Posts Tagged ‘1969’

The Hall of Fame Case for Doc Adams

Saturday, April 29th, 2017

Victory, it is said, has a thousand fathers.  Baseball, too.

Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams is, for reasons passing understanding, without tangible recognition in Cooperstown, despite being a highly significant contributor to baseball’s genesis.  It is not an uncommon tale, of course.  The specter of Gil Hodges, an evergreen topic for debate about Hall of fame inclusion, stands on the sidelines of 25 Main Street as thousands trek yearly to this bucolic village in upstate New York, pay homage to baseball’s icons, and gander at plaques honoring Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and several other boys of summer.  This, regardless of membership on seven consecutive National League All-Star teams, seven consecutive years of 100 or more RBI, and a managerial career noted for turning around the woes of the New York Mets—his efforts culminated in the 1969 World Series championship.

Charles Ebbets, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who conceived Ebbets Field—and sacrificed half his ownership to finance the ballpark—does not have a plaque at the Hall of Fame.  Quincy Trouppe, a standout from the Negro Leagues, often occupies a spot in Hall of Fame debates.

Adams’s denial, to date, contrasts the honor given to some of his 19th century brethren.  In his 2011 book Baseball in the Garden of Eden:  The Secret History of the Early Game, John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s Official Historian, wrote that the Mills Commission’s report, which, inaccurately, credited Abner Doubleday with a primary role in baseball’s creation, failed to highlight “William Rufus Wheaton or Daniel Lucius Adams, recently revealed to be larger figures in baseball’s factual beginnings than either [Alexander] Cartwright or Doubleday.”

Adams has been “recently revealed to be larger figures in baseball’s factual beginnings than either [Alexander] Cartwright or [Abner] Doubleday.”

Indeed, Adams’s role in baseball’s ur-phase, emerging through the dedication of Thorn and other baseball archaeologists, remained, until the latter part of the 20th century, mostly obscured by Cartwright’s vaunted position as the father of the National Pastime and the legend, long since debunked as myth, that Doubleday designed the game’s blueprint.

It was Adams, however, who set the 90-foot length between bases.

It was Adams, however, who helped shape baseball’s rules as president of the Knickerbockers, a team with historical prestige for playing in what was, seemingly, if not concretely, the first organized baseball game—it took place in Hoboken in 1846.

It was Adams, however, who set the number of players at nine.

It was Adams, however, who conceived of a game lasting nine innings.

Teetering on the edge of Cooperstown, Adams is becoming decreasingly enigmatic and increasingly valuable in determining baseball’s genesis, evolution, and governance.  In 2015, the Hall of Fame’s Pre-Integration Committee disclosed that Adams received 10 votes of 16—two votes short of the 12 needed for membership; the Society for American Baseball Research Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legends Committee named Adams its 2014 legend.

Adams’s effect manifested in a 2016 auction for his handwritten “Laws of Base Ball,” which SCP Auctiosn sold for $3.26 million.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 3, 2017.

Age Is Just a Number: Luke Appling and the 1982 Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

It was a moment of nostalgia, surprise, and joy.  More than 30 years after hanging up his spikes, Luke Appling went yard at the age of 75 in the 1982 Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Far from a power hitter, Luke Appling bashed 45 home runs in his career, which was one of, as Wee Willie Keeler said, hitting them where they ain’t.  Appling fell shy of the magic mark of 3,000 hits, ending his career with 2,749 hits, including:

  • 440 doubles
  • 102 triples

He played his entire career in a White Sox uniform—1930 to 1950.

The Cracker Jack game was a shot of adrenaline to baseball fans suffering the psychic wounds created by the previous year’s strike, which shortened the 1981 baseball season.  Appling’s home run off Warren Spahn washed away, if only for a jiffy, the festering stench of despair felt across the fan spectrum, from Tee-ball players first learning the basics to senior citizens reminiscing about ballparks that no longer exist.

Appling was the oldest player in the Cracker Jack game, which ended with the American League beating the National League 7-2.

Nearly 30,000 fans poured into RFK on July 19, 1982 to watch baseball’s heroes of days gone by.  Though the ex-players wore the uniforms so familiar to baseball fans, their appearances showed the slights of age.  A little grayer.  A touch heavier.  A bit slower.  None of that mattered.  Old Timers games are affairs of the heart.  Baseball is, after all, a sentimental game, at once wistful and exciting.

Appling’s homer punctuated the pleasure at seeing a game where icons, though far from their prime, can recapture the feeling that anything is possible.

Bobby Thomson proved it when he knocked a Ralph Branch pitch over the left field fence at the Polo Grounds to win the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants.

