Posts Tagged ‘home runs’

Bill White: Player, Broadcaster, Executive

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

When Bill White hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, he began a journey of solidity that garnered career statistics of 1,706 hits, 202 home runs, and a .286 batting average.  Beginning his career in 1956 with the Giants, White also played for the Cardinals and the Phillies.  Although more than a decade had passed since Jackie Robinson broke the color line, White suffered racism into the early 1960s, along with other black players—and he refused to be silent about it.

In his autobiography Uppity, written with Gordon Dillow, White described an incident in 1961 involving the Cardinals during Spring Training—St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Salute to Baseball” breakfast excluded black players on the Cardinals.

“That was bad enough,” wrote White.  “Then I saw that the list included a couple of rookies who had never swung a bat in the majors.  The idea that the local bigwigs wanted to honor unproven players while ignoring proven players because of the color of their skin rankled me.

“No, it more than rankled me.  Combined with all the other crap that black players had to take, it made me furious.”

White told Joe Reichler of the Associated Press.  Reichler’s story hit newspapers, triggered threats of a black boycott of Cardinals owner Anheuser-Busch, and spurred an invitation to the event at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club; Elston Howard of the Yankees also received an invitation.  White refused.  “I hadn’t wanted to eat with those bigots anyway.  All I had really wanted, what all the black players wanted, was simply the opportunity to say no,” explained White.

For Yankee fans of certain ages, White is fondly remembered as an announcer on WPIX-TV, sparring verbally with Phil Rizzuto, who brought continuity from the Yankee glory years of the 1950s, further reinforced by Yankee icon Billy Martin managing the team.

Rizzuto’s non sequiturs about the best Italian restaurants in New Jersey and other personal items may have seemed goofy, or even annoying, had White not provided the slightly teasing manner necessary to let the viewers know that Phil’s personality ought to be embraced, not endured.  Frank Messer was the third broadcaster in the WPIX triumvirate, a “consummate professional” offering erudition, but not the same synchronicity with Rizzuto that White enjoyed.

“He genuinely liked Phil, and would play around with him on the air, but there was always a light tone of disapproval in it—and I think the listeners picked up on that,” wrote White.

When White took on the responsibility of the National League presidency, he confronted the Pete Rose gambling scandal in his first year.  White held the post from 1989 until 1994, when he resigned.  His hiring took place in the wake of a firestorm created by Al Campanis’s 1987 appearance on Nightline, when the Dodgers executive questioned whether black players “may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or general manager.”  Further, Campanis opined that black players may not want a position in the front office after they retire from playing.  To some baseball insiders, it was a curious statement; Campanis roomed with Jackie Robinson during his playing days.

The incident ignited action; White became the first black National League president.  Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote, “But no matter who the other candidates were, Bill White was as qualified as anyone else, and surely much more qualified than most.  If he happened to be the best black candidate at a time when baseball finally understood it needed a black executive, that is as historically important as it was 42 years ago when Jackie Robinson happened to be the best black candidate at a time when baseball finally understood it needed a black player.

“Of all of Bill White’s credentials, the most comforting is that he has been in baseball all his adult life.  He understands baseball and he understands its people.”

Among his many duties, White dealt with player suspensions, minority hiring, and National League expansion.

In his Foreword to Uppity, Willie Mays, a mentor of White, provided insight regarding White’s approach to baseball and life.  “But even as he got older, and his jobs changed, in some ways Bill was always the same as that young player in his first major league game way back in 1956,” wrote the Say Hey Kid.  “He was never loud or flashy about what he did, never thought that he was bigger than whatever team he was playing for or whatever job he had taken on.  He just went out every day and did his best—and he was never afraid to speak out for what he thought was right.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 26, 2016.

Ted Williams Hits His Final Home Run

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

When a lanky native of San Diego hit a home run on September 28, 1960, it was not, perhaps, the most significant happening in his career—and certainly not the most significant happening in world affairs during the ninth month of the 60th year of the 20th century.

Ted Williams won two MVP Awards, the Triple Crown, and The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year Award seven times.  His career statistics include 521 home runs, .344 batting average, and .634 slugging percentage.  On that late September day, for the last time, Williams donned his Red Sox uniform, heard the cheers from the Fenway Park denizens, and went yard in his last at bat in the major leagues.

Legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich of the Washington Post noted that the excellence of the Red Sox slugger negated any revelatory aspects of the milestone.  “It shouldn’t have been surprising.  Williams has been making a commonplace of the dramatic homer ever since he came into the majors,” wrote Povich.

Still, an emotional charge laced the moment as Williams placed a period at the end of a 22-year career, all in a Red Sox uniform.  Nicknamed “The Splendid Splinter” for his batting prowess, Williams understood the impact of the home run.  “The first thing he did after the game was to send the home run bat to Tom Yawkey upstairs by bat boy Bobby Sullivan.  Then he hung around and soaked up praise and adulation, the admiring glances of those who would not approach, the warmth of a winning clubhouse—as he never would again,” wrote Harold Kaese in the Boston Globe.

Nonetheless, Williams did not tip his hat to the crowd.

About three weeks after Williams’s last game, The New Yorker published John Updike’s account in its October 22, 1960 issue; “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” stands as a model of baseball writing.  It is an honest appraisal of the dynamic fostered in the Red Sox legend’s adopted city.  Updike wrote, “The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing of shared memories.”

Additionally, an unparalleled work ethic, according to Updike, set Williams apart from his peers.  “No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy,” opined Updike.

