Posts Tagged ‘Roberto Clemente’

What if…

Friday, April 21st, 2017

What if…

Charlie Finley hadn’t broken up the 1970s Oakland A’s dynasty?

Bob Uecker hadn’t appeared in Major League?

there was no Designated Hitter position?

the Mets had never traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels?

Yogi Berra had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers?

George Steinbrenner had never bought the Yankees?

the Dodgers had never moved from Brooklyn?

the Giants had moved to Minneapolis instead of San Francisco?

the Red Sox had never sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees?

Walter O’Malley had never owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

the Red Sox had integrated in 1949 instead of 1959?

Satchel Paige had pitched against Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and other Hall of Famers in their prime?

Bob Feller and Ted Williams had never lost years to military service in World War II?

Mickey Mantle hadn’t blown out his knee in the 1951 World Series?

Bobby Thomson had struck out against Ralph Branch?

Commissioner William Eckert had never invalidated Tom Seaver’s contract with the Atlanta Braves?

Major League Baseball banned synthetic grass?

the Mets had never traded Tom Seaver to the Reds?

Reggie Jackson had never played for the Yankees?

Thurman Munson hadn’t died in a plane crash?

Mickey Mantle had stayed healthy in the home stretch of 1961?

The Natural had ended the same was as the eponymous novel?

the Indians hadn’t traded Chris Chambliss, Dennis Eckersley, Buddy Bell, and Graig Nettles?

the Braves hadn’t never left Boston for Milwaukee?

the first incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Minnesota to become the Twins?

the second incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Texas to become the Rangers?

the Seattle Pilots hadn’t left for Milwaukee to become the Brewers?

Jim Bouton hadn’t written Ball Four?

Roger Kahn hadn’t written The Boys of Summer?

Mark Harris hadn’t written Bang the Drum Slowly?

Jackie Robinson had sought a football career instead of a baseball career?

Billy Martin hadn’t managed the Yankees in the late 1970s?

Gil Hodges hadn’t died in 1972, during a high point in the history of the Mets?

Vin Scully had stayed in New York City and announced for the Yankees or the Mets?

Bob Feller had pitched for the Yankees?

Ted Williams had played for the Yankees?

Joe DiMaggio had played for the Red Sox?

Charles Ebbets hadn’t owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Honolulu had a Major League Baseball team?

Pete Rose were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

the commissioner’s office rescinded the lifetime banishment of the 1919 Black Sox from Major League Baseball?

Hank Aaron had played in the same outfield as Willie Mays?

Wiffle Ball hadn’t been invented?

Nashville had a Major League Baseball team?

Dwight Goodman and Darryl Strawberry had stayed away from drugs?

Roberto Clemente had played for the Dodgers instead of the Pirates?

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 17, 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.

The Great Groat

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Dick Groat does not have the fame of Bill Mazeroski, the immortality of Roberto Clemente, or the legend of Willie Stargell.  Nevertheless, he was a mainstay of the Pittsburgh Pirates for a majority of his major league career, which spanned 1952 to 1967.

In the October 1, 1952 edition of the Sporting News, Les Biederman honored the rookie shortstop’s special relationship with the city.  “Of all the bonus babies the Pirates scouted, signed and put into major league uniforms during the first two years of the Branch Rickey regime, the one standout has been Dick Groat, Pittsburgh native who leaped from the Duke University campus right to the Big Time in June,” wrote Biderman.  “Groat had a choice of many teams when he completed his baseball curriculum at the North Carolina breeding grounds, but now admits he chose well when he picked the Bucs.”

Groat’s best year was 1960, the year that the Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series; with a .325 batting average, Groat won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award.  In his career, Groat compiled 2,138 hits and achieved a .268 batting average.

