Posts Tagged ‘New York Herald Tribune’

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.

The Death of Lou Gehrig

Friday, March 31st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Hall of Fame Case for Harvey Kuenn

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

There are coaches and managers who approach baseball with a Lombardi-like focus on winning without the trademark Lombardi philosophy of striving to obtain psychological, emotional, and physical fulfillment through 100% effort.  Their desire to win is pure.  Their process, deadening.

Harvey Kuenn was not one of these leaders.

“Look, you guys can flat out hit, so go out there and have fun.  Don’t be stone-faced on the bench.  If a guy breaks a bat, laugh about it and he’ll laugh with you.  When you laugh and have fun, you get relaxed,” said Kuenn, when he ascended from being the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach to managing the team in the middle of the 1982 season, according to an article by Skip Myslenski in the Chicago Tribune, before the American League playoffs.  Kuenn steered the Brewers around after taking over the team with a 23-34 record; the Brewers finished the season at 95-67.

Harvey’s Wallbangers, a pun nickname, reached the World Series in 1982—the Brewers lost to the Cardinals in seven games.

Kuenn shot to baseball prominence when he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 as a member of the Detroit Tigers.  “The rookie’s success is a rare example of general baseball prophecy coming true,” stated the New York Herald-Tribune.  “From the start of spring training last year, a brilliant future was predicted for Kuenn.  However, Fred Hutchinson, the Tiger manager, said only that Harvey would start the season at short.  Kuenn not only started, but finished there, playing in 155 games.”

Kuenn played for the Tigers, the Indians, the Giants, the Cubs, and the Phillies in a 15-year major league career as a shortstop, a third baseman, and an outfielder.  With a .303 career batting average, Kuenn ranks in the upper echelon of batters.  He does not, however, have a Hall of Fame plaque.  Though a .300 plateau is not, perhaps, an automatic measure for Cooperstown, Kuenn’s other achievements, collectively, boost advocacy for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

  • Led the American League in hits four times and the major leagues once
  • Won the 1959 AL batting championship
  • Made the American League All-Star lineup eight consecutive years
  • Led the American League in doubles three times and the major league twice

One argument against Hall of Fame inclusion is Kuenn’s career RBI figure—671—though one can counter that RBI is a function of opportunity rather than hitting ability.  Also, though Kuenn’s career 950 runs scored is not an overwhelming statistic, by any means, a similar counter applies; if Kuenn is on base safely, which occurred regularly, a teammate must perform for scoring to occur.

When the Tigers traded Kuenn to the Indians for Rocky Colavito at the beginning of the 1960 season, team president Bill DeWitt certified the rationale.  “I have a high regard for Kuenn’s ability as a player,” said DeWitt in an Associated Press article.  “But we felt we needed more power at the plate and we’re hopeful this move will help us score more runs.”  Tiger manager Jimmie Dykes revealed, “It was a deal in which we had to trade consistency for power.”  Indeed.  In 1959, while Kuenn led the American League in batting average, Colavito led in home runs—42.

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

22 Innings, 7 Hours

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

Baseball, unlike other sports, has no boundary of time.  On June 24, 1962, the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers issued a reminder at Tiger Stadium.  It took 22 innings, seven hours; an epic test of endurance inched the players toward completing the contest, which ended in a 9-7 Yankee victory.  At the time, it was the longest game in elapsed time, a record that has since been broken.

43 players participated—21 Yankees, 22 Tigers.  Each team used seven pitchers.  Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson had the most at bats (11), Tiger left fielder Rocky Colavito had the most hits (7), and Yankee third baseman Clete Boyer and Tiger right fielder Purnal Goldy tied for the most RBI (3).

Jack Reed punctured the standoff with a two-run homer, his only round-tripper in a three-year career.  Reed’s smash came off Phil Regan, “a righthander with a herky-jerk delivery,” as described by Tommy Holmes of the New York Herald-Tribune.

A replacement for Mickey Mantle in the later innings of Yankee games, Reed had a career batting average of .233 through 222 games.

