Posts Tagged ‘Dodger Stadium’

Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, and the Olympics

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Baseball’s nexus with Hollywood had a center point in Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field on February 28, 1932 for a charity game benefitting America’s Olympians; the ’32 Summer Olympics—which took place in Los Angeles—inspired two comedy icons to combine their celebrity and passion for baseball in a civic minded cause.  Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton spearheaded the teams.

Players from the Cubs, the Giants, and the Pirates took the field in front of approximately 8,500 fans, according to the Los Angeles Times.  Brown’s team won 10-3 in the six-inning contest.  It was nearly over as soon as it began—six Brown players scored in the first inning.  The Times reported, “The game was called to permit Rogers Hornsby and his Cubs to catch the Catalina Ferry.”  The rosters included Lloyd Waner, Pie Traynor, Carl Hubbell, and Grover Cleveland Alexander.  Keaton and Brown also participated, as did Jack Oakie, another member of Hollywood’s comedy group.

Brown and Keaton incorporated baseball into their respective bodies of work.  Fireman Save My ChildElmer the Great, and Alibi Ike offer Brown as a skilled rube.  Keaton filmed a legendary segment at Yankee Stadium for his silent film The Cameraman—he mimed players at different positions.  Brown’s love for the National Pastime stuck in his DNA—his son Joe L. Brown was the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976, a period of Steel City baseball legends, including Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Roy Face, Willie Stargell, and Al Oliver.

Keaton’s comedy was universal, timeless, and groundbreaking.  The Muskegon, Michigan native formed the comedy cornerstone of the silent film industry, along with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, and Fatty Arbuckle, to name a few.

A few months before he died, Keaton explained how he saw his comedy appeal to the current generation; Times writer Henry Sutherland chronicled this insight in the 1966 obituary for the filmmaker, nicknamed “The Great Stone Face”for his ability to maintain composure during chaos in his films.

“Two years ago we sent a picture to Munich, Germany using old-fahsioned subtitles with a written score,” Keaton said.  “This was ‘The General.’  It was made in 1926, and hell, that’s 39 years ago.

“But I sneaked into the theater and the laughs were exactly the same as on the day it was first release.”

Wrigley Field graced television and theaters before its demise in the 1960s.  It was where Herman Munster tried out for the Los Angeles Dodgers under the watchfulness of Leo Durocher.  It was where baseball scenes in The Pride of the Yankees were filmed.  It was where baseball’s greatest sluggers matched powers at the plate in Home Run Derby, a syndicated television show in 1960—Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, and Ernie Banks were among the competitors.

Considered a hitter’s park, Wrigley Field hosted its first game in 1925.  The California Angels played their home games at Wrigley Field in their début season—1961.  Dodger Stadium was the team’s home field for the next four seasons, until Angel Stadium’s début in 1966.

Today, Gilbert Lindsay Park stands on Wrigley’s grounds.

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

Hank Aaron’s Last Home Run

Monday, April 10th, 2017

As America recovered from its Bicentennial hangover, Hank Aaron clubbed a home run in the Brewers-Angels game on July 20, 1976.  It was not, in any way, a cause for ceremony.  It was, however, highly significant.

Aaron’s solo smash off the Angels’ Dick Drago was his last home run, though nobody knew it at the time.  Hammerin’ Hank followed George Scott’s solo home run, one of 18 blasts that Scott swatted in 1976.  Jerry Augustine got the win for the Brewers—his first in more than a month—scattering five Angel hits in seven innings.  It capped a streak of five consecutive losses for Augustine, who had a 9-12 record, 3.30 Earned Run Average, and WHIP of 1.299.

Aaron, Scott, et al. belted 12 hits against the Angels; Von Joshua, Tim Johnson, Darrell Porter, and Robin Yount scored the other Brewer runs.  Johnson, the Brewer second baseman, had an outstanding 3-for-3 day.  In the eighth inning, relief pitcher Danny Frisella replaced Augustine.

When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974 by hitting his 715th home run, every dinger afterward became, simply, icing on top of frosting.  His round-tripper in the Brewers’ 6-2 victory over the boys from Anaheim was his 755th home run; Aaron hit 10 home runs, batted .229, and racked up 62 hits in a rather uneventful 1976 season for the Brewers—a 66-96 record garnered 6th place in the American League East.

