Posts Tagged ‘1959’

Ed Walsh, the White Sox, and Comiskey Park’s First Game

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

Chicago welcomed an addition to its iconography on July 1, 1910.  Comiskey Park, that structure serving as a second home for baseball fans on the Windy City’s south side, débuted in an era of new stadia—Fenway Park in 1912, Ebbets Field in 1913, Weeghman Park (later rechristened Wrigley Field) in 1914.

It was about time that White Sox fans received a reward for their dedication to the team, according to I. E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune.  “For years the loyal rooters who have done so much to make this the greatest baseball city in the world have contented themselves as uncomplainingly as they could with accommodations inadequate to their needs while watching the fans of other and smaller cities rewarded, with far less reason, by modern steel and concrete edifices, each designed to surpass all its predecessors,” wrote Sanborn.

The White Sox opened this epoch of its history with a 2-0 loss to the St. Louis Browns.  Sanborn estimated the crowd at 28,000.

Comiskey Park saw one World Series champion team—the White Sox beat the Giants in 1917.  There were two other opportunities:  1919 and 1959.  The former, of course, has an ominous aura because of the “Black Sox” scandal that resulted in eight players being kicked out of baseball with the force of a sonic boom, otherwise known as Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s newly minted commissioner and a former federal judge.

Accused of purposed losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for payoffs from gamblers, the eight players were acquitted in court.  Landis argued that the integrity of the game superseded the legal process result.

In 1959, the “Go Go Sox” compiled a 94-60 record to stand atop the American League.  The Dodgers defeated the White Sox in six games; it was the National League champions’ second year in Los Angeles.

What began in 1910 lasted 80 years—Comiskey Park finished its service as the home of the White Sox in 1990.  It was demolished the next year, which saw U.S. Cellular Filed become the team’s new site.

Ed Walsh got the loss for Comiskey Park’s opener, went 18-20 for the season, and led the American League in losses.  His career statistics earned him a place in White Sox lore:

  • 1.82 Earned Run Average
  • Led American League in Earned Run Average
    • 1.60 in 1907
    • 1.27 in 1910 (led major leagues)
  • Led major leagues in wins
    • 40-15 in 1908
  • Led major leagues in games started
    • 46 in 1907
    • 49 in 1908
    • 41 in 1912
  • Led major leagues in complete games
    • 37 in 1907
    • 42 in 1908
  • Led American League in shutouts
    • 10 in 1906 (led major leagues)
    • 11 in 1908 (led major leagues)
    • 8 in 1909
  • Led American League in strikeouts
    • 269 in 1908
    • 255 in 1911
  • 195-126 career win-loss record

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Walsh in 1946.

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

Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame Game: 19th Century vs. Yankees

Monday, April 24th, 2017

In a Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame matchup between Post-1960 National Leaguers and Pre-1960 American Leaguers, the senior circuit edged Bob Feller and his cohorts 6-5.  To qualify, a National League player could have played before 1960, as long as he played at least five seasons after.  Hence, the appearances of Willie McCovey and Willie Mays in the lineup, in addition to Warren Spahn relieving Don Sutton.  There was no restriction on pinch hitters or substitutes—players of any era from any league were available.

The lineups were:

Post-1960 Nation League

  • Lou Brock (Left Field)
  • Joe Morgan (Second Base)
  • Willie McCovey (First Base)
  • Willie Mays (Center Field)
  • Mike Schmidt (Third Base
  • Andre Dawson (Right Field)
  • Johnny Bench (Catcher)
  • Ozzie Smith (Shortstop)
  • Don Sutton (Pitcher)

Pre-1960 American League

  • Joe Cronin (Shortstop)
  • Home Run Baker (Third Base)
  • Joe DiMaggio (Center Field)
  • Hank Greenberg (Second Base)
  • Goose Goslin (Left Field)
  • Sam Rice (Right Field)
  • Mickey Cochrane (Catcher)
  • Bob Feller (Pitcher)

Lou Brock, a threat to steal as often as Jack Benny claimed he was 39 years old, led off the game by trekking to first on an error by Joe Cronin.  Then, to nobody’s surprise, he stole second.  The rest of the Cardinal legend’s game was not as productive—three strikeouts and a flyout to DiMaggio.  Ozzie Smith, a fellow Cardinal, also struck out thrice.

