Posts Tagged ‘1976’

The Night That Ted Turner Managed the Braves

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Some things aren’t meant to last.

Prime time television’s roster has a handful of shows that didn’t endure more than episode, e.g., Co-Ed FeverPublic MoralsSouth of Sunset.

Major League Baseball’s annals boast tales of players who only played in one game.  Perhaps the best known in this category is Moonlight Graham, portrayed in the 1989 film Field of Dreams.

On May 11, 1977, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner added another story when he ventured from the owner’s suite to the dugout to manage the Braves.  His helming lasted only one night; Major League Baseball’s powers that be reminded Turner that a rule prevented managers from partial or full ownership of a team.  The Braves lost the May 11th game to the Pirates 2-1; it was Atlanta’s 17th consecutive loss.  Phil Niekro pitched a complete game, a noble outing in a 16-20 season yielding a National League-leading 262 strikeouts for the Braves knuckleballer.

Though Turner expressed a Veeckian ardor for baseball and its fans, the likes of Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, and Tommy Lasorda had nothing to fear from the man dubbed “Mouth of the South” for his brashness flavored with ambition, dedication, and southern charm.  Managerial aspirations may have been fleeting, but they were, nonetheless, on display in the Braves dugout.

Commitment to success did not constrain Turner to his accountants and bookkeepers.  A communications magnate who created the Superstation template by offering his Atlanta station WTBS on cable systems across the country and revamped the news industry with Cable News Network (CNN), Turner has a passion for his portfolio beyond dollars and sense—an approach that continues today, long after these assets are no longer under his aegis.  His is a passion for excellence, enjoyment, and engagement.  In a 2001 profile of Turner for The New Yorker, Ken Auletta wrote, “To insure continuous baseball coverage that could not be taken off his Superstation, Turner, in 1976, bought the Atlanta Braves; although he paid a bargain price of ten million dollars, he went into debt to do it.  He attended most of the Braves home games: he ran out onto the field to lead the fans in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”; sitting behind the Braves dugout, he’d spit Red Man tobacco juice into a cup and swill beer, in hot weather peeling off his shirt; when a Brave hit a home run, he’d jump over the railing and rush to the plate to greet him; he played cards with his players and insisted that they call him Ted.”

Putting the Braves on WTBS meant piping games into areas lacking major league teams—and, in some cases, minor league teams.  Thereby, Turner branded the squad “America’s Team.”  As inventive as P.T. Barnum, Turner employed a strategy to set the Braves games and other WTBS programming apart from network and local fare—by starting programs at five minutes after the hour or the half hour, WTBS stood out in the program listings in TV Guide.

Turner owned the Braves till the mid-1990s, when he sold the club to Time Warner.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 11, 2017.

Bowling, Tim Matheson, and “Dreamer”

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

“You just dream about something, that’s all it’s ever gonna be.  Just a dream.”

So says Harold Nuttingham in the 1979 film Dreamer, a post-Watergate, feel-good movie with a down-to-earth vibe.

Nottingham dreams of being a bowling champion—hence, his nickname “Dreamer”—but he can’t even get a PBA membership until he storms an executive meeting, proves his credentials, and demands inclusion in bowling’s upper echelon.  His statement about dreams targets father figure Harry White, a former PBA bowler who never quite reached the level of excellence that Dreamer envisions—and is capable of achieving.  Dreamer’s words nudge Harry towards buying an option for them on an 18-lane establishment with a coffee shop and a bar in Peoria.

Dreamer’s car broke down in Alton, Illinois two years before, creating an opportunity for him to work at the Bowl Haven, where he practices his game; Harry runs the pro shop.  Repairing the bowling racks is among Dreamer’s duties.  Tragically, Harry dies of a heart attack late at night, while bowling; he had a heart condition, so the news is not surprising to Dreamer.

Tim Matheson plays Dreamer, Jack Warden plays Harry, and Susan Blakely plays Dreamer’s girlfriend—Karen Lee, who also works at the bowling alley, as a cashier.  “Debra Winger rocked her audition, but the studio decided on Susan,” explains Matheson.

