Posts Tagged ‘Jackie Robinson’

The Début of Roosevelt Field

Monday, May 8th, 2017

When Christian Ziegler got the assignment to design a new stadium for Jersey City, he planned a voyage with Parks and Public Buildings Commissioner Arthur Potterton for a reconnaissance trip to Rochester, Cleveland, Montreal, Boston, and Philadelphia, according to the New York Times.

On June 5, 1929, Mayor Frank Hague made the announcement about the city getting a new stadium with a capacity to host 50,000 people.  The Times reported, “Work can start in three months, it is expected, and the stadium should be finished by the Spring of 1930.”

It took a bit longer, as is the tradition with construction projects.

On December 10, 1935, groundbreaking began at the site, adjoining Newark Bay, and which formerly housed Jersey City Airport; the Jersey Observer noted, in particular, Hague’s positive proclamation after making the initial dig:  “This is a great day for Jersey City.  You must realize that all the money needed for the construction of the stadium was donated by the government.  The city merely furnished the ground and pays the architect’s fees.

“This stadium has been the dream of the Jersey City officials for a number of years.”

Hague, a politician who exerted the right amount of pressure on the levers, switches, and buttons of Jersey City’s political machinery to get things accomplished, often colored outside the lines of the law to get things done.

Less than a year and a half later, the dream became reality—named for President Franklin Roosevelt, under whose aegis the Works Progress Administration governed the construction, Roosevelt Stadium débuted on April 23, 1937; the Jersey City Giants occupied home team status in the International League contest, losing a 12-inning game to the Rochester Red Wings.  Final score:  4-3.  In attendance were New Jersey luminaries, including Jersey City  Hague and Senator A. Harry Moore, who was a former governor.

Future Dodgers skipper Walter Alston banged the pitching of Giants hurler Rollie Stiles like a southerner swats flies on a humid night in August—the Red Wings first baseman went four-for-five and drove in two runs, including the game winner.

Roosevelt Stadium’s architecture affected the crowd.  “All who attended yesterday’s imbroglio gasped at the layout which Mayor Hague and the W. P. A. have provided,” reported New York Herald Tribune scribe Stanley Woodward.  “The grandstand and bleachers are of yellow fire-brick and a wall of the same substance surrounds the whole layout.  The end seats of each row are emblazoned on the aisle side with cast-iron shields, painted with ferryboats and square-rigged ships and bearing the motto, ‘Let Jersey Prosper.'”

Nine years after it opened, Roosevelt Stadium became the site of history—on April 18, 1946, Jackie Robinson played his first professional baseball game.  It was a 14-1 pounding of the Giants by Robinson and the Montreal Royals.  Robinson turned in an impeccable performance at the plate:

  • 4-for-5
  • 4 RBI
  • 2 Stolen Bases
  • 2 Putouts
  • 3 Assists

There was, however, one blemish—Robinson made a throwing error to first base on a double play ball.  In turn, the Giants batter, Clefton Ray scampered to second base and then home, when Bobby Thomson swatted a single.

In August of 1984, the Historic American Buildings Survey, an arm of the National Park Service, compiled a detailed history of Roosevelt Stadium, including, among other items, descriptions of the stadium’s interior, layout of seating areas, geographic location, flooring, and landscaping.  Like other stadia lost to history—Mack, Navin, Ebbets et al.—Roosevelt Field marked a specific place in time, when men wore fedoras, newspapers in larger cities had evening editions, and generations of families stayed in the same area code.  “In short, it was a meeting place for all the people of Jersey City and as such, the stadium embodies a time, an era, an overwhelming feeling of the essence of a city in its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s that simply no longer exists,” states the HABS report.

Roosevelt Stadium was demolished in 1985.  Society Hill, a gated community, occupies the site.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 3, 2017.

The Hall of Fame Case for Doc Adams

Saturday, April 29th, 2017

Victory, it is said, has a thousand fathers.  Baseball, too.

Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams is, for reasons passing understanding, without tangible recognition in Cooperstown, despite being a highly significant contributor to baseball’s genesis.  It is not an uncommon tale, of course.  The specter of Gil Hodges, an evergreen topic for debate about Hall of fame inclusion, stands on the sidelines of 25 Main Street as thousands trek yearly to this bucolic village in upstate New York, pay homage to baseball’s icons, and gander at plaques honoring Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and several other boys of summer.  This, regardless of membership on seven consecutive National League All-Star teams, seven consecutive years of 100 or more RBI, and a managerial career noted for turning around the woes of the New York Mets—his efforts culminated in the 1969 World Series championship.

Charles Ebbets, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who conceived Ebbets Field—and sacrificed half his ownership to finance the ballpark—does not have a plaque at the Hall of Fame.  Quincy Trouppe, a standout from the Negro Leagues, often occupies a spot in Hall of Fame debates.

Adams’s denial, to date, contrasts the honor given to some of his 19th century brethren.  In his 2011 book Baseball in the Garden of Eden:  The Secret History of the Early Game, John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s Official Historian, wrote that the Mills Commission’s report, which, inaccurately, credited Abner Doubleday with a primary role in baseball’s creation, failed to highlight “William Rufus Wheaton or Daniel Lucius Adams, recently revealed to be larger figures in baseball’s factual beginnings than either [Alexander] Cartwright or Doubleday.”

Adams has been “recently revealed to be larger figures in baseball’s factual beginnings than either [Alexander] Cartwright or [Abner] Doubleday.”

Indeed, Adams’s role in baseball’s ur-phase, emerging through the dedication of Thorn and other baseball archaeologists, remained, until the latter part of the 20th century, mostly obscured by Cartwright’s vaunted position as the father of the National Pastime and the legend, long since debunked as myth, that Doubleday designed the game’s blueprint.

It was Adams, however, who set the 90-foot length between bases.

It was Adams, however, who helped shape baseball’s rules as president of the Knickerbockers, a team with historical prestige for playing in what was, seemingly, if not concretely, the first organized baseball game—it took place in Hoboken in 1846.

It was Adams, however, who set the number of players at nine.

It was Adams, however, who conceived of a game lasting nine innings.

Teetering on the edge of Cooperstown, Adams is becoming decreasingly enigmatic and increasingly valuable in determining baseball’s genesis, evolution, and governance.  In 2015, the Hall of Fame’s Pre-Integration Committee disclosed that Adams received 10 votes of 16—two votes short of the 12 needed for membership; the Society for American Baseball Research Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legends Committee named Adams its 2014 legend.

Adams’s effect manifested in a 2016 auction for his handwritten “Laws of Base Ball,” which SCP Auctiosn sold for $3.26 million.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 3, 2017.

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.

What if…

Friday, April 21st, 2017

What if…

Charlie Finley hadn’t broken up the 1970s Oakland A’s dynasty?

Bob Uecker hadn’t appeared in Major League?

there was no Designated Hitter position?

the Mets had never traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels?

Yogi Berra had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers?

George Steinbrenner had never bought the Yankees?

the Dodgers had never moved from Brooklyn?

the Giants had moved to Minneapolis instead of San Francisco?

the Red Sox had never sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees?

Walter O’Malley had never owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

the Red Sox had integrated in 1949 instead of 1959?

Satchel Paige had pitched against Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and other Hall of Famers in their prime?

Bob Feller and Ted Williams had never lost years to military service in World War II?

Mickey Mantle hadn’t blown out his knee in the 1951 World Series?

Bobby Thomson had struck out against Ralph Branch?

Commissioner William Eckert had never invalidated Tom Seaver’s contract with the Atlanta Braves?

Major League Baseball banned synthetic grass?

the Mets had never traded Tom Seaver to the Reds?

Reggie Jackson had never played for the Yankees?

Thurman Munson hadn’t died in a plane crash?

Mickey Mantle had stayed healthy in the home stretch of 1961?

The Natural had ended the same was as the eponymous novel?

the Indians hadn’t traded Chris Chambliss, Dennis Eckersley, Buddy Bell, and Graig Nettles?

the Braves hadn’t never left Boston for Milwaukee?

the first incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Minnesota to become the Twins?

the second incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Texas to become the Rangers?

the Seattle Pilots hadn’t left for Milwaukee to become the Brewers?

Jim Bouton hadn’t written Ball Four?

