Posts Tagged ‘Pittsburgh’

Don Drysdale: Once a Bum, Almost a Pirate

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Imagining Don Drysdale playing for a team other than the Dodgers is like imagining Hershey’s making products without chocolate.  Drysdale, he of the cannon disguised as a right arm firing baseballs through National League lineups in the 1950s and the 1960s, spent his career as a Dodger—first in Brooklyn, later in Los Angeles, where he grew up on the San Fernando Valley.  But the communal aura of Ebbets Field and the sun-soaked environs of Chavez Ravine might never have been blessed with Drysdale had Branch Rickey’s brethren signed him in Pittsburgh; Rickey served as the Pirates GM after notching four World Series titles for the Cardinals and leading baseball’s integration by signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers organization.

Rickey’s 1954 scouting report on Drysdale—nestled in the pitcher’ file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown—indicated prescience bordering on psychic.  The 18-year-old Drysdale impressed Rickey with his fast ball and his curve ball, both of which “needs no coaching.”  Rickey also expressed confidence that Drysdale could take down the speed on his change-up.  In short, Drysdale was “a definite prospect” with “an unusual amount of perfection.”

As a comparison, Rickey mentioned Don Dangleis, a minor league hurler who never made it out of the Pittsburgh farm system; Drysdale had faster pitches but Dangleis was more well-rounded.  The sticking point for Rickey was money, as is often the case with a team’s front office—Rickey wanted to keep Drysdale’s salary at a maximum of $4,000.  Although Rickey acknowledged that Drysdale was worth “whatever it takes,” he wanted to avoid singing Drysdale under a “bonus baby” rule, which mandated an immediate vault to a major league tenure of at least two years for a salary exceeding $4,000.  It was a tempting option establishing a new financial plateau for the player and eliminate a stopover in the minor leagues.  If a “bonus baby” needed seasoning before going to “the show,” however, the then the rule could be a detriment.

In his 1990 autobiography Once a Bum, Always a Dodger, Drysdale revealed that Rickey actually offered $6,000 while proclaiming an evasion of the rule’s tentacles without disclosing his methods to the pitcher or his dad, Scott, an ex-minor leaguer advising the young pitcher on what came to be a joyous choice for fans of the Dodgers.  There were other options—Drysdale received pitches—no pun intended—from the White Sox, the Yankees, and the Braves.  Drysdale’s father offered a view based in value.  “Look, if you’re going to get a lot of money—like Billy Consolo, a $60,000 bonus baby—then it makes sense to take it and go to the major leagues and take your chances,” recalled Drysdale of his father’s opining.  “But if you’re not going to get a lot of money—and $2,000 isn’t a lot of money—then why not go where you have the best chance to learn?”

And so, the definite prospect from Van Nuys, California joined the Dodgers farm system.  Drysdale remembered that he signed in “the first week of June 1954” but Rickey’s scouting report was dated June 15th.  Either Drysdale’s memory was incorrect or Rickey was unaware of the signing.  The latter is a reach, considering Rickey’s legendary attention to detail.  At the bottom of Rickey’s missive is a handwritten postscript:  “Signed with Brooklyn.  Father is a bird dog for them.”

Drysdale played for the Bakersfield Indians, a Class C team in the California State League for the 1954 season; he went 8-5, then played for Montreal in 1955, where he compiled an 11-11 record.  On April 23, 1956, Drysdale made his first appearance with Brooklyn, unleashing the supremacy with which he taught master classes in intimidation, control, and reliability throughout his major league career, which ended in 1969.  In this game against the Phillies, Drysdale struck out the first three batters, notched nine strikeouts for the day, and showed “big league poise,” according to United Press, when he got out of a bases loaded jam in the second inning by inducing Murry Dickson to fly out.

