Posts Tagged ‘Cardinals’

The Début of Gilmore Field

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Boosted by cheers from Hollywood stars supporting the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, Gilmore Field débuted as a ballpark on May 3, 1939.  Among the famous fans:  Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, and Rudy Vallee.  “Glamour was furnished in the person of beautiful Gail Patrick, star of the cinema and wife of Bob Cobb, the restaurateur, and one of the sponsors of the home team,” reported Read Kendall in the Los Angeles Times.  Garbed in a red and white sports outfit, her black hair flowing from  beneath a red baseball cap, Miss Patrick threw the first ball.  “Comedian Joe E. Brown essayed to catch it and Jane Withers, juvenile screen actress, did her best to try and hit it.  But the pitches were wild and their stint was finally halted to allow the game to get under way after all the ceremonies had been completed.”

The Seattle Rainiers beat the home team 8-5.  Seattle hurler got pounded for 14 hits, but the Stars couldn’t overcome the deficit, although a ninth inning rally provided a glimmer of hope.  Down 8-3, the Stars scored two runs and had the bases loaded with two outs when left fielder George Puccinelli flied out to Seattle centerfielder Bill Lawrence.

Babe Herman—in the waning years of a career that saw stints with the Dodgers, the Reds, the Cubs, the Pirates, and the Tigers—batted .317 in ’39, which was his first of six seasons with the Stars.  His batting average stayed above .300 in each season.  Herman’s performance in Gilmore Field’s first game was not indicative—he went 0 for 5.  Ernie Orsatti, in his last season of playing professional baseball, knocked out a hit and scored a run when he pinch hit for pitcher Jimmie Crandall in the major leagues—all with the Cardinals—and five seasons in the minor leagues.  A native of Los Angeles, Orsatti finished his career after the ’39 season:  he also played for the Columbus Red Birds that year.  Orsatti’s career batting average was .306.

Wayne Osborne, Bill Fleming, and Lou Tost took the mound for the Stars.  Osborne got the recorded loss.  Their battery mate, Cliff Dapper, was the only .300 hitter for the Stars in ’39.  He did not, however, play in the Stars’ first game at Gilmore Field.

1939 was the second season for the Stars, a team previously known as the San Francisco Missions, the only Pacific Coast League team without its own ballpark.  While owner Herbert Fleishhacker transported the team to the environs of southern California, his newly hired team president, Don Francisco, sought Gilmore Field as the site for planting the Stars’ flag.

“Plans were announced to convert Gilmore Stadium, owned by oilman Earl Gilmore and used primarily for football and midget car racing, into a home for the team, which had been rechristened the Stars,” wrote Dennis Snelling in his 2012 book The Greatest Minor League:  A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957.  “However, as spring training approached, Don Francisco deemed it woefully inadequate.”

Hence, Francisco struck a deal with the Los Angeles Angels to use Wrigley Field for 1938, which also saw the unveiling of the Rainiers’ home field, Sick Stadium, named after owner Emil Sick.

Gilmore Field was demolished in 1951.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 11, 2016.

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.

Batman, Baseball, and 1966

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

1966 was the year of the superhero, thanks to Batman.  After the camp version premiered on ABC in January, starring Adam West in the title role, Batman triggered a fascination that inspired a slew of iconic guest villains:

  • Cesar Romero as the Joker
  • Burgess Meredith as the Penguin
  • Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as the Catwoman
  • Milton Berle as Louie the Lilac
  • Frank Gorshin and John Astin as the Riddler
  • Victor Buono as King Tut
  • Vincent Price as Egghead

Several others appeared in Gotham City’s Rogues Gallery.

Batman‘s format was simple.  A villain terrorizes Gotham City, igniting frustration of Police Commissioner Gordon and Police Chief O’Hara.  They call Batman on a secret telephone line which, unbeknownst to them, connects to a telephone at stately Wayne Manor, home of millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward, Dick Grayson.  Batman and Robin.  The Dynamic Duo.  The Caped Crusaders.

Typically, Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne’s butler, answers the telephone and slyly tells his employer about the urgent call without revealing the identity of the caller.  This, so other people in the room, for example, Wayne’s Aunt Harriet, do not learn of Wayne’s alter ego.

Neil Hamilton played Gordon; Stafford Repp played O’Hara; and Burt Ward played Grayson/Robin.