In his “Ward to the Wise” column in the New York Daily News on April 18, 1963, Gene Ward highlighted Reed, with the subtitle “The Unknown Yankee.”  “It doesn’t seem possible a man can play with the Yankees and remain an unknown,” wrote Ward.  “But the 30-year-old Reed, in his 10th year with the organization, is unknown only in the sense that kids don’t gang up on him for autographs and his name isn’t emblazoned in headlines.  He never has been a regular, although he appeared in 88 games last year, compiling a .302 BA, and his chances to play come only when Mantle or Maris turn up ailing.

“But as far as the Yankee brass is concerned, and [Yankee manager Ralph] Houk in particular, Reed is a known and valuable quantity.”

Indeed, Houk offered high praise about Reed’s baseball skills.  Intangibles received equal acclaim.  “He’s a college graduate and highly intelligent.  He likes to talk baseball.  I never receive bad reports on him and he never gripes.  He’ll pitch batting practice and he’ll take second infield,” said the Yankees skipper.

Reed’s dedication was apparent.  Ward quoted, “It’s a privilege to work for an organization like this and to play under a man like Mr. Houk,” said the man who wore #27 in pinstripes.

Five years after Reed homered into baseball history, Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press revealed that the marathon game’s seven-hour length benefited from a slight nudge.  As the game’s official scorer, Falls held the power to change history.  And so he did.

In his April 1, 1967 column, subtitled “A Writer Discovers That Fame’s Fleeting,” Falls described looking at the clock after Reed’s dinger—it appeared to show 8:29 p.m., which gave the game a length of six hours, 59 minutes.  “But my clever little mind was still working sharply,” wrote Falls.  “I figured:  ‘Who’ll ever remember 6:59 as the longest game in baseball history.

“So I shouted out the time.  ‘Seven hours!’  All the guys applauded.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 15, 2016.

New Owners in the Bronx

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

During the waning days of World War II, ownership of the New York Yankees transitioned—Dan Topping, Del Webb, and Larry MacPhail grouped to purchase the Yankees on January 26, 1945 from the heirs of Colonel Jacob Ruppert.  $2.75 million changed hands for 86.88 per cent, according to the New York Herald Tribune‘s Rud Rennie, who also reported that team president Ed Barrow sold his 10 per cent interest to the Topping-Webb-MacPhail trio for “an estimated $250,000.”  Ruppert’s brother George, nephew Ruppert Schalk, and niece Anna Dunn owned the remaining 3.12 per cent.

Financial realities for Ruppert’s estate generated the sale.  Rennie wrote, “Ever since Colonel Ruppert died, the sale of the club has been necessary to realize funds for the administration of the estate.  The government’s appraisal of the estate was prohibitive to the sale of the club.  Eventually, the government agreed to use the sale price as the real valuation.”

Topping’s life seems like fodder for a B-movie during the studio system era.  In the Topping biography for the Society for American Baseball Research Baseball Biography Project, Daniel R. Levitt and Mark Armour wrote, “Dan Topping enjoyed a ‘sportsman’ lifestyle we seldom see anymore in America, one founded on inherited wealth, some athletic ability, and active involvement in professional or other sports.  The life also often entailed a playboy youth and multiple attractive socialite wives.  Topping fit the mold perfectly.

Further, Topping added a celebrity factor to his persona when he married ice skating icon Sonja Henie.

Funded by his success in construction, Del Webb diversified his portfolio with his ownership stake in the Yankees, which, in turn, aided his construction projects.  In his 1999 obituary of Webb, A. D. Hopkins of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote, “Yankees tickets clinched deals for corporate construction contracts and made Webb a friend to senators with porkbarrel [sic] projects to build.”

MacPhail was a baseball legend by the time he invested in the Yankees.  As General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds, MacPhail introduced night baseball to the major leagues.  During his tenure in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ front office, MacPhail forged an unbreakable link with the fans.

In a 1941 profile for The New Yorker, Robert Lewis Taylor wrote, “Bellicose, red-faced, and clownish, he is the idol of a community which demands such qualities of its heroes.  The people there are comfortable in the knowledge that MacPhail will take care of all disparagers of their baseball team.  He never disappoints them.  His command of vituperation and eagerness to battle for the Brooklyn team have made him, by extension, a kind of borough defender.”

