Posts Tagged ‘Bronx Bombers’

The Year the Yankees Won the Tonys

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

In 1956, Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series, and Whitey Ford led the major leagues in Earned Run Average.  It was also the year of another World Series championship for the Bronx Bombers, further emphasizing the team’s dominance in the 20-year period after World War II.

The Yankees represented a source of drama beyond ballparks in 1956—Damn Yankees, based on Douglas Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, got a plethora of recognition in the form of Tony Awards for:

  • Best Musical
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Ray Walston)
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Gwen Verdon)
  • Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Russ Brown)
  • Best Conductor and Musical Director (Hal Hastings)
  • Best Choreography (Bob Fosse)
  • Best Stage Technician (Harry Green)

Damn Yankees also got a nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Rae Allen).

Ray Walston played the Devil, also known as Applegate, in Damn Yankees. Convincing a hapless Washington Senators fan to sell his soul for the chance to lead the Senators to baseball glory made Applegate an epic character in popular culture.  “Mr. Walston was satanic with a wry twist, underplaying a role that could have become villainous and singing wistfully about death and destruction in ‘Those Were the Good Old Days,'” wrote Mel Gussow in his 2001 obituary of Walston for the New York Times.  Lewis Funke praised Walston in his analysis of Damn Yankees when the show débuted in 1955:  “Authoritative and persuasive, he does not overdo a role that easily could become irritating in less expert hands.”

Gwen Verdon was a theater touchstone, winning four Tony Awards in her career.  Married to legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, Vernon had abundant work as a guest star on television, including roles on WebsterGimme a Break!M*A*S*HFameDream OnThe Equalizer, and Touched by an Angel.  Verdon’s body of work in movies includes The Cotton Club and Cocoon.

Los Angeles Times Theater Writer Don Shirley quoted Times dance critic Lewis Segal in his 2000 obituary of the dancer:  “Verdon was to Broadway dance what Ethel Merman was to Broadway song; an archetypal personality whose talents inspired the best from those who created works for her.  More than anyone, Fosse continually mined her saucy yet vulnerable stage persona for new facets, using her as a living anthology of show-dance style.”

Shirley wrote, “Her dancing was characterized by her ability to make the most intricate technical choreography look spontaneous and almost carefree.”

Walston and Vernon reprised their roles for the 1958 movie version of Damn Yankees.  Tab Hunter took on the role of Joe Hardy, a standout with the Senators, thanks to the machinations of Applegate.  Stephen Douglass played the role on Broadway.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 18, 2016.

The Death of Lou Gehrig

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.  So said a fictional version of Babe Ruth in the 1993 film The Sandlot.

Lou Gehrig, undoubtedly, belongs in the latter category.  Stricken by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the Yankee slugger died on June 2, 1941 at the age of 37.  His was a story reminiscent of A.E. Housman’s poem To An Athlete Dying Young.

An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune stated, “Facing with a simple courage the appalling disease which was to kill him, he made, in the final years of his life, one of the best parole commissioners New York Has had.  He had a knack for the friendly kindness which such a task requires.”

Associated Press’s obituary described Gehrig as “a big, handsome dimple-cheeked fellow who always looked the picture of health.  He stood 6-feet-1 inch and weighed 205 pounds.  Playing every game became a fetish with him and because of this, or because of his naturally careful habit, he trained more faithfully than almost any other player in the major leagues.”

Gehrig contrasted teammate Ruth, he of the gargantuan appetite for life’s sensual pleasures.  In his 2012 book Pinstripe Empire:  The New York Yankees From Before the Babe To After the Boss, Marty Appel wrote, “He was Ruth without drama, Ruth without nightlife, Ruth without scandal.  He lived with his parents.  He said things like ‘swell’ and ‘gosh.’  He had muscles to spare when players did no weight training and tended to be lean and lithe.  He could read and write in German.  Lou Gehrig would become the idol of every boy who loved baseball for his quiet presence, clean standards, and heroic deeds.  He was polite and humble.  He would park his car three blocks from Yankee Stadium to avoid notice.”

Although Gehrig played a handful of games in 1923 and 1924, he began his trek toward legend status on June 1, 1925, when he played in the first of 2,130 consecutive games, which earned him the nickname “Iron Man.”  It was an era of Yankee dominance; during Gehrig’s career, the Bronx Bombers racked up seven American League titles and six World Series championships.

Gehrig’s output earmarked the Yankee lineup as fearsome—.340 career batting average, leading the major leagues in RBI four times, and 23 grand slams.  And that’s just a sample of the thunder that Gehrig created with his bat.  In 1995, Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Gehrig’s streak record.  Alex Rodriguez has surpassed Gehrig in grand slams.

On July 4, 1939, the Yankees hosted Lou Gehrig Day.  It is best remembered, perhaps, for Gehrig declaring that he’s the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

In a 2003 article for mlb.com, Mark Newman opined about Gehrig’s statistics if ALS hadn’t struck him.  “Conservatively speaking, it would have been reasonable to project another 500 hits, 350 runs, 90 doubles, 30 triples, 100 homers, 350 RBIs and 300 walks in those three years,” wrote Newman.  “He would have passed Ty Cobb as the all-time leader in runs scored.  He would have been around the 600-homer mark.  He would be the all-time leader in RBIs, not Hank Aaron.”

Gehrig’s death prompted the nickname “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” for ALS.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 2, 2016.

