Posts Tagged ‘Cleveland’

Bowling, Tim Matheson, and “Dreamer”

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

“You just dream about something, that’s all it’s ever gonna be.  Just a dream.”

So says Harold Nuttingham in the 1979 film Dreamer, a post-Watergate, feel-good movie with a down-to-earth vibe.

Nottingham dreams of being a bowling champion—hence, his nickname “Dreamer”—but he can’t even get a PBA membership until he storms an executive meeting, proves his credentials, and demands inclusion in bowling’s upper echelon.  His statement about dreams targets father figure Harry White, a former PBA bowler who never quite reached the level of excellence that Dreamer envisions—and is capable of achieving.  Dreamer’s words nudge Harry towards buying an option for them on an 18-lane establishment with a coffee shop and a bar in Peoria.

Dreamer’s car broke down in Alton, Illinois two years before, creating an opportunity for him to work at the Bowl Haven, where he practices his game; Harry runs the pro shop.  Repairing the bowling racks is among Dreamer’s duties.  Tragically, Harry dies of a heart attack late at night, while bowling; he had a heart condition, so the news is not surprising to Dreamer.

Tim Matheson plays Dreamer, Jack Warden plays Harry, and Susan Blakely plays Dreamer’s girlfriend—Karen Lee, who also works at the bowling alley, as a cashier.  “Debra Winger rocked her audition, but the studio decided on Susan,” explains Matheson.

Bowling icon Dick Weber plays Johnny Watkin, Dreamer’s opponent in the film’s climactic match.  Matheson reveals, “Dick Weber was instrumental in helping me with my bowling.  He showed me ways to patch up my thumb until my calluses healed.  We also worked on creating a style that was interesting visually and looked real.

“I was in a bowling league in Burbank.  At the Grand Central Bowl in Glendale, I kept score for bowlers.  You could make 10 bucks a night, which was a decent amount of money.  So, I was very comfortable in that world.  For the movie, we bowled in an old alley in St. Louis.  I averaged around 165-170.  My highest was 199.  One day, we’re shooting a sequence and I’m keeping score consecutively with the takes.  My score was 224.

“Dick told us about the tricks that bowlers used.  They soaked balls in solvent that would soften the ball, so when you went to the tournament, it would react with more torque.  If you threw a ball with spin, it spun more.  Now, there are rules preventing this from happening.

“Jack Warden was one of the great storytellers of all time.  He told us that he auditioned for John Houseman, who was directing King Lear.  He was just beginning acting, but he had a blue-collar job during the day.  He didn’t have time to change for the audition, so he went in his coveralls.  Houseman said, ‘What part do you think you’ll audition for?’  Jack responded, ‘How about this Lear guy?’

“He was full of bravado and always gave advice if you asked about a scene.  He was a great acting coach, just gold.  He was a gem.  Susan was such a pro.  So wonderful to work with.  Sexy and intense and all the good things you’ll hope for in a partner that you play so many scenes with.”

It is convenient to compare Dreamer to Rocky, which premiered during the Christmas season of 1976; the elements are there—underdog taking on the champion, mentor tutoring the underdog, love interest.  This would, however, overlook the density of emotional resonance that Rocky evoked.  Where Rocky Balboa wanted to go the distance with Apollo Creed because no fighter had accomplished that seemingly impossible task, Dreamer has unwavering confidence that he belongs in the pantheon of bowling champions, if only he gets the opportunity to prove it.

Typical for Hollywood, Dreamer concludes with the upstart winning in dramatic fashion, dethroning Watkin by one pin in the 10th frame for a final score of 245-244.  Dreamer may not have had the edge of The HustlerRocky, or The Sporting Life, but it follows the template for Hollywood’s sports films.  We want the underdog to win because they remind us of ourselves.  Who wouldn’t rather play for the Miami Sharks rather than the Dallas Knights in Any Given Sunday?  Who wouldn’t rather play with Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Jake Taylor, and Roger Dorn on the Cleveland Indians rather than the New York Yankees in Major League?  These types of films fulfill the need to hope, allowing us to live vicariously, whether the hero is a bowler, a rugby player, or a major league pitcher.

