Posts Tagged ‘1962’

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.

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.

Beyond ’69

Monday, March 6th, 2017

When the New York Mets took the field for the first time, America was awash in a tidal wave of promise.  The year was 1962—John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had taken viewers on an unprecedented televised tour of the White House, and Dodger Stadium had marked a new standard for ballparks.

Respect eluded the nascent Mets, however.  Inheriting the Polo Grounds and the interlocking NY logo from the Giants—who abdicated New York City for San Francisco after the 1957 season—the Mets lost their first game.  It was, indeed, an inauspicious beginning for the National League squad bearing Dodger Blue and Giant Orange as its colors.  At the end of the season, the Mets’ tally read 40 wins, 120 losses.

Subsequent seasons followed a paradigm of mediocrity.  It shifted in 1968, when Gil Hodges took the reins after managing the Washington Senators for five seasons—the Mets went from 61-101 in 1967 to 73-89 in Hodges’s first year at the helm.

In 1969, the Mets exorcised their ghosts.  With a 100-62 record, the “Miracle Mets” defied expectations with a World Series upset of the Baltimore Orioles, thereby securing 1969 as a season of glory; Mets fans get wistful at the mere mention of the year.

Lost in the nostalgia is the decade after the miracle—the 1970s Mets were, for the most part, a formidable team often overlooked in accounts of baseball in the Me Decade.  Surely, the Yankees drew more attention with three consecutive World Series appearances resulting in two championships, not to mention drama of Shakespearean proportions.

In Oakland, the A’s—also known as the Mustache Gang—carved a dynasty with three consecutive World Series titles, later suffering a shattered team when owner Charlie Finley broke it up.

In Cincinnati, the Big Red Machine set the bar high for National League power, with a lineup including Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench.

But the Mets, consistent rather than dominant, compiled winning seasons from 1970 to 1976, except for 1974.  Further, the Mets battled the powerful A’s in the 1973 World Series, falling to the fellas from Oakland in seven games.  Gil Hodges, unfortunately, did not live to see that second grasp at a World Series—he died from a heart attack right before the 1972 season.

At the New York Mets 50th Anniversary Conference hosted by Hofstra University in 2012, the impact of Hodges’s death on the 1970s Mets was a point of discussion on a panel populated by Ed Kranepool, Art Shamsky, and Bud Harrelson—all agreed that if Hodges had survived his heart attack, they would be wearing a few more World Series rings.  More importantly, perhaps, Hodges might have been able to prevent the darkest point in Mets history.

Tom Seaver won the Cy Young Award three times—all in the 1970s.  When the Mets traded Seaver to the Reds for four players in 1977, fortunes plummeted.  After an 86-76 record in 1976, the Mets closed out the remainder of the 1970s with losing seasons:

  • 1977:  64-98
  • 1978:  66-96
  • 1979:  63-99

In contrast to the optimism permeating Shea Stadium at the beginning of the decade, frustration became an unwanted friend as the Mets piled on loss after loss.  This streak continued into the 1980s, finally reversing with a 90-72 record in 1984.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 7, 2016.

22 Innings, 7 Hours

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

Baseball, unlike other sports, has no boundary of time.  On June 24, 1962, the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers issued a reminder at Tiger Stadium.  It took 22 innings, seven hours; an epic test of endurance inched the players toward completing the contest, which ended in a 9-7 Yankee victory.  At the time, it was the longest game in elapsed time, a record that has since been broken.

43 players participated—21 Yankees, 22 Tigers.  Each team used seven pitchers.  Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson had the most at bats (11), Tiger left fielder Rocky Colavito had the most hits (7), and Yankee third baseman Clete Boyer and Tiger right fielder Purnal Goldy tied for the most RBI (3).

Jack Reed punctured the standoff with a two-run homer, his only round-tripper in a three-year career.  Reed’s smash came off Phil Regan, “a righthander with a herky-jerk delivery,” as described by Tommy Holmes of the New York Herald-Tribune.

A replacement for Mickey Mantle in the later innings of Yankee games, Reed had a career batting average of .233 through 222 games.