On June 25, 1966, Batman and the Riddler went to New York City, Gotham City’s real-life counterpart; Adam West and Frank Gorshin reprised their roles for a “Batman Concert” in front of approximately 3,000 fans at Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets.  Seven rock and roll groups were also on the bill.

When Batman showed up, “the 3,000 sounded like 30,000 now—as Batman circled the field in a Cadillac (the Batmobile was in for repairs, no doubt,” wrote Robert Sherman in the New York Times.

Gorshin took aim at the Mets’ woeful play.  One example pointed out by Sherman:  “Why are the Mets like my mother-in-law’s biscuits?  They both need a better batter.

Batman‘s success led to a slew of superheroes.  CBS labeled its Saturday morning cartoon block Super Saturday for the 1966-67 television season; shows included UnderdogSpace Ghost, and The New Adventures of Superman.

Though it set off a trend, Batman faded in appeal almost as quick as it catapulted to the throne of the popular culture kingdom.  ABC canceled the show after its third season.  A film version premiered in the summer of 1966.  Lee Meriwether played Catwoman.  West, Ward, Romero, Meredith, and Gorshin reprised their roles.

Managed by Wes Westrum, the Mets compiled a 66-95 record in 1966.  It was, in a sense, a breakthrough season—1966 was the first year that the Mets did not lose 100 or more games.  The barons of blue and orange finished in 9th place in the National League, 28 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, who got swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the ’66 World Series.  Additionally, three teams débuted new stadiums in 1966:

  • Atlanta Stadium (Braves)
  • Anaheim Stadium (Angels)
  • Busch Memorial Stadium (Cardinals)

Though the Mets finished 9th, it notched 2nd place in attendance for the Senior Circuit—1,932,693 of the Flushing Faithful went to Shea Stadium in 1966.

Loyalty abounds for the Mets, no matter the tally on the scoreboard.

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

Mickey, Whitey, and the Class of 1974

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

During the summer of 1974, excitement charged the air.  We watched with wonder when Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the Twin Towers, with dismay when President Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal, and with awe when the Universal Product Code débuted to signify a touchstone in the computer age.

For baseball fans, the Baseball Hall of Fame induction marked the summer.  In this particular instance, two Yankee icons, polar opposites in their upbringing but thick as thieves in their friendship, ascended to Cooperstown.  Mickey Charles Mantle and Edward Charles Ford.  The Mick and Whitey.

Mantle—the Yankee demigod with 536 home runs—thanked his father in his induction speech.  “He had the foresight to realize that someday in baseball that left-handed hitters were going to hit against right-handed pitchers and right-handed hitters are going to hit against left-handed pitchers; and he thought me, he and his father, to switch-hit at a real young age, when I first started to learn how to play ball,” explained the Oklahoma native.  “And my dad always told me if I could hit both ways when I got ready to go to the major leagues, that I would have a better chance of playing.”

With overwhelming power, Mantle compiled dazzling statistics:

  • Led the major leagues in runs scored (five times)
  • Led the major leagues in walks (five times)
  • Led the American League in home runs (four times)
  • 2,401 games played
  • 9,907 plate appearances

Mantle’s aplomb came with a cost—strikeouts.  #7 led the American League in strikeouts five times and the major leagues three times.

Like Mantle, Ford spent his entire career in a Yankee uniform.  Where Mantle came from the Dust Bowl, Ford came from the city.  Queens, specifically.  After achieving a 9-1 record in his rookie season of 1950, Ford lost two seasons to military service.  He returned in 1953 without skipping a beat, ending the season with an 18-6 record.

Mantle and Ford played together on the World Series championship teams of 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, and 1962.

Joining the pinstriped legends were—as a result of the Veterans Committee’s votes—Jim Bottomley, Jocko Conlan, and Sam Thompson.

Bottomley, a first baseman, played for the Cardinals, the Reds, and the Browns in his 16-year career (1922-1937).  He was not, to be sure, a power hitter—his career home run total was 219.  But he sprinkled 2,313 hits, resulting in a .310 lifetime batting average.  Bottomley led the National League in RBI twice, in hits once, and in doubles twice.

Conlan was the fourth Hall of Famer from the umpiring brethren.  In his 25-year career, Conlan umpired five World Series, six All-Star games, and three tie-breaking playoffs.  Conlan’s page on the Hall of Fame web site states, “He wore a fashionable polka dot bow tie and was the last NL umpire to wear a chest protector over his clothes.  Besides his attire, Conlan was known for his ability to combine his cheerful personality with a stern sense of authority.”

