Posts Tagged ‘Sports Illustrated’

Boog Powell’s MVP Season

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

A native of Key West—the place where Pan Am began, the U.S.S. Maine sailed from on its last journey before exploding in Havana Harbor, and Ernest Hemingway maintained a legendary home—John Wesley Powell, also known as Boog, spent most of his 17-season career in an Orioles uniform.  One of those seasons—1970—resulted in him winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award.

Powell ran away with the MVP voting, gaining 11 of 24 first-place votes and 234 points.  The next four contestants weren’t even close:

  • Tony Oliva, Minnesota Twins (157)
  • Harmon Killebrew, Minnesota Twins (152)
  • Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox (136)
  • Frank Howard, Washington Senators (91)

Memorial Stadium rocked with the cheers of Oriole Nation as Powell marched toward the coveted .300 batting average barrier, falling just short at .297.  Powell’s dominance at the plate reflected in 35 home runs, 114 RBI, and a .549 slugging percentage.

It was a banner year for Baltimore’s birds—they won the World Series after getting upset by the Miracle Mets in 1969.  Powell’s fellow Orioles did not fare as well with awards, despite outstanding seasons.  Baltimore’s legendary pitching staff boasted three 20-game winners—Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Jim Palmer scored in the top five for the American League Cy Young Award voting, but got eclipsed by Jim Perry of the Twins.

Powell said, “I think it’s a shame we were neglected for the other awards.  All of our three pitchers certainly deserved the Cy Young.  But I’m still elated at being chosen the MVP.  I feel it’s the highest honor in sports.”

Yankee skipper Ralph Houk won the American League Manager of the Year title rather than Earl Weaver, who helmed the O’s to two straight World Series.  A third consecutive appearance happened against the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’71—ultimately a losing affair in seven games.

Cheers, an NBC prime time powerhouse in the 1980s, used Powell to cement verisimilitude of Sam “Mayday” Malone—a fictional relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, a recovering alcoholic, and the owner of Cheers.  As the show’s theme song declares, Cheers is a bar, near the Boston Commons, where everybody knows your name.

In the first season episode “Sam at Eleven,” Sam’s former ballplayer pal Dave Richards, now a sportscaster, wants to interview the ex-Red Sox reliever at Cheers.  Sam talks about a dramatic moment when he faced Powell in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader.  During the middle of Sam’s story, Dave abandons for an interview with John McEnroe.  Diane Chambers, an intellectual waitress having an undercurrent of highly significant sexual tension with Sam, which gets resolved in a later episode when they succumb to their respective differences—he, a dumb jock stereotype and she, a condescending sort—asks what happened to “the Boog person” and Sam, obviously suffering from a punch to his ego, casually tells her that Powell grounded to third to end the game.

After some gentle and not-so-gentle verbal prodding from Diane, Sam talks about the injury to his psyche.  Then, perhaps in a moment of catharsis, he tells Diane about the end of the second game, which also found him facing Powell in the bottom of the ninth.

Sam’s story could not have taken place during Powell’s MVP year, however.  When Cheers left prime time in 1993, after 11 seasons, Sports Illustrated ran a biography of America’s favorite barkeep.  “Everybody Knows His Name” recounted Malone’s career based on dialogue throughout the series.  Sam Malone entered professional baseball in 1966, débuted in the major leagues in 1972, and ended his career in 1978.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 15, 2016.

The Landmark Case of Ludtke vs. Kuhn

Sunday, April 9th, 2017

In the 1970s—the decade of disco, Watergate, and bell bottom pants—the women’s rights movement escalated to a new level, continuing a legacy ignited by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida Harper.

Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match underscored the women’s movement.  More than a sports event, it was, indeed, an occasion of spectacle, news, and social commentary.  “I was playing to prove that men and women had the same entertainment value, which is why we should be paid equally,” wrote King in her 2008 book Pressure Is A Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes, co-written with Christine Brennan.

