Posts Tagged ‘New York Giants’

Taft, Titanic, and Taking the Field

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

1,517 people died when the Titanic plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic in 1912; a valued presidential adviser was among the men, women, and children that perished—Major Archibald Butt.

In a written statement dated April 19, 1912, President William Howard Taft eulogized, “His character was a simple one in the sense that he was incapable of intrigue or insincerity.  He was gentle and considerate to every one, high and low.  He never lost, under any conditions, his sense of proper regard to what he considered the respect due to constituted authority.  He was an earnest member of the Episcopal Church, and loved that communion.  He was a soldier, every inch of him; a most competent and successful quartermaster, and devotee of his profession.”

Butt, a member of both the Taft and the Theodore Roosevelt administrations, voyaged on the Titanic with his housemate, Francis Davis Millet, who was a painter, a sculptor, and a journalist.  Another member of Washington’s power circle, “Millet served as vice chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, a committee that has review over the ‘design and aesthetics’ of construction within Washington, D.C.,” states the National Park Service on its web site.  “The commission is also partly responsible for the design and plan of the National Mall, just a short walk from the fountain.”

NPS.gov also affirms that Millet, married with three children, had “several same-sex relationships in his life.”  Rumors about a homosexual relationship surround the duo; by all accounts, Butt and Millet are the only United States government officials to die on the Titanic.  Sculpted by Daniel Chester French, the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain on the Ellipse honors them.

Distraught by Butt’s death, Taft declined to attend Opening Day for the Washington Senators on April 19th—four days after the Titanic sunk.  “It was a crowd prepared to be enthusiastic, but the blight of the saddest story of the seas’ history could not be cast off.  One year previously President Taft had attended, throwing the first ball, and Maj. Archie Butt had been with him in the chief executive’s box,” reported Joe S. Jackson in the Washington Post.  “Yesterday the President could not be present for obvious reasons, and the many friends of his late aid were forced to absent themselves in deference to his memory.  Vice President [James] Sherman was there, and as the representative of the administration and of official life here, threw the first ball out onto the diamond.

In 1910, Taft inaugurated the tradition of throwing out the first ball.

The Senators blanked the Philadelphia Athletics 6-0 to kick off the 1912 season, an impressive feat considering the A’s were the World Series champions.  Walter Johnson struck out eight, walked two, contributed two hits to the Senators’ tall of 10, and stranded six A’s on base.  Except for the sixth inning, the A’s never had two players on base.

1912 was a banner year for Johnson, who overpowered American League lineups like a sledgehammer to a thumbtack; the “Train” led the major leagues with:

  • 303 strikeouts
  • .908 WHIP (Walks + Hits / Innings Pitched)
  • 1.39 ERA

It was the first of four times that Johnson had the best ERA in the major leagues.

Another 1912 standout for the Senators was outfielder Clyde Milan, who led the major leagues with 88 stolen bases.  In addition, Milan stood tall against American League batters in several categories:

  • Tied for 3rd in singles
  • Tied for 2nd in games played
  • 9th in runs scored
  • 3rd in at bats

Washingtonians rejoiced in the Senators’ record of 91-61 in 1912.  Though respectable, it trailed the Red Sox by a highly significant margin—Boston’s ballplayers notched a 105-47 record, led the American League in attendance, and defeated the New York Giants in the World Series.

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

McGraw and McGillicuddy

Friday, March 10th, 2017

One was pugnacious.  The other, almost regal.

When John Joseph McGraw took the field, he embraced baseball games as bouts, thus earning his nicknames Mugsy and Little Napoleon.

When Cornelius McGillicuddy managed the Philadelphia Athletics, he wore a suit rather than a uniform.

They were, certainly, opposites with a respect that ran deeper than the Hudson River.

Connie Mack—McGillicuddy’s more familiar moniker—managed the Athletics ball club from its genesis in 1901 until 1950.  When Mack passed away in 1956, it marked the end of a lengthy baseball tenure that began at the end of the 19th century—from 1894 to 1896, Mack was a player-manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This came after playing in the major leagues for 11 years; in addition to Pittsburgh, Mack played for Buffalo and Washington.  Mack’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site honors innovation in the catcher position:  “Mack was one of the first catchers to play directly behind home plate instead of setting up by the backstop.  He was also famous for his abilities to fake the sound of a foul tip with his mouth and ‘tip’ opposing players’ bats during their swings.”