Roger Kahn hadn’t written The Boys of Summer?

Mark Harris hadn’t written Bang the Drum Slowly?

Jackie Robinson had sought a football career instead of a baseball career?

Billy Martin hadn’t managed the Yankees in the late 1970s?

Gil Hodges hadn’t died in 1972, during a high point in the history of the Mets?

Vin Scully had stayed in New York City and announced for the Yankees or the Mets?

Bob Feller had pitched for the Yankees?

Ted Williams had played for the Yankees?

Joe DiMaggio had played for the Red Sox?

Charles Ebbets hadn’t owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Honolulu had a Major League Baseball team?

Pete Rose were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

the commissioner’s office rescinded the lifetime banishment of the 1919 Black Sox from Major League Baseball?

Hank Aaron had played in the same outfield as Willie Mays?

Wiffle Ball hadn’t been invented?

Nashville had a Major League Baseball team?

Dwight Goodman and Darryl Strawberry had stayed away from drugs?

Roberto Clemente had played for the Dodgers instead of the Pirates?

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 17, 2016.

New Jersey, Allaire State Park, and the Revolutionary War

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

Monmouth County, located somewhat equidistantly between Hoboken and Atlantic City, boasts land of high significance to baseball and America.  Once the spring training home of Brooklyn’s major league squad around the turn of the 20th century, nearly four decades before that gloried organization settled on the Dodgers label—having also been known as Bridegrooms, Flock, Trolley Dodgers—Allaire State Park has the ghosts of the National Pastime dancing around its environs.  When vintage baseball teams, dressed in uniforms play on Allaire’s grounds, they continue the legacy.

Named for James Peter Allaire, who bought the land in 1822, the park showcases a 19th century village, complete with a reenactment of daily activities.  Allaire purchased approximately 5,000 acres—it was labeled Howell Works.

The web site for the Monmouth County Historical Association calls Allaire “one of the foremost steam engine manufacturers of his time, although he was trained as a brass founder.  Between 1804 and 1806, he cast the brass air chamber for Robert Fulton’s ‘CLERMONT’ and was with Fulton on the steamboat’s historic maiden voyage.”

Allaire enjoyed the confidence, friendship, and trust of Fulton, who manifested the bond by appointing Allaire executor of his will.

Expansion occurred under Allaire’s aegis—”an additional 3,000 acres of woodland to ensure the charcoal fuel supply necessary for the bog-iron production.”

Once a self-contained village of approximately 500 people, Allaire declined because of the “discovery of high grades of iron ore in Pennsylvania along with the benefit of an anthracite coal fuel source,” according to Allaire Village’s web site.

13 of the original buildings remain for visitors to take a peek into history, including tool making using 19th century methods.

Additionally, vintage baseball teams meet not he grounds once graced by the Brooklyn ancestors of Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, and Pee Wee Reese.  “To my knowledge, visitor and Villagers participating in 1831 Philadelphia Townball at Allaire Village are involved in a unique experience not replicated anywhere else in the country!  Most other historical site interpretations of Townball play the 1850’s Massachusetts-style Game.  We play the game that Howell Works residents most likely would have known,” explained Russ McIver in a 2014 article on Allaire State Park’s web site. McIver is an Allaire volunteer and vintage baseball enthusiast, one of many dedicated to recreating 19th century baseball.

Allaire also has the distinction of being in a county that saw a turning point in the American War for Independence, also known as the Revolutionary War.  General George Washington led the rebels in the Battle of Monmouth, which highlighted a severe dispute between the general and his second in command, General Charles Lee.

Washington ordered Lee into battle.   Instead, Lee led his soldiers to retreat, which ignited wrath in his commanding officer.  It was a clash of strategies.  On the George Washington’s Mount Vernon’s web site, Dr. Mary Stockwell explains that regret formed a cornerstone of the conflict:  “Washington’s fury stemmed in part from his regret at having appointed Lee in the first place.  When Washington initially proposed attacking the British on their way through New Jersey, Lee scoffed at the idea.”

Lee wasn’t alone; General Henry Knox advocated against entering a battle with troops numbering around 15,000.  Marquis de Lafayette, General Nathanael Greene, and General Anthony Wayne took the opposite approach.