Barbara Walters became the first female anchor of a network news broadcast when she combined with Harry Reasoner to co-anchor ABC’s nightly news program, CBS hired Jane Chastain as the first female national sportscaster for NFL games, and Melissa Ludtke became the first female journalist allowed in a Major League Baseball team’s locker room.

Ludtke’s journey took her through a legal battle that highlighted an additional burden for women to compete in sports journalism.  It hinged on equal access to athletes, coaches, and managers—if the locker room paradigm excluded female reporters, then they would not have the same opportunity as male reporters to get quotes, insights, and background information from players.  A level playing field, pardon the expression, would not exist.

“We saw the women’s movement emerging in the political realm and the nation had just come out of the civil rights movement,” says Ludtke, then a reporter for Sports Illustrated.  “In our court case, we relied on the Fourteenth Amendment and a number of precedents developed in legal arguments and judicial decisions about racial discrimination.”

Ludtke’s lawsuit for equal access took her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  In Ludtke vs. Kuhn, Judge Constance Baker Motley—who had argued many key civil rights cases as an NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Attorney—reasoned, “By definition, female reporters who are excluded from baseball clubhouses are not given the same access to the news and newsmakers as their male colleagues and competitors.  This denial of equal access places female reporters at a severe competitive disadvantage because they miss stories witnessed or heard by male reporters inside the clubhouse, because they are unable to take advantage of the group questioning inside the clubhouse and because they are unable to talk to some players at all.”

One of the defendants, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, led the policy of exclusion.  At issue in Judge Motley’s court were privacy for players, due process, and state action—a financial connection between New York City and Yankee Stadium had been established during the rebuilding of the iconic ballpark in the mid-1970s.  Kuhn’s positions suffered under legal scrutiny.

Motley ruled, “The undisputed facts show that the Yankees’ interest in protecting ballplayer privacy may be fully served by much less sweeping means than than implemented here.  The court holds that the state action complained of unreasonably interferes with plaintiff Ludtke’s fundamental right to pursue her profession in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 12, 2016.

“Ball Four Goes Hollywood”

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

When Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four hit bookshelves in 1970, it exploded myths, revealed secrets, and offered tales of baseball, theretofore kept protected from the public.  If reporters knew about Mickey Mantle’s alcohol problem, for example, they didn’t cover it.  Womanizing, drug use, and clubhouse conflicts were other Ball Four topics, once forbidden from baseball scholarship.

It infuriated Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, betrayed long-observed rules of the locker room, and relieved reporters of the pressure to keep quiet on what they saw, heard, and learned.

And the public ate it up, shooting Ball Four to the best-seller list.

A right-handed pitcher, Bouton broke into the major leagues with the New York Yankees in 1962, ending the season at 7-7.  His next two seasons showed terrific promise:

  • 21-7 in 1963
  • 18-13 in 1964
  • 2 wins in the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals

Thereafter, not so much.  Bouton spent seven seasons in pinstripes, then played for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros in 1969.  He stayed with Houston in 1970, his last season, presumably.  A comeback with the Atlanta Braves in 1978 resulted in a 1-3 record; his career was over.

Bouton finished his career with a 3.57 Earned Run Average, 720 strikeouts, and a 62-63 record.  In Ball Four, co-authored with sports writer Leonard Shecter, Bouton captured his season with the Seattle Pilots, in addition to a sprinkling of tales about Mantle et al. during his tenure in the south Bronx.

In 1976, CBS aired an eponymous television series based on Ball Four.  The Tiffany Network, so called because of its quality programming, revolutionized television in the 1970s.  M*A*S*H combined comedy and pathos in its tales of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.  Authored by a MASH surgeon named Richard Hornberger, whose pen name was Richard Hooker, the 1968 novel M*A*S*H was, in a sense, like Bouton’s Ball Four.  Readers learned a first-hand perspective of war’s horrors beyond anything digested before in books, films, or television shows.  A 1970 film followed, starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall; the television series began in 1972, ran for 11 seasons, and racked up Emmy Award with the dependability of Cookie Monster devouring cookies.

