Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma’

Wichita: Home of Aviation, Pizza Hut, and the Wingnuts

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Wichita, by virtue of its service as a site for leading manufacturers in the aviation industry, owns the label “Air Capital of the World”—Cessna, for example, has operations there.  The Kansas Historical Society web site details Clyde Cessna’s journey to aviation king, which turned the corner in Wichita after a stint at Queen Airplane in New York—an apprenticeship of sorts, so Cessna could “learn aircraft construction.”

Determination overcame setbacks.  “Cessna soon began to build his own monoplane, the Silverwing,” explains kshs.org.  “He crashed on his first attempt at flight in Alfalfa, Oklahoma.  Cessna was not discouraged and made a successful flight in June of 1911.  He continued to build monoplanes from 1912 to 1915.

“During the winter from 1916 to 1017 Cessna moved his operations to Wichita.”

Learjet, the company for which Pete Campbell left his advertising brethren in the final episode of Mad Men, has its home base in Wichita—yet another example of an iconic aviation name grounded in this Midwestern metropolis.

Wichita was also the launching pad for Pizza Hut.  In 1958, Wichita State University students—and brothers—Dan and Frank Carney founded their enterprise at the corner of Kellogg and Bluff.  The Carney brothers “borrowed $600 from their mom and set out to change the way the world experience pizza,” states the Pizza Hut web site.

For baseball fans, Wichita offers the Wingnuts, so named in honor of the city’s rich, prestigious, and famed aviation heritage; the label’s alliteration has a mellifluous sound, akin to other teams in sports history, e.g., Boston Braves, San Francisco Seals.

Other team name possibilities conjure images of air power—Jets, Pilots, Skies.  The Wingnuts moniker does not enjoy this status, however—wingnuts are unsung but crucial elements to a plane; without wingnuts to fasten parts of the body, a plane will fall apart.

On November 7, 2007, the team débuted its name and logo at a press conference; Wichita entered the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.  Nate Robertson, a former major leaguer who has a part-ownershyip in the Wingnuts, embraces a team philosophy.  “You see guys who have a bad at-bat and they are running around ranting, tearing up the locker room, and the team is winning 5-0,” said Robertson in a 2015 article for minorleaguesportsreport.com.  “That is a guy who cares only about himself, and other guys on the team see that.  No one likes to be around a person like that because they can tell that guy doesn’t care about the team.”

The Wingnuts ball club plays its home games in Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 19, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Gene Autry

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Gene Autry wore many hats, proverbially speaking, besides the cowboy dome piece in his movies:

  • Owner of Los Angeles television station KTLA from 1963 to 1982
  • Original singer of the Christmas standard Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Army Air Corps officer and Air Transport Command pilot during World War II
  • Owner of Melody Ranch, a 110-acre site formerly known as Monogram Movie Ranch (bought in 1953, sold nearly 100 acres and used the remaining land for Western movies and television series)
  • Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show
  • The Adventures of Champion radio show (about Autry’s horse Champion)
  • Radio stations
  • Television stations, in addition to KTLA
  • Rodeo
  • Record company

Baseball fans, however, knew Autry primarily as the man who planted a Major League Baseball flag in Orange County, California; Autry, once a part-owner of the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, was the first owner of the California Angels ball club—originally named Los Angeles Angels—which had its first season in 1961.

Autry’s journey to ownership began, as financial successes often do, in the wake of disappointment.  When the Los Angeles Dodgers switched radio broadcasters from Autry’s KMPC to rival KFI in 1959, an opportunity emerged.  A new American League franchise in Los Angeles would be a ripe opportunity for KMPC, particularly because of its sports broadcasting pedigree.  A former ballplayer raised the ante.  “Joe Cronin had known Autry since Gene’s barnstorming rodeo days over two decades earlier.  Cronin, now president of baseball’s American League, wondered if Autry was ready to tame the Wild Wild West’s newest franchise in L.A.,” wrote Robert Goldman in the 2006 book Once They Were Angels.  “Autry jumped at the opportunity.  It was a perfect fit, as not only did Autry love baseball, but he also had an impeccable reputation as a businessman and a person of integrity.”

And so, the mogul who grew up dirt poor in Oklahoma pioneered American League baseball on the West Coast.

And yet, the icon born Orvon Grover Autry is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Autry’s tenure as the Angels’ owner spanned decades, from the last days of the Eisenhower presidency to the first days of the Internet becoming a mainstream tool for information.  When Autry sold the Angels in 1996, he left a legacy difficult to match and easy to applaud.  His length of time made him a baseball fixture.  His integrity made him a model of comportment for businessmen.

Tom Yawkey is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so—he spearheaded the renovation of Fenway Park in the 1920s.

