Posts Tagged ‘1950’

Chris Chambliss, Billy Martin, and the 1976 American League Playoff

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

The baseball traveled on its parabolic destiny, rising through the mid-October night and dropping a few dozen feet in front of the Manufacturers Hanover Super Checking billboard at 11:43 p.m. Eastern.  It was a moment of exhilaration, followed nanoseconds later by pandemonium in a crowd that hadn’t tasted a championship in more than a decade.

Chris Chambliss’s three-run homer brought the 1976 American League pennant to the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of the fifth and deciding game of the playoffs against the Kansas City Royals.  Score:  Yankees 7, Royals 6.

“And I want to tell you, the safest place to be is up here in the booth!” exclaimed WPIX-TV announcer and former Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto when several hundred fans stiff-armed decorum, poured onto the Yankee Stadium turf, and jumped up and down like the prospectors who discovered gold in mid-19th century California.

New York City hadn’t seen a celebration like that since V-E Day.

To say that Chambliss’s safety was in jeopardy is neither hyperbole nor ignorance.  Suddenly, survival instinct surpassed the duty of touching home plate, an impossibility given the swarm of fans excited by the victory and oblivious to the hero’s wellbeing; Chambliss didn’t even make it to third base.  Hoping to embrace their hero, Yankee rooters risked injuring him—maybe even trampling him.  Had it not been for the uniform and the baseball diamond, one might have thought Chambliss was a running back as he plowed his 6’1″, 195-pound frame through the crowd towards the refuge of the dugout and, in turn, the Yankee clubhouse.

Chambliss came to the Yankees in a 1974 trade—along with Chambliss, the Indians sent Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw in exchange for Fritz Peterson, Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, and Steve Kline.  Not a power hitter, Chambliss was known as a dependable batsman—188 hits, 32 doubles, and 96 RBI in 1976.  With 17 home runs during the season, a dinger was feasible, but a hit off Royals pitcher Mark Little seemed more likely.

Chambliss, in the end, returned to the field under the guard of two police officers.  Alas, home plate vanished in the anarchy, so, to be sure, Chambliss stepped on the area.

Below the fold on the front page of the New York Times, media geography usually used to convey issues of national and of international importance, Murray Chass’s article informed the newspaper’s readers who went to bed before the ninth inning about the latest notch to Yankee Stadium’s greatest moments—a roster including Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech, Babe Ruth’s wistful farewell as he leaned on a bat with his frail body, and Don Larsen’s perfect game.

It was nostalgic, if not appropriate, that Billy Martin helmed the Yankee ball club.  Hired during the 1975 season, Martin had a reputation as a turnaround expert in stints with the Twins, the Tigers, and the Rangers.  But returning to the Bronx had an even sweeter taste for Martin—he played with the gloried Yankee teams of the 1950s, idolized manager Casey Stengel, and suffered a betrayal from Yankee management, specifically, Stengel.  Or so he believed.

When several Yankee players captured headlines with a fight at the Copacabana in New York in 1957, the front office shipped Martin to the Kansas City A’s after the season because of the embarrassment—it happened when Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford and their wives gathered to celebrate the 29th birthday of Martin, who went stag.  “Yanks Bench 2 in Copa Brawl” screamed the front page of the New York Daily News.  Confronting hecklers from a bowling team called the Republicans, the Yankees stepped up when nasty comments tinged with racism emerged from the hecklers aimed at Sammy Davis, Jr., the Copa’s performer, with whom the fellows from the Bronx were acquainted.  One bowler, a deli owner named Edwin Jones, claimed Bauer clocked him.

In his 2015 biography Billy Martin:  Baseball’s Flawed Genius, Bill Pennington wrote, “It was later learned that Casey had protected Billy from the Senators trade and two other trades.  But [Yankee General Manager George] Weiss was not to be dissuaded this time.  Not with this player in these circumstances.  Not when he wanted to send a message to the rest of the team.  Besides, Kubek was already in New York, ready to play shortstop.  For the Yankees’ youth movement in the middle infield to be complete, Richardson had to take over at second base.”