Bowling icon Dick Weber plays Johnny Watkin, Dreamer’s opponent in the film’s climactic match.  Matheson reveals, “Dick Weber was instrumental in helping me with my bowling.  He showed me ways to patch up my thumb until my calluses healed.  We also worked on creating a style that was interesting visually and looked real.

“I was in a bowling league in Burbank.  At the Grand Central Bowl in Glendale, I kept score for bowlers.  You could make 10 bucks a night, which was a decent amount of money.  So, I was very comfortable in that world.  For the movie, we bowled in an old alley in St. Louis.  I averaged around 165-170.  My highest was 199.  One day, we’re shooting a sequence and I’m keeping score consecutively with the takes.  My score was 224.

“Dick told us about the tricks that bowlers used.  They soaked balls in solvent that would soften the ball, so when you went to the tournament, it would react with more torque.  If you threw a ball with spin, it spun more.  Now, there are rules preventing this from happening.

“Jack Warden was one of the great storytellers of all time.  He told us that he auditioned for John Houseman, who was directing King Lear.  He was just beginning acting, but he had a blue-collar job during the day.  He didn’t have time to change for the audition, so he went in his coveralls.  Houseman said, ‘What part do you think you’ll audition for?’  Jack responded, ‘How about this Lear guy?’

“He was full of bravado and always gave advice if you asked about a scene.  He was a great acting coach, just gold.  He was a gem.  Susan was such a pro.  So wonderful to work with.  Sexy and intense and all the good things you’ll hope for in a partner that you play so many scenes with.”

It is convenient to compare Dreamer to Rocky, which premiered during the Christmas season of 1976; the elements are there—underdog taking on the champion, mentor tutoring the underdog, love interest.  This would, however, overlook the density of emotional resonance that Rocky evoked.  Where Rocky Balboa wanted to go the distance with Apollo Creed because no fighter had accomplished that seemingly impossible task, Dreamer has unwavering confidence that he belongs in the pantheon of bowling champions, if only he gets the opportunity to prove it.

Typical for Hollywood, Dreamer concludes with the upstart winning in dramatic fashion, dethroning Watkin by one pin in the 10th frame for a final score of 245-244.  Dreamer may not have had the edge of The HustlerRocky, or The Sporting Life, but it follows the template for Hollywood’s sports films.  We want the underdog to win because they remind us of ourselves.  Who wouldn’t rather play for the Miami Sharks rather than the Dallas Knights in Any Given Sunday?  Who wouldn’t rather play with Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Jake Taylor, and Roger Dorn on the Cleveland Indians rather than the New York Yankees in Major League?  These types of films fulfill the need to hope, allowing us to live vicariously, whether the hero is a bowler, a rugby player, or a major league pitcher.

To the extent that Dreamer has a villain, it’s the PBA, which looks askance, at least initially, at Dreamer’s qualifications.  Though not explored in depth, the confrontation between Dreamer and the PBA’s powers that be, including Watkin, represents a frustration at bureaucracy that was felt 100 years before Dreamer hit movie theaters and will be evident 100 years hence, in whatever medium audiences use to consume visual entertainment.

After the climactic game between Dreamer and Watkin, the last shot of the film shows Dreamer and Karen Lee packing up their car and listing their itinerary of bowling tournaments.  As they pull away, we see that the building behind them is the Harry White Memorial Bowl.

Taking Matheson’s portrayal of Eric “Otter” Stratton of Animal House as the archetype of a slightly arrogant character brimming with confidence, one can find levels of that personality in several of his subsequent roles, including:

  • Larry Sizemore (Burn Notice)
  • Al Donnelly (Black Sheep)
  • John Hoynes (The West Wing)
  • Harry Stadlin (Just in Time)
  • Alan Stanwyk (Fletch)

Alan Stanwyk is devious when he sets up Fletch to be the dead body in a burning car, thereby allowing him to escape to South America undetected.  John Hoynes is a political manipulator along the lines of LBJ—a Senate Majority Leader from Texas who lost the Democratic nomination to an underdog from New England and settled, uncomfortably, for being Vice President.

