Posts Tagged ‘Cy Young’

Don Drysdale: Once a Bum, Almost a Pirate

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Imagining Don Drysdale playing for a team other than the Dodgers is like imagining Hershey’s making products without chocolate.  Drysdale, he of the cannon disguised as a right arm firing baseballs through National League lineups in the 1950s and the 1960s, spent his career as a Dodger—first in Brooklyn, later in Los Angeles, where he grew up on the San Fernando Valley.  But the communal aura of Ebbets Field and the sun-soaked environs of Chavez Ravine might never have been blessed with Drysdale had Branch Rickey’s brethren signed him in Pittsburgh; Rickey served as the Pirates GM after notching four World Series titles for the Cardinals and leading baseball’s integration by signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers organization.

Rickey’s 1954 scouting report on Drysdale—nestled in the pitcher’ file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown—indicated prescience bordering on psychic.  The 18-year-old Drysdale impressed Rickey with his fast ball and his curve ball, both of which “needs no coaching.”  Rickey also expressed confidence that Drysdale could take down the speed on his change-up.  In short, Drysdale was “a definite prospect” with “an unusual amount of perfection.”

As a comparison, Rickey mentioned Don Dangleis, a minor league hurler who never made it out of the Pittsburgh farm system; Drysdale had faster pitches but Dangleis was more well-rounded.  The sticking point for Rickey was money, as is often the case with a team’s front office—Rickey wanted to keep Drysdale’s salary at a maximum of $4,000.  Although Rickey acknowledged that Drysdale was worth “whatever it takes,” he wanted to avoid singing Drysdale under a “bonus baby” rule, which mandated an immediate vault to a major league tenure of at least two years for a salary exceeding $4,000.  It was a tempting option establishing a new financial plateau for the player and eliminate a stopover in the minor leagues.  If a “bonus baby” needed seasoning before going to “the show,” however, the then the rule could be a detriment.

In his 1990 autobiography Once a Bum, Always a Dodger, Drysdale revealed that Rickey actually offered $6,000 while proclaiming an evasion of the rule’s tentacles without disclosing his methods to the pitcher or his dad, Scott, an ex-minor leaguer advising the young pitcher on what came to be a joyous choice for fans of the Dodgers.  There were other options—Drysdale received pitches—no pun intended—from the White Sox, the Yankees, and the Braves.  Drysdale’s father offered a view based in value.  “Look, if you’re going to get a lot of money—like Billy Consolo, a $60,000 bonus baby—then it makes sense to take it and go to the major leagues and take your chances,” recalled Drysdale of his father’s opining.  “But if you’re not going to get a lot of money—and $2,000 isn’t a lot of money—then why not go where you have the best chance to learn?”

And so, the definite prospect from Van Nuys, California joined the Dodgers farm system.  Drysdale remembered that he signed in “the first week of June 1954” but Rickey’s scouting report was dated June 15th.  Either Drysdale’s memory was incorrect or Rickey was unaware of the signing.  The latter is a reach, considering Rickey’s legendary attention to detail.  At the bottom of Rickey’s missive is a handwritten postscript:  “Signed with Brooklyn.  Father is a bird dog for them.”

Drysdale played for the Bakersfield Indians, a Class C team in the California State League for the 1954 season; he went 8-5, then played for Montreal in 1955, where he compiled an 11-11 record.  On April 23, 1956, Drysdale made his first appearance with Brooklyn, unleashing the supremacy with which he taught master classes in intimidation, control, and reliability throughout his major league career, which ended in 1969.  In this game against the Phillies, Drysdale struck out the first three batters, notched nine strikeouts for the day, and showed “big league poise,” according to United Press, when he got out of a bases loaded jam in the second inning by inducing Murry Dickson to fly out.

Drysdale found a home in Brooklyn before voyaging back to the Los Angeles sunshine when the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season.  “There was an intimacy about Ebbets Field that you don’t forget,” wrote Drysdale.  “If you are a starting pitcher, you warmed up in front of the dugout before the game, not in the bullpen.  You felt as though the fans were right on top of you, because they almost were.  It was a carnival atmosphere, small and always jumping.”

Rickey’s analysis of Drysdale proved correct:

  • 1962 National League Cy Young Award
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts three times
  • 2,486 career strikeouts
  • Led the major leagues in games started for four consecutive years
  • Led the major league in innings pitched twice
  • Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984

 

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 16, 2016.

