Posts Tagged ‘Whitey Ford’

Chris Chambliss, Billy Martin, and the 1976 American League Playoff

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

The baseball traveled on its parabolic destiny, rising through the mid-October night and dropping a few dozen feet in front of the Manufacturers Hanover Super Checking billboard at 11:43 p.m. Eastern.  It was a moment of exhilaration, followed nanoseconds later by pandemonium in a crowd that hadn’t tasted a championship in more than a decade.

Chris Chambliss’s three-run homer brought the 1976 American League pennant to the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of the fifth and deciding game of the playoffs against the Kansas City Royals.  Score:  Yankees 7, Royals 6.

“And I want to tell you, the safest place to be is up here in the booth!” exclaimed WPIX-TV announcer and former Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto when several hundred fans stiff-armed decorum, poured onto the Yankee Stadium turf, and jumped up and down like the prospectors who discovered gold in mid-19th century California.

New York City hadn’t seen a celebration like that since V-E Day.

To say that Chambliss’s safety was in jeopardy is neither hyperbole nor ignorance.  Suddenly, survival instinct surpassed the duty of touching home plate, an impossibility given the swarm of fans excited by the victory and oblivious to the hero’s wellbeing; Chambliss didn’t even make it to third base.  Hoping to embrace their hero, Yankee rooters risked injuring him—maybe even trampling him.  Had it not been for the uniform and the baseball diamond, one might have thought Chambliss was a running back as he plowed his 6’1″, 195-pound frame through the crowd towards the refuge of the dugout and, in turn, the Yankee clubhouse.

Chambliss came to the Yankees in a 1974 trade—along with Chambliss, the Indians sent Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw in exchange for Fritz Peterson, Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, and Steve Kline.  Not a power hitter, Chambliss was known as a dependable batsman—188 hits, 32 doubles, and 96 RBI in 1976.  With 17 home runs during the season, a dinger was feasible, but a hit off Royals pitcher Mark Little seemed more likely.

Chambliss, in the end, returned to the field under the guard of two police officers.  Alas, home plate vanished in the anarchy, so, to be sure, Chambliss stepped on the area.

Below the fold on the front page of the New York Times, media geography usually used to convey issues of national and of international importance, Murray Chass’s article informed the newspaper’s readers who went to bed before the ninth inning about the latest notch to Yankee Stadium’s greatest moments—a roster including Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech, Babe Ruth’s wistful farewell as he leaned on a bat with his frail body, and Don Larsen’s perfect game.

It was nostalgic, if not appropriate, that Billy Martin helmed the Yankee ball club.  Hired during the 1975 season, Martin had a reputation as a turnaround expert in stints with the Twins, the Tigers, and the Rangers.  But returning to the Bronx had an even sweeter taste for Martin—he played with the gloried Yankee teams of the 1950s, idolized manager Casey Stengel, and suffered a betrayal from Yankee management, specifically, Stengel.  Or so he believed.

When several Yankee players captured headlines with a fight at the Copacabana in New York in 1957, the front office shipped Martin to the Kansas City A’s after the season because of the embarrassment—it happened when Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford and their wives gathered to celebrate the 29th birthday of Martin, who went stag.  “Yanks Bench 2 in Copa Brawl” screamed the front page of the New York Daily News.  Confronting hecklers from a bowling team called the Republicans, the Yankees stepped up when nasty comments tinged with racism emerged from the hecklers aimed at Sammy Davis, Jr., the Copa’s performer, with whom the fellows from the Bronx were acquainted.  One bowler, a deli owner named Edwin Jones, claimed Bauer clocked him.

In his 2015 biography Billy Martin:  Baseball’s Flawed Genius, Bill Pennington wrote, “It was later learned that Casey had protected Billy from the Senators trade and two other trades.  But [Yankee General Manager George] Weiss was not to be dissuaded this time.  Not with this player in these circumstances.  Not when he wanted to send a message to the rest of the team.  Besides, Kubek was already in New York, ready to play shortstop.  For the Yankees’ youth movement in the middle infield to be complete, Richardson had to take over at second base.”

Stengel had not only managed Martin on the Yankees, they also worked together on the Oakland Oaks, a Pacific coast League championship team in 1948.  Returning to Yankee Stadium as a managerial descendant of his mentor may not have completely healed old wounds whose scars remained resonant, but it did give Yankee fans a continuity to the past, Martin a chance for redemption, and players the benefit of their manager’s baseball wisdom honed by Stengel’s tutelage two decades prior.

