Posts Tagged ‘Tom Yawkey’

The Hall of Fame Case for Gene Autry

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Gene Autry wore many hats, proverbially speaking, besides the cowboy dome piece in his movies:

  • Owner of Los Angeles television station KTLA from 1963 to 1982
  • Original singer of the Christmas standard Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Army Air Corps officer and Air Transport Command pilot during World War II
  • Owner of Melody Ranch, a 110-acre site formerly known as Monogram Movie Ranch (bought in 1953, sold nearly 100 acres and used the remaining land for Western movies and television series)
  • Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show
  • The Adventures of Champion radio show (about Autry’s horse Champion)
  • Radio stations
  • Television stations, in addition to KTLA
  • Rodeo
  • Record company

Baseball fans, however, knew Autry primarily as the man who planted a Major League Baseball flag in Orange County, California; Autry, once a part-owner of the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, was the first owner of the California Angels ball club—originally named Los Angeles Angels—which had its first season in 1961.

Autry’s journey to ownership began, as financial successes often do, in the wake of disappointment.  When the Los Angeles Dodgers switched radio broadcasters from Autry’s KMPC to rival KFI in 1959, an opportunity emerged.  A new American League franchise in Los Angeles would be a ripe opportunity for KMPC, particularly because of its sports broadcasting pedigree.  A former ballplayer raised the ante.  “Joe Cronin had known Autry since Gene’s barnstorming rodeo days over two decades earlier.  Cronin, now president of baseball’s American League, wondered if Autry was ready to tame the Wild Wild West’s newest franchise in L.A.,” wrote Robert Goldman in the 2006 book Once They Were Angels.  “Autry jumped at the opportunity.  It was a perfect fit, as not only did Autry love baseball, but he also had an impeccable reputation as a businessman and a person of integrity.”

And so, the mogul who grew up dirt poor in Oklahoma pioneered American League baseball on the West Coast.

And yet, the icon born Orvon Grover Autry is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Autry’s tenure as the Angels’ owner spanned decades, from the last days of the Eisenhower presidency to the first days of the Internet becoming a mainstream tool for information.  When Autry sold the Angels in 1996, he left a legacy difficult to match and easy to applaud.  His length of time made him a baseball fixture.  His integrity made him a model of comportment for businessmen.

Tom Yawkey is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so—he spearheaded the renovation of Fenway Park in the 1920s.

Walter O’Malley is in the Hall of Fame, which causes havoc in the hearts of Brooklynites, who see O’Malley as a betrayer for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles.  His transit to Los Angeles after the 1957 season paved the way for Autry and other owners to establish teams west of St. Louis, theretofore the westernmost metropolis with a Major League Baseball team.

Barney Dreyfuss is in the Hall of Fame, a membership for the former Pirates owner resulting from many achievements, including being a proponent of the World Series; the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates played in the first World Series in 1903.

Gene Autry is not in the Hall of Fame, despite his steadfast ownership.

Devotion to the fans stands out.  Not content to simply have a financial ledger in the black.  Autry poured “his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion.  He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died,” wrote Myrna Oliver of the Los Angeles Times in Autry’s 1998 obituary.

In 1982, the Angels retired 26 as Autry’s number to reflect being the “26th Man” on the roster, which has a limit of 25 players.  It was a sign of respect that Autry also earned from owners, fans, stadium workers, players, and baseball executives across Major League Baseball.  Such is Autry’s emotional connection to Angel Nation that the phrase “Win One for the Cowboy” resonates from Angel Stadium to Aliso Viejo, from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano.

Cooperstown awaits.  Patiently.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 29, 2016.

The Lone Star Years of Román Mejías

Friday, February 24th, 2017

During the Colt .45s’ inaugural season—1962—Houstonians could point to few bright spots in the team’s 64-96 record.  Román Mejías was one of them.

Mejías played in 146 games, swatted 162 hits, and finished the season with a .286 batting average.  Initially a product of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, the Cuban outfielder broke into the major leagues in 1955.  A year prior, he noticed a 55-game hitting streak for the Pirates’ minor league team in Waco, Texas.