Drysdale found a home in Brooklyn before voyaging back to the Los Angeles sunshine when the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season.  “There was an intimacy about Ebbets Field that you don’t forget,” wrote Drysdale.  “If you are a starting pitcher, you warmed up in front of the dugout before the game, not in the bullpen.  You felt as though the fans were right on top of you, because they almost were.  It was a carnival atmosphere, small and always jumping.”

Rickey’s analysis of Drysdale proved correct:

  • 1962 National League Cy Young Award
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts three times
  • 2,486 career strikeouts
  • Led the major leagues in games started for four consecutive years
  • Led the major league in innings pitched twice
  • Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984

 

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

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.

Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame Game: 19th Century vs. Yankees

Monday, April 24th, 2017

In a Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame matchup between Post-1960 National Leaguers and Pre-1960 American Leaguers, the senior circuit edged Bob Feller and his cohorts 6-5.  To qualify, a National League player could have played before 1960, as long as he played at least five seasons after.  Hence, the appearances of Willie McCovey and Willie Mays in the lineup, in addition to Warren Spahn relieving Don Sutton.  There was no restriction on pinch hitters or substitutes—players of any era from any league were available.

The lineups were:

Post-1960 Nation League

  • Lou Brock (Left Field)
  • Joe Morgan (Second Base)
  • Willie McCovey (First Base)
  • Willie Mays (Center Field)
  • Mike Schmidt (Third Base
  • Andre Dawson (Right Field)
  • Johnny Bench (Catcher)
  • Ozzie Smith (Shortstop)
  • Don Sutton (Pitcher)

Pre-1960 American League

  • Joe Cronin (Shortstop)
  • Home Run Baker (Third Base)
  • Joe DiMaggio (Center Field)
  • Hank Greenberg (Second Base)
  • Goose Goslin (Left Field)
  • Sam Rice (Right Field)
  • Mickey Cochrane (Catcher)
  • Bob Feller (Pitcher)

Lou Brock, a threat to steal as often as Jack Benny claimed he was 39 years old, led off the game by trekking to first on an error by Joe Cronin.  Then, to nobody’s surprise, he stole second.  The rest of the Cardinal legend’s game was not as productive—three strikeouts and a flyout to DiMaggio.  Ozzie Smith, a fellow Cardinal, also struck out thrice.

Dawson singled in the second inning and Bench drove him in with a two-run home run.  With a hint of the impossible—or, at least, highly improbable—Sutton, who hit no home runs in his career, smacked a solo home run to give the NL a 3-0 lead.

In the bottom of the third inning, the AL squad notched its first run when Feller doubled, went to third on a Cronin grounder to Smith, and scored on Baker’s sacrifice fly to Dawson.

Cronin made it a one-run game when he doubled in the fifth, moved to third on a Baker single, and scored when DiMaggio hit into a 4-6-3 double play.  American League bats continued to hammer at Sutton in the seventh.  Baker walked, then moved to second when Sutton threw out DiMaggio at first on a ground ball.  He continued to third when Greenberg got to first on an error by Brock.  With runners at the corners, Lazzeri singled home Baker and Greenberg went to second; Goslin followed with a double, which scored the Tigers’ slugger.

Down 4-3 going into the top of the eighth, the National League batsmen went to work.  Morgan singled, then McCovey knocked a two-run homer to put his team ahead.  Feller walked Mays, who went to third base when Schmidt tried to stretch a single into a double, but got thrown out.  Dawson’s sacrifice fly to Goslin scored Mays, giving the NL a two-run margin.

Cochrane walked to lead off the bottom of the eighth, Gehrig struck out against Sutton in a pinch-hitting appearance, and Cronin hit into a double play.

Feller kept the National Leaguers at bay in the ninth by striking out Smith, getting pinch hitter Wade Boggs out on a fly ball to DiMaggio, and obtaining a similar result when Brock hit one to Rice.

Baker started the bottom of the ninth by flying out to Mays.  DiMaggio made the score 6-5 when he went yard off pitching substitute Warren Spahn.  But that’s as far as the AL got.  Greenberg grounded to Spahn.  Lazzeri amped up the adrenaline when he singled, but Goslin ended the game with a fly out to Dawson.

