Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

The Year the Yankees Won the Tonys

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

In 1956, Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series, and Whitey Ford led the major leagues in Earned Run Average.  It was also the year of another World Series championship for the Bronx Bombers, further emphasizing the team’s dominance in the 20-year period after World War II.

The Yankees represented a source of drama beyond ballparks in 1956—Damn Yankees, based on Douglas Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, got a plethora of recognition in the form of Tony Awards for:

  • Best Musical
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Ray Walston)
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Gwen Verdon)
  • Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Russ Brown)
  • Best Conductor and Musical Director (Hal Hastings)
  • Best Choreography (Bob Fosse)
  • Best Stage Technician (Harry Green)

Damn Yankees also got a nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Rae Allen).

Ray Walston played the Devil, also known as Applegate, in Damn Yankees. Convincing a hapless Washington Senators fan to sell his soul for the chance to lead the Senators to baseball glory made Applegate an epic character in popular culture.  “Mr. Walston was satanic with a wry twist, underplaying a role that could have become villainous and singing wistfully about death and destruction in ‘Those Were the Good Old Days,'” wrote Mel Gussow in his 2001 obituary of Walston for the New York Times.  Lewis Funke praised Walston in his analysis of Damn Yankees when the show débuted in 1955:  “Authoritative and persuasive, he does not overdo a role that easily could become irritating in less expert hands.”

Gwen Verdon was a theater touchstone, winning four Tony Awards in her career.  Married to legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, Vernon had abundant work as a guest star on television, including roles on WebsterGimme a Break!M*A*S*HFameDream OnThe Equalizer, and Touched by an Angel.  Verdon’s body of work in movies includes The Cotton Club and Cocoon.

Los Angeles Times Theater Writer Don Shirley quoted Times dance critic Lewis Segal in his 2000 obituary of the dancer:  “Verdon was to Broadway dance what Ethel Merman was to Broadway song; an archetypal personality whose talents inspired the best from those who created works for her.  More than anyone, Fosse continually mined her saucy yet vulnerable stage persona for new facets, using her as a living anthology of show-dance style.”

Shirley wrote, “Her dancing was characterized by her ability to make the most intricate technical choreography look spontaneous and almost carefree.”

Walston and Vernon reprised their roles for the 1958 movie version of Damn Yankees.  Tab Hunter took on the role of Joe Hardy, a standout with the Senators, thanks to the machinations of Applegate.  Stephen Douglass played the role on Broadway.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 18, 2016.

Cooperstown’s Hall of Fa(r)mers

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Given America’s roots as an agrarian nation, it is appropriate that the legend of baseball’s birth begins in a Cooperstown cow pasture; Doubleday Field, just a baseball throw from the Hall of Fame, occupies the spot where the myth—long since debunked—of Abner Doubelday inventing baseball began.  It provides, at the very least, a nexus between farmers and the village’s world-famous icon located at 25 Main Street.

Goose Goslin worked on his family’s farm in southern New Jersey before journeying to the major leagues, which began by playing for DuPont’s company team.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968, Goslin retired in 1938 after 18 seasons.  Among his career statistics:

  • .316 batting average
  • 2,735 hits
  • .500 slugging percentage

The Hall of Fame web site quotes Goslin regarding his humble beginnings:  “I was just a big ol’ country boy havin’ the game of my life.  It was all a lark to me, just a joy ride.  Never feared a thing, never got nervous, just a big country kid from South Jersey, too dumb to know better.  Why I never even realized it was supposed to be big doin’s.  It was just a game, that’s all it was.  They didn’t have to pay me.  I’d have paid them to let me play.  Listen, the truth is it was more than fun.  It was heaven.”

Tom Seaver tasted success with a World Series championship, three Cy Young Awards, and 311 wins.  His palate presently determines quality of wine in Seaver Vineyards.  In a 2005 article for the New York Times, Eric Asimov profiled Seaver’s venture.  “I wanted to keep my name off it, so the wine could make its own name.  My daughter said, ‘Dad, you’re not living forever.  Your grandchildren will be running it one day.  You’re putting your name on it,'” Seaver explained.