Stengel had not only managed Martin on the Yankees, they also worked together on the Oakland Oaks, a Pacific coast League championship team in 1948.  Returning to Yankee Stadium as a managerial descendant of his mentor may not have completely healed old wounds whose scars remained resonant, but it did give Yankee fans a continuity to the past, Martin a chance for redemption, and players the benefit of their manager’s baseball wisdom honed by Stengel’s tutelage two decades prior.

The Yankees lost the 1976 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a four-game sweep, but rebounded to win the series in 1977 and 1978, both times against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Billy Martin went through several stings as the Yankee skipper, being fired and rehired by owner George Steinbrenner.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 13, 2017.

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.

Don Drysdale: Once a Bum, Almost a Pirate

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Imagining Don Drysdale playing for a team other than the Dodgers is like imagining Hershey’s making products without chocolate.  Drysdale, he of the cannon disguised as a right arm firing baseballs through National League lineups in the 1950s and the 1960s, spent his career as a Dodger—first in Brooklyn, later in Los Angeles, where he grew up on the San Fernando Valley.  But the communal aura of Ebbets Field and the sun-soaked environs of Chavez Ravine might never have been blessed with Drysdale had Branch Rickey’s brethren signed him in Pittsburgh; Rickey served as the Pirates GM after notching four World Series titles for the Cardinals and leading baseball’s integration by signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers organization.

Rickey’s 1954 scouting report on Drysdale—nestled in the pitcher’ file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown—indicated prescience bordering on psychic.  The 18-year-old Drysdale impressed Rickey with his fast ball and his curve ball, both of which “needs no coaching.”  Rickey also expressed confidence that Drysdale could take down the speed on his change-up.  In short, Drysdale was “a definite prospect” with “an unusual amount of perfection.”

As a comparison, Rickey mentioned Don Dangleis, a minor league hurler who never made it out of the Pittsburgh farm system; Drysdale had faster pitches but Dangleis was more well-rounded.  The sticking point for Rickey was money, as is often the case with a team’s front office—Rickey wanted to keep Drysdale’s salary at a maximum of $4,000.  Although Rickey acknowledged that Drysdale was worth “whatever it takes,” he wanted to avoid singing Drysdale under a “bonus baby” rule, which mandated an immediate vault to a major league tenure of at least two years for a salary exceeding $4,000.  It was a tempting option establishing a new financial plateau for the player and eliminate a stopover in the minor leagues.  If a “bonus baby” needed seasoning before going to “the show,” however, the then the rule could be a detriment.

In his 1990 autobiography Once a Bum, Always a Dodger, Drysdale revealed that Rickey actually offered $6,000 while proclaiming an evasion of the rule’s tentacles without disclosing his methods to the pitcher or his dad, Scott, an ex-minor leaguer advising the young pitcher on what came to be a joyous choice for fans of the Dodgers.  There were other options—Drysdale received pitches—no pun intended—from the White Sox, the Yankees, and the Braves.  Drysdale’s father offered a view based in value.  “Look, if you’re going to get a lot of money—like Billy Consolo, a $60,000 bonus baby—then it makes sense to take it and go to the major leagues and take your chances,” recalled Drysdale of his father’s opining.  “But if you’re not going to get a lot of money—and $2,000 isn’t a lot of money—then why not go where you have the best chance to learn?”

And so, the definite prospect from Van Nuys, California joined the Dodgers farm system.  Drysdale remembered that he signed in “the first week of June 1954” but Rickey’s scouting report was dated June 15th.  Either Drysdale’s memory was incorrect or Rickey was unaware of the signing.  The latter is a reach, considering Rickey’s legendary attention to detail.  At the bottom of Rickey’s missive is a handwritten postscript:  “Signed with Brooklyn.  Father is a bird dog for them.”

