Posts Tagged ‘Lou Gehrig’

Age Is Just a Number: Luke Appling and the 1982 Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

It was a moment of nostalgia, surprise, and joy.  More than 30 years after hanging up his spikes, Luke Appling went yard at the age of 75 in the 1982 Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Far from a power hitter, Luke Appling bashed 45 home runs in his career, which was one of, as Wee Willie Keeler said, hitting them where they ain’t.  Appling fell shy of the magic mark of 3,000 hits, ending his career with 2,749 hits, including:

  • 440 doubles
  • 102 triples

He played his entire career in a White Sox uniform—1930 to 1950.

The Cracker Jack game was a shot of adrenaline to baseball fans suffering the psychic wounds created by the previous year’s strike, which shortened the 1981 baseball season.  Appling’s home run off Warren Spahn washed away, if only for a jiffy, the festering stench of despair felt across the fan spectrum, from Tee-ball players first learning the basics to senior citizens reminiscing about ballparks that no longer exist.

Appling was the oldest player in the Cracker Jack game, which ended with the American League beating the National League 7-2.

Nearly 30,000 fans poured into RFK on July 19, 1982 to watch baseball’s heroes of days gone by.  Though the ex-players wore the uniforms so familiar to baseball fans, their appearances showed the slights of age.  A little grayer.  A touch heavier.  A bit slower.  None of that mattered.  Old Timers games are affairs of the heart.  Baseball is, after all, a sentimental game, at once wistful and exciting.

Appling’s homer punctuated the pleasure at seeing a game where icons, though far from their prime, can recapture the feeling that anything is possible.

Bobby Thomson proved it when he knocked a Ralph Branch pitch over the left field fence at the Polo Grounds to win the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants.

The 1969 Mets proved it when they beat the favored Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series.

Cal Ripken, Jr. proved it when he broke Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played.

A .310 career hitter, Appling suffered injuries that came faster than a street hustler moving the cards in Three Card Monte.  “Old Aches and Pains” became his moniker.  Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964, Appling’s career achievements were:

  • 528 strikeouts
  • 1,302 walks
  • .399 On-base percentage
  • Led major leagues with a .388 batting average in 1936 (Lou Gehrig eclipsed Appling in the voting for the American League Most Valuable Player Award)
  • Led American League with a .328 batting average and a .419 On-base percentage in 1943

On the morning of the Cracker Jack game, in a harbinger of the home run, an Appling quote appeared in Denis Collins’s article “Old Timers:  Memories Are as Strong as Ever” for the Washington Post:  “I can still slap the ball around here and there.”

Indeed.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 20, 2016.

Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame Game: 19th Century vs. Yankees

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

In a Strat-O-Matic matchup between 19th century and Yankee ballplayers, the latter emerged with a victory blessed by power—the Yankees smacked four home runs against John Clarkson and the 19th century squad in their 7-1 win.  Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle went yard back-to-back with solo home runs in the sixth inning; the other round trippers came off the bats of Joe Gordon and Yogi Berra.

To qualify for the teams, a player had to play at least five years for each classification—in the 19th century or with the Yankees.  The lineups were:

Yankees

  • Phil Rizzuto, Shortstop
  • Joe Gordon, Second Base
  • Lou Gehrig, First Base
  • Babe Ruth, Left Field
  • Mickey Mantle, Center Field
  • Reggie Jackson, Right Field
  • Wade Boggs, Third Base
  • Yogi Berra, Catcher
  • Jack Chesbro, Pitcher

19th Century

  • Bid McPhee, Second Base
  • Ed Delahanty, Left Field
  • Buck Ewing, Catcher
  • Hugh Duffy, Center Field
  • Dan Brothers, First Base
  • Hughie Jennings, Shortstop
  • King Kelly, Right Field
  • Jimmy Collins, Third Base
  • John Clarkson, Pitcher

Bid McPhee scored the only run for the 19th century players when Ed Delahanty doubled him home in the eighth inning.  McPhee’s Hall of Fame plaque notes career statistics:

  • .982 fielding average
  • 2,250 hits
  • Scored at least 100 runs 10 times.

Also highlighted are McPhee’s intangible qualities:  “Known for his sober disposition and exemplary sportsmanship.”