Sam Thompson was a right fielder for the Detroit Wolverines and the Philadelphia Phillies from 1885 to 1898.  In 1906, Thompson played eight games with the Detroit Tigers.  Thompson finished his career with a .331 batting average—he led the major leagues in RBI three times, in slugging percentage twice, and in doubles twice.  Thompson also led the American League in hits three times—in one of those years, he led the major leagues.

The Special Committee on the Negro Leagues okayed the inclusion of center fielder Cool Papa Bell, who played for:

  • St. Louis Stars
  • Kansas City Monarchs
  • Homestead Grays
  • Pittsburgh Crawfords
  • Memphis Red Sox
  • Chicago American Giants

In Mexico, Bell played for:

  • Monterrey Industriales
  • Torreon Algodoneros
  • Veracruz Azules
  • Tampico Alidjadores

Bell’s speed was legendary; speed inspired his nickname.  Ken Mandel of MLB.com wrote, “While still a knuckle balling prospect in 1922, he earned his moniker by whiffing Oscar Charleston with the game on the line.  His manager, Bill Gatewood, mused about how ‘cool’ his young player was under pressure and added the ‘Papa’ because it sounded better, though perhaps it was a testament to how the 19-year-old performed like a grizzled veteran.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 24, 2016.

Savannah’s Bananas

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

When James Oglethorpe led the settling of Savannah, Georgia in 1733, he used a geometric shape for the layout—squares.  Robert Johnson has the distinction of the first square being named after him; Johnson—South Carolina’s colonial governor—and Oglethorpe were friends.  Savannah expanded to 24 squares; Johnson Square is the largest.  Urban development caused the destruction of two squares.

Savannah’s squares, essentially, consist of eight blocks—four residential and four civic.  But it is a square turned 45 degrees that occupies a firm footing in Savannah’s history, culture, and leisure—a diamond.  Well, a baseball diamond.  Grayson Stadium.

In the year that Grayson Stadium was constructed—1926—under the moniker of Municipal Stadium, Babe Ruth smashed home runs in his prime, Walter Johnson won his 400th game, and Mel Ott made his major league début.

Savannah native Colonel William Leon Grayson was the inspiration for the ballpark’s name.  In his 1917 book A Standard History of Georgia and Georgians, Volume 5, Lucian Lamar Knight wrote, “Colonel Grayson represents a long line of military men, and while his own active field service was confined to a brief campaign during the Spanish-American War, he has for years been active in organizing and maintaining Georgia’s militia, and his work was the basis for a tribute from one of Georgia’s governors, who once said that no braver, more efficient or more reliable officer ever held a commission from the state than Colonel Grayson.”

Since its inauguration, Grayson Stadium has been home to several minor league teams:

  • Savannah Indians (1926-1928, 1936-1942, 1946-1954)
  • Savannah Athletics (1955)
  • Savannah Redlegs (1956-1958)
  • Savannah Reds (1959)
  • Savannah White Sox (1962)
  • Savannah Senators (1968-1969)
  • Savannah Indians (1970)
  • Savannah Braves (1971-1983)
  • Savannah Cardinals (1984-1985)
  • Savannah Sand Gnats (1996-2015)

When the Savannah Bananas of the Coastal Plain League took the field in 2016, the team’s first season, it carried the torch for baseball in the Hostess City of the South.  A wood-bat collegiate summer league with 16 teams, the CPL takes its name from the Class D league that existed from 1937 to 1941 and 1946 to 1952; the CPL shelved its business during World War II.  2016 was the league’s 20th year.

“We had heard that the Sand Gnats were potentially leaving, so we came to Savannah a couple of times to see what a baseball game looked like here,” said the Bananas’ president, Jared Orton, before the 2016 season.  “It’s a beautiful city with a majestic ballpark that’s full of baseball history.  We can celebrate that with a new chapter of Savannah baseball.

“Obviously, we cannot use traditional names, for example, Indians.  So, we narrowed down the possibilities to five and then sent them to Studio Simon for logo designs and colors.  When we saw the Bananas logo and name together, it was a no-brainer.  The name is easy to say, recognize, and market.  So, we can build our brand identity around it.

“One of the things we’re planning is a historical timeline in Grayson Stadium’s concourse to honor baseball in Savannah, including the most famous players to ever have played here.  Babe Ruth is one example.