The Yankees lost the 1976 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a four-game sweep, but rebounded to win the series in 1977 and 1978, both times against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Billy Martin went through several stings as the Yankee skipper, being fired and rehired by owner George Steinbrenner.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 13, 2017.

The Year the Yankees Won the Tonys

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

In 1956, Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series, and Whitey Ford led the major leagues in Earned Run Average.  It was also the year of another World Series championship for the Bronx Bombers, further emphasizing the team’s dominance in the 20-year period after World War II.

The Yankees represented a source of drama beyond ballparks in 1956—Damn Yankees, based on Douglas Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, got a plethora of recognition in the form of Tony Awards for:

  • Best Musical
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Ray Walston)
  • Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Gwen Verdon)
  • Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Russ Brown)
  • Best Conductor and Musical Director (Hal Hastings)
  • Best Choreography (Bob Fosse)
  • Best Stage Technician (Harry Green)

Damn Yankees also got a nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Rae Allen).

Ray Walston played the Devil, also known as Applegate, in Damn Yankees. Convincing a hapless Washington Senators fan to sell his soul for the chance to lead the Senators to baseball glory made Applegate an epic character in popular culture.  “Mr. Walston was satanic with a wry twist, underplaying a role that could have become villainous and singing wistfully about death and destruction in ‘Those Were the Good Old Days,'” wrote Mel Gussow in his 2001 obituary of Walston for the New York Times.  Lewis Funke praised Walston in his analysis of Damn Yankees when the show débuted in 1955:  “Authoritative and persuasive, he does not overdo a role that easily could become irritating in less expert hands.”

Gwen Verdon was a theater touchstone, winning four Tony Awards in her career.  Married to legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, Vernon had abundant work as a guest star on television, including roles on WebsterGimme a Break!M*A*S*HFameDream OnThe Equalizer, and Touched by an Angel.  Verdon’s body of work in movies includes The Cotton Club and Cocoon.

Los Angeles Times Theater Writer Don Shirley quoted Times dance critic Lewis Segal in his 2000 obituary of the dancer:  “Verdon was to Broadway dance what Ethel Merman was to Broadway song; an archetypal personality whose talents inspired the best from those who created works for her.  More than anyone, Fosse continually mined her saucy yet vulnerable stage persona for new facets, using her as a living anthology of show-dance style.”

Shirley wrote, “Her dancing was characterized by her ability to make the most intricate technical choreography look spontaneous and almost carefree.”

Walston and Vernon reprised their roles for the 1958 movie version of Damn Yankees.  Tab Hunter took on the role of Joe Hardy, a standout with the Senators, thanks to the machinations of Applegate.  Stephen Douglass played the role on Broadway.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 18, 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.

Expos and Excellence

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

On September 29, 2004, Montreal bid adieu to its beloved Expos ball club.  And so, a baseball legacy faded into finality as the Expos transitioned to become the Washington Nationals.

Montreal never celebrated a World Series championship, but moments of greatness sprinkled across its major league tenure, which began in 1969.  Bill Stoneman, for example, stands as a bright spot, achieving twice what some pitching legends achieved once and others not at all—a no-hitter; Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, and Jim Palmer fall into the former category while Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove, and Whitey Ford reside in the latter.

In the Expos’ rookie season, Stoneman threw a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies.  Although he walked seven batters, Stoneman retired the Mets with aplomb.  The New York Times noted, “There were no difficult plays by Stoneman’s teammates as only five balls were hit to the outfield.  Stoneman struck out nine.”

Both games had scores of 7-0.

Stoneman’s dual no-hitters belie a career win-loss record of 54-85 and 4.08 Earned Run Average.

Dennis Martinez retired 27 Dodgers on July 28, 1991 in a perfect game, the 15th time a major league pitcher reached that pinnacle of performance; 17 batters grounded out.  Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times noted the impact of the daytime schedule.  “Another factor, according to the Dodgers is that Dodger Stadium is toughest on hitters during afternoon games,” wrote Plaschke.  “It is even harder when Martinez is pitching, because in his windup he tucks the ball in his glove until the last possible moment.”

