Posts Tagged ‘George Vecsey’

The Hall of Fame Case for Lou Piniella

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Lou Piniella is one of baseball’s greatest journeymen—a player with the Orioles, the Indians, the Royals, and the Yankees, in addition to stints as a manager with the Yankees, the Reds, the Mariners, the Devil Rays, and the Cubs.

Piniella’s achievements as a manager include winning a World Series championship, AL Manager of the Year twice, and NL Manager of the Year once.  With 1,835 career wins, Piniella is #14 on the all-time list—ahead of Hall of Fame managers Earl Weaver, Wilbert Robinson, Al Lopez, Miller Huggins, Tommy Lasorda, and Clark Griffith.  Also, Piniella managed the Mariners to an American League single-season record of 116 wins in 2001.

And yet, Piniella is not graced with a plaque in the Hall of Fame.  Why?  Surely, his managerial success indicates a career deserving of inclusion into the exclusive club in Cooperstown, located at 25 Main Street.  And that success emanated from determination.  Piniella managed as he played—with fierceness to win and reluctance to lose.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner gave Piniella his first manager job.  Working for Steinbrenner came with legendary tension.  But in a 2002 article by Ira Berkow in the New York Times, Pinieall acknowledged the opportunity.  “I owe my managerial career to George,” said Piniella.  “He made me the manager and it was on-the-job training.  He saw something in me—I know he liked my intensity as a player—and he gave me a shot.”

“Intensity” to say the least.  Piniella had the resolve of a bull charging the matador.

For Yankee fans, Piniella was a fixture on the “Bronx Zoo” teams that brought three American League pennants and two World Series titles to Yankee Stadium in the late 1970s.  It was a volatile era, indeed.  When Reggie Jackson joined the Yankees before the 1977 season, Piniella knew a storm was brewing around the star player and manager Billy Martin that would have made the tornado from The Wizard of Oz look like a slight breeze.

“It was obviously going to be explosive,” said Piniella in Bill Pennington’s 2015 book Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius.  “And Billy was right, it did cause problems with Thurman [Munson] and Craig [Nettles].  But at the same time, let’s face it, Reggie was never Billy’s kind of player.  I think Billy did resent him a little.  He didn’t like most guys who called attention to themselves.”

On June 16, 1984, Piniella played in his last game.  Naturally, he had the game-winning RBI.  Even though Piniella went 0-for-5 on the day, his efforts contributed value to the Yankees beating the Orioles 8-3—the crucial RBI came from a ground ball.

George Vecsey of the New York Times described Piniella’s psychological makeup in an account of the June 16th game.  “His temper kept him in the minor leagues for most of the 1960’s, but later that temper hardened into a fierce athletic pride.  Only rarely did the temper come through in New York—but when it did, the tantrum was a beauty.  Who will ever forget Piniella sitting on the grass, pounding his fists on the east, raging over being called out by Ron Luciano during the 1978 playoffs?”

Piniella won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1969, notching a .282 batting average, 139 hits, and 68 RBI for the Kansas City Royals.  “Sweet Lou” retired from playing during the 1984 season.  His career statistics include a .291 batting average, 1,705 hits, and 305 doubles.

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

How Marvelous Marv Became a Met

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Hobie Landrith holds the distinction of being the first New York Met, selected on October 10, 1961 in the expansion draft that populated the lineups of the nascent Mets and Colt .45s.

When the Mets took the field at the Polo Grounds the following April for their first regular season game, Landrith started at catcher.  His was a philosophy embracing the importance of communications between battery mates.  During Landrith’s time with the San Francisco Giants, Will Connolly of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Landrith in a 1959 column subtitled “Hobart Landrith’s An Articulate Gent” describing the relationship:  “Apart from the finger signals, the pitcher and catcher should talk it over in tight spots—and almost every inning is a critical one these days.  I run out to the mound to eliminate any indecision on the pitcher’s part, and mine.  Some batsmen have to be pitched to very carefully.”

Landrith’s vocal quality was a subject of a 1951 scouting report for the Cincinnati Reds:  “‘Pepper pot’ little backstop who brings to the major leagues a brand of on-the-field chatter comparatively unheard since the days of ‘Gabby’ Hartnett.  Shrill voice behind plate can be heard all over park.”

As the pioneering member of the Mets, Landrith holds sacred ground.  Fertile, it was not.  In early May, the Orioles traded Marv Throneberry to the Mets for a player to be named later and cash; a month later, the Mets named Landrith.  Financial strength provided the impetus.  “[O]ne of Throneberry’s most compelling charms was his availability for cash, one of the few departments in which the Mets are in string contention for league leadership,” wrote New York Times sports writer Robert Lipsyte, citing team president George Weiss.