Mack’s 50-year governance of the A’s as a manager and a part owner resulted in five World Series championships and seven American League titles.  There were plenty of down years, too.  In 1915, the A’s had a 36-104 record— it began a 10-year run of losing seasons.  Eight winning seasons followed, including three consecutive American League pennants from 1929 to 1931.  The A’s won the World Series in 1929 and 1930.

Contrariwise to Mack’s aura of temperateness, John McGraw breathed flames.  Upon the death of the fiery New York Giants manager in 1934, New York Times writer John N. Wheeler opined that retirement a couple of years prior corresponded with a transition in the National Pastime.  “The game also had become more gentlemanly and, if you will take the word of an old-timer like the writer, less colorful,” wrote Wheeler.  “Not that there is any implication that John J. McGraw was not a gentleman, but when he went to wars he went to win.”

McGraw’s managerial career began with the Baltimore Orioles team that moved to New York after the 1902 season and became the Highlanders— the team later changed to the Yankees label.  McGraw was a Baltimore fixture, playing third base on the Oriole’s National League championship teams in the 1890s.

In the middle of the 1902 season, McGraw went to the New York Giants, where he became the symbol of toughness for the princes of the Polo Grounds.  And he brought several Orioles with him.  Under McGraw, the Giants won 10 National League pennants and seven World Series titles.

Mack and McGraw squared off in the World Series three times—1905, 1911, and 1913; the Giants own the 1905 contest and the A’s won the next two.

In 1937, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Connie Mack and John McGraw.  On McGraw’s Hall off Fame web site page, a quote from Mack summarizes his feelings toward his counterpart:  “There has been only one manager— and his name is McGraw.”

A version of this article appeared on March 17, 2016.

Indians, Red Sox, and the 1948 American League Playoff

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Cleveland’s baseball curriculum vitae has many bright points.  Examples include Bob Feller hurling three no-hitters, Larry Doby breaking the color line in the American League, and Quincy Trouppe leading the Buckeyes to a Negro League World Series championship in 1945.

There is also, of course, the fictional Indians team led by Rick Vaughn, Jake Taylor, and Pedro Cerrano in the 1989 film Major League.  This squad won the American League Eastern Division in a one-game playoff against the Yankees; it lost the league championship, a fact that occurred off-screen—audiences found out in Major League II, which depicted the captains of the Cuyahoga exorcising the previous season’s ghosts by winning the AL championship against the Chicago White Sox.

In 1948, under the leadership of player-manager Lou Boudreau, the Indians brought a World Series title to northeast Ohio.  But the road to victory had more curves than the Cuyahoga River.

An aura of anxiety covered Cleveland on the evening of September 24th, like the fog at the beginning of Dickens’s novel Bleak House—the Indians, the Yankees, and the Red Sox stood atop the American League in a triple tie.  Bostonians, meanwhile, savored the possibility of an all-Beantown World Series between the Red Dox and the Braves when the latter clinched the National League title on September 26th, thanks to a three-run blast by Bob Elliott agains the New York Giants in the first inning.  It was a sufficient cushion for a 3-2 victory; the win gave the Braves a National League pennant for the first time since the “Miracle Braves” accomplished the feat in 1914.

At the end of the season, the Indians and the Red Sox shared the top spot in the American League; the Yankees trailed by two games.  A one-game playoff at Fenway Park determined which team would represent the league in the World Series against the Braves.  On the morning of October 4th, the date of the playoff, Harold Kaese of the Boston Daily Globe acknowledged the emotional impact of the pennant race.  “When today’s game is played, this town figures to be flat on its back from nervous exhaustion,” wrote Kaese.  “Before the patient recovers enough to take sports nourishment, the entire football season is likely to have passed unnoticed and The Country Club curlers will be getting ready for the Stockton Cup bonspiel.”