Drysdale played for the Bakersfield Indians, a Class C team in the California State League for the 1954 season; he went 8-5, then played for Montreal in 1955, where he compiled an 11-11 record.  On April 23, 1956, Drysdale made his first appearance with Brooklyn, unleashing the supremacy with which he taught master classes in intimidation, control, and reliability throughout his major league career, which ended in 1969.  In this game against the Phillies, Drysdale struck out the first three batters, notched nine strikeouts for the day, and showed “big league poise,” according to United Press, when he got out of a bases loaded jam in the second inning by inducing Murry Dickson to fly out.

Drysdale found a home in Brooklyn before voyaging back to the Los Angeles sunshine when the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season.  “There was an intimacy about Ebbets Field that you don’t forget,” wrote Drysdale.  “If you are a starting pitcher, you warmed up in front of the dugout before the game, not in the bullpen.  You felt as though the fans were right on top of you, because they almost were.  It was a carnival atmosphere, small and always jumping.”

Rickey’s analysis of Drysdale proved correct:

  • 1962 National League Cy Young Award
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts three times
  • 2,486 career strikeouts
  • Led the major leagues in games started for four consecutive years
  • Led the major league in innings pitched twice
  • Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984

 

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

Mickey, Whitey, and the Class of 1974

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

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

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

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

With overwhelming power, Mantle compiled dazzling statistics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Mexico, Bell played for:

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

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

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

McGraw and McGillicuddy

Friday, March 10th, 2017

One was pugnacious.  The other, almost regal.

When John Joseph McGraw took the field, he embraced baseball games as bouts, thus earning his nicknames Mugsy and Little Napoleon.

When Cornelius McGillicuddy managed the Philadelphia Athletics, he wore a suit rather than a uniform.

They were, certainly, opposites with a respect that ran deeper than the Hudson River.

Connie Mack—McGillicuddy’s more familiar moniker—managed the Athletics ball club from its genesis in 1901 until 1950.  When Mack passed away in 1956, it marked the end of a lengthy baseball tenure that began at the end of the 19th century—from 1894 to 1896, Mack was a player-manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This came after playing in the major leagues for 11 years; in addition to Pittsburgh, Mack played for Buffalo and Washington.  Mack’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site honors innovation in the catcher position:  “Mack was one of the first catchers to play directly behind home plate instead of setting up by the backstop.  He was also famous for his abilities to fake the sound of a foul tip with his mouth and ‘tip’ opposing players’ bats during their swings.”

Mack’s 50-year governance of the A’s as a manager and a part owner resulted in five World Series championships and seven American League titles.  There were plenty of down years, too.  In 1915, the A’s had a 36-104 record— it began a 10-year run of losing seasons.  Eight winning seasons followed, including three consecutive American League pennants from 1929 to 1931.  The A’s won the World Series in 1929 and 1930.

Contrariwise to Mack’s aura of temperateness, John McGraw breathed flames.  Upon the death of the fiery New York Giants manager in 1934, New York Times writer John N. Wheeler opined that retirement a couple of years prior corresponded with a transition in the National Pastime.  “The game also had become more gentlemanly and, if you will take the word of an old-timer like the writer, less colorful,” wrote Wheeler.  “Not that there is any implication that John J. McGraw was not a gentleman, but when he went to wars he went to win.”

McGraw’s managerial career began with the Baltimore Orioles team that moved to New York after the 1902 season and became the Highlanders— the team later changed to the Yankees label.  McGraw was a Baltimore fixture, playing third base on the Oriole’s National League championship teams in the 1890s.

In the middle of the 1902 season, McGraw went to the New York Giants, where he became the symbol of toughness for the princes of the Polo Grounds.  And he brought several Orioles with him.  Under McGraw, the Giants won 10 National League pennants and seven World Series titles.

