Posts Tagged ‘New York’

The Night That Ted Turner Managed the Braves

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Some things aren’t meant to last.

Prime time television’s roster has a handful of shows that didn’t endure more than episode, e.g., Co-Ed FeverPublic MoralsSouth of Sunset.

Major League Baseball’s annals boast tales of players who only played in one game.  Perhaps the best known in this category is Moonlight Graham, portrayed in the 1989 film Field of Dreams.

On May 11, 1977, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner added another story when he ventured from the owner’s suite to the dugout to manage the Braves.  His helming lasted only one night; Major League Baseball’s powers that be reminded Turner that a rule prevented managers from partial or full ownership of a team.  The Braves lost the May 11th game to the Pirates 2-1; it was Atlanta’s 17th consecutive loss.  Phil Niekro pitched a complete game, a noble outing in a 16-20 season yielding a National League-leading 262 strikeouts for the Braves knuckleballer.

Though Turner expressed a Veeckian ardor for baseball and its fans, the likes of Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, and Tommy Lasorda had nothing to fear from the man dubbed “Mouth of the South” for his brashness flavored with ambition, dedication, and southern charm.  Managerial aspirations may have been fleeting, but they were, nonetheless, on display in the Braves dugout.

Commitment to success did not constrain Turner to his accountants and bookkeepers.  A communications magnate who created the Superstation template by offering his Atlanta station WTBS on cable systems across the country and revamped the news industry with Cable News Network (CNN), Turner has a passion for his portfolio beyond dollars and sense—an approach that continues today, long after these assets are no longer under his aegis.  His is a passion for excellence, enjoyment, and engagement.  In a 2001 profile of Turner for The New Yorker, Ken Auletta wrote, “To insure continuous baseball coverage that could not be taken off his Superstation, Turner, in 1976, bought the Atlanta Braves; although he paid a bargain price of ten million dollars, he went into debt to do it.  He attended most of the Braves home games: he ran out onto the field to lead the fans in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”; sitting behind the Braves dugout, he’d spit Red Man tobacco juice into a cup and swill beer, in hot weather peeling off his shirt; when a Brave hit a home run, he’d jump over the railing and rush to the plate to greet him; he played cards with his players and insisted that they call him Ted.”

Putting the Braves on WTBS meant piping games into areas lacking major league teams—and, in some cases, minor league teams.  Thereby, Turner branded the squad “America’s Team.”  As inventive as P.T. Barnum, Turner employed a strategy to set the Braves games and other WTBS programming apart from network and local fare—by starting programs at five minutes after the hour or the half hour, WTBS stood out in the program listings in TV Guide.

Turner owned the Braves till the mid-1990s, when he sold the club to Time Warner.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 11, 2017.

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.

The Hall of Fame Case for Charles Ebbets

Saturday, May 13th, 2017

For reasons passing understanding, Charles Ebbets is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is shameful at best and unforgivable at worst.  Imagine a baseball lineage without Ebbets Field, which débuted in 1913, becoming the home for a team with various names—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Flock, and Robins were interchangeable monikers until the Dodgers label was officially affixed through a vote of the press in the 1930s.

With an unparalleled loyalty to his Brooklyn brethren, Ebbets sold half his ownership in the team to finance the construction of the stadium bearing his name.

Hired on the first day of Brooklyn’s nascent professional baseball team in 1883, Ebbets rose from office clerk to team president; when Charley Byrne died in 1898, a shareholder named George Chauncey advocated for Ebbets to fill the team’s highest-level executive role.  With a curriculum vitae of a decade and a half in Brooklyn, Ebbets could easily have found an executive position in either the major leagues or the minor leagues, perhaps garnering an ownership stake with another team.

Ebbets consolidated ownership in the team, became the sole owner, and realized his vision of a modern stadium.  In an article for Leslie’s Weekly, Ebbets said, “We must give our patrons what they express an evident desire for, and in progressive baseball to-day this means comfort, safety and faster play than ever before.”

Buying parcels of land in a section called Pigtown—so named because it was filled with garbage, which pigs fed on—Ebbets made good on his promise to the Brooklyn fans.

Ebbets’s contributions to baseball, intangible and tangible, deserve to be recognized with a plaque in the building located at 25 Main Street in Cooperstown, about a five-minute walk from Lake Otsego.  When Ebbets died in 1925, the New York Times eulogized, “Virtually the whole of Mr. Ebbets’ life was devoted to baseball.  His sole interest was baseball and all his money was in it.  He served the game wholeheartedly, with a fixed purpose which finally brought fulfillment.”

