Posts Tagged ‘New York Post’

The Tragedy of Ken McMullen

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Midnight Massacre

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Not since 1957, when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, had baseball in New York City suffered an emotional blow equivalent to the impact on June 15, 1977, when the New York Mets committed an unpardonable sin in the eyes of the Flushing Faithful by trading Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Midnight Massacre.

Seaver in another team’s uniform did not compute.  It was an incongruous thought.  Blasphemous, even.  Imagine Mickey Mantle playing for the Cleveland Indians, Sandy Koufax playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, or Al Kaline playing for the Chicago White Sox.  Nicknamed “The Franchise” for his importance to the team, Seaver was synonymous with the Mets.  Beginning in 1967, the Mets flourished in Seaver’s glorious achievements in the National League, including Rookie of the Year Award in 1967, three Cy Young Awards, and five seasons leading the league in strikeouts.  Indeed, Seaver was a cornerstone of the 1969 World Series championship team and the 1973 National League championship team that pushed the World Series against the dynastic Oakland A’s to seven games.

But the relationship between Seaver and the Mets frayed by June of 1977.  A media item severed it.  During Seaver’s 1977 contract negotiations, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote, “Nolan Ryan is getting more now than Seaver, and that galls Tom because Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver long has treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother.”

Young doubled down by attacking Seaver’s integrity:  “It comes down to this: Tom Seaver is jealous of those who had the guts to play out their option or used the threat of playing it out as leverage for a big raise—while he was snug behind a three-year contract of his choosing.  He talks of being treated like a man.  A man lives up to his contract.”

Three decades after the trade that sent Seaver to the Reds—in exchange for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, and Dan Norman—Daily News sports writer Bill Madden penned a retrospective of the events leading to the trade.  Seaver shared his insights for the piece:  “That Young column was the straw that broke the back.  Bringing your family into it with no truth whatsoever to what he wrote.  I could not abide that.  I had to go.”

It was the boiling point in a tumultuous relationship with Mets Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant, for whom Young advocated.  In the Madden article, Seaver said, “There are two things Grant said to me that I’ll never forget, but illustrate the kind of person he was and the total ‘plantation’ mentality he had.  During the labor negotiations, he came up to me in the clubhouse once and said: ‘What are you, some sort of Communist.’  Another time, and I’ve never told anyone this, he said to me: ‘Who do you think you are, joining the Greenwich Country Club?’  It was incomprehensible to him if you didn’t understand his feelings about your station in life.”

The Seaver trade devastated Mets fandom.  In the June 17, 1977 edition of the New York Times, Murray Schumach wrote, “The anger of New Yorkers was no secret at Shea Stadium, where the switchboard was flooded with telephone calls, mostly of protest, many of them very abusive in what was admittedly the strongest display of anger ever recorded in one day at the switchboard.”

Seaver returned to the Mets for the 1983 season, inspiring Young to revive the volcano that triggered Seaver’s demand for a trade.  In the December 22, 1982 edition of the New York Post, Young opined, “It took me half a column to get to this, didn’t it.  This is the tacky part when Tom Seaver asked the Mets to renegotiate his contract, which had two years to run.  Don Grant said no.  Tom Seaver had every right to ask for a new contract, and Don Grant had every right to say no.  Tom Seaver couldn’t accept that.

“That’s how I saw it, that’s how I wrote it.  You signed the contract, live with it.  Play the two years left at $225,000, then hit the free agent market and make your millions.  It’s there, waiting.”

Young’s analysis ignored Seaver’s honor, symbolized by acceptance of a 20% pay cut for the 1975 season after a lackluster 11-11 performance in 1974.  It was part of a “gentleman’s agreement” designed in September 1974 between Seaver and the Mets front office.  In the January 22, 1975 edition of the New York Times, Joseph Durso quoted Seaver in detailing the circumstances surrounding the salary drop:  “Don Grant and I were talking one day and he brought it up.  No, I wasn’t disturbed that I got a cut after one bad year.  The ball club’s been very good and honest with me, and I with them.  They paid me a good amount of money last year and I didn’t pitch up to that amount.”

In 1975, Tom Seaver went 22-9, won the National League Cy Young Award, and led the National League with 243 strikeouts.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 15, 2015.

