Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

The Hall of Fame Case for Charles Ebbets

Saturday, May 13th, 2017

For reasons passing understanding, Charles Ebbets is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is shameful at best and unforgivable at worst.  Imagine a baseball lineage without Ebbets Field, which débuted in 1913, becoming the home for a team with various names—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Flock, and Robins were interchangeable monikers until the Dodgers label was officially affixed through a vote of the press in the 1930s.

With an unparalleled loyalty to his Brooklyn brethren, Ebbets sold half his ownership in the team to finance the construction of the stadium bearing his name.

Hired on the first day of Brooklyn’s nascent professional baseball team in 1883, Ebbets rose from office clerk to team president; when Charley Byrne died in 1898, a shareholder named George Chauncey advocated for Ebbets to fill the team’s highest-level executive role.  With a curriculum vitae of a decade and a half in Brooklyn, Ebbets could easily have found an executive position in either the major leagues or the minor leagues, perhaps garnering an ownership stake with another team.

Ebbets consolidated ownership in the team, became the sole owner, and realized his vision of a modern stadium.  In an article for Leslie’s Weekly, Ebbets said, “We must give our patrons what they express an evident desire for, and in progressive baseball to-day this means comfort, safety and faster play than ever before.”

Buying parcels of land in a section called Pigtown—so named because it was filled with garbage, which pigs fed on—Ebbets made good on his promise to the Brooklyn fans.

Ebbets’s contributions to baseball, intangible and tangible, deserve to be recognized with a plaque in the building located at 25 Main Street in Cooperstown, about a five-minute walk from Lake Otsego.  When Ebbets died in 1925, the New York Times eulogized, “Virtually the whole of Mr. Ebbets’ life was devoted to baseball.  His sole interest was baseball and all his money was in it.  He served the game wholeheartedly, with a fixed purpose which finally brought fulfillment.”

Credit the Brooklyn ball club owner with the following:

  • Rain check
  • Draft system
  • Weakest teams getting first chance to hire minor league players
  • Advocating for permanent World Series schedule
  • Extending the National League season to include the Columbus Day holiday

Another eulogy summarized the feeling pervading baseball upon Ebbets’s death; it went further than the usual missives encapsulating a famous person’s achievements.  Reach Baseball Guide stated, “He never played baseball ‘politics,’ was without guide, and so universally popular that he may be truly said to have been the best loved man, not only in his league, but throughout the entire realm of baseball.  Ebbets was one of the comparatively few old time magnates whose interest in the affairs of the game never faltered.”

Ebbets Field is long since demolished, its presence existing in the memories of those who saw Brooklyn’s teams—good and bad—traverse the hallowed ground in what was the second home for the citizenry of Coney Island, Flatbush, Greenpoint, and every other neighborhood in the borough, a metropolis until 1898, when New York City annexed it.

Perhaps the legendary loyalty cultivated by Dodgers fans in Brooklyn—and then Los Angeles—traces back to Ebbets, who exemplified this trait in another example of dire financial straits.  To raise money needed to settle a lawsuit, Ebbets could have sold two players to the New York Giants—Tim Jordan and Harry Lumley.  Instead, Ebbets said no to Brooklyn’s rival squad, tempting though the offer was.  “I felt that if I had sold those two star players at that time the fans would run me out of Brooklyn,” said Ebbets in an article for the Times.  “To my way of thinking, it was my duty to Brooklyn fans to keep those players in spite of the fact that we needed money worse than we did players at that time.  It wouldn’t have been fair to our patrons to sell those players.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 27, 2017.

The Trade That Shocked the Hockey World

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

1975 was a year of shocks in popular culture.  M*A*S*H killed off Henry Blake, the lovable, goofy, and semi-competent lieutenant colonel in charge of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077; Jaws injected fear into filmgoers thinking about going to the beach for summer recreation, lest they be shark attack victims like the ones portrayed on screen; and the Boston Bruins traded Phil Esposito to the New York Rangers.

Esposito going to New York was not, to be certain, a global event.  Or even a national one.  For Bostonians whose devotion to sports knows no boundaries of faith, though, it was an upset of the natural order of things.  Sure, Esposito started his career with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he flourished in Boston—milestones include two Stanley Cup wins, a perennial NHL All-Star selection, and two-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy, which honors the player most valuable to his team.  Not since the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season had betrayal pervaded the city, from Beacon Street to Boston Harbor.

