Posts Tagged ‘California Angels’

The Hall of Fame Case for Gene Autry

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Gene Autry wore many hats, proverbially speaking, besides the cowboy dome piece in his movies:

  • Owner of Los Angeles television station KTLA from 1963 to 1982
  • Original singer of the Christmas standard Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Army Air Corps officer and Air Transport Command pilot during World War II
  • Owner of Melody Ranch, a 110-acre site formerly known as Monogram Movie Ranch (bought in 1953, sold nearly 100 acres and used the remaining land for Western movies and television series)
  • Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show
  • The Adventures of Champion radio show (about Autry’s horse Champion)
  • Radio stations
  • Television stations, in addition to KTLA
  • Rodeo
  • Record company

Baseball fans, however, knew Autry primarily as the man who planted a Major League Baseball flag in Orange County, California; Autry, once a part-owner of the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, was the first owner of the California Angels ball club—originally named Los Angeles Angels—which had its first season in 1961.

Autry’s journey to ownership began, as financial successes often do, in the wake of disappointment.  When the Los Angeles Dodgers switched radio broadcasters from Autry’s KMPC to rival KFI in 1959, an opportunity emerged.  A new American League franchise in Los Angeles would be a ripe opportunity for KMPC, particularly because of its sports broadcasting pedigree.  A former ballplayer raised the ante.  “Joe Cronin had known Autry since Gene’s barnstorming rodeo days over two decades earlier.  Cronin, now president of baseball’s American League, wondered if Autry was ready to tame the Wild Wild West’s newest franchise in L.A.,” wrote Robert Goldman in the 2006 book Once They Were Angels.  “Autry jumped at the opportunity.  It was a perfect fit, as not only did Autry love baseball, but he also had an impeccable reputation as a businessman and a person of integrity.”

And so, the mogul who grew up dirt poor in Oklahoma pioneered American League baseball on the West Coast.

And yet, the icon born Orvon Grover Autry is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Autry’s tenure as the Angels’ owner spanned decades, from the last days of the Eisenhower presidency to the first days of the Internet becoming a mainstream tool for information.  When Autry sold the Angels in 1996, he left a legacy difficult to match and easy to applaud.  His length of time made him a baseball fixture.  His integrity made him a model of comportment for businessmen.

Tom Yawkey is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so—he spearheaded the renovation of Fenway Park in the 1920s.

Walter O’Malley is in the Hall of Fame, which causes havoc in the hearts of Brooklynites, who see O’Malley as a betrayer for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles.  His transit to Los Angeles after the 1957 season paved the way for Autry and other owners to establish teams west of St. Louis, theretofore the westernmost metropolis with a Major League Baseball team.

Barney Dreyfuss is in the Hall of Fame, a membership for the former Pirates owner resulting from many achievements, including being a proponent of the World Series; the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates played in the first World Series in 1903.

Gene Autry is not in the Hall of Fame, despite his steadfast ownership.

Devotion to the fans stands out.  Not content to simply have a financial ledger in the black.  Autry poured “his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion.  He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died,” wrote Myrna Oliver of the Los Angeles Times in Autry’s 1998 obituary.

In 1982, the Angels retired 26 as Autry’s number to reflect being the “26th Man” on the roster, which has a limit of 25 players.  It was a sign of respect that Autry also earned from owners, fans, stadium workers, players, and baseball executives across Major League Baseball.  Such is Autry’s emotional connection to Angel Nation that the phrase “Win One for the Cowboy” resonates from Angel Stadium to Aliso Viejo, from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano.

Cooperstown awaits.  Patiently.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 29, 2016.

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.

M*A*S*H, Prime Time Television, and the California Angels of 1977

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

If fans of the California Angels tuned into the CBS television show M*A*S*H on February 27, 1977, they would have seen familiar names during the closing credits—the Angels’ infield: Grich, Chalk, Remy, and Solita [sic].

Tony Solaita—First Base

Jerry Remy—Second Base

Bobby Grich—Shortstop

Dave Chalk—Third Base

M*A*S*H exhibited the antics, anguish, and anger of doctors, nurses, and other staff of the fictional Mobile Army Surgical Hospital #4077 during the Korean War.  It was nicknamed the four-oh double-natural in the eponymous novel, which begat the eponymous film, which begat the eponymous television show, which aired from 1972 to 1983.

The episode “Dr. Winchester and Mr. Hyde” revolves around Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester III, a pompous sort, refusing to manage his rest.  That, of course, sends him to the cusp of exhaustion.  In turn, he uses amphetamines to endure.