All in the Family incorporated the Vietnam War, Watergate, and civil rights into dialogue that balanced humor, intelligence, and topicality.  Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, became a lovable bigot who saw his sure-fire patriotism threatened by the zeitgeist personified by his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Mike Stivic.

Mary Tyler Moore, starring the actress famed for playing housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show a decade prior, featured the comedic tales of Mary Richards, a single professional woman working as a television news producer in Minneapolis.  Before Mary showed she could “turn the world on with a smile,” as the show’s theme song indicated, it was rare to see a single woman as the central character of a television show.

Ball Four did not fall under the umbrella of groundbreaking television shows, despite its literary lineage.  Five episodes aired, starring Jim Bouton as Jim Barton of the Washington Americans, a fictional baseball team.  It was, to be sure, a thinly veiled portrayal.  To the dismay, worry, and scorn of his teammates, Barton takes notes for an upcoming series of articles in Sports Illustrated.  In her review of Ball Four for Sports Illustrated, Melissa Ludtke wrote, “The mediocrity of the opening show is particularly unfortunate because Bouton had hoped to give a true portrayal of his baseball experiences in the series.  Pill-popping, religion and women sports-writers in the locker room and homosexuality are some of the issues that he would like to cover.”

Bouton co-created the television series with Marvin Kitman and Vic Ziegel.  Harry Chapin performed the theme song, offering wistful lyrics with his trademark guitar playing as a soft complement.  Ben Davidson, a former professional football player who made Goliath seem like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, played Rhino, the Americans’ catcher.  As a defensive end, Davidson tore through offenses in the AFL and the NFL from 1961 to 1971; he played with the Portland Storm of the WFL in 1974.

Hollywood became a second calling for Davidson, who became a household name in the infamous “Less Filling, Tastes Great” television commercials of the 1970s and the 1980s for Miller Lite.  Bob Uecker, Mickey Spillane, and John Madden were among the other sports personalities in these humorous commercials.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 8, 2016.

Ted Williams’s MVP Years

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

If Boston ever establishes a Mount Rushmore of sports, the four visages will likely be those of Robert Gordon Orr, Larry Joe Bird, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr., and Theodore Samuel Williams.

Bobby.  Larry.  Tom.  Ted.

When Ted Williams swung his bat, a hit was not a foregone conclusion—pretty close, though.  After a 19-year career, Williams retired with a .344 batting average, 521 home runs, and two American League Most Valuable Player Awards.

In 1946, Williams won his first MVP Award, all the more remarkable because a three-year absence from ballparks to serve as a Marine pilot in World War II had, apparently, no impact—the Red Sox slugger nicknamed “The Splendid Splinter” led the major leagues in:

  • Runs Scored (142)
  • Walks (156)
  • On-Base Percentage (.497)
  • Slugging Percentage (.667)

Williams eclipsed Detroit Tigers left-hander Hal Newhouser, who won the AL MVP in 1944 and 1945. It was bittersweet, though.  The Red Sox lost the 1946 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games; Williams batted a Mendoza-like .200.

A red seat at Fenway Park shows the landing spot of a Williams home run on June 9, 1946—the longest dinger of his career.  To be precise, though, the ball landed on the head of the seat’s occupier—Joseph A. Boucher, a construction engineer.  Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe wrote, “He had never sat in the Fenway Park bleachers before.  There were 7897 fans besides [sic] himself perched on the sun-drenched wind-whipped concrete slope.  Indeed was the elderly Mr. Boucher honored when crowned by a five-ounce baseball that the game’s greatest hitter had socked some 450 feet.”

It happened during the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers; the Red Sox won both games.

Boucher’s brush with fame had a cost of slightly hurt noggin, barely protected by a straw hat.  It resulted; the “great baseball fan…and Red Sox rooter” received treatment from “Dr. Ralph McCarthy and two pretty nurses” in the stadium’s First Aid room.  Boucher did not recover the ball.

