Posts Tagged ‘Sandy Koufax’

Baltimore, Frank Robinson, and the Year of the Orioles

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

It was the best of baseball.  It was the worst of baseball.

On the 9th day of the 10th month of the 66th year of the 20th century, it ended—the subject being the World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Baltimore emerged as champions, triggering elation throughout the metropolis named for Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore—the first Proprietor and Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland.  It was not supposed to happen.  At lest it was not supposed to happen the way it did, with the Orioles blanking the vaunted Dodgers squad for a 4-0 sweep—three games were shutouts:

  • Game 1:  5-2
  • Game 2:  6-0
  • Game 3:  1-0
  • Game 4:  1-0

In turn, the Orioles elevated their status in Baltimore’s sports hierarchy.  “This season’s feats of the Orioles, who leaped from crisis to crisis and still won the pennant, and who brought the exciting Frank Robinson to the city as a counter attraction to the demigod Johnny Unitas, balanced the ledger more than a bit.  The Colts may not have lost their eminence, but the city’s fans and newspapers have learned that there is another team in town,” wrote Shirley Povich, whose words in the Washington Post started the day for sports fans in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Ushered to Baltimore in a trade with Cincinnati after the 1965 season, Robinson swatted his way through American League pitching in his first year as an Oriole:

Led Major Leagues

  • Runs Scored (122)
  • Home Runs (49)
  • Slugging Percentage (.637)
  • On-Base + Slugging Percentage (1.047)
  • Total Bases (367)

Led American League

  • RBI (122)
  • Batting Average (.316)
  • On-Base Percentage (.410)
  • Sacrifice Flies (7)

Robinson won the American League Most Valuable Player Award and the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.  It was a vindication, of sorts.  “I wanted to have a good year especially to show the people in the front office there [in Cincinnati] that I wasn’t washed up, and I wanted to show them by having a good year,” said Robinson in an Associated Press article published in the Baltimore Sun on October 10th.

“And I wanted to show the people, the officials, the city of Baltimore they were getting a guy who still could play baseball.”

For the Dodgers, blaming and shaming arrived with gusto.  Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, for example, lobbed verbal grenades spiked with sarcasm, as was his wont.  Murray’s piece titled “The Dodger Story:  A Classic Case of Ineptitude” brought forth a wheelbarrow full of bon mots.

On the Dodgers’ hitting woes:  “Their batting average cannot be seen with the naked eye or figured under the decimal system.  Guys who weigh that little get to ride horse races.”

On Don Drysdale:  “He deserved better, but the Dodgers’ invisible attack, the worst exercise in offensive futility since Mussolini’s invasion of Greece, left him like a guy who thinks his whole platoon is crawling through the brush with him until he whispers and gets no answer back.  The Dodger ‘attack’ would have to be twice as loud to be dignified as ‘whispering.’  They hit the ball as if it was a cantaloupe.”

On the Dodgers’ post-season Japan trip:  “They are now taking the act to Japan where, when the Japanese get a load of them, they may want to reopen World War II.”

Stocked with blue chips nearly as strong as the Dow 30, the Dodgers suffered a downturn that was unavoidable, arguably—Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Tommy Davis, Ron Fairly, Maury Wills, Wes Parker et al. faced an opponent that needed to be quashed before taking on the O’s.  In his 2006 book Black and Blue:  Sandy Koufax, the Robinson Boys, and the World Series That Stunned America, Tom Adelman posited that exhaustion—or something close to it—affected the Dodgers after a merciless pennant race.  “Unlike the Orioles, they’d [sic] had no chance to adjust to the idea of a post-season contest—to catch their breath, raise their sights, and ready themselves for a fight,” wrote Adelman, who interviewed several players from both squads.  Ron Fairly, among others, confirmed the toll created by the quick turnaround from the end of the season to the beginning of the World Series.