At age 42, Aaron retired after the 1976 season with outstanding career statistics:

  • 3,771 hits
  • 2,174 runs scored
  • 13,941 plate appearances
  • .305 batting average
  • 2,287 RBI (major league record)
  • Led the major leagues in RBI four times

Henry Louis Aaron clocked his first major league home run on April 23, 1954.  Throughout the next two decades and change, Aaron faced the pitching gods of Major League Baseball—Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Gullett, Roy Face, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, Vida Blue, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts.  When he went yard, it was the definition of power against power.  Tom Seaver’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site recalls Aaron’s statement of Seaver being “the toughest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Aaron’s last home run occurred during the year that the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1964; Chicago Cubs outfielder Rick Monday snatched an American flag from two trespassers about to burn it in the Dodger Stadium outfield; the Chicago White Sox played in shorts for one game; Ted Turner became the sole owner of the Atlanta Braves; the second incarnation of Yankee Stadium débuted after two years of renovations; Philadelphia Phillies third baseball Mike Schmidt knocked four home runs in a game against the Cubs; original Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz sold the team that began its life as the Colt .45s; Dodgers manager Walter Alston resigned after 23 years at the helm in Ebbets Field and Chavez Ravine; and the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays began selecting players for the following year’s American League expansion.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 20, 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.

Rick Monday’s Star-Spangled Play

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Old Glory.  Stars and Stripes.  Star-Spangled banner.

America’s flag is, for some, a sacred fabric.  Rick Monday represented those devotees during a Cubs-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium on April 25, 1976, when he prevented a duo—father and son—from igniting the red, white, and blue banner on the outfield grass.

In a 2006 article by Ben Platt for mlb.com, Monday said, “My thoughts were reinforced with my six years in the Marine Corps Reserves.  It was also reinforced by a lot of friends who lost their lives protecting the rights and freedoms that flag represented.”

What followed put an exclamation point on the ribbon rescue, which received an extra infusion of national pride during America’s bicentennial year.  “It was a very quiet moment,” described Monday.  “A smattering of applause as they got these two guys off the field.  And it got quiet again.  And if memory serves correctly, from one part of the stadium, I don’t know where, and then from another part, and then from another part, and then kind of collectively, people began to sing ‘God Bless America.'”

When Monday swiped the flag, which had already been dosed with lighter fluid, America’s psyche had suffered a series of rabbit punches during the past two decades—more than 58,000 servicemen dead and thousands others wounded in the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon; the Cuban Missile Crisis; four students shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard during a war protest at Kent State University; two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford; two oil crises; inflation; race riots; and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cynicism abounded, laced with fear.  Bobby Kennedy offered hope, which crumbled when Sirhan Sirhan murdered him in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after Kennedy’s victory in the California Democratic primary.  “Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence,” said Kennedy.  “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.  And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.”

Would that it were so.  Optimism about America teetered with each headline.

Hence, Monday’s act, though only occupying a few seconds, triggered a patriotic catharsis for the 25,167 in attendance, plus those watching the game on television, listening to it on radio, or learning about it in the next day’s sports pages.

The Dodgers beat the Cubs 5-4 on that April day.  Monday knocked three hits, scored two runs, and notched one RBI.  But snatching the flag from imminent torching captured headlines and hearts—and continues to do so.

In a 2006 interview for mlb.com, Monday explained, “From time to time, people ask, ‘Are you upset because you spent 19 seasons in the major leagues and you’re known primarily for stopping two people from burning the flag?’  If that’s all you’re known for, it’s not a bad thing at all.  It solidified the thought process of hundreds of thousands of people that represented this country in fine fashion and lost their lives.”

Rick Monday played with three teams in his career:

  • 1966-1971:  Athletics
  • 1972-1976:  Cubs
  • 1977-1984:  Dodgers

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

Durocher, Drysdale, and the Duke

Monday, March 13th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Angel

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Baseball, Aerospace, and the Lancaster JetHawks

Monday, February 27th, 2017

Nestled in the Antelope Valley of California, about 70 miles from Dodger Stadium, the Lancaster JetHawks of the California League play in a ballpark labeled, quite appropriately, the Hangar.

Antelope Valley is one of the focal points for America’s aerospace industry.  In October 2015, Northrop Grumman won a massive contract for building stealth bombers.  Melody Petersen and W. J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times reported, “In the months leading up to the highly anticipated decision, Northrop had told local government officials that it planned to build much of the plane at the sprawling complex of hangars and runways in Palmdale known as Air Force Plant 42.”

