Posts Tagged ‘Bronx’

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.

Bobby Bonilla’s Payday

Friday, April 7th, 2017

At the turn of the 21st century, while the world scrambled to confront a Y2K threat to computers, Bobby Bonilla and the management of the New York Mets came to an agreement regarding salary—defer it.  Well, a lot of it.  From 2011 to 2035, Bonilla gets annual compensation somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.19 million.  This financial ritual happens every July 1st—a nice way to start the second half of the year for the Bronx native, a multiple defensive threat at third base first base, and right field.

Bonilla was owed $5.9 million by the fellas in blue and orange; his last year in a major league uniform was 2001.  Apparently, the Mets believed that the time value of money combined with comfortable returns from Bernie Madoff’s handling of accounts made the deferment a wise maneuver.  It was a financial mistake—serious, if not epic.

Madoff, of course, proved to be an expert disciple of the Ponzi School of Fraud, with a major in Deceit.

Bonilla’s was not the first deal to backfire.  And it will not be the last, certainly.  Desi Arnaz negotiated the rights to the negatives of I Love Lucy.  CBS acquiesced, figuring that nobody would watch an episode once it aired.  I Love Lucy became a juggernaut in reruns.

IBM calculated that profits came from the sale of computers, not computer software.  Consequently, it dismissed an opportunity to be a part of a little company started by a spectacled Harvard dropout from Washington state.  Microsoft.

And there’s Peter Minuit getting Manhattan Island from the Dutch for 60 guilders—$24 in beads.  Or so the legend goes.

Bonilla’s original deal, which closed in 1991, made him the “highest-paid player in team sports” because of an organization “with a flair for the dramatic and an unprecedented expenditure of cash,” wrote New York Times sports scribe Joe Sexton, who broke down the terms: guaranteed five-year contract, $27.5 million in base salary, and $1.5 million in a “promotional arrangement.”

It appeared to be a signal of a new era.  Eddie Murray, as much a fixture of Baltimore as the Fort McHenry National Monument, signed with the Mets in the same off-season.  “Bonilla may not be a colossal talent, but his acquisition registers an enormous impact on the Mets, the shifts that result likely to be felt in everything from the club’s public perception to its daily lineup,” opined Sexton.  “For Bonilla is both an engaging personality—his charisma can infect a clubhouse, his unaffected self-confidence can defuse the pressures of performance—and an intriguing offensive force.”

Bonilla had a 16-year career, playing with eight teams:

  • Pirates
  • Mets
  • Dodgers
  • Orioles
  • Marlins
  • Braves
  • Cardinals
  • White Sox

His career stats, though not in the Cooperstown sphere, are formidable:

  • .279 batting average
  • 2,010 hits
  • 408 doubles
  • 287 home runs
  • 1,084 runs scored
  • 1,173 RBI

Further, he cracked the barriers of a .300 batting average three times and 100 RBI or more four times.

For America, the beginning of July indicates the annual celebration of the country’s independence from Great Britain.  An omnipresence of memorabilia colored red, white, and blue envelops us, as do red and green five months hence.

For Roberto Martin Antonio Bonilla, the beginning of July indicates a seven-figure payment from a deferred compensation deal that will conclude in 2015.  No windfall, this.  It’s simply a creative structuring of salary.

Somewhere, Jack Benny is smiling.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 1, 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.

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.

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.

1957 American League MVP Controversy

Friday, January 6th, 2017

One was a lanky outfielder whose presence in the batter’s box automatically elicited cheers from the Fenway Faithful.  The other, a mainstay in pinstripes, compiling legendary statistics while riddled by injuries throughout his career.

Ted Williams.  Mickey Mantle.

Coming off his Triple Crown season of 1956, Mantle won the 1957 American League Most Valuable Player Award.  But the Yankee slugger from Commerce, Oklahoma didn’t think he had a shot compared to the venerable outfielder who wore #9 for the Red Sox.  “Mantle Felt Williams Won Award With East” blared the headline at the top of an Associated Press story in the Boston Globe, underscoring the confusion of many—and the resentment in Red Sox Nation—concerning Mantle’s achievement.

In 1957, Williams led the American League in Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, and Slugging Percentage; Mantle led in Runs and Walks while achieving a .365 batting average, second to Williams’s .388.  According to the calculations of baseball-reference.com, Mantle dominated Wins Above Replacement (WAR) categories, placing first in WAR-Position Players, WAR-Offensive War, and War-All.  Williams trailed in second place.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America bestowed the MVP honor after the tallying of votes belonging to a tribunal of 24 scribes ended in an overall score.  Mantle led his American League peers with six votes for first place, resulting in a score of 233.  Williams followed with a 209 score, supported by five votes for first place.  The next highest score—204—belonged to Roy Sievers, a formidable run producer garnering four first place MVP votes with the last place Washington Senators; Sievers led the American League in Home Runs and Runs Batted In.  Other contenders included Nellie Fox with five first place votes and Gil McDougald with four.

