Posts Tagged ‘Harmon Killebrew’

The Birth of the Designated Hitter

Monday, May 1st, 2017

Baseball—like any other living organism—evolves, adjusts, and adapts with beauty emerging from minutiae, memory, and, in some cases, masochism reinforced by decades of unrequited love.  See Red Sox Boston; 1919-2003.  See Cubs, Chicago; 1909-2015.  On January 11, 1973, baseball’s overseers added what New York Times scribe Joseph Durso called “a radical step…to put more punch into the game.”  The Designated Hitter.

The American League embraced the idea.  The National League, not so much.  Quoted by Durso, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn extolled, “Pitchers bat around .120 collectively and pinch-hitters around .220.  That’s automatically going to raise team batting averages.  Besides, if you decide to rest a Willie McCovey or Harmon Killebrew and use him as the designated pinch-hitter one day, he’s going to be better than the average pinch-hitter.  And he’ll go to bat four or five times, and that’ll improve his eye, too.”

While conventional wisdom highlighted the possibility of more runs with a slugger at the plate instead of a pitcher, White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner pointed out that a DH benefited a team’s defense.  In the Chicago Tribune, Tanner said, “Part of the game is forcing the other club to put that relief pitcher in the game after a pinch hitter replaces a pretty good starter in a low-scoring game.  But now the Angels, for instance, will be able to keep Nolan Ryan in there all the way.  Or, we can let Wilbur Wood go the route without sending him to the plate.  And this should keep the score down, too.”

Ron Blomberg earned the distinction of being the first Designated Hitter when he batted in a Yankees-Red Sox game in April.  Of his 338 plate appearances in 19783, that first one in the DH slot secured his name in the annals of baseball trivia.  Blomberg walked in his first time at the plate, went 1-for-3, and notched one RBI; Red Sox hurler Luis Tiant pitched a complete game, leading his fellow Bostonians to a 15-5 victory.

New York Times sports writer Murray Chass showed the irony of Blomberg’s output:  “He broke his bat on the single, which means the first two bats he used today wound up in contrasting places—the first in the Hall of Fame, the second in the trash can.”

Purists argued against the DH, as they had argued against a 162-game schedule, Astroturf, and domed stadia.  It was an argument against quantifiable evidence showing the cause and effect of the new position.  In the May 7, 1973 issue of Sports Illustrated, William Leggett wrote, “In three short weeks the DH has put more punch and excitement and scoring into the game—a hallowed game, agreed, but one that was being smothered by the excellence of the pitching.  Heavily criticized by some before it was given a chance to see the sunglight—a phony rule it was called, desperate, Mickey Mouse, a rewriting of Beethoven—the designated hitter is doing only what it was intended to do.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 11, 2017.

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.

Reggie Hits No. 500

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Reggie Jackson was the King Midas of baseball.  Everything he touched turned to gold.

The Kansas City A’s had a 62-99 record in 1967, Jackson’s rookie season.  But Jackson only played in 35 games.  When he became a starter, the A’s won three World Series championships, never had a losing season, and enjoyed the “dynasty” label.  In 1973, Jackson won the Most Valuable Player Award, an honor duplicated in 1977, during his Yankee tenure.

Jackson left the A’s after the 1975 season, spent a year with the Orioles, then played for the Yankees in a five-year run that resulted in two World Series championships.  In the 1977 World Series, Jackson hit three home runs in one game.  Celebrations in the South Bronx could be heard from Manhattan to Montauk.

When his sting in the South Bronx ended, Jackson landed in Anaheim, where he bid farewell to baseball after the 1987 season.  Jackson reached a milestone in an Angels uniform, smacking his 500th home run on September 17, 1984.  It elevated Jackson into the pantheon of the 500 Club, whose membership to date consisted of Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx.

Jackson’s dinger contributed the only run in a 10-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals.  There was a circular quality to the moment.  Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times noted that Jackson hit his first major league home run against the Angels and his 500th in Kauffman Stadium, where he played for the Kansas City A’s, long since transported to Oakland.  Additionally, the 500th home run happened on the 17th anniversary of the first time Jackson went yard.

Gerald Scott of the Los Angeles Times quoted Jackson about the pitch:  “I was very, very elated going around the bases.  I said thanks (to myself) to Bud Black because he’d given me a pitch to hit.

“It was a 7-0 (lead) pitch.  It was a ‘room service’ fastball.  I just wish we could’ve been winning.  I wish it could’ve been a seven-run homer.”

