Posts Tagged ‘Red Smith’

Willie Mays Returns to New York

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

On May 25, 1951, Willie Mays played in his first major league game.  19 years and 50 weeks later, Mays returned to the city that embraced his early career.

Entering the major leagues with the New York Giants under the managerial reign of Leo Durocher, Mays became a model of excellence in ability, knowledge, and behavior.  In his 1975 autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last—written with Ed Linn—Durocher wrote, “Every day with Mays I would come to the ball park, pick up the lineup card and write his name in.  Willie Mays was never sick, he was never hurt, he never had a bellyache, he never had a toothache, he never had a headache.  He came to the park every day to put on the uniform and play.”

When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, Willie Mays became a favorite son of the Bay Area, with a metropolitan synonymity as as powerful as cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Spencer Tracy jokes that Willie Mays could get elected Mayor of San Francisco.

Mays’s term with the New York/San Francisco Giants brought 12 Gold Gloves, two Most Valuable Player Awards, and 18 All-Star Game appearances.  On May 11, 1971, the Giants and the New York Mets secured a deal that traded Mays to the Mets for Charlie Williams and a reported figure of $100,000.  Willie Mays back in a New York uniform ignited an inferno of nostalgia for the city’s glory days of the 1950s, when three teams ruled Gotham baseball.  In the New York Times, Red Smith acknowledged the questionable value of a trade, given Mays’s subpar batting average (below .200) and age (41).  “It can be justified only on sentimental grounds and if the deal comes off, God bless [Mets majority owner] Joan Payson.  The name-calling and hair-pulling during the players’ strike, the prolonged bitterness over Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve system, and the corrosive effects of Charley Finley’s haggling with Vida Blue have created a crying need for some honest sentiment in baseball.”

Additionally, Smith noted, Giants owner Horace Stoneham valued Mays, so a trade for the superstar hinged on protecting him.  “Anybody who knows Stoneham knows he would not trade Mays unless he believed it would benefit Willie as well as the Giants.”  Mays, in turn, voiced esteem for his boss during the press conference announcing the trade.  Times reporter Steve Lady recounted Mays’s response when a reporter questioned “The Say Hey Kid” about possible bitterness towards Stoneham:  “Bitterness?  What do you mean?  How could I have any bitterness for this man who is seeing that I’m taken care of after my playing days are over?  A lot of ballplayers play 20 years and come out with nothing.”  Regarding the city that launched his career, Mays said, “When you come back to New York, it’s like coming back to paradise.”

Contrariwise, in his 1988 autobiography Say Hey:  The Autobiography of Willie Mays—written with Lou Sahadi—Mays revealed his initial disappointment.  “My first reaction was anger at Stoneham,” wrote Mays.  “What happened to that family atmosphere he had always spoken of?  I couldn’t accept the fact that he hadn’t called me when he was working out the details.  Later, he explained to me he was losing money and would sell the club soon, but before he did, he wanted to make sure my future was secure.  Whatever feelings I had felt for him over the years, at that moment I felt betrayed.”

Security proved to be a factor in the trade of the aging icon, indeed.  Associated Press reported, “No specific terms of the deal to bring Mays to the Mets were revealed at the Shea Stadium conference but [minority owner and Chairman M. Donald] Grant said part of the package included a job for Mays in the New York organization after he retires as an active player.”  Joseph Durso of the Times reported, “Besides assuming his current salary, the Mets agreed to keep him for at least three years as a coach at $75,000 a year after he quits playing—which presumably could be at the end of this season or next.”

Despite unwarranted statistics, Mays attained selection for and played in the 1972 and 1973 All-Star Games.  Once fleet of foot with speed that struck terror into fielders trying to throw him out, Willie Howard Mays evidenced his age during the 1973 World Series, which the Mets lost to the Oakland A’s in seven games.  Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News wrote, “What you can say is that he looked every bit of his 42 years and had people feeling sorry for him as he floundered around under two fly balls in the sun.  And you can say that he battled back to drive in the go ahead run off Rollie Fingers as the Mets scored four runs and punched out a 10-7 victory over the A’s in game No. 2 here Sunday.”

Mays also ran into problems on the base paths; Mets manager Yogi Berra designated Mays as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub in the top of the ninth inning with the Mets ahead 6-3.  John Milner singled, but Mays “got his legs twisted and sprawled helplessly on the ground making his turn around the bag,” reported UPI.  “Mays should’ve easily made third on the blow but, after his mishap, all he could do was half-crawl, half-fall back safely into second.”

In the 12th inning, Mays knocked in the game-winning RBI; it was appropriate, somehow destined, that “The Say Hey Kid” finished the 12-inning affair with redemption, giving baseball fans a last glimpsed of greatness.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 19, 2015.

Mazeroski, Pittsburgh, and the 1960 World Series

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

At 3:37 p.m. on October 14, 1960, Bill Mazeroski became a blue-collar legend.  A stellar second baseman with eight Gold Gloves, Mazeroski played his entire 17-year career in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, never more prominent than in the moment he slammed a Ralph Terry pitch into the stands at Forbes Field.  And thus, the Pirates won the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees, a team stocked with icons named Mantle, Maris, Berra, Ford, and Howard.

In the New York Herald Tribune, legendary sportswriter Red Smith wrote, “Terry watched the ball disappear, brandished his glove hand high overhead, shook himself like a wet spaniel, and started fighting through the mobs that came boiling from the stands to use Mazeroski like a Trampoline.”