Mack and McGraw squared off in the World Series three times—1905, 1911, and 1913; the Giants own the 1905 contest and the A’s won the next two.

In 1937, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Connie Mack and John McGraw.  On McGraw’s Hall off Fame web site page, a quote from Mack summarizes his feelings toward his counterpart:  “There has been only one manager— and his name is McGraw.”

A version of this article appeared on March 17, 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.

Softball, Nostalgia, and “Happy Days”

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

When Happy Days premiered on January 15, 1974 as a mid-season replacement for ABC, it began a 10-year journey as a refuge from the barrage of daily headlines indicating malaise, frustration, and tension—particularly in the second half of the 1970s with inflation, gas shortages, and the Iran hostage crisis.  Based in mid-1950s Milwaukee, Happy Days revolved around teenager Richie Cunningham confronting the growing pains associated with his evolution from adolescence to adulthood.

Initially filmed as a one-camera show covering serious topics backed by humor—racism, the Cold War, the Quiz Show Scandal—Happy Days skyrocketed once it changed to a studio audience format in 1976.  Richie had two universes—his friends and his family, with the two sometimes intersecting.  Played by Ron Howard, Richie had a special friendship with Fonzie.  Where Richie was clean-cut, Fonzie was tough.  Where Richie was book smart, Fonzie was street smart.  Where Richie wore a letterman’s sweater, Fonzie wore a leather jacket.

Once Happy Days went before a studio audience, Fonzie became an iconic television character, played by Henry Winkler.  Fonzie’s trademark exclamation “Aaaaay!” became a fixture for Happy Days.

The genesis of Happy Days occurred on February 25, 1974.  Love and the Happy Day,” an episode of ABC’s comedy anthology Love, American Style, centered on the characters of Richie Cunningham and Potsie Webber.  Anson Williams played Potsie on both “Love and the Happy Day” and Happy Days.

Garry Marshall, the creator of Happy Days, spearheaded the cast’s softball team, which played games for charity across the country.  In a 1978 article for Associated Press, Dennis D’Agostino quoted Howard on the team’s makeup.  “Henry really wanted to get into this thing, and pitching was the thing we thought he could do,” explained Howard.  “Donny Most (Ralph Malph) is probably our most consistent [sic] hitter for average and power, and also very good in center field.  I’m the Tom Paciorek type myself.”

Paciorek, a journeyman outfielder and first baseman, played for several teams in an 18-year career, compiling a batting average of .282:

  • Dodgers
  • Braves
  • Mariners
  • White Sox
  • Mets
  • Rangers

Winkler basked in the atmosphere of the game.  “This is great,” said the New York City native. “We get to go out and play a little ball.  We’re winning.  A lot of people I’ve never seen are giving me a lot of warmth and I get to eat a stadium hot dog.”

Cathy Silvers played Jenny Piccalo, the flirtatious best friend of Richie’s sister, Joanie.  In her 2007 book Happy Days Healthy Living:  From Sit-Com Teen to the Health-Food Scene, Silvers wrote, “One day on the set Garry Marshall arrived with the exciting news that we were going to Germany and then to Japan on USO tours (United Service Organizations).  He said, ‘We’re going to pay our respects to the men and women stationed overseas, far from their families and homes, in service for the safety and protection of our country.  Anyone want to come?’

“Henry stood up and said, ‘We all do!'”

Happy Days spun off Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy, two other juggernauts for ABC.  Joanie Loves Chachi…well, that’s a different story altogether.

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

The Men Who Portrayed Babe Ruth

Friday, February 17th, 2017

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.

Willie Mays Returns to New York

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

On May 25, 1951, Willie Mays played in his first major league game.  19 years and 50 weeks later, Mays returned to the city that embraced his early career.

Entering the major leagues with the New York Giants under the managerial reign of Leo Durocher, Mays became a model of excellence in ability, knowledge, and behavior.  In his 1975 autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last—written with Ed Linn—Durocher wrote, “Every day with Mays I would come to the ball park, pick up the lineup card and write his name in.  Willie Mays was never sick, he was never hurt, he never had a bellyache, he never had a toothache, he never had a headache.  He came to the park every day to put on the uniform and play.”