McCovey’s knock that put the National League ahead in the top of the eighth inning exemplified the power that sent 521 balls over the fence—including 18 grand slams—in a 22-year career.  Débuting with the San Francisco Giants in 1959, McCovey bashed his first career round tripper on August 2nd against Ron Kline of the Pittsburgh Pirates, compiled a .656 slugging percentage, and a .354 batting average.  He won the 1959 National League Rookie of the Year Award.

The Giants traded McCovey to the Padres for lefty Mike Caldwell after the 1973 season.  Bucky Walter of the San Francisco Examiner quoted Giants president Horace Stoneham regarding his rational for the trade:  “We badly needed a lefthanded pitcher.  Caldwell was very impressive against us last season.”  Walter reported, “The young southpaw started twice against the Giants.  He snuffed them out on five hits, 4-1.  He lost a tough 2-1 decision to Ron Bryant.”

McCovey played 1974, 1975, and part of 1976 for the Padres, finished America’s bicentennial year with the A’s, then moved back to San Francisco, where he ended his career during the 1980 season. Appropriately, McCovey was the hero of his last game, hitting an eighth inning sacrifice fly to put the Giants ahead of the Dodgers 4-3—the boys from San Francisco won the game in the 10th inning.  Final score:  7-4.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986, McCovey recounted getting called up to the show from the AAA Phoenix Giants.  In his first major league game, McCovey went 4-for-4 with two triples and two singles.  McCovey’s induction speech draft explained the circumstances, but the excerpt did not make the final draft:  “The next night I’m facing a tough left-hander, Harvey Haddix, of the Pirates,” explained McCovey.  “With the score tied in the bottom of the eighth inning, Mays leads off with a single.  Bill [Rigney] comes storming out of the dugout waving his hands.  So I step out of the batter’s box, and say to myself, ‘Now I know he’s not crazy enough to take me out for a pinch hitter is he?’—So he was, ‘If you be patient and take a couple of pitches that guy at first will steal second for you and you can win the game.’

“So I take the first pitch, strike one, I take the next pitch, and Mays steals second.  The next pitch I single to right, Mays scores the go ahead run and we win the game.”

And so began the career that player that Bob Gibson deemed the “scariest hitter in baseball.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 21, 2016.

Boog Powell’s MVP Season

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

A native of Key West—the place where Pan Am began, the U.S.S. Maine sailed from on its last journey before exploding in Havana Harbor, and Ernest Hemingway maintained a legendary home—John Wesley Powell, also known as Boog, spent most of his 17-season career in an Orioles uniform.  One of those seasons—1970—resulted in him winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award.

Powell ran away with the MVP voting, gaining 11 of 24 first-place votes and 234 points.  The next four contestants weren’t even close:

  • Tony Oliva, Minnesota Twins (157)
  • Harmon Killebrew, Minnesota Twins (152)
  • Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox (136)
  • Frank Howard, Washington Senators (91)

Memorial Stadium rocked with the cheers of Oriole Nation as Powell marched toward the coveted .300 batting average barrier, falling just short at .297.  Powell’s dominance at the plate reflected in 35 home runs, 114 RBI, and a .549 slugging percentage.

It was a banner year for Baltimore’s birds—they won the World Series after getting upset by the Miracle Mets in 1969.  Powell’s fellow Orioles did not fare as well with awards, despite outstanding seasons.  Baltimore’s legendary pitching staff boasted three 20-game winners—Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Jim Palmer scored in the top five for the American League Cy Young Award voting, but got eclipsed by Jim Perry of the Twins.

Powell said, “I think it’s a shame we were neglected for the other awards.  All of our three pitchers certainly deserved the Cy Young.  But I’m still elated at being chosen the MVP.  I feel it’s the highest honor in sports.”