Washington opted for battle, which resulted in victory.  “Noticing British campfires burning in the distance, Washington decided to continue the fight in the morning.  But at sunrise, he realized that the redcoats had kept their fires burning as a ruse and were safely on their way to New York,” described Stockwell.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 4, 2016.

The Last Eagle

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

Once upon a decade—the one that introduced Elvis Presley, car tail fins, and McDonald’s franchises—a ballplayer blessed with speed, grace, and athleticism rivaling Orsippus’s climbed to the apex of baseball, popular culture, and media.

The year was 1951.  The place was New York City.  The ballplayer was Willie Mays.

Talent alone does not make a major leaguer, however.  Responding to this reality, Leo Durocher, manager of the New York Giants, selected a member of his Polo Grounds posse to shepherd the 20-year-old Mays upon the rookie’s ascension from the Minneapolis Millers—the Giants’ AAA team.

Monford Merrill Irvin.  Monte.

In his 1975 book The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff, Thomas Kiernan wrote, “Irvin not only accepted responsibility for Mays, he took the move as a challenge.  For the first time as a Giant he had a teammate who, it appeared, was every bit as talented as he was.”

Under Irvin’s tutelage, Mays matured into the professional that Durocher et al. hoped he would be.  “Irvin would instruct Mays on game situations, shout out which bases the rookie should throw to, position against each enemy hitter—to make it easy for Mays to turn what would be extra-base hits with anyone else in center field into outs,” stated Kiernan.

Irvin played in the Negro Leagues before desegregating the New York Giants with Hank Thompson in 1949.  Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, testified, “Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team.  We all agreed, in meeting, he was the best qualified by temperament, character ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age, experiences ad physique to represent us as the first black player to enter the white majors since the Walker brothers back in the 1880s.  Of course, Branch Rickey lifted Jackie Robinson out of Negro ball and made him the first, and it turned out just fine.”

Appropriately, Manley’s statement is on Irvin’s Baseball Hall of Fame web site page.

Irvin led the Eagles to the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series championship against the Kansas City Monarchs—a shining moment for the kid from Orange, New Jersey, for whom playing playing baseball was oxygen.

When Irvin died on January 11, 2016, he took with him the status of being the last living monument to the Eagles.  In a statement, Mays said that his mentor “was like a second father to me.”

Jerry Izenberg, an iconic New Jersey sports writer, eulogized Irvin in the Star-Ledger, which gained international recognition when Tony Soprano ambled down his driveway in a robe and slippers to pick it up, often thumbing through the pages for the latest news on mafia arrests.

Decades after his career in the Negro Leagues, Irving maintained joyousness that could light up Chancellor Avenue.  Irvin’s exclamations occurred repeatedly in conversations with Izenberg, who recalled the thread of joy running through them, including an excerpt of a conversation from the early 1990s:  “I played in three countries.  I played in two World Series.  But I never found anything to match the joy and the laughter those years with the Eagles brought me.”

Monte Irvin retired with a .293 batting average after eight seasons in the major leagues; the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him in 1973.  “I hope my induction will help to ease the pain of all those players who never got a chance to play in the majors,” stated the man largely responsible for the career of Willie Mays.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 9, 2016.

1946, Abe Saperstein, and the West Coast Negro Baseball League

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

While Jackie Robinson prepared to break into the major leagues by getting a year of seasoning with the Dodgers’ AAA ball club, the Montreal Royals, Abe Saperstein diversified his minority sports portfolio beyond the Harlem Globetrotters by spearheading the creation of the West Coast Negro Baseball League.  This venture consisted of six teams:  Seattle Steelheads, San Francisco Sea Lions, San Diego Tigers, Portland Roses, Oakland Larks, Los Angeles White Sox.  Fresno was the original home city for the Tigers.

The WCNBL did not endure past July 1946.

Saperstein—the Steelheads’ owner—persuaded investors, including Olympics star Jesse Owens, to participate in the first organization for black baseball on the West Coast.  Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization on October 23, 1945 inspired rather than discouraged Saperstein to construct the WCNBL; despite the beginning of the major leagues siphoning black players from the Negro Leagues, an expanding population on the West Coast after World War II offered, seemingly, a formidable fan base for Saperstein and his group.  In her 2013 book The Negro Leagues: 1869-1960, baseball historian Leslie Heaphy explained, “They founded the league not as competition to the white leagues but to provide an opportunity for blacks in the west to play baseball for money.”

