Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles’

The Los Angeles Angels, the Hollywood Stars, and the Brawls of 1953

Friday, May 12th, 2017

They might as well have called it basebrawl—Gilmore Field showcased fights disguised as baseball games between the Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars during two games in a three-day span in 1953.

On July 31st, the Stars defeated the Angels 2-1 when Frankie Kelleher, a journeyman minor leaguer who spent the last 10 years of his 18-year career with the Stars, knocked a pinch single in dramatic fashion fit for the other kind of stars in Hollywood—a bottom of the ninth hit that sent shortstop Don Dahlke home from second base for the game-winning RBI.

An inning prior, quicker than a Hollywood starlet wannabe could bat her eyelashes, Angels first baseman Fred Richards and Stars third baseman Gene Handley scuffled when the former slid into third on a triple.  They were ejected, consequently.

Two days after the Richards-Handley bout, the Angels and the Stars split a doubleheader—in the sixth inning of the first game, two battles detonated that made the Dempsey-Tunney fight look like a squabble in a sandbox.

When Kelleher got into his batting stance, Angels pitcher Joe Hatten readied his array of pitches—he chose to drill one right into Kelleher’s back.  Combat ensued.  First, it was Kelleher punching Hatten.  Then, it was Angels first baseman Fred Richards “jump[ing] Kelleher, who whirled and began battling him.  By this time, the infield was a mass of uniformed brawlers,” wrote Al Wolf in the Los Angeles Times.

Before the inning ended, another brawl erupted when pinch runner Teddy Beard slid into third base and, for good measure, spiked Angels third baseman Murray Franklin in the arms and chest.  Wolf described, “As they clawed in the dirt, the diamond again became a mob scene, with a half-dozen fights going on simultaneously.”  Among the several players injured were Eddie Malone of the Stars (spiked leg) and Bud Hardin of the Angels (black eye).

Pacific Coast League President Pants Rowland took action against the players’ wallets:

  • Frankie Kelleher (Stars):  $100
  • Gene Handley (Stars):  $50
  • Teddy Beard (Stars):  $50
  • Fred Richards (Angels):  $50
  • Murray Franklin (Angels):  $50

“Fist fights don’t belong in baseball and any repetition not only will bring larger fines but suspension,” declared Rowland.  “Fights can easily precipitate riots in which innocent persons may be injured.

The LAPD contained the violence, thanks to television.  Chief of Police William Parker watched the game at home on KHJ, reportedly tuning in at the moment that Kelleher sought revenge on Hatten.  Parker then phoned in an order for his minions to head to Gilmore Field.

Baseball historian Richard Beverage, founder of the Pacific Coast League Historical Society and a former president of the Society for American Baseball Research observed that the PCL endured a downswing in 1953.  “The league decision to refuse optioned players from the major leagues was now in force, and the concern of all was centered on where to find players,” wrote Beverage in his 2011 book The Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League:  A History, 1903-1957.  “The consensus was that the clubs would have to expand their own scouting staffs to sign and develop their own talent, but this would bean an immediate decline in the quality of play.  Those players obtained from the majors outright would undoubtedly be those who were no longer prospects or were now on the downside of their careers.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 20, 2017.

Chris Chambliss, Billy Martin, and the 1976 American League Playoff

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

The baseball traveled on its parabolic destiny, rising through the mid-October night and dropping a few dozen feet in front of the Manufacturers Hanover Super Checking billboard at 11:43 p.m. Eastern.  It was a moment of exhilaration, followed nanoseconds later by pandemonium in a crowd that hadn’t tasted a championship in more than a decade.

Chris Chambliss’s three-run homer brought the 1976 American League pennant to the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of the fifth and deciding game of the playoffs against the Kansas City Royals.  Score:  Yankees 7, Royals 6.

“And I want to tell you, the safest place to be is up here in the booth!” exclaimed WPIX-TV announcer and former Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto when several hundred fans stiff-armed decorum, poured onto the Yankee Stadium turf, and jumped up and down like the prospectors who discovered gold in mid-19th century California.

New York City hadn’t seen a celebration like that since V-E Day.