Carl Yastrzemski spent his formative years working on his family’s Long Island potato farm before embarking on a career spent entirely in a Red Sox uniform.  He became a Boston icon, racking up:

  • 3,419 hits
  • .285 batting average
  • 452 home runs

On Yaz Day at the end of the Red Sox slugger’s last season—1983—Yastrzemski reminded, “I’m just a potato farmer from Long Island who had some ability.  I’m not any different than a mechanic, an engineer or the president of a bank.”

Ty Cobb, a member of the first Hall of Fame class, inducted in 1936, had farming in his DNA, thanks to the Cobb family farm in Georgia.  Knowsouthernhistory.net reveals that the future star gained respect from his father during one summer when he worked extra hours as punishment for pawning two of his father’s books—he needed the money to fix his glove.  “The fields looked good, and were growing well.  For some reason, this brought about a change in the older man’s attitude toward Ty, one that the young man never forgot.  W.H. began to confide in Tyrus about the market for cotton, the work animals, and the crops.  Thrilled with the sudden change in treatment from his father, Ty hurried out and won himself a job at a local cotton factory.  He ate up the information about growing, baling, processing, and marketing the crop and shared all that he learned with his father.  In turn, the Professor was happy with the boy making an effort to mature, and their bond strengthened.”

Tragedy struck the Cobb family when Ty’s mother mistook her husband for a burglar and shot him dead.  She was acquitted at trial.

In addition to Cooperstown’s farm connection, films have used farms as settings.  In the 1991 film Talent for the Game, Angels scout Virgil Sweet discovers Sammy Bodeen, an Idaho farm boy.  Bodeen’s promise is heightened in the public’s mind by a marketing campaign designed by Angels management.  It looks to be futile when Bodeen suffers a horrible first inning in his début before settling down, thanks to Sweet, who dons catcher’s gear for the second inning and calms Bodeen with empathy in a conference on the mound without anyone else figuring out his masquerade; Sweet catches Bodeen’s first career strikeout, presumably, the first of hundreds.  Thousands, perhaps.

In the 1984 film The Natural, the story of Roy Hobbs ends with a shot of him playing catch with the son of his paramour, Iris, on her farm.  The poster for The Natural depicts a photo of this scene.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 14, 2016.

Bobby Bonilla’s Payday

Friday, April 7th, 2017

At the turn of the 21st century, while the world scrambled to confront a Y2K threat to computers, Bobby Bonilla and the management of the New York Mets came to an agreement regarding salary—defer it.  Well, a lot of it.  From 2011 to 2035, Bonilla gets annual compensation somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.19 million.  This financial ritual happens every July 1st—a nice way to start the second half of the year for the Bronx native, a multiple defensive threat at third base first base, and right field.

Bonilla was owed $5.9 million by the fellas in blue and orange; his last year in a major league uniform was 2001.  Apparently, the Mets believed that the time value of money combined with comfortable returns from Bernie Madoff’s handling of accounts made the deferment a wise maneuver.  It was a financial mistake—serious, if not epic.

Madoff, of course, proved to be an expert disciple of the Ponzi School of Fraud, with a major in Deceit.

Bonilla’s was not the first deal to backfire.  And it will not be the last, certainly.  Desi Arnaz negotiated the rights to the negatives of I Love Lucy.  CBS acquiesced, figuring that nobody would watch an episode once it aired.  I Love Lucy became a juggernaut in reruns.

IBM calculated that profits came from the sale of computers, not computer software.  Consequently, it dismissed an opportunity to be a part of a little company started by a spectacled Harvard dropout from Washington state.  Microsoft.

And there’s Peter Minuit getting Manhattan Island from the Dutch for 60 guilders—$24 in beads.  Or so the legend goes.