Williams’s bristly relationship with the press may have influenced the balloting.  Harold Rosenthal of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “The face for first would have been an eyelash proposition if personalities hadn’t entered into the balloting.  On two ballots Williams dre no better than a ninth and a tenth, a flagrant abuse of the electorate.”

Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey concurred, offering praise of the Yankee centerfielder while protecting the Splendid Splinter.  Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Daily Globe wrote, “Yawkey pointed out he admired Mantle as a wonderful ball player but stated that anyone who allows ‘personalities’ to enter into his voting should not be allowed to vote.”

Williams, as the numbers showed, had the respect of all but those two voters assigning him a ninth place vote and a tenth place vote—this, despite a season of stellar statistics.  Hurwitz commented, “There is little question—not only with the fans—but with more than 90 percent of the committee—that Williams didn’t belong lower than fourth place on any ballot.  Twenty-two of the 24 voters had Ted first, second, third or fourth.”

A media conspiracy theory concerning the 1957 American League Most Valuable Player Award offers lucrative fodder for debate amongst baseball enthusiasts, especially those in Boston and the Bronx.  Williams received laughter from the audience at his Hall of Fame induction in 1966, when he poked fun at his relationship with the press, followed by his appreciation:  “I received two hundred and eighty-odd votes from the writers.  I know I didn’t have two hundred and eighty-odd close friends among the writers.  I know they voted for me because they felt in their minds, and some in their hearts, that I rated it, and I want to say to them: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 14, 2015.

The Death of Babe Ruth

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

Like the man whose life it honored, Babe Ruth’s funeral was gigantic.  “The Babe is no longer breathing, but the fans will always talk about him,” wrote Hy Hurwitz in the Boston Globe upon the Babe’s passing in 1948.  “Talk about him because of his run-in, suspension and fine by the late Miller Huggins, only half of Ruth’s size, but a man who made it possible for Ruth to realize manhood.  Talk about him because he never turned down an autograph request or a trip to a hospital to visit a sick patient.”

George Herman “Babe” Ruth died on August 16, 1948.  6,000 mourned at Ruth’s funeral in and around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, perhaps New York City’s most famous religious site, within a Ruthian home run of Rockefeller Center and the New York Public Library’s Main Branch in midtown Manhattan.  Ignoring the rain, another 75,000 lined the streets in St. Patrick’s environs.  Newspapers recounted Cardinal Spellman’s prayer:  “May the Divine Spirit that inspired Babe Ruth to overcome hardships and win the crucial game of life animate many generations of American youth to learn from the example of his struggles and successes loyally to play their positions on all American teams, and may his generous-hearted soul through the mercy of God, the final scoring of his own good deeds and the prayers of his faithful friends, rest in everlasting peace.  Amen.”

Hardships began in Baltimore, Ruth’s hometown, where the father of the future slugger owned a bar.  Ruth, apparently, was incorrigible at a terribly young age, so his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, an institution serving problem children.  He was nine years old or thereabouts.  Versions vary regarding the impetus for Ruth’s enrollment in St. Mary’s.  Ruth biographer Robert W. Creamer wrote, “Another story, the origins of which are vague, says that one day during a brawl in the Ruth saloon a shot was fired.  No one was hurt, but an indignant neighbor got in touch with city authorities, declaring that the saloon was not a fit place to raise a child.  As a result either the city insisted or the parents themselves decided that the increasingly wayward boy should be removed from his unwholesome environment.”

Ruth left St. Mary’s when he was 20 years old, after a scout discovered his ability to smash baseballs over the fences.  He played in the major leagues from 1914 to 1935, amassing devotion from fans enthralled by his achievements, including the stunning season record of 60 home runs in 1927; it stood until 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs.  Ruth’s death reignited that wonder, as is common with the passing of a legend.  “It had to come sometime, of course,” wrote Arthur Daley in the New York Times.  “But Babe Ruth seemingly had acquired a cloak of immortality as if he were a demigod who had sprung from Zeus.  He was not an ordinary mortal even in life.  Now in death he will assume still more grandiose proportions as an almost legendary figure.”

Ruth’s impact on the game cannot be measured by his statistics alone, though they are legendary.  Career numbers include:

  • .690 slugging percentage
  • .342 batting average
  • 714 home runs

Further, as a pitcher for the Red Sox before he became a power hitter, Ruth held the record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the World Series until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.  Immeasurably, Ruth injected excitement into a game scarred by the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  When he swatted American League pitching for round-tripper after round-tripper, fans delighted.

