Posts Tagged ‘May’

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 19783, 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.

How Marvelous Marv Became a Met

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Hobie Landrith holds the distinction of being the first New York Met, selected on October 10, 1961 in the expansion draft that populated the lineups of the nascent Mets and Colt .45s.

When the Mets took the field at the Polo Grounds the following April for their first regular season game, Landrith started at catcher.  His was a philosophy embracing the importance of communications between battery mates.  During Landrith’s time with the San Francisco Giants, Will Connolly of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Landrith in a 1959 column subtitled “Hobart Landrith’s An Articulate Gent” describing the relationship:  “Apart from the finger signals, the pitcher and catcher should talk it over in tight spots—and almost every inning is a critical one these days.  I run out to the mound to eliminate any indecision on the pitcher’s part, and mine.  Some batsmen have to be pitched to very carefully.”

Landrith’s vocal quality was a subject of a 1951 scouting report for the Cincinnati Reds:  “‘Pepper pot’ little backstop who brings to the major leagues a brand of on-the-field chatter comparatively unheard since the days of ‘Gabby’ Hartnett.  Shrill voice behind plate can be heard all over park.”

As the pioneering member of the Mets, Landrith holds sacred ground.  Fertile, it was not.  In early May, the Orioles traded Marv Throneberry to the Mets for a player to be named later and cash; a month later, the Mets named Landrith.  Financial strength provided the impetus.  “[O]ne of Throneberry’s most compelling charms was his availability for cash, one of the few departments in which the Mets are in string contention for league leadership,” wrote New York Times sports writer Robert Lipsyte, citing team president George Weiss.

Throneberry’s performance was anything but marvelous, the alliterative adjective that became synonymous with the first baseman and right fielder.  When Throneberry died in 1994, New York Times sports writer George Vecsey recalled, “There was the day that Marv hit a two-out triple with the bases loaded but was called out for missing first.  Even though nearly everyone in the Mets’ dugout saw Marv miss the base, Casey Stengel, the manager, started arguing with the first-base umpire anyway.  During the exchange, another umpire walked over and said, ‘Casey, I hate to tell you this, but he also missed second.'”

As a ’62 Met, Throneberry played in 116 games, batted .244, and struck out 83 times.  His career ended after the 1963 season.

Throneberry became a pop culture icon through his appearances in the famed Miller Lite television commercials of the 1970s and 1980s featuring, among others, Rodney Dangerfield, Mickey Spillane, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Bob Uecker.

In one commercial, Throneberry appears with Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford and Billy Martin.  Deford says, “There’s one guy I can’t write anything bad about, His unique brand of baseball has made him a living legend.”  Other plaudits follow.

Throneberry is not in the commercial until the end.  It’s the payoff after the setup—Martin thinks that Deford’s comments are targeted to him.  When Deford gives a Miller Lite to Throneberry, the former Met issues the commercial’s punch line:  “Cheer up, Billy.  One day, you’ll be famous just like me.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 13, 2016.

The Tragedy of Ken McMullen

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

When Dodgers third baseman Ken McMullen suited up for the 1974 season, he carried the weight of widowerhood on his 6’3″ frame—McMullen’s wife, Bobbie, died of cancer on April 6th, the day after the Dodgers opened the ’74 season.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in May, 1974, Bobbie McMullen had surgery, but her pregnancy with a third child posed a highly significant problem—cobalt treatments would necessitate an abortion, which the McMullens didn’t want.  She waited until after the birth for the cobalt treatments.  Additionally, Bobbie McMullen had chemotherapy and a dialysis machine when her kidneys weakened from the medication.  She passed five months after giving birth.

Chicago Tribune sportswriter John Husar interviewed Ken McMullen about his wife’s death for an article published on October 1, 1974, as the Dodgers headed into the post-season, eventually facing the Oakland A’s in the World Series; the boys from Chavez Ravine lost in five games.  McMullen clarified his openness about his wife’s death.  “I do get perturbed at people who think I just want sympathy or to have my name in print,” McMullen said.  “I don’t know why I talk about it.  I guess I just want people to know I had a wife who was the bravest and strongest person I’ve ever known—or ever will know.”

He also acknowledged the Dodgers’ success as a key point in confronting the tragedy.  “It was important to me to be on a team, winning, struggling and getting here to the World Series,” McMullen revealed in an article for the Associated Press.  “It helps to take your mind off things.”

Indeed, work can be a powerful antidote to emotional devastation caused by losing a loved one.  Although McMullen wanted to stay with his wife as spring training approached for the 1974 season, his wife urged him to go to the Dodgers’ facilities in Vero Beach, Florida.  In the Husar article, McMullen said, “I don’t know why.  I really didn’t ask her.  What she said was, ‘I would like you to stay but I know you can’t.’  If she would have said anything other than that, I would have stayed.  But now I think she was saying it was better to keep playing and not sit around and wait.”

Road trips, too, provided an escape.  In an October 8, 1974 article for the New York Post, Maury Allen highlighted McMullen’s emotion-filled odyssey.  “I had to get away,” McMullen said.  “That was the only place I could really relax.  For a while, the guys wouldn’t ask me to go out.  They didn’t want to do or say anything that would upset me. Then they realized things had to be as they were before.”

Though a formidable pinch hitter—McMullen had four game-winning hits in 1973—Ron Cey emerged as the Dodgers’ regular third baseman.  Tragedy diminished the importance of baseball to McMullen, who benefited from a support system including his sister, brother-in-law, and parents—they shared care taking duties concerning the McMullen children.  “After everything I’ve been through, worrying about playing regularly hardly seems important,” said McMullen.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 3, 2016.

56 Games

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Joe DiMaggio once declared, “I’d like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.”  When the Yankee Clipper stepped into the batter’s box, denizens of the Bronx felt the same way.