Gene Bearden, a rookie hurler, held back the Red Sox in an 8-3 victory for the Indians.  A 20-7 pitcher with a league-leading 2.43 ERA in 1948, Bearden struck out six, walked five, and allowed five hit in the triumph for the Tribe.  Boudreau had a career day—four-for-four with two RBI, three runs scored, and a walk; two hits were home runs.

Indians third baseman Ken Keltner knocked in three runs, scored one run, and went three-for-five.  Center fielder Larry Doby had a two-for-five day with one run scored.

The 1948 World Series between the Indians and the Braves culminated with the crown going to the former in six games.  Boudreau tipped his cap to Bearden, who won one game in the series and saved the sixth and deciding game.  “It was his series all the way,” declared Boudreau in Clif Keane’s account for the Globe.  “That’s all I can say.  It was his year.  Don’t give me any credit.  It was Bearden.”

Kaese, meanwhile, urged Red Sox rooters to avoid disgust, dismay, and disappointment, particularly if those emotions targeted utility player Sibby Sisti, who bunted into a double play to end the series.  “Think not unkindly” was Kaese’s repeated admonition.  For succor, Kaese pointed out deficits automatically placing the Red Sox at a disadvantage.  Plus, the Red Sox matched or surpassed the Indians in some areas.

“The Indians had to play National League ball to beat the Braves,” rationalized Kaese.  “They won because the had three excellent pitchers, whereas the Braves had only two—John Sain and Warren Spahn.  They won because they were a little sharper in the field, a little more timely at bat.

“The Braves scored as many runs (17) as the Indians.  They out-hit the Indians (.231 to .199).  They out-slugged the Indians (61 total bases to 57).”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 12, 2016.

Urban Faber’s World Series

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Urban Clarence “Red” Faber played in the 1917 World Series like Andrew Carnegie governed the steel industry—with dominance.  Faber spearheaded the Chicago White Sox to a World Series championship by winning three games against John McGraw and the New York Giants.

Before the World Series began, Chicago Daily Tribune sports writer I. E. Sanborn analyzed Faber’s ability. “He has a world of stuff and a deadly curve to mi with his spit ball, but is inclined to wildness,” wrote Sanborn.  “Faber’s one failing is a tendency to put too much on the ball when an opponent first faces him.  The result, if the man is a good waiter, is a near base on balls, compelling Faber to let up and put the ball where the batsman wants it.”

After winning the first game, the White Sox sent Faber to the mound on October 8th for the second game.  Chicago won 7-2, compiling 14 hits to New York’s eight; neither team had a home run.  With the score tied at two apiece after the second inning, Chicago put five runs on the scoreboard in the fourth inning.  Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson each had three hits; their combined RBI total of three would have been enough to win the game—Weaver had one RBI and Jackson had two.

Sanborn underscored Faber’s performance, running error, and hometown pride.  “Red Urban Faber made Cascade, Ia., famous the world over as long as the world may last,” wrote Sanborn.  “Not only did the Cascade ido pitch as strong game, for which he long will be remembered, but in the fifth inning he staged a classic ‘Barry’ by trying to steal third base, which already was occupied by Buck Weaver, and that feat never will be forgotten.  ‘A thousand, thousand years’ from now it will be dug up by the historians as the feature of the 1917 world’s series.”

Faber lost the fourth game, then returned to the mound two days later.  Chicago beat New York 8-5 as both teams put on hitting displays—14 hits for Chicago, 12 hits for New York.

In the sixth and deciding game, Faber evidence Sanborn’s forecast.  In the New-York Tribune, W. J. Macbeth wrote, “His was a style made to order for a batting outfit of the Giant Kind if [Manager John] McGraw’s sluggers had only patience.  Faber tried to put everything he had on every pitch.  When a pitcher does this, as a rule, he affects his control.  It was so with Faber yesterday.  But the Giants simply refused to permit the Chicago twirler to ‘dutch’ himself.  If New York batters had been patient it is more than likely Faber would have been in hot water often.”