To the extent that Dreamer has a villain, it’s the PBA, which looks askance, at least initially, at Dreamer’s qualifications.  Though not explored in depth, the confrontation between Dreamer and the PBA’s powers that be, including Watkin, represents a frustration at bureaucracy that was felt 100 years before Dreamer hit movie theaters and will be evident 100 years hence, in whatever medium audiences use to consume visual entertainment.

After the climactic game between Dreamer and Watkin, the last shot of the film shows Dreamer and Karen Lee packing up their car and listing their itinerary of bowling tournaments.  As they pull away, we see that the building behind them is the Harry White Memorial Bowl.

Taking Matheson’s portrayal of Eric “Otter” Stratton of Animal House as the archetype of a slightly arrogant character brimming with confidence, one can find levels of that personality in several of his subsequent roles, including:

  • Larry Sizemore (Burn Notice)
  • Al Donnelly (Black Sheep)
  • John Hoynes (The West Wing)
  • Harry Stadlin (Just in Time)
  • Alan Stanwyk (Fletch)

Alan Stanwyk is devious when he sets up Fletch to be the dead body in a burning car, thereby allowing him to escape to South America undetected.  John Hoynes is a political manipulator along the lines of LBJ—a Senate Majority Leader from Texas who lost the Democratic nomination to an underdog from New England and settled, uncomfortably, for being Vice President.

And yet, there is an underlying likability to these characters—they do not, in any way, exude nastiness.  Dreamer, neither, though his single-mindedness about pursuing a professional bowling career excludes Karen Lee, whom he considers to be a distraction during competitions.  This, of course, is reconciled after Harry’s death, which prompts Dreamer to realize that Karen Lee is not an appendage to his career, but a necessity to his life.

The Bowl Haven still stands today, a 24-lane escape for Altonians looking to knock down some pins.  Those of a certain age may remember the summer of 1978, when the Bowl Haven closed down for shooting.   Once owned by the Netzhammer family and built in the late 1950s, the Bowl Haven enjoys continuity to the past with Bill Netzhammer, the original owners’ son, managing the lanes that Dreamer once practiced upon.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 4, 2017.

The Début of Roosevelt Field

Monday, May 8th, 2017

When Christian Ziegler got the assignment to design a new stadium for Jersey City, he planned a voyage with Parks and Public Buildings Commissioner Arthur Potterton for a reconnaissance trip to Rochester, Cleveland, Montreal, Boston, and Philadelphia, according to the New York Times.

On June 5, 1929, Mayor Frank Hague made the announcement about the city getting a new stadium with a capacity to host 50,000 people.  The Times reported, “Work can start in three months, it is expected, and the stadium should be finished by the Spring of 1930.”

It took a bit longer, as is the tradition with construction projects.

On December 10, 1935, groundbreaking began at the site, adjoining Newark Bay, and which formerly housed Jersey City Airport; the Jersey Observer noted, in particular, Hague’s positive proclamation after making the initial dig:  “This is a great day for Jersey City.  You must realize that all the money needed for the construction of the stadium was donated by the government.  The city merely furnished the ground and pays the architect’s fees.

“This stadium has been the dream of the Jersey City officials for a number of years.”

Hague, a politician who exerted the right amount of pressure on the levers, switches, and buttons of Jersey City’s political machinery to get things accomplished, often colored outside the lines of the law to get things done.

Less than a year and a half later, the dream became reality—named for President Franklin Roosevelt, under whose aegis the Works Progress Administration governed the construction, Roosevelt Stadium débuted on April 23, 1937; the Jersey City Giants occupied home team status in the International League contest, losing a 12-inning game to the Rochester Red Wings.  Final score:  4-3.  In attendance were New Jersey luminaries, including Jersey City  Hague and Senator A. Harry Moore, who was a former governor.

Future Dodgers skipper Walter Alston banged the pitching of Giants hurler Rollie Stiles like a southerner swats flies on a humid night in August—the Red Wings first baseman went four-for-five and drove in two runs, including the game winner.

Roosevelt Stadium’s architecture affected the crowd.  “All who attended yesterday’s imbroglio gasped at the layout which Mayor Hague and the W. P. A. have provided,” reported New York Herald Tribune scribe Stanley Woodward.  “The grandstand and bleachers are of yellow fire-brick and a wall of the same substance surrounds the whole layout.  The end seats of each row are emblazoned on the aisle side with cast-iron shields, painted with ferryboats and square-rigged ships and bearing the motto, ‘Let Jersey Prosper.'”