Boog Powell’s MVP Season

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

A native of Key West—the place where Pan Am began, the U.S.S. Maine sailed from on its last journey before exploding in Havana Harbor, and Ernest Hemingway maintained a legendary home—John Wesley Powell, also known as Boog, spent most of his 17-season career in an Orioles uniform.  One of those seasons—1970—resulted in him winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award.

Powell ran away with the MVP voting, gaining 11 of 24 first-place votes and 234 points.  The next four contestants weren’t even close:

  • Tony Oliva, Minnesota Twins (157)
  • Harmon Killebrew, Minnesota Twins (152)
  • Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox (136)
  • Frank Howard, Washington Senators (91)

Memorial Stadium rocked with the cheers of Oriole Nation as Powell marched toward the coveted .300 batting average barrier, falling just short at .297.  Powell’s dominance at the plate reflected in 35 home runs, 114 RBI, and a .549 slugging percentage.

It was a banner year for Baltimore’s birds—they won the World Series after getting upset by the Miracle Mets in 1969.  Powell’s fellow Orioles did not fare as well with awards, despite outstanding seasons.  Baltimore’s legendary pitching staff boasted three 20-game winners—Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Jim Palmer scored in the top five for the American League Cy Young Award voting, but got eclipsed by Jim Perry of the Twins.

Powell said, “I think it’s a shame we were neglected for the other awards.  All of our three pitchers certainly deserved the Cy Young.  But I’m still elated at being chosen the MVP.  I feel it’s the highest honor in sports.”

Yankee skipper Ralph Houk won the American League Manager of the Year title rather than Earl Weaver, who helmed the O’s to two straight World Series.  A third consecutive appearance happened against the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’71—ultimately a losing affair in seven games.

Cheers, an NBC prime time powerhouse in the 1980s, used Powell to cement verisimilitude of Sam “Mayday” Malone—a fictional relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, a recovering alcoholic, and the owner of Cheers.  As the show’s theme song declares, Cheers is a bar, near the Boston Commons, where everybody knows your name.

In the first season episode “Sam at Eleven,” Sam’s former ballplayer pal Dave Richards, now a sportscaster, wants to interview the ex-Red Sox reliever at Cheers.  Sam talks about a dramatic moment when he faced Powell in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader.  During the middle of Sam’s story, Dave abandons for an interview with John McEnroe.  Diane Chambers, an intellectual waitress having an undercurrent of highly significant sexual tension with Sam, which gets resolved in a later episode when they succumb to their respective differences—he, a dumb jock stereotype and she, a condescending sort—asks what happened to “the Boog person” and Sam, obviously suffering from a punch to his ego, casually tells her that Powell grounded to third to end the game.

After some gentle and not-so-gentle verbal prodding from Diane, Sam talks about the injury to his psyche.  Then, perhaps in a moment of catharsis, he tells Diane about the end of the second game, which also found him facing Powell in the bottom of the ninth.

Sam’s story could not have taken place during Powell’s MVP year, however.  When Cheers left prime time in 1993, after 11 seasons, Sports Illustrated ran a biography of America’s favorite barkeep.  “Everybody Knows His Name” recounted Malone’s career based on dialogue throughout the series.  Sam Malone entered professional baseball in 1966, débuted in the major leagues in 1972, and ended his career in 1978.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 15, 2016.

Cooperstown’s Hall of Fa(r)mers

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Given America’s roots as an agrarian nation, it is appropriate that the legend of baseball’s birth begins in a Cooperstown cow pasture; Doubleday Field, just a baseball throw from the Hall of Fame, occupies the spot where the myth—long since debunked—of Abner Doubelday inventing baseball began.  It provides, at the very least, a nexus between farmers and the village’s world-famous icon located at 25 Main Street.

Goose Goslin worked on his family’s farm in southern New Jersey before journeying to the major leagues, which began by playing for DuPont’s company team.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968, Goslin retired in 1938 after 18 seasons.  Among his career statistics:

  • .316 batting average
  • 2,735 hits
  • .500 slugging percentage

The Hall of Fame web site quotes Goslin regarding his humble beginnings:  “I was just a big ol’ country boy havin’ the game of my life.  It was all a lark to me, just a joy ride.  Never feared a thing, never got nervous, just a big country kid from South Jersey, too dumb to know better.  Why I never even realized it was supposed to be big doin’s.  It was just a game, that’s all it was.  They didn’t have to pay me.  I’d have paid them to let me play.  Listen, the truth is it was more than fun.  It was heaven.”