Bonilla’s original deal, which closed in 1991, made him the “highest-paid player in team sports” because of an organization “with a flair for the dramatic and an unprecedented expenditure of cash,” wrote New York Times sports scribe Joe Sexton, who broke down the terms: guaranteed five-year contract, $27.5 million in base salary, and $1.5 million in a “promotional arrangement.”

It appeared to be a signal of a new era.  Eddie Murray, as much a fixture of Baltimore as the Fort McHenry National Monument, signed with the Mets in the same off-season.  “Bonilla may not be a colossal talent, but his acquisition registers an enormous impact on the Mets, the shifts that result likely to be felt in everything from the club’s public perception to its daily lineup,” opined Sexton.  “For Bonilla is both an engaging personality—his charisma can infect a clubhouse, his unaffected self-confidence can defuse the pressures of performance—and an intriguing offensive force.”

Bonilla had a 16-year career, playing with eight teams:

  • Pirates
  • Mets
  • Dodgers
  • Orioles
  • Marlins
  • Braves
  • Cardinals
  • White Sox

His career stats, though not in the Cooperstown sphere, are formidable:

  • .279 batting average
  • 2,010 hits
  • 408 doubles
  • 287 home runs
  • 1,084 runs scored
  • 1,173 RBI

Further, he cracked the barriers of a .300 batting average three times and 100 RBI or more four times.

For America, the beginning of July indicates the annual celebration of the country’s independence from Great Britain.  An omnipresence of memorabilia colored red, white, and blue envelops us, as do red and green five months hence.

For Roberto Martin Antonio Bonilla, the beginning of July indicates a seven-figure payment from a deferred compensation deal that will conclude in 2015.  No windfall, this.  It’s simply a creative structuring of salary.

Somewhere, Jack Benny is smiling.

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

Batman, Baseball, and 1966

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

1966 was the year of the superhero, thanks to Batman.  After the camp version premiered on ABC in January, starring Adam West in the title role, Batman triggered a fascination that inspired a slew of iconic guest villains:

  • Cesar Romero as the Joker
  • Burgess Meredith as the Penguin
  • Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as the Catwoman
  • Milton Berle as Louie the Lilac
  • Frank Gorshin and John Astin as the Riddler
  • Victor Buono as King Tut
  • Vincent Price as Egghead

Several others appeared in Gotham City’s Rogues Gallery.

Batman‘s format was simple.  A villain terrorizes Gotham City, igniting frustration of Police Commissioner Gordon and Police Chief O’Hara.  They call Batman on a secret telephone line which, unbeknownst to them, connects to a telephone at stately Wayne Manor, home of millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward, Dick Grayson.  Batman and Robin.  The Dynamic Duo.  The Caped Crusaders.

Typically, Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne’s butler, answers the telephone and slyly tells his employer about the urgent call without revealing the identity of the caller.  This, so other people in the room, for example, Wayne’s Aunt Harriet, do not learn of Wayne’s alter ego.

Neil Hamilton played Gordon; Stafford Repp played O’Hara; and Burt Ward played Grayson/Robin.

On June 25, 1966, Batman and the Riddler went to New York City, Gotham City’s real-life counterpart; Adam West and Frank Gorshin reprised their roles for a “Batman Concert” in front of approximately 3,000 fans at Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets.  Seven rock and roll groups were also on the bill.

When Batman showed up, “the 3,000 sounded like 30,000 now—as Batman circled the field in a Cadillac (the Batmobile was in for repairs, no doubt,” wrote Robert Sherman in the New York Times.

Gorshin took aim at the Mets’ woeful play.  One example pointed out by Sherman:  “Why are the Mets like my mother-in-law’s biscuits?  They both need a better batter.

Batman‘s success led to a slew of superheroes.  CBS labeled its Saturday morning cartoon block Super Saturday for the 1966-67 television season; shows included UnderdogSpace Ghost, and The New Adventures of Superman.

Though it set off a trend, Batman faded in appeal almost as quick as it catapulted to the throne of the popular culture kingdom.  ABC canceled the show after its third season.  A film version premiered in the summer of 1966.  Lee Meriwether played Catwoman.  West, Ward, Romero, Meredith, and Gorshin reprised their roles.