Walter O’Malley is in the Hall of Fame, which causes havoc in the hearts of Brooklynites, who see O’Malley as a betrayer for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles.  His transit to Los Angeles after the 1957 season paved the way for Autry and other owners to establish teams west of St. Louis, theretofore the westernmost metropolis with a Major League Baseball team.

Barney Dreyfuss is in the Hall of Fame, a membership for the former Pirates owner resulting from many achievements, including being a proponent of the World Series; the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates played in the first World Series in 1903.

Gene Autry is not in the Hall of Fame, despite his steadfast ownership.

Devotion to the fans stands out.  Not content to simply have a financial ledger in the black.  Autry poured “his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion.  He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died,” wrote Myrna Oliver of the Los Angeles Times in Autry’s 1998 obituary.

In 1982, the Angels retired 26 as Autry’s number to reflect being the “26th Man” on the roster, which has a limit of 25 players.  It was a sign of respect that Autry also earned from owners, fans, stadium workers, players, and baseball executives across Major League Baseball.  Such is Autry’s emotional connection to Angel Nation that the phrase “Win One for the Cowboy” resonates from Angel Stadium to Aliso Viejo, from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano.

Cooperstown awaits.  Patiently.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 29, 2016.

Mickey, Whitey, and the Class of 1974

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

During the summer of 1974, excitement charged the air.  We watched with wonder when Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the Twin Towers, with dismay when President Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal, and with awe when the Universal Product Code débuted to signify a touchstone in the computer age.

For baseball fans, the Baseball Hall of Fame induction marked the summer.  In this particular instance, two Yankee icons, polar opposites in their upbringing but thick as thieves in their friendship, ascended to Cooperstown.  Mickey Charles Mantle and Edward Charles Ford.  The Mick and Whitey.

Mantle—the Yankee demigod with 536 home runs—thanked his father in his induction speech.  “He had the foresight to realize that someday in baseball that left-handed hitters were going to hit against right-handed pitchers and right-handed hitters are going to hit against left-handed pitchers; and he thought me, he and his father, to switch-hit at a real young age, when I first started to learn how to play ball,” explained the Oklahoma native.  “And my dad always told me if I could hit both ways when I got ready to go to the major leagues, that I would have a better chance of playing.”

With overwhelming power, Mantle compiled dazzling statistics:

  • Led the major leagues in runs scored (five times)
  • Led the major leagues in walks (five times)
  • Led the American League in home runs (four times)
  • 2,401 games played
  • 9,907 plate appearances

Mantle’s aplomb came with a cost—strikeouts.  #7 led the American League in strikeouts five times and the major leagues three times.

Like Mantle, Ford spent his entire career in a Yankee uniform.  Where Mantle came from the Dust Bowl, Ford came from the city.  Queens, specifically.  After achieving a 9-1 record in his rookie season of 1950, Ford lost two seasons to military service.  He returned in 1953 without skipping a beat, ending the season with an 18-6 record.

Mantle and Ford played together on the World Series championship teams of 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, and 1962.

Joining the pinstriped legends were—as a result of the Veterans Committee’s votes—Jim Bottomley, Jocko Conlan, and Sam Thompson.

Bottomley, a first baseman, played for the Cardinals, the Reds, and the Browns in his 16-year career (1922-1937).  He was not, to be sure, a power hitter—his career home run total was 219.  But he sprinkled 2,313 hits, resulting in a .310 lifetime batting average.  Bottomley led the National League in RBI twice, in hits once, and in doubles twice.

Conlan was the fourth Hall of Famer from the umpiring brethren.  In his 25-year career, Conlan umpired five World Series, six All-Star games, and three tie-breaking playoffs.  Conlan’s page on the Hall of Fame web site states, “He wore a fashionable polka dot bow tie and was the last NL umpire to wear a chest protector over his clothes.  Besides his attire, Conlan was known for his ability to combine his cheerful personality with a stern sense of authority.”

Sam Thompson was a right fielder for the Detroit Wolverines and the Philadelphia Phillies from 1885 to 1898.  In 1906, Thompson played eight games with the Detroit Tigers.  Thompson finished his career with a .331 batting average—he led the major leagues in RBI three times, in slugging percentage twice, and in doubles twice.  Thompson also led the American League in hits three times—in one of those years, he led the major leagues.

The Special Committee on the Negro Leagues okayed the inclusion of center fielder Cool Papa Bell, who played for:

  • St. Louis Stars
  • Kansas City Monarchs
  • Homestead Grays
  • Pittsburgh Crawfords
  • Memphis Red Sox
  • Chicago American Giants

In Mexico, Bell played for:

  • Monterrey Industriales
  • Torreon Algodoneros
  • Veracruz Azules
  • Tampico Alidjadores

Bell’s speed was legendary; speed inspired his nickname.  Ken Mandel of MLB.com wrote, “While still a knuckle balling prospect in 1922, he earned his moniker by whiffing Oscar Charleston with the game on the line.  His manager, Bill Gatewood, mused about how ‘cool’ his young player was under pressure and added the ‘Papa’ because it sounded better, though perhaps it was a testament to how the 19-year-old performed like a grizzled veteran.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 24, 2016.

