Posts Tagged ‘New York Yankees’

Bowling, Tim Matheson, and “Dreamer”

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

“You just dream about something, that’s all it’s ever gonna be.  Just a dream.”

So says Harold Nuttingham in the 1979 film Dreamer, a post-Watergate, feel-good movie with a down-to-earth vibe.

Nottingham dreams of being a bowling champion—hence, his nickname “Dreamer”—but he can’t even get a PBA membership until he storms an executive meeting, proves his credentials, and demands inclusion in bowling’s upper echelon.  His statement about dreams targets father figure Harry White, a former PBA bowler who never quite reached the level of excellence that Dreamer envisions—and is capable of achieving.  Dreamer’s words nudge Harry towards buying an option for them on an 18-lane establishment with a coffee shop and a bar in Peoria.

Dreamer’s car broke down in Alton, Illinois two years before, creating an opportunity for him to work at the Bowl Haven, where he practices his game; Harry runs the pro shop.  Repairing the bowling racks is among Dreamer’s duties.  Tragically, Harry dies of a heart attack late at night, while bowling; he had a heart condition, so the news is not surprising to Dreamer.

Tim Matheson plays Dreamer, Jack Warden plays Harry, and Susan Blakely plays Dreamer’s girlfriend—Karen Lee, who also works at the bowling alley, as a cashier.  “Debra Winger rocked her audition, but the studio decided on Susan,” explains Matheson.

Bowling icon Dick Weber plays Johnny Watkin, Dreamer’s opponent in the film’s climactic match.  Matheson reveals, “Dick Weber was instrumental in helping me with my bowling.  He showed me ways to patch up my thumb until my calluses healed.  We also worked on creating a style that was interesting visually and looked real.

“I was in a bowling league in Burbank.  At the Grand Central Bowl in Glendale, I kept score for bowlers.  You could make 10 bucks a night, which was a decent amount of money.  So, I was very comfortable in that world.  For the movie, we bowled in an old alley in St. Louis.  I averaged around 165-170.  My highest was 199.  One day, we’re shooting a sequence and I’m keeping score consecutively with the takes.  My score was 224.

“Dick told us about the tricks that bowlers used.  They soaked balls in solvent that would soften the ball, so when you went to the tournament, it would react with more torque.  If you threw a ball with spin, it spun more.  Now, there are rules preventing this from happening.

“Jack Warden was one of the great storytellers of all time.  He told us that he auditioned for John Houseman, who was directing King Lear.  He was just beginning acting, but he had a blue-collar job during the day.  He didn’t have time to change for the audition, so he went in his coveralls.  Houseman said, ‘What part do you think you’ll audition for?’  Jack responded, ‘How about this Lear guy?’

“He was full of bravado and always gave advice if you asked about a scene.  He was a great acting coach, just gold.  He was a gem.  Susan was such a pro.  So wonderful to work with.  Sexy and intense and all the good things you’ll hope for in a partner that you play so many scenes with.”

It is convenient to compare Dreamer to Rocky, which premiered during the Christmas season of 1976; the elements are there—underdog taking on the champion, mentor tutoring the underdog, love interest.  This would, however, overlook the density of emotional resonance that Rocky evoked.  Where Rocky Balboa wanted to go the distance with Apollo Creed because no fighter had accomplished that seemingly impossible task, Dreamer has unwavering confidence that he belongs in the pantheon of bowling champions, if only he gets the opportunity to prove it.

Typical for Hollywood, Dreamer concludes with the upstart winning in dramatic fashion, dethroning Watkin by one pin in the 10th frame for a final score of 245-244.  Dreamer may not have had the edge of The HustlerRocky, or The Sporting Life, but it follows the template for Hollywood’s sports films.  We want the underdog to win because they remind us of ourselves.  Who wouldn’t rather play for the Miami Sharks rather than the Dallas Knights in Any Given Sunday?  Who wouldn’t rather play with Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Jake Taylor, and Roger Dorn on the Cleveland Indians rather than the New York Yankees in Major League?  These types of films fulfill the need to hope, allowing us to live vicariously, whether the hero is a bowler, a rugby player, or a major league pitcher.

To the extent that Dreamer has a villain, it’s the PBA, which looks askance, at least initially, at Dreamer’s qualifications.  Though not explored in depth, the confrontation between Dreamer and the PBA’s powers that be, including Watkin, represents a frustration at bureaucracy that was felt 100 years before Dreamer hit movie theaters and will be evident 100 years hence, in whatever medium audiences use to consume visual entertainment.

