Posts Tagged ‘Roy Campanella’

The Indomitable Zack Wheat

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Zack Wheat churned out hits with the reliability of Henry Ford’s assembly line, which débuted the Model T in 1908, a year prior to Wheat’s introduction to the major leagues.  From 1909 to 1926, Wheat flourished as a member of Brooklyn’s National League squad with various nicknames in the press—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Robins, Flock.  Wheat played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1927, his last season.

Dodgers through the decades have achieved more fame, acclaim, and worship than Zachariah Davis Wheat, certainly.  Sandy Koufax pitched his way into Cooperstown with four no-hitters; Jackie Robinson earned civil rights icon status when he broke baseball’s color line in 1947; Tommy Lasorda declared his passion for the Dodgers at every opportunity; Fernando Valenzuela ignited Fernandomania during the summer of 1981; Don Drysdale struck fear into National League batting lineups, then parlayed his stardom into guest appearances on television sitcoms and a broadcasting career; Steve Garvey enjoyed an All-American image until it got sullied with a nasty divorce complemented by publicity regarding extramarital affairs and illegitimate children; Duke Snider defined power with each of his 407 career home runs; and Roy Campanella displayed courage, dignity, and inner strength in facing paralysis after a horrific car accident.

Wheat, surprisingly, often remains sidelined in discussions of Dodger greats.  A lack of recognition for Wheat’s performance belies a remarkable career output placing Wheat as the #1 Dodger in the following categories:

  • Career hits (2,884)
  • Doubles (476)
  • Triples (171)
  • RBI (1,248)

Wheat racked up a .317 batting average in his 19-year career, broke the .300 mark 14 times, and won the 1918 National League batting title with a .335 batting average.

A deeper dive into Wheat’s statistics reveals arcane nuances reflecting his excellence, which further enhances the value of the left fielder who batted left, threw right, and became a Brooklyn fixture.  OPS statistics—On-Base Plus Slugging—offer a baseline measure for ballplayers.  Additionally, Gray Ink grades on the number of times that a ballplayer’s achievements place in a given category’s top 10.

Baseball-reference.com states, “Wheat’s Adjusted OPS scores are not particularly high for a Hall of Famer, but on the other hand he was a well-rounded player.  His Gray Ink score (which is the 27th highest of all time) shows that he was commonly in the top ten in the National League—in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, among other stats, and he also stole over 200 bases in his career.  As a defensive player, his range was good for many years until he began to age.  He never played any position but outfield during his major league career, and almost never appeared in any outfield position than left field, which he owned for many years in Brooklyn.”

In the 1916 World Series, which Brooklyn lost to the Boston Red Sox, Wheat did not perform to his usual standard—he batted .211.  Wheat fared better in the 1920 World Series, achieving a .333 batting average.  It was not, however, enough—the Cleveland Indians beat Brooklyn in seven games.

Wheat’s approach to physical fitness lacked even a whiff of dedication.  “I smoke as much as I want and chew tobacco a good deal of the time,” said Wheat.  “I don’t pay any attention to the rules for keeping in physical condition.  I think they are a lot of bunk.  The less you worry about the effect of tea and coffee on the lining of your stomach, the longer you will live, and the happier you will be.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Zack Wheat in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 23, 2016.

Roy Campanella and the Baltimore Elite Giants

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

Roy Campanella was born in the same year as the team for which he played before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.  The Elite Giants débuted in 1921 in Nashville, where it stayed for a decade and a half before moving to Washington, D.C.  After spending 1936 and 1937 in the nation’s capital, the team moved about 40 miles north to Baltimore, where it won the Negro National League championship the following year.

In his 2009 book The Baltimore Elite Giants, Bob Luke described team found Thomas “Smiling Tom” Wilson as a businessman who straddled the line separating legal and illegal activities.  “He ran a profitable numbers operation, which was illegal, sponsored numerous events at his namesake stadium in Nashville, Wilson Park, and ran a popular nightclub, the Paradise Ballroom,” wrote Luke.

The Baltimore Afro-American ran a story in the February 5, 1938 edition—May Transfer Elite Giants From Washington To Balto—quoting Wilson, who explained the financial benefit of changing metropolises:  “Last year we lost money with the club operating from Washington.  I sincerely feel Baltimore far superior to Washington as a baseball town.”  Wilson added, “It’s been a long time since Baltimore has had a regular league team and I feel the people there need one and will support one.”

Five weeks later, the Afro-American confirmed the move, heralding the relocation to Baltimore—the team’s last city until its demise in 1950—amongst other decisions made at a three-day Negro National League conference:  “Tom Wilson’s Elite Giants, who operated from Washington the last two years, definitely have been transferred to Baltimore this season and will play out of either Oriole Park or Bugle Field as a home base.