To say that Chambliss’s safety was in jeopardy is neither hyperbole nor ignorance.  Suddenly, survival instinct surpassed the duty of touching home plate, an impossibility given the swarm of fans excited by the victory and oblivious to the hero’s wellbeing; Chambliss didn’t even make it to third base.  Hoping to embrace their hero, Yankee rooters risked injuring him—maybe even trampling him.  Had it not been for the uniform and the baseball diamond, one might have thought Chambliss was a running back as he plowed his 6’1″, 195-pound frame through the crowd towards the refuge of the dugout and, in turn, the Yankee clubhouse.

Chambliss came to the Yankees in a 1974 trade—along with Chambliss, the Indians sent Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw in exchange for Fritz Peterson, Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, and Steve Kline.  Not a power hitter, Chambliss was known as a dependable batsman—188 hits, 32 doubles, and 96 RBI in 1976.  With 17 home runs during the season, a dinger was feasible, but a hit off Royals pitcher Mark Little seemed more likely.

Chambliss, in the end, returned to the field under the guard of two police officers.  Alas, home plate vanished in the anarchy, so, to be sure, Chambliss stepped on the area.

Below the fold on the front page of the New York Times, media geography usually used to convey issues of national and of international importance, Murray Chass’s article informed the newspaper’s readers who went to bed before the ninth inning about the latest notch to Yankee Stadium’s greatest moments—a roster including Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech, Babe Ruth’s wistful farewell as he leaned on a bat with his frail body, and Don Larsen’s perfect game.

It was nostalgic, if not appropriate, that Billy Martin helmed the Yankee ball club.  Hired during the 1975 season, Martin had a reputation as a turnaround expert in stints with the Twins, the Tigers, and the Rangers.  But returning to the Bronx had an even sweeter taste for Martin—he played with the gloried Yankee teams of the 1950s, idolized manager Casey Stengel, and suffered a betrayal from Yankee management, specifically, Stengel.  Or so he believed.

When several Yankee players captured headlines with a fight at the Copacabana in New York in 1957, the front office shipped Martin to the Kansas City A’s after the season because of the embarrassment—it happened when Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford and their wives gathered to celebrate the 29th birthday of Martin, who went stag.  “Yanks Bench 2 in Copa Brawl” screamed the front page of the New York Daily News.  Confronting hecklers from a bowling team called the Republicans, the Yankees stepped up when nasty comments tinged with racism emerged from the hecklers aimed at Sammy Davis, Jr., the Copa’s performer, with whom the fellows from the Bronx were acquainted.  One bowler, a deli owner named Edwin Jones, claimed Bauer clocked him.

In his 2015 biography Billy Martin:  Baseball’s Flawed Genius, Bill Pennington wrote, “It was later learned that Casey had protected Billy from the Senators trade and two other trades.  But [Yankee General Manager George] Weiss was not to be dissuaded this time.  Not with this player in these circumstances.  Not when he wanted to send a message to the rest of the team.  Besides, Kubek was already in New York, ready to play shortstop.  For the Yankees’ youth movement in the middle infield to be complete, Richardson had to take over at second base.”

Stengel had not only managed Martin on the Yankees, they also worked together on the Oakland Oaks, a Pacific coast League championship team in 1948.  Returning to Yankee Stadium as a managerial descendant of his mentor may not have completely healed old wounds whose scars remained resonant, but it did give Yankee fans a continuity to the past, Martin a chance for redemption, and players the benefit of their manager’s baseball wisdom honed by Stengel’s tutelage two decades prior.

The Yankees lost the 1976 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a four-game sweep, but rebounded to win the series in 1977 and 1978, both times against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Billy Martin went through several stings as the Yankee skipper, being fired and rehired by owner George Steinbrenner.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 13, 2017.

Baltimore, Frank Robinson, and the Year of the Orioles

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

It was the best of baseball.  It was the worst of baseball.