Managed by Wes Westrum, the Mets compiled a 66-95 record in 1966.  It was, in a sense, a breakthrough season—1966 was the first year that the Mets did not lose 100 or more games.  The barons of blue and orange finished in 9th place in the National League, 28 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, who got swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the ’66 World Series.  Additionally, three teams débuted new stadiums in 1966:

  • Atlanta Stadium (Braves)
  • Anaheim Stadium (Angels)
  • Busch Memorial Stadium (Cardinals)

Though the Mets finished 9th, it notched 2nd place in attendance for the Senior Circuit—1,932,693 of the Flushing Faithful went to Shea Stadium in 1966.

Loyalty abounds for the Mets, no matter the tally on the scoreboard.

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

The Hall of Fame Case for Lou Piniella

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Lou Piniella is one of baseball’s greatest journeymen—a player with the Orioles, the Indians, the Royals, and the Yankees, in addition to stints as a manager with the Yankees, the Reds, the Mariners, the Devil Rays, and the Cubs.

Piniella’s achievements as a manager include winning a World Series championship, AL Manager of the Year twice, and NL Manager of the Year once.  With 1,835 career wins, Piniella is #14 on the all-time list—ahead of Hall of Fame managers Earl Weaver, Wilbert Robinson, Al Lopez, Miller Huggins, Tommy Lasorda, and Clark Griffith.  Also, Piniella managed the Mariners to an American League single-season record of 116 wins in 2001.

And yet, Piniella is not graced with a plaque in the Hall of Fame.  Why?  Surely, his managerial success indicates a career deserving of inclusion into the exclusive club in Cooperstown, located at 25 Main Street.  And that success emanated from determination.  Piniella managed as he played—with fierceness to win and reluctance to lose.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner gave Piniella his first manager job.  Working for Steinbrenner came with legendary tension.  But in a 2002 article by Ira Berkow in the New York Times, Pinieall acknowledged the opportunity.  “I owe my managerial career to George,” said Piniella.  “He made me the manager and it was on-the-job training.  He saw something in me—I know he liked my intensity as a player—and he gave me a shot.”

“Intensity” to say the least.  Piniella had the resolve of a bull charging the matador.

For Yankee fans, Piniella was a fixture on the “Bronx Zoo” teams that brought three American League pennants and two World Series titles to Yankee Stadium in the late 1970s.  It was a volatile era, indeed.  When Reggie Jackson joined the Yankees before the 1977 season, Piniella knew a storm was brewing around the star player and manager Billy Martin that would have made the tornado from The Wizard of Oz look like a slight breeze.

“It was obviously going to be explosive,” said Piniella in Bill Pennington’s 2015 book Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius.  “And Billy was right, it did cause problems with Thurman [Munson] and Craig [Nettles].  But at the same time, let’s face it, Reggie was never Billy’s kind of player.  I think Billy did resent him a little.  He didn’t like most guys who called attention to themselves.”

On June 16, 1984, Piniella played in his last game.  Naturally, he had the game-winning RBI.  Even though Piniella went 0-for-5 on the day, his efforts contributed value to the Yankees beating the Orioles 8-3—the crucial RBI came from a ground ball.

George Vecsey of the New York Times described Piniella’s psychological makeup in an account of the June 16th game.  “His temper kept him in the minor leagues for most of the 1960’s, but later that temper hardened into a fierce athletic pride.  Only rarely did the temper come through in New York—but when it did, the tantrum was a beauty.  Who will ever forget Piniella sitting on the grass, pounding his fists on the east, raging over being called out by Ron Luciano during the 1978 playoffs?”

Piniella won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1969, notching a .282 batting average, 139 hits, and 68 RBI for the Kansas City Royals.  “Sweet Lou” retired from playing during the 1984 season.  His career statistics include a .291 batting average, 1,705 hits, and 305 doubles.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 16, 2016.