Credit the Brooklyn ball club owner with the following:

  • Rain check
  • Draft system
  • Weakest teams getting first chance to hire minor league players
  • Advocating for permanent World Series schedule
  • Extending the National League season to include the Columbus Day holiday

Another eulogy summarized the feeling pervading baseball upon Ebbets’s death; it went further than the usual missives encapsulating a famous person’s achievements.  Reach Baseball Guide stated, “He never played baseball ‘politics,’ was without guide, and so universally popular that he may be truly said to have been the best loved man, not only in his league, but throughout the entire realm of baseball.  Ebbets was one of the comparatively few old time magnates whose interest in the affairs of the game never faltered.”

Ebbets Field is long since demolished, its presence existing in the memories of those who saw Brooklyn’s teams—good and bad—traverse the hallowed ground in what was the second home for the citizenry of Coney Island, Flatbush, Greenpoint, and every other neighborhood in the borough, a metropolis until 1898, when New York City annexed it.

Perhaps the legendary loyalty cultivated by Dodgers fans in Brooklyn—and then Los Angeles—traces back to Ebbets, who exemplified this trait in another example of dire financial straits.  To raise money needed to settle a lawsuit, Ebbets could have sold two players to the New York Giants—Tim Jordan and Harry Lumley.  Instead, Ebbets said no to Brooklyn’s rival squad, tempting though the offer was.  “I felt that if I had sold those two star players at that time the fans would run me out of Brooklyn,” said Ebbets in an article for the Times.  “To my way of thinking, it was my duty to Brooklyn fans to keep those players in spite of the fact that we needed money worse than we did players at that time.  It wouldn’t have been fair to our patrons to sell those players.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 27, 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.

Ty Cobb, the Detroit Tigers, and the Brawl of 1912

Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

Ty Cobb posed a danger on two occasions—in the batter’s box and on the base paths.  On May 15, 1912, Cobb, legendary for his nastiness, pummeled on opponent who wore neither a uniform nor a baseball cap signifying membership on a ball club.  It happened during a game against the Yankees—also known as the Highlanders—at Hilltop Park.  Cobb responded with his fists to a fan who “annoyed him continually since the game began by the use of disgusting language and unspeakable insults,” wrote E. A. Batchelor in the Detroit Free Press.

Claude Lucker—or Luker, in some chronicles—was the recipient of Cobb’s blows; he instigated the slugger, according to some accounts of spectators and reporters.  Lucker’s loss of one hand and three fingers on his other hand mattered not to Cobb, whose defenders included the Mayor of Atlanta, quoted in the Free Press:  “I glory in the spunk of Ty Cobb in resenting the insults offered him by the spectator in New York.  He has lived up to the principles that have always been taught to Southern manhood.”

It was not an isolated instance, either.  The New York Times noted that Cobb received taunts during the series from New York fans seated in prime positions to launch verbal attacks on Cobb—behind the Tigers dugout:  “What they have been saying to the Georgia Peach has no place in a family newspaper or even one that circulates in barber shops only.”

Umpire Silk O’Loughlin ejected Cobb, Hank Perry replaced him, and American League President Ban Johnson banned him.  The Tigers won the game 8-4—giving them a 3-1 record on the road trip to New York.  But the drama caused by Cobb’s pugilistic display outweighed the excitement on the diamond.

The Tigers, in solidarity, struck; their telegram to Johnson read:

“Feeling that Mr. Cobb is being done an injustice by your action in suspending him, we, the undersigned, refuse to play in another game after to-day until such action is adjusted to our satisfaction.  He was fully justified in his action, as no one could stand such personal abuse from any one.  We want him reinstated for to-morrow’s game, May 18, or there will be no game.  If the players cannot have protection we must protect ourselves.”

Tigers skipper Hugh Jennings stood with his boys:  “I expect Mr. Johnson to reconsider the matter, fine Cobb, or announce definitely the length of his suspension.”  Recruits, mostly college players from St. Joseph’s College, filled the positions vacated by Detroit’s baseball sons for the May 18th game against the Philadelphia A’s, who administered a 24-2 drubbing in Shibe Park.

It was a precarious situation, if not an anarchic one.  Johnson, in turn, canceled the next Tigers-A’s game, scheduled for May 20th in Philadelphia.  Further, he threatened suspension of the striking players.

Tigers owner Frank Navin restored order, somewhat, by persuading his players to halt the strike through a “strong personal appeal,” described Batchelor.  “He pointed out that by their action in striking, the members of the club have caused him severe financial loss, which would grow constantly greater, probably resulting eventually in the loss of the Detroit franchise.”  Cobb received credit in the Free Press for bridging the schism between the players and Navin, a result, in no small part, of praise—the Tiger icon emphasized that the club owner treated the players “generously and fairly at all times” and noted “there is no use of making Mr. Navin suffer when we cannot get at the man we are fighting.”

