, Ron Fairly, Maury Wills, Wes Parker et al. faced an opponent that needed to be quashed before taking on the O’s.  In his 2006 book Black and Blue:  Sandy Koufax, the Robinson Boys, and the World Series That Stunned America, Tom Adelman posited that exhaustion—or something close to it—affected the Dodgers after a merciless pennant race.  “Unlike the Orioles, they’d [sic] had no chance to adjust to the idea of a post-season contest—to catch their breath, raise their sights, and ready themselves for a fight,” wrote Adelman, who interviewed several players from both squads.  Ron Fairly, among others, confirmed the toll created by the quick turnaround from the end of the season to the beginning of the World Series.

That is not to take anything away from the Orioles, managed by Hank Bauer, who knew a thing or two thousand about winning—he played for the Yankees during the Mantle era, which saw World Series titles in:

  • 1949
  • 1950
  • 1951
  • 1952
  • 1953
  • 1956
  • 1958

American League pennant flew unaccompanied in the Bronx in 1955 and 1957.

Bauer won the Associated Press Manager of the Year Award and the Sporting News Manager of the Year Award in 1966.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 23, 2017.

What if…

Friday, April 21st, 2017

What if…

Charlie Finley hadn’t broken up the 1970s Oakland A’s dynasty?

Bob Uecker hadn’t appeared in Major League?

there was no Designated Hitter position?

the Mets had never traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels?

Yogi Berra had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers?

George Steinbrenner had never bought the Yankees?

the Dodgers had never moved from Brooklyn?

the Giants had moved to Minneapolis instead of San Francisco?

the Red Sox had never sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees?

Walter O’Malley had never owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

the Red Sox had integrated in 1949 instead of 1959?

Satchel Paige had pitched against Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and other Hall of Famers in their prime?

Bob Feller and Ted Williams had never lost years to military service in World War II?

Mickey Mantle hadn’t blown out his knee in the 1951 World Series?

Bobby Thomson had struck out against Ralph Branch?

Commissioner William Eckert had never invalidated Tom Seaver’s contract with the Atlanta Braves?

Major League Baseball banned synthetic grass?

the Mets had never traded Tom Seaver to the Reds?

Reggie Jackson had never played for the Yankees?

Thurman Munson hadn’t died in a plane crash?

Mickey Mantle had stayed healthy in the home stretch of 1961?

The Natural had ended the same was as the eponymous novel?

the Indians hadn’t traded Chris Chambliss, Dennis Eckersley, Buddy Bell, and Graig Nettles?

the Braves hadn’t never left Boston for Milwaukee?

the first incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Minnesota to become the Twins?

the second incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Texas to become the Rangers?

the Seattle Pilots hadn’t left for Milwaukee to become the Brewers?

Jim Bouton hadn’t written Ball Four?

Roger Kahn hadn’t written The Boys of Summer?

Mark Harris hadn’t written Bang the Drum Slowly?

Jackie Robinson had sought a football career instead of a baseball career?

Billy Martin hadn’t managed the Yankees in the late 1970s?

Gil Hodges hadn’t died in 1972, during a high point in the history of the Mets?

Vin Scully had stayed in New York City and announced for the Yankees or the Mets?

Bob Feller had pitched for the Yankees?

Ted Williams had played for the Yankees?

Joe DiMaggio had played for the Red Sox?

Charles Ebbets hadn’t owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Honolulu had a Major League Baseball team?

Pete Rose were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

the commissioner’s office rescinded the lifetime banishment of the 1919 Black Sox from Major League Baseball?

Hank Aaron had played in the same outfield as Willie Mays?

Wiffle Ball hadn’t been invented?

Nashville had a Major League Baseball team?

Dwight Goodman and Darryl Strawberry had stayed away from drugs?

Roberto Clemente had played for the Dodgers instead of the Pirates?