Clarkson notched five strikeouts of the Yankees:

  • Lou Gehrig (twice)
  • Jack Chesbro (twice)
  • Reggie Jackson (once)

A masterful hurler, Clarkson compiled a 328-178 win-loss record in his 19th century major league career.  In 1885 and 1889, he led the major leagues in victories with 53 and 49, respectively; Clarkson notched 38 victories to lead the American League in 1887.

Gordon went 2-for-5 on the day, his other hit being a single in the ninth inning.  In an 11-year career, Gordon made the American League All-Star team nine times.

Chesbro limited the 19th century batsmen to six hits.  Beginning his career with the Pirates in 1899, Chesbro spent four seasons in Pittsburgh before emigrating to the Yankees.  In 1904, he led the majors with 41 victories.  Finishing his career after the 1909 season, Chesbro’s career 198-132 win-loss record amounted to a winning percentage of .600.

King Kelly, a threat at home plate even if he were blindfolded, played for the Reds, the Cubs, the Beaneaters, and the Giants, in addition to the Boston Reds in the Players League’s only season—1890—and Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers the following year.  Kelly’s career spanned from 1878 to 1893.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1945, Kelly’s career statistics include:

  • .308 batting average
  • 359 doubles
  • 418 strikeouts
  • 6,455 plate appearances

Reggie Jackson played for four teams in his Hall of Fame career:

  • A’s
  • Orioles
  • Yankees
  • Angels

During his five-year tenure with the Yankees, he played in three World Series, won two rings, and solidified a place in Yankee iconography when he smacked three home runs in one game in the 1977 World Series.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 16, 2016.

10 Things I Love About Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Friday, April 14th, 2017

It is the birthplace of The Star-Spangled Banner, the resting place of Edgar Allen Poe, and the place where a stadium constructed during the nostalgia-soaked 1980s defines the paradigm for retro ballparks.

Baltimore.

Petco Park, PNC Park, and several others, indeed, have Oriole Park at Camden Yards in their DNA.  It began the erasure of the circular goliaths built in the 1960s for multiple sports, changing the game of ballpark architecture for urban planners, government officials, and fans.  Shea Stadium hosted the Jets and the Mets.  Going to the “Vet” for a sports fan meant either a Phillies game or an Eagles game.  Memorial Stadium gave Baltimore a home for the Orioles and the Colts.

Oriole Park ushered in a back to the future approach to creating a space where baseball can flourish.

  1. The statues of Oriole icons are amazingly detailed.  When observing Jim Palmer’s left leg extended just before releasing the ball, you almost think the statue will come to life.  Brooks Robinson stands in a slight crouch, waiting for a line drive or ground ball.  Earl Weaver, hands in back pockets, appears ready for another argument with an umpire.
  2. The Baltimore Sun has an electric sign past center field with its shortened name—The Sun.  When there’s a hit, the “h” flashes.  An error prompts the “e” to flash.
  3. Baseball-themed plaques dot Eutaw Street outside the outfield perimeter, marking the spots where balls have landed.  One plaque sits on the exterior of a restaurant—Ken Griffey, Jr. knocked that dinger during Home Run Derby of the 1993 All-Star Game.
  4. A statue of Babe Ruth stands outside an entrance, reminding entrants that, while the Bambino found pitching success in Boston and earned legend status with home runs in New York, he is a Baltimorean.
  5. Cal Ripken, Jr. made baseball history at Oriole Park in 1995, when he eclipsed Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games.
  6. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass at Oriole Park when he visited Baltimore on his 1995 trip.  The NBC television show Homicide features Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher, watching the Pope’s visit on television.
  7. On April 6, 1992, President George H. W. Bush threw out the first pitch for the first game at Oriole Park.  It was a fitting moment for the former first baseman for Yale.
  8. Baltimore’s rich train legacy permeates the ballpark.  Beyond right field, the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Warehouse stands as a testament to the city’s transportation past, occupied present by team offices.  Camden Yards is the site of the B&O’s rail yard in days of yore.
  9. DaveThe West Wing, and The Wire contain scenes at Oriole Park—the first two offerings focus on fictional presidents throwing out the first ball.  In an episode of House of Cards, the fictional vice president, Frank Underwood throws out the first ball; Kevin Spacey, an Orioles fan, plays the devious Underwood in the series.
  10. Baltimore’s communal feeling surrounds Oriole Park.  Its aura is one of friendliness.  Its history, one of the richest in baseball.  Major League Baseball planted a flag in Baltimore when the St. Louis Browns moved after the 1953 season, but it was not the first MLB team for the city.  Dating back to 1882, Baltimore had a major league presence.  When a game takes place at Oriole Park, it continues a legacy ignited by John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, and Wee Willie Keeler; bolstered by Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Jim Palmer; and cemented by Cal Ripken, Jr., Eddie Murray, and Earl Weaver.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 25, 2016.