Throneberry’s performance was anything but marvelous, the alliterative adjective that became synonymous with the first baseman and right fielder.  When Throneberry died in 1994, New York Times sports writer George Vecsey recalled, “There was the day that Marv hit a two-out triple with the bases loaded but was called out for missing first.  Even though nearly everyone in the Mets’ dugout saw Marv miss the base, Casey Stengel, the manager, started arguing with the first-base umpire anyway.  During the exchange, another umpire walked over and said, ‘Casey, I hate to tell you this, but he also missed second.'”

As a ’62 Met, Throneberry played in 116 games, batted .244, and struck out 83 times.  His career ended after the 1963 season.

Throneberry became a pop culture icon through his appearances in the famed Miller Lite television commercials of the 1970s and 1980s featuring, among others, Rodney Dangerfield, Mickey Spillane, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Bob Uecker.

In one commercial, Throneberry appears with Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford and Billy Martin.  Deford says, “There’s one guy I can’t write anything bad about, His unique brand of baseball has made him a living legend.”  Other plaudits follow.

Throneberry is not in the commercial until the end.  It’s the payoff after the setup—Martin thinks that Deford’s comments are targeted to him.  When Deford gives a Miller Lite to Throneberry, the former Met issues the commercial’s punch line:  “Cheer up, Billy.  One day, you’ll be famous just like me.”

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

Stan Musial’s Three MVP Awards

Saturday, December 24th, 2016

Stan Musial is a St. Louis icon and a national treasure, ranking with the Gateway Arch, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and Campbell House Museum.  Without flash, Musial carved a career of steadiness, superiority, and significance.  From 1941 to 1963, excluding 1945 for military service, Musial garnered:

  • 3,630 hits
  • 475 home runs
  • 725 doubles
  • 177 triples
  • Nearly 2,000 runs scored
  • 20 consecutive appearances in the All-Star Game
  • .331 career batting average

It’s a template by which brilliance in the batter’s box may be measured.

Stan Musial died on January 19, 2013 at the age of 92, prompting the requisite obituaries soaked with nostalgia for an era before free agency, television contracts measured by a dollar sign plus nine numbers, and World Series games played only in prime time.

“He was easily the greatest player St. Louis has ever had, and he was properly feted as a living legend in Cardinal country,” wrote Cliff Corcoran in the article “Musial deserves to be remembered as one of baseball’s best” for Sports Illustrated‘s web site on January 20, 2013.  “To the rest of the United States however, his modest, jovial nature seemed to undermine his importance.  In his later years he was seen as a kindly old man in a red blazer, always quick with a smile and his harmonica, but he never demanded the reverence of surly legends like Williams and DiMaggio, or tragic figures like Mantle and Clemente, or icons of struggle and defiance like Aaron and Mays.  It probably didn’t help that the enduring image of Musial from his playing days was not one of power or grace but of his unusual hunchbacked batting stance.”

The kid from Donora, Pennsylvania achieved an honor reserved for a rarefied few.  And he did it three times in the same decade.  Musial won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1943, 1946, and 1948.  His first award crowned a season of leading the major leagues in key categories:

  • Hits (220)
  • Doubles (48)
  • Triples (20)
  • Batting average (.357)

Further, he only struck out 18 times in 700 plate appearances.

In 1946, the first year for Major League Baseball after World War II, Musial earned his second dubbing as MVP for the senior circuit after leading the major leagues in three of the same categories:

  • Hits (228)
  • Triples (20)
  • Batting average (.365)

Facing the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals won in seven games, but they did it without Musial’s formidable bat.  “Neither Stan Musial nor Red Schoendiesnt matched his work at the plate during the season, but Harry Walker, a .237 hitter during the year, hit .412 in the Series, and the catching duo of Joe Garagiola and Del Rice combined for a .360 average after batting a joint .250 during the season,” wrote Jerome M. Mileur in his 2014 book The Stars Are Back: The St. Louis Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox, and Player Unrest in 1946.

Musial earned his third MVP distinction with a dominant performance repeating his leadership in all the categories from his 1943 feat:

  • Hits (230)
  • Doubles (46)
  • Triples (18)
  • Batting average (.376)

1948 was also a turning point in Musial’s career.  In his 2011 book Stan Musial: An American Life, George Vecsey wrote, “He had always been a hitter.  In 1948, Musial became a slugger.”

Vecsey added, “Suddenly Stan Musial could hit home runs.  He had come up to the majors as an insecure stripling, slapping at the ball to avoid being exposed and shipped back to Donora.  Then during the war, to satisfy the admirals and the sailors in Pearl Harbor, he had exaggerated his crouch, stayed in it longer, and swung for the fences.  Now, after [Cardinals team physician] Dr. [Robert] Hyland removed his appendix and tonsils in October 1947, Musial began hitting the ball farther, more often.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 8, 2015.