Posts Tagged ‘Class D’

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 Lone Star Years of Román Mejías

Friday, February 24th, 2017

During the Colt .45s’ inaugural season—1962—Houstonians could point to few bright spots in the team’s 64-96 record.  Román Mejías was one of them.

Mejías played in 146 games, swatted 162 hits, and finished the season with a .286 batting average.  Initially a product of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, the Cuban outfielder broke into the major leagues in 1955.  A year prior, he noticed a 55-game hitting streak for the Pirates’ minor league team in Waco, Texas.

In his article “Mejías of Waco Batting .345 of Pirate Farm Club” in the August 11, 1954 edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald, Oscar Larnce spotlighted the phenom’s talent.  “I don’t see how Mejías can miss.  He can do everything and is improving every day.  He was in Class D last year, then jumped into a tough Class B league and still gets better,” said Buster Chatham, the Pirates’ business manager, as quoted by Larnce.

Mejías spent six seasons with Pittsburgh, never playing in more than 96 games.  In 1960 and 1961, he played a total of seven games.

On Opening Day in 1962, Mejías clocked two home runs and notched six RBI to help the Colt .45s start Houston’s major league status with a victory over the Cubs. Mejías’s ability did not, however, result in selecting for the first All-Star game of 1962.  In an article for the Pittsburgh Press about Mejías’s All-Star situation, Les Biederman noted that Mejías led the Houston ball club at the plate—.317 batting average, 20 home runs, 54 RBI.

Little by little, Mejías learned English.  “New man.  I disgusted last year when Pirates send me to Columbus,” he explained in the Biederman article.  “I feel I can play in majors and never have real chance.  Figure no more chances but Houston take me and now new man.

“No swing bad balls anymore.  Not always strikes but no way to reach for ball can’t hit.  No more wait for ball over middle of plate.  Can’t get hit with bat on shoulder.”

Houston’s baseball fans embraced the slugger.  In his article “Mejías’ Season of Milk, Honey?” in the May 30, 1962 edition of the Houston Chronicle, Zarko Franks wrote, “Few will argue with Mejías’ popularity with the fans back home.  The roar of their voices when he comes to bat is sufficient testimony.”

Because of political strife in Cuba during the early years of Fidel Castro’s regime, Mejías suffered a separation from his wife, son, daughter, and two sisters for 14 months.

After the ’62 season, the Colt .45s traded Mejías to the Red Sox for Pete Runnels.  Fenway Park’s brain trust commenced brainstorming to bring the Mejías clan into the United States.  Boston Globe sports writer Hy Hurwitz reported, “The Red Sox very quietly went about assisting Mejías in his plight.  There was no publicity on the Mejías predicament by request of certain officials who felt that any publicity might endanger the family’s chance for release from the Castro-dominated island.

“Exactly how much the Red Sox and owner Tom Yawkey did for this 31-year-old man will never be told.  Yawkey won’t let it be told.”

However it was accomplished, the Red Sox organization did its legacy proud in securing safe transport for Mejías’s family in March 1963.

Mejías ended his career in a Red Sox uniform after the 1964 season.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 17, 2016.

Baseball in Appalachia

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

A minor league baseball treasure resides in the heart of Appalachia.  West Virginia may be known for its natural resources—coal, logging, natural gas—but its roots in baseball date back more than 100 years.  Charleston began its professional baseball history in 1910 with the Statesmen, a Class D team i the Virginia Valley League.  The following year, the Statesmen played in the Class D Mountain State League.

The latest incarnation of professional baseball in West Virginia is the Power, a label that began with the 2005 season.  Concurrently, the team created five mascots—Axe, Gusty, Pyro, Hydro, Charlie.  In 2010, Chuck replaced all five.  A yellow creature with a bowler and an eye patch, Chuck is a hallmark of Power baseball.  The eye patch is highly significant because it pays homage to the Power’s parent team—the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In the Charleston Daily Mail article “New Power mascot dons bowler”—dated September 1, 2010—Zack Harold describes Chuck’s initial appearance:  “After weeks of anticipation, the West Virginia Power baseball team debuted its new mascot—a furry, yellow, bowler-hat wearing creature named Chuck—during Tuesday night’s game.

“Chuck made his grand appearance in the middle of the second inning, riding into Appalachian Power Park on a Suzuki four-wheeler.  The Davisson Brothers Band welcomed him to the stadium with a special adaptation of their song Big City Hillbilly.

Appalachian Power Park houses the Power.  Noting the financial realities demanding a change in venue for Power home games, the team’s web site states, “Modern baseball economics could not survive in Watt Powell Park and several groups worked to preserve the game in Charleston.  From political support and work with the Economic Development Grant Commission to WVWINS, a community action group that mobilized local fans and businesses to back the project, an East End ballpark was put on the map.  Appalachian Power would quickly agree to take on the naming rights to the new 23 million dollar facility.”

Change continued with the team’s branding.  Charleston’s professional baseball history has several labels, though there are gaps:

  • Statesmen (1910-1911—Virginia Valley League in 1910, Mountain State League in 1911)
  • Senators (1913-1916, Ohio State League)
  • Senators (1949-1951, Central League)
  • Senators (1952-1960, American Association)
  • Marlins (1961-1964—International League in 1961, Eastern League in 1962-1964)
  • Charlies (1971-1983, International League)
  • Wheelers (1987-1994, South Atlantic League)
  • Alley Cats (1995-2003, South Atlantic League)
  • Power (2004-Present, South Atlantic League)

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 7, 2015.

Mascot Power

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Coal.  Logging.  Natural gas.

West Virginia is more than a state rich with natural resources.  It is, in fact, a minor league baseball treasure.

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