 

The Death of Lou Gehrig

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.  So said a fictional version of Babe Ruth in the 1993 film The Sandlot.

Lou Gehrig, undoubtedly, belongs in the latter category.  Stricken by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the Yankee slugger died on June 2, 1941 at the age of 37.  His was a story reminiscent of A.E. Housman’s poem To An Athlete Dying Young.

An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune stated, “Facing with a simple courage the appalling disease which was to kill him, he made, in the final years of his life, one of the best parole commissioners New York Has had.  He had a knack for the friendly kindness which such a task requires.”

Associated Press’s obituary described Gehrig as “a big, handsome dimple-cheeked fellow who always looked the picture of health.  He stood 6-feet-1 inch and weighed 205 pounds.  Playing every game became a fetish with him and because of this, or because of his naturally careful habit, he trained more faithfully than almost any other player in the major leagues.”

Gehrig contrasted teammate Ruth, he of the gargantuan appetite for life’s sensual pleasures.  In his 2012 book Pinstripe Empire:  The New York Yankees From Before the Babe To After the Boss, Marty Appel wrote, “He was Ruth without drama, Ruth without nightlife, Ruth without scandal.  He lived with his parents.  He said things like ‘swell’ and ‘gosh.’  He had muscles to spare when players did no weight training and tended to be lean and lithe.  He could read and write in German.  Lou Gehrig would become the idol of every boy who loved baseball for his quiet presence, clean standards, and heroic deeds.  He was polite and humble.  He would park his car three blocks from Yankee Stadium to avoid notice.”

Although Gehrig played a handful of games in 1923 and 1924, he began his trek toward legend status on June 1, 1925, when he played in the first of 2,130 consecutive games, which earned him the nickname “Iron Man.”  It was an era of Yankee dominance; during Gehrig’s career, the Bronx Bombers racked up seven American League titles and six World Series championships.

Gehrig’s output earmarked the Yankee lineup as fearsome—.340 career batting average, leading the major leagues in RBI four times, and 23 grand slams.  And that’s just a sample of the thunder that Gehrig created with his bat.  In 1995, Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Gehrig’s streak record.  Alex Rodriguez has surpassed Gehrig in grand slams.

On July 4, 1939, the Yankees hosted Lou Gehrig Day.  It is best remembered, perhaps, for Gehrig declaring that he’s the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

In a 2003 article for mlb.com, Mark Newman opined about Gehrig’s statistics if ALS hadn’t struck him.  “Conservatively speaking, it would have been reasonable to project another 500 hits, 350 runs, 90 doubles, 30 triples, 100 homers, 350 RBIs and 300 walks in those three years,” wrote Newman.  “He would have passed Ty Cobb as the all-time leader in runs scored.  He would have been around the 600-homer mark.  He would be the all-time leader in RBIs, not Hank Aaron.”

Gehrig’s death prompted the nickname “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” for ALS.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 2, 2016.

Monty Stratton, Jimmy Stewart, and Hollywood

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

When The Stratton Story premiered in 1949, movie audiences without even a tangential interest in baseball became engrossed in the story of a champion whose determination serves as a model of courage.  Monty Stratton played a key role on the pitching staff of the Chicago White Sox during his brief major league career in the 1930s, but win-loss records cannot measure his contribution to baseball.  After a hunting accident led to a leg amputation, Stratton emerged from physical, emotional, and mental horrors; it was a stunning comeback.

