The Baseball Bunker Archives

First Published Nov. 11, 2023 ~"Veteran Bert 'Termite' Shepard" ~ As we commemorate Veterans Day let us reflect on the words of Michel de Montaigne, "Valor is stability not of legs and arms, but of courage and the soul." Bert Shepard, a baseball pitcher, coach and veteran, exemplified those words. A common expression in Washington D.C. at the time was, "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League." In 1945, however, the Washington Senators had a pretty good team. Still above .500 in August, fans were feeling good about WWII nearing its end and the Senators chances for a pennant. Negativity about the team's chances began to creep in when they came upon a brutal stretch of schedule. The Sens had to play 10 games in five days. That's right, five consecutive doubleheaders. Winning a doubleheader is difficult. Winning five? Impossible. They almost did it. They would go 9-1 over those five days, pass the Yankees in the standings and remain on the Tigers heels in the pennant race 'til the end of the season...miraculous. Ironically, it's the one loss that remains in our baseball consciousness not the nine wins. In that lone loss of those 10 games, a 15-4 drubbing to the Boston Red Sox, three things would happen that would make the record books. First, Boston outfielder Tom McBride would tie a record and hit 6 RBI in one inning. Second, Washington relief pitcher Joe Cleary would surrender seven runs on five hits with three walks in only a third of an inning. His ERA of 189.00 remains the highest of any pitcher in history to record at least one out. And finally third, Bert Shepard would take the mound as the only pitcher with one leg to ever make an MLB start. He would shut down Boston in his 5.1 innings of relief allowing one run on three hits. Despite his brilliance that day and the cheers from the home crowd, it would be his only major league appearance ever. Those three things happening in one game are improbable, but not as improbable as Bert Shepard's one legged journey to the mound that day. Bert Shepard was born on June 28, 1920 in rural Indiana, corn country. His town of Dana was made famous by native son Ernie Pyle the great WWII correspondent who was born there. Bert was one of six brothers who all said that things just came natural to Bert. He excelled at everything he did. He signed his first minor league baseball contract of $60 while still in high school. He would bounce around the country for various teams playing first and pitching. He was released by teams often due to control issues and a high number of walks. In 1942, the war called and Bert joined the Army Air Corps. He trained in California and earned the rank of Lieutenant and became a P-38 fighter pilot. Stationed in England, his 55th Fighter Group was the first to fly combat missions over Berlin Germany during the day. In May 1944 his 55th Fighter Group baseball team was scheduled to have their "Opening Day." Bert was the team ace (both on the mound and in the air) and was team manager. Thinking he'd be back in time, he volunteered for his 34th combat mission of the war. It would be his last. With D-Day looming, his squadron was charged with strafing any railroad, fuel depot, bridge or military target they could find. It was on this mission, for which he volunteered, that he would be shot down. An anti-aircraft shell ripped through the bottom of his plane tearing his right leg apart causing him to hit his head so hard it fractured and he blacked out. It is estimated his plane was traveling close to 400 miles per hour when it hit the ground. A group of German farmers wanted to kill him but, of all people, a German Luftwaffe doctor from a nearby hospital drew his side piece to fend off the locals and then pulled Bert from his wrecked P-38. The hospital did not want to work on the fallen American pilot, but the Luftwaffe doctor, a lieutenant named Ladislaus Loidl, insisted they let him in and tended to Bert's leg himself, amputating it below the knee, saving Bert Shepard's life. Bert was sent to a German POW camp where he met a Canadian POW who helped fashion an artificial leg for him. Within a month Shepard was playing softball in the camp. The German doctor who performed the surgery was so delighted about Bert's progress that he ordered the hospital staff to pay the camp a visit to observe the American pilot they refused treatment. Shepard was returned home as part of a prisoner exchange in February 1945. The boat he was transported on had 37 other men with prosthesis fashioned by the Canadian Bert met in camp. His name was Don Errey and it is believed he helped 300 soldiers with artificial limbs while he was a POW. Bert's next stop was Walter Reed Hospital Bethesda, MD. It was here that Bert would meet Robert Patterson, Undersecretary of War. Patterson, upon learning of Bert's desire to get back into baseball, pulled some strings and asked Washington Senators owner Clark Griffin to give the war hero