Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Durso’

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 1973, 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.

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.

Willie Mays Returns to New York

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

On May 25, 1951, Willie Mays played in his first major league game.  19 years and 50 weeks later, Mays returned to the city that embraced his early career.

Entering the major leagues with the New York Giants under the managerial reign of Leo Durocher, Mays became a model of excellence in ability, knowledge, and behavior.  In his 1975 autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last—written with Ed Linn—Durocher wrote, “Every day with Mays I would come to the ball park, pick up the lineup card and write his name in.  Willie Mays was never sick, he was never hurt, he never had a bellyache, he never had a toothache, he never had a headache.  He came to the park every day to put on the uniform and play.”

When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, Willie Mays became a favorite son of the Bay Area, with a metropolitan synonymity as as powerful as cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Spencer Tracy jokes that Willie Mays could get elected Mayor of San Francisco.

Mays’s term with the New York/San Francisco Giants brought 12 Gold Gloves, two Most Valuable Player Awards, and 18 All-Star Game appearances.  On May 11, 1971, the Giants and the New York Mets secured a deal that traded Mays to the Mets for Charlie Williams and a reported figure of $100,000.  Willie Mays back in a New York uniform ignited an inferno of nostalgia for the city’s glory days of the 1950s, when three teams ruled Gotham baseball.  In the New York Times, Red Smith acknowledged the questionable value of a trade, given Mays’s subpar batting average (below .200) and age (41).  “It can be justified only on sentimental grounds and if the deal comes off, God bless [Mets majority owner] Joan Payson.  The name-calling and hair-pulling during the players’ strike, the prolonged bitterness over Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve system, and the corrosive effects of Charley Finley’s haggling with Vida Blue have created a crying need for some honest sentiment in baseball.”

Additionally, Smith noted, Giants owner Horace Stoneham valued Mays, so a trade for the superstar hinged on protecting him.  “Anybody who knows Stoneham knows he would not trade Mays unless he believed it would benefit Willie as well as the Giants.”  Mays, in turn, voiced esteem for his boss during the press conference announcing the trade.  Times reporter Steve Lady recounted Mays’s response when a reporter questioned “The Say Hey Kid” about possible bitterness towards Stoneham:  “Bitterness?  What do you mean?  How could I have any bitterness for this man who is seeing that I’m taken care of after my playing days are over?  A lot of ballplayers play 20 years and come out with nothing.”  Regarding the city that launched his career, Mays said, “When you come back to New York, it’s like coming back to paradise.”

Contrariwise, in his 1988 autobiography Say Hey:  The Autobiography of Willie Mays—written with Lou Sahadi—Mays revealed his initial disappointment.  “My first reaction was anger at Stoneham,” wrote Mays.  “What happened to that family atmosphere he had always spoken of?  I couldn’t accept the fact that he hadn’t called me when he was working out the details.  Later, he explained to me he was losing money and would sell the club soon, but before he did, he wanted to make sure my future was secure.  Whatever feelings I had felt for him over the years, at that moment I felt betrayed.”

Security proved to be a factor in the trade of the aging icon, indeed.  Associated Press reported, “No specific terms of the deal to bring Mays to the Mets were revealed at the Shea Stadium conference but [minority owner and Chairman M. Donald] Grant said part of the package included a job for Mays in the New York organization after he retires as an active player.”  Joseph Durso of the Times reported, “Besides assuming his current salary, the Mets agreed to keep him for at least three years as a coach at $75,000 a year after he quits playing—which presumably could be at the end of this season or next.”

Despite unwarranted statistics, Mays attained selection for and played in the 1972 and 1973 All-Star Games.  Once fleet of foot with speed that struck terror into fielders trying to throw him out, Willie Howard Mays evidenced his age during the 1973 World Series, which the Mets lost to the Oakland A’s in seven games.  Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News wrote, “What you can say is that he looked every bit of his 42 years and had people feeling sorry for him as he floundered around under two fly balls in the sun.  And you can say that he battled back to drive in the go ahead run off Rollie Fingers as the Mets scored four runs and punched out a 10-7 victory over the A’s in game No. 2 here Sunday.”

Mays also ran into problems on the base paths; Mets manager Yogi Berra designated Mays as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub in the top of the ninth inning with the Mets ahead 6-3.  John Milner singled, but Mays “got his legs twisted and sprawled helplessly on the ground making his turn around the bag,” reported UPI.  “Mays should’ve easily made third on the blow but, after his mishap, all he could do was half-crawl, half-fall back safely into second.”