That is not to take anything away from the Orioles, managed by Hank Bauer, who knew a thing or two thousand about winning—he played for the Yankees during the Mantle era, which saw World Series titles in:

  • 1949
  • 1950
  • 1951
  • 1952
  • 1953
  • 1956
  • 1958

American League pennant flew unaccompanied in the Bronx in 1955 and 1957.

Bauer won the Associated Press Manager of the Year Award and the Sporting News Manager of the Year Award in 1966.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 23, 2017.

The Dandy Dominican

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

As San Francisco morphed into the headquarters for counterculture, with the intersection of Haight and Ashbury becoming as well known to hippies as that of Hollywood and Vine to fans of show business, Juan Marichal fired fastballs for the Giants, a team transplanted from a ballpark approximately 3,000 miles eastward.  The “Dandy Dominican” constructed a Hall of Fame career, boosted by a lineup of fellow Cooperstown-bound teammates Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, and Orlando Cepeda.

In a Hall of Fame Strat-O-Matic matchup of pre-1960 American Leaguers and post-1960 National Leaguers, Marichal notched nine strikeouts in a  9-5 victory for the senior circuit players.  The lineups were:

Pre-1960 American League

Ty Cobb, LF

Goose Goslin, CF

Hank Greenberg, 1B

Babe Ruth, RF

Home Run Baker, 3B

Charlie Gehringer, 2B

Joe Sewell, SS

Bill Dickey, C

Walter Johnson, P

Post-1960 National League

Lou Brock, LF

Joe Morgan, 2B

Hank Aaron, RF

Willie Mays, CF

Johnny Bench, C

Ernie Banks, SS

Eddie Mathews, 3B

Frank Chance, 1B

Juan Marichal, P

Each team was allowed to have one player from outside the time parameter.  The American League kept within it; the National League used Frank Chance.

Marichal gave up solo home runs to Gehringer and Johnson, respectively, in addition to a Greenberg two-run dinger with Goslin on base, courtesy of a rare error by Mr. Cub.  And the pitcher known as the “Dandy Dominican” helped his own cause, singling in the bottom of the second inning, moving to second when Morgan walked after Brock flied out to right, and scoring on an Aaron double.

On July 19, 1960, Marichal first appeared in a major league game, scoring 12 strikeouts in a two-hit, 2-0 victory; the righty’s initial three games—against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee—contributed as many wins to the Giants’ 79-75 season record.  Milwaukee skipper Charlie Dressen lobbied the umpires during the third inning of the Braves-Giants game, complaining that Marichal broke the rule regarding a pitcher’s position on the mound.  Marichal planted himself on the rubber’s location closest to first base, though he told Curley Grieve of the San Francisco Examiner that umpires had never raised the issue.  “I’m used to that position and I think it helps my curve ball, especially against right-handed hitters,” said Marichcal in Grieve’s article “Marichal Delivery Illegal?”

Dressen wanted Marichal to pitch from the middle of the rubber, insisting after the game that his argument was sound.

Marichal, all of 21 years old in his rookie year, received accolades from teammate—and fellow Dominican—Felipe Alou after the troika of games indicating future greatness:  “Juan used to throw harder.  We played for the same team.  Escogido in the Dominican winter league, and he burned them in.  Every year he learns a little more, he gets a new pitch.  Now he’s more clever with curves and sliders to go with his fast ball.”  Art Rosenbaum of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Alou in his article “Juan Marichal a Baseball ‘Phee-nom,'” which also encapsulated Marichal’s minor league career in Class D (Midwest League), Class A (Eastern League), and AAA (Pacific Coast League).

Marichal ended his rookie year with a 6-2 record.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983, Marichal compiled a 243-142 win-loss record in his 16-year career.  An ignominious mark on an outstanding career occurred when he came to bat in a 1965 contest against the Dodgers, highlighted by Sandy Koufax and Marichal hurling brushback pitches; when Dodgers catcher John Roseboro threw the ball back to Koufax, it came too close for comfort—Marichal claimed it nicked his ear.  Retaliation erupted with Marichal bashing Roseboro’s head with his bat.  Roseboro left the game with several stitches and Marichal received a 10-game suspension, a $1,750 fine, and a settlement of litigation with Roseboro amounting to $7,500.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 7, 2017.

