Posts Tagged ‘Yankee Stadium’

Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, and the Olympics

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Baseball’s nexus with Hollywood had a center point in Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field on February 28, 1932 for a charity game benefitting America’s Olympians; the ’32 Summer Olympics—which took place in Los Angeles—inspired two comedy icons to combine their celebrity and passion for baseball in a civic minded cause.  Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton spearheaded the teams.

Players from the Cubs, the Giants, and the Pirates took the field in front of approximately 8,500 fans, according to the Los Angeles Times.  Brown’s team won 10-3 in the six-inning contest.  It was nearly over as soon as it began—six Brown players scored in the first inning.  The Times reported, “The game was called to permit Rogers Hornsby and his Cubs to catch the Catalina Ferry.”  The rosters included Lloyd Waner, Pie Traynor, Carl Hubbell, and Grover Cleveland Alexander.  Keaton and Brown also participated, as did Jack Oakie, another member of Hollywood’s comedy group.

Brown and Keaton incorporated baseball into their respective bodies of work.  Fireman Save My ChildElmer the Great, and Alibi Ike offer Brown as a skilled rube.  Keaton filmed a legendary segment at Yankee Stadium for his silent film The Cameraman—he mimed players at different positions.  Brown’s love for the National Pastime stuck in his DNA—his son Joe L. Brown was the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976, a period of Steel City baseball legends, including Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Roy Face, Willie Stargell, and Al Oliver.

Keaton’s comedy was universal, timeless, and groundbreaking.  The Muskegon, Michigan native formed the comedy cornerstone of the silent film industry, along with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, and Fatty Arbuckle, to name a few.

A few months before he died, Keaton explained how he saw his comedy appeal to the current generation; Times writer Henry Sutherland chronicled this insight in the 1966 obituary for the filmmaker, nicknamed “The Great Stone Face”for his ability to maintain composure during chaos in his films.

“Two years ago we sent a picture to Munich, Germany using old-fahsioned subtitles with a written score,” Keaton said.  “This was ‘The General.’  It was made in 1926, and hell, that’s 39 years ago.

“But I sneaked into the theater and the laughs were exactly the same as on the day it was first release.”

Wrigley Field graced television and theaters before its demise in the 1960s.  It was where Herman Munster tried out for the Los Angeles Dodgers under the watchfulness of Leo Durocher.  It was where baseball scenes in The Pride of the Yankees were filmed.  It was where baseball’s greatest sluggers matched powers at the plate in Home Run Derby, a syndicated television show in 1960—Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, and Ernie Banks were among the competitors.

Considered a hitter’s park, Wrigley Field hosted its first game in 1925.  The California Angels played their home games at Wrigley Field in their début season—1961.  Dodger Stadium was the team’s home field for the next four seasons, until Angel Stadium’s début in 1966.

Today, Gilbert Lindsay Park stands on Wrigley’s grounds.

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

Hank Aaron’s Last Home Run

Monday, April 10th, 2017

As America recovered from its Bicentennial hangover, Hank Aaron clubbed a home run in the Brewers-Angels game on July 20, 1976.  It was not, in any way, a cause for ceremony.  It was, however, highly significant.

Aaron’s solo smash off the Angels’ Dick Drago was his last home run, though nobody knew it at the time.  Hammerin’ Hank followed George Scott’s solo home run, one of 18 blasts that Scott swatted in 1976.  Jerry Augustine got the win for the Brewers—his first in more than a month—scattering five Angel hits in seven innings.  It capped a streak of five consecutive losses for Augustine, who had a 9-12 record, 3.30 Earned Run Average, and WHIP of 1.299.

Aaron, Scott, et al. belted 12 hits against the Angels; Von Joshua, Tim Johnson, Darrell Porter, and Robin Yount scored the other Brewer runs.  Johnson, the Brewer second baseman, had an outstanding 3-for-3 day.  In the eighth inning, relief pitcher Danny Frisella replaced Augustine.