During his blissful ignorance of addiction, Charles treats the company mouse, Daisy, with amphetamines before her race with Sluggo, a mouse champion from the Marine unit recovering in the postoperative ward.  It induces bets from the 4077th personnel, who are unaware of Charles’s action, none making a bigger bet than Charles.

Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt, Charles’s bunkmates, discover the egotistical surgeon after the race; his blood pressure is 160 over 100.  In addition, he is suffering heart palpitations.  Surmising that Charles’s condition is not a consequence of long hours in the Operating Room, they deduce—and confirm—that Charles is using amphetamines.  Thereupon, Charles also admits to drugging Daisy.

According to the closing credits, the Marines are named Grich, Chalk, Remy, and Solita.  Whether the misspelling of Tony Solaita’s name results from intent or accident is unknown.

Norm Sherry and Dave Garcia managed the 1977 Angels, each for half of the season—81 games.  The team finished 5th in the American League West, compiled a 74-88 record, and scored 6th place in American League attendance.

The Angels were part of baseball history in the same year that John Travolta danced to box office success in Saturday Night Fever—they played the Seattle Marines on Opening Day, the first major league game for Queen City since the Pilots disbanded after one season.

Nolan Ryan, the Angels’ star hurler, had a banner year in ’77:

  • 19-16 win-loss record
  • 2.77 ERA
  • Led major leagues in complete games (22)
  • Led major leagues in strikeouts (341)

Frank Tanana, a Detroit native, also made a highly significant contribution:

  • 15-9 win-loss record
  • Led major leagues in shutouts (7)
  • 2.54 ERA

Offensively, the best player on the Angels squad was Bobby Bonds, father of notorious slugger Barry Bonds—the patriarch bashed baseballs all over American League turfs:

  • 37 home runs
  • 156 hits
  • Led Angels in games played (158)
  • Tied for 2nd in home runs—with Graig Nettles—(37)
  • 2nd in RBI (115)
  • Tied for 3rd in stolen bases—with Jerry Remy (41)
  • Tied for 3rd in sacrifice flies—with Rusty Staub and Carlton Fisk—(10)
  • Tied for 4th in extra base hits—with Al Cowens—(69)
  • Tied for 7th in runs scored—with George Scott—(103)
  • Tied for 8th in plate appearances—with Cecil Cooper and Duane Kuiper—(679)
  • 6th in total bases (308)

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 29, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Tommy John

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Forget about the 288 wins.

Forget about the four pennant-winning teams.

Forget about the pioneering surgery that bears his name.

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

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

In his 26-year career, John pitched for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 22, 2016.

Durocher, Drysdale, and the Duke

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Hollywood’s cup of glamour runneth over with lore, the most significant likely being, in terms of endurance, the story of Lana Turner, she of the tight-fitting sweater, busty figure, and platinum blonde hair.  Turner’s genesis as a star began at Schwab’s Pharmacy in Hollywood, where the future star played hooky from Hollywood High School.  Or so the legend went.  It was, in fact, the Top Hat Malt Shop that served as the locale for Turner’s discovery by a talent agent in the late 1930s.

Television producers in the 1950s and the 1960s need not have looked further than Chavez Ravine to discover talent for verisimilitude in their baseball-themed episodes.  Leo Durocher, no stranger to show business because of his marriage to Laraine Day—which ended in divorce in 1960—appears as himself in The Beverly Hillbillies and The Munsters.  In both appearances, Durocher, a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, scouts baseball talent—Jethro Clampett in the former and Herman Munster in the latter.

The Beverly Hillbillies uses the classic “fish out of water” format to depict country bumpkins living in Beverly Hills after striking oil accidentally.  Audiences delighted in the misunderstandings between the Clampett kinfolk and their neighbor—and banker—Milburn Drysdale.  Jethro, the slow-witted but joyful nephew of Jed Clampett, has a throwing arm that the more famous Drysdale would envy.  Unfortunately for Durocher, Jethro’s pitching ability flourishes only when he puts possum fat on the ball, clearly an illegal maneuver.  Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi does not appear as himself, rather, Wally Cassell portrays him.

In the Munsters episode “Herman the Rookie,” which aired in 1965, Durocher eyes Herman Munster, a comedic Frankenstein-looking fellow, as the Dodgers’ next great slugger.  While playing with his son, Eddie, Herman grabs the attention of Durocher, who thinks he’s found the next Babe Ruth.  A ball hit by Herman from a ballpark eight blocks away knocks Durocher on his noggin.