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

1946, Abe Saperstein, and the West Coast Negro Baseball League

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

While Jackie Robinson prepared to break into the major leagues by getting a year of seasoning with the Dodgers’ AAA ball club, the Montreal Royals, Abe Saperstein diversified his minority sports portfolio beyond the Harlem Globetrotters by spearheading the creation of the West Coast Negro Baseball League.  This venture consisted of six teams:  Seattle Steelheads, San Francisco Sea Lions, San Diego Tigers, Portland Roses, Oakland Larks, Los Angeles White Sox.  Fresno was the original home city for the Tigers.

The WCNBL did not endure past July 1946.

Saperstein—the Steelheads’ owner—persuaded investors, including Olympics star Jesse Owens, to participate in the first organization for black baseball on the West Coast.  Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization on October 23, 1945 inspired rather than discouraged Saperstein to construct the WCNBL; despite the beginning of the major leagues siphoning black players from the Negro Leagues, an expanding population on the West Coast after World War II offered, seemingly, a formidable fan base for Saperstein and his group.  In her 2013 book The Negro Leagues: 1869-1960, baseball historian Leslie Heaphy explained, “They founded the league not as competition to the white leagues but to provide an opportunity for blacks in the west to play baseball for money.”

With a prosperous record as the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, Abe Saperstein represented credibility for the nascent league.  Eddie Harris of the High Marine Social Club also played a key role in organizing the league.

Finding ballparks proved to be a tricky task.  In a June 27th article, the Los Angeles Sentinel noted that the White Sox had games scheduled in Whittier after beating the Lions at Hollywood Park.  “This policy of playing games in and around Los Angeles was forced on the owner [Carlisle] Perry as Hollywood Park and Wrigley Field are virtually closed to the home team due to Pacific Coast League commitments leaving the Sox without a Home Ground,” stated the Sentinel.

Low attendance compounded the difficulties, resulting in the league’s dissolution.  Though its tenure lasted less than the projected 110-game season, the West Coast Negro Baseball League indicated Saperstein’s business approach.  In his 2013 book Abe Saperstein and the American Basketball League; 1960-1963, Murry R. Nelson wrote, “Saperstein always had contingency plans to maximize his revenue streams.  As owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, with at least two different squads, he had a team playing every day somewhere in the world.  He also was one of the key reasons that the NBA was able to pay its bills from the formation of the league in 1949 through the 1950s, as he had the Globetrotters play doubleheaders before many NBA games, often doubling or tripling the average attendance figures for those games,”

A year after the WCNBL, White Sox pitcher Nate Moreland, an Arkansas native, broke a racial barrier on the heels of Robinson’s début with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947.  A former teammate of Robinson’s at Pasadena Junior College, Moreland became the first black professional baseball player in California when he took the field in May for the El Centro Imperials in the Class C Sunset League.

In 1942, Robinson and Moreland had tried out for the Chicago White Sox at the team’s training camp in Pasadena.  Though they impressed White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes, they didn’t get any further.  Arkbaseball.com notes that the duo had a previous link in southern California—they played on a semi-pro team that won the California championship in 1939.

Moreland also played in:

  • Negro National League
  • Southwest International League
  • Arizona-Texas League
  • Arizona-Mexico League

According to baseball-reference.com, Moreland had a 152-104 record in his career.  Incomplete statistics render difficult a full evaluation of Moreland’s career.

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

Al Rosen, Mickey Vernon, and the 1953 American League Batting Championship

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

During the summer that William Holden escaped Stalag 17, Audrey Hepburn gallivanted around Rome, and Burt Lancaster kissed Deborah Kerr on a Hawaiian beach, two sluggers edged toward a batting championship decided by one thousandth of a point—Al Rosen and Mickey Vernon.

Clevelanders celebrated Rosen’s 1953 trek, culminating in leading the American League in:

  • Runs Scored (115)
  • Home Runs (43)
  • Slugging Percentage (.613)
  • On Base plus Slugging Percentage (1.034)
  • Total Bases (367)
  • RBI (145—led the major leagues)

A hard-charging third baseman sacrificing prime years by serving in the Navy during World War II, Rosen was as prominent to Cleveland as Lake Erie, Public Auditorium, and the Park Building.