Nine years after it opened, Roosevelt Stadium became the site of history—on April 18, 1946, Jackie Robinson played his first professional baseball game.  It was a 14-1 pounding of the Giants by Robinson and the Montreal Royals.  Robinson turned in an impeccable performance at the plate:

  • 4-for-5
  • 4 RBI
  • 2 Stolen Bases
  • 2 Putouts
  • 3 Assists

There was, however, one blemish—Robinson made a throwing error to first base on a double play ball.  In turn, the Giants batter, Clefton Ray scampered to second base and then home, when Bobby Thomson swatted a single.

In August of 1984, the Historic American Buildings Survey, an arm of the National Park Service, compiled a detailed history of Roosevelt Stadium, including, among other items, descriptions of the stadium’s interior, layout of seating areas, geographic location, flooring, and landscaping.  Like other stadia lost to history—Mack, Navin, Ebbets et al.—Roosevelt Field marked a specific place in time, when men wore fedoras, newspapers in larger cities had evening editions, and generations of families stayed in the same area code.  “In short, it was a meeting place for all the people of Jersey City and as such, the stadium embodies a time, an era, an overwhelming feeling of the essence of a city in its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s that simply no longer exists,” states the HABS report.

Roosevelt Stadium was demolished in 1985.  Society Hill, a gated community, occupies the site.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 3, 2017.

Lefty Grove, Ted Williams, and the 1941 Red Sox

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

They say the third time’s a charm.  And so it was with Lefty Grove’s 300th victory, which occurred on July 25, 1941, against the Cleveland Indians.  “Here the hundreds of fans who had been waiting for this moment ever since it became possible for Grove to reach his goal here in Boston refused to be denied,” wrote Gerry Moore in the Boston Globe.  “They rushed onto the field and undoubtedly would have mobbed the veteran they have come to idolize except for half a dozen policemen who finally managed to escort Lefty into the runway leading to the clubhouse.”

Grove’s landmark achievement—which was also his last victory in a 17-year major league career—reflected output that defined excellence.

  • Led the major leagues in ERA five times (four time consecutively)
  • Led the American League in ERA nine times
  • Led the major leagues in victories three times
  • Led the American League in victories four times
  • Led the major leagues in Win-Loss percentage five times
  • Led the American League in strikeouts in his first seven seasons
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts four times
  • .680 career Win-Loss percentage.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Grove in 1947.  His plaque highlights being an integral part of the Athletics’ squad that won three consecutive American League pennants—1929, 1930, 1931.

While Grove inched towards the pitcher’s plateau of 300 wins with a 7-7 record in 1941, Red Sox teammate Ted Williams slugged towards a hitter’s benchmark—.400 batting average.  It was a lock on the last day of the season—with a .39995 batting average, Williams would have benefited from the simple mathematics of rounding up if he sat out the season-ending Athletics-Red Sox doubleheader.  Instead, despite an endorsement from Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin to lay low, Williams grabbed his bat, went six for eight, and marked .406 for the year.  Nobody to date has hit .400 in the major leagues.

In a 1986 Sports Illustrated interview with Williams, Wade Boggs, and Don Mattingly about hitting, Williams explained his strategy at the plate.  “Now, if I could give you any advice, it would be that the tougher the pitcher, the tougher the situation, the tougher the count, the worse the light, the worse the umpires, the tougher the delivery, the single most important thing to think about is hitting the ball hard through the middle.  You’ll never go wrong with that idea in your mind.  As long as you hit, and especially as you get older, hang in there and be quick.”

1941 was a solid year for the Boston Red Sox:

  • Joe Cronin (Shortstop):  .311 batting average, 95 RBI
  • Jimmie Foxx (First Base):  .300 batting average, 105 RBI
  • Bobby Doerr (Second Base):  .282 batting average, 93 RBI
  • Jim Tabor (Third Base):  .279 batting average, 101 RBI

Championship glory was not to be, however.  With an 84-70 record, the Red Sox trailed the New York Yankees by 17 games.  Joe DiMaggio—the Yankee Clipper—scored a 56-game hitting streak in ’41, another achievement that has not been matched since.  The Yankees defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games to win the 1941 World Series.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 22, 2017.