Again, Durocher’s scouting exploits amount to naught.  During a tryout, Herman hits a ground ball that tears through the infield dirt like a drill.  Toppling like a house of cards, the scoreboard falls after a home run ball smashes it.  “Mr. O’Malley said it would cost him $75,000 to put the Dodger Stadium back in shape every time I played,” explains Herman to his family.

Herman’s tryout takes place at Wrigley Field—in Los Angeles—which provided the site for several television programs and movies, including Home Run Derby; Wrigley Field was the home ballpark for the California Angels in their inaugural year, 1961.

Durocher also plays himself in episodes of Mr. Ed and The Donna Reed Show.

Don Drysdale made four appearances on Donna Reed in addition to guest starring on Leave It To Beaver and Our Man Higgins; his infamous appearance in The Brady Bunch occurred in 1970.  A post-baseball career in front of the camera beckoned during the contract holdout that joined Drysdale and fellow Dodgers hurler Sandy Koufax before the 1966 season.

In his 1990 autobiography Once A Bum, Always A Dodger, Drysdale revealed that a movie with David Janssen was in the works.  “Sandy and I assumed that we wouldn’t be with the Dodgers during the summer, so we geared up to do a movie instead.  It was to be called Warning Shot, directed by Buzz Kulik.  Janssen was going to be the star, Sandy was going to play a detective sergeant, and I was going to be a television commentator.  We had planned to start filming at just about the time the baseball season would begin.  Sandy and I had signed contracts and all systems were go.”

Drysdale and Koufax resolved their differences with the Dodgers, thereby excluding the Janssen movie from their calendar.

Before the Dodgers established a beachhead in southern California, beginning with the 1968 season, Ebbets Field was their home.  During his tenure as one of the marshals of McKeever Place, Duke Snider guest starred as himself on Father Knows Best in the 1956 episode “Hero Father.”  Father Knows Best is set in Springfield, presumably somewhere in the Midwest.

The story’s premise revolves around Bud, the middle of the Andersons’ three children.  Duke Snider’s All Stars are scheduled for exhibition games in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Duluth, Omaha, and Los Angeles.  “The All Stars come right through Springfield on their way to Duluth,” offers Bud, a teenager, to his two pals.

Anderson matriarch Margaret points out to her husband, Jim, that Duke Snider’s team would be a good draw to raise money for the new hospital wing; Him is the chairman of the committee for the addition.

Implausibly, Jim gets in touch with Duke.  Money proves to be a sticking point; Brooklyn’s iconic centerfielder explains, “My boys have to make a living.”  All is not lost, though.  Duke offers a deal that would give his team 25% of the profit from the ticket sales—instead of the usual 50%—plus expenses in advance.

Jack Braymer, the father of Sandy, one of Bud’s friends, approaches Jim with a deal—he’ll pick up the cost of the expenses and guarantee the tickets if Springfield’s zoning commission allows him to to build a manufacturing plant on the site of his choice.  Initially, Braymer wants to look like a hero to his son, with whom he has a somewhat fractured relationship.  When Jim shows that his integrity is unassailable, Braymer withdraws the offer.

After his conscience hits him with the force of a Duke Snider home run, Braymer comes clean to his son.  In the episode’s tag, Duke plays catch with the Andersons’ younger daughter, Kathy.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 25, 2016.

The First Angel

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

William Shakespeare, like other innovators, warned of worries that could prevent success—”Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt,” wrote the Bard in Measure for Measure.

It is a certainty, of course, that achievement in any endeavor requires a trio of curiosity, discipline, and persistence to defy doubts, exceed expectations, and create greatness.  California’s Orange County exemplifies, boasting a lineage of leadership responsible for inspiring us to dream, resetting our standards, and easing our lives.

Henry Huntington, owner of the Pacific Electric Railway, spearheaded the rail and trolley connection between Los Angeles County, Orange Count, San Bernardino County, and Riverside County.  Because of his transportation innovation, Huntington Beach bears his name.

Walter Knott, the berry mogul, saw prosperity where others saw dearth in Buena Park.  World-famous amusement park Knott’s Berry Farm stands on the site where Knott amassed a fortune based in berries, preserves, and pies; a Ghost Town created for customers became the genesis for the park.

