Posts Tagged ‘1977’

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.

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.

Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame Game: 19th Century vs. Yankees

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

In a Strat-O-Matic matchup between 19th century and Yankee ballplayers, the latter emerged with a victory blessed by power—the Yankees smacked four home runs against John Clarkson and the 19th century squad in their 7-1 win.  Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle went yard back-to-back with solo home runs in the sixth inning; the other round trippers came off the bats of Joe Gordon and Yogi Berra.

To qualify for the teams, a player had to play at least five years for each classification—in the 19th century or with the Yankees.  The lineups were:

Yankees

  • Phil Rizzuto, Shortstop
  • Joe Gordon, Second Base
  • Lou Gehrig, First Base
  • Babe Ruth, Left Field
  • Mickey Mantle, Center Field
  • Reggie Jackson, Right Field
  • Wade Boggs, Third Base
  • Yogi Berra, Catcher
  • Jack Chesbro, Pitcher

19th Century

  • Bid McPhee, Second Base
  • Ed Delahanty, Left Field
  • Buck Ewing, Catcher
  • Hugh Duffy, Center Field
  • Dan Brothers, First Base
  • Hughie Jennings, Shortstop
  • King Kelly, Right Field
  • Jimmy Collins, Third Base
  • John Clarkson, Pitcher

Bid McPhee scored the only run for the 19th century players when Ed Delahanty doubled him home in the eighth inning.  McPhee’s Hall of Fame plaque notes career statistics:

  • .982 fielding average
  • 2,250 hits
  • Scored at least 100 runs 10 times.

Also highlighted are McPhee’s intangible qualities:  “Known for his sober disposition and exemplary sportsmanship.”

Clarkson notched five strikeouts of the Yankees:

  • Lou Gehrig (twice)
  • Jack Chesbro (twice)
  • Reggie Jackson (once)

A masterful hurler, Clarkson compiled a 328-178 win-loss record in his 19th century major league career.  In 1885 and 1889, he led the major leagues in victories with 53 and 49, respectively; Clarkson notched 38 victories to lead the American League in 1887.

Gordon went 2-for-5 on the day, his other hit being a single in the ninth inning.  In an 11-year career, Gordon made the American League All-Star team nine times.

Chesbro limited the 19th century batsmen to six hits.  Beginning his career with the Pirates in 1899, Chesbro spent four seasons in Pittsburgh before emigrating to the Yankees.  In 1904, he led the majors with 41 victories.  Finishing his career after the 1909 season, Chesbro’s career 198-132 win-loss record amounted to a winning percentage of .600.

King Kelly, a threat at home plate even if he were blindfolded, played for the Reds, the Cubs, the Beaneaters, and the Giants, in addition to the Boston Reds in the Players League’s only season—1890—and Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers the following year.  Kelly’s career spanned from 1878 to 1893.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1945, Kelly’s career statistics include:

  • .308 batting average
  • 359 doubles
  • 418 strikeouts
  • 6,455 plate appearances

Reggie Jackson played for four teams in his Hall of Fame career:

  • A’s
  • Orioles
  • Yankees
  • Angels

During his five-year tenure with the Yankees, he played in three World Series, won two rings, and solidified a place in Yankee iconography when he smacked three home runs in one game in the 1977 World Series.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 16, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Tommy John

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Forget about the 288 wins.

Forget about the four pennant-winning teams.

Forget about the pioneering surgery that bears his name.

You might as well.  The Baseball Hall of Fame voters have.

Thomas Edward John, Jr., the Terre Haute native who stayed in his hometown to attend college at Indiana State University, stands overlooked and undervalued for his contributions to baseball.

In his 26-year career, John pitched for:

  • Chicago White Sox
  • Los Angeles Dodgers
  • New York Yankees
  • California Angels
  • Oakland A’s

He led the National League in winning percentage in 1973 and the major leagues in 1974; played on the Dodgers’ National League pennant-winning teams in 1974, 1977, and 1978; played for the American League champs in the strike-shortened season of 1981—the Yankees.

In eras gone by, when more pitchers stayed on the mound for the entire game, John led the major leagues three times in shutouts:

  • 1966 (5)
  • 1967 (6)
  • 1980 (6)

With just 12 wins short of the magic number—300—John stands on the cusp of Cooperstown; peers Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer were inducted with 287 and 268 wins, respectively.  One can presume that at least 12 games in a 26-year career fell victim to a combination of error, lack of prowess at the plate, and a manager’s strategic errors.  It’s an interesting point, but, in the end, you are what your record is.  And John’s 288 notches in the win column stand as impressive.

It is, perhaps, the breakthrough surgery that Dr. Frank Jobe performed on the hurler in 1974 that is the most significant factor in an argument for John’s Hall of Fame membership.  At the time, Jobe was the Dodgers’ orthopedist.

Tommy John surgery rebuilds the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) by using a tendon from another part of the body.  A torn or ruptured UCL can immediately put a period at the end of a pitcher’s career.  Only an injury warrants the surgery.  It is not a procedure for improving performance.