On November 27, 1938, Stratton injured himself while hunting for rabbits on his mother’s farm, close to Greenville, Texas.  Associated Press reported that Stratton’s pistol discharged accidentally, sending a bullet into his right leg.  It severed an artery, necessitating the amputation.  Consequently, the White Sox organization presented an opportunity for lifetime employment.  Team President J. Louis Comiskey said, “Monty as a job with us as long as he wants it.  He was a fine pitcher and is a finer man.  Baseball can’t afford to lose him.”  A benefit Cubs-White Sox game raised money for the Stratton family.

Already familiar with teary subject matter in a baseball setting from directing the Lou Gehrig biopic Pride of the Yankees, Sam Wood helmed The Stratton Story.  Starring Jimmy Stewart in the title role and June Allyson as Stratton’s wife, Ethel, the movie received acclaim for its portrayal of Monty Stratton’s seemingly impossible rebound to the baseball diamond after the accident deflates his spirit, dimming a once shining career to darkness.  Stratton’s promise evidences early in the movie, when baseball scout Barney Wile tells Stratton’s mother, “He can transform a baseball into a streak of gray lightning and curve it in like it was weaving through traffic.”  Frank Morgan played Wile and Agnes Moorehead played Mrs. Stratton.

AP’s April 15, 1939 story “Stratton, Coach, Is Hopeful of Pitching Again” cited the hurler’s insistence on returning to baseball.  “It will take time, because I’ve got to learn pitching from the mound all over again,” declared Stratton, who reached his goal in 1946 with an 18-8 record with the Sherman Twins.  He played in the minor leagues sporadically between 1947 and 1950, never in more than four games each season.  Appropriately, his last team was the Greenville Majors.

The Stratton Story hit movie theaters during Monty Stratton’s comeback, making it current in addition to poignant.  With the All-American Stewart and Allyson in the starring roles, the movie generated mainstream appeal for filmgoers neither knowledgeable about nor interested in the National Pastime.  It is, after all, a story based on overcoming adversity, a universal plight.  Therefore, it is a familiar story, even if baseball specifics are mysterious to the audience.

Los Angeles Times sports columnist Braves Dyer praised, “Jimmy Stewart, as always, does a superb job and actually looks and acts like a baseball player, which he isn’t.”  In the New York Herald Tribune, Howard Barnes’s review of Stewart paralleled Dyer’s.  “Thanks to his engaging and artful performance, a sentimental and inspirational screen biography has more than a little power,” wrote Barnes.

In the Washington Post, movie critic Richard L. Coe addressed the story’s emotional impact:  “Jimmy Stewart plays him with his adroitly winning style, and you’ll admire the way both writers and Director Sam Wood have managed the sentiment without wallowing in it.”  Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper similarly lauded the direction:  “Sam Wood steered it away from the saccharine morass into which it could have fallen.”

Legendary sports writer Red Smith opined, “As viewed by a sentimentalist who can still weep over practically any page of ‘Little Women,’ it is a solid tear-jerker effectively performed by James Stewart and June Allyson, which commits no outrages when it deals with technical baseball.”  Barnes agreed regarding the representation of baseball details.  “Since the script by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper has some good pungent talk of the kind that might be expected from big leaguers, and Sam Wood’s direction is resourceful, the work should appeal to payment as well as ardent baseball fans,” wrote Barnes.

Stratton approved of Stewart’s portrayal.  In a “Special to the Herald Tribune,” Stratton recounted, “He was our first choice—my wife’s and mine—when we first heard about the picture.  But we really didn’t expect Hollywood to see it the same as us.”

To research Stratton’s amazing tale, Douglas Morrow, co-writer of the screenplay, ventured to Greenville, Texas.  In a scene reflecting a real-life incident, Stratton practices pitching with Ethel.  “Slowly, imperceptibly, he was developing a pitching technique,” wrote Morrow in “Standing On Top Of The World,” an article in the June 12, 1949 edition of the Los Angeles Times.  “So gradual was it that neither Monty nor Ethel realized that he had regained much of his former speed.  That is, not until he whipped a fast ball through one day that boomed into Ethel’s mitt and bowled her back on her seat.  With swollen hands and a bruised rear end.  Ethel beat a strategic retreat and Monty began pitching against the barn wall with his four-year-old son, Monty Jr., and his dog, Happy, retrieving the balls.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 2, 2015.