a chance. He did, signing Shepard to a coaching contract with a chance to pitch if he improved. Once healthy, Shepard would throw batting practice and exhibition games. Though he only pitched in that one MLB game, he would often pitch in charity games for the war effort. The Army used his story to inspire the many wounded vets returning back home. He also pitched for a group of amputees to raise money for soldiers who could no longer work. Bert would have six more amputation surgeries while he played baseball. His leg was often sore and raw, but he always stayed determined and kept his sense of humor. He laughed at his wooden leg inspired nickname "Termite." When he had trouble keeping his sock up a teammate suggested a rubber band. Bert quipped, "It will cut off my circulation." His team of leg amputees were called the "Flat Tires" and they would play a group of arm amputees called the "Broken Wings." Humor was key to healing. Bert used his notoriety to help the cause of amputees who had it far worse than he. He visited with and advocated for those who couldn't find work and adjust to their new life. He spent countless hours talking with wounded veterans about things only they could fully understand. Bert stayed positive, thankful that the injury happened to his right leg and not his left because he was a lefty pitcher and wouldn't be able to push off on his opposite leg. Shepard was named the starting pitcher in an exhibition game for the War Relief Effort against the Brooklyn Dodgers in July 1945. Before the game General Omar Bradley pinned the Airman's Medal on Shepard's baseball uniform. Later that summer on August 31, Shepard was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross between games of a doubleheader. When the season ended, the Senators finished second in the AL 1.5 games behind Detroit. Bert Shepard was cut the next day. Though his MLB career was over, he would stay in professional baseball until 1955. He would persevere, never losing focus of his dream, despite his setbacks. He spent those 10 years bouncing around the country from league to league living his dream. His reputation was so sterling among his teammates and players that when the Waterbury Timers, a Connecticut team of the Colonial League, said they could no longer pay his manager's salary of $4000 the players threatened to quit. Local merchants, upon hearing of the squabble, ponied up his salary for the season. Now married and having enough of traveling the country and rehabbing from multiple surgeries and re-amputations, Bert Shepard retired from baseball in 1955. He was 34 years old and the jersey he hung up also had a 34 on it. When asked why he chose that number, he said it represented the 34 missions he flew in the war. He and his wife Betty had four kids and settled in Modesto California, the last team Bert managed. He became an aircraft safety engineer for Hughes Aircraft. Future leg amputees would benefit from an ankle joint he invented to improve mobility. He would play in many charity golf events and often partnered with friend and fellow major leaguer Billy Martin. Shepard won the U.S. Amputee Golf Championship in 1968 and 1971. Bert had a full life only Hollywood could invent. He died in 2008 at the age of 88. Shepard never knew how he got out of his plane that day in 1944. He always wondered, "who saved my life." In 1992, Bert received a phone call from a man in England named Jamie Brundell. Brundell had been on a hunting trip with an Austrian doctor named Ladislaus Loidl, the man who saved Bert's life a half century before. Bert was stunned. A meeting was arranged and six months later Shepard and Loidl met in Austria. They embraced and didn't let go. Loidl told Bert how his wife made a beautiful dress out of his parachute. Bert told Loidl about his family and baseball career. "I wanted him to know that it was appreciated, that I was successful," Shepard said. "When he hugged me," Shepard went on to say, "These are the arms that pulled me out of that plane."
First Published August 24, 2023 ~ "Warren Spahn" ~ It's been called the greatest game ever pitched. The combatants were two future Hall of Famers 17 years apart in age, one near the beginning of his career, one near the end. "I've been around a long time and that's the finest exhibition of throwing I've ever seen," Hank Aaron said. Aaron was just one of seven Hall of Famers to take the field on July 2, 1963 when Juan Marichal led the San Francisco Giants against the visiting Milwaukee Braves and Warren Spahn. It is considered the greatest pitching duel ever by many, despite the 17 combined hits allowed. Each pitcher masterfully weaved his way thru the opponents lineup knowing who to ease up on to conserve bullets and who to turn it on for to escape danger. Each time it looked like a team had a chance to break thru they were stymied by the masters on the mound. The crowd on hand was in awe of the seesaw battle that played out before them. The game started