Tom Seaver tasted success with a World Series championship, three Cy Young Awards, and 311 wins.  His palate presently determines quality of wine in Seaver Vineyards.  In a 2005 article for the New York Times, Eric Asimov profiled Seaver’s venture.  “I wanted to keep my name off it, so the wine could make its own name.  My daughter said, ‘Dad, you’re not living forever.  Your grandchildren will be running it one day.  You’re putting your name on it,'” Seaver explained.

Carl Yastrzemski spent his formative years working on his family’s Long Island potato farm before embarking on a career spent entirely in a Red Sox uniform.  He became a Boston icon, racking up:

  • 3,419 hits
  • .285 batting average
  • 452 home runs

On Yaz Day at the end of the Red Sox slugger’s last season—1983—Yastrzemski reminded, “I’m just a potato farmer from Long Island who had some ability.  I’m not any different than a mechanic, an engineer or the president of a bank.”

Ty Cobb, a member of the first Hall of Fame class, inducted in 1936, had farming in his DNA, thanks to the Cobb family farm in Georgia.  Knowsouthernhistory.net reveals that the future star gained respect from his father during one summer when he worked extra hours as punishment for pawning two of his father’s books—he needed the money to fix his glove.  “The fields looked good, and were growing well.  For some reason, this brought about a change in the older man’s attitude toward Ty, one that the young man never forgot.  W.H. began to confide in Tyrus about the market for cotton, the work animals, and the crops.  Thrilled with the sudden change in treatment from his father, Ty hurried out and won himself a job at a local cotton factory.  He ate up the information about growing, baling, processing, and marketing the crop and shared all that he learned with his father.  In turn, the Professor was happy with the boy making an effort to mature, and their bond strengthened.”

Tragedy struck the Cobb family when Ty’s mother mistook her husband for a burglar and shot him dead.  She was acquitted at trial.

In addition to Cooperstown’s farm connection, films have used farms as settings.  In the 1991 film Talent for the Game, Angels scout Virgil Sweet discovers Sammy Bodeen, an Idaho farm boy.  Bodeen’s promise is heightened in the public’s mind by a marketing campaign designed by Angels management.  It looks to be futile when Bodeen suffers a horrible first inning in his début before settling down, thanks to Sweet, who dons catcher’s gear for the second inning and calms Bodeen with empathy in a conference on the mound without anyone else figuring out his masquerade; Sweet catches Bodeen’s first career strikeout, presumably, the first of hundreds.  Thousands, perhaps.

In the 1984 film The Natural, the story of Roy Hobbs ends with a shot of him playing catch with the son of his paramour, Iris, on her farm.  The poster for The Natural depicts a photo of this scene.

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

Kingman’s Performance

Monday, March 27th, 2017

Never at a loss for words, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda uncorked a verbal geyser of “F” word variations in response to a reporter’s inquiry on May 14, 1978.  Dave Kingman earned the privilege of setting off Lasorda by going yard three times and tallying eight RBI in that day’s Cubs-Dodgers game.  It was a display of power awing the 31,968 attendees at Dodger Stadium in the same month that Pete Rose notched his 3000th hit, Al Unser won his third of four Indianapolis 500 races, and Ron Guidry went 5-0 on his way to an American League Cy Young Award season with a 25-3 record.

After the Cubs’ 10-7 victory, secured by Kingman’s three-run homer in the 15th inning, sports reporter Paul Olden of KLAC radio asked Lasorda, “What’s your opinion of Kingman’s performance?”

And that’s pretty much when the wheels fell off the wagon.

“What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance?  What the f*** do you think is my opinion of it?  I think it was f****** horse****!  Put that in!  I don’t f******…opinion of his performance?  Jesus Christ, he beat us with three f******* home runs!”

That is merely the beginning of a monologue that lasts approximately 90 seconds, with Lasorda repeating the phrase “opinion of his performance” in disgust.