In his article “Mejías of Waco Batting .345 of Pirate Farm Club” in the August 11, 1954 edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald, Oscar Larnce spotlighted the phenom’s talent.  “I don’t see how Mejías can miss.  He can do everything and is improving every day.  He was in Class D last year, then jumped into a tough Class B league and still gets better,” said Buster Chatham, the Pirates’ business manager, as quoted by Larnce.

Mejías spent six seasons with Pittsburgh, never playing in more than 96 games.  In 1960 and 1961, he played a total of seven games.

On Opening Day in 1962, Mejías clocked two home runs and notched six RBI to help the Colt .45s start Houston’s major league status with a victory over the Cubs. Mejías’s ability did not, however, result in selecting for the first All-Star game of 1962.  In an article for the Pittsburgh Press about Mejías’s All-Star situation, Les Biederman noted that Mejías led the Houston ball club at the plate—.317 batting average, 20 home runs, 54 RBI.

Little by little, Mejías learned English.  “New man.  I disgusted last year when Pirates send me to Columbus,” he explained in the Biederman article.  “I feel I can play in majors and never have real chance.  Figure no more chances but Houston take me and now new man.

“No swing bad balls anymore.  Not always strikes but no way to reach for ball can’t hit.  No more wait for ball over middle of plate.  Can’t get hit with bat on shoulder.”

Houston’s baseball fans embraced the slugger.  In his article “Mejías’ Season of Milk, Honey?” in the May 30, 1962 edition of the Houston Chronicle, Zarko Franks wrote, “Few will argue with Mejías’ popularity with the fans back home.  The roar of their voices when he comes to bat is sufficient testimony.”

Because of political strife in Cuba during the early years of Fidel Castro’s regime, Mejías suffered a separation from his wife, son, daughter, and two sisters for 14 months.

After the ’62 season, the Colt .45s traded Mejías to the Red Sox for Pete Runnels.  Fenway Park’s brain trust commenced brainstorming to bring the Mejías clan into the United States.  Boston Globe sports writer Hy Hurwitz reported, “The Red Sox very quietly went about assisting Mejías in his plight.  There was no publicity on the Mejías predicament by request of certain officials who felt that any publicity might endanger the family’s chance for release from the Castro-dominated island.

“Exactly how much the Red Sox and owner Tom Yawkey did for this 31-year-old man will never be told.  Yawkey won’t let it be told.”

However it was accomplished, the Red Sox organization did its legacy proud in securing safe transport for Mejías’s family in March 1963.

Mejías ended his career in a Red Sox uniform after the 1964 season.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 17, 2016.

Ted Williams Hits His Final Home Run

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

When a lanky native of San Diego hit a home run on September 28, 1960, it was not, perhaps, the most significant happening in his career—and certainly not the most significant happening in world affairs during the ninth month of the 60th year of the 20th century.

Ted Williams won two MVP Awards, the Triple Crown, and The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year Award seven times.  His career statistics include 521 home runs, .344 batting average, and .634 slugging percentage.  On that late September day, for the last time, Williams donned his Red Sox uniform, heard the cheers from the Fenway Park denizens, and went yard in his last at bat in the major leagues.

Legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich of the Washington Post noted that the excellence of the Red Sox slugger negated any revelatory aspects of the milestone.  “It shouldn’t have been surprising.  Williams has been making a commonplace of the dramatic homer ever since he came into the majors,” wrote Povich.

Still, an emotional charge laced the moment as Williams placed a period at the end of a 22-year career, all in a Red Sox uniform.  Nicknamed “The Splendid Splinter” for his batting prowess, Williams understood the impact of the home run.  “The first thing he did after the game was to send the home run bat to Tom Yawkey upstairs by bat boy Bobby Sullivan.  Then he hung around and soaked up praise and adulation, the admiring glances of those who would not approach, the warmth of a winning clubhouse—as he never would again,” wrote Harold Kaese in the Boston Globe.

Nonetheless, Williams did not tip his hat to the crowd.