And yet, there is an underlying likability to these characters—they do not, in any way, exude nastiness.  Dreamer, neither, though his single-mindedness about pursuing a professional bowling career excludes Karen Lee, whom he considers to be a distraction during competitions.  This, of course, is reconciled after Harry’s death, which prompts Dreamer to realize that Karen Lee is not an appendage to his career, but a necessity to his life.

The Bowl Haven still stands today, a 24-lane escape for Altonians looking to knock down some pins.  Those of a certain age may remember the summer of 1978, when the Bowl Haven closed down for shooting.   Once owned by the Netzhammer family and built in the late 1950s, the Bowl Haven enjoys continuity to the past with Bill Netzhammer, the original owners’ son, managing the lanes that Dreamer once practiced upon.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 4, 2017.

Chris Chambliss, Billy Martin, and the 1976 American League Playoff

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

The baseball traveled on its parabolic destiny, rising through the mid-October night and dropping a few dozen feet in front of the Manufacturers Hanover Super Checking billboard at 11:43 p.m. Eastern.  It was a moment of exhilaration, followed nanoseconds later by pandemonium in a crowd that hadn’t tasted a championship in more than a decade.

Chris Chambliss’s three-run homer brought the 1976 American League pennant to the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of the fifth and deciding game of the playoffs against the Kansas City Royals.  Score:  Yankees 7, Royals 6.

“And I want to tell you, the safest place to be is up here in the booth!” exclaimed WPIX-TV announcer and former Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto when several hundred fans stiff-armed decorum, poured onto the Yankee Stadium turf, and jumped up and down like the prospectors who discovered gold in mid-19th century California.

New York City hadn’t seen a celebration like that since V-E Day.

To say that Chambliss’s safety was in jeopardy is neither hyperbole nor ignorance.  Suddenly, survival instinct surpassed the duty of touching home plate, an impossibility given the swarm of fans excited by the victory and oblivious to the hero’s wellbeing; Chambliss didn’t even make it to third base.  Hoping to embrace their hero, Yankee rooters risked injuring him—maybe even trampling him.  Had it not been for the uniform and the baseball diamond, one might have thought Chambliss was a running back as he plowed his 6’1″, 195-pound frame through the crowd towards the refuge of the dugout and, in turn, the Yankee clubhouse.

Chambliss came to the Yankees in a 1974 trade—along with Chambliss, the Indians sent Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw in exchange for Fritz Peterson, Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, and Steve Kline.  Not a power hitter, Chambliss was known as a dependable batsman—188 hits, 32 doubles, and 96 RBI in 1976.  With 17 home runs during the season, a dinger was feasible, but a hit off Royals pitcher Mark Little seemed more likely.

Chambliss, in the end, returned to the field under the guard of two police officers.  Alas, home plate vanished in the anarchy, so, to be sure, Chambliss stepped on the area.

Below the fold on the front page of the New York Times, media geography usually used to convey issues of national and of international importance, Murray Chass’s article informed the newspaper’s readers who went to bed before the ninth inning about the latest notch to Yankee Stadium’s greatest moments—a roster including Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech, Babe Ruth’s wistful farewell as he leaned on a bat with his frail body, and Don Larsen’s perfect game.

It was nostalgic, if not appropriate, that Billy Martin helmed the Yankee ball club.  Hired during the 1975 season, Martin had a reputation as a turnaround expert in stints with the Twins, the Tigers, and the Rangers.  But returning to the Bronx had an even sweeter taste for Martin—he played with the gloried Yankee teams of the 1950s, idolized manager Casey Stengel, and suffered a betrayal from Yankee management, specifically, Stengel.  Or so he believed.

When several Yankee players captured headlines with a fight at the Copacabana in New York in 1957, the front office shipped Martin to the Kansas City A’s after the season because of the embarrassment—it happened when Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford and their wives gathered to celebrate the 29th birthday of Martin, who went stag.  “Yanks Bench 2 in Copa Brawl” screamed the front page of the New York Daily News.  Confronting hecklers from a bowling team called the Republicans, the Yankees stepped up when nasty comments tinged with racism emerged from the hecklers aimed at Sammy Davis, Jr., the Copa’s performer, with whom the fellows from the Bronx were acquainted.  One bowler, a deli owner named Edwin Jones, claimed Bauer clocked him.