Rusty Staub: Bonus Baby

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

When Daniel Joseph Staub signed a major league contract, he fell under the “bonus baby” nomenclature.  Nicknamed “Rusty” by a nurse upon his birth on April 1, 1944, Staub became so known.  In a 1967 article for Sports Illustrated, Gary Ronberg cited Staub’s mother in revealing the story behind the dubbing:  “‘I wanted to name him Daniel so I could call him Danny for short,’ said Mrs. Staub, who is, of course, Irish.  ‘But one of the nurses nicknamed him Rusty for the red fuzz he had all over his head, and it stuck.'”

Staub, all of 17 years old, signed with the nascent Houston Colt .45s in 1961 as an amateur free agent while the team prepared for its 1962 début.  In his Houston Post column “Post Time,” Clark Nealon used the Post‘s February 26, 1962 edition to highlight Staub.  Quoting Brooklyn Dodgers icon Babe Herman, Nealon wrote, “He runs well, handles himself well, has good hands.  He needs some work in the field, but that’ll come.  I like the way he swings the bat.”

Playing with the Durham Bulls in ’62, Staub hit 23 home runs, compiled a .293 batting average, and won the Carolina League’s Most Valuable Player award.  In 1963, Staub elevated to Houston for his first major league season—he played in 150 games, batted .224, hit six home runs.  A stay with the Oklahoma City 89ers in 1964 provided seasoning for the red-haired bonus baby—Staub tore apart the Pacific Coast League with a .334 batting average after 60 games.

In the September 19, 1964 Sporting News article “Return of Rusty:  Staub Rides Hot Bat Back to .45s,” Bob Dellinger reasoned, “Staub, perhaps the No. 1 boy in Houston’s renowned youth movement was farmed to the Class AAA club in mid-July with a double-dip objective.  First, he could play every day and perhaps build up his confidence at the plate; second, he could gain valuable defensive training in the outfield.”

Further, Dellinger exposed Staub’s perception of the demotion to the minor leagues:  “Sometimes it seems like the world is coming to an end, but maybe it just starts over.  I believe I will be back—better prepared physically and mentally.”

Staub played in a little more than half of Houston’s games in 1964, garnering a .216 batting average.  His performance at the plate improved for the remainder of his Houston tenure—batting averages of .256, .280, .333, and .291.  Staub also played for the Expos, the Mets, the Tigers, and the Rangers in his major league career, which ended after the 1985 season.  His time in an Expos uniform began with the team’s inaugural season—1969—and lasted three years; he also played part of the 1979 season in Montreal.  Upon arrival, Staub enjoyed a newfound respect.  In his 2014 book Up, Up & Away:  The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos, Jonah Keri explained, “They urged Staub to become the face of the team, and an ambassador to the community.  This was a challenge he happily embraced.

“Staub’s first step was to learn to speak French—some French anyway, somewhere between knowing what his own nickname meant and true fluency.  He’d go out to lunch with francophone friends and insist that they speak French the whole meal.”

Montreallians bestowed the nickname “Le Grand Orange” upon Staub.

A New Orleans native, Staub was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1989.

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

The Astrodome’s Début

Friday, December 16th, 2016

Houston, we have a solution.

Famous for its humidity, Houston unveiled a revolutionary, futuristic, and air-conditioned sports refuge—the Harris County Domed Stadium, also known as the Astrodome.  Débuting in 1965, the Astrodome’s monkey reflected the 1960s Space Age, when Houston dominated the world’s attention as the headquarters for NASA, which launched unmanned spacecraft and manned flights in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.  Houston’s Major League Baseball team changed labels, too.  Introduced as the Colt .45s in 1962, the team became the Astros concurrent with the Astrodome’s début.

Houston’s relationship with professional baseball began in 1888 with the Houston Buffaloes, a minor league fixture until 1961.  The Buffaloes, in fact, needed to be expunged from Houston so that a major league team could enter the market.  On January 17, 1961, the Houston Sports Association, the entity owning the rights for a National League team in Houston, purchased the Buffaloes and moved the team to Oklahoma City, where they became the 89ers.

The Astrodome provided Houstonians the opportunity to see events without worry regarding the weather.  “The searing Texas sun will still beat down, the angry Gulf Coast winds will still howl and the tropical rains will still fall, but NOT on the spectators in the Astrodome,” described the Houston Sports Association in its 1965 promotional magazine Inside the Astrodome.  “They sit in almost regal splendor in plush-type opera seats protected overhead by a permanent translucent roof covered with 4,596 skylights of clear ‘Lucite’ plastic and in a temperature of 74 degrees controlled by a $4,500,000 air-conditioning system of 6,600 tons.”