The 1969 Mets proved it when they beat the favored Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series.

Cal Ripken, Jr. proved it when he broke Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played.

A .310 career hitter, Appling suffered injuries that came faster than a street hustler moving the cards in Three Card Monte.  “Old Aches and Pains” became his moniker.  Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964, Appling’s career achievements were:

  • 528 strikeouts
  • 1,302 walks
  • .399 On-base percentage
  • Led major leagues with a .388 batting average in 1936 (Lou Gehrig eclipsed Appling in the voting for the American League Most Valuable Player Award)
  • Led American League with a .328 batting average and a .419 On-base percentage in 1943

On the morning of the Cracker Jack game, in a harbinger of the home run, an Appling quote appeared in Denis Collins’s article “Old Timers:  Memories Are as Strong as Ever” for the Washington Post:  “I can still slap the ball around here and there.”

Indeed.

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

Elysian Fields, Alexander Cartwright, and the Knickerbockers of New York

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

With civic pride running as deep as the Hudson River abutting it, Hoboken boasts a singer who defined the standard for American popular music, an Italian festival dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, and a Beaux-Arts train terminal built by the once iconic Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad.  Respectively, these cornerstones are better known as Frank Sinatra, St. Ann’s Feast, and Hoboken Terminal.

For baseball fans, Hoboken occupies vital territory in the National Pastime’s genesis.  This jewel of New Jersey was the location of the first official baseball game, according to lore—it happened on June 19, 1846, when the New York Nine defeated the Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields; the score was 23-1.

Alexander Cartwright spearheaded the creation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club during the previous September.  It was a turning point that established rules, including the setting of a diamond shape with 90 feet separating the bases, the recording of an out when a fielder possesses the ball on a base rather than the runner being struck by the ball, and the equaling of three strikes to an out.

In his 1969 book Baseball: An Informal History, Douglas Wallop described the barometer of 90 feet as optimal.  “Had the distance been, say, ninety-two feet, stealing second would have been so difficult as to be seldom achieved,” wrote Wallop.  “Had it been eighty-eight, stealing second might have been too easy.  Few baseball players in history—Ty Cobb and Maury Wills chief among them—have had the speed and base-stealing technique to give the runner the upper hand, and even they made no mockery of it.”

These were not, however, measures easily created.  “Even the steps the Knickerbockers did take toward organization and uniformity were made reluctantly,” stated baseball historian Peter Morris in his 2008 book But Didn’t We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870.  “According to [Knickerbocker Duncan] Curry, when Alexander Cartwright proposed standard rules: ‘His plan met with much good natured derision, but he was so persistent in having us try his new game that we finally consented more to humor him than with any thought of it becoming a reality.'”

Cartwright’s place in baseball history may not rest on bedrock, however, in light of recent scrutiny.  In her 2009 book Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Legend, Monica Nucciarone peels away the layers of Cartwright’s involvement in baseball’s embryonic phase, resulting in a chronicle with a different conclusion than the one learned by every generation of baseball fans since the Polk administration.  It is an example of the continuing examination of myths, legends, and facts comprising history.

In his review of Nucciarone’s book for the Summer 2011 issue of Journal of Sport History, Thomas Altherr wrote, “Several baseball historians, including John Thorn and Randall Brown, have already undercut the Cartwright theories and attributed more influence to other Knickerbockers, such as Daniel Adams, William Wheaton, and Daniel Brown.  Nucciarone’s work should now inspire the complete toppling of the Cartwright mystique.”

Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, has excavated 19th century baseball history for countless books, articles, and lectures.  “The length of the baselines was imprecise, although latter-day pundits have credited Cartwright with divine-inspired prescience in determining a distance that would yield so many close plays at first,” wrote Thorn in his 2011 book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.  “Sometimes referred to in histories of the game as an engineer even though he was a bank teller, and then a book seller, Cartwright was further credited with laying out the game on a diamond rather than a square.  Yet even this was no innovation in 1845.”

Wheaton, Adams, William H. Tucker, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth form a quartet with “legitimate claims to baseball’s paternity.  They were all present at the creation, although no lightning bolt attaches to any given date, and all played with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York,” added Thorn.

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

Jim Palmer’s No-Hitter

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

Jim Palmer began his major league career in 1965, when the Braves played their last season in Milwaukee, the Astros unveiled the Astrodome, and Bert Campaneris became the first player to play all nine positions in a major league game.

Throughout his 19 seasons—all in a Baltimore Orioles uniform—Palmer racked up pitching achievements like a Marylander devours crabs.  Often.