Baseball, Las Vegas, and Area 51

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Glitz, glamour, and gambling—escalated, somewhat, by gaudiness, garishness, and greed—fuel Las Vegas.  It is, after all, a desert metropolis built on a foundation of fantasy.  It is also where Elvis Presley made his live performance comeback after eight years of concentrating on movies and albums; where Frank Sinatra led a group of his former Army buddies to rob five casinos on New Year’s Eve in the original Ocean’s 11 film; where the television shows Las VegasDr. VegasCrime StoryVegasVega$CSI, and The Player were set; where the Partridges made their professional début in The Partridge Family; and where Michael Corleone sought to expand his family’s operations by buying out casino owner Moe Greene in the 1972 movie The Godfather.

A destination city for vacationers looking for a hint of sin—if not sin incarnate—Las Vegas also offers recreation for its natives; baseball lovers have the 51s ball club, which traces its genesis to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League.  From 1903 to 1972—except for the 1919 season, which they played in the Pacific Coast International League—the Beavers formed a cornerstone of the PCL.

In 1973, the team’s tenure shifted to Spokane, where it became the Indians.  After the 1982 season, the Indians moved to Las Vegas and underwent a name change—Stars.  This label lasted until 2001, when the 51s name emerged.  Future stars have populated the 51s, including Jayson Werth, Nomar Garciaparra, and Andruw Jones.

Las Vegas’s baseball team takes its name from Area 51, a part of Nevada about 150 miles from the famed Las Vegas Strip—the stretch of road with the iconic “Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign.

Area 51—also known as Groom Lake—is the subject of conjecture, controversy, and conspiracy.  UFO believers maintain that the United States government houses aliens, alien spacecraft, and time travel experiments at Area 51.  NASA’s Administrator Major Charles Bolden—the top of the space agency hierarchy—dismisses those theories.

“There is an Area 51.  It’s not what many people think,” said Bolden in a 2015 article by Sarah Knapton for Great Britain’s newspaper The Telegraph; Knapton is the paper’s Science Editor.  “I’ve been to a place called that but it’s a normal research and development place.  I never saw any aliens or alien spacecraft or anything when I was there.

“I think because of the secrecy of the aeronautics research that goes on there it’s ripe for people to talk about aliens being there.”

In 2013, the Central Intelligence Agency released a declassified report affirming the existence of Area 51 at Groom Lake; theretofore, the United States government maintained silence about it.  “The report, released after eight years of prodding by a George Washington University archivist researching the history of the U-2 [spy plane], made no mention of colonies of alien life, suggesting that the secret base was dedicated to the relatively more mundane task of testing spy planes,” wrote Adam Nagourney in his 2013 article “C.I.A. Acknowledges Area 51 Exists, but What About Those Little Green Men?” for the New York Times.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 16, 2016.

How Marvelous Marv Became a Met

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reggie Hits No. 500

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Reggie Jackson was the King Midas of baseball.  Everything he touched turned to gold.

The Kansas City A’s had a 62-99 record in 1967, Jackson’s rookie season.  But Jackson only played in 35 games.  When he became a starter, the A’s won three World Series championships, never had a losing season, and enjoyed the “dynasty” label.  In 1973, Jackson won the Most Valuable Player Award, an honor duplicated in 1977, during his Yankee tenure.

Jackson left the A’s after the 1975 season, spent a year with the Orioles, then played for the Yankees in a five-year run that resulted in two World Series championships.  In the 1977 World Series, Jackson hit three home runs in one game.  Celebrations in the South Bronx could be heard from Manhattan to Montauk.

When his sting in the South Bronx ended, Jackson landed in Anaheim, where he bid farewell to baseball after the 1987 season.  Jackson reached a milestone in an Angels uniform, smacking his 500th home run on September 17, 1984.  It elevated Jackson into the pantheon of the 500 Club, whose membership to date consisted of Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx.