According to the JetHawks web site, the Hangar—originally called Lancaster Municipal Stadium when it débuted in 1996—cost $15 million to build.  Outside the Hangar, an F/A-18 Hornet symbolizes the region’s aerospace link.  NASA donated the Hornet to the city of Lancaster, which installed it at the ballpark.

Proximity to Edwards Air Force Base, about 30 miles from the Hangar, gives the JetHawks another rationale for a team name connecting to the region’s culture, a common branding device for sports teams.  For example, the New York Knickerbockers moniker refers to the name of the fictional narrator in Washington Irving’s novel A History of New York.

Further, the JetHawks enjoy a space affiliation with the Houston Astros team, which changed its name from Colt .45s in 1965 to reflect Houston’s status as aerospace’s epicenter; the Astros label reinforces Houston’s space connection.

Aerospace Appreciation Weekend is an annual promotion for the JetHawks, underscored by bobbleheads of aerospace icons as giveaways.  Honorees include astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Fred Haise, and Jerry Ross.

In 2014, Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney led an ownership group to buy the JetHawks.  Kerr and Mooney also own the Northwest League’s Vancouver Canadians.  “There is a strong foundation to build from here in Lancaster and with the experiences and success we’ve enjoyed in the Northwest, we hope to take the JetHawks brand and bring it to not only our longtime fans, but to a whole new generation,” said Kerr, as reported by milb.com.

Mooney promised, “Our journey in baseball will notice an increased effort to make this organization something they can be proud of.”

Additionally, milb.com reported on the present ownership group led by Peter A. Carfagna, who praised, “We have enjoyed our stewardship of the JetHawks franchise and, upon closing, are excited to hand the reins of the franchise to an experienced group of individuals who will build on the successes we have enjoyed in recent years.”

Abdication of the JetHawks aegis did not, in any way, mean a divorce from Minor League Baseball.  Carfagna clarified that his group would keep its ownership of the Midwest League’s Lake County Captains in Eastlake, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb.

The Kerr-Moooney syndicate is the third owner of the JetHawks, which began operations in 1996.  In the October 11, 1995 Times article “JetHawks Nickname Flies in Lancaster, but How Will the Mascot Walk?,” logo designer Daniel Simon explained, “They liked the concept of the hawk and concept of the jet.  But if it’s a jet, that’s just a jet, and if it’s a hawk, that’s just a hawk.  If you have the combination, that’s unique.”

The JetHawks team has aerospace in its DNA—the Riverside Pilots played in Riverside, California from 1993-1995, before transitioning to Lancaster.  Prior to Riverside, though, no aerospace connection existed; the team played in Reno, Nevada from 1955-1992.  During its tenure in the Biggest Little City in the World, the team enjoyed the label Silver Sox, except for the 1982-1987 period, when it was Padres.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 20, 2016.

A New Era in Chavez Ravine

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

Los Angeles suffered a divorce worthy of soap opera status when the controversy of Dodgers ownership became public—Frank and Jamie McCourt engaged in a matrimonial battle that brought disgrace upon the vaunted Dodgers brand and disgust among the team’s loyal fan base.  Plus, their spending habits approximated using the team’s coffers as a personal ATM machine.  Bankruptcy forced a sale.  In the country’s second biggest market, Major League Baseball could not afford a continuous display of greed in an era already tarnished by steroid use.

In her 2015 book The Best Team Money Could Buy, Molly Knight wrote, “But after they moved to Los Angeles their aspirations morphed into an insatiable obsession with status and material possessions.  By 2009 the couple turned on each other, with Frank testing the limits of the amount of money he could borrow, and and Jamie instructing a Dodger executive to draw up a battle plan for her eventual ascendance to the office of president of the United States [sic].”

On May 1, 2012, a new era began in Chavez Ravine—Guggenheim Partners purchased the Dodgers for $2.15 billion.  Led by CEO Mark Walter, Guggenheim boasted Magic Johnson as a minority owner with the credibility required to allow Los Angelenos a sigh of relief when one of its favorite sons appeared ready to restore the Dodgers brand from garnishment to luster.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig offered respect to the devotees who saw more drama in the media’s recounting of the McCourt saga than in the games at Dodger Stadium.  “In addition, I want to personally thank all Dodger fans for their patience and loyalty during this trying period,” said Selig.  “I have said many times that we owed it to them to ensure that the club was being operated properly and would be guided appropriately in the future.  It is my great hope and firm expectation that today’s change in ownership marks the start of a new era for the Los Angeles Dodgers and that this historic franchise will once again make the city of Los Angeles proud.”

