Posts Tagged ‘Bill Mazeroski’

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.

The Great Groat

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Dick Groat does not have the fame of Bill Mazeroski, the immortality of Roberto Clemente, or the legend of Willie Stargell.  Nevertheless, he was a mainstay of the Pittsburgh Pirates for a majority of his major league career, which spanned 1952 to 1967.

In the October 1, 1952 edition of the Sporting News, Les Biederman honored the rookie shortstop’s special relationship with the city.  “Of all the bonus babies the Pirates scouted, signed and put into major league uniforms during the first two years of the Branch Rickey regime, the one standout has been Dick Groat, Pittsburgh native who leaped from the Duke University campus right to the Big Time in June,” wrote Biderman.  “Groat had a choice of many teams when he completed his baseball curriculum at the North Carolina breeding grounds, but now admits he chose well when he picked the Bucs.”

Groat’s best year was 1960, the year that the Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series; with a .325 batting average, Groat won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award.  In his career, Groat compiled 2,138 hits and achieved a .268 batting average.

Though Groat displayed solidity in baseball, he might have had a career in basketball; at Duke, Groat was an All-American in both sports.  In a 2014 article for the magazine GoDuke, Groat explained, “Baseball was always like work for me.  Basketball was the sport that I loved, but it was baseball, where I knew I would make a living.  I made a deal with Mr. Rickey (Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates at that time).  I was a junior at Duke.  I went home and worked out for the Pirates in the summer before I went back to Duke.  After I had worked out he invited my mother and father to come to a game at Forbes Field where the Pirates played.  I was sitting in his booth and he turned to me, remember I am only 20, I’m still a minor, he says to me, ‘Young man, if you will sign a contract tonight, I’m going [to] start you against the Cincinnati Reds tomorrow night.’

“I said, ‘Mr. Rickey that’s not even fair.  You know I want to play major league baseball [sic], but I owe my senior year to Duke and I am going back to play basketball and baseball.  But I promise you, you make the same offer to me next spring and I will sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates.'”

Rickey relented.

After the 1962 season, the Pirates traded Groat to the Cardinals, where he became a vital part of the team’s infield.  In a 1963 Sports Illustrated article, Walter Bingham wrote, “Groat, still the same deadly opposite-field hitter he was when he won the National League batting title in 1960, uses a log for a bat and merely slaps the ball wherever it is pitched.  While [Cardinals manager Johnny] Keane admires Groat’s uncanny ability at performing the hit-and-run, he feels that Groat too often gives himself up to protect the runner.  ‘He’s too good a hitter to be sacrificing himself.'”

Groat added another World Series championship to his résumé in 1964, when the Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games.

After three season with the Cardinals, Groat played for the Phillies and the Giants—1967 was his last season.

In 2007, the College Basketball Hall of Fame inducted Groat.  Four years later, the College Baseball Hall of Fame followed suit.  Groat, like many athletes, pursued a broadcasting career after his playing days, but he did not join the ranks of Bill White, Tom Seaver, Keith Hernandez et al.  Rather, Groat went back to his first love—he provides the color commentary for the radio broadcasts of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball games.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 25, 2015.

Mazeroski, Pittsburgh, and the 1960 World Series

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

At 3:37 p.m. on October 14, 1960, Bill Mazeroski became a blue-collar legend.  A stellar second baseman with eight Gold Gloves, Mazeroski played his entire 17-year career in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, never more prominent than in the moment he slammed a Ralph Terry pitch into the stands at Forbes Field.  And thus, the Pirates won the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees, a team stocked with icons named Mantle, Maris, Berra, Ford, and Howard.

In the New York Herald Tribune, legendary sportswriter Red Smith wrote, “Terry watched the ball disappear, brandished his glove hand high overhead, shook himself like a wet spaniel, and started fighting through the mobs that came boiling from the stands to use Mazeroski like a Trampoline.”

It was a victory steeped in fantasy.  The Yankees dominated baseball after World War II, winning 11 of 13 World Series between 1947 and 1964, so their presence in the 1960 edition of the Fall Classic was, in no small measure, a foregone conclusion.  Scores reflected Yankee excellence—the Bronx Bombers won Game Two, Game Three, and Game Six with scores of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0, respectively.  Pittsburgh’s triumphs in the remaining games had closer scores, none with a differential more than three runs.  In Game Seven, the lead changed hands several times before Mazeroski’s blast in the bottom of the ninth inning ended the contest with a score of 10-9.

“The accepted storyline of the 1960 World Series was that the New York Yankees hammered the Pittsburgh Pirates with haymakers, but the Bucs won the match on a split decision,” wrote Thad Mumau in his 2015 book Had ‘Em All the Way.  Yankee manager Casey Stengel, according to Mumau, led with baseball acumen contrasted by intuition flooded by over-thinking strategies for Mantle et al.  Mumau wrote, “He was a superior handler of personnel.  But he operated on instinct as much as guile, and sometimes his hunches fizzled.  Not just in terms of the immediate results, but also in terms of the whiplash effect on his players.  He loved playing chess on newspapers’ sports pages.  The pawns were not always amused.”