After the climactic game between Dreamer and Watkin, the last shot of the film shows Dreamer and Karen Lee packing up their car and listing their itinerary of bowling tournaments.  As they pull away, we see that the building behind them is the Harry White Memorial Bowl.

Taking Matheson’s portrayal of Eric “Otter” Stratton of Animal House as the archetype of a slightly arrogant character brimming with confidence, one can find levels of that personality in several of his subsequent roles, including:

  • Larry Sizemore (Burn Notice)
  • Al Donnelly (Black Sheep)
  • John Hoynes (The West Wing)
  • Harry Stadlin (Just in Time)
  • Alan Stanwyk (Fletch)

Alan Stanwyk is devious when he sets up Fletch to be the dead body in a burning car, thereby allowing him to escape to South America undetected.  John Hoynes is a political manipulator along the lines of LBJ—a Senate Majority Leader from Texas who lost the Democratic nomination to an underdog from New England and settled, uncomfortably, for being Vice President.

And yet, there is an underlying likability to these characters—they do not, in any way, exude nastiness.  Dreamer, neither, though his single-mindedness about pursuing a professional bowling career excludes Karen Lee, whom he considers to be a distraction during competitions.  This, of course, is reconciled after Harry’s death, which prompts Dreamer to realize that Karen Lee is not an appendage to his career, but a necessity to his life.

The Bowl Haven still stands today, a 24-lane escape for Altonians looking to knock down some pins.  Those of a certain age may remember the summer of 1978, when the Bowl Haven closed down for shooting.   Once owned by the Netzhammer family and built in the late 1950s, the Bowl Haven enjoys continuity to the past with Bill Netzhammer, the original owners’ son, managing the lanes that Dreamer once practiced upon.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 4, 2017.

Chris Chambliss, Billy Martin, and the 1976 American League Playoff

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

The baseball traveled on its parabolic destiny, rising through the mid-October night and dropping a few dozen feet in front of the Manufacturers Hanover Super Checking billboard at 11:43 p.m. Eastern.  It was a moment of exhilaration, followed nanoseconds later by pandemonium in a crowd that hadn’t tasted a championship in more than a decade.

Chris Chambliss’s three-run homer brought the 1976 American League pennant to the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of the fifth and deciding game of the playoffs against the Kansas City Royals.  Score:  Yankees 7, Royals 6.

“And I want to tell you, the safest place to be is up here in the booth!” exclaimed WPIX-TV announcer and former Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto when several hundred fans stiff-armed decorum, poured onto the Yankee Stadium turf, and jumped up and down like the prospectors who discovered gold in mid-19th century California.

New York City hadn’t seen a celebration like that since V-E Day.

To say that Chambliss’s safety was in jeopardy is neither hyperbole nor ignorance.  Suddenly, survival instinct surpassed the duty of touching home plate, an impossibility given the swarm of fans excited by the victory and oblivious to the hero’s wellbeing; Chambliss didn’t even make it to third base.  Hoping to embrace their hero, Yankee rooters risked injuring him—maybe even trampling him.  Had it not been for the uniform and the baseball diamond, one might have thought Chambliss was a running back as he plowed his 6’1″, 195-pound frame through the crowd towards the refuge of the dugout and, in turn, the Yankee clubhouse.

Chambliss came to the Yankees in a 1974 trade—along with Chambliss, the Indians sent Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw in exchange for Fritz Peterson, Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, and Steve Kline.  Not a power hitter, Chambliss was known as a dependable batsman—188 hits, 32 doubles, and 96 RBI in 1976.  With 17 home runs during the season, a dinger was feasible, but a hit off Royals pitcher Mark Little seemed more likely.

Chambliss, in the end, returned to the field under the guard of two police officers.  Alas, home plate vanished in the anarchy, so, to be sure, Chambliss stepped on the area.

Below the fold on the front page of the New York Times, media geography usually used to convey issues of national and of international importance, Murray Chass’s article informed the newspaper’s readers who went to bed before the ninth inning about the latest notch to Yankee Stadium’s greatest moments—a roster including Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech, Babe Ruth’s wistful farewell as he leaned on a bat with his frail body, and Don Larsen’s perfect game.

It was nostalgic, if not appropriate, that Billy Martin helmed the Yankee ball club.  Hired during the 1975 season, Martin had a reputation as a turnaround expert in stints with the Twins, the Tigers, and the Rangers.  But returning to the Bronx had an even sweeter taste for Martin—he played with the gloried Yankee teams of the 1950s, idolized manager Casey Stengel, and suffered a betrayal from Yankee management, specifically, Stengel.  Or so he believed.