A recovering alcoholic, Martinez plodded through a minor league stint in the Expos organization after nine seasons as a favorite on the Orioles pitching staff.  “I look back and see the faith that I had, and the reaching out for help that I did, and I think, it is paying off now,” said Martinez.  Climbing his way back into the major leagues, Martinez kindled pride in his hometown—Granada, Nicaragua.  Kevin Baxter, also of the Los Angeles Times, explained, “Edgar Rodriguez, a sportswriter at El Nuevo Diario, said each of the country’s radio stations broke into their normal programming to report the perfect game.  That was cause for loud celebrating in the neighborhoods around his paper’s office.”

To call it a “masterful performance” is to do it injustice, like saying the Aurora Borealis is nice to look at.  “Though there weren’t advanced pitch-tracking systems back then to break down every Martinez offering that day, you’d swear he threw 50 of those trademark knee-buckling curveballs,” wrote Jonah Keri 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.

The perfect game was not an outlier for Martinez in 1991—he led the National League in Earned Run Average with 2.39.  And it was not the only marvel for Montreal during its series with Los Angeles.

Two days prior to Martinez’s accomplishment.  Mack Gardner threw nine no-hit innings; the Expos did not score either.  Los Angeles punctured hopes for the metropolis that Mark Twain dubbed “City of a Hundred Steeples” during a  visit in 1881.  Keri explained, “Dodger Lenny Harris opened the bottom of the 10th with a high chopper over Gardner’s head [Expos shortstop] Spike Owen charged, tried to field the ball…and dropped it.  A frustrating misplay, but with the ball hit that slowly, Owen would’ve had no chance to get Harris either way—it was an infield hit, busting the no-hitter.”

Daryl Strawberry won the game for the Dodgers with an RBI single in the 10th inning to bring Harris home.

Final score:  1-0.

Although Gardner cleared the Dodgers for nine innings, Major League Baseball’s scoring paradigm labels a game as a no-hitter when the pitcher’s team scores.  Hence, Gardner did not technically pitch a no-hitter.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 22, 2015.

Roberto Clemente’s 3000th hit

Monday, December 12th, 2016

When John Fogerty débuted his 1985 hit song Centerfield, he reminded people of the joy inherent in baseball—the video produced for this musical, lyrical, and nostalgic homage to baseball depicts a collage of footage featuring baseball legends, including Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Roy Campanella, Casey Stengel, Ted Williams, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra.

Roberto Clemente also appears—his 1956 Topps card opens a montage of baseball cards accompanying the song’s opening riff, which consists of a string of claps in a pattern one might hear in a ballpark’s stands.  The video is timed so that a card appears simultaneously with the sound of each clap.

It’s somehow appropriate that Clemente received the distinction of opening the Centerfield music video.  Overshadowed during his career, perhaps, by his peers—the dazzling flash of Willie ays, the consistent power of Hank Aaron, and the sheer dominance of Mickey Mantle—the Pittsburgh Pirates’ standout outfielder symbolized steadiness.  In turn, Clemente stirred excitement among the Pirate faithful at Forbes Field.

In a career that spanned 1955 to 1972, Clemente had a .317 lifetime batting average—during one 13-year stretch, he notched a batting average above .300 for 12 of those years.  Clemente compiled a .475 lifetime slugging average, won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1966, and reached the magical plateau of 3,000 career hits—exactly.  On December 31, 1972, Clemente died in a plane crash while traveling to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

His was a voyage of purpose—spearheading relief efforts for Managuans suffering from a recent earthquake.  “He had received reports that some of the food and clothing he had sent earlier had fallen into the hands of profiteers,” explained Cristobal Colon, a Clemente friend, in the article “Clemente, Pirates’ Star, Dies in Crash Of Plane Carrying Aid to Nicaragua,” in the January 2, 1973 edition of the New York Times.  Neither for glory nor publicity, Clemente helped those who could not help themselves.  It was a part of his character, not a springboard for a photo opportunity.

Clemente’s last hit came against Jon Matlack, the 1972 National League Rookie of the Year, in a Mets-Pirates game on September 30, 1972.  Mattock was unaware of the moment’s historic impact, however.  “I had no idea he was sitting on 2,999,” Matlack recalled for Anthony McCarran’s November 29, 2008 article “Where are they now? Ex-Met Jon Matlack can’t stay away from the game” on nydailynews.com.  “I was just trying to win a game.  When I gave up the double—I think it short-hopped the center-field wall—there was all this hoopla.  The ump presents him the ball at second and I’m glowering and thinking, ‘Hey we have a ballgame here.’  I was just an oblivious rookie.  Then I saw it on the scoreboard, that it was his 3,000th hit.”