Invoking the theory of ceteris paribus—all things being equal—Williams’s home run might have been in the 600s rather than the 500s had he not served his country during World War II.  A hero for his service as a pilot, Williams did not play professional baseball from 1943 to 1945, losing three years in his prime.  When Williams returned in 1946, he showed no signs of slowing down—MVP Award, .342 batting average, and 123 RBI.  Additionally, he led the major leagues in walks (156), slugging percentage (.667), on-base percentage (.497), and runs scored (142).

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 16, 2015.

The Death of Babe Ruth

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

Like the man whose life it honored, Babe Ruth’s funeral was gigantic.  “The Babe is no longer breathing, but the fans will always talk about him,” wrote Hy Hurwitz in the Boston Globe upon the Babe’s passing in 1948.  “Talk about him because of his run-in, suspension and fine by the late Miller Huggins, only half of Ruth’s size, but a man who made it possible for Ruth to realize manhood.  Talk about him because he never turned down an autograph request or a trip to a hospital to visit a sick patient.”

George Herman “Babe” Ruth died on August 16, 1948.  6,000 mourned at Ruth’s funeral in and around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, perhaps New York City’s most famous religious site, within a Ruthian home run of Rockefeller Center and the New York Public Library’s Main Branch in midtown Manhattan.  Ignoring the rain, another 75,000 lined the streets in St. Patrick’s environs.  Newspapers recounted Cardinal Spellman’s prayer:  “May the Divine Spirit that inspired Babe Ruth to overcome hardships and win the crucial game of life animate many generations of American youth to learn from the example of his struggles and successes loyally to play their positions on all American teams, and may his generous-hearted soul through the mercy of God, the final scoring of his own good deeds and the prayers of his faithful friends, rest in everlasting peace.  Amen.”

Hardships began in Baltimore, Ruth’s hometown, where the father of the future slugger owned a bar.  Ruth, apparently, was incorrigible at a terribly young age, so his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, an institution serving problem children.  He was nine years old or thereabouts.  Versions vary regarding the impetus for Ruth’s enrollment in St. Mary’s.  Ruth biographer Robert W. Creamer wrote, “Another story, the origins of which are vague, says that one day during a brawl in the Ruth saloon a shot was fired.  No one was hurt, but an indignant neighbor got in touch with city authorities, declaring that the saloon was not a fit place to raise a child.  As a result either the city insisted or the parents themselves decided that the increasingly wayward boy should be removed from his unwholesome environment.”

Ruth left St. Mary’s when he was 20 years old, after a scout discovered his ability to smash baseballs over the fences.  He played in the major leagues from 1914 to 1935, amassing devotion from fans enthralled by his achievements, including the stunning season record of 60 home runs in 1927; it stood until 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs.  Ruth’s death reignited that wonder, as is common with the passing of a legend.  “It had to come sometime, of course,” wrote Arthur Daley in the New York Times.  “But Babe Ruth seemingly had acquired a cloak of immortality as if he were a demigod who had sprung from Zeus.  He was not an ordinary mortal even in life.  Now in death he will assume still more grandiose proportions as an almost legendary figure.”

Ruth’s impact on the game cannot be measured by his statistics alone, though they are legendary.  Career numbers include:

  • .690 slugging percentage
  • .342 batting average
  • 714 home runs

Further, as a pitcher for the Red Sox before he became a power hitter, Ruth held the record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the World Series until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.  Immeasurably, Ruth injected excitement into a game scarred by the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  When he swatted American League pitching for round-tripper after round-tripper, fans delighted.

Ruth’s skill with a bat turned baseball toward a new era.  The New York Herald Tribune eulogized, “His slugging prowess inspired imitators and the emphasis shifted from the tight tricks of the sacrifice, the squeeze, the stolen base, the playing for one run, to the long hit which would clean the bases, the one big inning.  It worked on every ball club in the country, but nobody could do it like the Babe, who began it.”

Ruth lay in state at Yankee Stadium for two days before the funeral at St. Patrick’s.  It was an opportunity to pay respects in the baseball shrine nicknamed “The House That Ruth Built.”  Thousands came.  “Aside from a few public officials, such as City Council President Vincent Impellitteri and Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons, these were the kind of people who might have sat in the stands to watch the Babe hit one of his tremendous homers, or strike out with gusto,” wrote Murray Schumach in the New York Times.  “The enormous line that waited patiently outside the Stadium, might have been mistaken for the bleacher line.  There were few limousines in the vicinity.  These people had come by elevated and subway, apparently straight  from work.  Many men were in shirtsleeves.”

On August 20th, the day of Ruth’s funeral, the New York Yankees defeated the Washington Senators decisively—the score was 8-1.  Yankee icon Joe DiMaggio attended Ruth’s funeral while the team prepared in Washington for a game against the Senators.  Quoted by Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune, DiMaggio said, “The Babe must have been more than just a great ball player to have so many people think so much of him.”

Attending the funeral left a small window of time for travel to Washington, though.  Fortunately, DiMaggio had the help of legendary bar owner Toots Shortchanged and CBS Chairman William Paley.  “Shortchanged yelled at Paley, who was driving on Madison Avenue in his limousine.  Paley got out and turned the car over to DiMaggio so that he was able to get to LaGuardia Airport,” wrote Rennie.

DiMaggio also got a boost from his flight crew.  Rennie added, “American Air Lines held flight 307 for ten minutes.”

Entering the game in the third inning, DiMaggio went one-for-four with no runs scored and no RBI.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 21, 2015.

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.