The Black Sox: Fact vs. Fiction

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out provided the source material for the eponymous 1988 movie written and directed by John Sayles, who also played sportswriter Ring Lardner.  Starring Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Bill Irwin, Gordon Clapp, Clifton James, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Tighe, David Strathairn, and John Mahoney, Eight Men Out revived the debate about the involvement of eight White Sox players in fixing the 1919 World Series as part of a conspiracy engineered by gangsters.  Scandalized, the players suffer eternal banishment from Major League Baseball, thanks to a 1920 ruling by the newly installed baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Jim Murray, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, clarified the undercurrent of Eight Men Out.  “They say baseball pictures don’t make it at the box office,” wrote Murray.  “Well, this isn’t about baseball.  It’s about greed and ignorance and betrayal.  The Lou Gehrig story, it ain’t.  The actors are wearing baseball uniforms, but they could be wearing Roman togas.  Their story is universal, timeless.  It’s as old as Adam and Eve.  It’s an immorality play.  Man loses to temptation—again.”

Praising the aura in Eight Men OutChicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Sherman wrote, “With the exception of a few lapses into Hollywood sappiness, director/writer John Sayles does a nice job of sticking to the facts as recorded in Asinof’s book,”  He added, “Sayles captures the tension and ambivalence of the eight players as the conspiracy grew and was revealed.”

Sherman also commended ex-White Sox outfielder Ken Berry, the film’s technical adviser, for accuracy in the game scenes.  Citing Sayles’s need for “perfection,” Berry recalled a scene for Sherman involving Charlie Sheen, who played centerfielder Happy Felsch, one of the infamous eight players.  “We had a play where Charlie had to make a throw to the plate, and the runner was out, but the umpire called him safe,” Berry said.  “It was a bang-bang play.  We did 10 takes, and Charlie’s arm was about to fall off.  But on the 10th take, Charlie made the perfect throw.  That’s the way John wanted it.  He went out of his way to portray the game as it was.”

D.B. Sweeney strove for authenticity in his portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and, perhaps, the most vilified of the “Black Sox” of 1919.  Training with the Minnesota Twins’ farm team in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sweeney greatly improved his baseball skills.  In a 1988 feature article about Sweeney in the New York Times, George Vecsey detailed the actor’s journey in playing Jackson.  Quoting Sweeney, Vecsey wrote, “The first week, I couldn’t do anything in the batting cage.  But I got a batting tee and set it up on the hotel, and after a week I started to make contact.  Don Leppert and Dwight Bernard were coaching there, and they helped me a lot.  Cal Ermer would come through and give me pointers.  By the time I left there, I had more power from the left side than the right.”

As with any movie concerning historical events, facts are sacrificed for artistic license, continuity, and time.  In the 1950 movie Jolson Sings Again, a sequel to 1949’s The Jolson Story, Larry Parks plays legendary performer Al Jolson.  Told about the interest in a movie about his life, Jolson dismisses the importance of factual accuracy in favor of his story’s emotional impact.

Eight Men Out replaces fact with fiction at several points in the story.

During a trial scene, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey testifies that he “informed [American League] Commissioner Ban Johnson” about the “possibility of a conspiracy.”  Comiskey explains that his suspicions occurred “shortly after the series began.”  However, he found “hearsay” after hiring private detectives.

Actually, the American League and the National League do not have commissioners; Ban Johnson was the American League’s president.  Further, James Crusinberry of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Comiskey “was not on speaking terms” with Johnson, so he approached National League President John A. Heydler after the first game because he believed his players fixed the series.

On September 26, 1920, Comiskey testified to this action.  Heydler confirmed it upon arriving in Chicago to testify.  “Commy was all broken up and felt something was wrong with his team in that first game,” quoted Crusinberry of Heydler.  “To me such a thing as crookedness in that game didn’t seem possible.  I told Comiskey I thought the White Sox were rather taken by surprised, that perhaps they had underestimated the strength of the Cincinnati team.

“The matter was dropped for the time.  That day the Reds won again and we moved to Chicago for the third game.  Comiskey called me on the telephone early that morning, and with John Bruce, secretary of the national commission, I went to his office at the ball park.  Once more he stated he felt sure something was wrong.”

Crusinberry added, “Comiskey also called Heydler into conference after the second game, more thoroughly convinced that certain White Sox players were trying to throw the games to Cincinnati.”