Hank Aaron’s Last Home Run

Monday, April 10th, 2017

As America recovered from its Bicentennial hangover, Hank Aaron clubbed a home run in the Brewers-Angels game on July 20, 1976.  It was not, in any way, a cause for ceremony.  It was, however, highly significant.

Aaron’s solo smash off the Angels’ Dick Drago was his last home run, though nobody knew it at the time.  Hammerin’ Hank followed George Scott’s solo home run, one of 18 blasts that Scott swatted in 1976.  Jerry Augustine got the win for the Brewers—his first in more than a month—scattering five Angel hits in seven innings.  It capped a streak of five consecutive losses for Augustine, who had a 9-12 record, 3.30 Earned Run Average, and WHIP of 1.299.

Aaron, Scott, et al. belted 12 hits against the Angels; Von Joshua, Tim Johnson, Darrell Porter, and Robin Yount scored the other Brewer runs.  Johnson, the Brewer second baseman, had an outstanding 3-for-3 day.  In the eighth inning, relief pitcher Danny Frisella replaced Augustine.

When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974 by hitting his 715th home run, every dinger afterward became, simply, icing on top of frosting.  His round-tripper in the Brewers’ 6-2 victory over the boys from Anaheim was his 755th home run; Aaron hit 10 home runs, batted .229, and racked up 62 hits in a rather uneventful 1976 season for the Brewers—a 66-96 record garnered 6th place in the American League East.

At age 42, Aaron retired after the 1976 season with outstanding career statistics:

  • 3,771 hits
  • 2,174 runs scored
  • 13,941 plate appearances
  • .305 batting average
  • 2,287 RBI (major league record)
  • Led the major leagues in RBI four times

Henry Louis Aaron clocked his first major league home run on April 23, 1954.  Throughout the next two decades and change, Aaron faced the pitching gods of Major League Baseball—Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Gullett, Roy Face, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, Vida Blue, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts.  When he went yard, it was the definition of power against power.  Tom Seaver’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site recalls Aaron’s statement of Seaver being “the toughest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Aaron’s last home run occurred during the year that the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1964; Chicago Cubs outfielder Rick Monday snatched an American flag from two trespassers about to burn it in the Dodger Stadium outfield; the Chicago White Sox played in shorts for one game; Ted Turner became the sole owner of the Atlanta Braves; the second incarnation of Yankee Stadium débuted after two years of renovations; Philadelphia Phillies third baseball Mike Schmidt knocked four home runs in a game against the Cubs; original Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz sold the team that began its life as the Colt .45s; Dodgers manager Walter Alston resigned after 23 years at the helm in Ebbets Field and Chavez Ravine; and the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays began selecting players for the following year’s American League expansion.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 20, 2016.

The Great Holdout of 1966

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

In March of 1966, Bobby Hull set an NHL scoring record for a single season, Gemini 8 brought NASA one giant leap closer to a manned moon landing by completing the first docking with another space craft, and Julie Newmar set hearts of males from eight to eighty beating faster when she débuted as Catwoman in a skintight outfit on Batman.

For Dodger fans, however, there was not much to cheer about.  Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale had a standoff against Walter O’Malley and Buzzie Bavasi—the Dodgers’ owner and general manager, respectively—just a few months after the Dodgers won the 1965 World Series in seven games against the Minnesota Twins; Drysdale had a 1-1 record in the series while Koufax went 2-1 and won the seventh game.

Drysdale and Koufax negotiated as a team, arguing that their combined 49 wins of the team’s 97 in 1965 warranted a boost in salaries; Koufax led the major leagues with 26 victories.