When several Yankee players captured headlines with a fight at the Copacabana in New York in 1957, the front office shipped Martin to the Kansas City A’s after the season because of the embarrassment—it happened when Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford and their wives gathered to celebrate the 29th birthday of Martin, who went stag.  “Yanks Bench 2 in Copa Brawl” screamed the front page of the New York Daily News.  Confronting hecklers from a bowling team called the Republicans, the Yankees stepped up when nasty comments tinged with racism emerged from the hecklers aimed at Sammy Davis, Jr., the Copa’s performer, with whom the fellows from the Bronx were acquainted.  One bowler, a deli owner named Edwin Jones, claimed Bauer clocked him.

In his 2015 biography Billy Martin:  Baseball’s Flawed Genius, Bill Pennington wrote, “It was later learned that Casey had protected Billy from the Senators trade and two other trades.  But [Yankee General Manager George] Weiss was not to be dissuaded this time.  Not with this player in these circumstances.  Not when he wanted to send a message to the rest of the team.  Besides, Kubek was already in New York, ready to play shortstop.  For the Yankees’ youth movement in the middle infield to be complete, Richardson had to take over at second base.”

Stengel had not only managed Martin on the Yankees, they also worked together on the Oakland Oaks, a Pacific coast League championship team in 1948.  Returning to Yankee Stadium as a managerial descendant of his mentor may not have completely healed old wounds whose scars remained resonant, but it did give Yankee fans a continuity to the past, Martin a chance for redemption, and players the benefit of their manager’s baseball wisdom honed by Stengel’s tutelage two decades prior.

The Yankees lost the 1976 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a four-game sweep, but rebounded to win the series in 1977 and 1978, both times against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Billy Martin went through several stings as the Yankee skipper, being fired and rehired by owner George Steinbrenner.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 13, 2017.

Lefty Grove, Ted Williams, and the 1941 Red Sox

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

They say the third time’s a charm.  And so it was with Lefty Grove’s 300th victory, which occurred on July 25, 1941, against the Cleveland Indians.  “Here the hundreds of fans who had been waiting for this moment ever since it became possible for Grove to reach his goal here in Boston refused to be denied,” wrote Gerry Moore in the Boston Globe.  “They rushed onto the field and undoubtedly would have mobbed the veteran they have come to idolize except for half a dozen policemen who finally managed to escort Lefty into the runway leading to the clubhouse.”

Grove’s landmark achievement—which was also his last victory in a 17-year major league career—reflected output that defined excellence.

  • Led the major leagues in ERA five times (four time consecutively)
  • Led the American League in ERA nine times
  • Led the major leagues in victories three times
  • Led the American League in victories four times
  • Led the major leagues in Win-Loss percentage five times
  • Led the American League in strikeouts in his first seven seasons
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts four times
  • .680 career Win-Loss percentage.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Grove in 1947.  His plaque highlights being an integral part of the Athletics’ squad that won three consecutive American League pennants—1929, 1930, 1931.

While Grove inched towards the pitcher’s plateau of 300 wins with a 7-7 record in 1941, Red Sox teammate Ted Williams slugged towards a hitter’s benchmark—.400 batting average.  It was a lock on the last day of the season—with a .39995 batting average, Williams would have benefited from the simple mathematics of rounding up if he sat out the season-ending Athletics-Red Sox doubleheader.  Instead, despite an endorsement from Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin to lay low, Williams grabbed his bat, went six for eight, and marked .406 for the year.  Nobody to date has hit .400 in the major leagues.

In a 1986 Sports Illustrated interview with Williams, Wade Boggs, and Don Mattingly about hitting, Williams explained his strategy at the plate.  “Now, if I could give you any advice, it would be that the tougher the pitcher, the tougher the situation, the tougher the count, the worse the light, the worse the umpires, the tougher the delivery, the single most important thing to think about is hitting the ball hard through the middle.  You’ll never go wrong with that idea in your mind.  As long as you hit, and especially as you get older, hang in there and be quick.”