Frustration is often a signal of respect—such was the case with Lasorda, who admitted, “He put on a hell of a show.”

Richard Dozer of the Chicago Tribune remarked upon Kingman’s recent respites—none sparking delight—after showing signs of slump busting in a Cubs-Padres game.  “Kingman had two hits that night, then was benched against right-hander Gaylord Perry and against Don Sutton of the Dodgers,” reported Dozer.  “This did not please him anymore than being waved to the bench defensively on several occasions earlier this year.”

Kingman caught a Dusty Baker “wicked liner near the foul line” for the Dodgers’ last out of the ninth inning.  “It’s just a part of contributing,” declared Kingman.  “Some people around here think I can’t play defense, but maybe they’ll change their minds.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Ross Newhan quoted Kingman about his day of glory, noting the slugger’s association with Los Angeles dating back to his USC days.  “I consider this my home,” said Kingman.  “It’s always a great feeling to come back to Dodger Stadium.  I can’t put it into words.  It’s one of the most beautiful parks in either league.  The whole atmosphere is pure baseball.”

Kingman’s magical day provides a snapshot of strength, e.g., 442 career home runs, 35 or more home runs in a season six times.  Power had a cost, however.  It came in the currency of strikeouts for the Illinois native, who compiled a .236 batting average in his 16-year career.  Two outstanding years show the terrific contrast.

1979

  • Led the major leagues in home runs (48)
  • Led the National League in slugging percentage (.613)
  • Led the National League in on-base plus slugging percentage (.956)
  • Led the National League in strikeouts (131)

1982

  • Led the National League in home runs (37)
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts (156)

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

Jim Palmer’s No-Hitter

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

Jim Palmer began his major league career in 1965, when the Braves played their last season in Milwaukee, the Astros unveiled the Astrodome, and Bert Campaneris became the first player to play all nine positions in a major league game.

Throughout his 19 seasons—all in a Baltimore Orioles uniform—Palmer racked up pitching achievements like a Marylander devours crabs.  Often.

  • World Series championships (1966, 1970, 1983)
  • American League Cy Young Awards (1973, 1975, 1976)
  • 20-win seasons in all but one year between 1970 and 1978
  • Led the American League in innings pitched (1970, 1976, 1977, 1978)
  • Led the major leagues in shutouts (1975)
  • Led the American League in earned run average (1973, 1975)
  • Led the major leagues in earned run average (1975)
  • Led the American League in victories (1975, 1976, 1977)
  • Led the major leagues in victories (1975, 1976)
  • Led the American League in complete games (1977)
  • Led the major leagues in complete games (1977)

On August 13, 1969, the future Hall of Famer added a rare jewel to his crown—a no-hitter.  In an 8-0 shutout of the Oakland A’s, Palmer contributed with his bat as well as his right arm—a single, a double, a run scored, one RBI, and a walk that started a five-run tally in the seventh inning.  Associated Press began its account by emphasizing the 23-year-old right-hander “continuing his amazing comeback” after being on the disabled list; the no-hitter brought Palmer’s 1969 record to 11-2.

It was a glorious day for Baltimore.  Boog Powell rapped two hits and scored a run.  Brooks Robinson knocked a three-run home run—it was his only hit of the day.  Don Buford went three-for-four with two RBI.  Paul Blair and Frank Robinson had one RBI apiece.

After two years of limited work because of “assorted back and shoulder miseries,” described by AP, Palmer had an impressive 9-2 record in 1969 before tearing a muscle in his back, which prompted a stay on the disabled list beginning on June 29th.  When Palmer returned to pitch against the Minnesota Twins on August 9th, spirits lifted from Mount Washington to Fells Point.  It looked like the physical challenges were in the rear view mirror as Palmer notched a 5-1 victory over the fellas from the Twin Cities; he threw for six innings.

Palmer’s no-hitter occurred while the world experienced terrific events, with the adjective being used for both its original meaning as a derivation of the word “terror” and its adjusted meaning to describe something extraordinarily good.  In the four weeks prior to Palmer’s feat, Charles Manson masterminded a mass slaughter of Sharon Tate and six others, Apollo 11 made the first successful manned moon landing, and upstate New York prepared for a festival described as “3 Days of Peace and Music” at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel—the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

With a 109-53 record in 1969, the O’s had a 19-game differential from their closest competitor—the Detroit Tigers had 90 wins and 72 losses, respectable but not enough to eclipse the marshals of Memorial Stadium.  The New York Mets defied expectations by defeating the Orioles in the 1969 World Series, taking five games to accomplish the task.