Jackson’s dinger contributed the only run in a 10-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals.  There was a circular quality to the moment.  Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times noted that Jackson hit his first major league home run against the Angels and his 500th in Kauffman Stadium, where he played for the Kansas City A’s, long since transported to Oakland.  Additionally, the 500th home run happened on the 17th anniversary of the first time Jackson went yard.

Gerald Scott of the Los Angeles Times quoted Jackson about the pitch:  “I was very, very elated going around the bases.  I said thanks (to myself) to Bud Black because he’d given me a pitch to hit.

“It was a 7-0 (lead) pitch.  It was a ‘room service’ fastball.  I just wish we could’ve been winning.  I wish it could’ve been a seven-run homer.”

Black, a formidable hurler for the Royals, compiled a 17-12 record, 3.12 ERA, and 140 strikeouts in 1984.  Jackson’s home run was one of 22 that Black allowed in the year that saw the débuts of the Huxtable family, a Beverly Hills cop named Axel Foley, and undercover detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs working for the Miami Police Department’s Vice Division.

Jackson had signed with the Angels after Yankee owner George Steinbrenner did not guarantee the slugger a place in the starting lineup as an outfielder.  It is a good bet that the Yankees would have continued Jackson’s recent role as a designated hitter.

Joseph Durso of the New York Times reported on Jackson’s optimism upon closing the the deal with Angels owner Gene Autry.  “I’m very happy to join a club that really seemed to pursue me and wanted me,” said Jackson.  “With the Angels, I get a chance to play.  I guess with everything being equal, the most difficult decision for me was whether to go to Baltimore or California.  Both clubs have really fine people.”

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

Satchel Paige Joins the Indians

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was, to be sure, past his prime when the Cleveland Indians signed him in 1948.  An icon of the Negro Leagues, Paige reportedly signed on his 42nd birthday, making his major league début two days later.  Pitching against the St. Louis Browns, Paige entered the game in the fifth inning—he hurled two innings, allowed two hits, and frustrated the Browns.  Left fielder Whitey Platt, a .271 hitter in 1948 with 123 hits in 123 games, “had been so fooled that he threw his bat far down the third base line,” wrote A.S. “Doc” Young, Sports Editor for the Cleveland Call and Post.

Aggravation manifested after the game for the Browns, despite the victory.  Young described, “Over in the Browns’ dressing room, Manager Zack Taylor was still muttering about the ‘hesitation’ pitch, the one where Paige practically completes a follow through before releasing the ball.  That pitch, Paige said, was legal 20 years ago!”

Although the Indians lost the game 5-3, Paige’s performance overshadowed the defeat.  It was a formidable start for the next chapter of a storied career; the Indians beat the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series.

In Paige’s Society for American Baseball Research biography, Larry Tye—author of the 2009 book Satchel:  The Life and Times of an American Legend—wrote, “His 6-1 record was neither a joke nor an afterthought; it was the highest winning percentage on an outstanding Indians staff and a crucial factor in the team capturing the pennant, which it did by a single game over the Red Sox.  Each game he won had fans and writers marveling over what he must have been like in his prime and which other lions of blackball had been lost to the Jim Crow system of segregation.”

Two tv-movies depict Paige.  HBO’s Soul of the Game, a 1996 offering starring Delroy Lindo, revolves around the decision to select the first black player for the major leagues; Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige are the primary contenders.  In the New York Times, Caryn James praised, “But unlike most baseball movies, this one resists melodrama and saccharine inspiration most of the time.  Mr. Lindo, who has had powerful smaller roles in films like ‘Malcolm X’ and ‘Clockers,’ proves himself to be one of the best leading actors around.  In scenes between Paige and his wife (Salli Richardson), he is at once a realist about the pervasive racism of society and a relentless optimist about his own potential.  Though more saintly than his biographers would have it, this Paige deserves to be the deeply humane hero Mr. Lindo makes him.”

In 1981, ABC aired Don’t Look Back:  The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige.  Starring Lou Gossett, Jr., Don’t Look Back benefited from Paige’s insight.  Ken Watts of Associated Press explained, “As technical adviser, the flamboyant Paige gave Gossett valuable insight into his character.  In some parts of the film, shots of Gossett are intercut with actual footage of Paige on the mound.  The resemblance is so strong, it is difficult to separate the two.”