In the 12th inning, Mays knocked in the game-winning RBI; it was appropriate, somehow destined, that “The Say Hey Kid” finished the 12-inning affair with redemption, giving baseball fans a last glimpsed of greatness.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 19, 2015.

The Midnight Massacre

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Not since 1957, when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, had baseball in New York City suffered an emotional blow equivalent to the impact on June 15, 1977, when the New York Mets committed an unpardonable sin in the eyes of the Flushing Faithful by trading Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Midnight Massacre.

Seaver in another team’s uniform did not compute.  It was an incongruous thought.  Blasphemous, even.  Imagine Mickey Mantle playing for the Cleveland Indians, Sandy Koufax playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, or Al Kaline playing for the Chicago White Sox.  Nicknamed “The Franchise” for his importance to the team, Seaver was synonymous with the Mets.  Beginning in 1967, the Mets flourished in Seaver’s glorious achievements in the National League, including Rookie of the Year Award in 1967, three Cy Young Awards, and five seasons leading the league in strikeouts.  Indeed, Seaver was a cornerstone of the 1969 World Series championship team and the 1973 National League championship team that pushed the World Series against the dynastic Oakland A’s to seven games.

But the relationship between Seaver and the Mets frayed by June of 1977.  A media item severed it.  During Seaver’s 1977 contract negotiations, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote, “Nolan Ryan is getting more now than Seaver, and that galls Tom because Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver long has treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother.”

Young doubled down by attacking Seaver’s integrity:  “It comes down to this: Tom Seaver is jealous of those who had the guts to play out their option or used the threat of playing it out as leverage for a big raise—while he was snug behind a three-year contract of his choosing.  He talks of being treated like a man.  A man lives up to his contract.”

Three decades after the trade that sent Seaver to the Reds—in exchange for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, and Dan Norman—Daily News sports writer Bill Madden penned a retrospective of the events leading to the trade.  Seaver shared his insights for the piece:  “That Young column was the straw that broke the back.  Bringing your family into it with no truth whatsoever to what he wrote.  I could not abide that.  I had to go.”

It was the boiling point in a tumultuous relationship with Mets Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant, for whom Young advocated.  In the Madden article, Seaver said, “There are two things Grant said to me that I’ll never forget, but illustrate the kind of person he was and the total ‘plantation’ mentality he had.  During the labor negotiations, he came up to me in the clubhouse once and said: ‘What are you, some sort of Communist.’  Another time, and I’ve never told anyone this, he said to me: ‘Who do you think you are, joining the Greenwich Country Club?’  It was incomprehensible to him if you didn’t understand his feelings about your station in life.”

The Seaver trade devastated Mets fandom.  In the June 17, 1977 edition of the New York Times, Murray Schumach wrote, “The anger of New Yorkers was no secret at Shea Stadium, where the switchboard was flooded with telephone calls, mostly of protest, many of them very abusive in what was admittedly the strongest display of anger ever recorded in one day at the switchboard.”

Seaver returned to the Mets for the 1983 season, inspiring Young to revive the volcano that triggered Seaver’s demand for a trade.  In the December 22, 1982 edition of the New York Post, Young opined, “It took me half a column to get to this, didn’t it.  This is the tacky part when Tom Seaver asked the Mets to renegotiate his contract, which had two years to run.  Don Grant said no.  Tom Seaver had every right to ask for a new contract, and Don Grant had every right to say no.  Tom Seaver couldn’t accept that.

“That’s how I saw it, that’s how I wrote it.  You signed the contract, live with it.  Play the two years left at $225,000, then hit the free agent market and make your millions.  It’s there, waiting.”

Young’s analysis ignored Seaver’s honor, symbolized by acceptance of a 20% pay cut for the 1975 season after a lackluster 11-11 performance in 1974.  It was part of a “gentleman’s agreement” designed in September 1974 between Seaver and the Mets front office.  In the January 22, 1975 edition of the New York Times, Joseph Durso quoted Seaver in detailing the circumstances surrounding the salary drop:  “Don Grant and I were talking one day and he brought it up.  No, I wasn’t disturbed that I got a cut after one bad year.  The ball club’s been very good and honest with me, and I with them.  They paid me a good amount of money last year and I didn’t pitch up to that amount.”

In 1975, Tom Seaver went 22-9, won the National League Cy Young Award, and led the National League with 243 strikeouts.

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