“I’m crushed.  I thought I had found a home in Boston,” lamented Esposito, quoted by Tom Fitzgerald in the Boston Globe.

Esposito emerged as a New York City icon, much like his fellow Boston transplant.

Boston sent defenseman Carol Vadnais to the Rangers with Esposito, who played center.  In return, New York let go defenseman Brad Park, center Jean Ratelle, and Joe Zanuss—a defenseman for the Providence Reds, the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate.

Boston Globe sports columnist Leigh Montville ascribed the term “garbageman” to Esposito because he scored goals that were neither flashy nor dramatic, thereby igniting a touch of scorn.  But when Esposito journeyed down I-95 toward his new home, scorn gave way to unease.  “One difference already has surfaced here,” wrote Montville.  “The people—the same people who were cold toward Esposito and his records—now seem worried.  They see a big hole in the scoring totals.  They see a lot of goals that aren’t going to be scored.  They see a lot of things that might not be done.

“That is the way it is with a garbageman.  You never miss him until he’s not around.”

Esposito led the Rangers to the 1979 Stanley Cup—the marauders of Madison Square Garden lost to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.

Still, decades later, the trade causes angst for Esposito.  Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons chronicled Esposito’s viewpoint in 2013:  “I didn’t choose to leave Chicago.  I didn’t choose to leave Boston.  I signed a contract in Boston for less money than I could have gotten from going to the WHA.  I could have made millions doing that.  And you know how they repaid me?  Three weeks later, they traded me (to the New York Rangers).”

Retiring after the 1980-81 season, Esposito transitioned to being an assistant coach for the Rangers—his post-retirement duties also included general manager, head coach, and analyst for televised games on MSG Network.

Esposito spearheaded the founding of the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with his brother, Tony, a fellow NHL standout; in 1992, the Lightning débuted in a 7-3 victory against the Blackhawks.  Phil Esposito and Tony Esposito are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, inducted in 1984 and 1988, respectively.  Notably, the former’s biography page on the Hall of Fame web site depicts him in a Boston Bruins uniform.  And so it is in the memories, imagination, and Bruins lore for fans of a certain age.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 18, 2017.

What if…

Friday, April 21st, 2017

What if…

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

Bob Uecker hadn’t appeared in Major League?

there was no Designated Hitter position?

the Mets had never traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels?

Yogi Berra had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers?

George Steinbrenner had never bought the Yankees?

the Dodgers had never moved from Brooklyn?

the Giants had moved to Minneapolis instead of San Francisco?

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

Walter O’Malley had never owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

the Red Sox had integrated in 1949 instead of 1959?

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

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

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

Bobby Thomson had struck out against Ralph Branch?

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

Major League Baseball banned synthetic grass?

the Mets had never traded Tom Seaver to the Reds?

Reggie Jackson had never played for the Yankees?

Thurman Munson hadn’t died in a plane crash?

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

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

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

the Braves hadn’t never left Boston for Milwaukee?

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

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

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

Jim Bouton hadn’t written Ball Four?

Roger Kahn hadn’t written The Boys of Summer?

Mark Harris hadn’t written Bang the Drum Slowly?

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

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

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

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

Bob Feller had pitched for the Yankees?

Ted Williams had played for the Yankees?

Joe DiMaggio had played for the Red Sox?

Charles Ebbets hadn’t owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Honolulu had a Major League Baseball team?

Pete Rose were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

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

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

Wiffle Ball hadn’t been invented?

Nashville had a Major League Baseball team?

Dwight Goodman and Darryl Strawberry had stayed away from drugs?

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

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

Baseball, Humor, Home Runs, Healing, and 9/11

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Tragedy demands a release.  When David Letterman took his spot at the Ed Sullivan Theatre for his first show after the September 11, 2001 attacks, he let us know that it was okay to laugh.  The shock of the attacks was beyond immense, defying description of the emotional impact.  There were no words.  There are no words.  There will never be enough words.  Laughter, if only for a moments eased the pain.

Friends added an accessory to Chandler and Joey’s apartment—a big American flag.  Its presence, without mention, indicated the innate quality of patriotism that an attack on the homeland can generate.  We can give blood.  We can offer comfort.  We can wear a symbol showing that America is united.  E pluribus unum.  Out of many, one.