Dawson singled in the second inning and Bench drove him in with a two-run home run.  With a hint of the impossible—or, at least, highly improbable—Sutton, who hit no home runs in his career, smacked a solo home run to give the NL a 3-0 lead.

In the bottom of the third inning, the AL squad notched its first run when Feller doubled, went to third on a Cronin grounder to Smith, and scored on Baker’s sacrifice fly to Dawson.

Cronin made it a one-run game when he doubled in the fifth, moved to third on a Baker single, and scored when DiMaggio hit into a 4-6-3 double play.  American League bats continued to hammer at Sutton in the seventh.  Baker walked, then moved to second when Sutton threw out DiMaggio at first on a ground ball.  He continued to third when Greenberg got to first on an error by Brock.  With runners at the corners, Lazzeri singled home Baker and Greenberg went to second; Goslin followed with a double, which scored the Tigers’ slugger.

Down 4-3 going into the top of the eighth, the National League batsmen went to work.  Morgan singled, then McCovey knocked a two-run homer to put his team ahead.  Feller walked Mays, who went to third base when Schmidt tried to stretch a single into a double, but got thrown out.  Dawson’s sacrifice fly to Goslin scored Mays, giving the NL a two-run margin.

Cochrane walked to lead off the bottom of the eighth, Gehrig struck out against Sutton in a pinch-hitting appearance, and Cronin hit into a double play.

Feller kept the National Leaguers at bay in the ninth by striking out Smith, getting pinch hitter Wade Boggs out on a fly ball to DiMaggio, and obtaining a similar result when Brock hit one to Rice.

Baker started the bottom of the ninth by flying out to Mays.  DiMaggio made the score 6-5 when he went yard off pitching substitute Warren Spahn.  But that’s as far as the AL got.  Greenberg grounded to Spahn.  Lazzeri amped up the adrenaline when he singled, but Goslin ended the game with a fly out to Dawson.

McCovey’s knock that put the National League ahead in the top of the eighth inning exemplified the power that sent 521 balls over the fence—including 18 grand slams—in a 22-year career.  Débuting with the San Francisco Giants in 1959, McCovey bashed his first career round tripper on August 2nd against Ron Kline of the Pittsburgh Pirates, compiled a .656 slugging percentage, and a .354 batting average.  He won the 1959 National League Rookie of the Year Award.

The Giants traded McCovey to the Padres for lefty Mike Caldwell after the 1973 season.  Bucky Walter of the San Francisco Examiner quoted Giants president Horace Stoneham regarding his rational for the trade:  “We badly needed a lefthanded pitcher.  Caldwell was very impressive against us last season.”  Walter reported, “The young southpaw started twice against the Giants.  He snuffed them out on five hits, 4-1.  He lost a tough 2-1 decision to Ron Bryant.”

McCovey played 1974, 1975, and part of 1976 for the Padres, finished America’s bicentennial year with the A’s, then moved back to San Francisco, where he ended his career during the 1980 season. Appropriately, McCovey was the hero of his last game, hitting an eighth inning sacrifice fly to put the Giants ahead of the Dodgers 4-3—the boys from San Francisco won the game in the 10th inning.  Final score:  7-4.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986, McCovey recounted getting called up to the show from the AAA Phoenix Giants.  In his first major league game, McCovey went 4-for-4 with two triples and two singles.  McCovey’s induction speech draft explained the circumstances, but the excerpt did not make the final draft:  “The next night I’m facing a tough left-hander, Harvey Haddix, of the Pirates,” explained McCovey.  “With the score tied in the bottom of the eighth inning, Mays leads off with a single.  Bill [Rigney] comes storming out of the dugout waving his hands.  So I step out of the batter’s box, and say to myself, ‘Now I know he’s not crazy enough to take me out for a pinch hitter is he?’—So he was, ‘If you be patient and take a couple of pitches that guy at first will steal second for you and you can win the game.’