When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974 by hitting his 715th home run, every dinger afterward became, simply, icing on top of frosting.  His round-tripper in the Brewers’ 6-2 victory over the boys from Anaheim was his 755th home run; Aaron hit 10 home runs, batted .229, and racked up 62 hits in a rather uneventful 1976 season for the Brewers—a 66-96 record garnered 6th place in the American League East.

At age 42, Aaron retired after the 1976 season with outstanding career statistics:

  • 3,771 hits
  • 2,174 runs scored
  • 13,941 plate appearances
  • .305 batting average
  • 2,287 RBI (major league record)
  • Led the major leagues in RBI four times

Henry Louis Aaron clocked his first major league home run on April 23, 1954.  Throughout the next two decades and change, Aaron faced the pitching gods of Major League Baseball—Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Gullett, Roy Face, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, Vida Blue, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts.  When he went yard, it was the definition of power against power.  Tom Seaver’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site recalls Aaron’s statement of Seaver being “the toughest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Aaron’s last home run occurred during the year that the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1964; Chicago Cubs outfielder Rick Monday snatched an American flag from two trespassers about to burn it in the Dodger Stadium outfield; the Chicago White Sox played in shorts for one game; Ted Turner became the sole owner of the Atlanta Braves; the second incarnation of Yankee Stadium débuted after two years of renovations; Philadelphia Phillies third baseball Mike Schmidt knocked four home runs in a game against the Cubs; original Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz sold the team that began its life as the Colt .45s; Dodgers manager Walter Alston resigned after 23 years at the helm in Ebbets Field and Chavez Ravine; and the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays began selecting players for the following year’s American League expansion.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 20, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Lou Piniella

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Lou Piniella is one of baseball’s greatest journeymen—a player with the Orioles, the Indians, the Royals, and the Yankees, in addition to stints as a manager with the Yankees, the Reds, the Mariners, the Devil Rays, and the Cubs.

Piniella’s achievements as a manager include winning a World Series championship, AL Manager of the Year twice, and NL Manager of the Year once.  With 1,835 career wins, Piniella is #14 on the all-time list—ahead of Hall of Fame managers Earl Weaver, Wilbert Robinson, Al Lopez, Miller Huggins, Tommy Lasorda, and Clark Griffith.  Also, Piniella managed the Mariners to an American League single-season record of 116 wins in 2001.

And yet, Piniella is not graced with a plaque in the Hall of Fame.  Why?  Surely, his managerial success indicates a career deserving of inclusion into the exclusive club in Cooperstown, located at 25 Main Street.  And that success emanated from determination.  Piniella managed as he played—with fierceness to win and reluctance to lose.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner gave Piniella his first manager job.  Working for Steinbrenner came with legendary tension.  But in a 2002 article by Ira Berkow in the New York Times, Pinieall acknowledged the opportunity.  “I owe my managerial career to George,” said Piniella.  “He made me the manager and it was on-the-job training.  He saw something in me—I know he liked my intensity as a player—and he gave me a shot.”

“Intensity” to say the least.  Piniella had the resolve of a bull charging the matador.

For Yankee fans, Piniella was a fixture on the “Bronx Zoo” teams that brought three American League pennants and two World Series titles to Yankee Stadium in the late 1970s.  It was a volatile era, indeed.  When Reggie Jackson joined the Yankees before the 1977 season, Piniella knew a storm was brewing around the star player and manager Billy Martin that would have made the tornado from The Wizard of Oz look like a slight breeze.

“It was obviously going to be explosive,” said Piniella in Bill Pennington’s 2015 book Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius.  “And Billy was right, it did cause problems with Thurman [Munson] and Craig [Nettles].  But at the same time, let’s face it, Reggie was never Billy’s kind of player.  I think Billy did resent him a little.  He didn’t like most guys who called attention to themselves.”

On June 16, 1984, Piniella played in his last game.  Naturally, he had the game-winning RBI.  Even though Piniella went 0-for-5 on the day, his efforts contributed value to the Yankees beating the Orioles 8-3—the crucial RBI came from a ground ball.