However, accuracy abounds in the scene regarding Comiskey’s initial belief that rumors of a fix did not amount to fact.  On December 15, 1919, I.E. Sanborn of the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted Comiskey:  “I am now very happy to state that we have discovered nothing to indicate any member of my team double crossed me or the public last fall.  We have been investigating  all these rumors and I have ha men working sometimes twenty-four hours a day running down clews [sic] that promised to produce facts.  Nothing has come of them.”

Another example of fictionalization involves White Sox player Dickie Kerr telling manager Kid Gleason that he saw Gleason pitch a no-hitter against Cy Young—Gleason never pitched a no-hitter.

Of course, the apocryphal quote “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is, perhaps, the best example of fiction replacing fact.  Eight Men Out would not be complete without depicting a kid expressing disappointment in Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox.  The authenticity of this iconic quote is dubious, at best, because of the lack of evidence.  Nonetheless, it is part of baseball lore.

As a companion to Asinof’s book and the movie, Bill Lamb’s book Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation analyzes the legal angles of the 1919 World Series fix.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 13, 2015.

Roberto Clemente’s 3000th hit

Monday, December 12th, 2016

When John Fogerty débuted his 1985 hit song Centerfield, he reminded people of the joy inherent in baseball—the video produced for this musical, lyrical, and nostalgic homage to baseball depicts a collage of footage featuring baseball legends, including Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Roy Campanella, Casey Stengel, Ted Williams, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra.

Roberto Clemente also appears—his 1956 Topps card opens a montage of baseball cards accompanying the song’s opening riff, which consists of a string of claps in a pattern one might hear in a ballpark’s stands.  The video is timed so that a card appears simultaneously with the sound of each clap.

It’s somehow appropriate that Clemente received the distinction of opening the Centerfield music video.  Overshadowed during his career, perhaps, by his peers—the dazzling flash of Willie ays, the consistent power of Hank Aaron, and the sheer dominance of Mickey Mantle—the Pittsburgh Pirates’ standout outfielder symbolized steadiness.  In turn, Clemente stirred excitement among the Pirate faithful at Forbes Field.

In a career that spanned 1955 to 1972, Clemente had a .317 lifetime batting average—during one 13-year stretch, he notched a batting average above .300 for 12 of those years.  Clemente compiled a .475 lifetime slugging average, won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1966, and reached the magical plateau of 3,000 career hits—exactly.  On December 31, 1972, Clemente died in a plane crash while traveling to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

His was a voyage of purpose—spearheading relief efforts for Managuans suffering from a recent earthquake.  “He had received reports that some of the food and clothing he had sent earlier had fallen into the hands of profiteers,” explained Cristobal Colon, a Clemente friend, in the article “Clemente, Pirates’ Star, Dies in Crash Of Plane Carrying Aid to Nicaragua,” in the January 2, 1973 edition of the New York Times.  Neither for glory nor publicity, Clemente helped those who could not help themselves.  It was a part of his character, not a springboard for a photo opportunity.

Clemente’s last hit came against Jon Matlack, the 1972 National League Rookie of the Year, in a Mets-Pirates game on September 30, 1972.  Mattock was unaware of the moment’s historic impact, however.  “I had no idea he was sitting on 2,999,” Matlack recalled for Anthony McCarran’s November 29, 2008 article “Where are they now? Ex-Met Jon Matlack can’t stay away from the game” on nydailynews.com.  “I was just trying to win a game.  When I gave up the double—I think it short-hopped the center-field wall—there was all this hoopla.  The ump presents him the ball at second and I’m glowering and thinking, ‘Hey we have a ballgame here.’  I was just an oblivious rookie.  Then I saw it on the scoreboard, that it was his 3,000th hit.”

In the 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, David Maraniss recounted, “In the excitement of the moment, Don Leppert, the first base coach, took out a package of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco and was about to stuff a wad into his mouth when Clemente came over and gave him the ball.  Leppert stuck the piece of history in his back pocket for safekeeping.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its eligibility rule because of Clemente’s untimely death. A waiting period of five years after retirement had been the rule but the waiver mandated that a player’s eligibility kicks in if the player dies before the five-year waiting period expires or while still active.  In a special election, the Baseball Writers Association of America stamped Clemente’s passport to Cooperstown.

