Posts Tagged ‘1960’

The Dandy Dominican

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

As San Francisco morphed into the headquarters for counterculture, with the intersection of Haight and Ashbury becoming as well known to hippies as that of Hollywood and Vine to fans of show business, Juan Marichal fired fastballs for the Giants, a team transplanted from a ballpark approximately 3,000 miles eastward.  The “Dandy Dominican” constructed a Hall of Fame career, boosted by a lineup of fellow Cooperstown-bound teammates Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, and Orlando Cepeda.

In a Hall of Fame Strat-O-Matic matchup of pre-1960 American Leaguers and post-1960 National Leaguers, Marichal notched nine strikeouts in a  9-5 victory for the senior circuit players.  The lineups were:

Pre-1960 American League

Ty Cobb, LF

Goose Goslin, CF

Hank Greenberg, 1B

Babe Ruth, RF

Home Run Baker, 3B

Charlie Gehringer, 2B

Joe Sewell, SS

Bill Dickey, C

Walter Johnson, P

Post-1960 National League

Lou Brock, LF

Joe Morgan, 2B

Hank Aaron, RF

Willie Mays, CF

Johnny Bench, C

Ernie Banks, SS

Eddie Mathews, 3B

Frank Chance, 1B

Juan Marichal, P

Each team was allowed to have one player from outside the time parameter.  The American League kept within it; the National League used Frank Chance.

Marichal gave up solo home runs to Gehringer and Johnson, respectively, in addition to a Greenberg two-run dinger with Goslin on base, courtesy of a rare error by Mr. Cub.  And the pitcher known as the “Dandy Dominican” helped his own cause, singling in the bottom of the second inning, moving to second when Morgan walked after Brock flied out to right, and scoring on an Aaron double.

On July 19, 1960, Marichal first appeared in a major league game, scoring 12 strikeouts in a two-hit, 2-0 victory; the righty’s initial three games—against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee—contributed as many wins to the Giants’ 79-75 season record.  Milwaukee skipper Charlie Dressen lobbied the umpires during the third inning of the Braves-Giants game, complaining that Marichal broke the rule regarding a pitcher’s position on the mound.  Marichal planted himself on the rubber’s location closest to first base, though he told Curley Grieve of the San Francisco Examiner that umpires had never raised the issue.  “I’m used to that position and I think it helps my curve ball, especially against right-handed hitters,” said Marichcal in Grieve’s article “Marichal Delivery Illegal?”

Dressen wanted Marichal to pitch from the middle of the rubber, insisting after the game that his argument was sound.

Marichal, all of 21 years old in his rookie year, received accolades from teammate—and fellow Dominican—Felipe Alou after the troika of games indicating future greatness:  “Juan used to throw harder.  We played for the same team.  Escogido in the Dominican winter league, and he burned them in.  Every year he learns a little more, he gets a new pitch.  Now he’s more clever with curves and sliders to go with his fast ball.”  Art Rosenbaum of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Alou in his article “Juan Marichal a Baseball ‘Phee-nom,'” which also encapsulated Marichal’s minor league career in Class D (Midwest League), Class A (Eastern League), and AAA (Pacific Coast League).

Marichal ended his rookie year with a 6-2 record.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983, Marichal compiled a 243-142 win-loss record in his 16-year career.  An ignominious mark on an outstanding career occurred when he came to bat in a 1965 contest against the Dodgers, highlighted by Sandy Koufax and Marichal hurling brushback pitches; when Dodgers catcher John Roseboro threw the ball back to Koufax, it came too close for comfort—Marichal claimed it nicked his ear.  Retaliation erupted with Marichal bashing Roseboro’s head with his bat.  Roseboro left the game with several stitches and Marichal received a 10-game suspension, a $1,750 fine, and a settlement of litigation with Roseboro amounting to $7,500.

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

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.

The Hall of Fame Case for Harvey Kuenn

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

There are coaches and managers who approach baseball with a Lombardi-like focus on winning without the trademark Lombardi philosophy of striving to obtain psychological, emotional, and physical fulfillment through 100% effort.  Their desire to win is pure.  Their process, deadening.