Three unearned runs in the fourth inning provided a sufficient cushion to win the game.  Final score:  4-2.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Faber in 1964, along with Luke Appling, Heinie Manush, Burleigh Grimes, Miller Huggins, Tim Keefe, and John Ward.  Faber’s page on the Hall of Fame web site indicates the respect showered by McGraw, who said, “That fellow has a lot of stuff.  He’s got the best drop curve that I’ve seen along the line for some time.  And his spitter is a pippin’, too.”

After a 20-year career, Faber retired with a  254-213 record, 3.15 Earned Run Average, and 111 home runs allowed; he won 20 games or more in three consecutive year, 1920-1922.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 28, 2016.

Welch’s Wizardry

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

Pitchers can become overwhelming forces during a season.

Denny McLain went 31-6 in 1968.

Nolan Ryan struck out more than 300 batters in a season five times.

Ron Guidry’s 25 wins in 1978 comprised exactly 25% of the Yankees’ 100 victories.

In 1985, Dwight Gooden compiled a 24-4 record in addition to leading the major leagues in ERA, strikeouts, complete games, and innings pitched.

Walter Johnson burned through American League lineups like a torch through oil-soaked rags in 1913, ending the season with a 36-7 record.  His 1.14 ERA is the second-lowest for a single season.

1885 belonged to Mickey Welch of the New York Giants.  With a 44-11 record, Welch’s victories accounted for more than half of the Giants’ total.  Welch’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site notes that “Smiling Mickey” completed all 55 games that he started, won 17 consecutive games, and tallied a 1.66 ERA.  In addition, he struck out 258 batters.

Baseball historian Bill Lamb denoted the difference between Welch and Timothy Keefe, another Giants standout on the mound, in his biography of Welch for the Society for American Baseball Research Biography Project.  “But away from the field, Welch and Keefe were polar opposites,” wrote Lamb.  “Keefe was a quiet, serious man, reserved, almost aloof in manner, and he sported the handlebar mustache near-ubiquitous among the ballplayers of the 1880s.  In contrast, the clean-shaven Welch was a fun-lover.  Although he reputedly refrained from tobacco, swearing, and hard liquor, Mickey was a fabled beer drinker, given to composing impromptu ditties about his favorite beverage.  He also frequently entertained teammates, companions, and other bar-goers with a fine Irish tenor singing voice.

In his 1988 book The Giants of the Polo Grounds:  The Glorious Times of Baseball’s New York Giants, Noel Hynd wrote, “Welch was quickly developing into one of the most prolific beer drinkers of the nineteenth century, one reason he was always said to be smiling.  Welch loved his suds so dearly that he was even given to writing rhymes and jingles about them, then setting the verses to music.”

Ultimately, the Chicago White Stockings defeated the Giants for the 1885 National League pennant by two games.  An August 31st article in the New-York Tribune emphasized the team’s lack of attention as a source of losses.  “The New-York nine ought to have the lead instead of being one game behind,” stated the Tribune.  “It cannot be denied that the New-York men have lost several games through over-confidence.  They considered their opponents to be of little consequence and the mistake has cost them dearly.  Every player in the club, however, is determined to win the pennant, if hard work during the remainder of the season can win it, and no more careless playing will be tolerated.”

Welch won 30 or more games four times in his career; for his five years in the major leagues preceding the 1885 season, Welch racked up 113 victories.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 22, 2016.

The Trade

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants enjoy synonymity—you can’t think of one entity without the other.  It wasn’t always that way, however.

Big Six, as Mathewson became known, began his major league tenure with the Cincinnati Reds.  John Brush owned part of the Reds and the Giants—a formerly permitted financial arrangement in the paradigm of the major leagues—and devised the plan to send Mathewson to New York.

The article “What if Christy Mathewson had remained a Red?” on the Cincinnati Reds official web site explains, “Brush had long had designs on owning the Giants and was actively negotiating to take control when Christy Mathewson was signed by New York in 1900.  Mathewson struggled in six games with the Giants and was summarily sent back to the minor league club he had been acquired from.  The Reds jumped at the chance to sign him and did so for $100.  Brush knew what he had in Mathewson and also knew that he wanted him to be pitching in New York when he took over the Giants.”