In his 2015 biography Billy Martin:  Baseball’s Flawed Genius, Bill Pennington wrote, “It was later learned that Casey had protected Billy from the Senators trade and two other trades.  But [Yankee General Manager George] Weiss was not to be dissuaded this time.  Not with this player in these circumstances.  Not when he wanted to send a message to the rest of the team.  Besides, Kubek was already in New York, ready to play shortstop.  For the Yankees’ youth movement in the middle infield to be complete, Richardson had to take over at second base.”

Stengel had not only managed Martin on the Yankees, they also worked together on the Oakland Oaks, a Pacific coast League championship team in 1948.  Returning to Yankee Stadium as a managerial descendant of his mentor may not have completely healed old wounds whose scars remained resonant, but it did give Yankee fans a continuity to the past, Martin a chance for redemption, and players the benefit of their manager’s baseball wisdom honed by Stengel’s tutelage two decades prior.

The Yankees lost the 1976 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a four-game sweep, but rebounded to win the series in 1977 and 1978, both times against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Billy Martin went through several stings as the Yankee skipper, being fired and rehired by owner George Steinbrenner.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 13, 2017.

Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, and the Olympics

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Baseball’s nexus with Hollywood had a center point in Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field on February 28, 1932 for a charity game benefitting America’s Olympians; the ’32 Summer Olympics—which took place in Los Angeles—inspired two comedy icons to combine their celebrity and passion for baseball in a civic minded cause.  Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton spearheaded the teams.

Players from the Cubs, the Giants, and the Pirates took the field in front of approximately 8,500 fans, according to the Los Angeles Times.  Brown’s team won 10-3 in the six-inning contest.  It was nearly over as soon as it began—six Brown players scored in the first inning.  The Times reported, “The game was called to permit Rogers Hornsby and his Cubs to catch the Catalina Ferry.”  The rosters included Lloyd Waner, Pie Traynor, Carl Hubbell, and Grover Cleveland Alexander.  Keaton and Brown also participated, as did Jack Oakie, another member of Hollywood’s comedy group.

Brown and Keaton incorporated baseball into their respective bodies of work.  Fireman Save My ChildElmer the Great, and Alibi Ike offer Brown as a skilled rube.  Keaton filmed a legendary segment at Yankee Stadium for his silent film The Cameraman—he mimed players at different positions.  Brown’s love for the National Pastime stuck in his DNA—his son Joe L. Brown was the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976, a period of Steel City baseball legends, including Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Roy Face, Willie Stargell, and Al Oliver.

Keaton’s comedy was universal, timeless, and groundbreaking.  The Muskegon, Michigan native formed the comedy cornerstone of the silent film industry, along with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, and Fatty Arbuckle, to name a few.

A few months before he died, Keaton explained how he saw his comedy appeal to the current generation; Times writer Henry Sutherland chronicled this insight in the 1966 obituary for the filmmaker, nicknamed “The Great Stone Face”for his ability to maintain composure during chaos in his films.

“Two years ago we sent a picture to Munich, Germany using old-fahsioned subtitles with a written score,” Keaton said.  “This was ‘The General.’  It was made in 1926, and hell, that’s 39 years ago.

“But I sneaked into the theater and the laughs were exactly the same as on the day it was first release.”

Wrigley Field graced television and theaters before its demise in the 1960s.  It was where Herman Munster tried out for the Los Angeles Dodgers under the watchfulness of Leo Durocher.  It was where baseball scenes in The Pride of the Yankees were filmed.  It was where baseball’s greatest sluggers matched powers at the plate in Home Run Derby, a syndicated television show in 1960—Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, and Ernie Banks were among the competitors.

Considered a hitter’s park, Wrigley Field hosted its first game in 1925.  The California Angels played their home games at Wrigley Field in their début season—1961.  Dodger Stadium was the team’s home field for the next four seasons, until Angel Stadium’s début in 1966.