In Good Enough to Dream, his 1985 chronicle of owning the Utica Blue Sox of the New York-Penn League, sports writer Roger Kahn described an encounter with Rosen—at the time, Rosen was a baseball executive with the Houston Astros.  Rosen visited Kahn to see a game between the Blue Sox and the Astros’ minor league team based in Auburn, New York.

“‘You know, except for tonight’s score, I can enjoy this more than major league ball,’ Rosen told Kahn.  ‘The way the kids are so young and fresh.  The way you get so close to the game and to the fans.’  Rosen made his way toward the Auburn bus, offering me a wave, a man who lived each day fully and well and who would have to say ‘if only’ fewer times than almost anyone I knew.”

Mickey Vernon played most of his 20-year career in a Washington Senators uniform.  With a keen eye for baseball talent combined with blindness to prejudice, Vernon saw an emerging icon that could have made history with the Senators.  Matt Schudel’s 2008 obituary of Vernon in the Washington Post explained, “Mr. Vernon met an impressive young player, Larry Doby, whom he recommended to the Senators.  But because Doby was black, he went unsigned until Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s racial barrier in 1947.  When Mr. Vernon was traded to the Cleveland Indians in 1949, Doby was one of his teammates.”  Vernon played all of 1949 and part of 1950 in a Cleveland uniform.

Rosen came within a Chief Wahoo feather of winning the Triple Crown in 1953—he had a .333 batting average to Vernon’s .336 going into the last game of the season.  In a 2013 article, Tim Warsinskey of the Cleveland Plain Dealer recounted that Rosen had a prolific day at the plate, boosting his average to .336 by knocking two singles and a double against Detroit Tigers hurler Al Aber.  “Aber started the game for Detroit and was trying to finish it against Rosen, leading 7-3,” wrote Warsinskey.  “Rosen knew Aber well, because Cleveland had traded him to Detroit in June.  The infield was playing deep, almost inviting Rosen to bunt.  Rosen was a fairly good runner, but didn’t want to win the batting title on a bunt.”

A ground ball to Indians third baseman Ray Boone ended a Triple Crown possibility; while Rosen finished the season at .336, Vernon had a good game against the Philadelphia A’s.  Going 2-for-4, Vernon crossed the finish line of the 1953 season with:

  • .337 batting average
  • 205 hits
  • 115 RBI
  • 43 doubles (led American League)

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

Beyond 61*

Monday, February 13th, 2017

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.

Monty Stratton, Jimmy Stewart, and Hollywood

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

When The Stratton Story premiered in 1949, movie audiences without even a tangential interest in baseball became engrossed in the story of a champion whose determination serves as a model of courage.  Monty Stratton played a key role on the pitching staff of the Chicago White Sox during his brief major league career in the 1930s, but win-loss records cannot measure his contribution to baseball.  After a hunting accident led to a leg amputation, Stratton emerged from physical, emotional, and mental horrors; it was a stunning comeback.

On November 27, 1938, Stratton injured himself while hunting for rabbits on his mother’s farm, close to Greenville, Texas.  Associated Press reported that Stratton’s pistol discharged accidentally, sending a bullet into his right leg.  It severed an artery, necessitating the amputation.  Consequently, the White Sox organization presented an opportunity for lifetime employment.  Team President J. Louis Comiskey said, “Monty as a job with us as long as he wants it.  He was a fine pitcher and is a finer man.  Baseball can’t afford to lose him.”  A benefit Cubs-White Sox game raised money for the Stratton family.