On the 9th day of the 10th month of the 66th year of the 20th century, it ended—the subject being the World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Baltimore emerged as champions, triggering elation throughout the metropolis named for Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore—the first Proprietor and Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland.  It was not supposed to happen.  At lest it was not supposed to happen the way it did, with the Orioles blanking the vaunted Dodgers squad for a 4-0 sweep—three games were shutouts:

  • Game 1:  5-2
  • Game 2:  6-0
  • Game 3:  1-0
  • Game 4:  1-0

In turn, the Orioles elevated their status in Baltimore’s sports hierarchy.  “This season’s feats of the Orioles, who leaped from crisis to crisis and still won the pennant, and who brought the exciting Frank Robinson to the city as a counter attraction to the demigod Johnny Unitas, balanced the ledger more than a bit.  The Colts may not have lost their eminence, but the city’s fans and newspapers have learned that there is another team in town,” wrote Shirley Povich, whose words in the Washington Post started the day for sports fans in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Ushered to Baltimore in a trade with Cincinnati after the 1965 season, Robinson swatted his way through American League pitching in his first year as an Oriole:

Led Major Leagues

  • Runs Scored (122)
  • Home Runs (49)
  • Slugging Percentage (.637)
  • On-Base + Slugging Percentage (1.047)
  • Total Bases (367)

Led American League

  • RBI (122)
  • Batting Average (.316)
  • On-Base Percentage (.410)
  • Sacrifice Flies (7)

Robinson won the American League Most Valuable Player Award and the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.  It was a vindication, of sorts.  “I wanted to have a good year especially to show the people in the front office there [in Cincinnati] that I wasn’t washed up, and I wanted to show them by having a good year,” said Robinson in an Associated Press article published in the Baltimore Sun on October 10th.

“And I wanted to show the people, the officials, the city of Baltimore they were getting a guy who still could play baseball.”

For the Dodgers, blaming and shaming arrived with gusto.  Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, for example, lobbed verbal grenades spiked with sarcasm, as was his wont.  Murray’s piece titled “The Dodger Story:  A Classic Case of Ineptitude” brought forth a wheelbarrow full of bon mots.

On the Dodgers’ hitting woes:  “Their batting average cannot be seen with the naked eye or figured under the decimal system.  Guys who weigh that little get to ride horse races.”

On Don Drysdale:  “He deserved better, but the Dodgers’ invisible attack, the worst exercise in offensive futility since Mussolini’s invasion of Greece, left him like a guy who thinks his whole platoon is crawling through the brush with him until he whispers and gets no answer back.  The Dodger ‘attack’ would have to be twice as loud to be dignified as ‘whispering.’  They hit the ball as if it was a cantaloupe.”

On the Dodgers’ post-season Japan trip:  “They are now taking the act to Japan where, when the Japanese get a load of them, they may want to reopen World War II.”

Stocked with blue chips nearly as strong as the Dow 30, the Dodgers suffered a downturn that was unavoidable, arguably—Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Tommy Davis, Ron Fairly, Maury Wills, Wes Parker et al. faced an opponent that needed to be quashed before taking on the O’s.  In his 2006 book Black and Blue:  Sandy Koufax, the Robinson Boys, and the World Series That Stunned America, Tom Adelman posited that exhaustion—or something close to it—affected the Dodgers after a merciless pennant race.  “Unlike the Orioles, they’d [sic] had no chance to adjust to the idea of a post-season contest—to catch their breath, raise their sights, and ready themselves for a fight,” wrote Adelman, who interviewed several players from both squads.  Ron Fairly, among others, confirmed the toll created by the quick turnaround from the end of the season to the beginning of the World Series.

That is not to take anything away from the Orioles, managed by Hank Bauer, who knew a thing or two thousand about winning—he played for the Yankees during the Mantle era, which saw World Series titles in:

  • 1949
  • 1950
  • 1951
  • 1952
  • 1953
  • 1956
  • 1958

American League pennant flew unaccompanied in the Bronx in 1955 and 1957.

Bauer won the Associated Press Manager of the Year Award and the Sporting News Manager of the Year Award in 1966.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 23, 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 the Dodgers Had Stayed in Brooklyn?

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

What if the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn?  Further, what if migration in the modern era had never taken place, thereby forcing expansion in Kansas City, San Francisco, and other MLB cities.