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

Beyond ’69

Monday, March 6th, 2017

When the New York Mets took the field for the first time, America was awash in a tidal wave of promise.  The year was 1962—John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had taken viewers on an unprecedented televised tour of the White House, and Dodger Stadium had marked a new standard for ballparks.

Respect eluded the nascent Mets, however.  Inheriting the Polo Grounds and the interlocking NY logo from the Giants—who abdicated New York City for San Francisco after the 1957 season—the Mets lost their first game.  It was, indeed, an inauspicious beginning for the National League squad bearing Dodger Blue and Giant Orange as its colors.  At the end of the season, the Mets’ tally read 40 wins, 120 losses.

Subsequent seasons followed a paradigm of mediocrity.  It shifted in 1968, when Gil Hodges took the reins after managing the Washington Senators for five seasons—the Mets went from 61-101 in 1967 to 73-89 in Hodges’s first year at the helm.

In 1969, the Mets exorcised their ghosts.  With a 100-62 record, the “Miracle Mets” defied expectations with a World Series upset of the Baltimore Orioles, thereby securing 1969 as a season of glory; Mets fans get wistful at the mere mention of the year.

Lost in the nostalgia is the decade after the miracle—the 1970s Mets were, for the most part, a formidable team often overlooked in accounts of baseball in the Me Decade.  Surely, the Yankees drew more attention with three consecutive World Series appearances resulting in two championships, not to mention drama of Shakespearean proportions.

In Oakland, the A’s—also known as the Mustache Gang—carved a dynasty with three consecutive World Series titles, later suffering a shattered team when owner Charlie Finley broke it up.

In Cincinnati, the Big Red Machine set the bar high for National League power, with a lineup including Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench.

But the Mets, consistent rather than dominant, compiled winning seasons from 1970 to 1976, except for 1974.  Further, the Mets battled the powerful A’s in the 1973 World Series, falling to the fellas from Oakland in seven games.  Gil Hodges, unfortunately, did not live to see that second grasp at a World Series—he died from a heart attack right before the 1972 season.

At the New York Mets 50th Anniversary Conference hosted by Hofstra University in 2012, the impact of Hodges’s death on the 1970s Mets was a point of discussion on a panel populated by Ed Kranepool, Art Shamsky, and Bud Harrelson—all agreed that if Hodges had survived his heart attack, they would be wearing a few more World Series rings.  More importantly, perhaps, Hodges might have been able to prevent the darkest point in Mets history.

Tom Seaver won the Cy Young Award three times—all in the 1970s.  When the Mets traded Seaver to the Reds for four players in 1977, fortunes plummeted.  After an 86-76 record in 1976, the Mets closed out the remainder of the 1970s with losing seasons:

  • 1977:  64-98
  • 1978:  66-96
  • 1979:  63-99

In contrast to the optimism permeating Shea Stadium at the beginning of the decade, frustration became an unwanted friend as the Mets piled on loss after loss.  This streak continued into the 1980s, finally reversing with a 90-72 record in 1984.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 7, 2016.

Cy Young’s Perfect Game

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

It’s appropriate the first perfect game in the 20th century belongs to the pitcher whose moniker adorns baseball’s most prestigious award for hurlers.  Denton True “Cy” Young.

Young’s feat on May 5, 1904 decimated the Philadelphia Athletics, secured a 3-0 victory for the Boston Americans, and provided the “treat of a lifetime” as described by the Boston Daily Globe.  Two pitchers threw perfect games in the 19th century, but the Globe drew distinction between their achievement and Young’s:  “Comparing the phenomenal performance of Cy Young to that of John M. Ward and Lee Richmond is like comparing the speed of a crew in a working boat to that of the same crew in a racing shell.”

The Globe continued, “The pitchers 20 years ago ran about the box with no restrictions and let the ball go from a distance of 45 feet, while now the pitcher is practically tied to the  pitching slab 60 feet distant.  Since the performances of Ward and Richmond every new rule has been made with a view to hampering the pitcher until now great performances are the result of head work [sic] and phenomenal skill, such as was shown by Young in the game against the hard hitting Athletics on Thursday.”