What If the Dodgers Had Stayed in Brooklyn?

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

What if the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn?  Further, what if migration in the modern era had never taken place, thereby forcing expansion in Kansas City, San Francisco, and other MLB cities.

My paradigm assumes the following:

  • Tampa, Toronto, Arizona, and Montreal do not have teams
  • A’s, Braves, Browns, Dodgers, and Senators stay in their original locations
  • The Giants move to Minneapolis after the 1957 season.
  • Team names reflect the location’s history and lore
    • Grizzly Bears:  California’s state animal
    • Conquistadors:  Group claiming Oakland for Spain’s king in the 1770s
    • Loggers:  Washington state’s rich logging history
    • Gold:  Northern California’s gold rush in the mid-19th century
    • Mountaineers:  Georgia’s magnificent mountains
    • Astronauts:  Houston’s fame as the home of NASA
    • Express:  Colorado’s key role in America’s railroad history

Expansion teams have their inaugural years in parentheses.

1961-1965

American League

Boston Red Sox
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
St. Louis Browns
San Francisco Gold (1961)
Washington Senators

National League

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
Minnesota Giants
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals

1966-1975

American League East

Baltimore Orioles (1966)
Boston Red Sox
Cleveland Indians
Georgia Mountaineers (1966)
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
Washington Senators

American League West

Chicago White Sox
Detroit Tigers
Kansas City Royals (1966)
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
San Francisco Gold (1961)
St. Louis Browns
Texas Rangers (1966)

National League East

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Cincinnati Reds
Denver Express (1966)
Houston Astronauts (1966)
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates

National League West

Chicago Cubs
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
Minnesota Giants
St. Louis Cardinals
San Diego Padres (1966)
Seattle Loggers (1966)

1976-Present

American League East

Baltimore Orioles (1966)
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
Washington Senators

American League Central

Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Georgia Mountaineers (1966)
St. Louis Browns

American League West

Kansas City Royals (1966)
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
Oakland Conquistadors (1976)
San Francisco Gold (1961)
Texas Rangers (1976)

National League East

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Miami Marlins (1976)
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates

National League Central

Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astronauts (1966)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
St. Louis Cardinals

National League West

Denver Express (1966)
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Minnesota Giants
San Diego Padres (1966)
Seattle Loggers (1966)

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 14, 2016.

Kyle Chandler, Kelly Rutherford, and “Homefront”

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

Before he received tomorrow’s newspaper today in Early Edition, before he coached the Dillon Panthers in Friday Night Lights, and before working for the Monroe County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office in Bloodline, Kyle Chandler portrayed the All-American archetype Jeff Metcalf from the fictional River Run, Ohio on Homefront.

Airing on ABC from 1991 to 1993, Homefront boasted an ensemble cast portraying life in a Midwestern town after World War II.  It harkened back to the 1946 movie The Best Years of Our Lives, which revolved around soldiers returning from World War II to their fictional hometown, also in Ohio—Boone City.

Jeff played for the Cleveland Indians.  During 1946 spring training, he meets the older and wiser Judy Owen, a bartender played by the lovely Kelly Rutherford, who has aged about 25 minutes in the 25 years since Homefront premiered; Rutherford’s body of work on television includes Melrose PlaceThe DistrictThreat MatrixGossip GirlNash BridgesThe Mysteries of Laura, and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.

Rutherford’s worldly Judy and Chandler’s naïve Jeff, whom she nicknames Buckeye, after his home state, have a passionate connection.  Though it’s not consummated, the arc toward fulfillment is clear as a sunny day at Jacobs Field when she says, “I said I had to lock up.  I didn’t necessarily mean lock up after you’re gone.”

It threatens Jeff’s relationship with his fiancée, Ginger, a budding radio star—she discovers them in Jeff’s room, albeit fully clothed.  Ultimately, Jeff and Ginger wind up with each other, a knee injury forces Jeff out of baseball, and Judy moves to River Run, where she has an affair with the wealthy Mike Sloan, who is roughly a generation older.  Jeff rebounds from the knee problem to earn a place in the Indians’ minor league system.