My paradigm assumes the following:

  • Tampa, Toronto, Arizona, and Montreal do not have teams
  • A’s, Braves, Browns, Dodgers, and Senators stay in their original locations
  • The Giants move to Minneapolis after the 1957 season.
  • Team names reflect the location’s history and lore
    • Grizzly Bears:  California’s state animal
    • Conquistadors:  Group claiming Oakland for Spain’s king in the 1770s
    • Loggers:  Washington state’s rich logging history
    • Gold:  Northern California’s gold rush in the mid-19th century
    • Mountaineers:  Georgia’s magnificent mountains
    • Astronauts:  Houston’s fame as the home of NASA
    • Express:  Colorado’s key role in America’s railroad history

Expansion teams have their inaugural years in parentheses.

1961-1965

American League

Boston Red Sox
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
St. Louis Browns
San Francisco Gold (1961)
Washington Senators

National League

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
Minnesota Giants
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals

1966-1975

American League East

Baltimore Orioles (1966)
Boston Red Sox
Cleveland Indians
Georgia Mountaineers (1966)
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
Washington Senators

American League West

Chicago White Sox
Detroit Tigers
Kansas City Royals (1966)
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
San Francisco Gold (1961)
St. Louis Browns
Texas Rangers (1966)

National League East

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Cincinnati Reds
Denver Express (1966)
Houston Astronauts (1966)
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates

National League West

Chicago Cubs
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
Minnesota Giants
St. Louis Cardinals
San Diego Padres (1966)
Seattle Loggers (1966)

1976-Present

American League East

Baltimore Orioles (1966)
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
Washington Senators

American League Central

Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Georgia Mountaineers (1966)
St. Louis Browns

American League West

Kansas City Royals (1966)
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
Oakland Conquistadors (1976)
San Francisco Gold (1961)
Texas Rangers (1976)

National League East

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Miami Marlins (1976)
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates

National League Central

Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astronauts (1966)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
St. Louis Cardinals

National League West

Denver Express (1966)
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Minnesota Giants
San Diego Padres (1966)
Seattle Loggers (1966)

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 14, 2016.

Ed Walsh, the White Sox, and Comiskey Park’s First Game

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

Chicago welcomed an addition to its iconography on July 1, 1910.  Comiskey Park, that structure serving as a second home for baseball fans on the Windy City’s south side, débuted in an era of new stadia—Fenway Park in 1912, Ebbets Field in 1913, Weeghman Park (later rechristened Wrigley Field) in 1914.

It was about time that White Sox fans received a reward for their dedication to the team, according to I. E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune.  “For years the loyal rooters who have done so much to make this the greatest baseball city in the world have contented themselves as uncomplainingly as they could with accommodations inadequate to their needs while watching the fans of other and smaller cities rewarded, with far less reason, by modern steel and concrete edifices, each designed to surpass all its predecessors,” wrote Sanborn.

The White Sox opened this epoch of its history with a 2-0 loss to the St. Louis Browns.  Sanborn estimated the crowd at 28,000.

Comiskey Park saw one World Series champion team—the White Sox beat the Giants in 1917.  There were two other opportunities:  1919 and 1959.  The former, of course, has an ominous aura because of the “Black Sox” scandal that resulted in eight players being kicked out of baseball with the force of a sonic boom, otherwise known as Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s newly minted commissioner and a former federal judge.

Accused of purposed losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for payoffs from gamblers, the eight players were acquitted in court.  Landis argued that the integrity of the game superseded the legal process result.

In 1959, the “Go Go Sox” compiled a 94-60 record to stand atop the American League.  The Dodgers defeated the White Sox in six games; it was the National League champions’ second year in Los Angeles.

What began in 1910 lasted 80 years—Comiskey Park finished its service as the home of the White Sox in 1990.  It was demolished the next year, which saw U.S. Cellular Filed become the team’s new site.

Ed Walsh got the loss for Comiskey Park’s opener, went 18-20 for the season, and led the American League in losses.  His career statistics earned him a place in White Sox lore:

  • 1.82 Earned Run Average
  • Led American League in Earned Run Average
    • 1.60 in 1907
    • 1.27 in 1910 (led major leagues)
  • Led major leagues in wins
    • 40-15 in 1908
  • Led major leagues in games started
    • 46 in 1907
    • 49 in 1908
    • 41 in 1912
  • Led major leagues in complete games
    • 37 in 1907
    • 42 in 1908
  • Led American League in shutouts
    • 10 in 1906 (led major leagues)
    • 11 in 1908 (led major leagues)
    • 8 in 1909
  • Led American League in strikeouts
    • 269 in 1908
    • 255 in 1911
  • 195-126 career win-loss record

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Walsh in 1946.