“We’re focused on integrating the Bananas into Savannah’s culture.  That’s been the most challenging and fun aspect about launching the team’s operations.  We’re constantly meeting with business and community leaders to build and reinforce our relationships and friendships.  Our goal is to make the Bananas games fun for the fans.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 4, 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.

“Ball Four Goes Hollywood”

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

When Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four hit bookshelves in 1970, it exploded myths, revealed secrets, and offered tales of baseball, theretofore kept protected from the public.  If reporters knew about Mickey Mantle’s alcohol problem, for example, they didn’t cover it.  Womanizing, drug use, and clubhouse conflicts were other Ball Four topics, once forbidden from baseball scholarship.

It infuriated Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, betrayed long-observed rules of the locker room, and relieved reporters of the pressure to keep quiet on what they saw, heard, and learned.

And the public ate it up, shooting Ball Four to the best-seller list.

A right-handed pitcher, Bouton broke into the major leagues with the New York Yankees in 1962, ending the season at 7-7.  His next two seasons showed terrific promise:

  • 21-7 in 1963
  • 18-13 in 1964
  • 2 wins in the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals

Thereafter, not so much.  Bouton spent seven seasons in pinstripes, then played for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros in 1969.  He stayed with Houston in 1970, his last season, presumably.  A comeback with the Atlanta Braves in 1978 resulted in a 1-3 record; his career was over.

Bouton finished his career with a 3.57 Earned Run Average, 720 strikeouts, and a 62-63 record.  In Ball Four, co-authored with sports writer Leonard Shecter, Bouton captured his season with the Seattle Pilots, in addition to a sprinkling of tales about Mantle et al. during his tenure in the south Bronx.

In 1976, CBS aired an eponymous television series based on Ball Four.  The Tiffany Network, so called because of its quality programming, revolutionized television in the 1970s.  M*A*S*H combined comedy and pathos in its tales of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.  Authored by a MASH surgeon named Richard Hornberger, whose pen name was Richard Hooker, the 1968 novel M*A*S*H was, in a sense, like Bouton’s Ball Four.  Readers learned a first-hand perspective of war’s horrors beyond anything digested before in books, films, or television shows.  A 1970 film followed, starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall; the television series began in 1972, ran for 11 seasons, and racked up Emmy Award with the dependability of Cookie Monster devouring cookies.

All in the Family incorporated the Vietnam War, Watergate, and civil rights into dialogue that balanced humor, intelligence, and topicality.  Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, became a lovable bigot who saw his sure-fire patriotism threatened by the zeitgeist personified by his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Mike Stivic.

Mary Tyler Moore, starring the actress famed for playing housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show a decade prior, featured the comedic tales of Mary Richards, a single professional woman working as a television news producer in Minneapolis.  Before Mary showed she could “turn the world on with a smile,” as the show’s theme song indicated, it was rare to see a single woman as the central character of a television show.

Ball Four did not fall under the umbrella of groundbreaking television shows, despite its literary lineage.  Five episodes aired, starring Jim Bouton as Jim Barton of the Washington Americans, a fictional baseball team.  It was, to be sure, a thinly veiled portrayal.  To the dismay, worry, and scorn of his teammates, Barton takes notes for an upcoming series of articles in Sports Illustrated.  In her review of Ball Four for Sports Illustrated, Melissa Ludtke wrote, “The mediocrity of the opening show is particularly unfortunate because Bouton had hoped to give a true portrayal of his baseball experiences in the series.  Pill-popping, religion and women sports-writers in the locker room and homosexuality are some of the issues that he would like to cover.”

Bouton co-created the television series with Marvin Kitman and Vic Ziegel.  Harry Chapin performed the theme song, offering wistful lyrics with his trademark guitar playing as a soft complement.  Ben Davidson, a former professional football player who made Goliath seem like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, played Rhino, the Americans’ catcher.  As a defensive end, Davidson tore through offenses in the AFL and the NFL from 1961 to 1971; he played with the Portland Storm of the WFL in 1974.

Hollywood became a second calling for Davidson, who became a household name in the infamous “Less Filling, Tastes Great” television commercials of the 1970s and the 1980s for Miller Lite.  Bob Uecker, Mickey Spillane, and John Madden were among the other sports personalities in these humorous commercials.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 8, 2016.

Ted Williams’s MVP Years

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

If Boston ever establishes a Mount Rushmore of sports, the four visages will likely be those of Robert Gordon Orr, Larry Joe Bird, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr., and Theodore Samuel Williams.