Richmond and Ward also benefited from the allowance for pitchers to run before releasing the ball and the granting of a walk after seven balls.  By the time Young threw his perfect game, baseball had both eliminated the running start and restricted a walk to four balls.  George Edward “Rube” Waddell pitched for Philadelphia—he flied out to centerfield for the last out of the game.  Though he dominated Boston in his most recent start—allowing one hit—Waddell scattered 10 hits and gave up two runs on Young’s perfect day.

A misconception about Young’s name manifested with the tag “Denton Tecumseh Young” in the press—a 1939 Associated Press article gave Young an opportunity to clarify:  “My dad, who soldiered with a captain named True in the civil war [sic], decided to call me ‘True’ in memory of his pal.  Back in the old days I always signed by name Denton T. Young.  It was in 1904 that Bob Unglaub, who played first and third base at Boston when I was there, started that ‘Tecumseh’ stuff.”

While training in Little Rock, Young’s teammates gave him a party for his 43rd birthday.  “The boys gave me a loving cup and the name on it was ‘Denton Tecumseh Young.’  I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by objections, so the newspapers carried my name the same way.  Unglaub said later, when I told him about it, that he thought my name was Tecumseh because he had heard some of the boys call me ‘The Chief,'” explained Young.

Cy, of course, became a shortened moniker for Cyclone, an indication of Young’s pitch speed.  In addition to the perfect game, Young pitched no-htiters in 1897 and 1908, led his league five times in number of wins for a season, and holds the record for most number of career wins—511.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Young in 1937.

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

The Black Sox: Fact vs. Fiction

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out provided the source material for the eponymous 1988 movie written and directed by John Sayles, who also played sportswriter Ring Lardner.  Starring Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Bill Irwin, Gordon Clapp, Clifton James, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Tighe, David Strathairn, and John Mahoney, Eight Men Out revived the debate about the involvement of eight White Sox players in fixing the 1919 World Series as part of a conspiracy engineered by gangsters.  Scandalized, the players suffer eternal banishment from Major League Baseball, thanks to a 1920 ruling by the newly installed baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Jim Murray, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, clarified the undercurrent of Eight Men Out.  “They say baseball pictures don’t make it at the box office,” wrote Murray.  “Well, this isn’t about baseball.  It’s about greed and ignorance and betrayal.  The Lou Gehrig story, it ain’t.  The actors are wearing baseball uniforms, but they could be wearing Roman togas.  Their story is universal, timeless.  It’s as old as Adam and Eve.  It’s an immorality play.  Man loses to temptation—again.”

Praising the aura in Eight Men OutChicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Sherman wrote, “With the exception of a few lapses into Hollywood sappiness, director/writer John Sayles does a nice job of sticking to the facts as recorded in Asinof’s book,”  He added, “Sayles captures the tension and ambivalence of the eight players as the conspiracy grew and was revealed.”

Sherman also commended ex-White Sox outfielder Ken Berry, the film’s technical adviser, for accuracy in the game scenes.  Citing Sayles’s need for “perfection,” Berry recalled a scene for Sherman involving Charlie Sheen, who played centerfielder Happy Felsch, one of the infamous eight players.  “We had a play where Charlie had to make a throw to the plate, and the runner was out, but the umpire called him safe,” Berry said.  “It was a bang-bang play.  We did 10 takes, and Charlie’s arm was about to fall off.  But on the 10th take, Charlie made the perfect throw.  That’s the way John wanted it.  He went out of his way to portray the game as it was.”

D.B. Sweeney strove for authenticity in his portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and, perhaps, the most vilified of the “Black Sox” of 1919.  Training with the Minnesota Twins’ farm team in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sweeney greatly improved his baseball skills.  In a 1988 feature article about Sweeney in the New York Times, George Vecsey detailed the actor’s journey in playing Jackson.  Quoting Sweeney, Vecsey wrote, “The first week, I couldn’t do anything in the batting cage.  But I got a batting tee and set it up on the hotel, and after a week I started to make contact.  Don Leppert and Dwight Bernard were coaching there, and they helped me a lot.  Cal Ermer would come through and give me pointers.  By the time I left there, I had more power from the left side than the right.”