Homefront aired for two seasons, depicting the life and times of the folks from River Run in the years 1945 to 1947.  This, of course, leads to question marks hovering over Jeff’s character:  Would he have played on the Indians’ World Series championship team in 1948?  How would Larry Doby, who made his début as the first black player in the American League, have affected—or ignited—Jeff’s view of racism?  How would River Run be affected by the introduction of television as a mass medium, thanks to Texaco Star Theatre premiering in 1948, with Master of Ceremonies Milton Berle as the first television star?

Rutherford symbolizes a throwback to the decade when Humphrey Bogart played a casino owner in Casablanca, Spencer Tracy played a fictional presidential candidate in State of the Union, and Fred MacMurray’s insurance agent conspired with Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale to kill her husband for money in his life insurance police in Double Indemnity.  Movies from that era appeal to Rutherford.  “Every once in a while, I need to have my fix,” said Rutherford in an interview with Susan King of the Los Angeles Times in 1994.  “I think it’s mainly when I need inspiration I look at the old pictures.  I don’t find it as much in the new stuff.  I love Carole Lombard.  I think she’s wonderful.  Gloria Grahame was really great.  Garbo.  Dietrich.  People knew how to create an illusion.  Now everything is very realistic and straightforward.  Everyone’s grunge.”

Chandler, too, enjoys an affinity for the classics.  In a 1993 article for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Chandler told Enquirer scribe John Kiesewetter about growing up outside Atlanta on a family farm, where Ted Turner’s television station WTBS aired the work of Bogart et al.  “Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable—there was a whole world there from the ’40s that I grew up watching.  It opened up that world to play with inside my head, and it was one of the main things that made me interested in acting.”

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

Al Rosen, Mickey Vernon, and the 1953 American League Batting Championship

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

During the summer that William Holden escaped Stalag 17, Audrey Hepburn gallivanted around Rome, and Burt Lancaster kissed Deborah Kerr on a Hawaiian beach, two sluggers edged toward a batting championship decided by one thousandth of a point—Al Rosen and Mickey Vernon.

Clevelanders celebrated Rosen’s 1953 trek, culminating in leading the American League in:

  • Runs Scored (115)
  • Home Runs (43)
  • Slugging Percentage (.613)
  • On Base plus Slugging Percentage (1.034)
  • Total Bases (367)
  • RBI (145—led the major leagues)

A hard-charging third baseman sacrificing prime years by serving in the Navy during World War II, Rosen was as prominent to Cleveland as Lake Erie, Public Auditorium, and the Park Building.

In Good Enough to Dream, his 1985 chronicle of owning the Utica Blue Sox of the New York-Penn League, sports writer Roger Kahn described an encounter with Rosen—at the time, Rosen was a baseball executive with the Houston Astros.  Rosen visited Kahn to see a game between the Blue Sox and the Astros’ minor league team based in Auburn, New York.

“‘You know, except for tonight’s score, I can enjoy this more than major league ball,’ Rosen told Kahn.  ‘The way the kids are so young and fresh.  The way you get so close to the game and to the fans.’  Rosen made his way toward the Auburn bus, offering me a wave, a man who lived each day fully and well and who would have to say ‘if only’ fewer times than almost anyone I knew.”

Mickey Vernon played most of his 20-year career in a Washington Senators uniform.  With a keen eye for baseball talent combined with blindness to prejudice, Vernon saw an emerging icon that could have made history with the Senators.  Matt Schudel’s 2008 obituary of Vernon in the Washington Post explained, “Mr. Vernon met an impressive young player, Larry Doby, whom he recommended to the Senators.  But because Doby was black, he went unsigned until Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s racial barrier in 1947.  When Mr. Vernon was traded to the Cleveland Indians in 1949, Doby was one of his teammates.”  Vernon played all of 1949 and part of 1950 in a Cleveland uniform.

Rosen came within a Chief Wahoo feather of winning the Triple Crown in 1953—he had a .333 batting average to Vernon’s .336 going into the last game of the season.  In a 2013 article, Tim Warsinskey of the Cleveland Plain Dealer recounted that Rosen had a prolific day at the plate, boosting his average to .336 by knocking two singles and a double against Detroit Tigers hurler Al Aber.  “Aber started the game for Detroit and was trying to finish it against Rosen, leading 7-3,” wrote Warsinskey.  “Rosen knew Aber well, because Cleveland had traded him to Detroit in June.  The infield was playing deep, almost inviting Rosen to bunt.  Rosen was a fairly good runner, but didn’t want to win the batting title on a bunt.”