Already familiar with teary subject matter in a baseball setting from directing the Lou Gehrig biopic Pride of the Yankees, Sam Wood helmed The Stratton Story.  Starring Jimmy Stewart in the title role and June Allyson as Stratton’s wife, Ethel, the movie received acclaim for its portrayal of Monty Stratton’s seemingly impossible rebound to the baseball diamond after the accident deflates his spirit, dimming a once shining career to darkness.  Stratton’s promise evidences early in the movie, when baseball scout Barney Wile tells Stratton’s mother, “He can transform a baseball into a streak of gray lightning and curve it in like it was weaving through traffic.”  Frank Morgan played Wile and Agnes Moorehead played Mrs. Stratton.

AP’s April 15, 1939 story “Stratton, Coach, Is Hopeful of Pitching Again” cited the hurler’s insistence on returning to baseball.  “It will take time, because I’ve got to learn pitching from the mound all over again,” declared Stratton, who reached his goal in 1946 with an 18-8 record with the Sherman Twins.  He played in the minor leagues sporadically between 1947 and 1950, never in more than four games each season.  Appropriately, his last team was the Greenville Majors.

The Stratton Story hit movie theaters during Monty Stratton’s comeback, making it current in addition to poignant.  With the All-American Stewart and Allyson in the starring roles, the movie generated mainstream appeal for filmgoers neither knowledgeable about nor interested in the National Pastime.  It is, after all, a story based on overcoming adversity, a universal plight.  Therefore, it is a familiar story, even if baseball specifics are mysterious to the audience.

Los Angeles Times sports columnist Braves Dyer praised, “Jimmy Stewart, as always, does a superb job and actually looks and acts like a baseball player, which he isn’t.”  In the New York Herald Tribune, Howard Barnes’s review of Stewart paralleled Dyer’s.  “Thanks to his engaging and artful performance, a sentimental and inspirational screen biography has more than a little power,” wrote Barnes.

In the Washington Post, movie critic Richard L. Coe addressed the story’s emotional impact:  “Jimmy Stewart plays him with his adroitly winning style, and you’ll admire the way both writers and Director Sam Wood have managed the sentiment without wallowing in it.”  Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper similarly lauded the direction:  “Sam Wood steered it away from the saccharine morass into which it could have fallen.”

Legendary sports writer Red Smith opined, “As viewed by a sentimentalist who can still weep over practically any page of ‘Little Women,’ it is a solid tear-jerker effectively performed by James Stewart and June Allyson, which commits no outrages when it deals with technical baseball.”  Barnes agreed regarding the representation of baseball details.  “Since the script by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper has some good pungent talk of the kind that might be expected from big leaguers, and Sam Wood’s direction is resourceful, the work should appeal to payment as well as ardent baseball fans,” wrote Barnes.

Stratton approved of Stewart’s portrayal.  In a “Special to the Herald Tribune,” Stratton recounted, “He was our first choice—my wife’s and mine—when we first heard about the picture.  But we really didn’t expect Hollywood to see it the same as us.”

To research Stratton’s amazing tale, Douglas Morrow, co-writer of the screenplay, ventured to Greenville, Texas.  In a scene reflecting a real-life incident, Stratton practices pitching with Ethel.  “Slowly, imperceptibly, he was developing a pitching technique,” wrote Morrow in “Standing On Top Of The World,” an article in the June 12, 1949 edition of the Los Angeles Times.  “So gradual was it that neither Monty nor Ethel realized that he had regained much of his former speed.  That is, not until he whipped a fast ball through one day that boomed into Ethel’s mitt and bowled her back on her seat.  With swollen hands and a bruised rear end.  Ethel beat a strategic retreat and Monty began pitching against the barn wall with his four-year-old son, Monty Jr., and his dog, Happy, retrieving the balls.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 2, 2015.