Prospects looked dire on the morning of March 30th.  Readers of the Los Angeles Times got a jolt when they read an article titled “Koufax, Drysdale reject $210,000 by Charles Maher and Frank Finch.  It quoted O’Malley:  “While I am sorry the incident is closed, I am pleased that it is ending on a note that is without any hard feelings.  They leave baseball with our very best wishes.”

Bavasi expressed a similar sentiment, though he noted a contrasting O’Malley viewpoint.  “Walter still thinks the boys are going to play.  But I don’t.  And I know these boys a little better than other people,” said Bavasi.

Later that day, the men with the power of the Pacific Ocean in their pitching arms resolved their contract dispute with the suits at Dodger Stadium.  Drysdale and Koufax signed for $120,000 and $105,000, respectively, for the 1966 season.  These figures were, according to Maher, “authoritative estimates” and quite a jump from each pitcher’s reported 1965 salary in the $75,000 range.

A summit of sorts took place at Nikola’s, a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, where Drysdale and Bavasi met.  “Don told me what he thought it would take to get both boys.  I came up with a figure.  Don talked to Sandy and they accepted,” explained Bavasi.

Drysdale and Koufax had the counsel of J. William Hayes, a prominent sports and entertainment attorney.  “There’s no telling what we would have done without him,” praised Drysdale.  “We’ve really got to thank him.  From a business standpoint, he didn’t need us at all.  This was just a drop in the bucket compared to some of the business negotiations he handles.”

In his 1966 autobiography Koufax, written with Ed Linn, the legendary left-hander concurred with Drysdale.  “And then something happened which, I think showed the value of having a third party involved in this kind of emotional dogfight,” wrote Koufax about the status of the negotiations on the day that the parties achieved resolution.  “Buzzie was quoted as having said that if only one of us signed—while the other presumably held out or quit—the player who signed would have to accept the original offer.

“Bill Hayes called early in the morning to warn Buzzie that if he made that kind of proposition to Don, he had very little chance of signing either of us.”

1966 was the last season for Koufax, who proved his worth by leading the major leagues in:

  • Wins (27)
  • ERA (1.73)
  • Games started (41)
  • Complete games (27)
  • Innings pitched (323)
  • Strikeouts (317)

Drysdale did not fare was well—his win-loss record was 13-16.  Three years later, the overpowering right-hander retired with a 209-166 career win-loss record.

It was a glorious season for the champions of Chavez Ravine—the Dodgers won the 1966 National League pennant.  Alas, they did not repeat as World Series victors; the Baltimore Orioles swept the Dodgers in four straight games.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 30, 1966.

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.

Oy Vey! Sandy Koufax, Yom Kippur, and the 1965 World Series

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Sandy Koufax had a left arm envied by southpaws from Malibu to Miami, a curveball rivaling Mulholland Drive’s bends for arc intensity, and a fastball comparable to a bullet shot from a Winchester.

None of these assets were on display, however, during Game 1 of the 1965 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Because the game took place on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Koufax opted not to play.  It was a choice that reverberated in synagogues from, well, Malibu to Miami.  And Seattle to Syracuse.  And Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.

“I tried to deflect questions about my intentions through the last couple of weeks of the season by saying that I was praying for rain,” wrote the left-hander in his 1966 autobiography Koufax with Ed Linn.  “There was never any decision to make, though, because there was never any possibility that I would pitch.

“Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion.  The club knows that I don’t work that day.  When Yom Kippur falls during the season, as it usually does, it has always been a simple matter of pitching a day earlier, with two days’ rest, when my turn happened to be coming up.”

Don Drysdale started the game for the Dodgers.  “Most all of them are high-ball hitters, so I’ll naturally try to keep the ball down on them.  I don’t want to give them a chance to get the ball up in the air,” said Drysdale in a Los Angeles Times article by Charles Maher.  Instead, the fireballer encountered a vicious but rare pummeling—Dodgers skipper Walter Alston pulled Drysdale in the third inning, after the Twins tallied six runs, in addition to their one run in the second inning.