In 1949, Williams won his second MVP Award.  Once again, joy had a contrast of sorrow—the Yankees won the American League pennant by one game over the Red Sox.  It was an extraordinary year for Williams, even by MVP standards.  Williams led the major leagues in:

  • Runs Scored (150)
  • RBI (159)
  • Walks (162)
  • On-Base Percentage (.490)
  • On-Base plus Slugging Percentage (1.141)

Further, he led the American League in:

  • Doubles (39)
  • Home Runs (43)
  • Slugging Percentage (.650)

Though he did not achieve leadership in the following categories, his statistics were formidable:

  • Hits (194)
  • Strikeouts (48)
  • Batting Average (.343)

In Sports Illustrated‘s 2002 Special Commemorative Issue for Ted Williams, Tom Verducci wrote, “Trying to define Williams as a hitter is like studying one of those black-and-white optical illusions and trying to make out both a vase and the profiles of two people.  Do you see Williams as a high-average hitter with power or a power hitter who hit for a high average?  He was, of course, both.  Williams won six batting titles and four home run titles.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 6, 2016.

How Marvelous Marv Became a Met

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Hobie Landrith holds the distinction of being the first New York Met, selected on October 10, 1961 in the expansion draft that populated the lineups of the nascent Mets and Colt .45s.

When the Mets took the field at the Polo Grounds the following April for their first regular season game, Landrith started at catcher.  His was a philosophy embracing the importance of communications between battery mates.  During Landrith’s time with the San Francisco Giants, Will Connolly of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Landrith in a 1959 column subtitled “Hobart Landrith’s An Articulate Gent” describing the relationship:  “Apart from the finger signals, the pitcher and catcher should talk it over in tight spots—and almost every inning is a critical one these days.  I run out to the mound to eliminate any indecision on the pitcher’s part, and mine.  Some batsmen have to be pitched to very carefully.”

Landrith’s vocal quality was a subject of a 1951 scouting report for the Cincinnati Reds:  “‘Pepper pot’ little backstop who brings to the major leagues a brand of on-the-field chatter comparatively unheard since the days of ‘Gabby’ Hartnett.  Shrill voice behind plate can be heard all over park.”

As the pioneering member of the Mets, Landrith holds sacred ground.  Fertile, it was not.  In early May, the Orioles traded Marv Throneberry to the Mets for a player to be named later and cash; a month later, the Mets named Landrith.  Financial strength provided the impetus.  “[O]ne of Throneberry’s most compelling charms was his availability for cash, one of the few departments in which the Mets are in string contention for league leadership,” wrote New York Times sports writer Robert Lipsyte, citing team president George Weiss.

Throneberry’s performance was anything but marvelous, the alliterative adjective that became synonymous with the first baseman and right fielder.  When Throneberry died in 1994, New York Times sports writer George Vecsey recalled, “There was the day that Marv hit a two-out triple with the bases loaded but was called out for missing first.  Even though nearly everyone in the Mets’ dugout saw Marv miss the base, Casey Stengel, the manager, started arguing with the first-base umpire anyway.  During the exchange, another umpire walked over and said, ‘Casey, I hate to tell you this, but he also missed second.'”

As a ’62 Met, Throneberry played in 116 games, batted .244, and struck out 83 times.  His career ended after the 1963 season.

Throneberry became a pop culture icon through his appearances in the famed Miller Lite television commercials of the 1970s and 1980s featuring, among others, Rodney Dangerfield, Mickey Spillane, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Bob Uecker.

In one commercial, Throneberry appears with Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford and Billy Martin.  Deford says, “There’s one guy I can’t write anything bad about, His unique brand of baseball has made him a living legend.”  Other plaudits follow.

Throneberry is not in the commercial until the end.  It’s the payoff after the setup—Martin thinks that Deford’s comments are targeted to him.  When Deford gives a Miller Lite to Throneberry, the former Met issues the commercial’s punch line:  “Cheer up, Billy.  One day, you’ll be famous just like me.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 13, 2016.

Brooklyn, Baseball, and Broadway

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Jackie Robinson has inspired an abundance of portrayals in popular culture, unsurprisingly.  Examples include Blair Underwood in the 1996 HBO tv-movie Soul of the Game, Chadwick Boseman in the 2013 movie 42, and the man himself in the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story.