just after 8pm and would end just after 12:30 the next morning. Officially the game was 4 hours and 10 minutes when Willie Mays hit a home run off Warren Spahn in the bottom of the 16th inning. It was the only run of the game. Marichal, the 25 year old Giant's ace, would go on to lead the league with 25 wins that year with a career-high 248 strikeouts. Spahn, who would throw 201 pitches in that 16 inning complete game loss, would go on to win 23 games himself with a 2.60 ERA and lead the league with 22 complete games all while being named to his 17th and final All-Star Game. He was 42 years old. Another Hall of Famer was in attendance that night, former Giant Carl Hubbell. Now a scout for the team he once pitched for and after witnessing the whole game said of Spahn, "He ought to will his body to medical science." "Here's a guy, 42 years old, who still has his fastball." Marichal's manager Alvin Dark tried to take him out of the game three times to which Juan replied, "Do you see that man pitching on the other side? He's 42 and I'm 25, and you can't take me out until that man is not pitching." It remains the last Major League game where both starters pitched into the 16th inning. In fact, no pitcher has gone 15 innings since 1974. Spahn went 15 innings or more three times. Warren Spahn would end his career with 382 complete games and 63 shutouts. His 363 wins are the most ever by a lefty and his 35 home runs are still the most by a National League pitcher. His career would begin more than two decades earlier in 1942 when he had a cup of coffee, a mere 4 games, with the then Boston Braves. Then Uncle Sam and World War II called. Spahn was born in Buffalo N.Y. on April 23, 1921. He and his best friend Roy "Red" Reimann would play baseball until dark most summer nights and form a formidable battery on ball fields around town. Warren with his six-foot tall lanky frame and high leg kick on the mound and Red with his stout frame behind the plate. Spahn is often erroneously called a native of Oklahoma. He was not, but Oklahoma would play a large part in his life until the day he died. Warren and Red were separated when Warren went to the minors to pursue his baseball dream. When they both enlisted in the Army in 1942 they would be reunited, by coincidence, when they were both stationed at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma. There they would rekindle their friendship and that formidable battery on intramural league fields. One night they decided to take leave and head into nearby Tulsa. It was here that another fortuitous event happened to Warren in Oklahoma. He and Red would both meet their future wives that night. Lorene and Brooksie were a pair of Oklahoma girls who were also best friends and by sheer luck decided to stay out later than their normal time that night. It was then that Warren and Red introduced themselves. The two couples would immediately hit it off and spend all their free time together. Red and Brooksie became married in three months time and Warren and Lorene were talking about marriage themselves, but the war would force them to wait. Brooksie and Lorene were lucky to see their men again as both saw heavy fighting in Europe. Red, while on a reconnaissance mission, was knocked off his motorcycle by a tripwire and beaten so badly by German soldiers that he spent months in a coma before recovering. Warren saw action with the 276 Combat Engineers Division at both the Battle of the Bulge, where he earned a Bronze Star, and the Ludendorff Bridge, better known as the Bridge at Remagen to Americans and by Hollywood. It was here that Spahn would be under heavy German fire and get hit by shrapnel on his foot. Spahn, always humble, called it "a scratch." The Army called it a Purple Heart. His team of men were instrumental in the bridge being made serviceable enough, despite being under near constant enemy fire, and collapsing once only to be repaired again, to get trucks of supplies across the last bridge over the German Rhine River and to Americans fighting on the other side. These actions enabled America to pour men and supplies into the heart of Nazi Germany. For his part in these actions, Spahn would receive a promotion to 1st Lieutenant and his unit, a Presidential Citation. After the war he would help the 276th win the Corps Championship on the baseball field and signed on for another six months in the Army to earn his commission as an engineer officer. He was discharged in April 1946 in time to join the Boston Braves in July and marry Lorene. Living in Boston, they would travel to Oklahoma in the offseason and catch up with Red and Brooksie. Lorene inherited 200 acres of land in Hartshorne OK. and it was here the couple decided to build their ranch for the offseason. The four friends would reunite often and stay at the ranch. Red, a gifted artist who dreamed of drawing for Disney, designed the home. With the war over and his home life settled, Warren could focus on baseball. 