Bobby.  Larry.  Tom.  Ted.

When Ted Williams swung his bat, a hit was not a foregone conclusion—pretty close, though.  After a 19-year career, Williams retired with a .344 batting average, 521 home runs, and two American League Most Valuable Player Awards.

In 1946, Williams won his first MVP Award, all the more remarkable because a three-year absence from ballparks to serve as a Marine pilot in World War II had, apparently, no impact—the Red Sox slugger nicknamed “The Splendid Splinter” led the major leagues in:

  • Runs Scored (142)
  • Walks (156)
  • On-Base Percentage (.497)
  • Slugging Percentage (.667)

Williams eclipsed Detroit Tigers left-hander Hal Newhouser, who won the AL MVP in 1944 and 1945. It was bittersweet, though.  The Red Sox lost the 1946 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games; Williams batted a Mendoza-like .200.

A red seat at Fenway Park shows the landing spot of a Williams home run on June 9, 1946—the longest dinger of his career.  To be precise, though, the ball landed on the head of the seat’s occupier—Joseph A. Boucher, a construction engineer.  Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe wrote, “He had never sat in the Fenway Park bleachers before.  There were 7897 fans besides [sic] himself perched on the sun-drenched wind-whipped concrete slope.  Indeed was the elderly Mr. Boucher honored when crowned by a five-ounce baseball that the game’s greatest hitter had socked some 450 feet.”

It happened during the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers; the Red Sox won both games.

Boucher’s brush with fame had a cost of slightly hurt noggin, barely protected by a straw hat.  It resulted; the “great baseball fan…and Red Sox rooter” received treatment from “Dr. Ralph McCarthy and two pretty nurses” in the stadium’s First Aid room.  Boucher did not recover the ball.

In 1949, Williams won his second MVP Award.  Once again, joy had a contrast of sorrow—the Yankees won the American League pennant by one game over the Red Sox.  It was an extraordinary year for Williams, even by MVP standards.  Williams led the major leagues in:

  • Runs Scored (150)
  • RBI (159)
  • Walks (162)
  • On-Base Percentage (.490)
  • On-Base plus Slugging Percentage (1.141)

Further, he led the American League in:

  • Doubles (39)
  • Home Runs (43)
  • Slugging Percentage (.650)

Though he did not achieve leadership in the following categories, his statistics were formidable:

  • Hits (194)
  • Strikeouts (48)
  • Batting Average (.343)

In Sports Illustrated‘s 2002 Special Commemorative Issue for Ted Williams, Tom Verducci wrote, “Trying to define Williams as a hitter is like studying one of those black-and-white optical illusions and trying to make out both a vase and the profiles of two people.  Do you see Williams as a high-average hitter with power or a power hitter who hit for a high average?  He was, of course, both.  Williams won six batting titles and four home run titles.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 6, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Harvey Kuenn

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

There are coaches and managers who approach baseball with a Lombardi-like focus on winning without the trademark Lombardi philosophy of striving to obtain psychological, emotional, and physical fulfillment through 100% effort.  Their desire to win is pure.  Their process, deadening.

Harvey Kuenn was not one of these leaders.

“Look, you guys can flat out hit, so go out there and have fun.  Don’t be stone-faced on the bench.  If a guy breaks a bat, laugh about it and he’ll laugh with you.  When you laugh and have fun, you get relaxed,” said Kuenn, when he ascended from being the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach to managing the team in the middle of the 1982 season, according to an article by Skip Myslenski in the Chicago Tribune, before the American League playoffs.  Kuenn steered the Brewers around after taking over the team with a 23-34 record; the Brewers finished the season at 95-67.

Harvey’s Wallbangers, a pun nickname, reached the World Series in 1982—the Brewers lost to the Cardinals in seven games.

Kuenn shot to baseball prominence when he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 as a member of the Detroit Tigers.  “The rookie’s success is a rare example of general baseball prophecy coming true,” stated the New York Herald-Tribune.  “From the start of spring training last year, a brilliant future was predicted for Kuenn.  However, Fred Hutchinson, the Tiger manager, said only that Harvey would start the season at short.  Kuenn not only started, but finished there, playing in 155 games.”