After the 1942 season, MacPhail departed from baseball to join the war effort as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Service of Supply.

Upon the purchase of the Yankee ball club, MacPhail asserted his leadership.  In the 1987 book The Roaring Redhead:  Larry MacPhailBaseball’s Great Innovator, Don Warfield wrote, “As the season started it became more and more evident that there was really only one person running the show.  The quiet and talented Barrow, newly elected to the title of Chairman of the Board, became extraneous and pretty much a figurehead.  In reality, it was no one’s fault.  When MacPhail was involved in an enterprise, especially when he was an owner of a third of that enterprise and its president, there was really not much authority left to go around.”

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

Mazeroski, Pittsburgh, and the 1960 World Series

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

At 3:37 p.m. on October 14, 1960, Bill Mazeroski became a blue-collar legend.  A stellar second baseman with eight Gold Gloves, Mazeroski played his entire 17-year career in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, never more prominent than in the moment he slammed a Ralph Terry pitch into the stands at Forbes Field.  And thus, the Pirates won the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees, a team stocked with icons named Mantle, Maris, Berra, Ford, and Howard.

In the New York Herald Tribune, legendary sportswriter Red Smith wrote, “Terry watched the ball disappear, brandished his glove hand high overhead, shook himself like a wet spaniel, and started fighting through the mobs that came boiling from the stands to use Mazeroski like a Trampoline.”

It was a victory steeped in fantasy.  The Yankees dominated baseball after World War II, winning 11 of 13 World Series between 1947 and 1964, so their presence in the 1960 edition of the Fall Classic was, in no small measure, a foregone conclusion.  Scores reflected Yankee excellence—the Bronx Bombers won Game Two, Game Three, and Game Six with scores of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0, respectively.  Pittsburgh’s triumphs in the remaining games had closer scores, none with a differential more than three runs.  In Game Seven, the lead changed hands several times before Mazeroski’s blast in the bottom of the ninth inning ended the contest with a score of 10-9.

“The accepted storyline of the 1960 World Series was that the New York Yankees hammered the Pittsburgh Pirates with haymakers, but the Bucs won the match on a split decision,” wrote Thad Mumau in his 2015 book Had ‘Em All the Way.  Yankee manager Casey Stengel, according to Mumau, led with baseball acumen contrasted by intuition flooded by over-thinking strategies for Mantle et al.  Mumau wrote, “He was a superior handler of personnel.  But he operated on instinct as much as guile, and sometimes his hunches fizzled.  Not just in terms of the immediate results, but also in terms of the whiplash effect on his players.  He loved playing chess on newspapers’ sports pages.  The pawns were not always amused.”

Bing Crosby, a 20th century entertainer at the apex of the Hollywood food chain, owned part of the Pirates.  With a bankroll built by success in music and in films, Crosby further feathered his financial cushion with business dealings, including a slice of Minute Maid Orange Juice.  Crosby’s dedication to the Pirates submerged to nerves in 1960—to avoid watching the World Series, he went to Paris with his wife, Kathryn; the Crosbys listened to Game Seven on the radio.  For future viewing, Crosby arranged for a recording of the game by kinescope, a process of filming a television screen.  In December 2009, nearly 50 years later, an executive of Bing Crosby Productions discovered the film while excavating the crooner’s thorough preservation of acting and singing performances for a possible DVD release authorized by the Bing Crosby estate.

It was the equivalent of Indiana Jones finding the Lost Ark.  In the web site The Daily Beast, baseball writer Allen Barra quoted Nick Trotta, a licensing executive for MLB Productions, regarding the film’s rarity:  “We have film footage going all the way back to 1905, but only a handful of complete baseball games before 1965.  For decades, it was the home park’s obligation to record a game, and the process was very costly.  It’s a shame, but the truth is that nobody knew in which games Willie Mays was going to make a spectacular circus catch or Mickey Mantle was going to hit a 565-foot home run.  We have newsreels of the great World Series moments, but very few entire games.”

Mazeroski had 138 career home runs, but he is best remembered for one swing that injected a tidal wave of pride throughout Pittsburgh on an October afternoon.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 30, 2015.

Monty Stratton, Jimmy Stewart, and Hollywood

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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