1947 would be Spahn's first full season and his first of thirteen 20-win campaigns. He would lead the league with a 2.33 ERA and go to his first All-Star Game. In 1948, Warren would win 15 games and join Johnny Sain, an All-Star that season, as the pitching tandem that would lead the Braves to the World Series. At one juncture in the season, due to a scheduling anomalie and weather, the two men would be the only pitchers used in a 12 day stretch that saw the team only play eight games. The heroics of Spahn and Sain in the pennant run would inspire Boston sports writer Gerald Hern to pen "Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain." The two starters would go 8-0 in that run but lose the World Series to the Cleveland Indians (their last). In 1949, Spahn would begin a stretch of 14 All-Star Games in 17 years that would include twelve 20-win seasons. By 1953 The Boston Braves would relocate to Milwaukee and in 1957 they were back in the Series. This time Spahn and Lew Burdette would pack the formidable one-two punch in the rotation. Burdette would win 17 games (202 in total) and Spahn would win 21 games en route to his only CY Young, MVP and World Series title. The two aces would lead Milwaukee back to the World Series in 1958 only to lose to the Yankees. In 1960, at the age of 39, Warren threw his first no-hitter. The next year, days after turning 40, he threw his second. 1964, the year after he pitched that 16 inning game would be his last with the Braves. They would sell his rights after he went just 6-13. In 1965, he would pitch four games for the Mets and three for the Giants to end his MLB career. Spahn stayed in the game a year too long. The result was his ERA bumped over 3.00 and his win percentage dropped below .600. Spahn admitted he "didn't retire from baseball, baseball retired me." Spahn earned the nickname "Hooks" due to the bend in his already large nose. It seems Warren took an unexpected thrown ball off his nose when he was young, breaking it. In one of those final games with the Mets, Yogi Berra would come out of retirement to be his battery mate. Berra, in typical Yogi style, would quip, "I don't know if we're the oldest battery, but we're certainly the ugliest." There was nothing ugly about Warren Spahn's career. His 363 wins remain the most by a lefty and he is sixth on the all-time pitching list. Many statisticians believe he would only trail Cy Young himself in wins if he didn't lose those three plus seasons to the war. Warren didn't agree saying the time in the Army made him more mature to handle major league hitters. "After what I went through overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work." To pitch 21 seasons takes a mental and physical toughness. Despite his war injury, seven knee surgeries and a football injury in his teens that prevented him from raising his right arm above his shoulder, Spahn pitched 245 innings or more in 17 consecutive seasons. "A sore arm is like a headache or a toothache," Spahn would say. "It can make you feel bad, but if you just forget about it and do what you have to do, it will go away. If you really like to pitch and you want to pitch, that's what you'll do." In 1953, Warren never told anyone about his torn knee cartilage. He would win 23 games and post a 2.10 ERA, one of three years he would win the ERA title. Along with his record setting 363 wins for a lefty and 35 home runs by an N.L. pitcher, Warren Spahn led the league in wins 8 times and in complete games 9 times. He also led the league in Strikeouts, Innings Pitched and Shutouts 4 times each. He led the league in Assist as a Pitcher 3 times and Double Plays Turned as a Pitcher 5 times. HIs number 21 is retired by the Braves franchise and the Warren Spahn Award is given to the best lefty in the league annually. In 1973, Spahn was called to the Hall of Fame. His induction was delayed due to Warren's time as player manager in the minors. Years before, a prescient Stan Musial would say, "I don't think Spahn will ever get into the Hall of Fame because he'll never stop pitching." Stan and Lorene would have a son and Red and Brooksie would have three kids of their own. One of Red and Brooksie's daughters would admit she married a man with a big nose because it reminded her of "uncle" Warren. The two families spent countless days together during the offseason and holidays visiting each other often. They were blessed to have their friendship for all those years. Warren lost Red, Brooksie and his wife in a short eight year span, with Lorene passing in 1978. Warren stayed on the Oklahoma cattle ranch until he retired to a nearby golf community he loved. He died there in 2003, he was 82. Decades after his war service, on a trip back to his hometown Buffalo, a person at a press conference asked him if he was ever as nervous as he was pitching in the World Series. Spahn answered, "Well, there was the Battle of the Bulge." A hero on the baseball field and on the battlefield, Warren Spahn is the only major leaguer to ever earn a battlefield commission.