The story goes that Drysdale, indicating a self-effacing manner, told Alston, “I bet you wish I was Jewish, too.”

Final score:  Twins 8, Dodgers 2.

Although the fellas from the Land of 10,000 Lakes surpassed the heroes of Chavez Ravine by a six-run margin, both teams had an equal number of hits—10.  Every Dodger starter but Drysdale hit safely, as did pinch hitter Willie Crawford.

Times sports writer Paul Zimmerman wrote that Drysdale showed “surprising complacency” in explaining what happened.  “It simply was a case of bad command,” said Drysdale.  “I couldn’t get the ball anywhere near where I wanted it and when you can’t do that you don’t deserve to win.”

Mudcat Grant pitched a complete game for the Twins.  It was, indeed, a glorious year for the Florida native—Grant led the American League in wins (21), pitched 14 complete games, and scored two World Series victories.

The 1965 World Series was a seven-game affair ending with the Dodgers returning baseball glory to southern California after overcoming an 0-2 deficit.  Koufax went 2-1 in the series, Drysdale evened his record at 1-1, and Claude Osteen also had a 1-1 output.

In 1965, Koufax led the major leagues in:

  • Wins (26)
  • Earned Run Average (2.04)
  • Win-Loss percentage (.765)
  • Complete Games (27)
  • Innings Pitched (335.2)
  • Strikeouts (382)

But it is what he did during Game One of the ’65 series that is talked about five decades later at Passover seders, in Hebrew school classes, and in sermons during the High Holidays.

Or, rather, what he didn’t do.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 28, 2016.

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.

September, 1965

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

In the ninth month of 1965, baseball fans reveled in the aura of excellence displayed at major league ballparks.

Ernie Banks, the jovial Cubs shortstop, whose trademark suggestion “Let’s play two!” indicates pure delight in playing baseball, knocked his 400th home run.  Appropriately, it happened in Wrigley Field rather than during an away game for Chicago’s beloved Cubbies.

Dave Morehead came within a baseball stitch of pitching a perfect game for the Red Sox.  Rocky Colavito punctured the hopes of Bostonians when he drew a walk in the second inning of an Indians-Red Sox game, which had a measly attendance of 2,370.  A no-hitter remained in sight as Vic Davalillo strode to the batter’s box in the top of the ninth, pinch hitting for Dick Howser.  When Davalillo’s grounder bounced off Morehead’s glove, the no-hitter flirted with jeopardy.

Morehead retrieved the ball, threw to first baseman Lee Thomas, and watched with relief as first baseman Lee Thomas scooped the lowly thrown sphere from the dirt.

Bert Campaneris played all nine positions in a game for the A’s, Willie Mays reached the milestone of 500 home runs, and Mickey Mantle enjoyed a day in his honor to commemorate his 2,000th major league game.

Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game against the Cubs, relying on a scant 1-0 lead—it was the fourth no-hitter for the Dodgers phenom.  In his account, Charles Maher of the Los Angeles Times quoted Koufax:  “You always know when you’ve got a no-hitter going, but you don’t particularly pay any attention to it early in the game.  In the seventh, I really started to feel as though I had a shot at it.

“But I still had only one run to work on.  I still had to win the game.”

Koufax offered compassion to his Cubs counterpart, Bob Hendley.  In his 1966 autobiography Koufax, written with Ed Linn, the legendary hurler wrote, “I sympathized with him only as a fellow pitcher, only in retrospect, and—most of all—only when we were in the locker room with the game safely won.”

In Maher’s report, Koufax said, “It’s a shame Hendley had to get beaten that way.  But I’m glad we got the run or we might have been here all night.”