A ground ball to Indians third baseman Ray Boone ended a Triple Crown possibility; while Rosen finished the season at .336, Vernon had a good game against the Philadelphia A’s.  Going 2-for-4, Vernon crossed the finish line of the 1953 season with:

  • .337 batting average
  • 205 hits
  • 115 RBI
  • 43 doubles (led American League)

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

The Indomitable Zack Wheat

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Zack Wheat churned out hits with the reliability of Henry Ford’s assembly line, which débuted the Model T in 1908, a year prior to Wheat’s introduction to the major leagues.  From 1909 to 1926, Wheat flourished as a member of Brooklyn’s National League squad with various nicknames in the press—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Robins, Flock.  Wheat played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1927, his last season.

Dodgers through the decades have achieved more fame, acclaim, and worship than Zachariah Davis Wheat, certainly.  Sandy Koufax pitched his way into Cooperstown with four no-hitters; Jackie Robinson earned civil rights icon status when he broke baseball’s color line in 1947; Tommy Lasorda declared his passion for the Dodgers at every opportunity; Fernando Valenzuela ignited Fernandomania during the summer of 1981; Don Drysdale struck fear into National League batting lineups, then parlayed his stardom into guest appearances on television sitcoms and a broadcasting career; Steve Garvey enjoyed an All-American image until it got sullied with a nasty divorce complemented by publicity regarding extramarital affairs and illegitimate children; Duke Snider defined power with each of his 407 career home runs; and Roy Campanella displayed courage, dignity, and inner strength in facing paralysis after a horrific car accident.

Wheat, surprisingly, often remains sidelined in discussions of Dodger greats.  A lack of recognition for Wheat’s performance belies a remarkable career output placing Wheat as the #1 Dodger in the following categories:

  • Career hits (2,884)
  • Doubles (476)
  • Triples (171)
  • RBI (1,248)

Wheat racked up a .317 batting average in his 19-year career, broke the .300 mark 14 times, and won the 1918 National League batting title with a .335 batting average.

A deeper dive into Wheat’s statistics reveals arcane nuances reflecting his excellence, which further enhances the value of the left fielder who batted left, threw right, and became a Brooklyn fixture.  OPS statistics—On-Base Plus Slugging—offer a baseline measure for ballplayers.  Additionally, Gray Ink grades on the number of times that a ballplayer’s achievements place in a given category’s top 10.

Baseball-reference.com states, “Wheat’s Adjusted OPS scores are not particularly high for a Hall of Famer, but on the other hand he was a well-rounded player.  His Gray Ink score (which is the 27th highest of all time) shows that he was commonly in the top ten in the National League—in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, among other stats, and he also stole over 200 bases in his career.  As a defensive player, his range was good for many years until he began to age.  He never played any position but outfield during his major league career, and almost never appeared in any outfield position than left field, which he owned for many years in Brooklyn.”

In the 1916 World Series, which Brooklyn lost to the Boston Red Sox, Wheat did not perform to his usual standard—he batted .211.  Wheat fared better in the 1920 World Series, achieving a .333 batting average.  It was not, however, enough—the Cleveland Indians beat Brooklyn in seven games.

Wheat’s approach to physical fitness lacked even a whiff of dedication.  “I smoke as much as I want and chew tobacco a good deal of the time,” said Wheat.  “I don’t pay any attention to the rules for keeping in physical condition.  I think they are a lot of bunk.  The less you worry about the effect of tea and coffee on the lining of your stomach, the longer you will live, and the happier you will be.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Zack Wheat in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 23, 2016.

Satchel Paige Joins the Indians

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was, to be sure, past his prime when the Cleveland Indians signed him in 1948.  An icon of the Negro Leagues, Paige reportedly signed on his 42nd birthday, making his major league début two days later.  Pitching against the St. Louis Browns, Paige entered the game in the fifth inning—he hurled two innings, allowed two hits, and frustrated the Browns.  Left fielder Whitey Platt, a .271 hitter in 1948 with 123 hits in 123 games, “had been so fooled that he threw his bat far down the third base line,” wrote A.S. “Doc” Young, Sports Editor for the Cleveland Call and Post.