Yankee skipper Ralph Houk won the American League Manager of the Year title rather than Earl Weaver, who helmed the O’s to two straight World Series.  A third consecutive appearance happened against the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’71—ultimately a losing affair in seven games.

Cheers, an NBC prime time powerhouse in the 1980s, used Powell to cement verisimilitude of Sam “Mayday” Malone—a fictional relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, a recovering alcoholic, and the owner of Cheers.  As the show’s theme song declares, Cheers is a bar, near the Boston Commons, where everybody knows your name.

In the first season episode “Sam at Eleven,” Sam’s former ballplayer pal Dave Richards, now a sportscaster, wants to interview the ex-Red Sox reliever at Cheers.  Sam talks about a dramatic moment when he faced Powell in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader.  During the middle of Sam’s story, Dave abandons for an interview with John McEnroe.  Diane Chambers, an intellectual waitress having an undercurrent of highly significant sexual tension with Sam, which gets resolved in a later episode when they succumb to their respective differences—he, a dumb jock stereotype and she, a condescending sort—asks what happened to “the Boog person” and Sam, obviously suffering from a punch to his ego, casually tells her that Powell grounded to third to end the game.

After some gentle and not-so-gentle verbal prodding from Diane, Sam talks about the injury to his psyche.  Then, perhaps in a moment of catharsis, he tells Diane about the end of the second game, which also found him facing Powell in the bottom of the ninth.

Sam’s story could not have taken place during Powell’s MVP year, however.  When Cheers left prime time in 1993, after 11 seasons, Sports Illustrated ran a biography of America’s favorite barkeep.  “Everybody Knows His Name” recounted Malone’s career based on dialogue throughout the series.  Sam Malone entered professional baseball in 1966, débuted in the major leagues in 1972, and ended his career in 1978.

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

Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, and the Olympics

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Baseball’s nexus with Hollywood had a center point in Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field on February 28, 1932 for a charity game benefitting America’s Olympians; the ’32 Summer Olympics—which took place in Los Angeles—inspired two comedy icons to combine their celebrity and passion for baseball in a civic minded cause.  Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton spearheaded the teams.

Players from the Cubs, the Giants, and the Pirates took the field in front of approximately 8,500 fans, according to the Los Angeles Times.  Brown’s team won 10-3 in the six-inning contest.  It was nearly over as soon as it began—six Brown players scored in the first inning.  The Times reported, “The game was called to permit Rogers Hornsby and his Cubs to catch the Catalina Ferry.”  The rosters included Lloyd Waner, Pie Traynor, Carl Hubbell, and Grover Cleveland Alexander.  Keaton and Brown also participated, as did Jack Oakie, another member of Hollywood’s comedy group.

Brown and Keaton incorporated baseball into their respective bodies of work.  Fireman Save My ChildElmer the Great, and Alibi Ike offer Brown as a skilled rube.  Keaton filmed a legendary segment at Yankee Stadium for his silent film The Cameraman—he mimed players at different positions.  Brown’s love for the National Pastime stuck in his DNA—his son Joe L. Brown was the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976, a period of Steel City baseball legends, including Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Roy Face, Willie Stargell, and Al Oliver.

Keaton’s comedy was universal, timeless, and groundbreaking.  The Muskegon, Michigan native formed the comedy cornerstone of the silent film industry, along with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, and Fatty Arbuckle, to name a few.

A few months before he died, Keaton explained how he saw his comedy appeal to the current generation; Times writer Henry Sutherland chronicled this insight in the 1966 obituary for the filmmaker, nicknamed “The Great Stone Face”for his ability to maintain composure during chaos in his films.

“Two years ago we sent a picture to Munich, Germany using old-fahsioned subtitles with a written score,” Keaton said.  “This was ‘The General.’  It was made in 1926, and hell, that’s 39 years ago.

“But I sneaked into the theater and the laughs were exactly the same as on the day it was first release.”