Robinson vs. Buckley

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Jackie Robinson, the black knight who rescued baseball from the claws of segregation, accomplished his mission neither immediately nor solitarily.  His was a burden of entrenched bigotry, racial taunts, and blind ignorance.  When Branch Rickey selected Robinson, his decision turned a corner of racism in baseball previously thought impossible to navigate. Robinson chose to do his talking with his bat, his glove, and his legs.  A man of unyielding dedication, he endured the bad so that others could benefit from the good.

After Robinson’s début year of 1947, major league teams siphoned players from the Negro Leagues, leading to their dismantling by the end of the 1950s.  The Boston Red Sox integrated last when Elijah “Pumpsie” Green took the field in 1959.  Latino players also became bedrock members of major league teams.  No longer under the umbrella of exclusion, minority players broadened the prospects for scouts and owners looking to amplify lineups with the best available players.

When Robinson retired after the 1956 season, one of his several post-baseball paths involved civil rights.  Robinson voiced his opinions in newspaper columns for the New York Post and the New York Amsterdam News.  Michael G. Long compiled an anthology of these pieces in the 2013 book Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball.  Long’s annotations give context to Robinson’s missives.

In his August 22, 1960 Post column for titled “Just How Important Is Civil Rights,” Robinson wrote, “It seems to me it is very easy to tell others to stop rocking the boat and concentrate on the passing scenery when you are comfortably riding inside and the ‘others’ are struggling to get on board.  It should take no special spectacles to be able to see that people who are barred—often by law—from full and equal participation in our national life are naturally going to be more concerned about removing those bars than they are in joining the debate over eliminating the national debt or what shall we do about Castro.”

Robinson, a civil rights pioneer, chose to continue his battle for equality by leaning on his writing, speaking, and celebrity status.  On August 4, 1964, Robinson appeared on The Les Crane Show with Shelley Winters and William F. Buckley for a discussion about Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.  Robinson was a Rockefeller Republican, i.e., a moderate conservative.

In his autobiography I Never Had It Made, Robinson explained his encounter with Buckley, a harbinger of the right wing, and his reliance on a sports strategy: “When you know that you are going to face a tough, tricky opponent, you don’t let him get the first lick.  Jump him before he can do anything and stay on him, keeping him on the defensive.  Never let up and you rattle him effectively.  When the show opened up—before Buckley could get into his devastating act of using snide remarks, big words, and the superior manner—I lit right into him with the charge that many influential Goldwaterites were racists.  Shelley Winters piled in behind me, and Buckley scarcely got a chance to collect his considerable wit.”

The Les Crane Show was a late night talk program on ABC during the 1964-65 television season.  Though the pioneer of a format later embraced by television icon Phil Donahue, Crane fell to NBC’s The Tonight Show, a national brand with a decade of broadcasting tenure, proved its dominance.  Donahue began his legendary career in Dayton in 1967, evolving into a daytime programming staple for nearly 30 years.

Crane’s daughter Caprice wears several writer hats, including screenwriter, television writer for the sequels of Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, and author of five novels, including Confessions of a Hater and Stupid and Contagious.  She points out that her father used journalism to cover topics and people that others feared to explore.  “He created the shotgun mike,” says Crane of her dad, who passed away in 2008.  “He had guests who did not provide the typical fluff, for example, Malcolm X, Bob Dylan, and the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald.  He had the first publicly gay man on his show.  He was also an amazing listener who helped create a new television format that demanded more information for the listener.  The Les Crane Show didn’t last long because the person who tries the new thing always gets penalized.  People are afraid of the unknown until it becomes mainstream.”

A renaissance media man for the second half of the 20th century, Crane held interests and influences beyond journalism.  “My dad gave The Mamas and the Papas group its name,” reminds Caprice Crane.  “Casey Kasem credited him with inventing the Top 40 radio format at KRLA.  He also got into the computer business before it was big.  His company was Software Tool Works, which produced the Chess Master computer program.  He was always before his time.”

Crane’s innovative format allowed one of baseball’s biggest heroes to debate one of conservatism’s biggest allies.  Nowhere on television in the mid-1960s could audiences see this type of television fodder.  Unfortunately, The Les Crane Show fell victim to a common policy of television networks destroying tapes because of the shortsighted view that future generations would not be interested.  How wrong they were.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 20, 2014.