Aggravation manifested after the game for the Browns, despite the victory.  Young described, “Over in the Browns’ dressing room, Manager Zack Taylor was still muttering about the ‘hesitation’ pitch, the one where Paige practically completes a follow through before releasing the ball.  That pitch, Paige said, was legal 20 years ago!”

Although the Indians lost the game 5-3, Paige’s performance overshadowed the defeat.  It was a formidable start for the next chapter of a storied career; the Indians beat the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series.

In Paige’s Society for American Baseball Research biography, Larry Tye—author of the 2009 book Satchel:  The Life and Times of an American Legend—wrote, “His 6-1 record was neither a joke nor an afterthought; it was the highest winning percentage on an outstanding Indians staff and a crucial factor in the team capturing the pennant, which it did by a single game over the Red Sox.  Each game he won had fans and writers marveling over what he must have been like in his prime and which other lions of blackball had been lost to the Jim Crow system of segregation.”

Two tv-movies depict Paige.  HBO’s Soul of the Game, a 1996 offering starring Delroy Lindo, revolves around the decision to select the first black player for the major leagues; Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige are the primary contenders.  In the New York Times, Caryn James praised, “But unlike most baseball movies, this one resists melodrama and saccharine inspiration most of the time.  Mr. Lindo, who has had powerful smaller roles in films like ‘Malcolm X’ and ‘Clockers,’ proves himself to be one of the best leading actors around.  In scenes between Paige and his wife (Salli Richardson), he is at once a realist about the pervasive racism of society and a relentless optimist about his own potential.  Though more saintly than his biographers would have it, this Paige deserves to be the deeply humane hero Mr. Lindo makes him.”

In 1981, ABC aired Don’t Look Back:  The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige.  Starring Lou Gossett, Jr., Don’t Look Back benefited from Paige’s insight.  Ken Watts of Associated Press explained, “As technical adviser, the flamboyant Paige gave Gossett valuable insight into his character.  In some parts of the film, shots of Gossett are intercut with actual footage of Paige on the mound.  The resemblance is so strong, it is difficult to separate the two.”

Paige reflected on his career while watching Gossett retreat it.  “Me and the rest of ’em (Negro League players), we had to stay around for so long before we was recognized as anything, if you want me to tell you the truth,” stated Paige.  “Bitter?  Naw.  We never had much of anything, but we did have lots of fun.  If I had to do it all again, I’d do it exactly the same way.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 9, 2016.

56 Games

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Joe DiMaggio once declared, “I’d like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.”  When the Yankee Clipper stepped into the batter’s box, denizens of the Bronx felt the same way.

In May 1941, Americans watched the premiere of Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane, ate a new cereal called Cheerios, and, through newsreels and newspapers, followed the terrible exploits of Nazi Germany in Europe.  While scanning the sports pages, they might have noticed an entry on May 16th indicating DiMaggio getting a hit in the previous day’s game against the Chicago White Sox.

It was the first of 56 consecutive games in which DiMaggio hit safely, a record.

DiMaggio’s hitting streak ended on July 17, 1941 in an Indians-Yankees contest, which the Yankees won 4-3.  Had DiMaggio reached 57 games, he would have had a lucrative promotion deal with Heinz because of its “57 varieties” slogan.  Or so the rumor went.  Ira Berkow of the New York Times negated the rumor by quoting DiMaggio in a 1987 article.  “I never believed that,” said the Yankee slugger, who hit .357 in ’41.  “After all, I got a hit in the All-Star Game, which came about midway in the streak.  And they could always have said that that made it 57.”

Cleveland responded to the moment that brought finality to a feat capturing the fascination of fans.  Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “There was drama in DiMaggio’s failure to stretch his streak into the fifty-seventh game.  It…enthralled the biggest crowd of the year, which was also the biggest crowd ever to see a night game.  After it was apparent that DiMaggio would not have another turn at bat, the Indians rallied and made two runs in the ninth, in a breathtaking finish in which the tying run was cut off between third and the plate.”