Wrigley Field graced television and theaters before its demise in the 1960s.  It was where Herman Munster tried out for the Los Angeles Dodgers under the watchfulness of Leo Durocher.  It was where baseball scenes in The Pride of the Yankees were filmed.  It was where baseball’s greatest sluggers matched powers at the plate in Home Run Derby, a syndicated television show in 1960—Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, and Ernie Banks were among the competitors.

Considered a hitter’s park, Wrigley Field hosted its first game in 1925.  The California Angels played their home games at Wrigley Field in their début season—1961.  Dodger Stadium was the team’s home field for the next four seasons, until Angel Stadium’s début in 1966.

Today, Gilbert Lindsay Park stands on Wrigley’s grounds.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 5, 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.

Durocher, Drysdale, and the Duke

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Hollywood’s cup of glamour runneth over with lore, the most significant likely being, in terms of endurance, the story of Lana Turner, she of the tight-fitting sweater, busty figure, and platinum blonde hair.  Turner’s genesis as a star began at Schwab’s Pharmacy in Hollywood, where the future star played hooky from Hollywood High School.  Or so the legend went.  It was, in fact, the Top Hat Malt Shop that served as the locale for Turner’s discovery by a talent agent in the late 1930s.

Television producers in the 1950s and the 1960s need not have looked further than Chavez Ravine to discover talent for verisimilitude in their baseball-themed episodes.  Leo Durocher, no stranger to show business because of his marriage to Laraine Day—which ended in divorce in 1960—appears as himself in The Beverly Hillbillies and The Munsters.  In both appearances, Durocher, a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, scouts baseball talent—Jethro Clampett in the former and Herman Munster in the latter.

The Beverly Hillbillies uses the classic “fish out of water” format to depict country bumpkins living in Beverly Hills after striking oil accidentally.  Audiences delighted in the misunderstandings between the Clampett kinfolk and their neighbor—and banker—Milburn Drysdale.  Jethro, the slow-witted but joyful nephew of Jed Clampett, has a throwing arm that the more famous Drysdale would envy.  Unfortunately for Durocher, Jethro’s pitching ability flourishes only when he puts possum fat on the ball, clearly an illegal maneuver.  Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi does not appear as himself, rather, Wally Cassell portrays him.

In the Munsters episode “Herman the Rookie,” which aired in 1965, Durocher eyes Herman Munster, a comedic Frankenstein-looking fellow, as the Dodgers’ next great slugger.  While playing with his son, Eddie, Herman grabs the attention of Durocher, who thinks he’s found the next Babe Ruth.  A ball hit by Herman from a ballpark eight blocks away knocks Durocher on his noggin.

Again, Durocher’s scouting exploits amount to naught.  During a tryout, Herman hits a ground ball that tears through the infield dirt like a drill.  Toppling like a house of cards, the scoreboard falls after a home run ball smashes it.  “Mr. O’Malley said it would cost him $75,000 to put the Dodger Stadium back in shape every time I played,” explains Herman to his family.

Herman’s tryout takes place at Wrigley Field—in Los Angeles—which provided the site for several television programs and movies, including Home Run Derby; Wrigley Field was the home ballpark for the California Angels in their inaugural year, 1961.

Durocher also plays himself in episodes of Mr. Ed and The Donna Reed Show.

Don Drysdale made four appearances on Donna Reed in addition to guest starring on Leave It To Beaver and Our Man Higgins; his infamous appearance in The Brady Bunch occurred in 1970.  A post-baseball career in front of the camera beckoned during the contract holdout that joined Drysdale and fellow Dodgers hurler Sandy Koufax before the 1966 season.

In his 1990 autobiography Once A Bum, Always A Dodger, Drysdale revealed that a movie with David Janssen was in the works.  “Sandy and I assumed that we wouldn’t be with the Dodgers during the summer, so we geared up to do a movie instead.  It was to be called Warning Shot, directed by Buzz Kulik.  Janssen was going to be the star, Sandy was going to play a detective sergeant, and I was going to be a television commentator.  We had planned to start filming at just about the time the baseball season would begin.  Sandy and I had signed contracts and all systems were go.”

