Posts Tagged ‘Tribune’

The Hall of Fame Case for Harvey Kuenn

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

There are coaches and managers who approach baseball with a Lombardi-like focus on winning without the trademark Lombardi philosophy of striving to obtain psychological, emotional, and physical fulfillment through 100% effort.  Their desire to win is pure.  Their process, deadening.

Harvey Kuenn was not one of these leaders.

“Look, you guys can flat out hit, so go out there and have fun.  Don’t be stone-faced on the bench.  If a guy breaks a bat, laugh about it and he’ll laugh with you.  When you laugh and have fun, you get relaxed,” said Kuenn, when he ascended from being the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach to managing the team in the middle of the 1982 season, according to an article by Skip Myslenski in the Chicago Tribune, before the American League playoffs.  Kuenn steered the Brewers around after taking over the team with a 23-34 record; the Brewers finished the season at 95-67.

Harvey’s Wallbangers, a pun nickname, reached the World Series in 1982—the Brewers lost to the Cardinals in seven games.

Kuenn shot to baseball prominence when he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 as a member of the Detroit Tigers.  “The rookie’s success is a rare example of general baseball prophecy coming true,” stated the New York Herald-Tribune.  “From the start of spring training last year, a brilliant future was predicted for Kuenn.  However, Fred Hutchinson, the Tiger manager, said only that Harvey would start the season at short.  Kuenn not only started, but finished there, playing in 155 games.”

Kuenn played for the Tigers, the Indians, the Giants, the Cubs, and the Phillies in a 15-year major league career as a shortstop, a third baseman, and an outfielder.  With a .303 career batting average, Kuenn ranks in the upper echelon of batters.  He does not, however, have a Hall of Fame plaque.  Though a .300 plateau is not, perhaps, an automatic measure for Cooperstown, Kuenn’s other achievements, collectively, boost advocacy for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

  • Led the American League in hits four times and the major leagues once
  • Won the 1959 AL batting championship
  • Made the American League All-Star lineup eight consecutive years
  • Led the American League in doubles three times and the major league twice

One argument against Hall of Fame inclusion is Kuenn’s career RBI figure—671—though one can counter that RBI is a function of opportunity rather than hitting ability.  Also, though Kuenn’s career 950 runs scored is not an overwhelming statistic, by any means, a similar counter applies; if Kuenn is on base safely, which occurred regularly, a teammate must perform for scoring to occur.

When the Tigers traded Kuenn to the Indians for Rocky Colavito at the beginning of the 1960 season, team president Bill DeWitt certified the rationale.  “I have a high regard for Kuenn’s ability as a player,” said DeWitt in an Associated Press article.  “But we felt we needed more power at the plate and we’re hopeful this move will help us score more runs.”  Tiger manager Jimmie Dykes revealed, “It was a deal in which we had to trade consistency for power.”  Indeed.  In 1959, while Kuenn led the American League in batting average, Colavito led in home runs—42.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 5, 2016.

The Amazing Season of Timothy Keefe

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

In 1888, Timothy Keefe won 19 consecutive games for the New York Giants.  Or did he?

On July 16th, Keefe left the mound in the second inning of a game against the Chicago White Stockings—he played the rest of the game in the outfield.  Buck Ewing, the Giants catcher and field manager, moved Keefe to protect him from wearing out during a fantastic pitching streak.  At the time, a pitcher did not need to be on the mound for a minimum of five innings to receive an official victory in his record.

Keefe’s outstanding performance, despite the squabbles that may arise regarding the impact of the July 16th game, underscored a fantastic year for the Giants as they penetrated the National League competition to meet the St. Louis Browns in the World Series.  New York’s beloved team emerged as the champion.

When the season began, though, Keefe created clouds of question marks that hovered over the New York sunshine when he held out for a higher salary.  In the April 11th edition of the New-York Tribune, Keefe remained fortnight but firm in his quest.  “I was just thinking about taking a train for Boston,” revealed Keefe.  “I guess I will remain over, however, a day or two, and see if the difference in salary cannot be settled.  I want $4,000 and will sign with the club when I get it and not before.  I am satisfied with the New York Club and have always been treated right by the management, but I think I am worth that amount to the club and will not sign until I get it.  I don’t want my release, and neither do I want to go to any other club.  I would rather play in New York than any place else in the country.”

Tribune editorial on April 15th praised the hurler, who went 35-12 in 1888.  “Keefe is a wonderful pitcher, of course, probably the best in the country today.  The local club cannot very well get along without him, and he never loses sight of that fact.”  Further, the newspaper took the position that Keefe and John Montgomery Ward, another holdout, would reach a compromise with the team’s management.

They did.

Keefe’s 1888 statistics reflect his dominance—leading the major leagues in winning percentage (.745), shutouts (8), and strikeouts (335).  Additionally, Keefe’s 1.74 Earned Run Average led the National League.

It was a time full of glory in New York.  To begin his 1952 book The New York Giants: An Informal History of  Great Baseball Club, Frank Graham described the 1880s from its societal elements to its grimy underbelly.  “This was New York in the elegant eighties and these were the Giants, fashioned in elegance, playing on the Polo Grounds, then at 110 Street [sic] and Fifth Avenue,” wrote Graham.

“It was the New York of the brownstone house and the gaslit streets, of the top hat and the hansom cab, of oysters and champagne and perfecto cigars, of Ada Rehan and Oscar Wilde and the young John L. Sullivan.  It also was the New York of the Tenderloin and the Bowery, of the slums and the sweat shops, of goats grazing among shanties perched on the rocky terrain of Harlem.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 1, 2016.