With a prosperous record as the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, Abe Saperstein represented credibility for the nascent league.  Eddie Harris of the High Marine Social Club also played a key role in organizing the league.

Finding ballparks proved to be a tricky task.  In a June 27th article, the Los Angeles Sentinel noted that the White Sox had games scheduled in Whittier after beating the Lions at Hollywood Park.  “This policy of playing games in and around Los Angeles was forced on the owner [Carlisle] Perry as Hollywood Park and Wrigley Field are virtually closed to the home team due to Pacific Coast League commitments leaving the Sox without a Home Ground,” stated the Sentinel.

Low attendance compounded the difficulties, resulting in the league’s dissolution.  Though its tenure lasted less than the projected 110-game season, the West Coast Negro Baseball League indicated Saperstein’s business approach.  In his 2013 book Abe Saperstein and the American Basketball League; 1960-1963, Murry R. Nelson wrote, “Saperstein always had contingency plans to maximize his revenue streams.  As owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, with at least two different squads, he had a team playing every day somewhere in the world.  He also was one of the key reasons that the NBA was able to pay its bills from the formation of the league in 1949 through the 1950s, as he had the Globetrotters play doubleheaders before many NBA games, often doubling or tripling the average attendance figures for those games,”

A year after the WCNBL, White Sox pitcher Nate Moreland, an Arkansas native, broke a racial barrier on the heels of Robinson’s début with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947.  A former teammate of Robinson’s at Pasadena Junior College, Moreland became the first black professional baseball player in California when he took the field in May for the El Centro Imperials in the Class C Sunset League.

In 1942, Robinson and Moreland had tried out for the Chicago White Sox at the team’s training camp in Pasadena.  Though they impressed White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes, they didn’t get any further.  Arkbaseball.com notes that the duo had a previous link in southern California—they played on a semi-pro team that won the California championship in 1939.

Moreland also played in:

  • Negro National League
  • Southwest International League
  • Arizona-Texas League
  • Arizona-Mexico League

According to baseball-reference.com, Moreland had a 152-104 record in his career.  Incomplete statistics render difficult a full evaluation of Moreland’s career.

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

The Indomitable Zack Wheat

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Zack Wheat churned out hits with the reliability of Henry Ford’s assembly line, which débuted the Model T in 1908, a year prior to Wheat’s introduction to the major leagues.  From 1909 to 1926, Wheat flourished as a member of Brooklyn’s National League squad with various nicknames in the press—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Robins, Flock.  Wheat played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1927, his last season.

Dodgers through the decades have achieved more fame, acclaim, and worship than Zachariah Davis Wheat, certainly.  Sandy Koufax pitched his way into Cooperstown with four no-hitters; Jackie Robinson earned civil rights icon status when he broke baseball’s color line in 1947; Tommy Lasorda declared his passion for the Dodgers at every opportunity; Fernando Valenzuela ignited Fernandomania during the summer of 1981; Don Drysdale struck fear into National League batting lineups, then parlayed his stardom into guest appearances on television sitcoms and a broadcasting career; Steve Garvey enjoyed an All-American image until it got sullied with a nasty divorce complemented by publicity regarding extramarital affairs and illegitimate children; Duke Snider defined power with each of his 407 career home runs; and Roy Campanella displayed courage, dignity, and inner strength in facing paralysis after a horrific car accident.

Wheat, surprisingly, often remains sidelined in discussions of Dodger greats.  A lack of recognition for Wheat’s performance belies a remarkable career output placing Wheat as the #1 Dodger in the following categories:

  • Career hits (2,884)
  • Doubles (476)
  • Triples (171)
  • RBI (1,248)

Wheat racked up a .317 batting average in his 19-year career, broke the .300 mark 14 times, and won the 1918 National League batting title with a .335 batting average.

