Posts Tagged ‘1972’

The Chicago Bears, the Miami Dolphins, and the Legacy of Perfection

Saturday, May 6th, 2017

Professional athletes are forced to live up to legacies.  Retired uniform numbers, highlight films, and statues of icons from past eras remind them of the giant footprints to fill.  Or at least in which they must tread.  Such was the burden for the Miami Dolphins on December 2, 1985 in a Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears.  The former had a legacy of perfection to protect—the 1972 Dolphins squad had 17-0 record; the latter compiled a 12-0 record, theretofore.

During the same year that Marty McFly went back to the future, the Bears had an aura of celebrity transcending popular culture.  A spat concerning quarterback Jim McMahon wearing an Adidas headband became a matter of national debate—NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle fined McMahon $5,000 for endorsing a product during a game.  McMahon responded the following week—during the NFC Championship—by wearing a headband with Rozelle’s name written on it.

William “Refrigerator” Perry transformed from a defensive back into a fullback—but only with the end zone in sight.  This tactic may have seemed to be a gimmick because of Perry’s size, but it did result in touchdowns, as well as guaranteed prominence on national and local sportscasts.

Head Coach Mike Ditka had Bears blood running through his veins—he played for the team in the 1960s; Walter Payton’s graceful running garnered cheers from and catharsis for Chicagoans; Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense alignment protected leads; and Mike Singletary’s single-mindedness set a model for defensive players to be aware of every twitch, movement, and indicator of their opponents.

There was a scent of destiny surrounding these Monsters of the Midway.  With each victory came a certain inevitability that the Bears would go to their first Super Bowl.  When pre-game shows mentioned Chicago, eyes and ears narrowed their focuses to ingest the latest information about the personalities, performances, and progress of the Bears.

Marching towards perfection, the Bears took the field at the Orange Bowl on December 2nd; a perfect season was a sustainable reality.  Miami would not allow that to happen.  Tension tighter than a prospector’s clutch on his gold pervaded the stadium.  And it pored through television screens tuned to the game, from Puget Sound to Passaic, New Jersey.

Larry Csonka and other members of the ’72 Dolphins stood watch on the sidelines, with arms folded and sober visages.  Theirs was a mission of intimidation, steadfastness, and pride—Miami’s  perfect season will not be matched.  Not tonight.  Not tomorrow.  Not ever.  It was an event made for the moment—ABC’s Monday Night Football was the only national telecast of NFL games; CBS and NBC aired games regionally.

The Dolphins beat the Bears 38-24.  Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino had an outstanding game:

  • Completed 14 of 27 passes
  • Threw for three touchdowns
  • Total yards:  270

Chicago Tribune sports columnist Bernie Lincicome tried to put things in perspective.

“So much for immortality,” wrote Lincicome.

“Not to underrate history, but the Bears did not lose a season in the Orange Bowl Monday night, they merely lost a game, and they already have so many.”

The day after, the Bears recorded “The Super Bowl Shuffle”—this rap song became a signature of the Bears’ brashness.  When the music video aired, it showed the Bears wearing their jerseys and singing in a studio.  If cockiness bled through the song’s lyrics, confidence poured.  Perhaps it was the right time for a diversion; the Bears won the remaining games in the schedule, dominated the playoffs, and beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 25, 2017.

What if…

Friday, April 21st, 2017

What if…

Charlie Finley hadn’t broken up the 1970s Oakland A’s dynasty?

Bob Uecker hadn’t appeared in Major League?

there was no Designated Hitter position?

the Mets had never traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels?

Yogi Berra had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers?

George Steinbrenner had never bought the Yankees?

the Dodgers had never moved from Brooklyn?

the Giants had moved to Minneapolis instead of San Francisco?

the Red Sox had never sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees?

Walter O’Malley had never owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

the Red Sox had integrated in 1949 instead of 1959?

Satchel Paige had pitched against Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and other Hall of Famers in their prime?

Bob Feller and Ted Williams had never lost years to military service in World War II?

Mickey Mantle hadn’t blown out his knee in the 1951 World Series?

Bobby Thomson had struck out against Ralph Branch?

Commissioner William Eckert had never invalidated Tom Seaver’s contract with the Atlanta Braves?

Major League Baseball banned synthetic grass?

the Mets had never traded Tom Seaver to the Reds?