Ruth’s skill with a bat turned baseball toward a new era.  The New York Herald Tribune eulogized, “His slugging prowess inspired imitators and the emphasis shifted from the tight tricks of the sacrifice, the squeeze, the stolen base, the playing for one run, to the long hit which would clean the bases, the one big inning.  It worked on every ball club in the country, but nobody could do it like the Babe, who began it.”

Ruth lay in state at Yankee Stadium for two days before the funeral at St. Patrick’s.  It was an opportunity to pay respects in the baseball shrine nicknamed “The House That Ruth Built.”  Thousands came.  “Aside from a few public officials, such as City Council President Vincent Impellitteri and Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons, these were the kind of people who might have sat in the stands to watch the Babe hit one of his tremendous homers, or strike out with gusto,” wrote Murray Schumach in the New York Times.  “The enormous line that waited patiently outside the Stadium, might have been mistaken for the bleacher line.  There were few limousines in the vicinity.  These people had come by elevated and subway, apparently straight  from work.  Many men were in shirtsleeves.”

On August 20th, the day of Ruth’s funeral, the New York Yankees defeated the Washington Senators decisively—the score was 8-1.  Yankee icon Joe DiMaggio attended Ruth’s funeral while the team prepared in Washington for a game against the Senators.  Quoted by Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune, DiMaggio said, “The Babe must have been more than just a great ball player to have so many people think so much of him.”

Attending the funeral left a small window of time for travel to Washington, though.  Fortunately, DiMaggio had the help of legendary bar owner Toots Shortchanged and CBS Chairman William Paley.  “Shortchanged yelled at Paley, who was driving on Madison Avenue in his limousine.  Paley got out and turned the car over to DiMaggio so that he was able to get to LaGuardia Airport,” wrote Rennie.

DiMaggio also got a boost from his flight crew.  Rennie added, “American Air Lines held flight 307 for ten minutes.”

Entering the game in the third inning, DiMaggio went one-for-four with no runs scored and no RBI.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 21, 2015.

George Steinbrenner Buys the Yankees

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

Midwesterners are a stoic lot; stereotypically speaking, they’re quiet but not timid.  Theirs is a mission of doing a job without complaint, fanfare, and insolence.  To be from the Midwest, certainly, is to have a work ethic in your DNA where seeking attention is not only unproductive but also anathema.

George Michael Steinbrenner III broke the Midwestern stereotype.  Not since Humpty Dumpty had something been shattered to that extent.

When Steinbrenner, a shipping mogul from Cleveland, led a 12-man group with Michael Burke to purchase the New York Yankees from CBS for $10 million, a transaction announced on January 3, 1973, he stated, “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.  I can’t spread myself so thin.  “I’ve got enough headaches with my shipping company.”  Such would not be the case.  Steinbrenner’s bouts, tirades, and frustrations concerning manager Billy Martin, for example, became regular fodder for New York City newspapers; the sparring between Martin and Steinbrenner resulted in four hirings and firings between 1976 and 1985.

Early in Steinbrenner’s aegis, the Yankees quenched a thirst for championships.  They hadn’t won an American League pennant since 1964, when they lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.  During the first six years of the Steinbrenner regime, the Yankees won American League pennants in 1976, 1977, and 1978.  While swept by the Cincinnati Reds in four games in the 1976 World Series, the Yankees rebounded to become world champions by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classic for the next two years.

The 1973 purchase was a bargain for Steinbrenner, Burke et al.  In his column for the New York Times on January 5, 1973, Red Smith penned a piece titled “January Clearance in the Bronx,” where he compared the deal to the one struck three seasons prior, when a Milwaukee group invested $10.5 million to buy the Seattle Pilots after the team’s expansion year of 1969.  Smith noted that Seattle franchise was a “bankrupt baseball team with a one-year record of artistic, athletic and financial failure.”

Additionally, Smith pointed out that the owners spent an additional $3 million on the club, which moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers, beginning with the 1970 season.  “For $10 million,” wrote Smith, “Mike Burke and friends get a team with a half-century tradition of unmatched success, a territory with 15 million potential customers, and a promise that the city will spend at least $24 million on a playpen for them.”  Indeed, the New York Yankees vacated the vaunted Yankee Stadium for the 1974 and 1975 seasons; they played their home games at Shea Stadium, the home field for the New York Mets.

Further, the Yankees enjoyed a B-12 shot of attention from the purchase during one of the most depressing nadirs in New York City history; crime, inflation, and malaise ruled over the five boroughs when the Steinbrenner-Burke group bought the Yankees.  Sandy Padwe, in his article “CBS Eye No Longer on Yanks” for the the January 4, 1973 edition of Newsday, captured this sentiment.  “So in a way, yesterday was a time for the romantics in the Bronx,” wrote Padwe.  “It was a day to forget the graffiti on the walls of Yankee Stadium, a day to forget that the area around the Stadium fades a little more each week, a day to forget that the most publicized ball park in the United States belongs to an era past.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 3, 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.