In his “Ward to the Wise” column in the New York Daily News on April 18, 1963, Gene Ward highlighted Reed, with the subtitle “The Unknown Yankee.”  “It doesn’t seem possible a man can play with the Yankees and remain an unknown,” wrote Ward.  “But the 30-year-old Reed, in his 10th year with the organization, is unknown only in the sense that kids don’t gang up on him for autographs and his name isn’t emblazoned in headlines.  He never has been a regular, although he appeared in 88 games last year, compiling a .302 BA, and his chances to play come only when Mantle or Maris turn up ailing.

“But as far as the Yankee brass is concerned, and [Yankee manager Ralph] Houk in particular, Reed is a known and valuable quantity.”

Indeed, Houk offered high praise about Reed’s baseball skills.  Intangibles received equal acclaim.  “He’s a college graduate and highly intelligent.  He likes to talk baseball.  I never receive bad reports on him and he never gripes.  He’ll pitch batting practice and he’ll take second infield,” said the Yankees skipper.

Reed’s dedication was apparent.  Ward quoted, “It’s a privilege to work for an organization like this and to play under a man like Mr. Houk,” said the man who wore #27 in pinstripes.

Five years after Reed homered into baseball history, Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press revealed that the marathon game’s seven-hour length benefited from a slight nudge.  As the game’s official scorer, Falls held the power to change history.  And so he did.

In his April 1, 1967 column, subtitled “A Writer Discovers That Fame’s Fleeting,” Falls described looking at the clock after Reed’s dinger—it appeared to show 8:29 p.m., which gave the game a length of six hours, 59 minutes.  “But my clever little mind was still working sharply,” wrote Falls.  “I figured:  ‘Who’ll ever remember 6:59 as the longest game in baseball history.

“So I shouted out the time.  ‘Seven hours!’  All the guys applauded.”

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

The Hall of Fame Case for William Shea

Friday, February 10th, 2017

William Alfred Shea never played in the major leagues nor did he manage, own, or work in the front office of a team.  Nevertheless, Shea made an invaluable contribution to Major League Baseball.  Without him, arguably, the National League would have had a more difficult path to fill the crater generated by the Dodgers and the Giants abandoning the Big Apple for the Golden State—the exodus happened after the 1957 season; baseball’s expansion to New York City happened in 1962.

Presently, Shea lacks the honor of membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  It’s an honor he deserves.

Tapped by New York City Mayor Wagner to lead the effort for securing another team, Shea, a leading attorney operated with the finesse of an orchestra leader—he knew how the city’s political, business, and legal arenas operated and, moreover, he had the required relationships with decision makers to get questions answered.  These were invaluable assets in an era when lawyers did not always bill by the hour; Shea’s connections proved as key, if not more so, than acumen in legal rhetoric, contract drafting, or appellate advocacy.

In his 2009 book Bottom of the Ninth:  Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme To Save Baseball From Itself, Michael Shapiro wrote, “Shea was neither a litigator nor a legal scholar.  Rather, he was the sort of lawyer whom powerful men trusted with their secrets and whom they could rely upon as a go-between.”

To be clear, Shea’s position in New York City’s legal circles was not an endowment through wealth, connections, or familial status.  Shea built a legal career that began a quarter-century prior to Mayor Wagner’s handing him the responsibility for establishing New York City as a two-team metropolis.

According to a Shea & Gould law firm biography circa 1982, Shea graduated Georgetown Law School, got admittance to the New York bar in 1932, and started working at the prestigious Manhattan law firm Davis, Polk, Wardwell, Gardiner & Read.  During the Depression, Shea received an appointment from New York’s Superintendent of Banks to work as counsel to the Liquidation Bureau, followed by an appointment from the Superintendent of Insurance to be the attorney of record for the New York Title and Mortgage Company—Shea later worked as the Assistant General Counsel to the superintendent.

Shea’s private practice yielded positions of stature with no pay, akin to the baseball job.  In 1954, for example, Mayor Wagner appointed Shea to be a Trustee of the the Brooklyn Public Library.