Reggie Jackson had never played for the Yankees?

Thurman Munson hadn’t died in a plane crash?

Mickey Mantle had stayed healthy in the home stretch of 1961?

The Natural had ended the same was as the eponymous novel?

the Indians hadn’t traded Chris Chambliss, Dennis Eckersley, Buddy Bell, and Graig Nettles?

the Braves hadn’t never left Boston for Milwaukee?

the first incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Minnesota to become the Twins?

the second incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Texas to become the Rangers?

the Seattle Pilots hadn’t left for Milwaukee to become the Brewers?

Jim Bouton hadn’t written Ball Four?

Roger Kahn hadn’t written The Boys of Summer?

Mark Harris hadn’t written Bang the Drum Slowly?

Jackie Robinson had sought a football career instead of a baseball career?

Billy Martin hadn’t managed the Yankees in the late 1970s?

Gil Hodges hadn’t died in 1972, during a high point in the history of the Mets?

Vin Scully had stayed in New York City and announced for the Yankees or the Mets?

Bob Feller had pitched for the Yankees?

Ted Williams had played for the Yankees?

Joe DiMaggio had played for the Red Sox?

Charles Ebbets hadn’t owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Honolulu had a Major League Baseball team?

Pete Rose were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

the commissioner’s office rescinded the lifetime banishment of the 1919 Black Sox from Major League Baseball?

Hank Aaron had played in the same outfield as Willie Mays?

Wiffle Ball hadn’t been invented?

Nashville had a Major League Baseball team?

Dwight Goodman and Darryl Strawberry had stayed away from drugs?

Roberto Clemente had played for the Dodgers instead of the Pirates?

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

Boog Powell’s MVP Season

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

A native of Key West—the place where Pan Am began, the U.S.S. Maine sailed from on its last journey before exploding in Havana Harbor, and Ernest Hemingway maintained a legendary home—John Wesley Powell, also known as Boog, spent most of his 17-season career in an Orioles uniform.  One of those seasons—1970—resulted in him winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award.

Powell ran away with the MVP voting, gaining 11 of 24 first-place votes and 234 points.  The next four contestants weren’t even close:

  • Tony Oliva, Minnesota Twins (157)
  • Harmon Killebrew, Minnesota Twins (152)
  • Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox (136)
  • Frank Howard, Washington Senators (91)

Memorial Stadium rocked with the cheers of Oriole Nation as Powell marched toward the coveted .300 batting average barrier, falling just short at .297.  Powell’s dominance at the plate reflected in 35 home runs, 114 RBI, and a .549 slugging percentage.

It was a banner year for Baltimore’s birds—they won the World Series after getting upset by the Miracle Mets in 1969.  Powell’s fellow Orioles did not fare as well with awards, despite outstanding seasons.  Baltimore’s legendary pitching staff boasted three 20-game winners—Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Jim Palmer scored in the top five for the American League Cy Young Award voting, but got eclipsed by Jim Perry of the Twins.

Powell said, “I think it’s a shame we were neglected for the other awards.  All of our three pitchers certainly deserved the Cy Young.  But I’m still elated at being chosen the MVP.  I feel it’s the highest honor in sports.”

Yankee skipper Ralph Houk won the American League Manager of the Year title rather than Earl Weaver, who helmed the O’s to two straight World Series.  A third consecutive appearance happened against the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’71—ultimately a losing affair in seven games.

Cheers, an NBC prime time powerhouse in the 1980s, used Powell to cement verisimilitude of Sam “Mayday” Malone—a fictional relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, a recovering alcoholic, and the owner of Cheers.  As the show’s theme song declares, Cheers is a bar, near the Boston Commons, where everybody knows your name.

In the first season episode “Sam at Eleven,” Sam’s former ballplayer pal Dave Richards, now a sportscaster, wants to interview the ex-Red Sox reliever at Cheers.  Sam talks about a dramatic moment when he faced Powell in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader.  During the middle of Sam’s story, Dave abandons for an interview with John McEnroe.  Diane Chambers, an intellectual waitress having an undercurrent of highly significant sexual tension with Sam, which gets resolved in a later episode when they succumb to their respective differences—he, a dumb jock stereotype and she, a condescending sort—asks what happened to “the Boog person” and Sam, obviously suffering from a punch to his ego, casually tells her that Powell grounded to third to end the game.