“This gives Baltimore its first real big league club since 1931.”

Campanella credited his rookie season of 1937 with the Elite Giants as forming the foundation for his catching skills, specifically, learning under the tutelage of veteran catcher Biz Mackey, who managed the team.  Though he was 15 years old, Campanella possessed natural abilities that belied his young age.

In his 1959 autobiography It’s Good To Be Alive, Campanella wrote, “As that season wore on I began to share the catching with Biz Mackey fifty-fifty.  Instead of growing distant as I grew better, Biz gave me everything he could.  I was becoming a good instinctive catcher, doing the right thing without thinking about it.  But my hitting was something else again.  Biz tried to get me to cut down on my swing and meet the ball better.”

Campanella biographer Neil Lanctot investigated the Campanella-Mackey relationship for his 2011 book Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella.  Mackey according to Lanctot, did not mandate a “do as I do” guideline for the teenage protégé.  “Unlike some coaches, Mackey did not try to force his pupil to copy his style.  There were different ways of catching, Mackey felt, and each receiver should use the form that worked best for him.  However, the boy needed instruction in the mechanical and mental aspects of the position.  Roy soon discovered there was much he did not know about catching.  After watching Mackey for a few games, he began to wonder whether he knew anything about catching.”

Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Campanella after the 1945 season.  Campanella first played for the Nashua Dodgers, a farm team in the Eastern League, where he won the 1946 MVP Award.  Rickey called him up to Brooklyn in the middle of the 1948 season.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Roy Campanella in 1969.

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

Jackie Robinson and the Hall of Fame

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

Though not technically the first black player in the major leagues—that distinction belongs to Moses Fleetwood Walker of the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884—Jackie Robinson destroyed the unspoken yet visible barrier constructed in the late 1880s preventing blacks from joining a major league team.

Mr. Robinson’s début is no less a civil rights moment than Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus, or President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Walking on to the diamond at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947 preceded these civil rights hallmarks, marking a historic day, not only for baseball, but also for America.  But there are other dates that are highly significant in Jackie Robinson’s career.

Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers organization on October 23, 1945 at the team’s headquarters—215 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.

Jackie Robinson played his first game in Organized Baseball on April 18, 1946, when the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers minor league team, played the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Field in Jersey City.

The Baseball Writers Association of America elected Robinson to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 23, 1962, a fact that he learned after coming home to 95 Cascade Road in Stamford, Connecticut, after spending the day in Manhattan’s corporate jungle as an executive with Chock full o’ Nuts; 1962 was Robinson’s first year of eligibility.

Excitement in the Robinson household was akin to the excitement that the Dodgers’ #42 generated at Ebbets Field.  “When I came home from work Rachel was on the phone telling David, our nine-year-old, about it,” said Robinson in the Christian Science Monitor.  “When she was me, she dropped the receiver and squealed that I had made it.”

Robinson’s Hall of Fame election was not automatic, however.  For example, Joe DiMaggio did not get elected in his first year of eligibility.  Neither did Bill Terry.  Needing a minimum of 75% of the ballots, Robinson got 124 of 160.  It was four more than necessary.

Jackie Robinson was the first black player elected to the Hall of Fame.  Arthur Daley of the New York Times addressed the issue of Robinson’s Hall of Fame election being based on his career or his color.  “It really doesn’t matter much,” declared Daley.  “Both factors undoubtedly entered into consideration because they are so intertwined that separation is impossible.  The feeling here is that he rated on both counts and no conscious effort was made to split them.  Now he has blazed another trail and it will be easier henceforth for other Negroes to follow him into Cooperstown.”

His 10-year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers yielded Robinson a .311 batting average, 1,518 hits, and 734 RBI.  Robinson’s contribution to the game cannot be measured in numbers alone, however.  Pioneering the path of integration littered with jeers, boos, and death threats required an unimaginable strength of the soul.  After Jackie Robinson came Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Henry Aaron, Don Newcombe, Elston Howard, and scores of other black players.

Baseball would never be the same.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 15, 2014.

The Tragedy of Roy Campanella

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016

Roy Campanella grew up in a section of Philadelphia called, appropriately, Nicetown.

“He was like a little Santa Claus.  Everybody loved Campy…This guy was just one happy, great, lovable baseball person.  And that’s about the way I can describe him,” stated Don Zimmer, a Campanella contemporary, in Neil Lanctot’s 2011 biography Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella.  Zimmer played with Campanella on the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1954 to 1957.

Breaking into the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, the jovial catcher played for the emperors of Ebbets Field through 1957, tapped unparalleled knowledge to guide pitchers, and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award three times.

