Posts Tagged ‘1981’

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.

Satchel Paige Joins the Indians

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was, to be sure, past his prime when the Cleveland Indians signed him in 1948.  An icon of the Negro Leagues, Paige reportedly signed on his 42nd birthday, making his major league début two days later.  Pitching against the St. Louis Browns, Paige entered the game in the fifth inning—he hurled two innings, allowed two hits, and frustrated the Browns.  Left fielder Whitey Platt, a .271 hitter in 1948 with 123 hits in 123 games, “had been so fooled that he threw his bat far down the third base line,” wrote A.S. “Doc” Young, Sports Editor for the Cleveland Call and Post.

Aggravation manifested after the game for the Browns, despite the victory.  Young described, “Over in the Browns’ dressing room, Manager Zack Taylor was still muttering about the ‘hesitation’ pitch, the one where Paige practically completes a follow through before releasing the ball.  That pitch, Paige said, was legal 20 years ago!”

Although the Indians lost the game 5-3, Paige’s performance overshadowed the defeat.  It was a formidable start for the next chapter of a storied career; the Indians beat the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series.

In Paige’s Society for American Baseball Research biography, Larry Tye—author of the 2009 book Satchel:  The Life and Times of an American Legend—wrote, “His 6-1 record was neither a joke nor an afterthought; it was the highest winning percentage on an outstanding Indians staff and a crucial factor in the team capturing the pennant, which it did by a single game over the Red Sox.  Each game he won had fans and writers marveling over what he must have been like in his prime and which other lions of blackball had been lost to the Jim Crow system of segregation.”

Two tv-movies depict Paige.  HBO’s Soul of the Game, a 1996 offering starring Delroy Lindo, revolves around the decision to select the first black player for the major leagues; Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige are the primary contenders.  In the New York Times, Caryn James praised, “But unlike most baseball movies, this one resists melodrama and saccharine inspiration most of the time.  Mr. Lindo, who has had powerful smaller roles in films like ‘Malcolm X’ and ‘Clockers,’ proves himself to be one of the best leading actors around.  In scenes between Paige and his wife (Salli Richardson), he is at once a realist about the pervasive racism of society and a relentless optimist about his own potential.  Though more saintly than his biographers would have it, this Paige deserves to be the deeply humane hero Mr. Lindo makes him.”

In 1981, ABC aired Don’t Look Back:  The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige.  Starring Lou Gossett, Jr., Don’t Look Back benefited from Paige’s insight.  Ken Watts of Associated Press explained, “As technical adviser, the flamboyant Paige gave Gossett valuable insight into his character.  In some parts of the film, shots of Gossett are intercut with actual footage of Paige on the mound.  The resemblance is so strong, it is difficult to separate the two.”

Paige reflected on his career while watching Gossett retreat it.  “Me and the rest of ’em (Negro League players), we had to stay around for so long before we was recognized as anything, if you want me to tell you the truth,” stated Paige.  “Bitter?  Naw.  We never had much of anything, but we did have lots of fun.  If I had to do it all again, I’d do it exactly the same way.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 9, 2016.

Brooklyn, Baseball, and Broadway

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Jackie Robinson has inspired an abundance of portrayals in popular culture, unsurprisingly.  Examples include Blair Underwood in the 1996 HBO tv-movie Soul of the Game, Chadwick Boseman in the 2013 movie 42, and the man himself in the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story.

In The First, a 1981 Broadway musical, David Alan Grier projected Robinson’s travails in breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  Grier, later known for the 1990s sketch comedy television show In Living Color on FOX, received plaudits from theatre critics, along with the other cast members.  Frank Rich of the New York Times noted, “The casting of all the principals is good.  In his Broadway debut, Mr. Grier gives us an impassioned, strong-voiced and tough-minded Jackie Robinson—not an impression, but a real performance.  Though the role of Rachel Robinson hardly exists in the script, the striking Lonette McKee manages to fill her with vitality and warmth.  The sandpaper-voiced David Huddleston captures both the idealism and pragmatism, as well as the humor, of Branch Rickey.”

However, Rich was less laudatory of the play, which covered the same ground that 42 did three decades hence; it débuted on November 17, 1981 and closed less than a month later.  Rich wrote, “While this show offers about five minutes of good baseball and a promising star in David Alan Grier, its back is broken by music, lyrics, book and direction that are the last word in dull.”