After some gentle and not-so-gentle verbal prodding from Diane, Sam talks about the injury to his psyche.  Then, perhaps in a moment of catharsis, he tells Diane about the end of the second game, which also found him facing Powell in the bottom of the ninth.

Sam’s story could not have taken place during Powell’s MVP year, however.  When Cheers left prime time in 1993, after 11 seasons, Sports Illustrated ran a biography of America’s favorite barkeep.  “Everybody Knows His Name” recounted Malone’s career based on dialogue throughout the series.  Sam Malone entered professional baseball in 1966, débuted in the major leagues in 1972, and ended his career in 1978.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 15, 2016.

Rick Monday’s Star-Spangled Play

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Old Glory.  Stars and Stripes.  Star-Spangled banner.

America’s flag is, for some, a sacred fabric.  Rick Monday represented those devotees during a Cubs-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium on April 25, 1976, when he prevented a duo—father and son—from igniting the red, white, and blue banner on the outfield grass.

In a 2006 article by Ben Platt for mlb.com, Monday said, “My thoughts were reinforced with my six years in the Marine Corps Reserves.  It was also reinforced by a lot of friends who lost their lives protecting the rights and freedoms that flag represented.”

What followed put an exclamation point on the ribbon rescue, which received an extra infusion of national pride during America’s bicentennial year.  “It was a very quiet moment,” described Monday.  “A smattering of applause as they got these two guys off the field.  And it got quiet again.  And if memory serves correctly, from one part of the stadium, I don’t know where, and then from another part, and then from another part, and then kind of collectively, people began to sing ‘God Bless America.'”

When Monday swiped the flag, which had already been dosed with lighter fluid, America’s psyche had suffered a series of rabbit punches during the past two decades—more than 58,000 servicemen dead and thousands others wounded in the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon; the Cuban Missile Crisis; four students shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard during a war protest at Kent State University; two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford; two oil crises; inflation; race riots; and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cynicism abounded, laced with fear.  Bobby Kennedy offered hope, which crumbled when Sirhan Sirhan murdered him in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after Kennedy’s victory in the California Democratic primary.  “Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence,” said Kennedy.  “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.  And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.”

Would that it were so.  Optimism about America teetered with each headline.

Hence, Monday’s act, though only occupying a few seconds, triggered a patriotic catharsis for the 25,167 in attendance, plus those watching the game on television, listening to it on radio, or learning about it in the next day’s sports pages.

The Dodgers beat the Cubs 5-4 on that April day.  Monday knocked three hits, scored two runs, and notched one RBI.  But snatching the flag from imminent torching captured headlines and hearts—and continues to do so.

In a 2006 interview for mlb.com, Monday explained, “From time to time, people ask, ‘Are you upset because you spent 19 seasons in the major leagues and you’re known primarily for stopping two people from burning the flag?’  If that’s all you’re known for, it’s not a bad thing at all.  It solidified the thought process of hundreds of thousands of people that represented this country in fine fashion and lost their lives.”

Rick Monday played with three teams in his career:

  • 1966-1971:  Athletics
  • 1972-1976:  Cubs
  • 1977-1984:  Dodgers

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

Baseball, Las Vegas, and Area 51

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Glitz, glamour, and gambling—escalated, somewhat, by gaudiness, garishness, and greed—fuel Las Vegas.  It is, after all, a desert metropolis built on a foundation of fantasy.  It is also where Elvis Presley made his live performance comeback after eight years of concentrating on movies and albums; where Frank Sinatra led a group of his former Army buddies to rob five casinos on New Year’s Eve in the original Ocean’s 11 film; where the television shows Las VegasDr. VegasCrime StoryVegasVega$CSI, and The Player were set; where the Partridges made their professional début in The Partridge Family; and where Michael Corleone sought to expand his family’s operations by buying out casino owner Moe Greene in the 1972 movie The Godfather.

A destination city for vacationers looking for a hint of sin—if not sin incarnate—Las Vegas also offers recreation for its natives; baseball lovers have the 51s ball club, which traces its genesis to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League.  From 1903 to 1972—except for the 1919 season, which they played in the Pacific Coast International League—the Beavers formed a cornerstone of the PCL.