Though Groat displayed solidity in baseball, he might have had a career in basketball; at Duke, Groat was an All-American in both sports.  In a 2014 article for the magazine GoDuke, Groat explained, “Baseball was always like work for me.  Basketball was the sport that I loved, but it was baseball, where I knew I would make a living.  I made a deal with Mr. Rickey (Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates at that time).  I was a junior at Duke.  I went home and worked out for the Pirates in the summer before I went back to Duke.  After I had worked out he invited my mother and father to come to a game at Forbes Field where the Pirates played.  I was sitting in his booth and he turned to me, remember I am only 20, I’m still a minor, he says to me, ‘Young man, if you will sign a contract tonight, I’m going [to] start you against the Cincinnati Reds tomorrow night.’

“I said, ‘Mr. Rickey that’s not even fair.  You know I want to play major league baseball [sic], but I owe my senior year to Duke and I am going back to play basketball and baseball.  But I promise you, you make the same offer to me next spring and I will sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates.'”

Rickey relented.

After the 1962 season, the Pirates traded Groat to the Cardinals, where he became a vital part of the team’s infield.  In a 1963 Sports Illustrated article, Walter Bingham wrote, “Groat, still the same deadly opposite-field hitter he was when he won the National League batting title in 1960, uses a log for a bat and merely slaps the ball wherever it is pitched.  While [Cardinals manager Johnny] Keane admires Groat’s uncanny ability at performing the hit-and-run, he feels that Groat too often gives himself up to protect the runner.  ‘He’s too good a hitter to be sacrificing himself.'”

Groat added another World Series championship to his résumé in 1964, when the Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games.

After three season with the Cardinals, Groat played for the Phillies and the Giants—1967 was his last season.

In 2007, the College Basketball Hall of Fame inducted Groat.  Four years later, the College Baseball Hall of Fame followed suit.  Groat, like many athletes, pursued a broadcasting career after his playing days, but he did not join the ranks of Bill White, Tom Seaver, Keith Hernandez et al.  Rather, Groat went back to his first love—he provides the color commentary for the radio broadcasts of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball games.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 25, 2015.

The Hall of Fame Case for Vada Pinson

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

Vada Pinson guarded the outfield grass at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in the 1960s like a sentry guards on outpost—with determination, concentration, and resolve.  In his “Counterpoints” editorial for the November 13, 1995 edition of USA Today, Tony Snow wrote, “Pinson was the best unknown player in the history of baseball.  He performed with an almost feral grace and transformed the game of farm-boys into something more akin to ballet.”

Despite formidable credentials, however, Vada Pinson is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Pinson played from 1958 to 1975, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds.  His tally of 2,757 hits falls shy of the 3,000 hits threshold, but not by much and certainly not enough to dismiss him from consideration for Cooperstown.  On the other hand, 256 home runs and 1,169 RBI while respectable numbers, will not support a Hall of Fame argument.

Pinson had career statistics that compare nicely to Roberto Clemente’s.  To be a true measure, though, Clemente’s numbers must be considered as if the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder would have retired after the 1972 season; he died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, having played his entire career from 1955 to 1972 in a Pirates uniform.  Clemente got inducted into the Hall of Fame by a special election in 1973.

Clemente had 3,000 hits, a yardstick for the Hall of Fame, and a .317 batting average, more than 30 points above Pinson’s.  But Pinson exceeded, or at least nearly paralleled Clemente in other categories, indicating prowess at the plate—1,196 strikeouts to Clemente’s 1,230 while having nearly 200 more plate appearances.  For Pinson, this is an 11% strikeout ratio; Clemente’s is 12%.

Pinson’s statistic of stolen bases offers more evidence of Hall of Fame potential.  While Clemente had 83 stolen bases in his career, Pinson had 305.  Speed on the base paths indicates a well-rounded player, making up for the gaps, however slight, separating Pinson from Clemente in on-base percentage (.327 to .359), slugging percentage (.442 to .475), and RBI (1,169 to 1,305).

Character, while an intangible and mostly irrelevant topic for Hall of Fame voters, deserves, at the very least, a mention.  When the St. Louis Cardinals traded Pinson to the Cleveland Indians, he made a difference in the latter’s clubhouse.  A 1970 article by Russell Schneider in the Sporting News quoted catcher Ray Fosse on Pinson’s impact:  “Vada has been on a winning club all his life.  Yet he comes to a young club like ours and fits right in.  All the time he’s watching you and building your confidence.