Drysdale and Koufax resolved their differences with the Dodgers, thereby excluding the Janssen movie from their calendar.

Before the Dodgers established a beachhead in southern California, beginning with the 1968 season, Ebbets Field was their home.  During his tenure as one of the marshals of McKeever Place, Duke Snider guest starred as himself on Father Knows Best in the 1956 episode “Hero Father.”  Father Knows Best is set in Springfield, presumably somewhere in the Midwest.

The story’s premise revolves around Bud, the middle of the Andersons’ three children.  Duke Snider’s All Stars are scheduled for exhibition games in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Duluth, Omaha, and Los Angeles.  “The All Stars come right through Springfield on their way to Duluth,” offers Bud, a teenager, to his two pals.

Anderson matriarch Margaret points out to her husband, Jim, that Duke Snider’s team would be a good draw to raise money for the new hospital wing; Him is the chairman of the committee for the addition.

Implausibly, Jim gets in touch with Duke.  Money proves to be a sticking point; Brooklyn’s iconic centerfielder explains, “My boys have to make a living.”  All is not lost, though.  Duke offers a deal that would give his team 25% of the profit from the ticket sales—instead of the usual 50%—plus expenses in advance.

Jack Braymer, the father of Sandy, one of Bud’s friends, approaches Jim with a deal—he’ll pick up the cost of the expenses and guarantee the tickets if Springfield’s zoning commission allows him to to build a manufacturing plant on the site of his choice.  Initially, Braymer wants to look like a hero to his son, with whom he has a somewhat fractured relationship.  When Jim shows that his integrity is unassailable, Braymer withdraws the offer.

After his conscience hits him with the force of a Duke Snider home run, Braymer comes clean to his son.  In the episode’s tag, Duke plays catch with the Andersons’ younger daughter, Kathy.

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

McGraw and McGillicuddy

Friday, March 10th, 2017

One was pugnacious.  The other, almost regal.

When John Joseph McGraw took the field, he embraced baseball games as bouts, thus earning his nicknames Mugsy and Little Napoleon.

When Cornelius McGillicuddy managed the Philadelphia Athletics, he wore a suit rather than a uniform.

They were, certainly, opposites with a respect that ran deeper than the Hudson River.

Connie Mack—McGillicuddy’s more familiar moniker—managed the Athletics ball club from its genesis in 1901 until 1950.  When Mack passed away in 1956, it marked the end of a lengthy baseball tenure that began at the end of the 19th century—from 1894 to 1896, Mack was a player-manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This came after playing in the major leagues for 11 years; in addition to Pittsburgh, Mack played for Buffalo and Washington.  Mack’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site honors innovation in the catcher position:  “Mack was one of the first catchers to play directly behind home plate instead of setting up by the backstop.  He was also famous for his abilities to fake the sound of a foul tip with his mouth and ‘tip’ opposing players’ bats during their swings.”

Mack’s 50-year governance of the A’s as a manager and a part owner resulted in five World Series championships and seven American League titles.  There were plenty of down years, too.  In 1915, the A’s had a 36-104 record— it began a 10-year run of losing seasons.  Eight winning seasons followed, including three consecutive American League pennants from 1929 to 1931.  The A’s won the World Series in 1929 and 1930.

Contrariwise to Mack’s aura of temperateness, John McGraw breathed flames.  Upon the death of the fiery New York Giants manager in 1934, New York Times writer John N. Wheeler opined that retirement a couple of years prior corresponded with a transition in the National Pastime.  “The game also had become more gentlemanly and, if you will take the word of an old-timer like the writer, less colorful,” wrote Wheeler.  “Not that there is any implication that John J. McGraw was not a gentleman, but when he went to wars he went to win.”

McGraw’s managerial career began with the Baltimore Orioles team that moved to New York after the 1902 season and became the Highlanders— the team later changed to the Yankees label.  McGraw was a Baltimore fixture, playing third base on the Oriole’s National League championship teams in the 1890s.