A meeting of American League team owners in Philadelphia on May 20th resulted in fining each Tiger $100 for striking; Cobb’s suspension remained indefinite.  On May 25th, that status changed—Johnson okayed the reinstatement of Cobb and issued a $50 fine.  An investigation led Johnson to state:

  • Cobb used “vicious language in replying to a taunting remark of the spectator”
  • Cobb’s suspension of 10 days and a $50 fine was a “lesson to the accused and a warning of all players”
  • Cobb did not “appeal to the umpire, but took the law into his own hands”

Further, Johnson underscored the league’s policy regarding abuse by fans going forward:

  • Issuing “sure and severe punishment” for those players who “assume to act as judge and avenger of real or fancied wrongs while on duty”
  • Boosting the number of police officers at ballparks
  • Removal of fans who engage in “actions or comments [that] are offensive to players and fellow patrons”

The Tigers compiled a 69-84-1 record, playing the full slate of 154 games; the May 20th game was rescheduled as part of a July 19th doubleheader—one of three doubleheaders in the July series against the fellas from the City of Brotherly Love.

Despite the benching for 10 games, Ty Cobb led the major leagues in 1912 with 226 hits.  It was a season typical of Cobb output—the Georgia Peach also led in batting average (.409) and slugging percentage (.584).

Amidst the chaos triggered by Cobb’s incident, a bright spot shone through; 1912 was the year that the Tigers débuted their new stadium—Navin Field.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 8, 2017.

The Début of Roosevelt Field

Monday, May 8th, 2017

When Christian Ziegler got the assignment to design a new stadium for Jersey City, he planned a voyage with Parks and Public Buildings Commissioner Arthur Potterton for a reconnaissance trip to Rochester, Cleveland, Montreal, Boston, and Philadelphia, according to the New York Times.

On June 5, 1929, Mayor Frank Hague made the announcement about the city getting a new stadium with a capacity to host 50,000 people.  The Times reported, “Work can start in three months, it is expected, and the stadium should be finished by the Spring of 1930.”

It took a bit longer, as is the tradition with construction projects.

On December 10, 1935, groundbreaking began at the site, adjoining Newark Bay, and which formerly housed Jersey City Airport; the Jersey Observer noted, in particular, Hague’s positive proclamation after making the initial dig:  “This is a great day for Jersey City.  You must realize that all the money needed for the construction of the stadium was donated by the government.  The city merely furnished the ground and pays the architect’s fees.

“This stadium has been the dream of the Jersey City officials for a number of years.”

Hague, a politician who exerted the right amount of pressure on the levers, switches, and buttons of Jersey City’s political machinery to get things accomplished, often colored outside the lines of the law to get things done.

Less than a year and a half later, the dream became reality—named for President Franklin Roosevelt, under whose aegis the Works Progress Administration governed the construction, Roosevelt Stadium débuted on April 23, 1937; the Jersey City Giants occupied home team status in the International League contest, losing a 12-inning game to the Rochester Red Wings.  Final score:  4-3.  In attendance were New Jersey luminaries, including Jersey City  Hague and Senator A. Harry Moore, who was a former governor.

Future Dodgers skipper Walter Alston banged the pitching of Giants hurler Rollie Stiles like a southerner swats flies on a humid night in August—the Red Wings first baseman went four-for-five and drove in two runs, including the game winner.

Roosevelt Stadium’s architecture affected the crowd.  “All who attended yesterday’s imbroglio gasped at the layout which Mayor Hague and the W. P. A. have provided,” reported New York Herald Tribune scribe Stanley Woodward.  “The grandstand and bleachers are of yellow fire-brick and a wall of the same substance surrounds the whole layout.  The end seats of each row are emblazoned on the aisle side with cast-iron shields, painted with ferryboats and square-rigged ships and bearing the motto, ‘Let Jersey Prosper.'”

Nine years after it opened, Roosevelt Stadium became the site of history—on April 18, 1946, Jackie Robinson played his first professional baseball game.  It was a 14-1 pounding of the Giants by Robinson and the Montreal Royals.  Robinson turned in an impeccable performance at the plate:

  • 4-for-5
  • 4 RBI
  • 2 Stolen Bases
  • 2 Putouts
  • 3 Assists

There was, however, one blemish—Robinson made a throwing error to first base on a double play ball.  In turn, the Giants batter, Clefton Ray scampered to second base and then home, when Bobby Thomson swatted a single.