“So I take the first pitch, strike one, I take the next pitch, and Mays steals second.  The next pitch I single to right, Mays scores the go ahead run and we win the game.”

And so began the career that player that Bob Gibson deemed the “scariest hitter in baseball.”

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

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.

The Hall of Fame Case for Gene Autry

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

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.

Wynn, World Series, and White Sox

Friday, March 24th, 2017

Not since Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven others received lifetime banishments from baseball had White Sox fans suffered a collective depression akin to the one on October 8, 1959—Chicago’s beloved team from the South Side lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the transplanted team from Brooklyn in its second year of basking in the southern California sunshine.  And so, the Windy City shrugged its big shoulders as a dream of a World Series championship became a daymare punctuated by the formidable batsmen from the City of Angeles.

With a 22-10 record, veteran right-hander Early Wynn propelled the White Sox to a World Series birth; Wynn’s number of wins led the major leagues in 1959.  The man whom Ted Williams called “the toughest pitcher I ever faced” criticized the press as the White Sox prepared for Game Six, which turned out to be the deciding game.  “They made us look like a lousy ball club just because we’ve had some bad experiences in that circus grounds they call a ball park out there,” said the 39-year-old hurler of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in an article penned by Richard Dozer for the Chicago Tribune.  “They’ve been saying we ought to try to get into the their major league.”

This statement referred to the Continental League, an idea spearheaded by Branch Rickey.  It ultimately failed, but gave rise to National League expansion in 1962 with the Houston Colt .45s (later Astros) and the New York Mets.

Game Six was Wynn’s third time taking the mound in the series.  He blanked the Dodgers 11-0 in Game One, held at Comiskey Park.  Though Wynn started Game Four, he did not get credited with the 5-4 loss.

Trailing the Dodgers three games to two, the White Sox were poised to even the series in Game Six.  It was a crucial moment for Wynn et al.  “The White Sox are in excellent position for pitching.  Wynn worked only three innings, a victim of semi-liners, pop hits and fielding blunders by his teammates in a four-run third inning,” wrote Edward Press in the Chicago Tribune, absolving Wynn of blame for the Game Four loss.  “So the 39-year-old butcher should be sharp.  He is still dunking his elbow in the whirl pool.”

Alas, it was not meant to be for the White Sox.  1959 belonged to the Dodgers.  Game Six secured the first World Series title for Los Angeles’s National League team, thanks to 13 hits and nine runs.  Wynn took responsibility.  “I threw some bad pitches,” said Wynn in an article by Robert Cromie for the Chicago Tribune.  “But I did nothing different today.  I thought I had pretty good stuff, and I wasn’t tired.  There were no effects from the two-day rest or anything.”

Wynn’s ’59 performance earned him the Cy Young Award.  It was the culmination of a season of excellence in the autumn of his playing years—he retired after the 1963 season with a lifetime 300-244 win-loss record.

Led by manager Al Lopez, the White Sox compiled a 94-60 record in 1959, spurred by future Hall of Famers Wynn, second baseman Nellie Fox, and shortstop Luis Aparicio.  Fox racked up 191 hits, notched a .306 batting average, and led the major leagues in plate appearances (717).  Aparicio’s prowess resulted in 157 hits, 98 runs scored, and a league-leading 56 stolen bases.

Lopez, himself a Hall of Famer, managed the Cleveland Indians from 1951 to 1956 and the White Sox from 1957 to 1969.  The Hall of Fame inducted Lopez in 1977.  When he took the reins in Chicago, the team became known as the “Go Go Sox” because of an emphasis on speed instead of power.  Lopez lived just long enough to see the White Sox bring a World Series title to the South Side in 2005—the team’s first championship since 1917—he died four days later.