Walt Disney made Anaheim a household word when he constructed Disneyland.  It came to fruition because of a deal struck with Leonard Goldenson, head of the nascent television network ABC—Disney needed financing; Goldenson needed programming.  Thus was born The Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland.

In this pantheon of progressive thinkers in Orange County belongs Gene Autry, an icon of success in radio.  And recording.  And movies.  And television.  And personal appearances.  And rodeo.  And business.  And broadcasting.  And baseball.

Fans of the Angels, a team with many monikers since its major league début in 1960—Los Angeles Angels, California Angels, Anaheim Angels, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim—know Autry, primarily, as the team’s founder.  The First Angel.

Autry’s career is an American success story.  Born near Tioga, a town in north Texas, Autry assimilated into Hollywood’s show business culture as a western star—America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy—with a guitar, a horse named Champion, and a signature song.  Back in the Saddle Again was to Autry what Happy Trails was to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

One of Autry’s assets was the Monogram Movie Ranch, which got a name change to Melody Ranch—a tribute to Autry’s eponymous movie.  Melody Ranch was also a song title and the name of one of Autry’s music companies.

Christmastime offers Autry’s voice as a mainstay—he was the first to record Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerHere Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane), and Frosty the Snowman.  Additionally, he co-wrote Here Comes Santa Claus.

Besides his success in music, movies, radio, and television, Autry was an astute businessman.  Investments in rodeo stock and the World Championship Rodeo Company resulted in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inducting Autry in 1979.

Los Angeles television station KTLA was another prize asset in Autry’s portfolio.  “When he was a kid in the 1920s, his family struggled financially, so he always had a work ethic,” explains Maxine Hansen, Executive Assistant to Jackie and Gene Autry from 1981 to 1998, when Autry passed away.  Since then, she has worked exclusively for Mrs. Autry.

“You always found him working.  Mr. Autry was close to his Uncle Cal, so he worked on his uncle’s farm.  He also worked in a Tioga barbershop run by Sam Anderson.  He did whatever he could to make money and help his family, including leaving school as a teenager and working for the Frisco Railroad as a baggage handler and later, a telegrapher.  He was determined to work hard and succeed.”

On December 7, 1960, Autry led a group of investors to establish the American League’s expansion team, named the Angels.  Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times reported that Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley said, “Gene Autry and Bob Reynolds are the kind of people that will be good for the game.  We are delighted that they have been awarded a franchise, and I hope that the Angels can bring an American League pennant to Los Angeles very soon.”

Baseball was an outlet for Autry, like millions of other boys, rich or poor.  “He enjoyed the game immensely,” says Hansen.  “Childhood friends said he was a good player.  He played on the Frisco Railroad team and he was pretty fair in semi-pro baseball.  Mr. Autry got an offer from the Cardinals organization’s Class D team, but the salary was only $100 per month.  So, he stayed with the railroad.”

Gene Autry is the only person to have all five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—Radio, Recording, Motion Pictures, Television, Live Theater/Performance.  Although he was one of the biggest celebrities of the 20th century, Autry never let stardom, money, or power outshine his ideals, values, or management style.  “Mr. Autry put people that he trusted in positions of responsibility,” says Hansen.  “He had a good eye for business talent.  He expected them to tell the truth, especially if they made mistakes.  And he left them alone to do their jobs.  He was always willing and open to business opportunities.”

Autry purchased KTLA in the fall of 1963, connected his properties to make it the broadcaster of Angels games, and formed Golden West Broadcasters to bring his television and radio assets under one umbrella.  KTLA was the Angles television broadcaster until 1995.

For Orange County’s baseball fans, the Autry asset with the highest significance was the major league team represented by a stylized A with a halo around it.  The Angels played their first game on April 11, 1961—it was a 7-2 victory at Memorial Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles.

Wrigley Field in Los Angeles was the Angels’ first home; the team moved to Dodger Stadium for four seasons, then moved to its own ballpark in 1966—Angel Stadium.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 21, 2016.

The Kingdome Welcomes the Mariners

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

Famed for its portrayal in Jim Bouton’s tell-all book Ball Four, the Seattle Pilots lasted one season—1969.  While the Mets inched toward an improbable World Series victory against the Baltimore Orioles, the Pilots went 64-98.  After the ’69 season, bankruptcy disrupted Seattle’s major league plans.  New ownership—future Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig—brought the team to Milwaukee under the Brewers label.