The Black Sox: Fact vs. Fiction

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out provided the source material for the eponymous 1988 movie written and directed by John Sayles, who also played sportswriter Ring Lardner.  Starring Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Bill Irwin, Gordon Clapp, Clifton James, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Tighe, David Strathairn, and John Mahoney, Eight Men Out revived the debate about the involvement of eight White Sox players in fixing the 1919 World Series as part of a conspiracy engineered by gangsters.  Scandalized, the players suffer eternal banishment from Major League Baseball, thanks to a 1920 ruling by the newly installed baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Jim Murray, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, clarified the undercurrent of Eight Men Out.  “They say baseball pictures don’t make it at the box office,” wrote Murray.  “Well, this isn’t about baseball.  It’s about greed and ignorance and betrayal.  The Lou Gehrig story, it ain’t.  The actors are wearing baseball uniforms, but they could be wearing Roman togas.  Their story is universal, timeless.  It’s as old as Adam and Eve.  It’s an immorality play.  Man loses to temptation—again.”

Praising the aura in Eight Men OutChicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Sherman wrote, “With the exception of a few lapses into Hollywood sappiness, director/writer John Sayles does a nice job of sticking to the facts as recorded in Asinof’s book,”  He added, “Sayles captures the tension and ambivalence of the eight players as the conspiracy grew and was revealed.”

Sherman also commended ex-White Sox outfielder Ken Berry, the film’s technical adviser, for accuracy in the game scenes.  Citing Sayles’s need for “perfection,” Berry recalled a scene for Sherman involving Charlie Sheen, who played centerfielder Happy Felsch, one of the infamous eight players.  “We had a play where Charlie had to make a throw to the plate, and the runner was out, but the umpire called him safe,” Berry said.  “It was a bang-bang play.  We did 10 takes, and Charlie’s arm was about to fall off.  But on the 10th take, Charlie made the perfect throw.  That’s the way John wanted it.  He went out of his way to portray the game as it was.”

D.B. Sweeney strove for authenticity in his portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and, perhaps, the most vilified of the “Black Sox” of 1919.  Training with the Minnesota Twins’ farm team in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sweeney greatly improved his baseball skills.  In a 1988 feature article about Sweeney in the New York Times, George Vecsey detailed the actor’s journey in playing Jackson.  Quoting Sweeney, Vecsey wrote, “The first week, I couldn’t do anything in the batting cage.  But I got a batting tee and set it up on the hotel, and after a week I started to make contact.  Don Leppert and Dwight Bernard were coaching there, and they helped me a lot.  Cal Ermer would come through and give me pointers.  By the time I left there, I had more power from the left side than the right.”

As with any movie concerning historical events, facts are sacrificed for artistic license, continuity, and time.  In the 1950 movie Jolson Sings Again, a sequel to 1949’s The Jolson Story, Larry Parks plays legendary performer Al Jolson.  Told about the interest in a movie about his life, Jolson dismisses the importance of factual accuracy in favor of his story’s emotional impact.

Eight Men Out replaces fact with fiction at several points in the story.

During a trial scene, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey testifies that he “informed [American League] Commissioner Ban Johnson” about the “possibility of a conspiracy.”  Comiskey explains that his suspicions occurred “shortly after the series began.”  However, he found “hearsay” after hiring private detectives.

Actually, the American League and the National League do not have commissioners; Ban Johnson was the American League’s president.  Further, James Crusinberry of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Comiskey “was not on speaking terms” with Johnson, so he approached National League President John A. Heydler after the first game because he believed his players fixed the series.

On September 26, 1920, Comiskey testified to this action.  Heydler confirmed it upon arriving in Chicago to testify.  “Commy was all broken up and felt something was wrong with his team in that first game,” quoted Crusinberry of Heydler.  “To me such a thing as crookedness in that game didn’t seem possible.  I told Comiskey I thought the White Sox were rather taken by surprised, that perhaps they had underestimated the strength of the Cincinnati team.

“The matter was dropped for the time.  That day the Reds won again and we moved to Chicago for the third game.  Comiskey called me on the telephone early that morning, and with John Bruce, secretary of the national commission, I went to his office at the ball park.  Once more he stated he felt sure something was wrong.”

Crusinberry added, “Comiskey also called Heydler into conference after the second game, more thoroughly convinced that certain White Sox players were trying to throw the games to Cincinnati.”

However, accuracy abounds in the scene regarding Comiskey’s initial belief that rumors of a fix did not amount to fact.  On December 15, 1919, I.E. Sanborn of the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted Comiskey:  “I am now very happy to state that we have discovered nothing to indicate any member of my team double crossed me or the public last fall.  We have been investigating  all these rumors and I have ha men working sometimes twenty-four hours a day running down clews [sic] that promised to produce facts.  Nothing has come of them.”

Another example of fictionalization involves White Sox player Dickie Kerr telling manager Kid Gleason that he saw Gleason pitch a no-hitter against Cy Young—Gleason never pitched a no-hitter.

Of course, the apocryphal quote “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is, perhaps, the best example of fiction replacing fact.  Eight Men Out would not be complete without depicting a kid expressing disappointment in Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox.  The authenticity of this iconic quote is dubious, at best, because of the lack of evidence.  Nonetheless, it is part of baseball lore.

As a companion to Asinof’s book and the movie, Bill Lamb’s book Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation analyzes the legal angles of the 1919 World Series fix.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 13, 2015.