George Vecsey of the New York Times described Piniella’s psychological makeup in an account of the June 16th game.  “His temper kept him in the minor leagues for most of the 1960’s, but later that temper hardened into a fierce athletic pride.  Only rarely did the temper come through in New York—but when it did, the tantrum was a beauty.  Who will ever forget Piniella sitting on the grass, pounding his fists on the east, raging over being called out by Ron Luciano during the 1978 playoffs?”

Piniella won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1969, notching a .282 batting average, 139 hits, and 68 RBI for the Kansas City Royals.  “Sweet Lou” retired from playing during the 1984 season.  His career statistics include a .291 batting average, 1,705 hits, and 305 doubles.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 16, 2016.

The Death of Lou Gehrig

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.  So said a fictional version of Babe Ruth in the 1993 film The Sandlot.

Lou Gehrig, undoubtedly, belongs in the latter category.  Stricken by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the Yankee slugger died on June 2, 1941 at the age of 37.  His was a story reminiscent of A.E. Housman’s poem To An Athlete Dying Young.

An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune stated, “Facing with a simple courage the appalling disease which was to kill him, he made, in the final years of his life, one of the best parole commissioners New York Has had.  He had a knack for the friendly kindness which such a task requires.”

Associated Press’s obituary described Gehrig as “a big, handsome dimple-cheeked fellow who always looked the picture of health.  He stood 6-feet-1 inch and weighed 205 pounds.  Playing every game became a fetish with him and because of this, or because of his naturally careful habit, he trained more faithfully than almost any other player in the major leagues.”

Gehrig contrasted teammate Ruth, he of the gargantuan appetite for life’s sensual pleasures.  In his 2012 book Pinstripe Empire:  The New York Yankees From Before the Babe To After the Boss, Marty Appel wrote, “He was Ruth without drama, Ruth without nightlife, Ruth without scandal.  He lived with his parents.  He said things like ‘swell’ and ‘gosh.’  He had muscles to spare when players did no weight training and tended to be lean and lithe.  He could read and write in German.  Lou Gehrig would become the idol of every boy who loved baseball for his quiet presence, clean standards, and heroic deeds.  He was polite and humble.  He would park his car three blocks from Yankee Stadium to avoid notice.”

Although Gehrig played a handful of games in 1923 and 1924, he began his trek toward legend status on June 1, 1925, when he played in the first of 2,130 consecutive games, which earned him the nickname “Iron Man.”  It was an era of Yankee dominance; during Gehrig’s career, the Bronx Bombers racked up seven American League titles and six World Series championships.

Gehrig’s output earmarked the Yankee lineup as fearsome—.340 career batting average, leading the major leagues in RBI four times, and 23 grand slams.  And that’s just a sample of the thunder that Gehrig created with his bat.  In 1995, Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Gehrig’s streak record.  Alex Rodriguez has surpassed Gehrig in grand slams.

On July 4, 1939, the Yankees hosted Lou Gehrig Day.  It is best remembered, perhaps, for Gehrig declaring that he’s the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

In a 2003 article for mlb.com, Mark Newman opined about Gehrig’s statistics if ALS hadn’t struck him.  “Conservatively speaking, it would have been reasonable to project another 500 hits, 350 runs, 90 doubles, 30 triples, 100 homers, 350 RBIs and 300 walks in those three years,” wrote Newman.  “He would have passed Ty Cobb as the all-time leader in runs scored.  He would have been around the 600-homer mark.  He would be the all-time leader in RBIs, not Hank Aaron.”

Gehrig’s death prompted the nickname “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” for ALS.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 2, 2016.

Buster Keaton, Yankee Stadium, and “The Cameraman”

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Silent film star Buster Keaton earned the nickname “The Great Stone Face” because of his superhuman ability to maintain composure while disaster reigned around him; the quadrant of presidential faces on Mount Rushmore had more animation.  AP’s 1966 obituary of Keaton stated, “Unlike Mr. Chaplin, he was never sentimental and he never resorted to maudlin pathos.  He turned a granite face to the wildly comic and nightmarish cries that befell him—and he always prevailed over impending doom.”

In his 1928 silent film The Cameraman, Keaton plays the title role—an aspiring cameraman at MGM with a crush on the secretary to the executive in charge of newsreels.