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

Savannah’s Bananas

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Indomitable Zack Wheat

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Zack Wheat churned out hits with the reliability of Henry Ford’s assembly line, which débuted the Model T in 1908, a year prior to Wheat’s introduction to the major leagues.  From 1909 to 1926, Wheat flourished as a member of Brooklyn’s National League squad with various nicknames in the press—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Robins, Flock.  Wheat played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1927, his last season.

Dodgers through the decades have achieved more fame, acclaim, and worship than Zachariah Davis Wheat, certainly.  Sandy Koufax pitched his way into Cooperstown with four no-hitters; Jackie Robinson earned civil rights icon status when he broke baseball’s color line in 1947; Tommy Lasorda declared his passion for the Dodgers at every opportunity; Fernando Valenzuela ignited Fernandomania during the summer of 1981; Don Drysdale struck fear into National League batting lineups, then parlayed his stardom into guest appearances on television sitcoms and a broadcasting career; Steve Garvey enjoyed an All-American image until it got sullied with a nasty divorce complemented by publicity regarding extramarital affairs and illegitimate children; Duke Snider defined power with each of his 407 career home runs; and Roy Campanella displayed courage, dignity, and inner strength in facing paralysis after a horrific car accident.

Wheat, surprisingly, often remains sidelined in discussions of Dodger greats.  A lack of recognition for Wheat’s performance belies a remarkable career output placing Wheat as the #1 Dodger in the following categories:

  • Career hits (2,884)
  • Doubles (476)
  • Triples (171)
  • RBI (1,248)

Wheat racked up a .317 batting average in his 19-year career, broke the .300 mark 14 times, and won the 1918 National League batting title with a .335 batting average.

A deeper dive into Wheat’s statistics reveals arcane nuances reflecting his excellence, which further enhances the value of the left fielder who batted left, threw right, and became a Brooklyn fixture.  OPS statistics—On-Base Plus Slugging—offer a baseline measure for ballplayers.  Additionally, Gray Ink grades on the number of times that a ballplayer’s achievements place in a given category’s top 10.

Baseball-reference.com states, “Wheat’s Adjusted OPS scores are not particularly high for a Hall of Famer, but on the other hand he was a well-rounded player.  His Gray Ink score (which is the 27th highest of all time) shows that he was commonly in the top ten in the National League—in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, among other stats, and he also stole over 200 bases in his career.  As a defensive player, his range was good for many years until he began to age.  He never played any position but outfield during his major league career, and almost never appeared in any outfield position than left field, which he owned for many years in Brooklyn.”

In the 1916 World Series, which Brooklyn lost to the Boston Red Sox, Wheat did not perform to his usual standard—he batted .211.  Wheat fared better in the 1920 World Series, achieving a .333 batting average.  It was not, however, enough—the Cleveland Indians beat Brooklyn in seven games.

Wheat’s approach to physical fitness lacked even a whiff of dedication.  “I smoke as much as I want and chew tobacco a good deal of the time,” said Wheat.  “I don’t pay any attention to the rules for keeping in physical condition.  I think they are a lot of bunk.  The less you worry about the effect of tea and coffee on the lining of your stomach, the longer you will live, and the happier you will be.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Zack Wheat in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 23, 2016.

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

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

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

Connors also played for the Boston Celtics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robinson vs. Buckley

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Jackie Robinson, the black knight who rescued baseball from the claws of segregation, accomplished his mission neither immediately nor solitarily.  His was a burden of entrenched bigotry, racial taunts, and blind ignorance.  When Branch Rickey selected Robinson, his decision turned a corner of racism in baseball previously thought impossible to navigate. Robinson chose to do his talking with his bat, his glove, and his legs.  A man of unyielding dedication, he endured the bad so that others could benefit from the good.

After Robinson’s début year of 1947, major league teams siphoned players from the Negro Leagues, leading to their dismantling by the end of the 1950s.  The Boston Red Sox integrated last when Elijah “Pumpsie” Green took the field in 1959.  Latino players also became bedrock members of major league teams.  No longer under the umbrella of exclusion, minority players broadened the prospects for scouts and owners looking to amplify lineups with the best available players.