In August of 1984, the Historic American Buildings Survey, an arm of the National Park Service, compiled a detailed history of Roosevelt Stadium, including, among other items, descriptions of the stadium’s interior, layout of seating areas, geographic location, flooring, and landscaping.  Like other stadia lost to history—Mack, Navin, Ebbets et al.—Roosevelt Field marked a specific place in time, when men wore fedoras, newspapers in larger cities had evening editions, and generations of families stayed in the same area code.  “In short, it was a meeting place for all the people of Jersey City and as such, the stadium embodies a time, an era, an overwhelming feeling of the essence of a city in its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s that simply no longer exists,” states the HABS report.

Roosevelt Stadium was demolished in 1985.  Society Hill, a gated community, occupies the site.

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

The Trade That Shocked the Hockey World

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

1975 was a year of shocks in popular culture.  M*A*S*H killed off Henry Blake, the lovable, goofy, and semi-competent lieutenant colonel in charge of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077; Jaws injected fear into filmgoers thinking about going to the beach for summer recreation, lest they be shark attack victims like the ones portrayed on screen; and the Boston Bruins traded Phil Esposito to the New York Rangers.

Esposito going to New York was not, to be certain, a global event.  Or even a national one.  For Bostonians whose devotion to sports knows no boundaries of faith, though, it was an upset of the natural order of things.  Sure, Esposito started his career with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he flourished in Boston—milestones include two Stanley Cup wins, a perennial NHL All-Star selection, and two-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy, which honors the player most valuable to his team.  Not since the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season had betrayal pervaded the city, from Beacon Street to Boston Harbor.

“I’m crushed.  I thought I had found a home in Boston,” lamented Esposito, quoted by Tom Fitzgerald in the Boston Globe.

Esposito emerged as a New York City icon, much like his fellow Boston transplant.

Boston sent defenseman Carol Vadnais to the Rangers with Esposito, who played center.  In return, New York let go defenseman Brad Park, center Jean Ratelle, and Joe Zanuss—a defenseman for the Providence Reds, the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate.

Boston Globe sports columnist Leigh Montville ascribed the term “garbageman” to Esposito because he scored goals that were neither flashy nor dramatic, thereby igniting a touch of scorn.  But when Esposito journeyed down I-95 toward his new home, scorn gave way to unease.  “One difference already has surfaced here,” wrote Montville.  “The people—the same people who were cold toward Esposito and his records—now seem worried.  They see a big hole in the scoring totals.  They see a lot of goals that aren’t going to be scored.  They see a lot of things that might not be done.

“That is the way it is with a garbageman.  You never miss him until he’s not around.”

Esposito led the Rangers to the 1979 Stanley Cup—the marauders of Madison Square Garden lost to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.

Still, decades later, the trade causes angst for Esposito.  Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons chronicled Esposito’s viewpoint in 2013:  “I didn’t choose to leave Chicago.  I didn’t choose to leave Boston.  I signed a contract in Boston for less money than I could have gotten from going to the WHA.  I could have made millions doing that.  And you know how they repaid me?  Three weeks later, they traded me (to the New York Rangers).”

Retiring after the 1980-81 season, Esposito transitioned to being an assistant coach for the Rangers—his post-retirement duties also included general manager, head coach, and analyst for televised games on MSG Network.

Esposito spearheaded the founding of the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with his brother, Tony, a fellow NHL standout; in 1992, the Lightning débuted in a 7-3 victory against the Blackhawks.  Phil Esposito and Tony Esposito are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, inducted in 1984 and 1988, respectively.  Notably, the former’s biography page on the Hall of Fame web site depicts him in a Boston Bruins uniform.  And so it is in the memories, imagination, and Bruins lore for fans of a certain age.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 18, 2017.

The Birth of the Designated Hitter

Monday, May 1st, 2017

Baseball—like any other living organism—evolves, adjusts, and adapts with beauty emerging from minutiae, memory, and, in some cases, masochism reinforced by decades of unrequited love.  See Red Sox Boston; 1919-2003.  See Cubs, Chicago; 1909-2015.  On January 11, 1973, baseball’s overseers added what New York Times scribe Joseph Durso called “a radical step…to put more punch into the game.”  The Designated Hitter.

The American League embraced the idea.  The National League, not so much.  Quoted by Durso, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn extolled, “Pitchers bat around .120 collectively and pinch-hitters around .220.  That’s automatically going to raise team batting averages.  Besides, if you decide to rest a Willie McCovey or Harmon Killebrew and use him as the designated pinch-hitter one day, he’s going to be better than the average pinch-hitter.  And he’ll go to bat four or five times, and that’ll improve his eye, too.”