1941 was a solid year for the Boston Red Sox:

  • Joe Cronin (Shortstop):  .311 batting average, 95 RBI
  • Jimmie Foxx (First Base):  .300 batting average, 105 RBI
  • Bobby Doerr (Second Base):  .282 batting average, 93 RBI
  • Jim Tabor (Third Base):  .279 batting average, 101 RBI

Championship glory was not to be, however.  With an 84-70 record, the Red Sox trailed the New York Yankees by 17 games.  Joe DiMaggio—the Yankee Clipper—scored a 56-game hitting streak in ’41, another achievement that has not been matched since.  The Yankees defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games to win the 1941 World Series.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 22, 2017.

What If the Dodgers Had Stayed in Brooklyn?

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

What if the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn?  Further, what if migration in the modern era had never taken place, thereby forcing expansion in Kansas City, San Francisco, and other MLB cities.

My paradigm assumes the following:

  • Tampa, Toronto, Arizona, and Montreal do not have teams
  • A’s, Braves, Browns, Dodgers, and Senators stay in their original locations
  • The Giants move to Minneapolis after the 1957 season.
  • Team names reflect the location’s history and lore
    • Grizzly Bears:  California’s state animal
    • Conquistadors:  Group claiming Oakland for Spain’s king in the 1770s
    • Loggers:  Washington state’s rich logging history
    • Gold:  Northern California’s gold rush in the mid-19th century
    • Mountaineers:  Georgia’s magnificent mountains
    • Astronauts:  Houston’s fame as the home of NASA
    • Express:  Colorado’s key role in America’s railroad history

Expansion teams have their inaugural years in parentheses.

1961-1965

American League

Boston Red Sox
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
St. Louis Browns
San Francisco Gold (1961)
Washington Senators

National League

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
Minnesota Giants
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals

1966-1975

American League East

Baltimore Orioles (1966)
Boston Red Sox
Cleveland Indians
Georgia Mountaineers (1966)
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
Washington Senators

American League West

Chicago White Sox
Detroit Tigers
Kansas City Royals (1966)
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
San Francisco Gold (1961)
St. Louis Browns
Texas Rangers (1966)

National League East

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Cincinnati Reds
Denver Express (1966)
Houston Astronauts (1966)
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates

National League West

Chicago Cubs
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
Minnesota Giants
St. Louis Cardinals
San Diego Padres (1966)
Seattle Loggers (1966)

1976-Present

American League East

Baltimore Orioles (1966)
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
Washington Senators

American League Central

Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Georgia Mountaineers (1966)
St. Louis Browns

American League West

Kansas City Royals (1966)
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
Oakland Conquistadors (1976)
San Francisco Gold (1961)
Texas Rangers (1976)

National League East

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Miami Marlins (1976)
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates

National League Central

Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astronauts (1966)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
St. Louis Cardinals

National League West

Denver Express (1966)
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Minnesota Giants
San Diego Padres (1966)
Seattle Loggers (1966)

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

The Hall of Fame Case for Tommy John

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Forget about the 288 wins.

Forget about the four pennant-winning teams.

Forget about the pioneering surgery that bears his name.

You might as well.  The Baseball Hall of Fame voters have.

Thomas Edward John, Jr., the Terre Haute native who stayed in his hometown to attend college at Indiana State University, stands overlooked and undervalued for his contributions to baseball.

In his 26-year career, John pitched for:

  • Chicago White Sox
  • Los Angeles Dodgers
  • New York Yankees
  • California Angels
  • Oakland A’s

He led the National League in winning percentage in 1973 and the major leagues in 1974; played on the Dodgers’ National League pennant-winning teams in 1974, 1977, and 1978; played for the American League champs in the strike-shortened season of 1981—the Yankees.

In eras gone by, when more pitchers stayed on the mound for the entire game, John led the major leagues three times in shutouts:

  • 1966 (5)
  • 1967 (6)
  • 1980 (6)

With just 12 wins short of the magic number—300—John stands on the cusp of Cooperstown; peers Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer were inducted with 287 and 268 wins, respectively.  One can presume that at least 12 games in a 26-year career fell victim to a combination of error, lack of prowess at the plate, and a manager’s strategic errors.  It’s an interesting point, but, in the end, you are what your record is.  And John’s 288 notches in the win column stand as impressive.

It is, perhaps, the breakthrough surgery that Dr. Frank Jobe performed on the hurler in 1974 that is the most significant factor in an argument for John’s Hall of Fame membership.  At the time, Jobe was the Dodgers’ orthopedist.

Tommy John surgery rebuilds the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) by using a tendon from another part of the body.  A torn or ruptured UCL can immediately put a period at the end of a pitcher’s career.  Only an injury warrants the surgery.  It is not a procedure for improving performance.