In 1973, the team’s tenure shifted to Spokane, where it became the Indians.  After the 1982 season, the Indians moved to Las Vegas and underwent a name change—Stars.  This label lasted until 2001, when the 51s name emerged.  Future stars have populated the 51s, including Jayson Werth, Nomar Garciaparra, and Andruw Jones.

Las Vegas’s baseball team takes its name from Area 51, a part of Nevada about 150 miles from the famed Las Vegas Strip—the stretch of road with the iconic “Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign.

Area 51—also known as Groom Lake—is the subject of conjecture, controversy, and conspiracy.  UFO believers maintain that the United States government houses aliens, alien spacecraft, and time travel experiments at Area 51.  NASA’s Administrator Major Charles Bolden—the top of the space agency hierarchy—dismisses those theories.

“There is an Area 51.  It’s not what many people think,” said Bolden in a 2015 article by Sarah Knapton for Great Britain’s newspaper The Telegraph; Knapton is the paper’s Science Editor.  “I’ve been to a place called that but it’s a normal research and development place.  I never saw any aliens or alien spacecraft or anything when I was there.

“I think because of the secrecy of the aeronautics research that goes on there it’s ripe for people to talk about aliens being there.”

In 2013, the Central Intelligence Agency released a declassified report affirming the existence of Area 51 at Groom Lake; theretofore, the United States government maintained silence about it.  “The report, released after eight years of prodding by a George Washington University archivist researching the history of the U-2 [spy plane], made no mention of colonies of alien life, suggesting that the secret base was dedicated to the relatively more mundane task of testing spy planes,” wrote Adam Nagourney in his 2013 article “C.I.A. Acknowledges Area 51 Exists, but What About Those Little Green Men?” for the New York Times.

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

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.

Roberto Clemente’s 3000th hit

Monday, December 12th, 2016

When John Fogerty débuted his 1985 hit song Centerfield, he reminded people of the joy inherent in baseball—the video produced for this musical, lyrical, and nostalgic homage to baseball depicts a collage of footage featuring baseball legends, including Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Roy Campanella, Casey Stengel, Ted Williams, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra.

Roberto Clemente also appears—his 1956 Topps card opens a montage of baseball cards accompanying the song’s opening riff, which consists of a string of claps in a pattern one might hear in a ballpark’s stands.  The video is timed so that a card appears simultaneously with the sound of each clap.

It’s somehow appropriate that Clemente received the distinction of opening the Centerfield music video.  Overshadowed during his career, perhaps, by his peers—the dazzling flash of Willie ays, the consistent power of Hank Aaron, and the sheer dominance of Mickey Mantle—the Pittsburgh Pirates’ standout outfielder symbolized steadiness.  In turn, Clemente stirred excitement among the Pirate faithful at Forbes Field.

In a career that spanned 1955 to 1972, Clemente had a .317 lifetime batting average—during one 13-year stretch, he notched a batting average above .300 for 12 of those years.  Clemente compiled a .475 lifetime slugging average, won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1966, and reached the magical plateau of 3,000 career hits—exactly.  On December 31, 1972, Clemente died in a plane crash while traveling to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

His was a voyage of purpose—spearheading relief efforts for Managuans suffering from a recent earthquake.  “He had received reports that some of the food and clothing he had sent earlier had fallen into the hands of profiteers,” explained Cristobal Colon, a Clemente friend, in the article “Clemente, Pirates’ Star, Dies in Crash Of Plane Carrying Aid to Nicaragua,” in the January 2, 1973 edition of the New York Times.  Neither for glory nor publicity, Clemente helped those who could not help themselves.  It was a part of his character, not a springboard for a photo opportunity.

Clemente’s last hit came against Jon Matlack, the 1972 National League Rookie of the Year, in a Mets-Pirates game on September 30, 1972.  Mattock was unaware of the moment’s historic impact, however.  “I had no idea he was sitting on 2,999,” Matlack recalled for Anthony McCarran’s November 29, 2008 article “Where are they now? Ex-Met Jon Matlack can’t stay away from the game” on nydailynews.com.  “I was just trying to win a game.  When I gave up the double—I think it short-hopped the center-field wall—there was all this hoopla.  The ump presents him the ball at second and I’m glowering and thinking, ‘Hey we have a ballgame here.’  I was just an oblivious rookie.  Then I saw it on the scoreboard, that it was his 3,000th hit.”