“There are a lot of little things to learn that helps make the difference.  He takes time out to tell you about them.  He’s been just great for the club.”

Snow echoed the sentiment in his column, explaining a meeting with Pinson in 1985, when the former Reds standout became a pitching coach with the Detroit Tigers.  “Small acts of kindness live on.  So when my boy gets old enough to care about baseball stars, I’ll tell him about the night the greatest unknown player ever talked openly with a kid he never had known and would never see again—a guy for whom there will never be an athlete as graceful or achingly human as Vada Edward Pinson Jr.”

Of course, character alone does not overcome the perceived deficiency, no matter how negligible, in statistics required for a plaque on the walls of the Hall of Fame.  Perhaps it should.

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

Exposition Park

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

Decades before Willie Stargell’s We Are Family vibe, Bill Mazeroski’s legendary World Series home run, and Roberto Clemente’s demonstrable power, professional baseball in the Pittsburgh area lived in Exposition Park.  It holds distinction as the first ballpark for Organized Baseball in the Pittsburgh environs—the “Alleghenys” débuted in the American Association in 1882.  “Professional” in this narrative means playing within a league structure.

Constructed in Allegheny City—then a separate metropolis from Pittsburgh, across the Allegheny River—Exposition Park had a location that proved disastrous when a flood and a fire combined forces, destroying the ballpark after one season.

In 1883, the team played in Exposition Park II, built closer to the Allegheny River than its predecessor; it also had a one-year tenure as the home site for the Alleghenys—Exposition Park II flooded as well, opening the path for Union Park to be a major league facility in 1884.  The following season, Union Park underwent a name change to Recreation Park.

An article in the March 5, 1885 edition of the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette highlighted  the park’s multiple uses that would have made baseball überpromoter Bill Veeck stand up and applaud:  “Another feature of the park will be a roller skating floor.  It will be built in one corner of the outfield, where there is sufficient room without interfering with the ball playing.  There will be no roof, and it is thought that it will be a pleasanter place to skate on rollers than in any of the inclosed [sic] rinks, for all out of doors is certainly pleasanter on a hot evening than any building can be.”

The article also mentioned the team’s name change:  “The report that the old name was to be retained is untrue.  The club will be known as the Pittsburghs.  It will work under the old charter and legally be the Allegheny, but in all advertising and in general usage Pittsburgh will be used.”  This label switch might have been slightly confusing because the absorption of Allegheny City into Pittsburgh did not take place until more than 20 years later.

Pittsburgh joined the National League in 1887.  A few seasons later, it faced competition for baseball fans in Steel City—the Players’ League débuted in 1890 with the Burghers as its Pittsburgh franchise, which played in Exposition Park III.  It was located “about two blocks where PNC Park stands today,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The Players’ League only lasted for the 1890 season.

Pittsburgh’s National League team rebranded, became the Pirates before the 1891 season, and moved to Exposition Park III for its home games.  In 1903, when the Pirates faced the Boston Americans in the first World Series, Exposition Park III became the first National League ballpark to host a World Series game.

In the middle of the 1909 season, the Pirates moved to Forbes Field.  Built of concrete and steel, Forbes Field signified a new era of ballparks with grandeur compared to their predecessors—Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Ebbets Field emerged within five years.  Forbes Field’s unveiling inspired awe from Pittsburgh’s fans:  “If there had been no ball game at all the masses of sweltering humanity would have paid for their coming, for the stands on Forbes Field [sic] look out on some of the prettiest scenery to be found in Pennsylvania.  And the stands themselves are pretty enough to draw sightseers even if there were nothing else for them to see,” wrote R. W. “Ring” Lardner in the Chicago Daily Tribune about the June 30, 1909 contest between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, which ended in a 3-2 loss for the latter squad.  Approximately 36,000 fans attended the game.