The Black Sox: Fact vs. Fiction

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out provided the source material for the eponymous 1988 movie written and directed by John Sayles, who also played sportswriter Ring Lardner.  Starring Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Bill Irwin, Gordon Clapp, Clifton James, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Tighe, David Strathairn, and John Mahoney, Eight Men Out revived the debate about the involvement of eight White Sox players in fixing the 1919 World Series as part of a conspiracy engineered by gangsters.  Scandalized, the players suffer eternal banishment from Major League Baseball, thanks to a 1920 ruling by the newly installed baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Jim Murray, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, clarified the undercurrent of Eight Men Out.  “They say baseball pictures don’t make it at the box office,” wrote Murray.  “Well, this isn’t about baseball.  It’s about greed and ignorance and betrayal.  The Lou Gehrig story, it ain’t.  The actors are wearing baseball uniforms, but they could be wearing Roman togas.  Their story is universal, timeless.  It’s as old as Adam and Eve.  It’s an immorality play.  Man loses to temptation—again.”

Praising the aura in Eight Men OutChicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Sherman wrote, “With the exception of a few lapses into Hollywood sappiness, director/writer John Sayles does a nice job of sticking to the facts as recorded in Asinof’s book,”  He added, “Sayles captures the tension and ambivalence of the eight players as the conspiracy grew and was revealed.”

Sherman also commended ex-White Sox outfielder Ken Berry, the film’s technical adviser, for accuracy in the game scenes.  Citing Sayles’s need for “perfection,” Berry recalled a scene for Sherman involving Charlie Sheen, who played centerfielder Happy Felsch, one of the infamous eight players.  “We had a play where Charlie had to make a throw to the plate, and the runner was out, but the umpire called him safe,” Berry said.  “It was a bang-bang play.  We did 10 takes, and Charlie’s arm was about to fall off.  But on the 10th take, Charlie made the perfect throw.  That’s the way John wanted it.  He went out of his way to portray the game as it was.”

D.B. Sweeney strove for authenticity in his portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and, perhaps, the most vilified of the “Black Sox” of 1919.  Training with the Minnesota Twins’ farm team in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sweeney greatly improved his baseball skills.  In a 1988 feature article about Sweeney in the New York Times, George Vecsey detailed the actor’s journey in playing Jackson.  Quoting Sweeney, Vecsey wrote, “The first week, I couldn’t do anything in the batting cage.  But I got a batting tee and set it up on the hotel, and after a week I started to make contact.  Don Leppert and Dwight Bernard were coaching there, and they helped me a lot.  Cal Ermer would come through and give me pointers.  By the time I left there, I had more power from the left side than the right.”

As with any movie concerning historical events, facts are sacrificed for artistic license, continuity, and time.  In the 1950 movie Jolson Sings Again, a sequel to 1949’s The Jolson Story, Larry Parks plays legendary performer Al Jolson.  Told about the interest in a movie about his life, Jolson dismisses the importance of factual accuracy in favor of his story’s emotional impact.

Eight Men Out replaces fact with fiction at several points in the story.

During a trial scene, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey testifies that he “informed [American League] Commissioner Ban Johnson” about the “possibility of a conspiracy.”  Comiskey explains that his suspicions occurred “shortly after the series began.”  However, he found “hearsay” after hiring private detectives.

Actually, the American League and the National League do not have commissioners; Ban Johnson was the American League’s president.  Further, James Crusinberry of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Comiskey “was not on speaking terms” with Johnson, so he approached National League President John A. Heydler after the first game because he believed his players fixed the series.

On September 26, 1920, Comiskey testified to this action.  Heydler confirmed it upon arriving in Chicago to testify.  “Commy was all broken up and felt something was wrong with his team in that first game,” quoted Crusinberry of Heydler.  “To me such a thing as crookedness in that game didn’t seem possible.  I told Comiskey I thought the White Sox were rather taken by surprised, that perhaps they had underestimated the strength of the Cincinnati team.

“The matter was dropped for the time.  That day the Reds won again and we moved to Chicago for the third game.  Comiskey called me on the telephone early that morning, and with John Bruce, secretary of the national commission, I went to his office at the ball park.  Once more he stated he felt sure something was wrong.”

Crusinberry added, “Comiskey also called Heydler into conference after the second game, more thoroughly convinced that certain White Sox players were trying to throw the games to Cincinnati.”