Today, Gilbert Lindsay Park stands on Wrigley’s grounds.

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

Hank Aaron’s Last Home Run

Monday, April 10th, 2017

As America recovered from its Bicentennial hangover, Hank Aaron clubbed a home run in the Brewers-Angels game on July 20, 1976.  It was not, in any way, a cause for ceremony.  It was, however, highly significant.

Aaron’s solo smash off the Angels’ Dick Drago was his last home run, though nobody knew it at the time.  Hammerin’ Hank followed George Scott’s solo home run, one of 18 blasts that Scott swatted in 1976.  Jerry Augustine got the win for the Brewers—his first in more than a month—scattering five Angel hits in seven innings.  It capped a streak of five consecutive losses for Augustine, who had a 9-12 record, 3.30 Earned Run Average, and WHIP of 1.299.

Aaron, Scott, et al. belted 12 hits against the Angels; Von Joshua, Tim Johnson, Darrell Porter, and Robin Yount scored the other Brewer runs.  Johnson, the Brewer second baseman, had an outstanding 3-for-3 day.  In the eighth inning, relief pitcher Danny Frisella replaced Augustine.

When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974 by hitting his 715th home run, every dinger afterward became, simply, icing on top of frosting.  His round-tripper in the Brewers’ 6-2 victory over the boys from Anaheim was his 755th home run; Aaron hit 10 home runs, batted .229, and racked up 62 hits in a rather uneventful 1976 season for the Brewers—a 66-96 record garnered 6th place in the American League East.

At age 42, Aaron retired after the 1976 season with outstanding career statistics:

  • 3,771 hits
  • 2,174 runs scored
  • 13,941 plate appearances
  • .305 batting average
  • 2,287 RBI (major league record)
  • Led the major leagues in RBI four times

Henry Louis Aaron clocked his first major league home run on April 23, 1954.  Throughout the next two decades and change, Aaron faced the pitching gods of Major League Baseball—Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Gullett, Roy Face, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, Vida Blue, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts.  When he went yard, it was the definition of power against power.  Tom Seaver’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site recalls Aaron’s statement of Seaver being “the toughest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Aaron’s last home run occurred during the year that the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1964; Chicago Cubs outfielder Rick Monday snatched an American flag from two trespassers about to burn it in the Dodger Stadium outfield; the Chicago White Sox played in shorts for one game; Ted Turner became the sole owner of the Atlanta Braves; the second incarnation of Yankee Stadium débuted after two years of renovations; Philadelphia Phillies third baseball Mike Schmidt knocked four home runs in a game against the Cubs; original Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz sold the team that began its life as the Colt .45s; Dodgers manager Walter Alston resigned after 23 years at the helm in Ebbets Field and Chavez Ravine; and the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays began selecting players for the following year’s American League expansion.

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

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 Kingdome Welcomes the Mariners

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

Famed for its portrayal in Jim Bouton’s tell-all book Ball Four, the Seattle Pilots lasted one season—1969.  While the Mets inched toward an improbable World Series victory against the Baltimore Orioles, the Pilots went 64-98.  After the ’69 season, bankruptcy disrupted Seattle’s major league plans.  New ownership—future Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig—brought the team to Milwaukee under the Brewers label.

Seattle became an MLB city for the second tie when the Mariners took the field on April 6, 1977.  A 7-0 loss to the California Angels inaugurated the Mariners, joined by the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League’s expansion during the year of the New York City Blackout, the disco craze ignited by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and the death of Elvis Presley.  In the Los Angeles Times, Ross Newhan wrote, “The young, inexperienced Mariners were outmanned in the field and at the plate, made errors that led to runs, failed to take advantage of scoring opportunities and were forced to go with pitchers who would probably be in some other line of work had it not been for the dilution of talent generated by baseball’s repeated expansion.”