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

The Year the Yankees Won the Tonys

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

In 1956, Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series, and Whitey Ford led the major leagues in Earned Run Average.  It was also the year of another World Series championship for the Bronx Bombers, further emphasizing the team’s dominance in the 20-year period after World War II.

The Yankees represented a source of drama beyond ballparks in 1956—Damn Yankees, based on Douglas Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, got a plethora of recognition in the form of Tony Awards for:

  • Best Musical
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Ray Walston)
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Gwen Verdon)
  • Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Russ Brown)
  • Best Conductor and Musical Director (Hal Hastings)
  • Best Choreography (Bob Fosse)
  • Best Stage Technician (Harry Green)

Damn Yankees also got a nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Rae Allen).

Ray Walston played the Devil, also known as Applegate, in Damn Yankees. Convincing a hapless Washington Senators fan to sell his soul for the chance to lead the Senators to baseball glory made Applegate an epic character in popular culture.  “Mr. Walston was satanic with a wry twist, underplaying a role that could have become villainous and singing wistfully about death and destruction in ‘Those Were the Good Old Days,'” wrote Mel Gussow in his 2001 obituary of Walston for the New York Times.  Lewis Funke praised Walston in his analysis of Damn Yankees when the show débuted in 1955:  “Authoritative and persuasive, he does not overdo a role that easily could become irritating in less expert hands.”

Gwen Verdon was a theater touchstone, winning four Tony Awards in her career.  Married to legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, Vernon had abundant work as a guest star on television, including roles on WebsterGimme a Break!M*A*S*HFameDream OnThe Equalizer, and Touched by an Angel.  Verdon’s body of work in movies includes The Cotton Club and Cocoon.

Los Angeles Times Theater Writer Don Shirley quoted Times dance critic Lewis Segal in his 2000 obituary of the dancer:  “Verdon was to Broadway dance what Ethel Merman was to Broadway song; an archetypal personality whose talents inspired the best from those who created works for her.  More than anyone, Fosse continually mined her saucy yet vulnerable stage persona for new facets, using her as a living anthology of show-dance style.”

Shirley wrote, “Her dancing was characterized by her ability to make the most intricate technical choreography look spontaneous and almost carefree.”

Walston and Vernon reprised their roles for the 1958 movie version of Damn Yankees.  Tab Hunter took on the role of Joe Hardy, a standout with the Senators, thanks to the machinations of Applegate.  Stephen Douglass played the role on Broadway.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 18, 2016.

The Début of Gilmore Field

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Boosted by cheers from Hollywood stars supporting the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, Gilmore Field débuted as a ballpark on May 3, 1939.  Among the famous fans:  Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, and Rudy Vallee.  “Glamour was furnished in the person of beautiful Gail Patrick, star of the cinema and wife of Bob Cobb, the restaurateur, and one of the sponsors of the home team,” reported Read Kendall in the Los Angeles Times.  Garbed in a red and white sports outfit, her black hair flowing from  beneath a red baseball cap, Miss Patrick threw the first ball.  “Comedian Joe E. Brown essayed to catch it and Jane Withers, juvenile screen actress, did her best to try and hit it.  But the pitches were wild and their stint was finally halted to allow the game to get under way after all the ceremonies had been completed.”

The Seattle Rainiers beat the home team 8-5.  Seattle hurler got pounded for 14 hits, but the Stars couldn’t overcome the deficit, although a ninth inning rally provided a glimmer of hope.  Down 8-3, the Stars scored two runs and had the bases loaded with two outs when left fielder George Puccinelli flied out to Seattle centerfielder Bill Lawrence.

Babe Herman—in the waning years of a career that saw stints with the Dodgers, the Reds, the Cubs, the Pirates, and the Tigers—batted .317 in ’39, which was his first of six seasons with the Stars.  His batting average stayed above .300 in each season.  Herman’s performance in Gilmore Field’s first game was not indicative—he went 0 for 5.  Ernie Orsatti, in his last season of playing professional baseball, knocked out a hit and scored a run when he pinch hit for pitcher Jimmie Crandall in the major leagues—all with the Cardinals—and five seasons in the minor leagues.  A native of Los Angeles, Orsatti finished his career after the ’39 season:  he also played for the Columbus Red Birds that year.  Orsatti’s career batting average was .306.