First Published July 11, 2023 ~ Arch Ward's "Game of the Century." ~ The first All-Star Game was a product of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Chicago's Mayor Edward Kelly wanted the fair to be a huge success and had an idea to tie a "major sporting event" to it. Kelly set up a meeting with the Chicago Tribune's publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick, to present his idea. McCormick, in turn, met with his sports editor Arch Ward and charged him with making it happen. Ward's idea was to have the best players in baseball gather for one game to delight fans and improve the nation's moral. In 1933, the country was in the grips of the Great Depression. For some perspective into just how dire the economic situation was at the time, it is important to note that the gross domestic product, a measure of a nation's output, contracted by 15%. By comparison, our nation's GDP only contracted by 1% in the 2008 Great Recession. 1933 was the height of unemployment caused by the depression with a full 25% of the total work force being out of a job. 4000 banks closed in that year alone. Baseball was not spared the financial hardships the rest of the country was facing. Attendance dropped by 40% and player salaries shrunk by 25%. Managers and staff were fired due to cost cuts and new and inventive ideas, such as "Ladies Nights" were floated to draw fans to ballparks across the country. Despite these harsh realities, many fans saw players, and owners, as living the high life while they struggled to survive. Ward used this information to gain support from the tough commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the presidents of both leagues. Ward suggested all proceeds from the game would be donated to a players retirement fund. He also guaranteed the game would be a success by betting his own salary on it with his publisher. It worked. The game was announced and set to be played on July 6, 1933. Ward would work tirelessly, writing numerous articles about the "Game of the Century," as the date approached. It was also Ward's idea to have ballots printed in newspapers across the country for everyday fans to vote for their favorite home team players. Hundreds of thousands of ballots cast proved Ward's idea a success. Babe Ruth alone would earn 100,000 votes, by far the most. The success of the game was important for baseball and the country's morale. Ward's hype machine worked and most tickets sold fast. The bleacher seats, however, would only be sold at the stadium, causing hundreds of fans to camp out around the park. When game day arrived 47,595 fans packed Chicago's Comiskey Park (some estimated the real number closer to 50,000). Ward even had the ingenuity to track where all ticket sales came from and determined that fans from 46 of the nations, then 48, states were in attendance. Future Hall of Famers 1B Bill Terry (Giants), 2B Frankie Frisch (Cardinals), LF Chick Hafey (Reds), and RF Chuck Klein (Phillies) would don specially made grey uniforms with blue hats and numbers and a white "NL" printed on their caps. The American League players would wear their individual teams home uniforms. The Yankees were represented by P Lefty Gomez, 1B Lou Gehrig and RF Babe Ruth. C Rick Ferrell (Red Sox), 2B Charlie Gehringer (Tigers), SS Joe Cronin (Senators) and CF Al Simmons (White Sox) were the other future Hall of Famers in the starting nine. The teams were led by two Hall of Fame managers Connie Mack (Athletics) and John McGraw (Giants), who came out of retirement and was alling. In all, 20 of the game's 36 players, both managers, five of six coaches and two umpires would eventually end up in Cooperstown, the home of baseball's Hall of Fame. The first All-Star RBI was hit by a pitcher, Lefty Gomez, and the first All-Star home run was hit, fittingly, by Babe Ruth. Ruth's two-run blast would prove the game winner as the American League would beat the National League 4-2. By all measures, the first All- Star game was a smashing success, so much so, that the powers that ran baseball decided at the very next owners meeting that a "mid-summer classic" would be played annually and would rotate to a different MLB city every year. If not for Arch Ward's vision, we would not have so many powerful memories and historic All-Star Game moments to enrich our lives and baseball's history. In 1941, the Red Sox and Yankees would partner for a dramatic comeback against the NL squad. Joe Dimaggio would get on base with the AL trailing in the bottom of the ninth and Ted Williams would hit the first All-Star walk off home run in the same season that he would bat .406 and Joe D would set the 56 game hit streak record. In 1949, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe would represent the Dodgers and Larry Doby of the Indians would all break the color barrier for the first time in All-Star game history. In 1970 Pete Rose would dislocate