Harvey Kuenn was not one of these leaders.

“Look, you guys can flat out hit, so go out there and have fun.  Don’t be stone-faced on the bench.  If a guy breaks a bat, laugh about it and he’ll laugh with you.  When you laugh and have fun, you get relaxed,” said Kuenn, when he ascended from being the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach to managing the team in the middle of the 1982 season, according to an article by Skip Myslenski in the Chicago Tribune, before the American League playoffs.  Kuenn steered the Brewers around after taking over the team with a 23-34 record; the Brewers finished the season at 95-67.

Harvey’s Wallbangers, a pun nickname, reached the World Series in 1982—the Brewers lost to the Cardinals in seven games.

Kuenn shot to baseball prominence when he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 as a member of the Detroit Tigers.  “The rookie’s success is a rare example of general baseball prophecy coming true,” stated the New York Herald-Tribune.  “From the start of spring training last year, a brilliant future was predicted for Kuenn.  However, Fred Hutchinson, the Tiger manager, said only that Harvey would start the season at short.  Kuenn not only started, but finished there, playing in 155 games.”

Kuenn played for the Tigers, the Indians, the Giants, the Cubs, and the Phillies in a 15-year major league career as a shortstop, a third baseman, and an outfielder.  With a .303 career batting average, Kuenn ranks in the upper echelon of batters.  He does not, however, have a Hall of Fame plaque.  Though a .300 plateau is not, perhaps, an automatic measure for Cooperstown, Kuenn’s other achievements, collectively, boost advocacy for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

  • Led the American League in hits four times and the major leagues once
  • Won the 1959 AL batting championship
  • Made the American League All-Star lineup eight consecutive years
  • Led the American League in doubles three times and the major league twice

One argument against Hall of Fame inclusion is Kuenn’s career RBI figure—671—though one can counter that RBI is a function of opportunity rather than hitting ability.  Also, though Kuenn’s career 950 runs scored is not an overwhelming statistic, by any means, a similar counter applies; if Kuenn is on base safely, which occurred regularly, a teammate must perform for scoring to occur.

When the Tigers traded Kuenn to the Indians for Rocky Colavito at the beginning of the 1960 season, team president Bill DeWitt certified the rationale.  “I have a high regard for Kuenn’s ability as a player,” said DeWitt in an Associated Press article.  “But we felt we needed more power at the plate and we’re hopeful this move will help us score more runs.”  Tiger manager Jimmie Dykes revealed, “It was a deal in which we had to trade consistency for power.”  Indeed.  In 1959, while Kuenn led the American League in batting average, Colavito led in home runs—42.

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

The Lone Star Years of Román Mejías

Friday, February 24th, 2017

During the Colt .45s’ inaugural season—1962—Houstonians could point to few bright spots in the team’s 64-96 record.  Román Mejías was one of them.

Mejías played in 146 games, swatted 162 hits, and finished the season with a .286 batting average.  Initially a product of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, the Cuban outfielder broke into the major leagues in 1955.  A year prior, he noticed a 55-game hitting streak for the Pirates’ minor league team in Waco, Texas.

In his article “Mejías of Waco Batting .345 of Pirate Farm Club” in the August 11, 1954 edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald, Oscar Larnce spotlighted the phenom’s talent.  “I don’t see how Mejías can miss.  He can do everything and is improving every day.  He was in Class D last year, then jumped into a tough Class B league and still gets better,” said Buster Chatham, the Pirates’ business manager, as quoted by Larnce.

Mejías spent six seasons with Pittsburgh, never playing in more than 96 games.  In 1960 and 1961, he played a total of seven games.

On Opening Day in 1962, Mejías clocked two home runs and notched six RBI to help the Colt .45s start Houston’s major league status with a victory over the Cubs. Mejías’s ability did not, however, result in selecting for the first All-Star game of 1962.  In an article for the Pittsburgh Press about Mejías’s All-Star situation, Les Biederman noted that Mejías led the Houston ball club at the plate—.317 batting average, 20 home runs, 54 RBI.