An extended scene features Keaton miming a baseball game at Yankee Stadium after learning that the Yankees are in St. Louis on a road trip.  In one part, Keaton imitates a batter getting knocked down, shouting at the pitcher, and hitting an inside-the-park home run capped by a headfirst slide into home plate.  Keaton’s sprint around the bases provided the opportunity to showcase the grandeur of Yankee Stadium, which is arguably more imposing without a game; its emptiness reinforces its size.  Keaton’s baseball fandom, legendary in the filmmaking community, undoubtedly inspired the Yankee Stadium scene.

In a striking bit of coincidence, The Cameraman premiered during the Yankees’ Midwestern road trip of September 15-30, which began with the Bronx Bombers taking on the St. Louis Browns, followed by the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Detroit Tigers.

Keaton, a comedy legend, followed an exacting blueprint to obtain laughs.  Though comedy is a craft and not a science, it comes pretty close to the latter.  In the September 16, 1928 edition of the New York Herald Tribune, the article “Buster Keaton On the Timing Of the Laugh” explains that The Cameraman is the “feature at the Capitol this week” before launching into Keaton’s detailed explanation of comedy.  Of particular importance is the insight regarding the beginning of the story.

“For instance, in the opening scenes of ‘The Cameraman’ I’m picked up alone in front of the New York City Hall,” states Keaton.  “I get a customer for a tintype picture, and, just as I’m about to snap the camera—this is carefully indicated by timed pauses—in rushes a crowd and upsets the works.  This, then, is topped by confetti and the disclosure that a famous character is coming along.  In rush the newsreel cameramen and I get tangled up in their camera tripods.  Between each development we had to figure just where a laugh might come in and how long a pause was necessary to take care of this.”

The Cameraman is a highlight in Keaton’s impressive body of work.  A downward trajectory ensued.  “After the success of The Cameraman, Keaton begged MGM for his own independent unit, but the studio refused,” wrote Lisle Foote in her 2014 book Buster Keaton’s Crew:  The Team Behind His Silent Films.  “His films became less and less funny, and even [director Edward] Sedgwick couldn’t stop the slide in quality.  The changes in comedies with the coming of sound, Keaton’s personal troubles, and the difficulties of working within a large and bureaucratic studio all contributed to the decline of Keaton’s films.”

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

People Will Come

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

Yankee Stadium owns the patent on ballpark magnificence, Ebbets Field maintains an aura of magic decades after its destruction, and Wrigley Field possesses a charm honed throughout decades of unrealized hope between 1908 and 2016.

An Iowa farm ranks among those and other vaunted cathedrals of the National Pastime.  Field of Dreams—based on W. P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe—premiered in 1989, the same year that Harry met Sally, Bill and Ted had an excellent adventure, and Ariel found love with Prince Eric.

When farmer Ray Kinsella hears voices, a bolt of inspiration strikes him with the force of a Babe Ruth home run.  Ray, despite imminent bankruptcy, turns his farm into a baseball field, captures a literary icon of the 1960s, and hosts ghosts of baseball past on his land—Shoeless Joe Jackson and his peers cannot venture beyond the friendly confines of the diamond, however.  Ray’s wife and daughter support the endeavor.

Though factually incorrect, Field of Dreams also highlights the career of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning in the major leagues.

A year removed from his performance in Bull Durham, Kevin Costner plays Ray, a character infused with passion to follow a journey mapped by his instinct.  In Shoeless Joe, J. D. Salinger is the writer accompanying Ray on his quest, so chosen by W. P. Kinsella because of a connection to the reclusive Salinger—characters named Richard Kinsella and Ray Kinsella appear in the novel The Catcher in the Rye and the short story A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist at All, respectively.

Field of Dreams replaces Salinger with a fictional character because of “moxie and cowardice,” according to Kinsella.  In a 2014 article for MLB. com celebrating the 25th anniversary of the film, Kinsella explained, “The cowardice involved was that studio executives were afraid Salinger would launch a nuisance lawsuit just as the movie was being released, and it would cost them time and a lot of publicity money to get rid of it.  The moxie appeared  when the executive pointed out that on a good opening weekend, the movie would be seen by 10 times the number of people who had read the book.  The change would be noticed by only the literate few, people who are not valued by movie executives.”