Mike Piazza’s home run in the first Major League Baseball game since the 9/11 attacks gave an escape sorely needed.  Would a game matter again?  Would we be able to cheer again?  When the Mets and the Braves took the field on September 21, 2001, those questions seemed unanswerable.  An extra shot of patriotic adrenaline moved through the veins of players, fans, and everyone else in attendance during The Star-Spangled Banner.  A game that may appear meaningless reminded us that sports and entertainment are distractions from the challenges, obstacles, failures, setbacks, stumbles, and disappointments of life.  During a national tragedy, sports and entertainment are vital to the national morale.  For just a few moments, we can remember what it’s like to cheer, to laugh, and to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Saturday Night Live, a New York City institution, began its first post-9/11 show with Paul Simon singing The Boxer while the city’s first responders stood as stoic as oak trees.  Mayor Rudy Giuliani and SNL creator Lorne Michaels had an iconic moment after the song.  Michaels inquired, “Can we be funny now?”  Millions of viewers wondered the same thing.

“Why start now?” responded Giuiliani.

It was, of course, a tongue-in-cheek exchange perfectly suited for an extremely tense period in the nation’s history that will never be forgotten.

In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush said, “It is my hope that in the months and years ahead life will return almost to normal.  We’ll go back to our lies and routines and that is good.  Even grief recedes with time and grace.”  Learning to laugh again and cheer once more are the first steps of that recession.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 21, 2016.

Football, Fuller, Fleckum, and “A Face in the Crowd”

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

The tale of Lonesome Rhodes is a cautionary one.  Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd revolves around Rhodes, a drunk with a gift for guitar playing, singing, and folksiness.  Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries discovers Rhodes in an Arkansas jail while airing a live broadcast titled A Face in the Crowd for her uncle’s radio station.

Patricia Neal plays Jeffries and Andy Griffith plays Rhodes.

Seeing the appeal of the down-home Rhodes, Jeffries creates a radio show for him. Soon, Rhodes skyrockets, ultimately getting a television show in New York City.  Fame infects Rhodes, who grasps his power with deftness.  When a general sees up the potential for Rhodes to affect the electorate, he matches the celebrity with Senator Worthington Fuller whom Rhodes dubs “Curly” to make him more accessible to the plain-speaking, God-fearing, simple-minded voter.

Jeffries falls for Rhodes’s lusty approach to life.  When Rhodes returns home to Piggott, Arkansas to judge a drum majorette contest, he catches the attention of 17-year-old Betty Lou Fleckum.  And vice versa.  Jeffries is heartbroken, when Rhodes comes back to the Big Apple with Fleckum as his bride.

Lee Remick plays Betty Lou.

It arks her first real step toward realizing that Rhodes barrels through life like a tornado without any regard to others and with one goal in mind—satisfaction.  He is no different than when Jeffries discovered him in the jail.

Schulberg penned a description of his research for the New York Herald Tribune, which published the article about a week and a half before the film’s premiere in late May.  Research included conversations with “200 TV personalities, TV directors and producers and advertising directors.”

Television, according to Schulberg, represented a powerful force for public opinion but a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.  “I’m encouraged to think that in Lonesome Rhodes we have hit on a truly representative figure.  Naturally our Lonesome must be an individual in his own right, but from our talks it does seem that he represents the dynamic-mercurial quality of TV success.”

When Jeffries reaches her breaking point with Rhodes, she raises the sound level over the closing credits of his show, thereby uncovering Rhodes’s real self, displayed by his vocalizing nasty descriptions of his audience.  Those who adored him withdraw their devotion faster than Jesse James leaving a robbery.  When Jeffries reveals her part in his demise, Rhodes, from his penthouse, screams at Jeffries not to leave him; accompanied by former Rhodes writer Mel Miller, author an upcoming exposé Demagogue in Denim, Jeffries disappears into the Manhattan night.

Walter Matthau plays Miller.