In the middle of the 1902 season, McGraw went to the New York Giants, where he became the symbol of toughness for the princes of the Polo Grounds.  And he brought several Orioles with him.  Under McGraw, the Giants won 10 National League pennants and seven World Series titles.

Mack and McGraw squared off in the World Series three times—1905, 1911, and 1913; the Giants own the 1905 contest and the A’s won the next two.

In 1937, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Connie Mack and John McGraw.  On McGraw’s Hall off Fame web site page, a quote from Mack summarizes his feelings toward his counterpart:  “There has been only one manager— and his name is McGraw.”

A version of this article appeared on March 17, 2016.

Vic Willis, the Boston Beaneaters, and the Last No-Hitter of the 20th Century

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

Vic Willis, he of the assonant moniker, hurled with the intensity of a Nor’easter whipping across the Charles River.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, Willis compiled a career 249-205 win-loss record, achieved a 2.63 Earned Run Average, and pitched in 513 games.  His 13-year career began with the Boston Beaneaters, for whom he played from 1898 to 1905.  Then, he called Pittsburgh home for four seasons, winning more than 20 games for the Pirates in each season.  Willis ended his career in 1906, with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Willis came charging out of the gate in his rookie year, notching a 25-13 record.  In addition to Willis’s performance, 1898 was an explosive year for Boston’s pitching staff:

  • Fred Klobedanz (19-10)
  • Ted Lewis (26-8)
  • Kid Nichols (31-12)

The Beaneaters won the 1898 National League pennant with a 102-47 record.

After his first two seasons, Willis had a record of 52 wins, 21 losses.  In 1900, he did not fare as well.  A 10-17 record belied Willis’s proficiency on the mound.  In his indispensable two-volume series Major League Baseball Profiles:  1871-1900, baseball historian David Nemec explains that rather than adhere to the ritual of spring training in southern climates, Willis opted for working out instead with Boston catcher Boileryard Clarke in the Princeton Gym.  “Arm trouble” resulted.

Further, a leap to the American League, perhaps prompted by Boston’s 66-72 record in 1900, failed to launch.  “Willis then made his critical career-changing mistake.  That winter, he agreed to jump to the rival American League and signed a contract with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s.  But in March TSN  [The Sporting News] observed that he had ‘flopped back to the big league,’ after Boston threatened legal reprisal and perhaps raised his salary to compete with the A’s offer,” writes Nemec.

Willis threw a no-hitter for Boston on August 7, 1899 against the Washington Senators.  Boston Globe sports writer Tim Murnane wrote, “The solitary hit off Willis was not worth the name. The ball went along the ground from [Senators pitcher Bill] Dineen’s [sic] bat as harmless as a robin at play until [Beaneaters third baseman Jimmy] Collins reached for it, when it jumped to one side and was safe.”

Although it stands as a no-hitter, the game’s box score in the Globe indicates a hit for Dinner.  Further, a headline for Murnane’s story states, “Only One Hit Off Willis in the Full Nine Innings.”

Boston beat Washington 7-1.  Murnane wrote, “The visitors scored their only run in the first, on two bases on balls, [Beaneaters catcher Marty] Bergen’s side throw to second and a putout.”

In 1899, Willis had the best Earned Run Average in the major leagues—2.50.

“Tall, graceful workhorse with sweeping curve” is the description of Willis on his Hall of Fame plaque.  Workhorse, indeed.  Willis scored at least 20 wins eight times.  In 1902, Willis led the major leagues in:

  • Games pitched (51)
  • Games started (46)
  • Complete games (45)
  • Innings pitched (410)
  • Saves (3)
  • Batters faced (1,652)
  • Strikeouts (225)

In addition to Willis, the Hall of Fame inducted Richie Ashburn, Leon Day, William Hulbert, and Mike Schmidt in 1995.

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