Brush’s plan involved trading Mathewson to the Reds for Amos Rusie, nicknamed the “Hoosier Thunderbolt.”  Rusie’s Hall of Fame plaque states, “Generally considered fireball king of nineteenth-century moundsman, notched better than 240 victories in ten-year career, achieved 30-victory mark four years in row and won 20 or more games eight successive times.  Led league in strikeouts five years and led or tied for most shutouts five times.”

Rusie, towards the end of his career, invoked the rare device of holding out.  Consequently, he did not play in 1896, 1899, or 1900; an 0-1 record in 1901 finished his tenure in the major leagues.

In the 1979 Sports Illustrated article “When Amos Rusie Was on the Mound Cathers Didn’t Get the Lead Out,” Al Rainovic extolled Rusie’s prowess.  “Rusie was easily the fastest pitcher major league baseball [sic] had seen,” declared Rainovic.  “Even though a pitcher in the 1890s had to get three untouched strikes to record a strikeout, Rusie marched them back to the benches at the then imposing rate of one every two innings.  In 1889 when the National League decided to drop Indianapolis and Washington and go with eight clubs instead of 10, Rusie and seven other players were sold for an estimated $60,000 by Indianapolis to New York.”

It was a curious trade, given Rusie’s waning years.  In his 1988 book The Giants of the Polo Grounds: The Glorious Times of Baseball’s New York Giants, Noel Hynd examined the circumstances.  “Why, then, did Brush want Rusie?  He didn’t,” posited Hand.  “Brush already knew he was on his way to New York and that was where he wanted Mathewson.  In the meantime, however, he wished to safeguard Matty’s contract before [Giants owner] Andrew Freedman could double-cross him.”

In the first season after the trade, Mathewson flourished with the Giants, compiling a 20-17 record, striking out 221 batters, and notching his first of two no-hitters.  Mathewson’s endurance manifested as well; the hurler completed 36 of 40 games—this, after going o-3 with the Giants in 1900.

Mathewson’s 1901 season forecast greatness, which resulted in a career win-loss record of 373-188, more than 2,500 strikeouts, and membership in the first group of Baseball Hall of Fame inductees in 1936.

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

The Amazing Season of Timothy Keefe

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

In 1888, Timothy Keefe won 19 consecutive games for the New York Giants.  Or did he?

On July 16th, Keefe left the mound in the second inning of a game against the Chicago White Stockings—he played the rest of the game in the outfield.  Buck Ewing, the Giants catcher and field manager, moved Keefe to protect him from wearing out during a fantastic pitching streak.  At the time, a pitcher did not need to be on the mound for a minimum of five innings to receive an official victory in his record.

Keefe’s outstanding performance, despite the squabbles that may arise regarding the impact of the July 16th game, underscored a fantastic year for the Giants as they penetrated the National League competition to meet the St. Louis Browns in the World Series.  New York’s beloved team emerged as the champion.

When the season began, though, Keefe created clouds of question marks that hovered over the New York sunshine when he held out for a higher salary.  In the April 11th edition of the New-York Tribune, Keefe remained fortnight but firm in his quest.  “I was just thinking about taking a train for Boston,” revealed Keefe.  “I guess I will remain over, however, a day or two, and see if the difference in salary cannot be settled.  I want $4,000 and will sign with the club when I get it and not before.  I am satisfied with the New York Club and have always been treated right by the management, but I think I am worth that amount to the club and will not sign until I get it.  I don’t want my release, and neither do I want to go to any other club.  I would rather play in New York than any place else in the country.”

Tribune editorial on April 15th praised the hurler, who went 35-12 in 1888.  “Keefe is a wonderful pitcher, of course, probably the best in the country today.  The local club cannot very well get along without him, and he never loses sight of that fact.”  Further, the newspaper took the position that Keefe and John Montgomery Ward, another holdout, would reach a compromise with the team’s management.

They did.

Keefe’s 1888 statistics reflect his dominance—leading the major leagues in winning percentage (.745), shutouts (8), and strikeouts (335).  Additionally, Keefe’s 1.74 Earned Run Average led the National League.