When Robinson retired after the 1956 season, one of his several post-baseball paths involved civil rights.  Robinson voiced his opinions in newspaper columns for the New York Post and the New York Amsterdam News.  Michael G. Long compiled an anthology of these pieces in the 2013 book Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball.  Long’s annotations give context to Robinson’s missives.

In his August 22, 1960 Post column for titled “Just How Important Is Civil Rights,” Robinson wrote, “It seems to me it is very easy to tell others to stop rocking the boat and concentrate on the passing scenery when you are comfortably riding inside and the ‘others’ are struggling to get on board.  It should take no special spectacles to be able to see that people who are barred—often by law—from full and equal participation in our national life are naturally going to be more concerned about removing those bars than they are in joining the debate over eliminating the national debt or what shall we do about Castro.”

Robinson, a civil rights pioneer, chose to continue his battle for equality by leaning on his writing, speaking, and celebrity status.  On August 4, 1964, Robinson appeared on The Les Crane Show with Shelley Winters and William F. Buckley for a discussion about Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.  Robinson was a Rockefeller Republican, i.e., a moderate conservative.

In his autobiography I Never Had It Made, Robinson explained his encounter with Buckley, a harbinger of the right wing, and his reliance on a sports strategy: “When you know that you are going to face a tough, tricky opponent, you don’t let him get the first lick.  Jump him before he can do anything and stay on him, keeping him on the defensive.  Never let up and you rattle him effectively.  When the show opened up—before Buckley could get into his devastating act of using snide remarks, big words, and the superior manner—I lit right into him with the charge that many influential Goldwaterites were racists.  Shelley Winters piled in behind me, and Buckley scarcely got a chance to collect his considerable wit.”

The Les Crane Show was a late night talk program on ABC during the 1964-65 television season.  Though the pioneer of a format later embraced by television icon Phil Donahue, Crane fell to NBC’s The Tonight Show, a national brand with a decade of broadcasting tenure, proved its dominance.  Donahue began his legendary career in Dayton in 1967, evolving into a daytime programming staple for nearly 30 years.

Crane’s daughter Caprice wears several writer hats, including screenwriter, television writer for the sequels of Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, and author of five novels, including Confessions of a Hater and Stupid and Contagious.  She points out that her father used journalism to cover topics and people that others feared to explore.  “He created the shotgun mike,” says Crane of her dad, who passed away in 2008.  “He had guests who did not provide the typical fluff, for example, Malcolm X, Bob Dylan, and the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald.  He had the first publicly gay man on his show.  He was also an amazing listener who helped create a new television format that demanded more information for the listener.  The Les Crane Show didn’t last long because the person who tries the new thing always gets penalized.  People are afraid of the unknown until it becomes mainstream.”

A renaissance media man for the second half of the 20th century, Crane held interests and influences beyond journalism.  “My dad gave The Mamas and the Papas group its name,” reminds Caprice Crane.  “Casey Kasem credited him with inventing the Top 40 radio format at KRLA.  He also got into the computer business before it was big.  His company was Software Tool Works, which produced the Chess Master computer program.  He was always before his time.”

Crane’s innovative format allowed one of baseball’s biggest heroes to debate one of conservatism’s biggest allies.  Nowhere on television in the mid-1960s could audiences see this type of television fodder.  Unfortunately, The Les Crane Show fell victim to a common policy of television networks destroying tapes because of the shortsighted view that future generations would not be interested.  How wrong they were.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 20, 2014.

Lou’s on First

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

RemingtonA statue of Lou Costello stands in Paterson, New Jersey.  It is a reminder of the comedian’s love for his hometown, often referenced by Costello in his performances with Bud Abbott.  Titled “Lou’s on First,” the statue, which Paterson unveiled in 1992, appeared in two scenes of the landmark television series The Sopranos.

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