Ray Fosse's shoulder in a violent home plate collision. In 1971, Reggie Jackson would hit a ball off the light tower in Tiger Stadium that still hasn't landed. In his only All-Star appearance, Bo Jackson would go 2-4 with 2 RBI and a stolen base (not to mention a stolen hit playing CF), and win the MVP in 1989. Everyone has seen the video of Randy Johnson striking out a fooled and ducking John Kruk in the 1993 All-Star Game. And what seemhead doesn't choke up at the memory of Ted Williams, the "Splendid Splinter," making his entrance in a golf cart of his home team's Fenway Park in Boston as the 1999 "All-Century" team gathered around the "Greatest Hitter" who ever lived with boyhood jubilation. And who could forget Cal Ripken homering in his final ASG appearance in 2001 and the curtain call he received from the fans in Seattle. The All-Star game has created its fair share of controversy too. From 1959 until 1962, two All-Star Games were played until it was determined two games watered down the event's appeal. The Home Run Derby has its detractors who think its participants often have bad second halves to their seasons. People are still grumbling about Commissioner Bud Selig's decision to call the 2002 All-Star game in Milwaukee due to teams "running out" of players. After 11 innings, it was declared a 7-7 tie. This decision would lead to an even more unpopular All-Star game rule. From 2003-2016 home field in the World Series would be determined by the "exhibition" All-Star game. In 1945 (WW2) and 2020 (Pandemic) no games were played. Arch Ward's original, "Game of the Century," All-Star game was meant to be a one time event. We are now celebrating the 93rd "Mid Summer Classic" thanks to his vision. Ward's creativity went beyond baseball. In 1923 he came up with the idea to have a citywide boxing tournament in Chicago. That tournament would be the start of the Golden Gloves, now a century old. Having worked under Knute Rockne while attending Notre Dame, Ward also created the College All-Star Football Classic, played from 1934 until 1976. The NFL even offered him the Commissionership that he turned down to start the rival All-American Football Conference. Despite the AAFC only lasting four seasons, its existence and Ward's criticisms are credited with forcing many of the changes that helped turn the NFL into the modern powerhouse we know today. Fans of the original Cleveland Browns and Colts and the San Francisco 49'ers have Ward to thank for their AAFC franchises joining the NFL. Ward also authored three sports-related books. In 1955, Arch Ward died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack in his Chicago home. He was 58 years old. On the day he was buried, the Cardinal's Stan Musial would hit a walk off home run in the bottom of the 12th inning in the 1955 All-Star Game.
First Published 5/28/2023 ~ "The Eugene Exploding Whales" ~ Minor League baseball teams have long fought for fan attention under the shadow of the Major League clubs. One way they do this is to create a second name for their teams along with uniforms and merchandise to create a civic buzz about the club. Local industries and foods are often the inspiration of these alternate names. The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Class A Brewers) become the "Udder Tuggers" in a nod to the state's dairy industry. The lumberjacks get a few nights off a year to witness "curd tossing" and "mooing" contests. In Maine, the Portland Sea Dogs (Double-A Red Sox) become the Whoopie Pies in a nod to the state's sweet treat. The Eugene Emeralds (High-A Giants) have perhaps the most bizarre inspiration for their alternate name, the Exploding Whales. In 1970, a whale washed ashore in neighboring Florence Oregon. The 45 foot long sea beast weighed 8 tons and quickly became a must see sight for locals. That is, until it began to smell. What to do and who should do it were the next questions when the problem became odourously apparent. It seemed the state's Highway Department had jurisdiction over the state's beaches. They then made a call to the US Navy for advice. Predictably, the world's most powerful Navy suggested they blow it up. Less predictably, the Highway Department listened, foregoing other advice to simply bury the creature. On November 9, 1970, a half ton of dynamite was wedged all around the inland side of the whale in hopes of blowing it up and toward the ocean. Some thought a half ton was "overkill" until it was learned that previous attempts (yes there were) to blow up whales were far too stingy with Mr. Nobel's explosive. Blowing it up to smithereens would solve the problem by making bite sized hor d'oeuvres of Moby Dick for the seagulls and other ocean creatures to devour. The smell would be gone, a feast would be had for the gulls and life would return to normal. So after officials pushed the crowd back a quarter mile, a "safe" distance, and with local news crews at the ready, a countdown began. 