In the 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, David Maraniss recounted, “In the excitement of the moment, Don Leppert, the first base coach, took out a package of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco and was about to stuff a wad into his mouth when Clemente came over and gave him the ball.  Leppert stuck the piece of history in his back pocket for safekeeping.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its eligibility rule because of Clemente’s untimely death. A waiting period of five years after retirement had been the rule but the waiver mandated that a player’s eligibility kicks in if the player dies before the five-year waiting period expires or while still active.  In a special election, the Baseball Writers Association of America stamped Clemente’s passport to Cooperstown.

A eulogy appeared in the article “Roberto Clemente, The Great One” in the January 6, 1973 edition of the New Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper dedicated to the Steel City’s black population:  “Life was not always good to him.  He was often maligned.  Many times he was not given the recognition and admiration that was his due.  It took sometime [sic] for his greatness to get through to a reluctant public but eventually it came to the fore, like the knight in shining armour that he was.”

Roberto Clemente was, indeed, a hero for his achievements on the baseball diamond.  He played on 12 All-Star teams, received 11 Gold Gloves, and became an icon to Pittsburgh’s baseball fans.  But his deeds of generosity to those unable to help themselves defined his true heroism.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 31, 2014.

Ralph Houk: Filling Casey’s Shoes

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

When Ralph Houk took over the manager job for the New York Yankees, he had big shoes to fill.  Casey Stengel’s shoes.

Houk guided the Yankees from 1961 to 1973, then took the helm of the Detroit Tigers from 1974 to 1978.  He finished his managerial career with the Boston Red Sox.  His Beantown tenure lasted from 1981 to 1984.

But Houk’s rookie season as manager stands out.  1961.  It was the first season after Stengel’s run of World Series championships earned by the pinstriped Adonises of the Bronx in 1947, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1956, and 1958.

A World War II veteran, Houk played a backup role to Yogi Berra after the war.  He saw sporadic action:  91 games from 1947 to 1954.  Then, he managed the Denver Bears of the American Association from 1955 to 1957.  The Bears won the AA championship in 1957, an indication of Houk’s instincts.

The 1961 Yankees dominated baseball, compiling a 109-53 record.  Elston Howard hit .348, Whitey Ford ratcheted a 25-4 record, and Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record with 61 fingers.

For most of the season, Maris raced with Mickey Mantle toward Ruth’s record.  A shot, albeit given by a reputable doctor, triggered an infection, which sidelined Mantle for the end of the season.  Mantle hit 54 home runs before this happened.

Houk documented the ’61 season in the 1962 book Ballplayers Are Human, Too.  In Chapter 5, “Let ‘er Roll, Gang!,” he describes the awe inspired by Yankee Stadium on Opening Day.  “I’ve read that wearing the Yankee pinstripes gives a player the feeling he’s on top of the baseball world,” wrote Houk.  “Believe me, it’s the Stadium that makes you feel you’ve got to do your best.  The Stadium looks like a historical building from the outside, one that’s been standing there a long time and will remain there forever, like the Coliseum in Rome.  Baseball history has been made in the Stadium.  A fellow wants to make more baseball history there—that’s the way I felt that day.”

Houk ends the book by describing a conversation with clubhouse attendant Pete Sheehy after the Yankees beat the Cincinnati Reds in the 1961 World Series.  Sheehy, a Yankees fixture, began his career with the legendary 1927 Yankees featuring Ruth’s record of 60 home runs, in addition to Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Earle Combs.  He stayed with the team till his death in 1985 at the age of 75.  The ’61 Yankees, according to Sheehy, deserve more than honorable mention in Yankees history.

“An incredible year,” wrote Houk.  “Think of it, not one beef from a player, not one phone call from someone who says one of your players is down somewhere causing trouble.  Nothing but great games, great pitching, the greatest of all hitting…and Rog’s…”

Sherry then interrupts the skipper.  “I been around here a long time.  I’ve seen ’em all since the Babe’s day.  I never seen a team like this.”

Houk responds, “That’s just what I mean.  No manager ever had a team like this.  What an incredible gang of ballplayers!  What an incredible year!”

1961.  Incredible.  Magical.  Legendary.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 15, 2013.