Seattle became an MLB city for the second tie when the Mariners took the field on April 6, 1977.  A 7-0 loss to the California Angels inaugurated the Mariners, joined by the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League’s expansion during the year of the New York City Blackout, the disco craze ignited by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and the death of Elvis Presley.  In the Los Angeles Times, Ross Newhan wrote, “The young, inexperienced Mariners were outmanned in the field and at the plate, made errors that led to runs, failed to take advantage of scoring opportunities and were forced to go with pitchers who would probably be in some other line of work had it not been for the dilution of talent generated by baseball’s repeated expansion.”

Angels pitcher Frank Tanana dominated the Mariners—he struck out nine, walked two, and left nine Mariners on base.  Diego Segui started for the Mariners, leaving the game after three and 2/3 innings; the Angels scored five hits and four earned rungs against the veteran pitcher, who went 0-7 in 1977, his last year in the major leagues.

It was not only the Mariners’ first game—it was the first MLB game in the Kingdome, a stadium following the pattern of indoor facilities for professional sports begun in 1965 with the Houston Astrodome.  Seattle’s new stadium, while architecturally imposing, had a few trouble spots for the players.  Newhan quoted Angels manager Norm Sherry, who opined, “Generally, it’s a very impressive place.  But a few things do concern me.  The dirt of the mound is so soft the pitcher almost disappears when he comes down on it.  That has to be fixed.  I think the fielders will have to be reminded constantly that they can’t take their eye off the ball or they’re going to lose it in all that gray of the dome.  And there are two big ridges that distinguish the football sidelines.  One runs through the outfield.  The other funs along the left-field foul line.  They could cause problems.”

Seattle sports fans induced the Kingdome in 1976, a year prior to the Mariners’ début, with a soccer game between the New York Cosmos and the Seattle Sounders.  Additionally, the NFL expanded in 1976, providing footholds in Seattle and Tampa Bay; the Kingdome created a new outlet for Washington State’s football passion.  According to King County’s web site, the eight-day Billy Graham Crusade at the Kingdom in 1976 achieved the largest attendance for a “specific event” with 434,100 recorded attendees.  During its tenure, the Kingdome hosted the NCAA Final Four, the NFL Pro Bowl, and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.  On March 26, 2000, an implosion captured by video both inside and outside the Kingdome marked the end of an era for professional sports in Seattle.

The Seattle Times reported, “Dust choked downtown for nearly 20 minutes, blocking out the sun and leaving a layer of film on cars, streets and storefronts.  The dust cloud reached nearly as high as the top of the Bank of America Tower and drifted northwest about 8 miles an hour.”  Nearly 4,500 pounds of explosives and more than 21 miles of detonating cord brought down the 25,000-ton Kingdom roof in 16.8 seconds.

Today, CenturyLink Field stands on the Kingdome site.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 21, 2016.

Don Sutton Wins 300

Friday, January 13th, 2017

In a city resting on a foundation of glamour, Don Sutton provided a terrific contrast.  With a workmanlike manner, Sutton reigned over the pitcher’s mound with consistency complemented by endurance.  No ego.  No nickname.  No razzle-dazzle.

Sutton began his major league career with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966; the Baltimore Orioles swept the Dodgers in the ’66 World Series.  He went 12-12 in his rookie season, not breaking .500 until 1970.  It was a record hardly indicating greatness.  Despite a moderate beginning to his career, Sutton flourished.  In 1980, Sutton led the National League in Earned Run Average—2.20.  His Hall of Fame plaque calls attention to his reliability—100 or more strikeouts in a season 21 times, 15 or more victories in 12 seasons, and the fifth best career strikeout total.

Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said, “When you gave him the ball, you knew one thing—your pitcher was going to give you everything he had.  You win as many games as he did—to me, that should be automatic Hall of Fame.”  Lasorda’s quote is on Don Sutton’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site.

After his lengthy stint in Los Angeles, which ended with the 1980 season, Sutton played for Houston, Milwaukee, and Oakland before playing for the California Angels in the id-1980s.  He returned to the Dodgers in 1988, which was his last season in the major leagues.

On June 18, 1986, the curly-haired pitcher reached a pinnacle rarely achieved by hurlersYou win as many games as he did—to me, that should be automatic Hall of Fame.”he won his 300th game.  In the Los Angeles Times, Mike Penner detailed Sutton’s dissimilarity with pitching legends, for example, Warren Spahn.  “And today, they have the company of the sport’s ultimate Everyman, Donald Howard Sutton,” wrote Penner.  “Sutton, who won 20 games in a season only once, who never struck out 300 batters in a season, who never had a no-hitter, who just, in his own words, kept getting people out, became the 19th pitcher in major league history to win 300 games by beating the Texas Rangers, 5-1, before an Anaheim Stadium crowd of 37,044.”