A lack of endorsement from the Gray Lady is to a Broadway show what a stake is to a vampire’s heart.  The 1982 movie Author! Author! illustrates this point with bluntness wrapped in humor concerning the opening night of a Broadway play.  Referencing theatre critic Stewart Klein of New York City’s WNEW-TV (later WNYW-TV), a character says, “Let me tell you.  In this town, you don’t get a rave from the New York Times, you close.  I don’t care if Klein was enthralled, enraptured, and reached orgasm.  Without the New York Times, we’re dead.”

In my 2015 book Our Bums:  The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture, McKee graciously shared her experience.  “[Rachel Robinson] was so very warm, magnanimous and supportive during the entire process,” McKee said.  “And I still believe that the play and any stories about Jackie Robins and other trailblazers are important for all of us.  After all … how can we know who we are and where we’re going until we know where we’ve been and who the heroes were that paved the way for us.  The Robinsons are important civil and human rights leaders.”

Noted baseball author Robert W. Creamer reviewed the play for Sports Illustrated, acknowledging that it “does an admirable job of presenting a momentous occasion in American sport and, for that matter, American history.”

Further, Creamer explained, “I saw The First two nights after it opened, after the derogatory reviews had appeared.  I eavesdropped at intermission and after the final curtain, trying to find out what the audience thought.  Repeatedly, I heard people say, almost with embarrassment, almost apologizing for being so gauche as to disagree with the critics, ‘I like it.’

“So do I.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 31, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Steve Garvey

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Steve Garvey, to the consternation of certain factions of Dodger Nation, is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  A stalwart first baseman with the Los Angeles Dodgers and, in the latter years of his career, the San Diego Padres, Garvey accumulated career statistics meriting inspection for entry into baseball’s shrine.

In his 19-year career, Garvey notched 2,599 hits.  Though he did not reach the magic number of 3,000, the statistic is close enough when considered with excellence further reflected in his selection to the National League All-Star team 10 times—eight as a Dodger, twice as a Padre.  More pointedly, Garvey’s eight All-Star appearances as a Dodger were consecutive, indicating a rare consistency usually seen in those with careers crowned with a plaque in Cooperstown.  Additionally, Garvey won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1974 and four consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1974 to 1977.

Garvey’s career batting average of .294 adds weight to an endorsement for Hall of Fame inclusion.  A mere difference of .006 points from the hallowed .300 batting average barometer ought be considered unimportant, especially when combined with the other statistics.  Also significant is Garvey’s National League record of 1,207 consecutive games played.  Post-season play adds weight:  World Series appearances with the Dodgers in 1974, 1977, 1978, and 1981; the Dodgers won the World Series in the strike-shortened ’81 season.  Garvey won another World Series ring with the Padres in 1984.

A strong case can be made for Garvey’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  It is, however, a case as yet unpersuasive to the voters.  In his 2012 ESPN.com article “Steve Garvey’s reliability forgotten” Steve Wulf declared that a Hall of Fame plaque for Garvey is unlikely, given off-the-field exploits.  “What happened to Garvey is partly schadenfreude:  Writers turned on him for a complicated personal life that smudged an image so golden that he once had a middle school named after him,” wrote Wulf.  “But he’s also one of the great players from that period who have been hurt by the inflation of statistics fueled by the increasing use of PEDs, which happened to coincide with the HOF eligibility for the earlier era.”

The “complicated personal life” involves extramarital affairs, two illegitimate children, strained relations with his two daughters from his marriage to television news personality Cindy Garvey, and a divorce that captured headlines.  Consequently, Garvey’s image, once thought to be purer than Ivory soap, shattered into shards.

In the November 27, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated, the article “America’s Sweetheart” by Rick Reilly with Special Reporting by Kristina Rebelo depicts the foundation of Garvey’s “Mr. Clean” status.  “He had mail to answer, business contacts to cement, a moral obligation to be at every Cub Scout banquet and Kiwanis dinner.  He believed in doing the Right Thing.  His parents smoked, but he never did.  His teammates swore, but he never did.  Cyndy says that when he was having trouble throwing in his first years as a Dodger, people would call and scream insults at him.  He would listen to everything they had to say and then hang up.  Punishment is important.  Yet in 1983, when he broke the National League record for consecutive games, he took a $15,000 ad in the Los Angeles Times to thank the fans.

“But maybe sometimes he has confused responsibility to family with responsibility to fans.”

Whether Garvey’s denial of membership by the voters is sourced in scandal or statistics—or a bit of both—is a matter of debate.  If the former subject is believed to be inconsequential in future votes, the latter subject deserves another examination.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 27, 2015.