In the 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, David Maraniss recounted, “In the excitement of the moment, Don Leppert, the first base coach, took out a package of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco and was about to stuff a wad into his mouth when Clemente came over and gave him the ball.  Leppert stuck the piece of history in his back pocket for safekeeping.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its eligibility rule because of Clemente’s untimely death. A waiting period of five years after retirement had been the rule but the waiver mandated that a player’s eligibility kicks in if the player dies before the five-year waiting period expires or while still active.  In a special election, the Baseball Writers Association of America stamped Clemente’s passport to Cooperstown.

A eulogy appeared in the article “Roberto Clemente, The Great One” in the January 6, 1973 edition of the New Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper dedicated to the Steel City’s black population:  “Life was not always good to him.  He was often maligned.  Many times he was not given the recognition and admiration that was his due.  It took sometime [sic] for his greatness to get through to a reluctant public but eventually it came to the fore, like the knight in shining armour that he was.”

Roberto Clemente was, indeed, a hero for his achievements on the baseball diamond.  He played on 12 All-Star teams, received 11 Gold Gloves, and became an icon to Pittsburgh’s baseball fans.  But his deeds of generosity to those unable to help themselves defined his true heroism.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 31, 2014.

The Man Who Made the Mud Hens Famous

Monday, November 21st, 2016

As Corporal—later Sergeant—Maxwell Q. Klinger on M*A*S*H, Jamie Farr brought laughter to millions and fame to the Toledo Mud Hens as he incorporated his hometown of Toledo, Ohio into the Klinger character.

On his web site www.jamiefarr.com, Farr explains the nexus between actor and character:  “Klinger’s back story was, in part, my back story.  I came from Toledo.  So, too, did Klinger. I never forgot some of my old neighborhood haunts, like Packo’s Hot Dogs.  Neither did Klinger.  I rooted for a minor league baseball club called the Toledo Mud Hens.  So, too, did Klinger.”

Indeed, Farr often wore a Mud Hens jersey and donned the team’s cap as a wink and a nod to his hometown.  Consequently, Toledo and Mud Hens became household names to a national television viewing audience.

Like his fictional counterpart, Farr saw the Mud Hens play at Swayne Field.  Noah H. Swayne donated the land for the ballpark.  Wayne’s father was United States Supreme Court Justice Noah H. Swayne, appointed by President Lincoln.

John R. Husman’s article for the Society for American Baseball Research web site discusses Swayne Field’s genesis:  “Swayne Field was privately financed and as fine and modern a baseball park as there was in America when it rose out of an old fairgrounds in west Toledo.  It was the largest baseball playing field in the world.  Construction of Swayne Field began on March 6, 1909.  Less than four months later, baseball was played there.  The concrete and steel plant was the apparent brainchild and investment of William R. Armour and Noah H. Swayne, Jr.”

M*A*S*H ran on CBS for 11 seasons—from 1972 to 1983—giving Farr ample opportunity to promote his Toledo heritage and Mud Hens fandom.  From the beginning, Farr was in the cast as a member of the United States Army Mobile Army Surgical Hospital #4077 during the Korean War.  First, though, he had a supporting role.  In the early seasons, Klinger tried to get a section 8 discharge requiring an assessment of him having a mental disorder.  His modus operandi was wearing women’s clothes to persuade doctors, especially psychiatrists, to authorize the discharge.  It never happened.

Gary Burghoff played Corporal Walter Eugene “Radar” O’Reilly, the Company Clerk for the 4077th.  After Burghoff departed the show, Farr stepped into his shoes as Klinger took over the clerical duties that kept the 4077th operating.  Before M*A*S*H, Farr found regular work as a guest star on network television shows, including Room 222The Flying NunFamily AffairGomer Pyle: USMCGet SmartGarrison’s GorillasThe Dick Van Dyke ShowDeath Valley DaysMy Favorite Martian, and F Troop.

Farr got his show business break as Santini, a mentally challenged student in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier as a teacher and a rebel student, respectively, in an urban high school.  Farr said, “For its time, Blackboard Jungle was pretty shocking, so shocking that MGM thought it best to put a pious disclaimer on the screen at the beginning of the film stating that all schools were not like this—so as not to alienate hundreds of thousands of school teachers all over America.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 1, 2014.