A deeper dive into Wheat’s statistics reveals arcane nuances reflecting his excellence, which further enhances the value of the left fielder who batted left, threw right, and became a Brooklyn fixture.  OPS statistics—On-Base Plus Slugging—offer a baseline measure for ballplayers.  Additionally, Gray Ink grades on the number of times that a ballplayer’s achievements place in a given category’s top 10.

Baseball-reference.com states, “Wheat’s Adjusted OPS scores are not particularly high for a Hall of Famer, but on the other hand he was a well-rounded player.  His Gray Ink score (which is the 27th highest of all time) shows that he was commonly in the top ten in the National League—in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, among other stats, and he also stole over 200 bases in his career.  As a defensive player, his range was good for many years until he began to age.  He never played any position but outfield during his major league career, and almost never appeared in any outfield position than left field, which he owned for many years in Brooklyn.”

In the 1916 World Series, which Brooklyn lost to the Boston Red Sox, Wheat did not perform to his usual standard—he batted .211.  Wheat fared better in the 1920 World Series, achieving a .333 batting average.  It was not, however, enough—the Cleveland Indians beat Brooklyn in seven games.

Wheat’s approach to physical fitness lacked even a whiff of dedication.  “I smoke as much as I want and chew tobacco a good deal of the time,” said Wheat.  “I don’t pay any attention to the rules for keeping in physical condition.  I think they are a lot of bunk.  The less you worry about the effect of tea and coffee on the lining of your stomach, the longer you will live, and the happier you will be.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Zack Wheat in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 23, 2016.

Brooklyn, Baseball, and Broadway

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Jackie Robinson has inspired an abundance of portrayals in popular culture, unsurprisingly.  Examples include Blair Underwood in the 1996 HBO tv-movie Soul of the Game, Chadwick Boseman in the 2013 movie 42, and the man himself in the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story.

In The First, a 1981 Broadway musical, David Alan Grier projected Robinson’s travails in breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  Grier, later known for the 1990s sketch comedy television show In Living Color on FOX, received plaudits from theatre critics, along with the other cast members.  Frank Rich of the New York Times noted, “The casting of all the principals is good.  In his Broadway debut, Mr. Grier gives us an impassioned, strong-voiced and tough-minded Jackie Robinson—not an impression, but a real performance.  Though the role of Rachel Robinson hardly exists in the script, the striking Lonette McKee manages to fill her with vitality and warmth.  The sandpaper-voiced David Huddleston captures both the idealism and pragmatism, as well as the humor, of Branch Rickey.”

However, Rich was less laudatory of the play, which covered the same ground that 42 did three decades hence; it débuted on November 17, 1981 and closed less than a month later.  Rich wrote, “While this show offers about five minutes of good baseball and a promising star in David Alan Grier, its back is broken by music, lyrics, book and direction that are the last word in dull.”

A lack of endorsement from the Gray Lady is to a Broadway show what a stake is to a vampire’s heart.  The 1982 movie Author! Author! illustrates this point with bluntness wrapped in humor concerning the opening night of a Broadway play.  Referencing theatre critic Stewart Klein of New York City’s WNEW-TV (later WNYW-TV), a character says, “Let me tell you.  In this town, you don’t get a rave from the New York Times, you close.  I don’t care if Klein was enthralled, enraptured, and reached orgasm.  Without the New York Times, we’re dead.”

In my 2015 book Our Bums:  The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture, McKee graciously shared her experience.  “[Rachel Robinson] was so very warm, magnanimous and supportive during the entire process,” McKee said.  “And I still believe that the play and any stories about Jackie Robins and other trailblazers are important for all of us.  After all … how can we know who we are and where we’re going until we know where we’ve been and who the heroes were that paved the way for us.  The Robinsons are important civil and human rights leaders.”

Noted baseball author Robert W. Creamer reviewed the play for Sports Illustrated, acknowledging that it “does an admirable job of presenting a momentous occasion in American sport and, for that matter, American history.”

Further, Creamer explained, “I saw The First two nights after it opened, after the derogatory reviews had appeared.  I eavesdropped at intermission and after the final curtain, trying to find out what the audience thought.  Repeatedly, I heard people say, almost with embarrassment, almost apologizing for being so gauche as to disagree with the critics, ‘I like it.’

“So do I.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 31, 2016.

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.