Little by little, Mejías learned English.  “New man.  I disgusted last year when Pirates send me to Columbus,” he explained in the Biederman article.  “I feel I can play in majors and never have real chance.  Figure no more chances but Houston take me and now new man.

“No swing bad balls anymore.  Not always strikes but no way to reach for ball can’t hit.  No more wait for ball over middle of plate.  Can’t get hit with bat on shoulder.”

Houston’s baseball fans embraced the slugger.  In his article “Mejías’ Season of Milk, Honey?” in the May 30, 1962 edition of the Houston Chronicle, Zarko Franks wrote, “Few will argue with Mejías’ popularity with the fans back home.  The roar of their voices when he comes to bat is sufficient testimony.”

Because of political strife in Cuba during the early years of Fidel Castro’s regime, Mejías suffered a separation from his wife, son, daughter, and two sisters for 14 months.

After the ’62 season, the Colt .45s traded Mejías to the Red Sox for Pete Runnels.  Fenway Park’s brain trust commenced brainstorming to bring the Mejías clan into the United States.  Boston Globe sports writer Hy Hurwitz reported, “The Red Sox very quietly went about assisting Mejías in his plight.  There was no publicity on the Mejías predicament by request of certain officials who felt that any publicity might endanger the family’s chance for release from the Castro-dominated island.

“Exactly how much the Red Sox and owner Tom Yawkey did for this 31-year-old man will never be told.  Yawkey won’t let it be told.”

However it was accomplished, the Red Sox organization did its legacy proud in securing safe transport for Mejías’s family in March 1963.

Mejías ended his career in a Red Sox uniform after the 1964 season.

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

Aspro the Astro

Monday, January 30th, 2017

Bob Aspromonte fit nicely with the cultural paradigm built upon a “boys will be boys” philosophy in the 1960s, the decade when Joe Namath swaggered while Dean Martin swigged, offering touchstones for male fantasies of being famous and female fantasies of being in the orbit of an Alpha Male planet.

A lifetime .252 hitter, Aspromonte spent most of his 13-year career with the Houston Astros né Colt .45s. A couple of months before the Colt .45s inaugurated Major League Baseball in Houston, Mickey Herskovitz of the Houston Post profiled the Brooklyn native in a February 1, 1962 article titled “Colts’ Bob Aspromonte Favorite of the Ladies.  “The Brooklyn bachelor is so handsome that you hate him instantly…except that Bob won’t let you.  He never loses his sunny humor, no matter how much kidding he gets about being a ladykiller,” wrote Herskovitz.

A 1969 profile by Al Thomy in the Sporting News queried about Aspromonte’s single status.  “Interviewing Bob Aspromonte in a posh restaurant staffed by micro-mini clad young ladies, is not unlike trying to carry on a conversation with a harried sultan in a chattering harem.  It is most difficult to keep his attention,” wrote Thomy in “Most Eligible Bachelor…How About Aspro?”

Attention by females, though an ego boost, mattered not to performance on the baseball diamond.  “All this talk about being a bachelor and the Valentino of baseball doesn’t help a bit when I make an error,” explained Aspromonte in the Thomy piece.  “It comes back at you from the stands pretty often.  Once in Houston, after a bonehead play of mine, a fan yelled out, ‘Hey, Hollywood boy, what are you doing out there on a baseball field?  You ought to be in pictures!'”

Aspromonte started his career in 1956 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing one game.  After spending three seasons in the minors, Aspromonte rejoined the Dodgers, in Los Angeles by this time.  A two-year tenure in Tinseltown gave Aspromonte a gateway to starlets, though discretion was the better part of valor for the baseball bachelor.  “I don’t like to throw names around,” Aspromonte told Thomy.  “Frankly, I am not interested in having people know my private business.  But I will say I have met actresses who are delightful companions, intellectually stimulating and have intense interests in their careers.”

Houston selected Aspromonte in the National League expansion draft for 1962, the same year that the New York Mets débuted, filling the void created when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated the Big Apple for California.