In May 1941, Americans watched the premiere of Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane, ate a new cereal called Cheerios, and, through newsreels and newspapers, followed the terrible exploits of Nazi Germany in Europe.  While scanning the sports pages, they might have noticed an entry on May 16th indicating DiMaggio getting a hit in the previous day’s game against the Chicago White Sox.

It was the first of 56 consecutive games in which DiMaggio hit safely, a record.

DiMaggio’s hitting streak ended on July 17, 1941 in an Indians-Yankees contest, which the Yankees won 4-3.  Had DiMaggio reached 57 games, he would have had a lucrative promotion deal with Heinz because of its “57 varieties” slogan.  Or so the rumor went.  Ira Berkow of the New York Times negated the rumor by quoting DiMaggio in a 1987 article.  “I never believed that,” said the Yankee slugger, who hit .357 in ’41.  “After all, I got a hit in the All-Star Game, which came about midway in the streak.  And they could always have said that that made it 57.”

Cleveland responded to the moment that brought finality to a feat capturing the fascination of fans.  Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “There was drama in DiMaggio’s failure to stretch his streak into the fifty-seventh game.  It…enthralled the biggest crowd of the year, which was also the biggest crowd ever to see a night game.  After it was apparent that DiMaggio would not have another turn at bat, the Indians rallied and made two runs in the ninth, in a breathtaking finish in which the tying run was cut off between third and the plate.”

67,463 people in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium saw the end to DiMaggio’s epic run.  In a 2011 Sports Illustrated article, Kostya Kennedy—author of the 2011 book 56:  Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports—described DiMaggio’s approach to baseball as unchanging in the firestorm of dramatic tension.

“Even with the hitting streak surely finished, DiMaggio did only what he would have done at any other time,” wrote Kennedy.  “After crossing first base, he slowed from his sprint, turned left and continued running toward shallow center field.  Still moving, he bent and plucked his glove off the grass.  He did not kick the earth or shake his head or pound the saddle of his glove.  He did not behave as if he were aware of the volume and the frenzy of the crowd.  He did not look directly at anyone or anything.  Not once on his way out to center field did DiMaggio turn back.”

DiMaggio’s hitting streak prompted St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor J. E. Wray to propose that the Yankees honor the achievement by changing the slugger’s uniform number—”56″ instead of “5” would remind fans of the streak every time DiMaggio took the field.

Eight years before the 1941 streak, which stands as a record for Major League Baseball, DiMaggio hit safely in 61 consecutive games for the 1933 San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.  DiMaggio’s ’33 streak is a PCL record.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 24, 2015.

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.

Mays As A Met

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

Willie Mays ended his career where he began it.  New York City.

His was a career of milestones.  As a rookie, Mays was a witness to baseball history.  On October 3, 1951, he was in the New York Giants on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.  In the 1954 World Series, he made baseball history when he caught a Vic Wertz fly ball to center field in the Polo Grounds while he sprinted with his back toward home plate.

Mays became a Giants cornerstone, frustrating National League opponents with his running, fielding, and hitting.  But the days of wearing black and and orange, the colors of the Giants, came to an end for Willie Howard Mays on May 11, 1972, when the San Francisco Giants traded him to the New York Mets for minor league pitcher Charlie Williams.  Stories indicated the Mets also paid $100,000 in the deal.  In the Mays biography Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, James S. Hirsch discounted the cash component.  “[Giants owner Horace] Stoneham, however, later acknowledged that he didn’t accept any money,” stated Hirsch.  “Ultimately, all that mattered was that Willie would be taken care of, and the Mets agreed to pay him $165,000 that year and the next.  Mays said the Mets also agreed to pay him, on his retirement, $50,000 a year for ten years.”

Though he was in the twilight of his career, Mays in a Mets uniform provided a sense of continuity in a nation shattered by the Vietnam War, Watergate, assassinations, and riots.  When he donned a Mets cap with the familiar NY insignia borrowed from the Giants log, order seemed restored for those who grew up watching Mays patrol the Polo Grounds outfield in the 1950s.  He was back home.  Not in the same ballpark and not for the same time.  But in New York City, nonetheless.

On September 25, 1973, the Mets hosted Willie Mays Night; Mays retired after the ’73 season.  “I hope that with my farewell tonight, you’ll understand what I’m going through right now,” revealed Mays.  “Something that I never feared: that I were ever to quit baseball.  But as you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out.  And I look at these kids over there, the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.  Thank you very much.”

Mays’s return to New York City culminated with the 1973 World Series, a seven-game affair that saw the Oakland A’s dynasty defeat the Mets.  Meanwhile, the Big Apple’s other baseball team saw its share of drama in ’73.  Yankee pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson swapped wives, Ron Blomberg became baseball’s first designated hitter, and Ohio ship builder George Steinbrenner led a group purchasing the Yankees.

Yankee Stadium also said goodbye to America in 1973, undergoing a renovation that lasted two years.

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

The Glory Years of Baseball

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

RemingtonToday marks the anniversary of a turning point in baseball.  On May 9, 1883, Brooklyn hosted its first home game in professional baseball, playing to a 7-1 victory against Harrisburg in the Interstate Baseball Association.

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Nancy Sinatra’s Comeback

Friday, March 8th, 2013

In 1995, Nancy Sinatra made a comeback culminating in the cover and a photo spread for the May issue of Playboy.  She also toured for the first time in more than two decades, made a new album, and re-released vintage tunes.

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Happy Birthday, Baseball Hall of Fame!

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Today, we celebrate the birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Opened on June 12, 1939 in Cooperstown, New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a time tunnel that journeys its visitors through a cornerstone of American history. More than a mere sport, baseball is a vehicle of social change.

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