3...2...1 and kaboom! Onlookers saw pieces of whale fly to the heavens and then realized they were covered in whale bits and sand despite being back a "safe" distance. After the debris and smoke settled it was revealed that a huge portion of the whale remained. Despite a half ton of TNT, the Highway Department would have to bury the whale after all. So now if you see a score for the Eugene Exploding Whales, you'll know the meaning behind the alternate name. The event has become folklore in the Pacific Northwest and to prove it, the teams first batch of Exploding Whales merchandise sold out in 90 seconds! Don't worry though, if you want a t-shirt with a coy whale holding a lit stick of dynamite, more merch is in stock. No one was hurt that day in 1970, but a number of cars were damaged including a brand new Cadillac DeVille. A chunk of whale so big landed on and crushed the car's roof blowing out all its windows. It was declared a total loss. By all accounts, it was a whale of a car.
First Published 2/28/2023 ~ "Little Napoleon" ~ In his first 10 chances, he committed eight errors. After six games he was released. Many baseball players' careers end this way, never to be heard from again, but for John McGraw it was just the beginning of his Hall of Fame journey. John McGraw's achievements as a player would be more widely known if he wasn't a victim of his own success as a manager. He managed the New York Giants for most of three decades. In his 29 full seasons at the helm, the team would have just one losing campaign. One! McGraw would masterfully guide his squad to 21 first or second place finishes, accumulating 2,763 wins, third all-time and second all-time when he retired to only Connie Mack. Mack himself would credit McGraw as the best there was. McGraw's Giants would win three World Series in 1905, 1921 and 1922. He was the first manager to win four consecutive pennants and his 10 pennants are tied with only one man, Casey Stengel of the Yankees, who played and studied under McGraw. Though only 5'7" tall and 155 pounds, McGraw was tough. His 131 ejections where the most all-time until Bobby Cox of the Atlanta Braves got his 132nd in 2007. "He ate gunpowder and drank it down with blood," one umpire would say. He was known as "Little Napoleon" both for his size and the way he ran the club. He conducted his team as much as he managed it, calling out plays in real time like today's basketball coaches. He had a system and there would be hell to pay if you didn't obey the maestro. He once fined a player for hitting a home run when he called on him to bunt. Writers asked an ex-player what it felt like to be fired by the profanity laden McGraw on his first day. The player replied, "It was the second day, I hid the first day." His tactics where ahead of their time. Before there was "money ball" McGraw preached getting on base. He also emphasized small ball to advance runners and to be aggressive and steal often. Before the word "reliever" ever came into the baseball lexicon, McGraw would be the first to use a pitcher in "relief" with regularity. He made pinch-runners a normality and he often took players who were cast offs, like himself, or players with little experience over more ability in order to better mold them to his way of playing. Fellow managers would marvel at how much McGraw would get out of so little. Despite his team's 10 pennants and how well he managed, and Hall of Famers like Christy Mathewson, the Giants often lost the World Series to teams that, on that stage, clearly had more talent. The Cubs Johnny Evers would say, "They are a second-class team with a first-class manager." Before McGraw ever managed, he already had a lifetime's worth of tragedy. He grew up hardscrabble. His farther, also John, came from Ireland. He joined the Union Army during the Civil War and then the Railroad near Truxton, New York. He married and had a daughter but was a widower shortly after. He would remarry a woman named Ellen and together they would have young John and then six more kids. In the winter of 1885, a diphtheria epidemic would take John's mother, his older half-sister and three of the younger McGraw's. John was just 12 years old. John Sr. having lost two wives and four children would never be the same. Shortly after, young John broke a window practicing his pitching and having to pay for it, John Sr. became abusive. After running away, Mary Goddard, a widow herself who ran the town's hotel, would take the young John in. It was here, that normalcy returned to John's life. He would hustle at small jobs and save his money for new baseballs and Spalding Magazines so he could study the game. In school he became a good baseball player and at the age of 16 joined the town's team, the Truxton Greys. McGraw's grit made such an impression on team manager Albert Kenney that when Kenney became part owner of a professional team in the NY-Penn League in Olean, New York, he took McGraw with him despite having reservations about his fielding