During his tenure in Houston, Aspromonte entered Texas baseball lore when he knocked three home runs to fulfill promises to Bill Bradley, a 12-year-old who suffered blindness and later enjoyed the restoration of eyesight; it is a feat particularly noteworthy because Aspromonte, though a reliable hitter, hit 60 home runs in his entire major league career.  Bradley bestowed favorite player status upon Aspromonte while listening to the team’s games on the radio.

Aspromonte played seven seasons in Houston, two in Atlanta, and one in New York with the Mets.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 13, 2016.

The Great Groat

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Dick Groat does not have the fame of Bill Mazeroski, the immortality of Roberto Clemente, or the legend of Willie Stargell.  Nevertheless, he was a mainstay of the Pittsburgh Pirates for a majority of his major league career, which spanned 1952 to 1967.

In the October 1, 1952 edition of the Sporting News, Les Biederman honored the rookie shortstop’s special relationship with the city.  “Of all the bonus babies the Pirates scouted, signed and put into major league uniforms during the first two years of the Branch Rickey regime, the one standout has been Dick Groat, Pittsburgh native who leaped from the Duke University campus right to the Big Time in June,” wrote Biderman.  “Groat had a choice of many teams when he completed his baseball curriculum at the North Carolina breeding grounds, but now admits he chose well when he picked the Bucs.”

Groat’s best year was 1960, the year that the Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series; with a .325 batting average, Groat won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award.  In his career, Groat compiled 2,138 hits and achieved a .268 batting average.

Though Groat displayed solidity in baseball, he might have had a career in basketball; at Duke, Groat was an All-American in both sports.  In a 2014 article for the magazine GoDuke, Groat explained, “Baseball was always like work for me.  Basketball was the sport that I loved, but it was baseball, where I knew I would make a living.  I made a deal with Mr. Rickey (Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates at that time).  I was a junior at Duke.  I went home and worked out for the Pirates in the summer before I went back to Duke.  After I had worked out he invited my mother and father to come to a game at Forbes Field where the Pirates played.  I was sitting in his booth and he turned to me, remember I am only 20, I’m still a minor, he says to me, ‘Young man, if you will sign a contract tonight, I’m going [to] start you against the Cincinnati Reds tomorrow night.’

“I said, ‘Mr. Rickey that’s not even fair.  You know I want to play major league baseball [sic], but I owe my senior year to Duke and I am going back to play basketball and baseball.  But I promise you, you make the same offer to me next spring and I will sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates.'”

Rickey relented.

After the 1962 season, the Pirates traded Groat to the Cardinals, where he became a vital part of the team’s infield.  In a 1963 Sports Illustrated article, Walter Bingham wrote, “Groat, still the same deadly opposite-field hitter he was when he won the National League batting title in 1960, uses a log for a bat and merely slaps the ball wherever it is pitched.  While [Cardinals manager Johnny] Keane admires Groat’s uncanny ability at performing the hit-and-run, he feels that Groat too often gives himself up to protect the runner.  ‘He’s too good a hitter to be sacrificing himself.'”

Groat added another World Series championship to his résumé in 1964, when the Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games.

After three season with the Cardinals, Groat played for the Phillies and the Giants—1967 was his last season.

In 2007, the College Basketball Hall of Fame inducted Groat.  Four years later, the College Baseball Hall of Fame followed suit.  Groat, like many athletes, pursued a broadcasting career after his playing days, but he did not join the ranks of Bill White, Tom Seaver, Keith Hernandez et al.  Rather, Groat went back to his first love—he provides the color commentary for the radio broadcasts of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball games.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 25, 2015.

Ted Williams Hits His Final Home Run

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

When a lanky native of San Diego hit a home run on September 28, 1960, it was not, perhaps, the most significant happening in his career—and certainly not the most significant happening in world affairs during the ninth month of the 60th year of the 20th century.

Ted Williams won two MVP Awards, the Triple Crown, and The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year Award seven times.  His career statistics include 521 home runs, .344 batting average, and .634 slugging percentage.  On that late September day, for the last time, Williams donned his Red Sox uniform, heard the cheers from the Fenway Park denizens, and went yard in his last at bat in the major leagues.

Legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich of the Washington Post noted that the excellence of the Red Sox slugger negated any revelatory aspects of the milestone.  “It shouldn’t have been surprising.  Williams has been making a commonplace of the dramatic homer ever since he came into the majors,” wrote Povich.

Still, an emotional charge laced the moment as Williams placed a period at the end of a 22-year career, all in a Red Sox uniform.  Nicknamed “The Splendid Splinter” for his batting prowess, Williams understood the impact of the home run.  “The first thing he did after the game was to send the home run bat to Tom Yawkey upstairs by bat boy Bobby Sullivan.  Then he hung around and soaked up praise and adulation, the admiring glances of those who would not approach, the warmth of a winning clubhouse—as he never would again,” wrote Harold Kaese in the Boston Globe.

Nonetheless, Williams did not tip his hat to the crowd.

About three weeks after Williams’s last game, The New Yorker published John Updike’s account in its October 22, 1960 issue; “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” stands as a model of baseball writing.  It is an honest appraisal of the dynamic fostered in the Red Sox legend’s adopted city.  Updike wrote, “The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing of shared memories.”

Additionally, an unparalleled work ethic, according to Updike, set Williams apart from his peers.  “No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy,” opined Updike.

Invoking the theory of ceteris paribus—all things being equal—Williams’s home run might have been in the 600s rather than the 500s had he not served his country during World War II.  A hero for his service as a pilot, Williams did not play professional baseball from 1943 to 1945, losing three years in his prime.  When Williams returned in 1946, he showed no signs of slowing down—MVP Award, .342 batting average, and 123 RBI.  Additionally, he led the major leagues in walks (156), slugging percentage (.667), on-base percentage (.497), and runs scored (142).

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 16, 2015.

Mazeroski, Pittsburgh, and the 1960 World Series

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

At 3:37 p.m. on October 14, 1960, Bill Mazeroski became a blue-collar legend.  A stellar second baseman with eight Gold Gloves, Mazeroski played his entire 17-year career in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, never more prominent than in the moment he slammed a Ralph Terry pitch into the stands at Forbes Field.  And thus, the Pirates won the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees, a team stocked with icons named Mantle, Maris, Berra, Ford, and Howard.

In the New York Herald Tribune, legendary sportswriter Red Smith wrote, “Terry watched the ball disappear, brandished his glove hand high overhead, shook himself like a wet spaniel, and started fighting through the mobs that came boiling from the stands to use Mazeroski like a Trampoline.”

It was a victory steeped in fantasy.  The Yankees dominated baseball after World War II, winning 11 of 13 World Series between 1947 and 1964, so their presence in the 1960 edition of the Fall Classic was, in no small measure, a foregone conclusion.  Scores reflected Yankee excellence—the Bronx Bombers won Game Two, Game Three, and Game Six with scores of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0, respectively.  Pittsburgh’s triumphs in the remaining games had closer scores, none with a differential more than three runs.  In Game Seven, the lead changed hands several times before Mazeroski’s blast in the bottom of the ninth inning ended the contest with a score of 10-9.

“The accepted storyline of the 1960 World Series was that the New York Yankees hammered the Pittsburgh Pirates with haymakers, but the Bucs won the match on a split decision,” wrote Thad Mumau in his 2015 book Had ‘Em All the Way.  Yankee manager Casey Stengel, according to Mumau, led with baseball acumen contrasted by intuition flooded by over-thinking strategies for Mantle et al.  Mumau wrote, “He was a superior handler of personnel.  But he operated on instinct as much as guile, and sometimes his hunches fizzled.  Not just in terms of the immediate results, but also in terms of the whiplash effect on his players.  He loved playing chess on newspapers’ sports pages.  The pawns were not always amused.”

Bing Crosby, a 20th century entertainer at the apex of the Hollywood food chain, owned part of the Pirates.  With a bankroll built by success in music and in films, Crosby further feathered his financial cushion with business dealings, including a slice of Minute Maid Orange Juice.  Crosby’s dedication to the Pirates submerged to nerves in 1960—to avoid watching the World Series, he went to Paris with his wife, Kathryn; the Crosbys listened to Game Seven on the radio.  For future viewing, Crosby arranged for a recording of the game by kinescope, a process of filming a television screen.  In December 2009, nearly 50 years later, an executive of Bing Crosby Productions discovered the film while excavating the crooner’s thorough preservation of acting and singing performances for a possible DVD release authorized by the Bing Crosby estate.