As with any movie concerning historical events, facts are sacrificed for artistic license, continuity, and time.  In the 1950 movie Jolson Sings Again, a sequel to 1949’s The Jolson Story, Larry Parks plays legendary performer Al Jolson.  Told about the interest in a movie about his life, Jolson dismisses the importance of factual accuracy in favor of his story’s emotional impact.

Eight Men Out replaces fact with fiction at several points in the story.

During a trial scene, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey testifies that he “informed [American League] Commissioner Ban Johnson” about the “possibility of a conspiracy.”  Comiskey explains that his suspicions occurred “shortly after the series began.”  However, he found “hearsay” after hiring private detectives.

Actually, the American League and the National League do not have commissioners; Ban Johnson was the American League’s president.  Further, James Crusinberry of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Comiskey “was not on speaking terms” with Johnson, so he approached National League President John A. Heydler after the first game because he believed his players fixed the series.

On September 26, 1920, Comiskey testified to this action.  Heydler confirmed it upon arriving in Chicago to testify.  “Commy was all broken up and felt something was wrong with his team in that first game,” quoted Crusinberry of Heydler.  “To me such a thing as crookedness in that game didn’t seem possible.  I told Comiskey I thought the White Sox were rather taken by surprised, that perhaps they had underestimated the strength of the Cincinnati team.

“The matter was dropped for the time.  That day the Reds won again and we moved to Chicago for the third game.  Comiskey called me on the telephone early that morning, and with John Bruce, secretary of the national commission, I went to his office at the ball park.  Once more he stated he felt sure something was wrong.”

Crusinberry added, “Comiskey also called Heydler into conference after the second game, more thoroughly convinced that certain White Sox players were trying to throw the games to Cincinnati.”

However, accuracy abounds in the scene regarding Comiskey’s initial belief that rumors of a fix did not amount to fact.  On December 15, 1919, I.E. Sanborn of the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted Comiskey:  “I am now very happy to state that we have discovered nothing to indicate any member of my team double crossed me or the public last fall.  We have been investigating  all these rumors and I have ha men working sometimes twenty-four hours a day running down clews [sic] that promised to produce facts.  Nothing has come of them.”

Another example of fictionalization involves White Sox player Dickie Kerr telling manager Kid Gleason that he saw Gleason pitch a no-hitter against Cy Young—Gleason never pitched a no-hitter.

Of course, the apocryphal quote “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is, perhaps, the best example of fiction replacing fact.  Eight Men Out would not be complete without depicting a kid expressing disappointment in Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox.  The authenticity of this iconic quote is dubious, at best, because of the lack of evidence.  Nonetheless, it is part of baseball lore.

As a companion to Asinof’s book and the movie, Bill Lamb’s book Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation analyzes the legal angles of the 1919 World Series fix.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 13, 2015.

1969

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

As described by German Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck, politics is the art of the possible.  So is baseball.  When the New York Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles to win the 1969 World Series, possible elevated to miraculous.

Once again, National League baseball thrived in New York City.  It was a long wait, too.  There were only two World Series between 1947 and 1957 that did not have either the Giants or the Dodgers representing the National League.  After the 1957 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants departed for Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.  With fan bases mourning the loss of their teams, the Mets offered an outlet for those who did not want to—or refused to—switch allegiances to the Yankees.  Those fans were used to excellence, however, not mediocrity.  Or worse.

Débuting in 1962, the Mets leapt to new heights in futility; the team’s record was 40-120.  Successive seasons offered no solace:

1962 (40-120)

1963 (51-111)

1964 (53-109)

1965 (50-112)

1966 (66-95)

1967 (61-101)

Rooting for the Mets, in turn, became a pastime requiring emotional endurance.  That changed when Gil Hodges took the managerial reins in 1968.  Though still below .500, the Mets vaulted to a 73-89 record.

Momentum continued in 1969, resulting in a 100-62 record for the so-called Miracle Mets.  Tom Seaver tore through opponents like a flame through a box of Kleenex tissues, ending the season with a 25-7 record, 205 strikeouts, and a 2.21 ERA.  Unsurprisingly, Seaver won the 1969 National League Cy Young Award.  Cleon Jones batted a career-high .340, placing third in the National League, behind Pete Rose and Roberto Clemente.  Jerry Koosman won 17 games, notched 180 strikeouts, and had a 2.28 ERA.