However, accuracy abounds in the scene regarding Comiskey’s initial belief that rumors of a fix did not amount to fact.  On December 15, 1919, I.E. Sanborn of the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted Comiskey:  “I am now very happy to state that we have discovered nothing to indicate any member of my team double crossed me or the public last fall.  We have been investigating  all these rumors and I have ha men working sometimes twenty-four hours a day running down clews [sic] that promised to produce facts.  Nothing has come of them.”

Another example of fictionalization involves White Sox player Dickie Kerr telling manager Kid Gleason that he saw Gleason pitch a no-hitter against Cy Young—Gleason never pitched a no-hitter.

Of course, the apocryphal quote “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is, perhaps, the best example of fiction replacing fact.  Eight Men Out would not be complete without depicting a kid expressing disappointment in Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox.  The authenticity of this iconic quote is dubious, at best, because of the lack of evidence.  Nonetheless, it is part of baseball lore.

As a companion to Asinof’s book and the movie, Bill Lamb’s book Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation analyzes the legal angles of the 1919 World Series fix.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 13, 2015.

Biz Mackey: Baseball’s Unsung Mentor

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

Without James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, there would be no Roy Campanella.

A three-time National League MVP and an eight-time National League All-Star, Campanella played for the Baltimore Elite Giants when Mackey managed the team.  Campanella was 15 years old, not even old enough to drive.  He held his own in the Negro Leagues, thanks to Mackey’s tutelage.  “Biz Mackey was the master of defense of all catchers,” said Campanella.

Mackey’s introduction to Campanella is lost to history.  But Neil Lanctot surmises how these baseball icons met.  In Campy, his 2011 biography of Campanella, Lanctot poses the theory that Mackey was hurt, thereby in need of a replacement catcher for the Giants circa late 1930s.  Mackey learned of Campanella through the baseball grapevine.

Without Biz Mackey, there would be no Monte Irvin.  No Larry Doby.  No Don Newcombe.

When Mackey managed the Newark Eagles in 1940-1941, he mentored these future major league players who led integration in the major leagues by the end of the 1940s.  Fired by Eagles owner Effa Manley after the 1941 season, Mackey returned to play for the Eagles in 1945.  Mackey batted .307, a stellar batting average made even more impressive by his age—48.  Manley hired Mackey to manage the Eagles in 1946.  His governance led the Eagles to champion status in the 1946 Negro League World Series against the Kansas City Monarchs.  Newark’s tenure as the home of the Eagles ended just two years later; the team moved to Houston, where it played in 1949-1950 before disbanding.

Fired by Eagles owner Effa Manley after the 1941 season, Mackey returned to play for the Eagles in 1945.  Mackey batted .307, a stellar batting average made even more impressive by his age—48.  Manley hired Mackey to manage the Eagles in 1946.  Under his governance, the Eagles beat the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Negro League World Series.  Its tenure in Newark ended two years later—the team moved to Houston, where it played in 1949 and 1950 before disbanding.

Born in Eagle Pass, Texas—the first American settlement on the Rio Grande River—Biz Mackey never reached the major leagues as a player or a manager.  But his influence is questionable, if not properly recognized.  Biz Mackey got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, decades after his baseball career ended.

Mackey did, however, receive accolades from his peers in the baseball community other than the Hall of Fame entry.  The book Blackball Stars cites Cum Posey as saying that Biz Mackey is the all-time best black catcher, including Josh Gibson on Posey’s Homestead Grays ball club.  Posey’s praise of Mackey over Gibson is like the Steinbrenner clan saying that the best shortstop of the 1990s was Nomar Garciaparra, not Derek Jeter.

Scholars, historians, and enthusiasts of the Negro Leagues will know of Raleigh “Biz” Mackey and dozens of other players that don’t get the marquee recognition of Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson.  Mackey deserves to be recognized in the pantheon of Negro League icons who played before Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in 1947, not only for his achievements on the baseball diamond, but also for his mentoring of those who changed the game of baseball.

Biz Mackey died in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 30, 2013.

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