Played by James Earl Jones, Terence Mann offers a monologue nudging Ray towards keeping the field, an action defying the financial oblivion against his family:  “People will come, Ray.  The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray.  It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.  Oh, people will come, Ray.  People will definitely come.”

Field of Dreams ends with a scene that ignites vesuvius nostalgia.  After a game, Shoeless Joe points Ray to his father.  As a rebellious teenager inspired by a Terence Mann book, Ray had refused to have a catch with the senior Kinsella.  Now, the circle closes with an exchange between father and son.

“Hey, dad?”  You wanna have a catch?”

“I’d like that.”

A panning shot of Ray and his father playing catch at dusk reveals cars packing the road to the field.

Life imitates art—Field of Dreams Movie Site stands as a tourist destination for baseball fans fulfilling the destiny predicted by Terence Mann.

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

George Steinbrenner Buys the Yankees

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

Midwesterners are a stoic lot; stereotypically speaking, they’re quiet but not timid.  Theirs is a mission of doing a job without complaint, fanfare, and insolence.  To be from the Midwest, certainly, is to have a work ethic in your DNA where seeking attention is not only unproductive but also anathema.

George Michael Steinbrenner III broke the Midwestern stereotype.  Not since Humpty Dumpty had something been shattered to that extent.

When Steinbrenner, a shipping mogul from Cleveland, led a 12-man group with Michael Burke to purchase the New York Yankees from CBS for $10 million, a transaction announced on January 3, 1973, he stated, “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.  I can’t spread myself so thin.  “I’ve got enough headaches with my shipping company.”  Such would not be the case.  Steinbrenner’s bouts, tirades, and frustrations concerning manager Billy Martin, for example, became regular fodder for New York City newspapers; the sparring between Martin and Steinbrenner resulted in four hirings and firings between 1976 and 1985.

Early in Steinbrenner’s aegis, the Yankees quenched a thirst for championships.  They hadn’t won an American League pennant since 1964, when they lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.  During the first six years of the Steinbrenner regime, the Yankees won American League pennants in 1976, 1977, and 1978.  While swept by the Cincinnati Reds in four games in the 1976 World Series, the Yankees rebounded to become world champions by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classic for the next two years.

The 1973 purchase was a bargain for Steinbrenner, Burke et al.  In his column for the New York Times on January 5, 1973, Red Smith penned a piece titled “January Clearance in the Bronx,” where he compared the deal to the one struck three seasons prior, when a Milwaukee group invested $10.5 million to buy the Seattle Pilots after the team’s expansion year of 1969.  Smith noted that Seattle franchise was a “bankrupt baseball team with a one-year record of artistic, athletic and financial failure.”

Additionally, Smith pointed out that the owners spent an additional $3 million on the club, which moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers, beginning with the 1970 season.  “For $10 million,” wrote Smith, “Mike Burke and friends get a team with a half-century tradition of unmatched success, a territory with 15 million potential customers, and a promise that the city will spend at least $24 million on a playpen for them.”  Indeed, the New York Yankees vacated the vaunted Yankee Stadium for the 1974 and 1975 seasons; they played their home games at Shea Stadium, the home field for the New York Mets.

Further, the Yankees enjoyed a B-12 shot of attention from the purchase during one of the most depressing nadirs in New York City history; crime, inflation, and malaise ruled over the five boroughs when the Steinbrenner-Burke group bought the Yankees.  Sandy Padwe, in his article “CBS Eye No Longer on Yanks” for the the January 4, 1973 edition of Newsday, captured this sentiment.  “So in a way, yesterday was a time for the romantics in the Bronx,” wrote Padwe.  “It was a day to forget the graffiti on the walls of Yankee Stadium, a day to forget that the area around the Stadium fades a little more each week, a day to forget that the most publicized ball park in the United States belongs to an era past.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 3, 2015.