Kazan filmed the drum majorette contest on the Piggott High School football field in Piggott, Arkansas.  “The northeast Arkansas community was chosen because of its connection to the legendary Ernest Hemingway, who lived and visited there when married to Piggott native Pauline Pfeiffer,” states Arkansas.com.  “Otto ‘Toby’ Bruce of Piggott, a friend of and assistant to Hemingway, heard of the project after meeting Schulberg in Key West while visiting the author.  Bruce suggested Piggott, director Elia Kazan and Schulberg visited, and they decided it was the place to shoot.”

The 1990s CBS situation comedy Evening Shade mentioned Piggott High School’s football team as an opponent of the Evening Shade team coached by Wood Newton, former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Burt Reynolds plays Newton; football credentials dotted Reynolds’s body of work, including playing college football and starring in two football-themed films in the 1970s—The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough.

Another football connection to A Face in the CrowdGriffith’s legendary stand-up comedy routine What It Was, Was Football, which depicts an unknowing person’s introduction to the gridiron.  Griffith concludes, “And I don’t know, friends, to this day, what it was that they was a-doing down there, but I have studied about it, and I think that it’s some kindly of a contest where they see which bunch-full of them men can take that punkin [sic] and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other’n [sic] without either getting’ knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’!”

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

Buster Keaton, Yankee Stadium, and “The Cameraman”

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Silent film star Buster Keaton earned the nickname “The Great Stone Face” because of his superhuman ability to maintain composure while disaster reigned around him; the quadrant of presidential faces on Mount Rushmore had more animation.  AP’s 1966 obituary of Keaton stated, “Unlike Mr. Chaplin, he was never sentimental and he never resorted to maudlin pathos.  He turned a granite face to the wildly comic and nightmarish cries that befell him—and he always prevailed over impending doom.”

In his 1928 silent film The Cameraman, Keaton plays the title role—an aspiring cameraman at MGM with a crush on the secretary to the executive in charge of newsreels.

An extended scene features Keaton miming a baseball game at Yankee Stadium after learning that the Yankees are in St. Louis on a road trip.  In one part, Keaton imitates a batter getting knocked down, shouting at the pitcher, and hitting an inside-the-park home run capped by a headfirst slide into home plate.  Keaton’s sprint around the bases provided the opportunity to showcase the grandeur of Yankee Stadium, which is arguably more imposing without a game; its emptiness reinforces its size.  Keaton’s baseball fandom, legendary in the filmmaking community, undoubtedly inspired the Yankee Stadium scene.

In a striking bit of coincidence, The Cameraman premiered during the Yankees’ Midwestern road trip of September 15-30, which began with the Bronx Bombers taking on the St. Louis Browns, followed by the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Detroit Tigers.

Keaton, a comedy legend, followed an exacting blueprint to obtain laughs.  Though comedy is a craft and not a science, it comes pretty close to the latter.  In the September 16, 1928 edition of the New York Herald Tribune, the article “Buster Keaton On the Timing Of the Laugh” explains that The Cameraman is the “feature at the Capitol this week” before launching into Keaton’s detailed explanation of comedy.  Of particular importance is the insight regarding the beginning of the story.

“For instance, in the opening scenes of ‘The Cameraman’ I’m picked up alone in front of the New York City Hall,” states Keaton.  “I get a customer for a tintype picture, and, just as I’m about to snap the camera—this is carefully indicated by timed pauses—in rushes a crowd and upsets the works.  This, then, is topped by confetti and the disclosure that a famous character is coming along.  In rush the newsreel cameramen and I get tangled up in their camera tripods.  Between each development we had to figure just where a laugh might come in and how long a pause was necessary to take care of this.”

The Cameraman is a highlight in Keaton’s impressive body of work.  A downward trajectory ensued.  “After the success of The Cameraman, Keaton begged MGM for his own independent unit, but the studio refused,” wrote Lisle Foote in her 2014 book Buster Keaton’s Crew:  The Team Behind His Silent Films.  “His films became less and less funny, and even [director Edward] Sedgwick couldn’t stop the slide in quality.  The changes in comedies with the coming of sound, Keaton’s personal troubles, and the difficulties of working within a large and bureaucratic studio all contributed to the decline of Keaton’s films.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 5, 2016.

Hilltop Park’s First Game

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

Yankee history—a farrago of excellence, myth, and icons—began, in fact, in Baltimore.