  • World Series championships (1966, 1970, 1983)
  • American League Cy Young Awards (1973, 1975, 1976)
  • 2o-win seasons in all but one year between 1970 and 1978
  • Led the American League in innings pitched (1970, 1976, 1977, 1978)
  • Led the major leagues in shutouts (1975)
  • Led the American League in earned run average (1973, 1975)
  • Led the major leagues in earned run average (1975)
  • Led the American League in victories (1975, 1976, 1977)
  • Led the major leagues in victories (1975, 1976)
  • Led the American League in complete games (1977)
  • Led the major leagues in complete games (1977)

On August 13, 1969, the future Hall of Famer added a rare jewel to his crown—a no-hitter.  In an 8-0 shutout of the Oakland A’s, Palmer contributed with his bat as well as his right arm—a single, a double, a run scored, one RBI, and a walk that started a five-run tally in the seventh inning.  Associated Press began its account by emphasizing the 23-year-old right-hander “continuing his amazing comeback” after being on the disabled list; the no-hitter brought Palmer’s 1969 record to 11-2.

It was a glorious day for Baltimore.  Boog Powell rapped two hits and scored a run.  Brooks Robinson knocked a three-run home run—it was his only hit of the day.  Don Buford went three-for-four with two RBI.  Paul Blair and Frank Robinson had one RBI apiece.

After two years of limited work because of “assorted back and shoulder miseries,” described by AP, Palmer had an impressive 9-2 record in 1969 before tearing a muscle in his back, which prompted a stay on the disabled list beginning on June 29th.  When Palmer returned to pitch against the Minnesota Twins on August 9th, spirits lifted from Mount Washington to Fells Point.  It looked like the physical challenges were in the rear view mirror as Palmer notched a 5-1 victory over the fellas from the Twin Cities; he threw for six innings.

Palmer’s no-hitter occurred while the world experienced terrific events, with the adjective being used for both its original meaning as a derivation of the word “terror” and its adjusted meaning to describe something extraordinarily good.  In the four weeks prior to Palmer’s feat, Charles Manson masterminded a mass slaughter of Sharon Tate and six others, Apollo 11 made the first successful manned moon landing, and upstate New York prepared for a festival described as “3 Days of Peace and Music” at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel—the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

With a 109-53 record in 1969, the O’s had a 19-game differential from their closest competitor—the Detroit Tigers had 90 wins and 72 losses, respectable but not enough to eclipse the marshals of Memorial Stadium.  The New York Mets defied expectations by defeating the Orioles in the 1969 World Series, taking five games to accomplish the task.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 14, 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.

“Ball Four Goes Hollywood”

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

When Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four hit bookshelves in 1970, it exploded myths, revealed secrets, and offered tales of baseball, theretofore kept protected from the public.  If reporters knew about Mickey Mantle’s alcohol problem, for example, they didn’t cover it.  Womanizing, drug use, and clubhouse conflicts were other Ball Four topics, once forbidden from baseball scholarship.

It infuriated Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, betrayed long-observed rules of the locker room, and relieved reporters of the pressure to keep quiet on what they saw, heard, and learned.

And the public ate it up, shooting Ball Four to the best-seller list.

A right-handed pitcher, Bouton broke into the major leagues with the New York Yankees in 1962, ending the season at 7-7.  His next two seasons showed terrific promise:

  • 21-7 in 1963
  • 18-13 in 1964
  • 2 wins in the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals

Thereafter, not so much.  Bouton spent seven seasons in pinstripes, then played for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros in 1969.  He stayed with Houston in 1970, his last season, presumably.  A comeback with the Atlanta Braves in 1978 resulted in a 1-3 record; his career was over.

Bouton finished his career with a 3.57 Earned Run Average, 720 strikeouts, and a 62-63 record.  In Ball Four, co-authored with sports writer Leonard Shecter, Bouton captured his season with the Seattle Pilots, in addition to a sprinkling of tales about Mantle et al. during his tenure in the south Bronx.

In 1976, CBS aired an eponymous television series based on Ball Four.  The Tiffany Network, so called because of its quality programming, revolutionized television in the 1970s.  M*A*S*H combined comedy and pathos in its tales of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.  Authored by a MASH surgeon named Richard Hornberger, whose pen name was Richard Hooker, the 1968 novel M*A*S*H was, in a sense, like Bouton’s Ball Four.  Readers learned a first-hand perspective of war’s horrors beyond anything digested before in books, films, or television shows.  A 1970 film followed, starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall; the television series began in 1972, ran for 11 seasons, and racked up Emmy Award with the dependability of Cookie Monster devouring cookies.