John won more games after the surgery than before it and played on three All-Star teams (1978-1980); his only other All-Star appearance happened in 1968.  To be a pioneering patient for a surgical procedure that’s become as much a cornerstone of the game as corporate-sponsored stadia.  Had Tommy John not gone under Dr. Jobe’s knife, somebody else would have.  Eventually.  But John took the risk.

When would another pitcher have been the first if John had stepped away from baseball?  1975?  1980?  How many careers have been saved because John opted for Jobe’s cutting edge idea?

Treating a UCL problem with Tommy John surgery has become de rigeur.  Hall of Famer John Smoltz sat out the 2000 season to recover from the surgery.  At his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2015, Smoltz warned teenage pitchers against going under the knife.  “I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old.  That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sports.  That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports.  Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way.”

Smoltz is the only Tommy John surgery patient inducted into the Hall of Fame.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 22, 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.

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.

Reggie Hits No. 500

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Reggie Jackson was the King Midas of baseball.  Everything he touched turned to gold.

The Kansas City A’s had a 62-99 record in 1967, Jackson’s rookie season.  But Jackson only played in 35 games.  When he became a starter, the A’s won three World Series championships, never had a losing season, and enjoyed the “dynasty” label.  In 1973, Jackson won the Most Valuable Player Award, an honor duplicated in 1977, during his Yankee tenure.

Jackson left the A’s after the 1975 season, spent a year with the Orioles, then played for the Yankees in a five-year run that resulted in two World Series championships.  In the 1977 World Series, Jackson hit three home runs in one game.  Celebrations in the South Bronx could be heard from Manhattan to Montauk.

When his sting in the South Bronx ended, Jackson landed in Anaheim, where he bid farewell to baseball after the 1987 season.  Jackson reached a milestone in an Angels uniform, smacking his 500th home run on September 17, 1984.  It elevated Jackson into the pantheon of the 500 Club, whose membership to date consisted of Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx.

Jackson’s dinger contributed the only run in a 10-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals.  There was a circular quality to the moment.  Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times noted that Jackson hit his first major league home run against the Angels and his 500th in Kauffman Stadium, where he played for the Kansas City A’s, long since transported to Oakland.  Additionally, the 500th home run happened on the 17th anniversary of the first time Jackson went yard.

Gerald Scott of the Los Angeles Times quoted Jackson about the pitch:  “I was very, very elated going around the bases.  I said thanks (to myself) to Bud Black because he’d given me a pitch to hit.

“It was a 7-0 (lead) pitch.  It was a ‘room service’ fastball.  I just wish we could’ve been winning.  I wish it could’ve been a seven-run homer.”

Black, a formidable hurler for the Royals, compiled a 17-12 record, 3.12 ERA, and 140 strikeouts in 1984.  Jackson’s home run was one of 22 that Black allowed in the year that saw the débuts of the Huxtable family, a Beverly Hills cop named Axel Foley, and undercover detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs working for the Miami Police Department’s Vice Division.

Jackson had signed with the Angels after Yankee owner George Steinbrenner did not guarantee the slugger a place in the starting lineup as an outfielder.  It is a good bet that the Yankees would have continued Jackson’s recent role as a designated hitter.

Joseph Durso of the New York Times reported on Jackson’s optimism upon closing the the deal with Angels owner Gene Autry.  “I’m very happy to join a club that really seemed to pursue me and wanted me,” said Jackson.  “With the Angels, I get a chance to play.  I guess with everything being equal, the most difficult decision for me was whether to go to Baltimore or California.  Both clubs have really fine people.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 12, 2016.

Lou Costello: Behind the Laughter

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

Who’s on First? is a comedy bit that is ageless, knowing no boundaries of laughter.  Little Leaguers, octogenarians, scholars, and every other demographic have an instinctive response to this legendary piece of humor performed by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.  It’s a part of American culture, indeed.

Costello, painfully, tries to discern the names of the players on a baseball team while Abbott calmly recites them along with their positions:

  • First Base:  Who
  • Second Base:  What
  • Third Base:  I Don’t Know
  • Left Field:  Why
  • Center Field:  Because
  • Pitcher:  Today
  • Catcher:  Tomorrow
  • Shortstop:  I Don’t Care

The more frustrated Costello gets at not understanding that Abbott is telling the actual names of the players, the funnier it gets.

Abbott and Costello refined the comedy in the piece, its foundation of confusion having appeared in previous sketches of other performers, for example, on involving towns named Ware and Wye.  Although they conquered stage, films, television, and radio, Abbott and Costello spotlighted Who’s on First?, performing it innumerable times throughout their partnership, which began in in the mid-1930s and lasted for 20 years.  National success came when Kate Smith gave them a platform for Who’s on First? and other comedy bits on her radio show, starting in 1938.

Consequently, the team’s fame catapulted into orbit.

But comedy has a dark side, sometimes.  Abbott abused alcohol to escape his suffering caused by epilepsy.  Costello stayed in bed for a year because of rheumatic fever.  And on November 4, 1943, he symbolized the ultimate show business adage—The Show Must Go On—in the face of a tragedy that is every parent’s nightmare.