After two seasons in the city abutting Chesapeake Bay—1901 and 1902—the Orioles departed for New York City, a result of Frank Farrell and Bill Devery buying the defunct operations for $18,000.  New York’s team became the Highlanders—later, the Yankees.  Baltimore, in turn, lacked a major league ball club until 1954, when the St. Louis Browns moved there; once again, the city boasted a team known as the Orioles.

Washington Heights in upper Manhattan hosted the Highlanders at the new stadium called American League Park; its location earned the label Hilltop Park.  On April 30, 1903, the Highlanders inaugurated their new home with a 6-2 victory over the Washington Senators.  Ban Johnson, the American League’s president, threw out the first ball.

Building the field was not, in any way, an endeavor easily accomplished.  “It wasn’t very impressive,” recounted Marty Appel in his 2012 chronicle Pinstripe Empire:  The New York Yankees form Before the Babe to After the Boss.  “It would be a haul for fans to get to this field, and they would expect something worthy of the journey, worthy of a paid admission.  The new team had to give them a product that felt big-time.  And the clock was ticking.”

Indeed, fans attending the Highlanders-Senators contest saw a field requiring attention.  “Although the stands have not yet been completed, the occupants of the half-finished structures seemed to be perfectly satisfied with the seating arrangements,” reported the New York Times.  “While the big gathering was not over demonstrative [sic], the absence of fault finding was in itself an assurance to the management that the patrons fully appreciated the difficulties which beset the new club and due credit was given to the almost herculean efforts of the officials who had accomplished so much in such a brief time.

“The diamond, newly sodded and rolled to perfection, was the only spot in the big field which could not be improved.”

Lacking the benefits of mass transit to the environs of the ballpark, fans nonetheless journeyed for a formidable turnout.  “When the game was called there were fully fifteen thousand people present, a remarkable number, considering that the rapid transit road will not be completed this season, and that the spectators had to come on surface lines,” stated the New York Herald Tribune.  The Times reported the attendance as 16,243.

Wee Willie Keeler scored three runs for New York’s nascent squad.  Highlanders hurler Jack Chesbro held the Zeusian power of Ed Delahanty in check by not allowing a hit for the Senators slugger; Delahanty led the American League in 1902 with a .376 batting average, in addition to leading the major leagues in doubles, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

The Highlanders left seven players on base.  The Senators, nine.  Elapsed time for the game stood at ninety minutes.

In their first season, the Highlanders drew more than 211,000 fans to place 7th of 8th in the American League.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 30, 2016.

 

The Last Eagle

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

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

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

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

Monford Merrill Irvin.  Monte.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond ’69

Monday, March 6th, 2017

When the New York Mets took the field for the first time, America was awash in a tidal wave of promise.  The year was 1962—John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had taken viewers on an unprecedented televised tour of the White House, and Dodger Stadium had marked a new standard for ballparks.

Respect eluded the nascent Mets, however.  Inheriting the Polo Grounds and the interlocking NY logo from the Giants—who abdicated New York City for San Francisco after the 1957 season—the Mets lost their first game.  It was, indeed, an inauspicious beginning for the National League squad bearing Dodger Blue and Giant Orange as its colors.  At the end of the season, the Mets’ tally read 40 wins, 120 losses.

Subsequent seasons followed a paradigm of mediocrity.  It shifted in 1968, when Gil Hodges took the reins after managing the Washington Senators for five seasons—the Mets went from 61-101 in 1967 to 73-89 in Hodges’s first year at the helm.

In 1969, the Mets exorcised their ghosts.  With a 100-62 record, the “Miracle Mets” defied expectations with a World Series upset of the Baltimore Orioles, thereby securing 1969 as a season of glory; Mets fans get wistful at the mere mention of the year.

Lost in the nostalgia is the decade after the miracle—the 1970s Mets were, for the most part, a formidable team often overlooked in accounts of baseball in the Me Decade.  Surely, the Yankees drew more attention with three consecutive World Series appearances resulting in two championships, not to mention drama of Shakespearean proportions.

In Oakland, the A’s—also known as the Mustache Gang—carved a dynasty with three consecutive World Series titles, later suffering a shattered team when owner Charlie Finley broke it up.

In Cincinnati, the Big Red Machine set the bar high for National League power, with a lineup including Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench.