But Roy Campanella’s stellar career ended on an icy patch of an S-curve on Dosoris Road in Glen Cove, New York.  Just five minutes from his Glen Cove home—Salt Spray—Campanella lost control of his car, ultimately crashing into a telephone pole.  The accident paralyzed him.  In his 1959 autobiography It’s Good To Be Alive, Campanella wrote that he left his Manhattan liquor store “at about 1:30 in the morning of January 28th.”  He blamed road conditions for the accident that occurred a few minutes after 3:30 a.m.

“There were big patches on the road,” explained Campanella.  They looked like white spots.  I could see them clearly.  I wasn’t going fast, I don’t think more than 30 or 35 miles an hour, though I wasn’t looking at the speedometer.  I followed the road around the bend in the S and was headed for the right side of the road as I came out of the bend.  Then I suddenly lost control.  The car wouldn’t behave.  I tried to steer it away from the side of the road.  The brakes didn’t hold.  The surface was sandy and icy.  I fought the wheel.  The brakes were useless.”

Campanella stayed late in Manhattan on the evening of January 27th because he was scheduled to be a guest on Harry Wismer’s television show.  Wismer’s show aired on the Dumont Television Network’s New York City station—WABD—after the fights televised from St. Nicholas Arena.  The broadcast time depended on when the fights ended, but it hovered around 10:45 p.m.

Wismer made the request of Campanella during the previous night’s Baseball Writers Association of America Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  “He said the Harlem Branch of the YMCA had told him to call me,” wrote Campanella.  “They had a fund-raising drive on and felt I could help them by appearing on TV.  He asked me to appear the next night.”

At about 9:00 p.m. Wismer called Campanella’s liquor store to cancel the appearance.  He felt that delaying it by a week would create an opportunity to promote the show.  Campanella stayed at the store to help one of his workers, then went home.

Lanctot disputed the version of events that have Campanella leaving the store at 1:30 a.m. and heading directly for Salt Spray, described by the New York Times as “a $40,000 ten-room ranch house on Eastland Drive, East Island, Glen Cove.”  First, he credits “contemporary news accounts” of Campanella’s employees saying that their boss departed at 12:30 a.m.  Then, Lanctot theorizes that Campanella stopped at Smalls’ Paradise, a Harlem nightclub on 135th Street.  He stayed until 2:00 a.m.

“His next stop has been a well-kept secret,” stated Lanctot.  “When questioned, the ever-discreet [long-time Dodgers executive] Buzzie Bavasi admitted that Roy had told him in ‘strict confidence’ that he was doing ‘something he shouldn’t have been doing,’ and not Dodger-related promotional work that [Dodgers owner Walter] O’Malley hoped would be covered by insurance.  Bavasi would concede only that Campy ‘was visiting a friend.’  Several other interviews confirm the ‘friend’ was actually a lover or a pickup whose identity remains unknown to this day.”

Lanctot’s thesis of the accident rests on Campanella falling asleep while driving:  “It is not hard to imagine that a man without rest for close to twenty hours, drained by work and a recent roll in the hay, would succumb to exhaustion.”

Paralyzed by the accident, Campanella refused to let his physical condition prevent him from contributing to the game he loved—he mentored John Roseboro, Mike Scioscia, and Mike Piazza.  Spirit endured where body could not.

Roy Campanella got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.  He died on June 26, 1993.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost on August 15, 2013.

Biz Mackey: Baseball’s Unsung Mentor

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

Without James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, there would be no Roy Campanella.

A three-time National League MVP and an eight-time National League All-Star, Campanella played for the Baltimore Elite Giants when Mackey managed the team.  Campanella was 15 years old, not even old enough to drive.  He held his own in the Negro Leagues, thanks to Mackey’s tutelage.  “Biz Mackey was the master of defense of all catchers,” said Campanella.

Mackey’s introduction to Campanella is lost to history.  But Neil Lanctot surmises how these baseball icons met.  In Campy, his 2011 biography of Campanella, Lanctot poses the theory that Mackey was hurt, thereby in need of a replacement catcher for the Giants circa late 1930s.  Mackey learned of Campanella through the baseball grapevine.

Without Biz Mackey, there would be no Monte Irvin.  No Larry Doby.  No Don Newcombe.

When Mackey managed the Newark Eagles in 1940-1941, he mentored these future major league players who led integration in the major leagues by the end of the 1940s.  Fired by Eagles owner Effa Manley after the 1941 season, Mackey returned to play for the Eagles in 1945.  Mackey batted .307, a stellar batting average made even more impressive by his age—48.  Manley hired Mackey to manage the Eagles in 1946.  His governance led the Eagles to champion status in the 1946 Negro League World Series against the Kansas City Monarchs.  Newark’s tenure as the home of the Eagles ended just two years later; the team moved to Houston, where it played in 1949-1950 before disbanding.