In Shea’s 1991 obituary in the New York Times, David Margolick quoted a 1974 piece by Nicholas Pileggi in the magazine New York:  “He is the city’s most experienced power broker, its premier matchmaker, a man who has spent 40 years turning the orgies of politicians, bankers, realtors, union chiefs, underwriters, corporate heads, utility combines, cement barons, merchant princes and sports impresarios into profitable marriages.”

Indeed, Shea had the innate ability to bring disparate interests together to close deals, a trait that was imperative to the baseball mission.  Contrariwise to the paradigm conceived of a power broker metaphorically snapping his fingers to make things happen, Shea received the Wagner appointment based on the integrity earned through 25 years of law practice.  There were other established lawyers, businessmen, and philanthropists with more power, certainly.  But the mayoral decision pointed to a well-respected attorney, not the men with loftier names and further reaches.  As part of the leadership of the Continental League, Shea worked with Branch Rickey to realize the idea of a third league to compete with the National League and the American League.  It faded from the drawing board, finally erased when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and the National League’s expansion committee okayed adding two teams to the senior circuit.  Thus, the Mets and the Colt .45s (later the Astros) emerged in New York City and Houston—they débuted in 1962.

For the first two years, the Mets played in the Polo Grounds, and then moved to a new stadium in Queens—William A. Shea Municipal Stadium.  A stadium in his name was not a tribute sough, such was Shea’s modesty.  It was, however, proper.  To be sure, a new professional baseball team in New York City was inevitable; the thirst of fans in the wake of losing the Dodgers and the Giants demanded an outlet for quenching.  However, it was Shea who played a highly significant role in making it happen by first working on the genesis of the Continental League, which led to the NL expansion.  Without Shea’s involvement, when would New York City have received a second team?  It’s a “what if” question that, of course, can only be speculated upon, but never answered.  In its first season, 1964, Shea Stadium hosted the All-Star Game.  It succumbed to destruction after the 2008 season.  Shea’s name lives on, though.  At Citi Field, the Mets’ present home, Shea Bridge is a walkway traversed by thousands of fans.

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

Houston Blasts Off

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Houston ignited its major league status with victory.  On April 10, 1962, the Colt .45s overtook the Cubs 11-2 at Colt Stadium.  Bob Aspromonte, Al Spangler, and Román Mejias each scored three runs in the bout while Norm Larker and Hal Smith scored one apiece.

Bobby Shantz pitched a complete game, allowing five hits for the heroes of Chicago’s North Side.  Houston traded Shantz to the St. Louis Cardinals in May, prompting the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to publish the article “Acquisition of Shantz Produces Lefthanded Depth for Cardinals.”  It revealed a possibility that will shock the hearts of St. Louisans today because of a contemplated trade of a future Cardinals legend:  “[Cardinals general manager Bing] Devine tried hard to pry Shantz from the new Senators after they obtained him from the Yankees in the 1960 player pool.  Bob Gibson, then having his troubles, was among those offered to the Senators for Shantz.”

In their second major league game, the Colt .45s beat the Cubs 2-0.  Hal Woodeshick started the game, left in the ninth inning, and received a victory because of Dick Farrell’s relief.  With a 5-16 record for 1962, Woodeshick turned things around for 1963—he ended the season at 11-9.  In the June 5, 1963 edition of the Houston Post, Clark Nealon used his “Post Time” column to praise Woodeshick’s rebound:  “It is to say that the development of Lefty Hal Woodeshick of the Colts is the most amazing mound feature of an amazing first two months.  It’s one thing to be a moundsman of established ability and reputation and to turn in great performances as part of a very noticeable trend.

“It’s another to have been something of a frustrated workman all your career, and then to suddenly become a paragon of effectiveness and consistency.  And this is what Woodeshick has done in a manner to top not only the Colt staff but the entire National League at this writing.”

Woodeshick has the distinction of earning the first victory in the Astrodome, which hosted its first game on April 9, 1965—it was an exhibition pitting the newly named Astros against the Yankees.