In The First, a 1981 Broadway musical, David Alan Grier projected Robinson’s travails in breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  Grier, later known for the 1990s sketch comedy television show In Living Color on FOX, received plaudits from theatre critics, along with the other cast members.  Frank Rich of the New York Times noted, “The casting of all the principals is good.  In his Broadway debut, Mr. Grier gives us an impassioned, strong-voiced and tough-minded Jackie Robinson—not an impression, but a real performance.  Though the role of Rachel Robinson hardly exists in the script, the striking Lonette McKee manages to fill her with vitality and warmth.  The sandpaper-voiced David Huddleston captures both the idealism and pragmatism, as well as the humor, of Branch Rickey.”

However, Rich was less laudatory of the play, which covered the same ground that 42 did three decades hence; it débuted on November 17, 1981 and closed less than a month later.  Rich wrote, “While this show offers about five minutes of good baseball and a promising star in David Alan Grier, its back is broken by music, lyrics, book and direction that are the last word in dull.”

A lack of endorsement from the Gray Lady is to a Broadway show what a stake is to a vampire’s heart.  The 1982 movie Author! Author! illustrates this point with bluntness wrapped in humor concerning the opening night of a Broadway play.  Referencing theatre critic Stewart Klein of New York City’s WNEW-TV (later WNYW-TV), a character says, “Let me tell you.  In this town, you don’t get a rave from the New York Times, you close.  I don’t care if Klein was enthralled, enraptured, and reached orgasm.  Without the New York Times, we’re dead.”

In my 2015 book Our Bums:  The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture, McKee graciously shared her experience.  “[Rachel Robinson] was so very warm, magnanimous and supportive during the entire process,” McKee said.  “And I still believe that the play and any stories about Jackie Robins and other trailblazers are important for all of us.  After all … how can we know who we are and where we’re going until we know where we’ve been and who the heroes were that paved the way for us.  The Robinsons are important civil and human rights leaders.”

Noted baseball author Robert W. Creamer reviewed the play for Sports Illustrated, acknowledging that it “does an admirable job of presenting a momentous occasion in American sport and, for that matter, American history.”

Further, Creamer explained, “I saw The First two nights after it opened, after the derogatory reviews had appeared.  I eavesdropped at intermission and after the final curtain, trying to find out what the audience thought.  Repeatedly, I heard people say, almost with embarrassment, almost apologizing for being so gauche as to disagree with the critics, ‘I like it.’

“So do I.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 31, 2016.

Rusty Staub: Bonus Baby

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

When Daniel Joseph Staub signed a major league contract, he fell under the “bonus baby” nomenclature.  Nicknamed “Rusty” by a nurse upon his birth on April 1, 1944, Staub became so known.  In a 1967 article for Sports Illustrated, Gary Ronberg cited Staub’s mother in revealing the story behind the dubbing:  “‘I wanted to name him Daniel so I could call him Danny for short,’ said Mrs. Staub, who is, of course, Irish.  ‘But one of the nurses nicknamed him Rusty for the red fuzz he had all over his head, and it stuck.'”

Staub, all of 17 years old, signed with the nascent Houston Colt .45s in 1961 as an amateur free agent while the team prepared for its 1962 début.  In his Houston Post column “Post Time,” Clark Nealon used the Post‘s February 26, 1962 edition to highlight Staub.  Quoting Brooklyn Dodgers icon Babe Herman, Nealon wrote, “He runs well, handles himself well, has good hands.  He needs some work in the field, but that’ll come.  I like the way he swings the bat.”

Playing with the Durham Bulls in ’62, Staub hit 23 home runs, compiled a .293 batting average, and won the Carolina League’s Most Valuable Player award.  In 1963, Staub elevated to Houston for his first major league season—he played in 150 games, batted .224, hit six home runs.  A stay with the Oklahoma City 89ers in 1964 provided seasoning for the red-haired bonus baby—Staub tore apart the Pacific Coast League with a .334 batting average after 60 games.