“The women came dressed as if for the greatest society event of the year, and perhaps it was for Pittsburg’s [sic] year,” Lardner added.  “Gorgeous gowns, topped by still more gorgeous hats, were in evidence everywhere.”

Forbes Field’s début, however exciting, could not swipe away the indelible imprint made by the three incarnations of Exposition Park on the genesis of Pittsburgh’s professional baseball auspices.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 29, 2015.

Roberto Clemente’s 3000th hit

Monday, December 12th, 2016

When John Fogerty débuted his 1985 hit song Centerfield, he reminded people of the joy inherent in baseball—the video produced for this musical, lyrical, and nostalgic homage to baseball depicts a collage of footage featuring baseball legends, including Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Roy Campanella, Casey Stengel, Ted Williams, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra.

Roberto Clemente also appears—his 1956 Topps card opens a montage of baseball cards accompanying the song’s opening riff, which consists of a string of claps in a pattern one might hear in a ballpark’s stands.  The video is timed so that a card appears simultaneously with the sound of each clap.

It’s somehow appropriate that Clemente received the distinction of opening the Centerfield music video.  Overshadowed during his career, perhaps, by his peers—the dazzling flash of Willie ays, the consistent power of Hank Aaron, and the sheer dominance of Mickey Mantle—the Pittsburgh Pirates’ standout outfielder symbolized steadiness.  In turn, Clemente stirred excitement among the Pirate faithful at Forbes Field.

In a career that spanned 1955 to 1972, Clemente had a .317 lifetime batting average—during one 13-year stretch, he notched a batting average above .300 for 12 of those years.  Clemente compiled a .475 lifetime slugging average, won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1966, and reached the magical plateau of 3,000 career hits—exactly.  On December 31, 1972, Clemente died in a plane crash while traveling to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

His was a voyage of purpose—spearheading relief efforts for Managuans suffering from a recent earthquake.  “He had received reports that some of the food and clothing he had sent earlier had fallen into the hands of profiteers,” explained Cristobal Colon, a Clemente friend, in the article “Clemente, Pirates’ Star, Dies in Crash Of Plane Carrying Aid to Nicaragua,” in the January 2, 1973 edition of the New York Times.  Neither for glory nor publicity, Clemente helped those who could not help themselves.  It was a part of his character, not a springboard for a photo opportunity.

Clemente’s last hit came against Jon Matlack, the 1972 National League Rookie of the Year, in a Mets-Pirates game on September 30, 1972.  Mattock was unaware of the moment’s historic impact, however.  “I had no idea he was sitting on 2,999,” Matlack recalled for Anthony McCarran’s November 29, 2008 article “Where are they now? Ex-Met Jon Matlack can’t stay away from the game” on nydailynews.com.  “I was just trying to win a game.  When I gave up the double—I think it short-hopped the center-field wall—there was all this hoopla.  The ump presents him the ball at second and I’m glowering and thinking, ‘Hey we have a ballgame here.’  I was just an oblivious rookie.  Then I saw it on the scoreboard, that it was his 3,000th hit.”

In the 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, David Maraniss recounted, “In the excitement of the moment, Don Leppert, the first base coach, took out a package of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco and was about to stuff a wad into his mouth when Clemente came over and gave him the ball.  Leppert stuck the piece of history in his back pocket for safekeeping.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its eligibility rule because of Clemente’s untimely death. A waiting period of five years after retirement had been the rule but the waiver mandated that a player’s eligibility kicks in if the player dies before the five-year waiting period expires or while still active.  In a special election, the Baseball Writers Association of America stamped Clemente’s passport to Cooperstown.

A eulogy appeared in the article “Roberto Clemente, The Great One” in the January 6, 1973 edition of the New Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper dedicated to the Steel City’s black population:  “Life was not always good to him.  He was often maligned.  Many times he was not given the recognition and admiration that was his due.  It took sometime [sic] for his greatness to get through to a reluctant public but eventually it came to the fore, like the knight in shining armour that he was.”

Roberto Clemente was, indeed, a hero for his achievements on the baseball diamond.  He played on 12 All-Star teams, received 11 Gold Gloves, and became an icon to Pittsburgh’s baseball fans.  But his deeds of generosity to those unable to help themselves defined his true heroism.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 31, 2014.