All in the Family incorporated the Vietnam War, Watergate, and civil rights into dialogue that balanced humor, intelligence, and topicality.  Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, became a lovable bigot who saw his sure-fire patriotism threatened by the zeitgeist personified by his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Mike Stivic.

Mary Tyler Moore, starring the actress famed for playing housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show a decade prior, featured the comedic tales of Mary Richards, a single professional woman working as a television news producer in Minneapolis.  Before Mary showed she could “turn the world on with a smile,” as the show’s theme song indicated, it was rare to see a single woman as the central character of a television show.

Ball Four did not fall under the umbrella of groundbreaking television shows, despite its literary lineage.  Five episodes aired, starring Jim Bouton as Jim Barton of the Washington Americans, a fictional baseball team.  It was, to be sure, a thinly veiled portrayal.  To the dismay, worry, and scorn of his teammates, Barton takes notes for an upcoming series of articles in Sports Illustrated.  In her review of Ball Four for Sports Illustrated, Melissa Ludtke wrote, “The mediocrity of the opening show is particularly unfortunate because Bouton had hoped to give a true portrayal of his baseball experiences in the series.  Pill-popping, religion and women sports-writers in the locker room and homosexuality are some of the issues that he would like to cover.”

Bouton co-created the television series with Marvin Kitman and Vic Ziegel.  Harry Chapin performed the theme song, offering wistful lyrics with his trademark guitar playing as a soft complement.  Ben Davidson, a former professional football player who made Goliath seem like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, played Rhino, the Americans’ catcher.  As a defensive end, Davidson tore through offenses in the AFL and the NFL from 1961 to 1971; he played with the Portland Storm of the WFL in 1974.

Hollywood became a second calling for Davidson, who became a household name in the infamous “Less Filling, Tastes Great” television commercials of the 1970s and the 1980s for Miller Lite.  Bob Uecker, Mickey Spillane, and John Madden were among the other sports personalities in these humorous commercials.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 8, 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.

Ken Holtzman’s No-Hitters

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

During the summer of Woodstock, Hurricane Camille, and Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, Ken Holtzman escalated to legend status in the Friendly Confines when he pitched a no-hitter against the Braves.  Holtzman finished 1969 with a 17-13 record, 12 complete games, and six shutouts.

It was not, however, a turning point for the ’69 Cubs squad, which seemed destined for a World Series berth.  In a 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue web site article about Holtzman’s achievement, Al Yellon clarified, “In hindsight, it was the climax of the season.  The Cubs’ division lead, as big as nine games just a few days earlier, began to shrink.  The team was 77-45 after that game, 32 games over .500, their high point of the season.  They wouldn’t be that far over .500 again until 2008.  They went 15-25 the rest of the way.”

Indeed, 1969 belonged to the Mets.

Ron Santo gave Holtzman sufficient padding with a three-run blast in the first inning—they were the only runs for the Cubs that afternoon.  David Condon’s Chicago Tribune column “In the Wake of the News” captured the exhortations of Cubs manager Leo Durocher, who basked in the afterglow of Holtzman’s performance.  “The grass slowed a couple of balls, I guess,” said Durocher.  “It’s the same grass, tho we have all the time.  It sure wasn’t as bad as the grass in San Francisco where you couldn’t blast thru it with a shotgun.

“They can’t grow grass high enough to have stopped that three-run homer by Santo.  He hit the hell out of it.  Had to, to get it thru the wind.”

Holtzman duplicated the feat two years later in a game against the Reds.  It impacted the hurler’s bottom line—George Langford of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Holtzman, who did not strike out a batter in his gem two years ago, Fanned six tonight and after the game was presented a new contract by John Holland, the Cubs’ vice president and general manager, calling for a $1,500 raise.”

After the 1971 season, Holtzman went to Oakland, where he prospered as a keystone of the A’s dynasty that won three consecutive World Series championships (1972-1974).

Dan Epstein, author of the 2010 book Big Hair and Plastic Grass:  A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s, interviewed Holtzman for JLiving, a magazine about Jewish culture.  Unpublished excerpts appear on Epstein’s web site www.bighairplasticgrass.com.

Prompted by Epstein’s query regarding which accomplishment brought the most satisfaction—three World Series rings with the A’s, two no-hitters with the Cubs, Jewish pitcher with the most career victories—Holtzman revealed, “Of the three choices given, I would say winning the three rings is tops.  However, I’ve said many times my biggest thrill and accomplishment remains the first time I walked onto Wrigley Field in a Cubs uniform because it validated all the hard work and sacrifices that I made to reach the big leagues. The other milestones were very satisfying but, in a sense, anti-climactic.  Achieving a childhood dream is hard to surpass.”

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