Posts Tagged ‘Sporting News’

Aspro the Astro

Monday, January 30th, 2017

Bob Aspromonte fit nicely with the cultural paradigm built upon a “boys will be boys” philosophy in the 1960s, the decade when Joe Namath swaggered while Dean Martin swigged, offering touchstones for male fantasies of being famous and female fantasies of being in the orbit of an Alpha Male planet.

A lifetime .252 hitter, Aspromonte spent most of his 13-year career with the Houston Astros né Colt .45s. A couple of months before the Colt .45s inaugurated Major League Baseball in Houston, Mickey Herskovitz of the Houston Post profiled the Brooklyn native in a February 1, 1962 article titled “Colts’ Bob Aspromonte Favorite of the Ladies.  “The Brooklyn bachelor is so handsome that you hate him instantly…except that Bob won’t let you.  He never loses his sunny humor, no matter how much kidding he gets about being a ladykiller,” wrote Herskovitz.

A 1969 profile by Al Thomy in the Sporting News queried about Aspromonte’s single status.  “Interviewing Bob Aspromonte in a posh restaurant staffed by micro-mini clad young ladies, is not unlike trying to carry on a conversation with a harried sultan in a chattering harem.  It is most difficult to keep his attention,” wrote Thomy in “Most Eligible Bachelor…How About Aspro?”

Attention by females, though an ego boost, mattered not to performance on the baseball diamond.  “All this talk about being a bachelor and the Valentino of baseball doesn’t help a bit when I make an error,” explained Aspromonte in the Thomy piece.  “It comes back at you from the stands pretty often.  Once in Houston, after a bonehead play of mine, a fan yelled out, ‘Hey, Hollywood boy, what are you doing out there on a baseball field?  You ought to be in pictures!'”

Aspromonte started his career in 1956 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing one game.  After spending three seasons in the minors, Aspromonte rejoined the Dodgers, in Los Angeles by this time.  A two-year tenure in Tinseltown gave Aspromonte a gateway to starlets, though discretion was the better part of valor for the baseball bachelor.  “I don’t like to throw names around,” Aspromonte told Thomy.  “Frankly, I am not interested in having people know my private business.  But I will say I have met actresses who are delightful companions, intellectually stimulating and have intense interests in their careers.”

Houston selected Aspromonte in the National League expansion draft for 1962, the same year that the New York Mets débuted, filling the void created when the Dodgers and the Giants vacated the Big Apple for California.

During his tenure in Houston, Aspromonte entered Texas baseball lore when he knocked three home runs to fulfill promises to Bill Bradley, a 12-year-old who suffered blindness and later enjoyed the restoration of eyesight; it is a feat particularly noteworthy because Aspromonte, though a reliable hitter, hit 60 home runs in his entire major league career.  Bradley bestowed favorite player status upon Aspromonte while listening to the team’s games on the radio.

Aspromonte played seven seasons in Houston, two in Atlanta, and one in New York with the Mets.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 13, 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.

The Saga of Eddie Gaedel

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

On August 19, 1951, Eddie Gaedel strode to home plate in a St. Louis Browns uniform adorned with the fraction 1/8 rather than a whole number, signifying his physical stature similar to that of the folks who set Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road.

Gaedel’s cup of coffee in the major leagues consisted of a single at-bat, when he faced Bob Cain of the Detroit Tigers in the first inning of the first game of a doubleheader at Sportsman’s Park.  In 2002, Fred Bucholz, the Browns’ batboy, recalled the game for St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Tom Wheatley.  “The fans were laughing, but no one said nothing in our dugout,” said Bucholz.  “They were just shocked.  Nothing like that had ever happened before.  Usually the guys would yell for someone to get a hit.  Here, nothing.”

A publicity stunt conceived by Browns owner Bill Veeck, Gaedel had a signed contract, giving him the legitimacy required to play in a Major League Baseball game.  Veeck embraced wackiness, seeing it as an added value for the fans.  In his second tenure as owner of the White Sox from 1976 to 1981, Veeck installed a shower in the centerfield bleachers so fans could cool off on hot Chicago days, instructed Harry Caray to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh inning stretch, and commanded the White Sox to wear shorts in a gimmick that proved to last about as long as the notion of somebody defeating Richard J. Daley in a Chicago mayoral election between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s.

In his 2000 book The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, Peter Golenbock cited Browns manager Zack Taylor as a source for the Gaedel idea.  Taylor said, “When I was with the Giants, we used to sit around the hotel lobby nights listening to the boss.  John McGraw never forgot a pitch of any game the Giants ever played under him.  And he always was scheming up new ways to win.  One time he came up with the idea that it might not be bad to carry a little fellow around and send him up to bat to get a base on balls if the score was tied in the ninth.

“Of course, nobody ever did it.  But I never forgot what McGraw said.  So when Veeck suggested hiring a little fellow, I told him what McGraw had said years before.  Veeck got on the phone to Chicago right away and checked up to find there wasn’t any rule against it.”

Veeck had only taken control of the Browns in July 1951, but acted swiftly to differentiate the Browns from their crosstown rivals, the Cardinals.  Promotion was, in Veeck’s view, the key to getting fans in the stands.

Gaedel was just one part of the entertainment designed by Veeck on August 19th.  In the Sporting News article “Day Veeck Outdid Himself; Midget Circus with Browns” marking the 30th anniversary of the event, legendary St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg explained, “Veeck had promised to put on a show, and the master promoter gave the fans a good buildup, which included free cake and ice creams as they entered the park and a lively between-games show.

“There was a juggler at first base, trampolinists at second and hand-balancers pyramided at third.  Baseball clown Max Patkin did his routines and Satchel Paige, playing the drums, led a poor man’s Pepper Martin Mudcat Band onto the field.

“Aerial bombs exploded miniature flags that floated onto the field.  Then, on signal, popping out of a large papier mache [sic] cake at the pitcher’s mound, came a cute little fellow dressed in a pre-shrunk Browns uniform.”

Sadly, Gaedel died in 1961, a result of a street mugging in Chicago.  In an article for the Winter 1987 edition of National Pastimea Society for American Baseball Research publication—republished in the March 1989 edition of Beckett Monthly, Jim Reiser wrote, “After the mugging, he apparently staggered home and died in his bed of a heart attack.  Paramedics were unable to revive him.  A coroner’s report said that Gaedel also had bruises on his knees and his face.”

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