Though impressive, the Mets faced an American League team exploding with dominance—the Orioles ended the 1969 regular season with a 109-53 record, largely a result of phenomenal pitching:

Mike Cuellar (23-11)

Dave McNally (20-7)

Tom Phoebus (14-7)

Jim Palmer (16-4)

Conventional wisdom favored the Orioles.  Conventional wisdom was wrong.  The Mets won the 1969 World Series in five games.

Miracles replaced miseries.

In 1969, the Corleone family first appeared in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, Led Zeppelin released its first album, Richard Nixon became the 37th President of the United States, Boeing’s 747 airplane made its first flight, Willie Mays became the first baseball player in the major leagues to hit 600 career home runs since Babe Ruth, journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre, Chemical Bank’s Rockville Centre branch unveiled the first Automatic Teller Machine in the United States, Golda Meir became the first—and, to date, only—female Prime Minister of Israel, the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, Dr. Denton Cooley implanted the first artificial heart, Sullivan County in upstate New York hosted a three-day festival called Woodstock, Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, and the Montreal Expos earned the distinction of being the first MLB team stationed outside the United States.

1969 was a year of achievement in politics, science, technology, sports, literature, entertainment, and journalism.

For baseball fans, however, 1969 was a year of miracles.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 16, 2014.

1977: A Year of Extremes in New York

Friday, November 4th, 2016

1977 was the best of times for fans of the Yankees, but the worst of times for fans of the Mets.

After seeing the Yankees get swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the ’76 World Series, George Steinbrenner went shopping; Steinbrenner led a group to purchase the Yankees in 1973.  He persuaded Reggie Jackson to come north from a year-long sojourn in Baltimore, where Jackson played for the Orioles in 1976.  Jackson was more than a winner.  He was a champion with three World Series titles from his tenure with the Oakland Athletics.  Indeed, the A’s ball club was a dynasty, winning the series in three consecutive years—1972, 1973, 1974.

Free agency allowed Jackson to get top dollar for his services.  Brash with flash and lots of cash, Jackson drew attention.  An article in Sport magazine added tension to the Yankees team.  Robert Ward quoted Jackson: “I’m the straw that stirs the drink.”  Jackson has said that the quote is incorrect.  Controversy abounded within the clubhouse.

Then, on June 18, 1977, manager Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson brawled in the Yankees dugout during a game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.  Martin though that Jackson loafed on a ball hit by Jim Rice to Jackson’s position in right field.  Rice stretched the hit into a double.  Martin, in turn, replaced Jackson with Paul Blair.  With the game broadcast on national television, the Martin-Jackson fight put the Yankees in the spotlight.  But winning can absolve a lot of sins.  And winning is exactly what the Yankees did.

The 1977 World Series pitted the Los Angeles Dodgers against the boys in pinstripes.  A Hollywood screenwriter could not have written a better ending.  The Yankees added another World Series title to their legacy, vanquishing the Dodgers in six games.  Jackson hit three home runs in Game 6, each on the first pitch and each off a different pitcher: Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa, Charlie Hough.

The other New York team also found itself in controversy in 1977.  It was not a winning season for the Mets, however.  They compiled a 64-98 record.  When Tom Seaver negotiated with the Mets in ’77, the thought of him in another team’s uniform was unthinkable.  He was, after all, the team’s franchise player.  But that’s exactly what happened.

Seaver, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, began his career with the team in 1967, leading the Mets to a World Series championship in 1969 and another World Series appearance in 1973.  They lost the ’73 contest to the A’s in seven games.

Dick Young of the New York Daily News wrote several columns about the negotiations, crossing an unwritten line in sports writing when he mentioned Seaver’s wife in a column.  Young wrote that Nancy Seaver was unhappy about Nolan Ryan making more money than her husband.  After the column appeared, Seaver wanted out of the Big Apple.  Quickly.

The Mets engineered a trade to the Cincinnati Reds.  It brought Pat Zachry, Dave Henderson, Doug Flynn, and Dan Norman to Shea Stadium.  In 1978, Seaver pitched a no-hitter.  Meanwhile, the Mets rebuilt, investing in younger players.  Nearly a decade later, they won the 1986 World Series.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 1, 2013.