A eulogy appeared in the article “Roberto Clemente, The Great One” in the January 6, 1973 edition of the New Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper dedicated to the Steel City’s black population:  “Life was not always good to him.  He was often maligned.  Many times he was not given the recognition and admiration that was his due.  It took sometime [sic] for his greatness to get through to a reluctant public but eventually it came to the fore, like the knight in shining armour that he was.”

Roberto Clemente was, indeed, a hero for his achievements on the baseball diamond.  He played on 12 All-Star teams, received 11 Gold Gloves, and became an icon to Pittsburgh’s baseball fans.  But his deeds of generosity to those unable to help themselves defined his true heroism.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 31, 2014.

World’s Finest

Monday, November 28th, 2016

Baseball’s history is highlighted by its heroes.

Lou Gehrig revealed unimaginable courage in his “Luckiest Man” speech as he faced the debilitating, horrific, and fatal disease of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis that took his life nearly two years later.

Ted Williams sacrificed prime playing years to fly combat missions in World War II and the Korean War.

Jackie Robinson pioneered civil rights by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first black player in the major leagues during the 20th century.

Superheroes, as well, occupy a rung on baseball’s ladder of history.

In its nascent years, the DC Comics title World’s Finest featured Superman, Batman, and Robin playing baseball on two comic book covers.  Issue #3 (Fall 1941) depicts Batman batting, Robin catching, and Superman umpiring.  Issue #15 (Fall 1944) shows Superman sliding into home plate while Batman tries to tag him.  Robin scratches his head, looking perplexed as to whether Superman is safe at home.  It’s an illogical scenario, given Superman’s superhuman speed.

In the Foreword to Batman: The World’s Finest Comics, Archives, Volume 1, R.C. Harvey points out that the early World’s Finest covers featuring Batman, Superman,  and Robin concurred with the the uncertainty surrounding America’s involvement in World War II.  “Over the next several years, this trio engaged in a variety of activities on the covers together, playing sports at first and then, after the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, patriotically engaging in scrap paper drives or raising vegetables for victory,” states Harvey, who also notes a baseline attitude on the covers.

“They all look like they are having fun,” opines Harvey.  “And that brings us to the most significant difference separating these stories from those of more recent decades: back then, superheroicism was infected with an exhilarating spirit of adventure.  One did deeds of derring-do because it was exciting, and one went into battle against the Forces of Evil charged up with an invigorating zest for the Good Fight.”

When DC graced its early World’s Finest comic book covers with patriotic scenes involving Superman, Batman, and Robin, it aimed to boost morale among younger readers in an uncertain time.  The two baseball-themed covers of World’s Finest provided an additional attraction.  At the time, baseball dominated the recreation of Americans.  For example, President Roosevelt suggested to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that baseball continue for the country’s morale during World War II.

In a letter dated January 15, 1942, Roosevelt wrote, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.  There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.  And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

During a period fraught with peril, fear, and uncertainty, the World’s Finest superheroes reinforced the power of baseball to inspire.  And vice versa.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 15, 2014.

Now Pitching for the New York Yankees

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

There is another kind of pitching in baseball, one that has nothing to do with curveballs, strikeouts, or a catcher’s signs.  Pitching products is a cornerstone of the National Pastime.  As a spokesman, a baseball player uses his fame, personality, and excellence on the baseball diamond as currency of credibility in endorsing products.  The New York Yankees organization, in particular, boasts a deep roster of product endorsers.

Products.  Promotion.  Pinstripes.

Joe DiMaggio, for example, encouraged people to save at The Bowery Savings Bank.  It was, quite simply, a New York City baseball institution aligning with a New York City financial institution.  Appearing in television commercials from 1972 to 1992, DiMaggio translated his confidence in his hitting ability to his confidence in the best place for New Yorkers to park cash.  Mr. Coffee also benefited from DiMaggio’s skills as a pitch man.

Another former Yankee endorsed a company in the financial arena during his post-playing career.  Phil Rizzuto brought his enthusiasm in broadcasting Yankee games to television commercials for The Money Store, an alternative to traditional banking based in New Jersey.  The Money Store specialized in loans.