Buster Keaton, Yankee Stadium, and “The Cameraman”

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Silent film star Buster Keaton earned the nickname “The Great Stone Face” because of his superhuman ability to maintain composure while disaster reigned around him; the quadrant of presidential faces on Mount Rushmore had more animation.  AP’s 1966 obituary of Keaton stated, “Unlike Mr. Chaplin, he was never sentimental and he never resorted to maudlin pathos.  He turned a granite face to the wildly comic and nightmarish cries that befell him—and he always prevailed over impending doom.”

In his 1928 silent film The Cameraman, Keaton plays the title role—an aspiring cameraman at MGM with a crush on the secretary to the executive in charge of newsreels.

An extended scene features Keaton miming a baseball game at Yankee Stadium after learning that the Yankees are in St. Louis on a road trip.  In one part, Keaton imitates a batter getting knocked down, shouting at the pitcher, and hitting an inside-the-park home run capped by a headfirst slide into home plate.  Keaton’s sprint around the bases provided the opportunity to showcase the grandeur of Yankee Stadium, which is arguably more imposing without a game; its emptiness reinforces its size.  Keaton’s baseball fandom, legendary in the filmmaking community, undoubtedly inspired the Yankee Stadium scene.

In a striking bit of coincidence, The Cameraman premiered during the Yankees’ Midwestern road trip of September 15-30, which began with the Bronx Bombers taking on the St. Louis Browns, followed by the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Detroit Tigers.

Keaton, a comedy legend, followed an exacting blueprint to obtain laughs.  Though comedy is a craft and not a science, it comes pretty close to the latter.  In the September 16, 1928 edition of the New York Herald Tribune, the article “Buster Keaton On the Timing Of the Laugh” explains that The Cameraman is the “feature at the Capitol this week” before launching into Keaton’s detailed explanation of comedy.  Of particular importance is the insight regarding the beginning of the story.

“For instance, in the opening scenes of ‘The Cameraman’ I’m picked up alone in front of the New York City Hall,” states Keaton.  “I get a customer for a tintype picture, and, just as I’m about to snap the camera—this is carefully indicated by timed pauses—in rushes a crowd and upsets the works.  This, then, is topped by confetti and the disclosure that a famous character is coming along.  In rush the newsreel cameramen and I get tangled up in their camera tripods.  Between each development we had to figure just where a laugh might come in and how long a pause was necessary to take care of this.”

The Cameraman is a highlight in Keaton’s impressive body of work.  A downward trajectory ensued.  “After the success of The Cameraman, Keaton begged MGM for his own independent unit, but the studio refused,” wrote Lisle Foote in her 2014 book Buster Keaton’s Crew:  The Team Behind His Silent Films.  “His films became less and less funny, and even [director Edward] Sedgwick couldn’t stop the slide in quality.  The changes in comedies with the coming of sound, Keaton’s personal troubles, and the difficulties of working within a large and bureaucratic studio all contributed to the decline of Keaton’s films.”

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

Beyond 61*

Monday, February 13th, 2017

When Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle battled for supremacy in the single-season home run category in 1961, the spotlight that shone on them placed the excellence of the Yankee ball club in the shadows.  Elston Howard had a career high .348 batting average, Whitey Ford went 25-4, and Tony Kubek accrued a 19-game hitting streak in June.  Ford won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award for his outstanding performance—the left-handed hurler won two games and blanked the Reds for 14 innings.

Kubek praised Howard—the first black player for the Yankees—in an assignment for Time magazine.  He took on the task of photographing his teammates during spring training and opining on them.  “What won us the pennant was Whitey Ford,” declared Kubek.  “[Manager] Ralph Houk and [pitching coach] Johnny Sain decided that he would pitch every fourth day, and he ended up winning the Cy Young, with a 25-4 record.  Elston Howard called him the Chairman of the Board, and in 1961—when we were coming off that crushing loss to the Pirates in the 1960 Series—that’s exactly what he was.  Whitey was the real deal.”

Kubek was an unsung Yankee, earning respect within the clubhouse and on the diamond for his leadership.  It was something the press either ignored or overlooked.  In the 1975 book Dynasty:  The New York Yankees, 1949-1964, Peter Golenbock wrote, “Kubek shunned publicity and for years even refused to appear on the Red Barber postgame shows.  Though Kubek was the heart of the Yankee infield for half a dozen season, his reticent made him almost invisible in the media, and his complete absence of flair or color prevented him from attaining the recognition of some of his equally talented teammates.”

Additionally, Golenbock noted, “Kubek was a player everyone took for granted, and his true value was ascertained only after he retired in 1965.”

In the 1961 Sport magazine article “Have the Yankees Held Back Howard?” by Barry Stainback, Howard attributed his power to batting coach Wally Moses.  “We decided in the spring that I ought to close my stance and ease up on my swing, I was swinging my head off the ball,” explained Howard.  “Moses told me to swing with my arms—use my wrists—not my body.  I also began using a heavier bat, a 36-inch, 35-ounce one.  I used to use a 33-ounce one.”

Ford led his fellow pitchers in pinstripes as they overwhelmed the American League:

  • Bill Stafford (14-9)
  • Ralph Terry (16-3)
  • Rollie Sheldon (11-5)
  • Luis Arroyo (15-5)
  • Jim Coates (11-5)

The Yankees won the American League title with an eight-game cushion to distance themselves from the Detroit Tigers.  Another World Series championship followed when the Bronx Bombers beat the Reds in five games.  Golenbock surmised, “It is doubtful that any team in baseball history, with perhaps the 1927 Yankees the exception, could have beaten them in this world series [sic], the quality of Yankee play from both regulars and substitutes was so incredibly good.  The 1961 team was a most awesome machine.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 26, 2016.

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.