Bob Feller’s Three No-Hitters

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

If Zeus were a pitcher, he’d be jealous of Bob Feller.  After getting noticed by Cleveland Indians scout and fellow Iowan Cy Slapnicka, Feller left the family farm to mow down American League opponents instead of grass.  Beginning his career as a teenager in 1936, Feller earned the nickname “The Heater From Van Meter” because of his blazing fastball and his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa.

Feller might not have played with the Indians had his father not taken action, though.  Written by Richard Goldstein, Feller’s 2010 obituary in the New York Times states, “The owner of the independent Des Moines minor league team, which had coveted him, contended that Feller had been acquired by the Indians in violation of baseball rules that governed the signing of amateurs.  The baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, could have made Feller a free agent who would have commanded huge contract offers in a bidding frenzy.  But Feller wanted to stay with the Indians, and his father threatened to sue if Landis did not allow that.”

Feller spent his entire career in a Cleveland Indians uniform, pitching three no-hitters in his career.  The first one happened on April 16, 1940 in the Opening Day game at Comiskey Park against the Chicago White Sox.  Feller’s career took a side turn toward the Pacific Theater in World War II.  After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Feller enlisted in the United States Navy.  Because of a sense of duty, honor, and patriotism, Feller put his career on hold during his early 20s, arguably the time of peak physical condition for an athlete.

Returning to the Indians in the latter part of the 1945 season, Feller prompted cheers from the Cleveland faithful.  In the 1946 season, it was as if he never left the pitching mound—Feller struck out 348 batters and pitched a no-hitter against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium; Feller’s third no-hitter came in 1951 against the Detroit Tigers.

Also known as “Rapid Robert,” Feller was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, the same year of Jackie Robinson’s entry.  Selected on 150 of 160 ballots, Feller used his induction speech to talk about the history of baseball’s origins.  “I was just thinking a moment ago that occasionally, when you’re in some outlying community outside here, there’s been a little controversy whether the first baseball game was ever played in Cooperstown, or elsewhere,” said Feller.  “I’m not concerned where the first one was played as long as it was played, and it certainly made a great deal of difference in the lives of most all Americans.”

In addition to his three no-hitters, Feller racked up other statistics that place him at the top of the pitching pyramid, including thrown 12 one-hitters, winning 20 games six times, and leading the American League in victories six times.  Feller’s career ended in 1956.

Finding a parallel to Feller in Indians history is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, an apt metaphor considering Feller’s farming roots.  He set the standard for excellence under Chief Wahoo’s aegis, hence the Bob Feller statue outside Progressive Field.  No hurler for the Indians ever matched Feller’s speed, accuracy, and endurance—except, perhaps, Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn.

 A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 1, 2014.

61 in ’61

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the nation’s youngest elected president, The Dick Van Dyke Show débuted, and Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space.

1961 was also the year of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.  The M&M boys.

As members of the 1961 New York Yankees, Maris and Mantle chased the ghost of Babe Ruth, vying to break Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs.  Ruth set his magic number of 60 as a member of the legendary 1927 Yankees.  It was a seemingly unbreakable record.  But if Maris or Mantle broke the record—or if both of them did—it would symbolize the home run torch being passed to a new generation of power hitters, keep the single-season home run record in the Yankee family, and explode the myth that certain records are unbreakable.

Maris, an import from the Kansas City Athletics, won the 1960 American League Most Valuable Player Award in his first year as a Yankee.  Mantle, a Yankee who spent his entire career in pinstripes, had his share of achievements, including the Triple Crown Award in 1956. Mantle dropped out of the race in September because of an illness.  Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen referred Mantle to Dr. Max Jacobson, who gave Mantle a shot.  It made Mantle’s situation worse.  And he wasn’t the only celebrity to suffer, either.  In her 2010 book The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, Jane Leavy wrote, “Mantle said he never knew what was in Jacobson’s syringe, and he never paid the bill, either.  Mark Shaw, the Kennedy family photographer, paid with his life, dying of amphetamine poisoning in 1969.  Tennessee Williams’s brother told the Times that the playwright had spent three months in a mental hospital that year as a result of taking drugs prescribed by Jacobson.  Truman Capote collapsed after a series of injections and had to be hospitalized with symptoms of withdrawal.  When Mel Allen was fired by the Yankees after the 1964 season, the infamous medical referral was widely cited as cause.”