John won more games after the surgery than before it and played on three All-Star teams (1978-1980); his only other All-Star appearance happened in 1968.  To be a pioneering patient for a surgical procedure that’s become as much a cornerstone of the game as corporate-sponsored stadia.  Had Tommy John not gone under Dr. Jobe’s knife, somebody else would have.  Eventually.  But John took the risk.

When would another pitcher have been the first if John had stepped away from baseball?  1975?  1980?  How many careers have been saved because John opted for Jobe’s cutting edge idea?

Treating a UCL problem with Tommy John surgery has become de rigeur.  Hall of Famer John Smoltz sat out the 2000 season to recover from the surgery.  At his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2015, Smoltz warned teenage pitchers against going under the knife.  “I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old.  That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sports.  That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports.  Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way.”

Smoltz is the only Tommy John surgery patient inducted into the Hall of Fame.

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

 

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.

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.

1957 World Series

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Milwaukee inaugurated the Braves ball club to its new home city just a couple of weeks before the 1953 season began.  Acclimation from its previous location of Boston did not present a problem, given the enthusiasm showered by Milwaukeeans on their new major league ambassadors.  Four years later, the Braves powered through their National League competition to face the august New York Yankees in the 1957 World Series—it went seven games.

Initially scheduled to pitch Game Seven, Warren Spahn got sidelined by the flu, forcing Braves skipper Fred Haney to tap Lew Burdette for the deciding game, played at Yankee Stadium.  Burdette went the distance, blanked the Yankees 5-0, and notched his third victory in the ’57 series.  And he did it on two days rest, scattering seven hits and walked one batter—an intentional walk.  Burdette received the World Series MVP Award, predictably.

Milwaukee erupted in a celebration reaching from the citizenry on the streets to the power brokers in government.  Richard J.H. Johnston of the New York Times wrote, “Mayor Frank Zeidler burst from his office in City Hall and rushed to the building’s bell tower.  He and his laughing aides took turns at the bell rope to set in motion a great booming that was heard all over the city.  The first signal sent up from City Hall was five ear-shattering clangs of the bell, one for each of the Braves’ five runs in their 5-to-0 victory over the New York Yankees.”

Sid Gray of the New York Herald Tribune quoted Yankee star Mickey Mantle on praising the Braves:  “And that [Eddie] Mathews, they told me he was no gloveman.  They must have been kidding.  He was great.  So was their entire club on defense.”

Hank Aaron, the 1957 National League Most Valuable Player, assessed Burdette’s momentum combined with a sense of vindication in his autobiography I Had a Hammer:  “The way he was going, I think Burdette could have pitched if he’d been up all night working in one of those coal mines back in West Virginia.  Burdette had been traded by the Yankees before he ever got a chance to really pitch for them, and he hadn’t forgotten it.”

Burdette overcame a Yankee threat in the bottom of the ninth, a pure storybook opportunity for the boys in pinstripes to reverse the game’s course.  Yogi Berra fouled out, but Gil McDougald followed with a single.  Then, Yankee rookie Tony Kobe flied out to centerfield, governed by Aaron.

Two outs, one man on base.

Jerry Coleman singled.

Two outs, two men on base.

Tommy Byrne singled.

Two outs, bases loaded.

Burdette faced fearsome Yankee slugger Moose Skowron, upon whose shoulders the hopes of Yankee fans stood.  Alas, another World Series victory was not to be for the boys from the Bronx.  Bob Cooke of the Herald Tribune described the play and its impact on Yankee manager Casey Stengel:  “And then came the end, but not peacefully.  Moose Skowron shot a grounder to the right of [Braves third baseman] Eddie Mathews.  The latter scooped it up with a great, backhand catch, and danced to third where he forced Coleman for the final out.

“Stengel had disappeared.  He was on his way to the clubhouse and a long winter.”

Pitching the seventh game of a World Series at Yankee Stadium did not faze Burdette, an example of calm.  In his 2012 book Bushville Wins! The Wild Saga of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and the Screwballs, Sluggers, and Beer Swiggers Who Canned the New York Yankees and Changed Baseball, John Klima wrote, “Burdette looked utterly unbothered on the mound.  He was so laid-back, yet so determined to win, that even the guys who had played with him for years, marveled at how the pressure that would kill other men couldn’t touch him.”

That night, upon the team’s landing at Billy Mitchell Field, approximately 12,000 Milwaukeeans greeted, cheered, and celebrated their baseball heroes.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 12, 2015.