It was the equivalent of Indiana Jones finding the Lost Ark.  In the web site The Daily Beast, baseball writer Allen Barra quoted Nick Trotta, a licensing executive for MLB Productions, regarding the film’s rarity:  “We have film footage going all the way back to 1905, but only a handful of complete baseball games before 1965.  For decades, it was the home park’s obligation to record a game, and the process was very costly.  It’s a shame, but the truth is that nobody knew in which games Willie Mays was going to make a spectacular circus catch or Mickey Mantle was going to hit a 565-foot home run.  We have newsreels of the great World Series moments, but very few entire games.”

Mazeroski had 138 career home runs, but he is best remembered for one swing that injected a tidal wave of pride throughout Pittsburgh on an October afternoon.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 30, 2015.

The Hall of Fame Case for Vada Pinson

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

Vada Pinson guarded the outfield grass at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in the 1960s like a sentry guards on outpost—with determination, concentration, and resolve.  In his “Counterpoints” editorial for the November 13, 1995 edition of USA Today, Tony Snow wrote, “Pinson was the best unknown player in the history of baseball.  He performed with an almost feral grace and transformed the game of farm-boys into something more akin to ballet.”

Despite formidable credentials, however, Vada Pinson is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Pinson played from 1958 to 1975, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds.  His tally of 2,757 hits falls shy of the 3,000 hits threshold, but not by much and certainly not enough to dismiss him from consideration for Cooperstown.  On the other hand, 256 home runs and 1,169 RBI while respectable numbers, will not support a Hall of Fame argument.

Pinson had career statistics that compare nicely to Roberto Clemente’s.  To be a true measure, though, Clemente’s numbers must be considered as if the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder would have retired after the 1972 season; he died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, having played his entire career from 1955 to 1972 in a Pirates uniform.  Clemente got inducted into the Hall of Fame by a special election in 1973.

Clemente had 3,000 hits, a yardstick for the Hall of Fame, and a .317 batting average, more than 30 points above Pinson’s.  But Pinson exceeded, or at least nearly paralleled Clemente in other categories, indicating prowess at the plate—1,196 strikeouts to Clemente’s 1,230 while having nearly 200 more plate appearances.  For Pinson, this is an 11% strikeout ratio; Clemente’s is 12%.

Pinson’s statistic of stolen bases offers more evidence of Hall of Fame potential.  While Clemente had 83 stolen bases in his career, Pinson had 305.  Speed on the base paths indicates a well-rounded player, making up for the gaps, however slight, separating Pinson from Clemente in on-base percentage (.327 to .359), slugging percentage (.442 to .475), and RBI (1,169 to 1,305).

Character, while an intangible and mostly irrelevant topic for Hall of Fame voters, deserves, at the very least, a mention.  When the St. Louis Cardinals traded Pinson to the Cleveland Indians, he made a difference in the latter’s clubhouse.  A 1970 article by Russell Schneider in the Sporting News quoted catcher Ray Fosse on Pinson’s impact:  “Vada has been on a winning club all his life.  Yet he comes to a young club like ours and fits right in.  All the time he’s watching you and building your confidence.

“There are a lot of little things to learn that helps make the difference.  He takes time out to tell you about them.  He’s been just great for the club.”

Snow echoed the sentiment in his column, explaining a meeting with Pinson in 1985, when the former Reds standout became a pitching coach with the Detroit Tigers.  “Small acts of kindness live on.  So when my boy gets old enough to care about baseball stars, I’ll tell him about the night the greatest unknown player ever talked openly with a kid he never had known and would never see again—a guy for whom there will never be an athlete as graceful or achingly human as Vada Edward Pinson Jr.”

Of course, character alone does not overcome the perceived deficiency, no matter how negligible, in statistics required for a plaque on the walls of the Hall of Fame.  Perhaps it should.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 12, 2015.