About three weeks after Williams’s last game, The New Yorker published John Updike’s account in its October 22, 1960 issue; “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” stands as a model of baseball writing.  It is an honest appraisal of the dynamic fostered in the Red Sox legend’s adopted city.  Updike wrote, “The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing of shared memories.”

Additionally, an unparalleled work ethic, according to Updike, set Williams apart from his peers.  “No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy,” opined Updike.

Invoking the theory of ceteris paribus—all things being equal—Williams’s home run might have been in the 600s rather than the 500s had he not served his country during World War II.  A hero for his service as a pilot, Williams did not play professional baseball from 1943 to 1945, losing three years in his prime.  When Williams returned in 1946, he showed no signs of slowing down—MVP Award, .342 batting average, and 123 RBI.  Additionally, he led the major leagues in walks (156), slugging percentage (.667), on-base percentage (.497), and runs scored (142).

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 16, 2015.

1957 American League MVP Controversy

Friday, January 6th, 2017

One was a lanky outfielder whose presence in the batter’s box automatically elicited cheers from the Fenway Faithful.  The other, a mainstay in pinstripes, compiling legendary statistics while riddled by injuries throughout his career.

Ted Williams.  Mickey Mantle.

Coming off his Triple Crown season of 1956, Mantle won the 1957 American League Most Valuable Player Award.  But the Yankee slugger from Commerce, Oklahoma didn’t think he had a shot compared to the venerable outfielder who wore #9 for the Red Sox.  “Mantle Felt Williams Won Award With East” blared the headline at the top of an Associated Press story in the Boston Globe, underscoring the confusion of many—and the resentment in Red Sox Nation—concerning Mantle’s achievement.

In 1957, Williams led the American League in Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, and Slugging Percentage; Mantle led in Runs and Walks while achieving a .365 batting average, second to Williams’s .388.  According to the calculations of baseball-reference.com, Mantle dominated Wins Above Replacement (WAR) categories, placing first in WAR-Position Players, WAR-Offensive War, and War-All.  Williams trailed in second place.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America bestowed the MVP honor after the tallying of votes belonging to a tribunal of 24 scribes ended in an overall score.  Mantle led his American League peers with six votes for first place, resulting in a score of 233.  Williams followed with a 209 score, supported by five votes for first place.  The next highest score—204—belonged to Roy Sievers, a formidable run producer garnering four first place MVP votes with the last place Washington Senators; Sievers led the American League in Home Runs and Runs Batted In.  Other contenders included Nellie Fox with five first place votes and Gil McDougald with four.

Williams’s bristly relationship with the press may have influenced the balloting.  Harold Rosenthal of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “The face for first would have been an eyelash proposition if personalities hadn’t entered into the balloting.  On two ballots Williams dre no better than a ninth and a tenth, a flagrant abuse of the electorate.”

Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey concurred, offering praise of the Yankee centerfielder while protecting the Splendid Splinter.  Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Daily Globe wrote, “Yawkey pointed out he admired Mantle as a wonderful ball player but stated that anyone who allows ‘personalities’ to enter into his voting should not be allowed to vote.”

Williams, as the numbers showed, had the respect of all but those two voters assigning him a ninth place vote and a tenth place vote—this, despite a season of stellar statistics.  Hurwitz commented, “There is little question—not only with the fans—but with more than 90 percent of the committee—that Williams didn’t belong lower than fourth place on any ballot.  Twenty-two of the 24 voters had Ted first, second, third or fourth.”

A media conspiracy theory concerning the 1957 American League Most Valuable Player Award offers lucrative fodder for debate amongst baseball enthusiasts, especially those in Boston and the Bronx.  Williams received laughter from the audience at his Hall of Fame induction in 1966, when he poked fun at his relationship with the press, followed by his appreciation:  “I received two hundred and eighty-odd votes from the writers.  I know I didn’t have two hundred and eighty-odd close friends among the writers.  I know they voted for me because they felt in their minds, and some in their hearts, that I rated it, and I want to say to them: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 14, 2015.