While conventional wisdom highlighted the possibility of more runs with a slugger at the plate instead of a pitcher, White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner pointed out that a DH benefited a team’s defense.  In the Chicago Tribune, Tanner said, “Part of the game is forcing the other club to put that relief pitcher in the game after a pinch hitter replaces a pretty good starter in a low-scoring game.  But now the Angels, for instance, will be able to keep Nolan Ryan in there all the way.  Or, we can let Wilbur Wood go the route without sending him to the plate.  And this should keep the score down, too.”

Ron Blomberg earned the distinction of being the first Designated Hitter when he batted in a Yankees-Red Sox game in April.  Of his 338 plate appearances in 19783, that first one in the DH slot secured his name in the annals of baseball trivia.  Blomberg walked in his first time at the plate, went 1-for-3, and notched one RBI; Red Sox hurler Luis Tiant pitched a complete game, leading his fellow Bostonians to a 15-5 victory.

New York Times sports writer Murray Chass showed the irony of Blomberg’s output:  “He broke his bat on the single, which means the first two bats he used today wound up in contrasting places—the first in the Hall of Fame, the second in the trash can.”

Purists argued against the DH, as they had argued against a 162-game schedule, Astroturf, and domed stadia.  It was an argument against quantifiable evidence showing the cause and effect of the new position.  In the May 7, 1973 issue of Sports Illustrated, William Leggett wrote, “In three short weeks the DH has put more punch and excitement and scoring into the game—a hallowed game, agreed, but one that was being smothered by the excellence of the pitching.  Heavily criticized by some before it was given a chance to see the sunglight—a phony rule it was called, desperate, Mickey Mouse, a rewriting of Beethoven—the designated hitter is doing only what it was intended to do.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 11, 2017.

The Hall of Fame Case for Doc Adams

Saturday, April 29th, 2017

Victory, it is said, has a thousand fathers.  Baseball, too.

Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams is, for reasons passing understanding, without tangible recognition in Cooperstown, despite being a highly significant contributor to baseball’s genesis.  It is not an uncommon tale, of course.  The specter of Gil Hodges, an evergreen topic for debate about Hall of fame inclusion, stands on the sidelines of 25 Main Street as thousands trek yearly to this bucolic village in upstate New York, pay homage to baseball’s icons, and gander at plaques honoring Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and several other boys of summer.  This, regardless of membership on seven consecutive National League All-Star teams, seven consecutive years of 100 or more RBI, and a managerial career noted for turning around the woes of the New York Mets—his efforts culminated in the 1969 World Series championship.

Charles Ebbets, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who conceived Ebbets Field—and sacrificed half his ownership to finance the ballpark—does not have a plaque at the Hall of Fame.  Quincy Trouppe, a standout from the Negro Leagues, often occupies a spot in Hall of Fame debates.

Adams’s denial, to date, contrasts the honor given to some of his 19th century brethren.  In his 2011 book Baseball in the Garden of Eden:  The Secret History of the Early Game, John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s Official Historian, wrote that the Mills Commission’s report, which, inaccurately, credited Abner Doubleday with a primary role in baseball’s creation, failed to highlight “William Rufus Wheaton or Daniel Lucius Adams, recently revealed to be larger figures in baseball’s factual beginnings than either [Alexander] Cartwright or Doubleday.”

Adams has been “recently revealed to be larger figures in baseball’s factual beginnings than either [Alexander] Cartwright or [Abner] Doubleday.”

Indeed, Adams’s role in baseball’s ur-phase, emerging through the dedication of Thorn and other baseball archaeologists, remained, until the latter part of the 20th century, mostly obscured by Cartwright’s vaunted position as the father of the National Pastime and the legend, long since debunked as myth, that Doubleday designed the game’s blueprint.

It was Adams, however, who set the 90-foot length between bases.

It was Adams, however, who helped shape baseball’s rules as president of the Knickerbockers, a team with historical prestige for playing in what was, seemingly, if not concretely, the first organized baseball game—it took place in Hoboken in 1846.

It was Adams, however, who set the number of players at nine.

It was Adams, however, who conceived of a game lasting nine innings.

Teetering on the edge of Cooperstown, Adams is becoming decreasingly enigmatic and increasingly valuable in determining baseball’s genesis, evolution, and governance.  In 2015, the Hall of Fame’s Pre-Integration Committee disclosed that Adams received 10 votes of 16—two votes short of the 12 needed for membership; the Society for American Baseball Research Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legends Committee named Adams its 2014 legend.

Adams’s effect manifested in a 2016 auction for his handwritten “Laws of Base Ball,” which SCP Auctiosn sold for $3.26 million.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 3, 2017.