That night, Costello was scheduled to perform for the first time since being bedridden.  The Abbott & Costello Show was a radio hit, undoubtedly set to draw a huge audience for Costello’s return to performing.  He wanted his infant son—Lou Costello, Jr.—to listen to him and Abbott on the radio.  Tragically, it was not to be.  The baby escaped his playpen, crawled to the swimming pool, and drowned two days shy of his first birthday.  Stories vary concerning when Costello learned about it during the day.

Costello performed that night, hoping that his son, nicknamed Butch, wherever God took him, would recognize his voice.  The studio audience had no idea, not even an inkling, of the tragedy until Abbott explained it after the show.  In his 1977 book Bud & Lou: The Abbott and Costello Story, Bob Thomas recounted the chilling event in Abbott’s words: “Just a short time before our broadcast started, Lou Costello was told that his baby—one year old in two days—had died.  In the face of the greatest tragedy which can come to any man [sic], Lou Costello went on tonight so that you, the radio audience, would not be disappointed.  There is nothing more that I can say except that I know all join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to a great trouper.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 17, 2015.

The Midnight Massacre

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Not since 1957, when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, had baseball in New York City suffered an emotional blow equivalent to the impact on June 15, 1977, when the New York Mets committed an unpardonable sin in the eyes of the Flushing Faithful by trading Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Midnight Massacre.

Seaver in another team’s uniform did not compute.  It was an incongruous thought.  Blasphemous, even.  Imagine Mickey Mantle playing for the Cleveland Indians, Sandy Koufax playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, or Al Kaline playing for the Chicago White Sox.  Nicknamed “The Franchise” for his importance to the team, Seaver was synonymous with the Mets.  Beginning in 1967, the Mets flourished in Seaver’s glorious achievements in the National League, including Rookie of the Year Award in 1967, three Cy Young Awards, and five seasons leading the league in strikeouts.  Indeed, Seaver was a cornerstone of the 1969 World Series championship team and the 1973 National League championship team that pushed the World Series against the dynastic Oakland A’s to seven games.

But the relationship between Seaver and the Mets frayed by June of 1977.  A media item severed it.  During Seaver’s 1977 contract negotiations, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote, “Nolan Ryan is getting more now than Seaver, and that galls Tom because Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver long has treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother.”

Young doubled down by attacking Seaver’s integrity:  “It comes down to this: Tom Seaver is jealous of those who had the guts to play out their option or used the threat of playing it out as leverage for a big raise—while he was snug behind a three-year contract of his choosing.  He talks of being treated like a man.  A man lives up to his contract.”

Three decades after the trade that sent Seaver to the Reds—in exchange for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, and Dan Norman—Daily News sports writer Bill Madden penned a retrospective of the events leading to the trade.  Seaver shared his insights for the piece:  “That Young column was the straw that broke the back.  Bringing your family into it with no truth whatsoever to what he wrote.  I could not abide that.  I had to go.”

It was the boiling point in a tumultuous relationship with Mets Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant, for whom Young advocated.  In the Madden article, Seaver said, “There are two things Grant said to me that I’ll never forget, but illustrate the kind of person he was and the total ‘plantation’ mentality he had.  During the labor negotiations, he came up to me in the clubhouse once and said: ‘What are you, some sort of Communist.’  Another time, and I’ve never told anyone this, he said to me: ‘Who do you think you are, joining the Greenwich Country Club?’  It was incomprehensible to him if you didn’t understand his feelings about your station in life.”

The Seaver trade devastated Mets fandom.  In the June 17, 1977 edition of the New York Times, Murray Schumach wrote, “The anger of New Yorkers was no secret at Shea Stadium, where the switchboard was flooded with telephone calls, mostly of protest, many of them very abusive in what was admittedly the strongest display of anger ever recorded in one day at the switchboard.”

Seaver returned to the Mets for the 1983 season, inspiring Young to revive the volcano that triggered Seaver’s demand for a trade.  In the December 22, 1982 edition of the New York Post, Young opined, “It took me half a column to get to this, didn’t it.  This is the tacky part when Tom Seaver asked the Mets to renegotiate his contract, which had two years to run.  Don Grant said no.  Tom Seaver had every right to ask for a new contract, and Don Grant had every right to say no.  Tom Seaver couldn’t accept that.

“That’s how I saw it, that’s how I wrote it.  You signed the contract, live with it.  Play the two years left at $225,000, then hit the free agent market and make your millions.  It’s there, waiting.”

Young’s analysis ignored Seaver’s honor, symbolized by acceptance of a 20% pay cut for the 1975 season after a lackluster 11-11 performance in 1974.  It was part of a “gentleman’s agreement” designed in September 1974 between Seaver and the Mets front office.  In the January 22, 1975 edition of the New York Times, Joseph Durso quoted Seaver in detailing the circumstances surrounding the salary drop:  “Don Grant and I were talking one day and he brought it up.  No, I wasn’t disturbed that I got a cut after one bad year.  The ball club’s been very good and honest with me, and I with them.  They paid me a good amount of money last year and I didn’t pitch up to that amount.”

In 1975, Tom Seaver went 22-9, won the National League Cy Young Award, and led the National League with 243 strikeouts.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 15, 2015.