 

Ralph Houk: Filling Casey’s Shoes

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

When Ralph Houk took over the manager job for the New York Yankees, he had big shoes to fill.  Casey Stengel’s shoes.

Houk guided the Yankees from 1961 to 1973, then took the helm of the Detroit Tigers from 1974 to 1978.  He finished his managerial career with the Boston Red Sox.  His Beantown tenure lasted from 1981 to 1984.

But Houk’s rookie season as manager stands out.  1961.  It was the first season after Stengel’s run of World Series championships earned by the pinstriped Adonises of the Bronx in 1947, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1956, and 1958.

A World War II veteran, Houk played a backup role to Yogi Berra after the war.  He saw sporadic action:  91 games from 1947 to 1954.  Then, he managed the Denver Bears of the American Association from 1955 to 1957.  The Bears won the AA championship in 1957, an indication of Houk’s instincts.

The 1961 Yankees dominated baseball, compiling a 109-53 record.  Elston Howard hit .348, Whitey Ford ratcheted a 25-4 record, and Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record with 61 fingers.

For most of the season, Maris raced with Mickey Mantle toward Ruth’s record.  A shot, albeit given by a reputable doctor, triggered an infection, which sidelined Mantle for the end of the season.  Mantle hit 54 home runs before this happened.

Houk documented the ’61 season in the 1962 book Ballplayers Are Human, Too.  In Chapter 5, “Let ‘er Roll, Gang!,” he describes the awe inspired by Yankee Stadium on Opening Day.  “I’ve read that wearing the Yankee pinstripes gives a player the feeling he’s on top of the baseball world,” wrote Houk.  “Believe me, it’s the Stadium that makes you feel you’ve got to do your best.  The Stadium looks like a historical building from the outside, one that’s been standing there a long time and will remain there forever, like the Coliseum in Rome.  Baseball history has been made in the Stadium.  A fellow wants to make more baseball history there—that’s the way I felt that day.”

Houk ends the book by describing a conversation with clubhouse attendant Pete Sheehy after the Yankees beat the Cincinnati Reds in the 1961 World Series.  Sheehy, a Yankees fixture, began his career with the legendary 1927 Yankees featuring Ruth’s record of 60 home runs, in addition to Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Earle Combs.  He stayed with the team till his death in 1985 at the age of 75.  The ’61 Yankees, according to Sheehy, deserve more than honorable mention in Yankees history.

“An incredible year,” wrote Houk.  “Think of it, not one beef from a player, not one phone call from someone who says one of your players is down somewhere causing trouble.  Nothing but great games, great pitching, the greatest of all hitting…and Rog’s…”

Sherry then interrupts the skipper.  “I been around here a long time.  I’ve seen ’em all since the Babe’s day.  I never seen a team like this.”

Houk responds, “That’s just what I mean.  No manager ever had a team like this.  What an incredible gang of ballplayers!  What an incredible year!”

1961.  Incredible.  Magical.  Legendary.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 15, 2013.

Thursdays at 10

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

RemingtonFor nearly 30 years, from 1981 to 2009, NBC defined quality television programming in the 10:00 p.m. time slot.  Hill Street Blues debuted in 1981 and changed the production of television drama.

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Furillo, Esterhaus, et al.

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

RemingtonHill Street Blues began NBC’s tradition of quality drama in the 1o:00 p.m. time slot on Thursday nights.  This tradition lasted nearly three decades, ending in 2009 when The Jay Leno Show occupied the hour.

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The Peacock Becomes a Phoenix

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

RemingtonIn the 1980s, NBC’s peacock rose like a phoenix after startling programming disasters, including Pink Lady and JeffSupertrain, and the departure of the original Not Ready for Prime Time cast of Saturday Night Live.  Under programming guru Brandon Tartikoff and his lieutenants, Warren Littlefield and Jeff Sagansky, NBC achieved prominence, success, and distinction.

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The Height Plight of Warren Coolidge

Friday, April 17th, 2015

RemingtonA lesson about being thankful for individuality is embodied in BMOC, an episode of The White Shadow.  The episode’s title is, of course, an acronym for the phrase Big Man on Campus.  It accurately describes Warren Coolidge, the star center for the Carver High School basketball team, the focus of The White Shadow, a CBS show that aired in prime time from 1978 to 1981.  The White Shadow revolved around a white ex-NBA player coaching a team composed of minorities.

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James Bond: Spoofs, Parodies, and Parallels

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then James Bond should be very flattered indeed.

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