When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, Willie Mays became a favorite son of the Bay Area, with a metropolitan synonymity as as powerful as cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Spencer Tracy jokes that Willie Mays could get elected Mayor of San Francisco.

Mays’s term with the New York/San Francisco Giants brought 12 Gold Gloves, two Most Valuable Player Awards, and 18 All-Star Game appearances.  On May 11, 1971, the Giants and the New York Mets secured a deal that traded Mays to the Mets for Charlie Williams and a reported figure of $100,000.  Willie Mays back in a New York uniform ignited an inferno of nostalgia for the city’s glory days of the 1950s, when three teams ruled Gotham baseball.  In the New York Times, Red Smith acknowledged the questionable value of a trade, given Mays’s subpar batting average (below .200) and age (41).  “It can be justified only on sentimental grounds and if the deal comes off, God bless [Mets majority owner] Joan Payson.  The name-calling and hair-pulling during the players’ strike, the prolonged bitterness over Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve system, and the corrosive effects of Charley Finley’s haggling with Vida Blue have created a crying need for some honest sentiment in baseball.”

Additionally, Smith noted, Giants owner Horace Stoneham valued Mays, so a trade for the superstar hinged on protecting him.  “Anybody who knows Stoneham knows he would not trade Mays unless he believed it would benefit Willie as well as the Giants.”  Mays, in turn, voiced esteem for his boss during the press conference announcing the trade.  Times reporter Steve Lady recounted Mays’s response when a reporter questioned “The Say Hey Kid” about possible bitterness towards Stoneham:  “Bitterness?  What do you mean?  How could I have any bitterness for this man who is seeing that I’m taken care of after my playing days are over?  A lot of ballplayers play 20 years and come out with nothing.”  Regarding the city that launched his career, Mays said, “When you come back to New York, it’s like coming back to paradise.”

Contrariwise, in his 1988 autobiography Say Hey:  The Autobiography of Willie Mays—written with Lou Sahadi—Mays revealed his initial disappointment.  “My first reaction was anger at Stoneham,” wrote Mays.  “What happened to that family atmosphere he had always spoken of?  I couldn’t accept the fact that he hadn’t called me when he was working out the details.  Later, he explained to me he was losing money and would sell the club soon, but before he did, he wanted to make sure my future was secure.  Whatever feelings I had felt for him over the years, at that moment I felt betrayed.”

Security proved to be a factor in the trade of the aging icon, indeed.  Associated Press reported, “No specific terms of the deal to bring Mays to the Mets were revealed at the Shea Stadium conference but [minority owner and Chairman M. Donald] Grant said part of the package included a job for Mays in the New York organization after he retires as an active player.”  Joseph Durso of the Times reported, “Besides assuming his current salary, the Mets agreed to keep him for at least three years as a coach at $75,000 a year after he quits playing—which presumably could be at the end of this season or next.”

Despite unwarranted statistics, Mays attained selection for and played in the 1972 and 1973 All-Star Games.  Once fleet of foot with speed that struck terror into fielders trying to throw him out, Willie Howard Mays evidenced his age during the 1973 World Series, which the Mets lost to the Oakland A’s in seven games.  Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News wrote, “What you can say is that he looked every bit of his 42 years and had people feeling sorry for him as he floundered around under two fly balls in the sun.  And you can say that he battled back to drive in the go ahead run off Rollie Fingers as the Mets scored four runs and punched out a 10-7 victory over the A’s in game No. 2 here Sunday.”

Mays also ran into problems on the base paths; Mets manager Yogi Berra designated Mays as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub in the top of the ninth inning with the Mets ahead 6-3.  John Milner singled, but Mays “got his legs twisted and sprawled helplessly on the ground making his turn around the bag,” reported UPI.  “Mays should’ve easily made third on the blow but, after his mishap, all he could do was half-crawl, half-fall back safely into second.”