Paige reflected on his career while watching Gossett retreat it.  “Me and the rest of ’em (Negro League players), we had to stay around for so long before we was recognized as anything, if you want me to tell you the truth,” stated Paige.  “Bitter?  Naw.  We never had much of anything, but we did have lots of fun.  If I had to do it all again, I’d do it exactly the same way.”

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

The Men Who Portrayed Babe Ruth

Friday, February 17th, 2017

To say that Babe Ruth was a dominant force is like saying that Mount Vesuvius spewed a little lava.

Firmly stands the Babe in popular culture, in part because of portrayals in films.  “The pattern of the drama, with its Horatio Alger stamp—rags to riches and romance—is obviously contrived, and the personal characterizations are all of them second-grade stock,” wrote the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther of the 1948 movie The Babe Ruth Story.   “Mr. [William] Bendix is straight from the smoke-house and Claire Trevor pulls all the heart-throb stops as a little showgirl who marries the great man and sticks by through thick and thin.”

Bendig was a character actor famed for “playing all manner of lugs, both loveable and dangerous,” according to his biography on the Turner Classic Movies web site.  Credits include the Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat, the Abbott & Costello movie Who Done It?, and the 1964 thriller Seven Days in May.  Perhaps Bendix’s best-known role was the title character in the 1950s television series The Life of Riley.

Babe Ruth, a 1991 NBC tv-movie, starred Stephen Lang as the Babe, Donald Moffat as Jacob Ruppert, and Bruce Weitz as Miller Huggins.  Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times lauded, “Lang has some of the size to play Ruth and, with tutoring from Rod Carew, the right-handed actor has developed a fairly convincing left-handed stroke and, with makeup, a prominent nose to match.”  Richard Huff of Variety also praised Lang—“he does his job convincingly.”

Art LaFleur played Babe Ruth in a dream sequence in the 1994 film The Sandlot.  Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, the best player on his sandlot baseball team, has a dream in which he talks with the Yankee slugger, who offers him advice on confronting “The Beast,” a dog guarding the house belonging to the baseball field’s neighbor; balls are gone forever when the kids hit them over the fence.  One particular ball poses a major problem for Scotty Smalls, a newcomer who’s unfamiliar with baseball—he brings a ball owned by his stepfather to the sandlot; it’s signed by Babe Ruth.  When Benny hits it over the fence, it’s gone forever.  Presumably.

Ruth’s ghost counsels Benny, “Everybody gets one chance to do something great.  Most people never take the chance, either ’cause they’re too scared or they don’t recognize it when it spits on their shoes.  This is your big chance, and you shouldn’t let it go by.  Remember when you busted the guts out of the ball the other day?  Someone’s telling you something, kid.  If I was you, I’d listen.”

As Ruth disappears, he offers final words of inspiration:  “Remember, kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends.  Heroes get remembered.  But legends never die.  Follow your heart, kid.  And you’ll never go wrong.”

Eventually, “The Beast” is discovered to be a friendly, humongous dog named Hercules.  His owner is a former Negro League ballplayer, portrayed by James Earl Jones.

In the 1992 film The Babe, John Goodman embodied the Sultan of Swat.  Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote that Goodman was “ideally cast.”  In an interview with Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune, Goodman offered insight to Ruth’s boisterous, almost childlike nature.  “I don’t think the Babe had an underlying meanness,” said Goodman.  “It was maybe an emptiness in the middle.  I read an interesting quote that I tried to use as much as I could.  Somebody who knew him quite well was asked about him, and he said, ‘You know, I don’t think Babe ever loved anybody in his life.’  I based most everything on Robert Creamer’s outstanding … biography.  For example, I watched a lot of old film, but I could never figure out how to do Ruth’s home-run trot until I read a simple description of it in the book, and I was in.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 6, 2016.