Reggie Jackson promoted his eponymous candy bar, though he claims the genesis of the idea was steeped in humor rather than ego.  In the 2013 book Becoming Mr. October, Jackson explains, “When I was still playing in Baltimore in 1976, I said, ‘ If I played in New York, they’d name a candy bar after me.’  I said it as a joke.  That same year, I was in Milwaukee, and I said, ‘I can’t come here.  There are only two newspapers and I don’t drink.’  All in the spirit of fun.

“When I went to New York, all summer Matt Merola kept calling every candy company he knew, asking, ‘Do you want to do a Reggie bar?’  He called every company, and the last one he called was Standard Brands—and they took the bait!  I got $250,000 a year for five years and a furnished apartment at Seventy-ninth and Fifth.”

Yogi Berra used his trademark double-speak in a television commercial for Aflac.  Naturally, the Aflac duck is confused by Yogi’s logic.  But Yogi may be better remembered as the spokesman for Yoo-Hoo.

Derek Jeter has appeared in television commercials for Ford, VISA, and Fleet before it merged with Bank of America.  Babe Ruth promoted Red Rock Cola, Mickey Mantle cried for his Maypo, and Lou Gehrig hawked Huskies cereal.  Mariano Rivera is synonymous with Acura.

Certainly, the Yankees ball club is not the only source of celebrity athlete endorsers.  It is, however, an unparalleled source.  And the string of commercialized Yankees includes portrayers in pinstripes.  Taking advantage of his title role in the 1948 film The Babe Ruth Story, William Bendix donned a Yankees uniform for a Chesterfield cigarettes magazine advertisement.

Advertising allows a product owner to align the product with credibility.  The Yankees offer credibility backed by excellence.  They make the buyer feel an emotional bond with the product based on the supposition that if a member of the most storied team in baseball endorses the product, then it must be worth having.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 2, 2014.

Whose Life Story Is It Anyway?

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

The life story genre is a staple of baseball films.

Fear Strikes Out depicted the anxieties of Jimmy Piersall.  William Bendix and John Goodman played Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story and The Babe, respectively.  42 spotlighted Jackie Robinson’s story of breaking into the major leagues.  The Pride of the Yankees showcased Lou Gehrig’s personal and professional lives.  It is either a baseball story with a love story as a backdrop, or vice versa.

Jimmy Stewart played Monty Stratton in The Stratton Story.  Ronald Reagan, known throughout his film and political career because of his portrayal as George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All-American, added a baseball role to his roster of credits when he portrayed Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team.

Ballplayers are heroes on the diamond, but they are also, nonetheless, human.  Stratton overcame an injury to his leg caused by a gunshot while hunting.  Robinson endured hatred in the form of racial taunts baked into a public attitude about minorities.  His inner strength pushed him to excellence in spite of horrific opposition in discrimination, bigotry, and human indecency.  Gehrig, of course, symbolized courage in the face of a debilitating disease, proclaiming himself to be “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” while his physical ability diminished.

These stories go beyond mere entertainment.  They are inspiring because they are real.  Overcoming a tragedy is a cornerstone of drama.  Writers and producers face a challenge in offering stories with a baseball theme—depicting the tale on film or on television may require sacrificing time for the sport to give more time to the story.  In his review of The Pride of the Yankees for the New York Times, noted film critic Bosley Crowther underscored this point.  “Furthermore, sports fans will protest, with reason on their side, that a picture about a baseball player should have a little more baseball in it,” wrote Crowther.  “Quite true, this one has considerable footage showing stands and diamonds of the American League, with Lou at bat, running bases and playing the initial bag.  What is shown is accurate.  But it is only shown in glimpses or montage sequences, without catching much of the flavor or tingling excitement of a tight baseball game.  Fans like to know what’s the inning, how many are on and how many out.  At least, the score.”

Facts are public domain for a life story.  For example, Lou Gehrig’s estate has no legal recourse for a Gehrig life story indicating that Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games.  But there will need to be agreements regarding Gehrig’s image, Major League Baseball trademarks, photographs, and film footage in a visual representationfilm, television, cartoon, book, comic book, art, merchandising, arcade game, and computer game.  Terms will include limitations on the use and the crediting of the material.

When the producers of a life story seek to incorporate material from a copyrighted work, then a license agreement will be  sought.  Another option is contracting for the right to create a new work based on the original copyrighted work.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 15, 2013.