In the 12th inning, Mays knocked in the game-winning RBI; it was appropriate, somehow destined, that “The Say Hey Kid” finished the 12-inning affair with redemption, giving baseball fans a last glimpsed of greatness.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 19, 2015.

The Saga of Eddie Gaedel

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

On August 19, 1951, Eddie Gaedel strode to home plate in a St. Louis Browns uniform adorned with the fraction 1/8 rather than a whole number, signifying his physical stature similar to that of the folks who set Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road.

Gaedel’s cup of coffee in the major leagues consisted of a single at-bat, when he faced Bob Cain of the Detroit Tigers in the first inning of the first game of a doubleheader at Sportsman’s Park.  In 2002, Fred Bucholz, the Browns’ batboy, recalled the game for St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Tom Wheatley.  “The fans were laughing, but no one said nothing in our dugout,” said Bucholz.  “They were just shocked.  Nothing like that had ever happened before.  Usually the guys would yell for someone to get a hit.  Here, nothing.”

A publicity stunt conceived by Browns owner Bill Veeck, Gaedel had a signed contract, giving him the legitimacy required to play in a Major League Baseball game.  Veeck embraced wackiness, seeing it as an added value for the fans.  In his second tenure as owner of the White Sox from 1976 to 1981, Veeck installed a shower in the centerfield bleachers so fans could cool off on hot Chicago days, instructed Harry Caray to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh inning stretch, and commanded the White Sox to wear shorts in a gimmick that proved to last about as long as the notion of somebody defeating Richard J. Daley in a Chicago mayoral election between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s.

In his 2000 book The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, Peter Golenbock cited Browns manager Zack Taylor as a source for the Gaedel idea.  Taylor said, “When I was with the Giants, we used to sit around the hotel lobby nights listening to the boss.  John McGraw never forgot a pitch of any game the Giants ever played under him.  And he always was scheming up new ways to win.  One time he came up with the idea that it might not be bad to carry a little fellow around and send him up to bat to get a base on balls if the score was tied in the ninth.

“Of course, nobody ever did it.  But I never forgot what McGraw said.  So when Veeck suggested hiring a little fellow, I told him what McGraw had said years before.  Veeck got on the phone to Chicago right away and checked up to find there wasn’t any rule against it.”

Veeck had only taken control of the Browns in July 1951, but acted swiftly to differentiate the Browns from their crosstown rivals, the Cardinals.  Promotion was, in Veeck’s view, the key to getting fans in the stands.

Gaedel was just one part of the entertainment designed by Veeck on August 19th.  In the Sporting News article “Day Veeck Outdid Himself; Midget Circus with Browns” marking the 30th anniversary of the event, legendary St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg explained, “Veeck had promised to put on a show, and the master promoter gave the fans a good buildup, which included free cake and ice creams as they entered the park and a lively between-games show.

“There was a juggler at first base, trampolinists at second and hand-balancers pyramided at third.  Baseball clown Max Patkin did his routines and Satchel Paige, playing the drums, led a poor man’s Pepper Martin Mudcat Band onto the field.

“Aerial bombs exploded miniature flags that floated onto the field.  Then, on signal, popping out of a large papier mache [sic] cake at the pitcher’s mound, came a cute little fellow dressed in a pre-shrunk Browns uniform.”

Sadly, Gaedel died in 1961, a result of a street mugging in Chicago.  In an article for the Winter 1987 edition of National Pastimea Society for American Baseball Research publication—republished in the March 1989 edition of Beckett Monthly, Jim Reiser wrote, “After the mugging, he apparently staggered home and died in his bed of a heart attack.  Paramedics were unable to revive him.  A coroner’s report said that Gaedel also had bruises on his knees and his face.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 19, 2015.