Indeed, new ownership cleansed the toxicity plaguing the team.  On 710 ESPN’s Mason & Ireland Show, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly noted, “It’s been a positive since the announcement of Magic and his group.  You could feel a difference with the fans instantly.  There’s been so much negative for the last few years that it just gets kind of old for guys that are playing because people aren’t showing up and it doesn’t have anything to do with if you win or not.”

In a 2015 profile titled “Who Is Dodgers Owner Mark Walter and Where Did He Get All That Money” for laweekly.com, Gene Maddause highlighted the financial health of the Dodgers resulting from an $8.35 billion television contract.  In turn, Walter’s Guggenheim team fought the ghosts of the McCourt era by strategically reinforcing the $2.15 billion investment. Maddaus wrote, “A hundred million for stadium improvements?  Sure.  An $85 million contract for Andre Ethier?  Uh, OK.  How about $18 million a year to Matt Kemp to play for another team?  Why not?”

Guggenheim prioritized the importance of repairing the tattered confidence of the Dodgers, beginning with signing Ethier.  Knight noted, “Even though he was on the decline, and arguably the club’s tenth-best player at that point, the Dodgers re-signed him to a five-year, $85 million extension that raised eyebrows around the league for its generosity.  But the new owners weren’t overpaying an aging outfielder as much as they were purchasing a citywide public service announcement letting fans know the bad times were over.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 15, 2015.

The Decade of Baseball Migration

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

The 1950s was a decade of change.

Elvis Presley spearheaded the introduction of rock and roll, television replaced radio as the preferred mass medium for news and entertainment, and several baseball teams migrated westward—way westward for two teams, mid-westward for two others.

With a pedigree dating back to 1871, the Braves resided in Boston until moving to Milwaukee after the 1952 season.  Milwaukee offered abundant parking spaces, a welcoming fan base, and a new stadium.  When the Braves went on the migration warpath from Braves Field to Milwaukee County Stadium, it ignited Midwestern pride throughout a minor league city elated at graduating to the next level of professional baseball.  Boston still had the Red Sox, though.

Until it lost the Athletics to Kansas City, Philadelphia was also a two-team town.  After the 1954 season, the A’s said goodbye to Shibe Park, bolted the City of Brotherly Love, and left the Phillies behind for the folks from the Liberty Bell to the Main Line suburbs.

Once a bedrock of baseball, the Philadelphia A’s racked up nine National League pennants and five World Series championships.  Connie Mack managed the A’s from 1901 to 1950.  It is the longest managerial tenure in Major League Baseball.

After the 1967 season, the A’s left Kansas City for Oakland.

New York City suffered the loss of two teams when the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants moved to California after the 1957 season.  The Giants played in the cavernous Polo Grounds, with a distance of 483 feet between home plate and the center field fence.  The distances down the foul lines were 279 feet for left field and 258 for right field.

As manager of the Giants, John McGraw defined a pugnacious approach to early 20th century baseball at the Polo Grounds.  It was, indeed, a site synonymous with baseball history.  Bobby Thomson hit his Shot Heard ‘Round the World to win the 1951 National League pennant against the Dodgers.  Willie Mays made his famous catch of a Vic Wertz drive in the 1954 World Series with his back to home plate while sprinting toward the center field fence.

San Francisco inherited the rich history of the Giants, opened its arms, and helped further set the Manifest Destiny mentality of baseball.

When the Dodgers left Brooklyn, they found an exploding southern California population base ready to move up the ranks of professional sports.  In their first 10 years with “Los Angeles” as part of the team’s full name, the Dodgers won three National League pennants and two World Series championships.

From 1958 to 1961, the Dodgers played at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  In 1962, Dodger Stadium débuted in Chavez Ravine once a massive abyss in the middle of Los Angeles.

Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley thought about staying in Brooklyn, albeit with a new stadium to replace aging Ebbets Field.  He evaluated proposals, but ultimately chose to move 3,000 miles west of the baseball nirvana where Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and several others became, as author Roger Kahn knighted them, the boys of summer.

Not all migrating teams planted their flags in the Pacific time zone.  After the 1953 season, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 15, 2014.