But the Mets, consistent rather than dominant, compiled winning seasons from 1970 to 1976, except for 1974.  Further, the Mets battled the powerful A’s in the 1973 World Series, falling to the fellas from Oakland in seven games.  Gil Hodges, unfortunately, did not live to see that second grasp at a World Series—he died from a heart attack right before the 1972 season.

At the New York Mets 50th Anniversary Conference hosted by Hofstra University in 2012, the impact of Hodges’s death on the 1970s Mets was a point of discussion on a panel populated by Ed Kranepool, Art Shamsky, and Bud Harrelson—all agreed that if Hodges had survived his heart attack, they would be wearing a few more World Series rings.  More importantly, perhaps, Hodges might have been able to prevent the darkest point in Mets history.

Tom Seaver won the Cy Young Award three times—all in the 1970s.  When the Mets traded Seaver to the Reds for four players in 1977, fortunes plummeted.  After an 86-76 record in 1976, the Mets closed out the remainder of the 1970s with losing seasons:

  • 1977:  64-98
  • 1978:  66-96
  • 1979:  63-99

In contrast to the optimism permeating Shea Stadium at the beginning of the decade, frustration became an unwanted friend as the Mets piled on loss after loss.  This streak continued into the 1980s, finally reversing with a 90-72 record in 1984.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 7, 2016.

Softball, Nostalgia, and “Happy Days”

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

When Happy Days premiered on January 15, 1974 as a mid-season replacement for ABC, it began a 10-year journey as a refuge from the barrage of daily headlines indicating malaise, frustration, and tension—particularly in the second half of the 1970s with inflation, gas shortages, and the Iran hostage crisis.  Based in mid-1950s Milwaukee, Happy Days revolved around teenager Richie Cunningham confronting the growing pains associated with his evolution from adolescence to adulthood.

Initially filmed as a one-camera show covering serious topics backed by humor—racism, the Cold War, the Quiz Show Scandal—Happy Days skyrocketed once it changed to a studio audience format in 1976.  Richie had two universes—his friends and his family, with the two sometimes intersecting.  Played by Ron Howard, Richie had a special friendship with Fonzie.  Where Richie was clean-cut, Fonzie was tough.  Where Richie was book smart, Fonzie was street smart.  Where Richie wore a letterman’s sweater, Fonzie wore a leather jacket.

Once Happy Days went before a studio audience, Fonzie became an iconic television character, played by Henry Winkler.  Fonzie’s trademark exclamation “Aaaaay!” became a fixture for Happy Days.

The genesis of Happy Days occurred on February 25, 1974.  Love and the Happy Day,” an episode of ABC’s comedy anthology Love, American Style, centered on the characters of Richie Cunningham and Potsie Webber.  Anson Williams played Potsie on both “Love and the Happy Day” and Happy Days.

Garry Marshall, the creator of Happy Days, spearheaded the cast’s softball team, which played games for charity across the country.  In a 1978 article for Associated Press, Dennis D’Agostino quoted Howard on the team’s makeup.  “Henry really wanted to get into this thing, and pitching was the thing we thought he could do,” explained Howard.  “Donny Most (Ralph Malph) is probably our most consistent [sic] hitter for average and power, and also very good in center field.  I’m the Tom Paciorek type myself.”

Paciorek, a journeyman outfielder and first baseman, played for several teams in an 18-year career, compiling a batting average of .282:

  • Dodgers
  • Braves
  • Mariners
  • White Sox
  • Mets
  • Rangers

Winkler basked in the atmosphere of the game.  “This is great,” said the New York City native. “We get to go out and play a little ball.  We’re winning.  A lot of people I’ve never seen are giving me a lot of warmth and I get to eat a stadium hot dog.”

Cathy Silvers played Jenny Piccalo, the flirtatious best friend of Richie’s sister, Joanie.  In her 2007 book Happy Days Healthy Living:  From Sit-Com Teen to the Health-Food Scene, Silvers wrote, “One day on the set Garry Marshall arrived with the exciting news that we were going to Germany and then to Japan on USO tours (United Service Organizations).  He said, ‘We’re going to pay our respects to the men and women stationed overseas, far from their families and homes, in service for the safety and protection of our country.  Anyone want to come?’

“Henry stood up and said, ‘We all do!'”

Happy Days spun off Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy, two other juggernauts for ABC.  Joanie Loves Chachi…well, that’s a different story altogether.

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