It was a time full of glory in New York.  To begin his 1952 book The New York Giants: An Informal History of  Great Baseball Club, Frank Graham described the 1880s from its societal elements to its grimy underbelly.  “This was New York in the elegant eighties and these were the Giants, fashioned in elegance, playing on the Polo Grounds, then at 110 Street [sic] and Fifth Avenue,” wrote Graham.

“It was the New York of the brownstone house and the gaslit streets, of the top hat and the hansom cab, of oysters and champagne and perfecto cigars, of Ada Rehan and Oscar Wilde and the young John L. Sullivan.  It also was the New York of the Tenderloin and the Bowery, of the slums and the sweat shops, of goats grazing among shanties perched on the rocky terrain of Harlem.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 1, 2016.

Willie Mays Returns to New York

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Important Person in Dodgers History?

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

George Chauncey may not immediately come to mind when discussing Dodgers history, assuming, of course, that he comes to mind at all.  Perhaps he should.  It was, after all, Chauncey who made  front office decision that, in retrospect, drastically improved, enhanced, and secured the team’s iconic status, especially in its locus of Brooklyn.

A co-owner of the Brooklyn Wonders in the Players’ League, George Chauncey merged his operations with the National League’s Brooklyn squad when the league folded after its sole season of 1890.  It was a financial necessity born from the carnage created by the chaos of the Brotherhood War, a nickname bestowed on the Players’ League invading the rosters of the National League and the American Association for players; the NL and AA were the two major leagues at the time.  Unable to sustain itself, the Players’ League folded.

In 1898, original Brooklyn co-owner and team president Charley Byrne died, leaving a leadership vacancy.  Chauncey wanted Charles Ebbets to fill the position.  Ebbets had been with the Brooklyn organization since its first game in 1883, starting as an office clerk.  He knew every piece of the team’s operations, so he could provide a smooth transition, especially with first-hand knowledge of Byrne’s approach to management.  Chauncey enhanced the job offer to Ebbets with an ownership stake in the team.

Whether by divine inspiration, instinct, or business savvy, George Chauncey filled a vital position with a man who proved to a visionary, a hero, and a civic leader for Brooklyn’s fans.  Had Chauncey selected another person for the job, then the team’s history could have been altered.  Terribly.  What if Ebbets, feeling passed over or maybe restless for a new challenge, took an executive position with another team?  What if he became an executive in the National League, the American Association, or a minor league?  Then, he would never have been on a path to become the team’s sole owner, build Ebbets Field, and further a legacy of affection between the borough and its beloved Dodgers.

Ebbets saw his team as more than an investment.  Loyalty, indeed formed his philosophy.  A 1912 article about Ebbets in the New York Times highlighted this loyalty in the light of plans to build a new ballpark, which became his namesake.  Despite the financial burden, Ebbets manifested an unbreakable nexus to Brooklyn.  “I’ve made more money than I ever expected to, but I am putting all of it, and more too, into the new plant for the Brooklyn fans,” Ebbets said.  “Of course, it’s one thing to have a fine ball club and win a pennant, but to my mind there is something more important than that about a ball club.  I believe the fan should be taken care of.  A club should proved a suitable home for its patrons.  This home should be in a location that is healthy, it should be safe, and it should be convenient.”

Ebbets endured a cost requiring him to sell half the team to Steve and Ed McKeever, the stadium’s contractors.  Would another owner have submerged his financial interest for the team’s fans or moved to another city in pursuit of more lucrative pastures?  In a more severe scenario, an owner facing a financial quagmire may have dissolved the team and broken it into pieces for sale, following the adage that the parts are worth more separately than together.

Speculation, certainly, demands imagination to answer a constant stream of “What if…” questions.  In conversations about baseball, the stream is endless rather than constant.  What if George Steinbrenner  had bought the Indians instead of the Yankees—would an open checkbook have restored Cleveland’s baseball glory in the early years of free agency?  What if Nolan Ryan had stayed in New York—would the Mets have been a perennial World Series contender in the 1970s?  What if the Red Sox had never traded Babe Ruth—would the Yankees have been as dominant in the 1920s?

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 26, 1951.