Wayne Osborne, Bill Fleming, and Lou Tost took the mound for the Stars.  Osborne got the recorded loss.  Their battery mate, Cliff Dapper, was the only .300 hitter for the Stars in ’39.  He did not, however, play in the Stars’ first game at Gilmore Field.

1939 was the second season for the Stars, a team previously known as the San Francisco Missions, the only Pacific Coast League team without its own ballpark.  While owner Herbert Fleishhacker transported the team to the environs of southern California, his newly hired team president, Don Francisco, sought Gilmore Field as the site for planting the Stars’ flag.

“Plans were announced to convert Gilmore Stadium, owned by oilman Earl Gilmore and used primarily for football and midget car racing, into a home for the team, which had been rechristened the Stars,” wrote Dennis Snelling in his 2012 book The Greatest Minor League:  A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957.  “However, as spring training approached, Don Francisco deemed it woefully inadequate.”

Hence, Francisco struck a deal with the Los Angeles Angels to use Wrigley Field for 1938, which also saw the unveiling of the Rainiers’ home field, Sick Stadium, named after owner Emil Sick.

Gilmore Field was demolished in 1951.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 11, 2016.

Kyle Chandler, Kelly Rutherford, and “Homefront”

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

Before he received tomorrow’s newspaper today in Early Edition, before he coached the Dillon Panthers in Friday Night Lights, and before working for the Monroe County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office in Bloodline, Kyle Chandler portrayed the All-American archetype Jeff Metcalf from the fictional River Run, Ohio on Homefront.

Airing on ABC from 1991 to 1993, Homefront boasted an ensemble cast portraying life in a Midwestern town after World War II.  It harkened back to the 1946 movie The Best Years of Our Lives, which revolved around soldiers returning from World War II to their fictional hometown, also in Ohio—Boone City.

Jeff played for the Cleveland Indians.  During 1946 spring training, he meets the older and wiser Judy Owen, a bartender played by the lovely Kelly Rutherford, who has aged about 25 minutes in the 25 years since Homefront premiered; Rutherford’s body of work on television includes Melrose PlaceThe DistrictThreat MatrixGossip GirlNash BridgesThe Mysteries of Laura, and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.

Rutherford’s worldly Judy and Chandler’s naïve Jeff, whom she nicknames Buckeye, after his home state, have a passionate connection.  Though it’s not consummated, the arc toward fulfillment is clear as a sunny day at Jacobs Field when she says, “I said I had to lock up.  I didn’t necessarily mean lock up after you’re gone.”

It threatens Jeff’s relationship with his fiancée, Ginger, a budding radio star—she discovers them in Jeff’s room, albeit fully clothed.  Ultimately, Jeff and Ginger wind up with each other, a knee injury forces Jeff out of baseball, and Judy moves to River Run, where she has an affair with the wealthy Mike Sloan, who is roughly a generation older.  Jeff rebounds from the knee problem to earn a place in the Indians’ minor league system.

Homefront aired for two seasons, depicting the life and times of the folks from River Run in the years 1945 to 1947.  This, of course, leads to question marks hovering over Jeff’s character:  Would he have played on the Indians’ World Series championship team in 1948?  How would Larry Doby, who made his début as the first black player in the American League, have affected—or ignited—Jeff’s view of racism?  How would River Run be affected by the introduction of television as a mass medium, thanks to Texaco Star Theatre premiering in 1948, with Master of Ceremonies Milton Berle as the first television star?

Rutherford symbolizes a throwback to the decade when Humphrey Bogart played a casino owner in Casablanca, Spencer Tracy played a fictional presidential candidate in State of the Union, and Fred MacMurray’s insurance agent conspired with Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale to kill her husband for money in his life insurance police in Double Indemnity.  Movies from that era appeal to Rutherford.  “Every once in a while, I need to have my fix,” said Rutherford in an interview with Susan King of the Los Angeles Times in 1994.  “I think it’s mainly when I need inspiration I look at the old pictures.  I don’t find it as much in the new stuff.  I love Carole Lombard.  I think she’s wonderful.  Gloria Grahame was really great.  Garbo.  Dietrich.  People knew how to create an illusion.  Now everything is very realistic and straightforward.  Everyone’s grunge.”