1969

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

As described by German Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck, politics is the art of the possible.  So is baseball.  When the New York Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles to win the 1969 World Series, possible elevated to miraculous.

Once again, National League baseball thrived in New York City.  It was a long wait, too.  There were only two World Series between 1947 and 1957 that did not have either the Giants or the Dodgers representing the National League.  After the 1957 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants departed for Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.  With fan bases mourning the loss of their teams, the Mets offered an outlet for those who did not want to—or refused to—switch allegiances to the Yankees.  Those fans were used to excellence, however, not mediocrity.  Or worse.

Débuting in 1962, the Mets leapt to new heights in futility; the team’s record was 40-120.  Successive seasons offered no solace:

1962 (40-120)

1963 (51-111)

1964 (53-109)

1965 (50-112)

1966 (66-95)

1967 (61-101)

Rooting for the Mets, in turn, became a pastime requiring emotional endurance.  That changed when Gil Hodges took the managerial reins in 1968.  Though still below .500, the Mets vaulted to a 73-89 record.

Momentum continued in 1969, resulting in a 100-62 record for the so-called Miracle Mets.  Tom Seaver tore through opponents like a flame through a box of Kleenex tissues, ending the season with a 25-7 record, 205 strikeouts, and a 2.21 ERA.  Unsurprisingly, Seaver won the 1969 National League Cy Young Award.  Cleon Jones batted a career-high .340, placing third in the National League, behind Pete Rose and Roberto Clemente.  Jerry Koosman won 17 games, notched 180 strikeouts, and had a 2.28 ERA.

Though impressive, the Mets faced an American League team exploding with dominance—the Orioles ended the 1969 regular season with a 109-53 record, largely a result of phenomenal pitching:

Mike Cuellar (23-11)

Dave McNally (20-7)

Tom Phoebus (14-7)

Jim Palmer (16-4)

Conventional wisdom favored the Orioles.  Conventional wisdom was wrong.  The Mets won the 1969 World Series in five games.

Miracles replaced miseries.

In 1969, the Corleone family first appeared in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, Led Zeppelin released its first album, Richard Nixon became the 37th President of the United States, Boeing’s 747 airplane made its first flight, Willie Mays became the first baseball player in the major leagues to hit 600 career home runs since Babe Ruth, journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre, Chemical Bank’s Rockville Centre branch unveiled the first Automatic Teller Machine in the United States, Golda Meir became the first—and, to date, only—female Prime Minister of Israel, the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, Dr. Denton Cooley implanted the first artificial heart, Sullivan County in upstate New York hosted a three-day festival called Woodstock, Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, and the Montreal Expos earned the distinction of being the first MLB team stationed outside the United States.

1969 was a year of achievement in politics, science, technology, sports, literature, entertainment, and journalism.

For baseball fans, however, 1969 was a year of miracles.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 16, 2014.

Lupo, Bernard, Briscoe, Logan, et al.

Monday, May 4th, 2015

RemingtonLaw & Order changed cast members about as often as Mickey Rooney changed wives in its prime time tenure on NBC from 1990 to 2010.  Jeremy Sisto played Cyrus Lupo.  Fans of Six Feet Under know Sisto from his performance as Billy, brother of Brenda and sometimes bane of the existence of Brenda’s significant other, Nate.

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Martín Dihigo Is the Best Baseball Player You Never Heard Of

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Keeping the flame of baseball history alive requires more than reading books, writing articles, and watching documentaries about well-known players, including Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Roberto Clemente, Lou Gehrig. For the flame to burn steadily, other players in the shadows cast by the spotlight must be recognized.

Such is the purpose of today’s missive.

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Happy Birthday, Baseball Hall of Fame!

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Today, we celebrate the birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Opened on June 12, 1939 in Cooperstown, New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a time tunnel that journeys its visitors through a cornerstone of American history. More than a mere sport, baseball is a vehicle of social change.

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