Sutton’s stoic manner disappeared after his 300th victory.  Penner described the scene taking place more than two hours after Sutton punctuated the day by striking out Gary Ward to end the game:  “But there in the darkness, still clad in his Angel uniform, was Sutton, still grinning, still clasping a celebratory plastic cup of champagne.”  It was a contrast, certainly, to Penner and other baseball insiders familiar with a pitcher uninterested in the openness connected to being a public figure.  Rhetorically and kiddingly, Penner questioned, “So this is Mr. Unemotional, eh?  The man who supposedly wears nothing on his sleeve except cuff links?  The pitcher who prides himself on two decades’ worth of poise, who attributes his long-running success to never leaving himself vulnerable to an unguarded moment?”

In 1998, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Don Sutton.  During his speech, Sutton said, “My mother used to worry about my imaginary friends ’cause I would be out in the yard playing ball. She worried because she didn’t know a Mickey, or a Whitey, or a Yogi, or a Moose, or an Elston, but I played with them every day.”

Sutton’s trajectory led him to the major leagues, where he played with and against other legends—Seaver, Palmer, Niekro, and Carlton, to name a few.  Without star power enjoyed by his peers, Sutton compiled a career undeniably worthy of belonging in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 8, 2015

Harmon Killebrew, Lew Burdette, and the Red Seat

Friday, December 9th, 2016

When Harmon Killebrew died in 2011, obituaries recalled the statement of former Baltimore Orioles manager Paul Richards:  “Killebrew can knock the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.”

Killebrew’s power resulted in 573 home runs in a 22-year career spanning 1954 to 1975.  Beginning his career with the Washington Senators, Killebrew did not see much playing time in his early years.  Between 1954 and 1958, he played in 113 games, hit 11 home runs, and smacked 57 hits.

In 1959, however, Killebrew’s career launched with enough power to ignite the rockets in NASA’s nascent Mercury program—he was an All-Star, playing in 153 games, smashing 42 home runs, and notching 105 RBI; Killebrew played in 13 All-Star games in his career.

The Washington Senators transported to Minnesota after the 1960 season and became the Twins.  Killebrew, in turn, became a folk hero to the Twin Cities metropolitan region.  “You can’t put into words the depth of Killebrew’s meaning to the Twins and to baseball fans in Minnesota,” wrote Scott Miller in “Killebrew was no ‘Killer,’ except when it came to slugging,” Killebrew’s obituary for CBSSports.com.  Killebrew played the last year of his career for the Kansas City Royals.

Metropolitan Stadium, the home field for the Twins during Killebrew’s reign of terror on American League pitching, succumbed to the domed stadium craze started by the Houston Astrodome in the mid-1960s.  The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis débuted in 1982, serving as the new home for the Twins and the Minnesota Vikings.  Consequently, developers razed Metropolitan Stadium.  Located in Bloomington, a Minneapolis suburb, the stadium site provided fertile ground for a shopping mall—the Mall of America.

On a wall at the MOA, a red seat from Metropolitan Stadium marks an example of Killebrew’s power.  With two outs in the 4th inning of the June 3, 1967 game against the California Angels, cleanup hitter Killebrew went yard with second baseman Rod Carew and third baseman Rich Rollins—the #2 and #3 hitters in the Twins lineup—on base.  Killebrew’s three-run homer created a moment that endures for Twin Cities baseball.  It landed 522 feet into the spot now occupied by the seat; some sources put the distance at 520 feet.  It’s the longest home run at Metropolitan Stadium.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984, Killebrew holds the distinction of being the first Twin honored in the hallowed corridors of Cooperstown.  Lew Burdette, the answer to the “Who threw the pitch?” trivia question, finished his career with the Angels in 1966 and 1967, appearing as a relief pitcher.

Burdette had a role in another iconic game.  On May 26, 1959, Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates in a game against the Milwaukee Braves,  Burdette matched Haddix for the number of innings, though not perfectly; the Braves ace scattered 12 hits, struck out two Pirates, and scored a victory for the Braves when Joe Adcock hit a solo home run in the 13th inning.

The 1957 World Series was Burdette’s apex.  After a 17-9 season for the Braves, Burette pitched three complete games against the New York Yankees, including two shutouts.  His exploits earned him the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 27, 2014.

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.