Leave also reported that nearly 50 counts of “fraud or deceit” involving amphetamines led to the revocation of Jacobson’s  medical license revoked in the 1970s.

Sidelined, Mantle’s home run tally stopped at 54.  Maris broke Ruth’s record on October 1, 1961, when he smacked a pitch by Tracy Stallard into Yankee Stadium’s right field stands in a Yankees-Red Sox game—the last game of the 1961 season for the Yankees.

A faction of baseball enthusiasts believes that Maris did not technically break Ruth’s record.  This theory rests on the number of regular season games for each player.  Ruth had 154 games.  Maris, 162.  The American League’s expansion to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. in 1961 prompted the addition of eight games.

Ruth also had less at bats in ’27 than Maris did in ’61.  But Maris had challenges that Ruth did not face, including night games, air travel, and black players increasing the depths of competition.

Tommy Holmes of the New York Herald Tribune reported that the paying crowd totaled 23,154, a figure far below the capacity of Yankee Stadium.  “The crowd kept yelling,” wrote Holmes.  “It wouldn’t stop until Maris—Not once, but twice—climbed the steps of the dugout, bared his crewcut and waved a smiling acknowledgment.  He looked a bit like Kirk Douglas at a moment of triumph in Spartacus.

Roger Maris won the 1961 American League Most Valuable Player Award.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 15, 2014.

Mays As A Met

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

Willie Mays ended his career where he began it.  New York City.

His was a career of milestones.  As a rookie, Mays was a witness to baseball history.  On October 3, 1951, he was in the New York Giants on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.  In the 1954 World Series, he made baseball history when he caught a Vic Wertz fly ball to center field in the Polo Grounds while he sprinted with his back toward home plate.

Mays became a Giants cornerstone, frustrating National League opponents with his running, fielding, and hitting.  But the days of wearing black and and orange, the colors of the Giants, came to an end for Willie Howard Mays on May 11, 1972, when the San Francisco Giants traded him to the New York Mets for minor league pitcher Charlie Williams.  Stories indicated the Mets also paid $100,000 in the deal.  In the Mays biography Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, James S. Hirsch discounted the cash component.  “[Giants owner Horace] Stoneham, however, later acknowledged that he didn’t accept any money,” stated Hirsch.  “Ultimately, all that mattered was that Willie would be taken care of, and the Mets agreed to pay him $165,000 that year and the next.  Mays said the Mets also agreed to pay him, on his retirement, $50,000 a year for ten years.”

Though he was in the twilight of his career, Mays in a Mets uniform provided a sense of continuity in a nation shattered by the Vietnam War, Watergate, assassinations, and riots.  When he donned a Mets cap with the familiar NY insignia borrowed from the Giants log, order seemed restored for those who grew up watching Mays patrol the Polo Grounds outfield in the 1950s.  He was back home.  Not in the same ballpark and not for the same time.  But in New York City, nonetheless.

On September 25, 1973, the Mets hosted Willie Mays Night; Mays retired after the ’73 season.  “I hope that with my farewell tonight, you’ll understand what I’m going through right now,” revealed Mays.  “Something that I never feared: that I were ever to quit baseball.  But as you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out.  And I look at these kids over there, the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.  Thank you very much.”

Mays’s return to New York City culminated with the 1973 World Series, a seven-game affair that saw the Oakland A’s dynasty defeat the Mets.  Meanwhile, the Big Apple’s other baseball team saw its share of drama in ’73.  Yankee pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson swapped wives, Ron Blomberg became baseball’s first designated hitter, and Ohio ship builder George Steinbrenner led a group purchasing the Yankees.

Yankee Stadium also said goodbye to America in 1973, undergoing a renovation that lasted two years.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 15, 2014.