Chandler, too, enjoys an affinity for the classics.  In a 1993 article for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Chandler told Enquirer scribe John Kiesewetter about growing up outside Atlanta on a family farm, where Ted Turner’s television station WTBS aired the work of Bogart et al.  “Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable—there was a whole world there from the ’40s that I grew up watching.  It opened up that world to play with inside my head, and it was one of the main things that made me interested in acting.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 6, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Gene Autry

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Gene Autry wore many hats, proverbially speaking, besides the cowboy dome piece in his movies:

  • Owner of Los Angeles television station KTLA from 1963 to 1982
  • Original singer of the Christmas standard Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Army Air Corps officer and Air Transport Command pilot during World War II
  • Owner of Melody Ranch, a 110-acre site formerly known as Monogram Movie Ranch (bought in 1953, sold nearly 100 acres and used the remaining land for Western movies and television series)
  • Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show
  • The Adventures of Champion radio show (about Autry’s horse Champion)
  • Radio stations
  • Television stations, in addition to KTLA
  • Rodeo
  • Record company

Baseball fans, however, knew Autry primarily as the man who planted a Major League Baseball flag in Orange County, California; Autry, once a part-owner of the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, was the first owner of the California Angels ball club—originally named Los Angeles Angels—which had its first season in 1961.

Autry’s journey to ownership began, as financial successes often do, in the wake of disappointment.  When the Los Angeles Dodgers switched radio broadcasters from Autry’s KMPC to rival KFI in 1959, an opportunity emerged.  A new American League franchise in Los Angeles would be a ripe opportunity for KMPC, particularly because of its sports broadcasting pedigree.  A former ballplayer raised the ante.  “Joe Cronin had known Autry since Gene’s barnstorming rodeo days over two decades earlier.  Cronin, now president of baseball’s American League, wondered if Autry was ready to tame the Wild Wild West’s newest franchise in L.A.,” wrote Robert Goldman in the 2006 book Once They Were Angels.  “Autry jumped at the opportunity.  It was a perfect fit, as not only did Autry love baseball, but he also had an impeccable reputation as a businessman and a person of integrity.”

And so, the mogul who grew up dirt poor in Oklahoma pioneered American League baseball on the West Coast.

And yet, the icon born Orvon Grover Autry is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Autry’s tenure as the Angels’ owner spanned decades, from the last days of the Eisenhower presidency to the first days of the Internet becoming a mainstream tool for information.  When Autry sold the Angels in 1996, he left a legacy difficult to match and easy to applaud.  His length of time made him a baseball fixture.  His integrity made him a model of comportment for businessmen.

Tom Yawkey is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so—he spearheaded the renovation of Fenway Park in the 1920s.

Walter O’Malley is in the Hall of Fame, which causes havoc in the hearts of Brooklynites, who see O’Malley as a betrayer for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles.  His transit to Los Angeles after the 1957 season paved the way for Autry and other owners to establish teams west of St. Louis, theretofore the westernmost metropolis with a Major League Baseball team.

Barney Dreyfuss is in the Hall of Fame, a membership for the former Pirates owner resulting from many achievements, including being a proponent of the World Series; the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates played in the first World Series in 1903.

Gene Autry is not in the Hall of Fame, despite his steadfast ownership.

Devotion to the fans stands out.  Not content to simply have a financial ledger in the black.  Autry poured “his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion.  He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died,” wrote Myrna Oliver of the Los Angeles Times in Autry’s 1998 obituary.

In 1982, the Angels retired 26 as Autry’s number to reflect being the “26th Man” on the roster, which has a limit of 25 players.  It was a sign of respect that Autry also earned from owners, fans, stadium workers, players, and baseball executives across Major League Baseball.  Such is Autry’s emotional connection to Angel Nation that the phrase “Win One for the Cowboy” resonates from Angel Stadium to Aliso Viejo, from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano.

Cooperstown awaits.  Patiently.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 29, 2016.