Fired by Eagles owner Effa Manley after the 1941 season, Mackey returned to play for the Eagles in 1945.  Mackey batted .307, a stellar batting average made even more impressive by his age—48.  Manley hired Mackey to manage the Eagles in 1946.  Under his governance, the Eagles beat the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Negro League World Series.  Its tenure in Newark ended two years later—the team moved to Houston, where it played in 1949 and 1950 before disbanding.

Born in Eagle Pass, Texas—the first American settlement on the Rio Grande River—Biz Mackey never reached the major leagues as a player or a manager.  But his influence is questionable, if not properly recognized.  Biz Mackey got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, decades after his baseball career ended.

Mackey did, however, receive accolades from his peers in the baseball community other than the Hall of Fame entry.  The book Blackball Stars cites Cum Posey as saying that Biz Mackey is the all-time best black catcher, including Josh Gibson on Posey’s Homestead Grays ball club.  Posey’s praise of Mackey over Gibson is like the Steinbrenner clan saying that the best shortstop of the 1990s was Nomar Garciaparra, not Derek Jeter.

Scholars, historians, and enthusiasts of the Negro Leagues will know of Raleigh “Biz” Mackey and dozens of other players that don’t get the marquee recognition of Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson.  Mackey deserves to be recognized in the pantheon of Negro League icons who played before Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in 1947, not only for his achievements on the baseball diamond, but also for his mentoring of those who changed the game of baseball.

Biz Mackey died in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 30, 2013.

Ebbets Field: More Than A Stadium

Friday, October 28th, 2016

A baseball shrine débuted in 1913, one in a string of ballparks ushering in a new era for the National Pastime.  Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, and Chicago offered modern facilities for the fans.    In Brooklyn, a new stadium became a second home for borough residents from Canarsie to Coney Island.  Ebbets Field.  Home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

When the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season, Ebbets Field’s days were numbered.  Their spirit amputated, Dodger fans mourned the loss represented by the soulless void of a silent Ebbets Field.

Obsolete and vacant as a once gloried dominion of baseball excellence, Ebbets Field no longer served a valuable function.  What began as the innovative brainchild of then owner Charles Ebbets in 1913 aged into an archaic edifice.  Once a nucleic fixture for Brooklyn, Ebbets Field balanced on the precipice of ignominy.  Its storied life ended in 1960 with demolition that placed an arctic exclamation point on the end of an already frosty sentence—the Brooklyn Dodgers are no more.

If fans run their fingers over the memories, they feel scars that never fully healed and, consequently, trigger a bittersweet though palpable aura.  Bitter for the abandonment.  Sweet for the memories.

Vividly, they recall Jackie Robinson’s fiery, pigeon-toed style of running, Carl Furillo’s master of baseball caroms off Ebbets Field’s idiosyncratic right field wall, and Roy Campanella’s powerful swaths of National League pitching.

But the memories are more than homages to a great baseball team that patrolled the verdant pasture at 55 Sullivan Place, an address that no longer appears on Brooklyn’s Post Office rolls.  For those who saw the Dodgers play in the Jackie Robinson era, the memories reveal a depth of love betrayed in Shakespearean proportions.

Walter O’Malley’s decision to move the Dodgers a continent away from Brooklyn, a felonious act in the hearts and minds of the Dodger faithful, anchored in a sweetheart deal—the power brokers of Los Angeles gave O’Malley the real estate of Chavez Ravine in an exchange for the environs of the city’s Wrigley Field.  Not since Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island for 60 guilders on behalf of the Dutch had a land deal bared incalculable value for the land’s new settlers.

Dodger Stadium eclipsed Ebbets Field in look, feel, and modernity.  Its wavy outfield roof, capacity for approximately 56,000, and seat colors evoking a southern California warmth—yellow, light orange, turquoise, and sky blue—did not look anything like Charles Ebbets’s brick-faced structure that was a breakthrough for pre-World War I baseball, but a relic for the Space Age.  O’Malley’s new facility represented the post-World War II era, when migration to newly created suburbs forced travel by car, thereby creating a need for parking spaces at stadium.  Ebbets Field was a ballpark sandwiched into one city block with a capacity hovering around 36,000 and approximately 700 parking spaces.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 15, 2013.

How Did the Giants Win the Pennant, Anyway?

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

1951 was supposed to be the Dodgers’ year, a vengeance-filled riposte of burgeoning against the baseball fates that determined the previous year’s National League pennant go to the Philadelphia Phillies on the last day of the 1950 season.   (more…)

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.

(more…)