In the September 19, 1964 Sporting News article “Return of Rusty:  Staub Rides Hot Bat Back to .45s,” Bob Dellinger reasoned, “Staub, perhaps the No. 1 boy in Houston’s renowned youth movement was farmed to the Class AAA club in mid-July with a double-dip objective.  First, he could play every day and perhaps build up his confidence at the plate; second, he could gain valuable defensive training in the outfield.”

Further, Dellinger exposed Staub’s perception of the demotion to the minor leagues:  “Sometimes it seems like the world is coming to an end, but maybe it just starts over.  I believe I will be back—better prepared physically and mentally.”

Staub played in a little more than half of Houston’s games in 1964, garnering a .216 batting average.  His performance at the plate improved for the remainder of his Houston tenure—batting averages of .256, .280, .333, and .291.  Staub also played for the Expos, the Mets, the Tigers, and the Rangers in his major league career, which ended after the 1985 season.  His time in an Expos uniform began with the team’s inaugural season—1969—and lasted three years; he also played part of the 1979 season in Montreal.  Upon arrival, Staub enjoyed a newfound respect.  In his 2014 book Up, Up & Away:  The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos, Jonah Keri explained, “They urged Staub to become the face of the team, and an ambassador to the community.  This was a challenge he happily embraced.

“Staub’s first step was to learn to speak French—some French anyway, somewhere between knowing what his own nickname meant and true fluency.  He’d go out to lunch with francophone friends and insist that they speak French the whole meal.”

Montreallians bestowed the nickname “Le Grand Orange” upon Staub.

A New Orleans native, Staub was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1989.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 12, 2016.

The Trade

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants enjoy synonymity—you can’t think of one entity without the other.  It wasn’t always that way, however.

Big Six, as Mathewson became known, began his major league tenure with the Cincinnati Reds.  John Brush owned part of the Reds and the Giants—a formerly permitted financial arrangement in the paradigm of the major leagues—and devised the plan to send Mathewson to New York.

The article “What if Christy Mathewson had remained a Red?” on the Cincinnati Reds official web site explains, “Brush had long had designs on owning the Giants and was actively negotiating to take control when Christy Mathewson was signed by New York in 1900.  Mathewson struggled in six games with the Giants and was summarily sent back to the minor league club he had been acquired from.  The Reds jumped at the chance to sign him and did so for $100.  Brush knew what he had in Mathewson and also knew that he wanted him to be pitching in New York when he took over the Giants.”

Brush’s plan involved trading Mathewson to the Reds for Amos Rusie, nicknamed the “Hoosier Thunderbolt.”  Rusie’s Hall of Fame plaque states, “Generally considered fireball king of nineteenth-century moundsman, notched better than 240 victories in ten-year career, achieved 30-victory mark four years in row and won 20 or more games eight successive times.  Led league in strikeouts five years and led or tied for most shutouts five times.”

Rusie, towards the end of his career, invoked the rare device of holding out.  Consequently, he did not play in 1896, 1899, or 1900; an 0-1 record in 1901 finished his tenure in the major leagues.

In the 1979 Sports Illustrated article “When Amos Rusie Was on the Mound Cathers Didn’t Get the Lead Out,” Al Rainovic extolled Rusie’s prowess.  “Rusie was easily the fastest pitcher major league baseball [sic] had seen,” declared Rainovic.  “Even though a pitcher in the 1890s had to get three untouched strikes to record a strikeout, Rusie marched them back to the benches at the then imposing rate of one every two innings.  In 1889 when the National League decided to drop Indianapolis and Washington and go with eight clubs instead of 10, Rusie and seven other players were sold for an estimated $60,000 by Indianapolis to New York.”

It was a curious trade, given Rusie’s waning years.  In his 1988 book The Giants of the Polo Grounds: The Glorious Times of Baseball’s New York Giants, Noel Hynd examined the circumstances.  “Why, then, did Brush want Rusie?  He didn’t,” posited Hand.  “Brush already knew he was on his way to New York and that was where he wanted Mathewson.  In the meantime, however, he wished to safeguard Matty’s contract before [Giants owner] Andrew Freedman could double-cross him.”