The Colt .45s beat the Cubs 2-0 for the third game of the three-game series.  Richard Dozier of the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote, “The Chicago Cubs fled Texas by air at dusk today, puzzled by their sudden mediocrity, dazzled by Houston’s left handed pitching, and imbedded in ninth place—a position new even for them.”

Colt Stadium, Houston’s major league ballpark until the Astrodome eclipsed it, remains a fond memory for those who were there in ’62.  “Although Colt Stadium would soon be pushed into the shadows of the Astrodome, it still had its share of unforgettable quirks,” describes the Houston Astros web site.  “One of the most obvious of these quirks lied in the stadium seats that had colors ranging from flamingo red, burnt orange and chartreuse, to turquoise.  Also unique to Colt Stadium, female ushers were dubbed ‘Triggerettes,’ and parking attendants wore orange Stetson hats with blue neckerchiefs and directed cars into sections named ‘Wyatt Earp Territory,’ ‘Cheyenne Bodie Territory,’ and ‘Matt Dillon Territory.'”

Though off to a prodigious start for their inaugural season, the Colt .45s finished at 64-96.

version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 9, 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.

Rhapsody in Blue and Orange

Saturday, December 31st, 2016

Débuting concurrently with the New York Mets in 1962, the song Meet the Mets struck the tone—no pun intended—required to capture excitement for New Yorkers still suffering from the exodus committed by the Giants and the Dodgers after the 1957 season.  Music, indeed, is a powerful conduit for emotion, inspiration, and passion.  A title from the soundtrack to the Elvis Presley movie Speedway conveys the power of music—There Ain’t Nothing Like a Song.

Imagine Rocky Balboa without the accompaniment of Bill Conti’s masterpiece Gonna Fly Now.  Imagine the television show The Wonder Years without Joe Cocker’s rendition of I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends as the theme song reflecting the show’s late 1960s and early 1970s setting awash in nostalgia.  Imagine a baseball game without the National Anthem.

When the Mets front office executives chose Meet the Mets in a contest involving 19 entries, it carved a foothold for worshippers in a culture colored blue and orange.  Written by Ruth Roberts and Bill Katz, Meet the Mets immediately conveyed an invitation to become familiar with the th nascent National League team through its title.

This new squad created to fill the void, heal the wound, and revive the fervor in New York City’s baseball psyche needed an identity for a National League fan base knocked on the canvas by the twin blows of Horace Stoneham and Walter O’Malley moving the Giants to San Francisco and the Dodgers to Los Angeles, respectively.  Meet the Mets fulfilled its obligation to render affection for an infant team with a highly significant number of players past their prime—and many who would never see a prime.

Meet the Mets uses lyrics harmless for a pre-feminist society soaked in the traditional dynamic of a father working and a mother staying home to take care of the kids, clean the house, and volunteer in the community, perhaps for the PTA.  Undeniably, the lyrics indicate a message to the male baseball fan, ignoring the female populus.  Or at least submitting it.  Advocating for a man to have his kiddies and his wife join him in a day at the ballpark symbolized the male dominance structure reinforced in the Eisenhower decade of the 1950s through popular culture, for example, the television shows Leave It to BeaverFather Knows Best, and I Love Lucy.  Today, the lyrics seem antiquated. Condescending, even.

In a 1963 critique, New York Times scribe Leonard Koppett analyzed how classical music icons might have fared in creating a song for the team.  “Think of the Mets as they really are,” wrote Koppett.  Puccini would have oversentimalized them; Wagner could write for the Giants or perhaps the Yankees, but not the Mets; Beethoven would have become too furious; Brahms, poor soul, would have tried and tried; Verdi might have captured the essence of a Chris Cannizzaro and a Cookie Lavagetto, but a Charles Dillon Stengel would have been beyond him.

“Only Mozart could have done it, because, like so many others, would have loved the Mets—with genius added.”

A new version of Meet the Mets débuted in the mid-1980s with an updated arrangement plus lyrics indicating the appeal of the Mets throughout the New York City metropolitan area, with the exception of the Bronx, however, because of its status as the Yankees’ home.  Certain tribal loyalties set by geographical boundaries cannot be crossed, not even by the power of a song.

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