Kuenn played for the Tigers, the Indians, the Giants, the Cubs, and the Phillies in a 15-year major league career as a shortstop, a third baseman, and an outfielder.  With a .303 career batting average, Kuenn ranks in the upper echelon of batters.  He does not, however, have a Hall of Fame plaque.  Though a .300 plateau is not, perhaps, an automatic measure for Cooperstown, Kuenn’s other achievements, collectively, boost advocacy for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

  • Led the American League in hits four times and the major leagues once
  • Won the 1959 AL batting championship
  • Made the American League All-Star lineup eight consecutive years
  • Led the American League in doubles three times and the major league twice

One argument against Hall of Fame inclusion is Kuenn’s career RBI figure—671—though one can counter that RBI is a function of opportunity rather than hitting ability.  Also, though Kuenn’s career 950 runs scored is not an overwhelming statistic, by any means, a similar counter applies; if Kuenn is on base safely, which occurred regularly, a teammate must perform for scoring to occur.

When the Tigers traded Kuenn to the Indians for Rocky Colavito at the beginning of the 1960 season, team president Bill DeWitt certified the rationale.  “I have a high regard for Kuenn’s ability as a player,” said DeWitt in an Associated Press article.  “But we felt we needed more power at the plate and we’re hopeful this move will help us score more runs.”  Tiger manager Jimmie Dykes revealed, “It was a deal in which we had to trade consistency for power.”  Indeed.  In 1959, while Kuenn led the American League in batting average, Colavito led in home runs—42.

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

Vic Willis, the Boston Beaneaters, and the Last No-Hitter of the 20th Century

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

Vic Willis, he of the assonant moniker, hurled with the intensity of a Nor’easter whipping across the Charles River.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, Willis compiled a career 249-205 win-loss record, achieved a 2.63 Earned Run Average, and pitched in 513 games.  His 13-year career began with the Boston Beaneaters, for whom he played from 1898 to 1905.  Then, he called Pittsburgh home for four seasons, winning more than 20 games for the Pirates in each season.  Willis ended his career in 1906, with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Willis came charging out of the gate in his rookie year, notching a 25-13 record.  In addition to Willis’s performance, 1898 was an explosive year for Boston’s pitching staff:

  • Fred Klobedanz (19-10)
  • Ted Lewis (26-8)
  • Kid Nichols (31-12)

The Beaneaters won the 1898 National League pennant with a 102-47 record.

After his first two seasons, Willis had a record of 52 wins, 21 losses.  In 1900, he did not fare as well.  A 10-17 record belied Willis’s proficiency on the mound.  In his indispensable two-volume series Major League Baseball Profiles:  1871-1900, baseball historian David Nemec explains that rather than adhere to the ritual of spring training in southern climates, Willis opted for working out instead with Boston catcher Boileryard Clarke in the Princeton Gym.  “Arm trouble” resulted.

Further, a leap to the American League, perhaps prompted by Boston’s 66-72 record in 1900, failed to launch.  “Willis then made his critical career-changing mistake.  That winter, he agreed to jump to the rival American League and signed a contract with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s.  But in March TSN  [The Sporting News] observed that he had ‘flopped back to the big league,’ after Boston threatened legal reprisal and perhaps raised his salary to compete with the A’s offer,” writes Nemec.

Willis threw a no-hitter for Boston on August 7, 1899 against the Washington Senators.  Boston Globe sports writer Tim Murnane wrote, “The solitary hit off Willis was not worth the name. The ball went along the ground from [Senators pitcher Bill] Dineen’s [sic] bat as harmless as a robin at play until [Beaneaters third baseman Jimmy] Collins reached for it, when it jumped to one side and was safe.”

Although it stands as a no-hitter, the game’s box score in the Globe indicates a hit for Dinner.  Further, a headline for Murnane’s story states, “Only One Hit Off Willis in the Full Nine Innings.”

Boston beat Washington 7-1.  Murnane wrote, “The visitors scored their only run in the first, on two bases on balls, [Beaneaters catcher Marty] Bergen’s side throw to second and a putout.”

In 1899, Willis had the best Earned Run Average in the major leagues—2.50.

“Tall, graceful workhorse with sweeping curve” is the description of Willis on his Hall of Fame plaque.  Workhorse, indeed.  Willis scored at least 20 wins eight times.  In 1902, Willis led the major leagues in:

  • Games pitched (51)
  • Games started (46)
  • Complete games (45)
  • Innings pitched (410)
  • Saves (3)
  • Batters faced (1,652)
  • Strikeouts (225)

In addition to Willis, the Hall of Fame inducted Richie Ashburn, Leon Day, William Hulbert, and Mike Schmidt in 1995.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 19, 2016.