It was a victory steeped in fantasy.  The Yankees dominated baseball after World War II, winning 11 of 13 World Series between 1947 and 1964, so their presence in the 1960 edition of the Fall Classic was, in no small measure, a foregone conclusion.  Scores reflected Yankee excellence—the Bronx Bombers won Game Two, Game Three, and Game Six with scores of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0, respectively.  Pittsburgh’s triumphs in the remaining games had closer scores, none with a differential more than three runs.  In Game Seven, the lead changed hands several times before Mazeroski’s blast in the bottom of the ninth inning ended the contest with a score of 10-9.

“The accepted storyline of the 1960 World Series was that the New York Yankees hammered the Pittsburgh Pirates with haymakers, but the Bucs won the match on a split decision,” wrote Thad Mumau in his 2015 book Had ‘Em All the Way.  Yankee manager Casey Stengel, according to Mumau, led with baseball acumen contrasted by intuition flooded by over-thinking strategies for Mantle et al.  Mumau wrote, “He was a superior handler of personnel.  But he operated on instinct as much as guile, and sometimes his hunches fizzled.  Not just in terms of the immediate results, but also in terms of the whiplash effect on his players.  He loved playing chess on newspapers’ sports pages.  The pawns were not always amused.”

Bing Crosby, a 20th century entertainer at the apex of the Hollywood food chain, owned part of the Pirates.  With a bankroll built by success in music and in films, Crosby further feathered his financial cushion with business dealings, including a slice of Minute Maid Orange Juice.  Crosby’s dedication to the Pirates submerged to nerves in 1960—to avoid watching the World Series, he went to Paris with his wife, Kathryn; the Crosbys listened to Game Seven on the radio.  For future viewing, Crosby arranged for a recording of the game by kinescope, a process of filming a television screen.  In December 2009, nearly 50 years later, an executive of Bing Crosby Productions discovered the film while excavating the crooner’s thorough preservation of acting and singing performances for a possible DVD release authorized by the Bing Crosby estate.

It was the equivalent of Indiana Jones finding the Lost Ark.  In the web site The Daily Beast, baseball writer Allen Barra quoted Nick Trotta, a licensing executive for MLB Productions, regarding the film’s rarity:  “We have film footage going all the way back to 1905, but only a handful of complete baseball games before 1965.  For decades, it was the home park’s obligation to record a game, and the process was very costly.  It’s a shame, but the truth is that nobody knew in which games Willie Mays was going to make a spectacular circus catch or Mickey Mantle was going to hit a 565-foot home run.  We have newsreels of the great World Series moments, but very few entire games.”

Mazeroski had 138 career home runs, but he is best remembered for one swing that injected a tidal wave of pride throughout Pittsburgh on an October afternoon.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 30, 2015.

George Steinbrenner Buys the Yankees

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

Midwesterners are a stoic lot; stereotypically speaking, they’re quiet but not timid.  Theirs is a mission of doing a job without complaint, fanfare, and insolence.  To be from the Midwest, certainly, is to have a work ethic in your DNA where seeking attention is not only unproductive but also anathema.

George Michael Steinbrenner III broke the Midwestern stereotype.  Not since Humpty Dumpty had something been shattered to that extent.

When Steinbrenner, a shipping mogul from Cleveland, led a 12-man group with Michael Burke to purchase the New York Yankees from CBS for $10 million, a transaction announced on January 3, 1973, he stated, “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.  I can’t spread myself so thin.  “I’ve got enough headaches with my shipping company.”  Such would not be the case.  Steinbrenner’s bouts, tirades, and frustrations concerning manager Billy Martin, for example, became regular fodder for New York City newspapers; the sparring between Martin and Steinbrenner resulted in four hirings and firings between 1976 and 1985.

Early in Steinbrenner’s aegis, the Yankees quenched a thirst for championships.  They hadn’t won an American League pennant since 1964, when they lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.  During the first six years of the Steinbrenner regime, the Yankees won American League pennants in 1976, 1977, and 1978.  While swept by the Cincinnati Reds in four games in the 1976 World Series, the Yankees rebounded to become world champions by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classic for the next two years.

The 1973 purchase was a bargain for Steinbrenner, Burke et al.  In his column for the New York Times on January 5, 1973, Red Smith penned a piece titled “January Clearance in the Bronx,” where he compared the deal to the one struck three seasons prior, when a Milwaukee group invested $10.5 million to buy the Seattle Pilots after the team’s expansion year of 1969.  Smith noted that Seattle franchise was a “bankrupt baseball team with a one-year record of artistic, athletic and financial failure.”

Additionally, Smith pointed out that the owners spent an additional $3 million on the club, which moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers, beginning with the 1970 season.  “For $10 million,” wrote Smith, “Mike Burke and friends get a team with a half-century tradition of unmatched success, a territory with 15 million potential customers, and a promise that the city will spend at least $24 million on a playpen for them.”  Indeed, the New York Yankees vacated the vaunted Yankee Stadium for the 1974 and 1975 seasons; they played their home games at Shea Stadium, the home field for the New York Mets.

Further, the Yankees enjoyed a B-12 shot of attention from the purchase during one of the most depressing nadirs in New York City history; crime, inflation, and malaise ruled over the five boroughs when the Steinbrenner-Burke group bought the Yankees.  Sandy Padwe, in his article “CBS Eye No Longer on Yanks” for the the January 4, 1973 edition of Newsday, captured this sentiment.  “So in a way, yesterday was a time for the romantics in the Bronx,” wrote Padwe.  “It was a day to forget the graffiti on the walls of Yankee Stadium, a day to forget that the area around the Stadium fades a little more each week, a day to forget that the most publicized ball park in the United States belongs to an era past.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 3, 2015.

“The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!”

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

On October 3, 1951, in the 75th year of the National League, the cross-town Giants-Dodgers rivalry provided a finish that belonged on a storyboard in the office of a Hollywood producer debating whether he should take his wife to Ciro’s and his latest casting couch conquest to the Trocadero.  Or vice versa.

(more…)