Angels pitcher Frank Tanana dominated the Mariners—he struck out nine, walked two, and left nine Mariners on base.  Diego Segui started for the Mariners, leaving the game after three and 2/3 innings; the Angels scored five hits and four earned rungs against the veteran pitcher, who went 0-7 in 1977, his last year in the major leagues.

It was not only the Mariners’ first game—it was the first MLB game in the Kingdome, a stadium following the pattern of indoor facilities for professional sports begun in 1965 with the Houston Astrodome.  Seattle’s new stadium, while architecturally imposing, had a few trouble spots for the players.  Newhan quoted Angels manager Norm Sherry, who opined, “Generally, it’s a very impressive place.  But a few things do concern me.  The dirt of the mound is so soft the pitcher almost disappears when he comes down on it.  That has to be fixed.  I think the fielders will have to be reminded constantly that they can’t take their eye off the ball or they’re going to lose it in all that gray of the dome.  And there are two big ridges that distinguish the football sidelines.  One runs through the outfield.  The other funs along the left-field foul line.  They could cause problems.”

Seattle sports fans induced the Kingdome in 1976, a year prior to the Mariners’ début, with a soccer game between the New York Cosmos and the Seattle Sounders.  Additionally, the NFL expanded in 1976, providing footholds in Seattle and Tampa Bay; the Kingdome created a new outlet for Washington State’s football passion.  According to King County’s web site, the eight-day Billy Graham Crusade at the Kingdom in 1976 achieved the largest attendance for a “specific event” with 434,100 recorded attendees.  During its tenure, the Kingdome hosted the NCAA Final Four, the NFL Pro Bowl, and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.  On March 26, 2000, an implosion captured by video both inside and outside the Kingdome marked the end of an era for professional sports in Seattle.

The Seattle Times reported, “Dust choked downtown for nearly 20 minutes, blocking out the sun and leaving a layer of film on cars, streets and storefronts.  The dust cloud reached nearly as high as the top of the Bank of America Tower and drifted northwest about 8 miles an hour.”  Nearly 4,500 pounds of explosives and more than 21 miles of detonating cord brought down the 25,000-ton Kingdom roof in 16.8 seconds.

Today, CenturyLink Field stands on the Kingdome site.

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

Matthau, Madison, and Buttermaker

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

In the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a former minor league ballplayer with the unenviable task of managing a team consisting of loudmouth Little Leaguers.  Matthau’s rumpled persona matches the Buttermaker character like lox matches cream cheese.  Perfectly.

Buttermaker’s Bears squad, though initially pitiful, nearly beat the Yankees in the North Valley League of southern California, thanks to star pitcher Amanda—a daughter of an ex-girlfriend of Buttermaker—and Kelly Leak, a star athlete who looks and acts like he’s auditioning to be the next James Dean.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie comes by most of its comedy fairly easily.  Matthau is, of course, an engaging performer, and the role’s a good one for him as he sits in the dugout, hung over and bleary-eyed, watching his Bears come out of the first inning 26 runs behind.  The kids are good, too; [director Michael] Ritchie sees them in a fairly tough and unsentimental way, and lets them use the sort of dialog we’d like to think 12-year-olds aren’t familiar with.”

Contrary to the myth of A-list stars isolating themselves while not filming, Matthau engaged with the kids’ families on set.  In a 2005 Tampa Bay Times article, Keith Niebuhr quoted Gary Lee Cavagnaro, who played the Bears catcher.  “As far as the adults, Walter Matthau (coach Morris Buttermaker) was in a class by himself.  As great as he was around the kids, he was even better around the moms.  Behind the field, the tree-lined area between the field and the concession stand, the mothers would camp out there.  And during off time, Walter would come out with Jack Lemmon occasionally and do an old vaudeville routine, which would keep the mothers in stitches.

In The Odd Couple, Matthau translates his portrayal of New York City sports writer Oscar Madison from the stage to the screen.  Matched with Art Carney in the play, written by Neil Simon, Matthau received plaudits in Walter Kerr’s New York Times review.  “He is a gamut-runner, from grim, to game to simple hysteria and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western seat he is magnificent,” wrote Kerr.  Additionally, the noted critic praises, “But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catcher’s mitt.”