Vin Scully, the Dodgers announcer for generations since the team’s last days at Ebbets Field, cemented the occasion in his radio broadcast by highlighting the time.  In her 2002 book Sandy Koufax:  A Lefty’s Legacy, Jane Leavy wrote, “Baseball is distinguished by its lack of temporal imperatives.  Nine innings take what they take.  Scully intuitively understood that locating the game in time would attest to its timelessness.  Always, he gave the date.  This time, he decided to give the time on the clock, too, so that Koufax would remember the exact moment he made history.”

In the Midwest, joy enveloped one major league city while wistfulness dominated another one.  The Minnesota Twins—formerly the Washington Senators until the 1961 season—won their first American League title.  Milwaukeeans, meanwhile, said goodbye to the Braves as the team headed to its third major league city—Atlanta.

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

The Midnight Massacre

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Not since 1957, when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, had baseball in New York City suffered an emotional blow equivalent to the impact on June 15, 1977, when the New York Mets committed an unpardonable sin in the eyes of the Flushing Faithful by trading Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Midnight Massacre.

Seaver in another team’s uniform did not compute.  It was an incongruous thought.  Blasphemous, even.  Imagine Mickey Mantle playing for the Cleveland Indians, Sandy Koufax playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, or Al Kaline playing for the Chicago White Sox.  Nicknamed “The Franchise” for his importance to the team, Seaver was synonymous with the Mets.  Beginning in 1967, the Mets flourished in Seaver’s glorious achievements in the National League, including Rookie of the Year Award in 1967, three Cy Young Awards, and five seasons leading the league in strikeouts.  Indeed, Seaver was a cornerstone of the 1969 World Series championship team and the 1973 National League championship team that pushed the World Series against the dynastic Oakland A’s to seven games.

But the relationship between Seaver and the Mets frayed by June of 1977.  A media item severed it.  During Seaver’s 1977 contract negotiations, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote, “Nolan Ryan is getting more now than Seaver, and that galls Tom because Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver long has treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother.”

Young doubled down by attacking Seaver’s integrity:  “It comes down to this: Tom Seaver is jealous of those who had the guts to play out their option or used the threat of playing it out as leverage for a big raise—while he was snug behind a three-year contract of his choosing.  He talks of being treated like a man.  A man lives up to his contract.”

Three decades after the trade that sent Seaver to the Reds—in exchange for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, and Dan Norman—Daily News sports writer Bill Madden penned a retrospective of the events leading to the trade.  Seaver shared his insights for the piece:  “That Young column was the straw that broke the back.  Bringing your family into it with no truth whatsoever to what he wrote.  I could not abide that.  I had to go.”

It was the boiling point in a tumultuous relationship with Mets Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant, for whom Young advocated.  In the Madden article, Seaver said, “There are two things Grant said to me that I’ll never forget, but illustrate the kind of person he was and the total ‘plantation’ mentality he had.  During the labor negotiations, he came up to me in the clubhouse once and said: ‘What are you, some sort of Communist.’  Another time, and I’ve never told anyone this, he said to me: ‘Who do you think you are, joining the Greenwich Country Club?’  It was incomprehensible to him if you didn’t understand his feelings about your station in life.”

The Seaver trade devastated Mets fandom.  In the June 17, 1977 edition of the New York Times, Murray Schumach wrote, “The anger of New Yorkers was no secret at Shea Stadium, where the switchboard was flooded with telephone calls, mostly of protest, many of them very abusive in what was admittedly the strongest display of anger ever recorded in one day at the switchboard.”

Seaver returned to the Mets for the 1983 season, inspiring Young to revive the volcano that triggered Seaver’s demand for a trade.  In the December 22, 1982 edition of the New York Post, Young opined, “It took me half a column to get to this, didn’t it.  This is the tacky part when Tom Seaver asked the Mets to renegotiate his contract, which had two years to run.  Don Grant said no.  Tom Seaver had every right to ask for a new contract, and Don Grant had every right to say no.  Tom Seaver couldn’t accept that.