67,463 people in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium saw the end to DiMaggio’s epic run.  In a 2011 Sports Illustrated article, Kostya Kennedy—author of the 2011 book 56:  Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports—described DiMaggio’s approach to baseball as unchanging in the firestorm of dramatic tension.

“Even with the hitting streak surely finished, DiMaggio did only what he would have done at any other time,” wrote Kennedy.  “After crossing first base, he slowed from his sprint, turned left and continued running toward shallow center field.  Still moving, he bent and plucked his glove off the grass.  He did not kick the earth or shake his head or pound the saddle of his glove.  He did not behave as if he were aware of the volume and the frenzy of the crowd.  He did not look directly at anyone or anything.  Not once on his way out to center field did DiMaggio turn back.”

DiMaggio’s hitting streak prompted St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor J. E. Wray to propose that the Yankees honor the achievement by changing the slugger’s uniform number—”56″ instead of “5” would remind fans of the streak every time DiMaggio took the field.

Eight years before the 1941 streak, which stands as a record for Major League Baseball, DiMaggio hit safely in 61 consecutive games for the 1933 San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.  DiMaggio’s ’33 streak is a PCL record.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 24, 2015.

The Hall of Fame Case for Vada Pinson

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

Vada Pinson guarded the outfield grass at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in the 1960s like a sentry guards on outpost—with determination, concentration, and resolve.  In his “Counterpoints” editorial for the November 13, 1995 edition of USA Today, Tony Snow wrote, “Pinson was the best unknown player in the history of baseball.  He performed with an almost feral grace and transformed the game of farm-boys into something more akin to ballet.”

Despite formidable credentials, however, Vada Pinson is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Pinson played from 1958 to 1975, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds.  His tally of 2,757 hits falls shy of the 3,000 hits threshold, but not by much and certainly not enough to dismiss him from consideration for Cooperstown.  On the other hand, 256 home runs and 1,169 RBI while respectable numbers, will not support a Hall of Fame argument.

Pinson had career statistics that compare nicely to Roberto Clemente’s.  To be a true measure, though, Clemente’s numbers must be considered as if the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder would have retired after the 1972 season; he died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, having played his entire career from 1955 to 1972 in a Pirates uniform.  Clemente got inducted into the Hall of Fame by a special election in 1973.

Clemente had 3,000 hits, a yardstick for the Hall of Fame, and a .317 batting average, more than 30 points above Pinson’s.  But Pinson exceeded, or at least nearly paralleled Clemente in other categories, indicating prowess at the plate—1,196 strikeouts to Clemente’s 1,230 while having nearly 200 more plate appearances.  For Pinson, this is an 11% strikeout ratio; Clemente’s is 12%.

Pinson’s statistic of stolen bases offers more evidence of Hall of Fame potential.  While Clemente had 83 stolen bases in his career, Pinson had 305.  Speed on the base paths indicates a well-rounded player, making up for the gaps, however slight, separating Pinson from Clemente in on-base percentage (.327 to .359), slugging percentage (.442 to .475), and RBI (1,169 to 1,305).

Character, while an intangible and mostly irrelevant topic for Hall of Fame voters, deserves, at the very least, a mention.  When the St. Louis Cardinals traded Pinson to the Cleveland Indians, he made a difference in the latter’s clubhouse.  A 1970 article by Russell Schneider in the Sporting News quoted catcher Ray Fosse on Pinson’s impact:  “Vada has been on a winning club all his life.  Yet he comes to a young club like ours and fits right in.  All the time he’s watching you and building your confidence.

“There are a lot of little things to learn that helps make the difference.  He takes time out to tell you about them.  He’s been just great for the club.”

Snow echoed the sentiment in his column, explaining a meeting with Pinson in 1985, when the former Reds standout became a pitching coach with the Detroit Tigers.  “Small acts of kindness live on.  So when my boy gets old enough to care about baseball stars, I’ll tell him about the night the greatest unknown player ever talked openly with a kid he never had known and would never see again—a guy for whom there will never be an athlete as graceful or achingly human as Vada Edward Pinson Jr.”

Of course, character alone does not overcome the perceived deficiency, no matter how negligible, in statistics required for a plaque on the walls of the Hall of Fame.  Perhaps it should.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 12, 2015.