Carney portrays television news writer Felix Ungar, Oscar’s friend, who suffers from a martial rift, which sends him into an emotional tailspin.  Finding refuge at Oscar’s apartment, Felix exemplifies domestication that Martha Stewart would envy.  When Felix’s dedication to cleanliness borders on obsessive, frustration overwhelms Oscar.  In a monologue bathed in a combination of pathos and hilarity, Oscar confesses, “I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up.  Everything you do irritates me.  And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me.  You leave me little notes on my pillow.  Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.  ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes.  F. U.  Took me three hours to figure out F. U. was Felix Ungar!”

In the movie, Matthau plays against Lemmon, his co-star in several films, including Grumpy Old MenThe Fortune Cookie, and The Odd Couple II.  All’s well that ends well—at the end of The Odd Couple, Felix exorcises his marital ghosts and spends time with the attractive Pigeon sisters while Oscar, in an example of Felix’s habits rubbing off, admonishes his poker buddies to keep the poker table clean.

Matthau passed away in 2008.  Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times revealed the reality behind the actor.  Citing Lemmon, Downey wrote, “Fact is, says the actor whose finicky Felix Unger played opposite Oscar, they were an odder couple than some realized, for the Matthau he knew was a fragile figure, susceptible to ailments of all kinds, with a pinch of hypochondria thrown in, who would cringe and bruise if a stranger made the mistake of slapping him on the back.

“Lemmon says: ‘He was Felix.'”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 28, 2015.

Hank Aaron Hits #715

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

It was a glorious moment.

On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, previously thought unassailable, when he hit his 715th career home run.  Aaron’s historic blast occurred during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves; it was the first home game of the 1974 season for the Braves.

When Aaron knocked an Al Downing pitch over the left field fence in the fourth inning to create a new home run record, he triggered a celebration with enough energy to power the state of Georgia.  In the article “End of the Glorious Ordeal” in the April 15, 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated, Ron Fimrite wrote, “It ended in a carnival atmosphere that would have been more congenial to the man he surpassed as baseball’s alltime [sic] home-run champion.”

Indeed, Babe Ruth was gregarious with an appetite for life that could not be matched, measured, or modulated.  Aaron, in contrast, had a quiet dignity.  In the April 11, 1974 edition of the Atlanta Daily World, Charles E. Price wrote, “A player who dresses at the plate, waiting to get to the plate before adjusting his helmet, only to take an unassuming stance at the plate, Hank then has the appearance of any other player.”

Fimrite, too, opined on Aaron’s contrasting demeanor.  “This is not the sort of party one gives for Henry Aaron, who through the long weeks of on-field pressure and mass media harassment had expressed no more agitation than a man brushing aside a housefly.  Aaron had labored for most of his 21-year career in shadows cast by more flamboyant superstars, and if he was enjoying his newfound celebrity, he gave no hint of it.  He seemed to be nothing more than a man trying to do his job and live a normal life in the presence of incessant chaos.”

In his autobiography I Had A Hammer, Aaron recalled that he and his wife, Billy, hosted a party after the historic game.  Before the party started, as he enjoyed some quiet, Aaron realized the true impact of his achievement.  “When I was alone and the door was shut, I got down on my knees and closed my eyes and thanked God for pulling me through,” wrote Aaron.  “At that moment, I knew what the past twenty-five years of my life had been all about.  I had done something that nobody else in the world had ever done, and with it came a feeling that nobody else has ever had—not exactly, anyway.  I didn’t feel a wild sense of joy.  I didn’t feel like celebrating.  But I probably felt closer to God at that moment than at any other in my life.  I felt a deep sense of gratitude and a wonderful surge of liberation all at the same time.  I also felt a stream of tears running down my face.”

Hank Aaron began his major league career with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954; the Braves moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season.  Aaron stayed with the Braves organization through the 1974 season, and then finished his career with the Milwaukee Brewers.  Aaron retired after the 1976 season with 755 home runs.  It remained the major league record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007.  Bonds retired after the 2007 season with 762 home runs.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 8, 2015.