Black, a formidable hurler for the Royals, compiled a 17-12 record, 3.12 ERA, and 140 strikeouts in 1984.  Jackson’s home run was one of 22 that Black allowed in the year that saw the débuts of the Huxtable family, a Beverly Hills cop named Axel Foley, and undercover detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs working for the Miami Police Department’s Vice Division.

Jackson had signed with the Angels after Yankee owner George Steinbrenner did not guarantee the slugger a place in the starting lineup as an outfielder.  It is a good bet that the Yankees would have continued Jackson’s recent role as a designated hitter.

Joseph Durso of the New York Times reported on Jackson’s optimism upon closing the the deal with Angels owner Gene Autry.  “I’m very happy to join a club that really seemed to pursue me and wanted me,” said Jackson.  “With the Angels, I get a chance to play.  I guess with everything being equal, the most difficult decision for me was whether to go to Baltimore or California.  Both clubs have really fine people.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 12, 2016.

Harmon Killebrew, Lew Burdette, and the Red Seat

Friday, December 9th, 2016

When Harmon Killebrew died in 2011, obituaries recalled the statement of former Baltimore Orioles manager Paul Richards:  “Killebrew can knock the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.”

Killebrew’s power resulted in 573 home runs in a 22-year career spanning 1954 to 1975.  Beginning his career with the Washington Senators, Killebrew did not see much playing time in his early years.  Between 1954 and 1958, he played in 113 games, hit 11 home runs, and smacked 57 hits.

In 1959, however, Killebrew’s career launched with enough power to ignite the rockets in NASA’s nascent Mercury program—he was an All-Star, playing in 153 games, smashing 42 home runs, and notching 105 RBI; Killebrew played in 13 All-Star games in his career.

The Washington Senators transported to Minnesota after the 1960 season and became the Twins.  Killebrew, in turn, became a folk hero to the Twin Cities metropolitan region.  “You can’t put into words the depth of Killebrew’s meaning to the Twins and to baseball fans in Minnesota,” wrote Scott Miller in “Killebrew was no ‘Killer,’ except when it came to slugging,” Killebrew’s obituary for CBSSports.com.  Killebrew played the last year of his career for the Kansas City Royals.

Metropolitan Stadium, the home field for the Twins during Killebrew’s reign of terror on American League pitching, succumbed to the domed stadium craze started by the Houston Astrodome in the mid-1960s.  The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis débuted in 1982, serving as the new home for the Twins and the Minnesota Vikings.  Consequently, developers razed Metropolitan Stadium.  Located in Bloomington, a Minneapolis suburb, the stadium site provided fertile ground for a shopping mall—the Mall of America.

On a wall at the MOA, a red seat from Metropolitan Stadium marks an example of Killebrew’s power.  With two outs in the 4th inning of the June 3, 1967 game against the California Angels, cleanup hitter Killebrew went yard with second baseman Rod Carew and third baseman Rich Rollins—the #2 and #3 hitters in the Twins lineup—on base.  Killebrew’s three-run homer created a moment that endures for Twin Cities baseball.  It landed 522 feet into the spot now occupied by the seat; some sources put the distance at 520 feet.  It’s the longest home run at Metropolitan Stadium.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984, Killebrew holds the distinction of being the first Twin honored in the hallowed corridors of Cooperstown.  Lew Burdette, the answer to the “Who threw the pitch?” trivia question, finished his career with the Angels in 1966 and 1967, appearing as a relief pitcher.

Burdette had a role in another iconic game.  On May 26, 1959, Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates in a game against the Milwaukee Braves,  Burdette matched Haddix for the number of innings, though not perfectly; the Braves ace scattered 12 hits, struck out two Pirates, and scored a victory for the Braves when Joe Adcock hit a solo home run in the 13th inning.

The 1957 World Series was Burdette’s apex.  After a 17-9 season for the Braves, Burette pitched three complete games against the New York Yankees, including two shutouts.  His exploits earned him the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 27, 2014.

The Other Wrigley Field

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Wrigley Field is a baseball landmark. It thrives in nostalgia, our baseball memories contributing to its increasingly rich history.

Not that Wrigley Field, “the ivy-covered burial ground” as described eloquently yet mournfully in Steve Goodman’s song A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request.  The other Wrigley Field. The one that used to be in Los Angeles with the boundaries of Avalon Boulevard, 41st Street, 42nd Place, and San Pedro Street.

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Happy Birthday, Baseball Hall of Fame!

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Today, we celebrate the birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Opened on June 12, 1939 in Cooperstown, New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a time tunnel that journeys its visitors through a cornerstone of American history. More than a mere sport, baseball is a vehicle of social change.

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