Until the Astrodome was erected, though, the Colt .45s needed a home field.  Colt Stadium was erected in a few months, though its conditions endorsed an indoor facility for Houston.  In his 2014 book The Astrodome: Building An American Spectacle, James Last wrote, “The team would play three seasons in Colt Stadium and, by all accounts, conditions there underscored the need for an indoor venue.  Ballplayers and spectators wilted under the high heat and humidity and were feasted on by mosquitoes drawn to the damp, low-lying site”

Besides the comfort provided by luxurious seats, cool temperatures, and protection from the elements, the Astrodome entertained fans with an electronic scoreboard featuring animation, an innovation in the mid-1960s.  Along with NASA’s missions, the Astrodome became geographic shorthand as it elevated Houston to worldwide fame.  In their 2013 book Deep in the Heart: Blazing A Trail From Expansion To the World Series, Bill Brown and Mike Acosta cite the description of renowned baseball journalist Mickey Herskowitz:  “But somewhere along that first year (1965), you could go to any city in the world, London or Paris for example, and if somebody asked where you were and you said Houston, they would know about the Astrodome.  People forget the impact the Astrodome had.”

The first game played in the Astrodome was an exhibition between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees on April 9, 1965.  Dick Farrell threw the first pitch, Mickey Mantle hit the first home run, and a new era of multi-purpose domed stadiums was born.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 11, 2015.

World Series Pranks and Franks

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

As dusk anticipated relieving the sun of its duties during the twilight of October 3, 1956, Paul Newman hustled through the stage entrance of the Mansfield Theatre, an august Broadway institution on West 47th Street in Manhattan.  Before he achieved icon status in the 1961 movie The Hustler, Newman plied his acting trade in legitimate theatre and live television dramas.  But his appearance at the Mansfield did not require his thespian skills.

Newman arrived at the theatre to prepare for a prime time television appearance on I’ve Got a Secret, a game show featuring Garry Moore as host and a panel of four celebrities trying to deduce the contestant’s secret through questions and answers.  On this October night, Newman was a contestant.  His secret?  He paraded around Ebbets Field as a Harry M. Stevens vendor during Game 1 of the World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees earlier that afternoon.  And he sold a hot dog to panelist Henry Morgan without Morgan realizing his identity.

After Morgan surrendered his guessing, Moore encouraged Newman to go offstage.  Then, he followed with a description of the prank:  “Henry, we not only knew that you went to the World Series ball game this afternoon.  We even contrived to have a friend call you up and invite you to go to the ball game.  We knew what seats you were sitting in.  We knew exactly where you were.  Through the good offices of Sports Illustrated, we did have a photographer out there taking pictures from time to time.  But you don’t remember the occasion.  Paul, are you ready?  Maybe you’ll recognize him better this way.  Paul, come out!”

Newman returned in his vendor garb, shouting a familiar refrain with heavy Brooklynese in his voice:  “Get your hot franks here, ladies and gentlemen!  Get your hot franks!”  Morgan replied, “I didn’t know that you looked so ordinary!”  He then certified Newman’s Ebbets Field presence.

Morgan:  “Weren’t you the one that we had all the trouble with?  You waited on like fifty people?”

Newman:  “Yes.”

Morgan:  “And we were screaming and yelling.”

Newman:  “I understand that you were very irritated because you were very hungry and didn’t have any breakfast.”

Morgan:  “You were there.”

Going incognito as an Ebbets Field held an inherent risk of recognition.  Newman built an extensive résumé with credits including a breakthrough role as Middleweight Champion Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film that premiered during the summer of ’56.  Additionally, a week prior to the Ebbets Field charade, Newman starred in The United States Steel Hour television adaptation of Bang the Drum Slowly, the second book in Mark Harris’s literary quartet of baseball fiction featuring pitcher Henry Wiggum.

After the secret’s revelation, Newman admitted that he was “terribly nervous” in carrying out the hoax.  But his commitment to the role would have made Thespis beam with pride—he sold dozens of hot dogs to unsuspecting fans!

Morgan remarked that Game 1 was “some game!”  Newman exclaimed, “I didn’t see any of the game!”

The Dodgers beat the Yankees 6-3.  Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Gil Hodges, and Jackie Robinson went yard.  Mantle’s dinger knocked in two runs for the Yanks; it was the Oklahoma-bred slugger’s only hit for the day.  Enos Slaughter went 3 for 5 and scored on the Mantle home run.  Martin’s was a solo shot and also his only hit.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 1, 2013.