Bing Crosby, a 20th century entertainer at the apex of the Hollywood food chain, owned part of the Pirates.  With a bankroll built by success in music and in films, Crosby further feathered his financial cushion with business dealings, including a slice of Minute Maid Orange Juice.  Crosby’s dedication to the Pirates submerged to nerves in 1960—to avoid watching the World Series, he went to Paris with his wife, Kathryn; the Crosbys listened to Game Seven on the radio.  For future viewing, Crosby arranged for a recording of the game by kinescope, a process of filming a television screen.  In December 2009, nearly 50 years later, an executive of Bing Crosby Productions discovered the film while excavating the crooner’s thorough preservation of acting and singing performances for a possible DVD release authorized by the Bing Crosby estate.

It was the equivalent of Indiana Jones finding the Lost Ark.  In the web site The Daily Beast, baseball writer Allen Barra quoted Nick Trotta, a licensing executive for MLB Productions, regarding the film’s rarity:  “We have film footage going all the way back to 1905, but only a handful of complete baseball games before 1965.  For decades, it was the home park’s obligation to record a game, and the process was very costly.  It’s a shame, but the truth is that nobody knew in which games Willie Mays was going to make a spectacular circus catch or Mickey Mantle was going to hit a 565-foot home run.  We have newsreels of the great World Series moments, but very few entire games.”

Mazeroski had 138 career home runs, but he is best remembered for one swing that injected a tidal wave of pride throughout Pittsburgh on an October afternoon.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 30, 2015.

Exposition Park

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

Decades before Willie Stargell’s We Are Family vibe, Bill Mazeroski’s legendary World Series home run, and Roberto Clemente’s demonstrable power, professional baseball in the Pittsburgh area lived in Exposition Park.  It holds distinction as the first ballpark for Organized Baseball in the Pittsburgh environs—the “Alleghenys” débuted in the American Association in 1882.  “Professional” in this narrative means playing within a league structure.

Constructed in Allegheny City—then a separate metropolis from Pittsburgh, across the Allegheny River—Exposition Park had a location that proved disastrous when a flood and a fire combined forces, destroying the ballpark after one season.

In 1883, the team played in Exposition Park II, built closer to the Allegheny River than its predecessor; it also had a one-year tenure as the home site for the Alleghenys—Exposition Park II flooded as well, opening the path for Union Park to be a major league facility in 1884.  The following season, Union Park underwent a name change to Recreation Park.

An article in the March 5, 1885 edition of the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette highlighted  the park’s multiple uses that would have made baseball überpromoter Bill Veeck stand up and applaud:  “Another feature of the park will be a roller skating floor.  It will be built in one corner of the outfield, where there is sufficient room without interfering with the ball playing.  There will be no roof, and it is thought that it will be a pleasanter place to skate on rollers than in any of the inclosed [sic] rinks, for all out of doors is certainly pleasanter on a hot evening than any building can be.”

The article also mentioned the team’s name change:  “The report that the old name was to be retained is untrue.  The club will be known as the Pittsburghs.  It will work under the old charter and legally be the Allegheny, but in all advertising and in general usage Pittsburgh will be used.”  This label switch might have been slightly confusing because the absorption of Allegheny City into Pittsburgh did not take place until more than 20 years later.

Pittsburgh joined the National League in 1887.  A few seasons later, it faced competition for baseball fans in Steel City—the Players’ League débuted in 1890 with the Burghers as its Pittsburgh franchise, which played in Exposition Park III.  It was located “about two blocks where PNC Park stands today,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The Players’ League only lasted for the 1890 season.

Pittsburgh’s National League team rebranded, became the Pirates before the 1891 season, and moved to Exposition Park III for its home games.  In 1903, when the Pirates faced the Boston Americans in the first World Series, Exposition Park III became the first National League ballpark to host a World Series game.

In the middle of the 1909 season, the Pirates moved to Forbes Field.  Built of concrete and steel, Forbes Field signified a new era of ballparks with grandeur compared to their predecessors—Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Ebbets Field emerged within five years.  Forbes Field’s unveiling inspired awe from Pittsburgh’s fans:  “If there had been no ball game at all the masses of sweltering humanity would have paid for their coming, for the stands on Forbes Field [sic] look out on some of the prettiest scenery to be found in Pennsylvania.  And the stands themselves are pretty enough to draw sightseers even if there were nothing else for them to see,” wrote R. W. “Ring” Lardner in the Chicago Daily Tribune about the June 30, 1909 contest between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, which ended in a 3-2 loss for the latter squad.  Approximately 36,000 fans attended the game.

“The women came dressed as if for the greatest society event of the year, and perhaps it was for Pittsburg’s [sic] year,” Lardner added.  “Gorgeous gowns, topped by still more gorgeous hats, were in evidence everywhere.”

Forbes Field’s début, however exciting, could not swipe away the indelible imprint made by the three incarnations of Exposition Park on the genesis of Pittsburgh’s professional baseball auspices.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 29, 2015.