In the first season after the trade, Mathewson flourished with the Giants, compiling a 20-17 record, striking out 221 batters, and notching his first of two no-hitters.  Mathewson’s endurance manifested as well; the hurler completed 36 of 40 games—this, after going o-3 with the Giants in 1900.

Mathewson’s 1901 season forecast greatness, which resulted in a career win-loss record of 373-188, more than 2,500 strikeouts, and membership in the first group of Baseball Hall of Fame inductees in 1936.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 11, 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.

Stan Musial’s Three MVP Awards

Saturday, December 24th, 2016

Stan Musial is a St. Louis icon and a national treasure, ranking with the Gateway Arch, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and Campbell House Museum.  Without flash, Musial carved a career of steadiness, superiority, and significance.  From 1941 to 1963, excluding 1945 for military service, Musial garnered:

  • 3,630 hits
  • 475 home runs
  • 725 doubles
  • 177 triples
  • Nearly 2,000 runs scored
  • 20 consecutive appearances in the All-Star Game
  • .331 career batting average

It’s a template by which brilliance in the batter’s box may be measured.

Stan Musial died on January 19, 2013 at the age of 92, prompting the requisite obituaries soaked with nostalgia for an era before free agency, television contracts measured by a dollar sign plus nine numbers, and World Series games played only in prime time.

“He was easily the greatest player St. Louis has ever had, and he was properly feted as a living legend in Cardinal country,” wrote Cliff Corcoran in the article “Musial deserves to be remembered as one of baseball’s best” for Sports Illustrated‘s web site on January 20, 2013.  “To the rest of the United States however, his modest, jovial nature seemed to undermine his importance.  In his later years he was seen as a kindly old man in a red blazer, always quick with a smile and his harmonica, but he never demanded the reverence of surly legends like Williams and DiMaggio, or tragic figures like Mantle and Clemente, or icons of struggle and defiance like Aaron and Mays.  It probably didn’t help that the enduring image of Musial from his playing days was not one of power or grace but of his unusual hunchbacked batting stance.”

The kid from Donora, Pennsylvania achieved an honor reserved for a rarefied few.  And he did it three times in the same decade.  Musial won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1943, 1946, and 1948.  His first award crowned a season of leading the major leagues in key categories:

  • Hits (220)
  • Doubles (48)
  • Triples (20)
  • Batting average (.357)

Further, he only struck out 18 times in 700 plate appearances.

In 1946, the first year for Major League Baseball after World War II, Musial earned his second dubbing as MVP for the senior circuit after leading the major leagues in three of the same categories:

  • Hits (228)
  • Triples (20)
  • Batting average (.365)

Facing the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals won in seven games, but they did it without Musial’s formidable bat.  “Neither Stan Musial nor Red Schoendiesnt matched his work at the plate during the season, but Harry Walker, a .237 hitter during the year, hit .412 in the Series, and the catching duo of Joe Garagiola and Del Rice combined for a .360 average after batting a joint .250 during the season,” wrote Jerome M. Mileur in his 2014 book The Stars Are Back: The St. Louis Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox, and Player Unrest in 1946.

Musial earned his third MVP distinction with a dominant performance repeating his leadership in all the categories from his 1943 feat:

  • Hits (230)
  • Doubles (46)
  • Triples (18)
  • Batting average (.376)

1948 was also a turning point in Musial’s career.  In his 2011 book Stan Musial: An American Life, George Vecsey wrote, “He had always been a hitter.  In 1948, Musial became a slugger.”

Vecsey added, “Suddenly Stan Musial could hit home runs.  He had come up to the majors as an insecure stripling, slapping at the ball to avoid being exposed and shipped back to Donora.  Then during the war, to satisfy the admirals and the sailors in Pearl Harbor, he had exaggerated his crouch, stayed in it longer, and swung for the fences.  Now, after [Cardinals team physician] Dr. [Robert] Hyland removed his appendix and tonsils in October 1947, Musial began hitting the ball farther, more often.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 8, 2015.