“That’s how I saw it, that’s how I wrote it.  You signed the contract, live with it.  Play the two years left at $225,000, then hit the free agent market and make your millions.  It’s there, waiting.”

Young’s analysis ignored Seaver’s honor, symbolized by acceptance of a 20% pay cut for the 1975 season after a lackluster 11-11 performance in 1974.  It was part of a “gentleman’s agreement” designed in September 1974 between Seaver and the Mets front office.  In the January 22, 1975 edition of the New York Times, Joseph Durso quoted Seaver in detailing the circumstances surrounding the salary drop:  “Don Grant and I were talking one day and he brought it up.  No, I wasn’t disturbed that I got a cut after one bad year.  The ball club’s been very good and honest with me, and I with them.  They paid me a good amount of money last year and I didn’t pitch up to that amount.”

In 1975, Tom Seaver went 22-9, won the National League Cy Young Award, and led the National League with 243 strikeouts.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 15, 2015.

The Hall of Fame Case for Mickey Lolich

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

Consistency is the yardstick by which excellence is measured.  Mickey Lolich, a Detroit baseball icon, demonstrated consistency, ergo, excellence in a pitching career that, perhaps surprisingly, has not yet warranted admittance to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Lolich was a perfect fit for the blue-collar metropolis that defined American industry in the 20th century by churning out Cadillacs, Buicks, Chevrolets, Fords, Chryslers, and Pontiacs.  Performing his pitching tasks with efficiency, aplomb, and reliability, Lolich emblemized the work ethic of Detroit’s working class demographic.  Do the job.  Do it well.  Do the same thing tomorrow.

Lolich had six straight seasons of at least 200 strikeouts; in 1971, he led the American League in strikeouts with 308.  Tom Seaver, the National League leader, trailed Lolich with 289 strikeouts.  Additionally, Lolich pitched 376 innings in 1971, the most in the major leagues since Grover Cleveland Alexander’s 388 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1917.

In a career spanning 1963 to 1979, with a hiatus in 1977, Lolich had a career win-loss record of 217-191. Though Lolich’s victory total is far from the magic number of 300, he recorded other achievements meriting consideration for Cooperstown.  Lolich tallied 2,832 strikeouts, just shy of the gloried 3,000 plateau.  With a career total of 586 games pitched, one additional strikeout every 3.5 games would have launched Lolich into the vaunted 3K pantheon.  Still, the 2,832 number is impressive, giving Lolich the distinction of being the pitcher with the 18th highest number of career strikeouts, more than Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove, Dazzy Vance, Early Wynn, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

Using Hunter and Drysdale as a basis, a Lolich analysis reveals comparable statistics.

Years Played
Hunter 1965-1979
Drysdale 1956-1969
Lolich 1963-1979
Games Pitched
Hunter 500
Drysdale 518
Lolich 586
Career Victories
Hunter 224
Drysdale 209
Lolich 217
Career Winning Percentage
Hunter .574
Drysdale .557
Lolich .532
Home Runs Against
Hunter 374
Drysdale 280
Lolich 347
Earned Run Average
Hunter 3.26
Drysdale 2.95
Lolich 3.44

Stacked against Drysdale in ERA and Home Runs Against, Lolich falls shorts.  He has eight more career victories than Drysdale, but he played in nearly 70 more games.  Compared to Hunter, Lolich played in 86 more games and notched only seven less career victories.  One can argue that Lolich had more opportunities for victory but didn’t deliver.  On the other hand, Lolich’s endurance is a factor to consider.

In 1968, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.  Game Seven paired Lolich and Cardinals powerhouse Bob Gibson in a battle of pitching titans.  Lolich secured a victory, notching 3-0 in the ’68 series to cap his 17-9 record.  Naturally, Lolich won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.  But he wasn’t the only force on Detroit’s pitching staff—Tigers ace Denny McLain conquered American League opponents, tallying a 31-6 record.  McLain is the last major league pitcher to win at least 30 games.