The Odd Couple’s Triple Play

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

The New York Mets have a treasure chest of memories, moments, and merriment—Tom Seaver winning the National League Cy Young Award three times, Mr. Met serving as the first three-dimensional mascot for Major League Baseball, and the 1969 Mets performing a baseball miracle by beating the vaunted Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

One of the greatest achievements in Mets history isn’t in a box score nor is it in the team’s record books.  On June 27, 1967, the Pittsburgh Pirates played the Mets at Shea Stadium.  Bill Mazeroski, the Pirates’ star of the 1960 World Series, hit into a triple play.  Sort of.

“The triple play, filmed just before the start of the regularly scheduled Mets-Pirates game, was staged for a scene in Paramount Pictures’ ‘The Odd Couple,’ the film adaptation of Mr. [Neil] Simon’s Broadway comedy about a couple of grass widowers,” explained Vincent Canby in the next day’s edition of the New York Times.

The grass widowers are New Yorkers—sports writer Oscar Madison and television news writer Felix Unger.  Oscar’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is a sanctuary for Felix after Mrs. Unger says that she wants a divorce.  Heartbroken, Felix finds emotional support from his poker buddies—along with Oscar, there is Murray, Roy, Speed, and Vinnie.  Oscar, already divorced, understands his friend’s predicament.  So, the two become roommates.  But empathy for a poker buddy does not translate to a good roommate relationship.  Oscar is sloppy, carefree, and disorganized.  Felix is neat, budget-conscious, and fussy.

Simon added the Shea Stadium scene and others to give an authentic New York City flavor to the film version of The Odd Couple.  It highlights the difference between Oscar and Felix.  During the top of the ninth inning of a Mets vs. Pirates game, the visitors trail by one run with the bases loaded and Bill Mazeroski at bat.  Because he is making franks and beans for dinner, Felix calls Oscar in the press box to instruct him to avoid eating frankfurters at the ballpark.  During the phone call, Oscar misses Mazeroski hitting into a 5-4-3 triple play.

Walter Matthau played Oscar, a natural fit as he originated the role on Broadway with Art Carney as Felix.  Jack Lemmon played Felix in the film.  It’s one of several starring Matthau and Lemmon.

The actual Mets vs. Pirates game resulted in a 5-2 Mets victory.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 31, 2013.

The Hall of Fame Case for Bill Buckner

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

“Little roller up along first.  Behind the bag!  It gets through Buckner!  Here comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

Vin Scully’s broadcast of Mookie Wilson’s 10th inning ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series sends chills through the hearts of Red Sox Nation.  Buckner, a journeyman baseball player, gained immortality because Wilson’s grounder went through his legs.  In the hearts and minds of baseball fans, Buckner’s error lost the World Series for the Red Sox.

Never mind that Buckner might not have beat Wilson to the bag even if he fielded the ball.

Never mind that the Red Sox committed tactical mistakes leading up to Wilson’s at bat.

Never mind that the Mets victory in Game 6 tied the World Series at three games apiece—the Red Sox had a chance to win the series with a victory in Game 7.  Alas, they did not.

But one error, despite its fame, does not define a career.  Buckner may even be worthy of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Outrageous?  Statistics say otherwise.

Using a four-point paradigm of hits, doubles, RBI, and batting average, Buckner’s numbers compare nicely to some other Hall of Famers.  The four points are based on:

  • hitting ability (number of hits)
  • hitting power (number of doubles)
  • clutch hitting (RBI)
  • consistency (batting average)

Bill Buckner played 2517 games between 1969 and 1990 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, California Angels, and Kansas City Royals.  A first baseman and left fielder, Buckner racked up 2715 hits, 498 doubles, 1208 RBI, and a .289 batting average.

Bill Mazeroski, second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, played 2163 games from 1956 to 1972.  His career numbers:  2016 hits, 294 doubles, 853 RBI, and a .260 batting average.

Phil Rizzuto, shortstop for the New York Yankees, played 1661 games from 1941 to 1956.  His career numbers:  1588 hits, 239 doubles, 563 RBI, and a .273 batting average.

Johnny Evers of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play fame played for the Chicago Cubs, Boston Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, and Chicago White Sox from 1902 to 1917 with one-game stints in 1922 and 1929.  His career numbers:  1659 hits, 216 doubles, 538 RBI, and a .270 batting average.

Yogi Berra played catcher for the New York Yankees from 1946 to 1963 and returned to the major leagues in 1965 with the New York Mets.  He played four games in the ’65 season and 2120 games in his major league tenure.  His career numbers:  2150 hits, 321 doubles, 1430 RBI, and a .285 batting average.

To be fair, offensive output in the traditional categories is not the only benchmark for Cooperstown.

Mazeroski earned eight Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess.

Rizzuto was a master of the bunt, often used sacrificially to advance runners.

Evers made his name on defense in the most hallowed of double play combinations.

Berra won the American League Most Valuable Player Award three times, played on the American League All-Star team 15 times, and exemplified the importance of defense in the catcher position.

Still, Buckner’s performance during a career lasting more than 20 years deserves further scrutiny by the baseball writers making the ultimate call on the worthiness of a player getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Based on statistics, Buckner’s entry is viable.

Statistics, after all, are stubborn things.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 31, 2013.