and his age. However, it was here that McGraw would struggle with those eight errors in 10 chances and be released after just six games. The team captain felt bad for the 16-year-old and handed him some cash. If not for that money, we may have never heard of John McGraw. It allowed him to continue his journey with a lower league in Western NY. McGraw caught on with them and was offered a winter trip to Florida then to Cuba where John became a crowd favorite. Fans would call out "el mono amarillo" or the "yellow monkey." It was a reference to the team's uniform color and also John's quickness and small stature. Once back in Florida, another fortunate event occurred. His lowly Western League team was able to convince the Cleveland Spiders of the National League to play an exhibition game. McGraw would commit no errors and go three for five, all doubles, and get noticed by professional scouts. After a stop in Cedar Rapids, McGraw would be signed by the Baltimore Orioles of the then American Association, he was just 18 years old. Upon arriving at Camden Station, in Baltimore it was evident the Orioles brass was unimpressed. McGraw would quip, "I'm bigger than I look." For the next decade, the scrappy McGraw would prove his point. He would play for three versions of the Baltimore franchise. After the 1891 season the American Association went bankrupt. The Orioles and three other AA teams expanded the National League to 12 teams. It was this iteration of the Baltimore franchise that would have the most success along with McGraw. In 1892 the team would hire Pittsburg Pirates outfielder Ned Hanlon to manage the squad. He would overhaul the roster and turn the franchise around. He kept McGraw because of his fire and hatred of losing and even more hatred of teammates who seemed ok with it. Hanlon would teach them innovative ways to play the game. He recognized McGraw's potential and more importantly his intensity and intellect. It worked. The Orioles would invent the Baltimore Chop, bounding a ball so high the batter would reach first before the ball could be fielded. They would take advantage of foul balls not being recorded as strikes at the time and hit them repeatedly as to gain their pitch and increase their on-base percentage. The Orioles may have been the first team to invent the "squeeze play" and having the pitcher cover first base when the first baseman was fielding the ball. And they perfected the "hit and run" to a thing of beauty. McGraw would absorb all of these strategies and be among the last to bed, staying up late discussing them with teammates. It would be these techniques he would use throughout his later managerial career. Thanks to Hanlon's intuition, McGraw would become the lynchpin of the Orioles "Big Four." From 1894-1896 the Orioles would win three consecutive National League pennants. In 1897 and 1898 they would finish second with 90 and 96 wins respectively. McGraw would lead the league in runs scored and base on balls twice each and on base percentage three times. He would also lead the league in unsportsmanlike fines. He was tough when baseball was at its toughest and would take liberties with baserunners holding them up by any means necessary when only one umpire was used at the time. Once a player scored from third with McGraw still holding the runner's belt. And before Cobb it was McGraw who sharpened his spikes to intimidate infielders. Declining attendance would hurt the Orioles late in the decade. Ownership would send many players to a more profitable Brooklyn team that they also had an interest in. McGraw, who was player/manager by now, refused to go and would remain in Baltimore. 1899 was his finest season as a player and perhaps the finest of any third baseman ever. That year, to the surprise of many, the Orioles battled Brooklyn for the pennant through most of the summer under McGraw's leadership when tragedy struck into his life once again that August. His wife Mary died from appendicitis. While away to grieve, the Orioles fell to fourth place but finished the year with a winning record, 24 games above .500 despite losing much of their talent to first place Brooklyn. Sportswriters of the day cited McGraw's genius in the face of such anguish and long odds. McGraw would finish the campaign batting .391, still a record for third baseman, and have 73 steals while leading the league in walks and runs. His OBP that year would be .547 a record that would stand until Ted Williams broke it in 1941. Only two players beat McGraw's OBP record who had at least 500 plate appearances. The following year, when the National League lost four teams, including Baltimore, to contraction, McGraw signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for $10,000. It was the largest contract ever in baseball at the time. Before Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Rube Waddell, John McGraw was among the first true stars of the dead ball era. When Ban Johnson created the American League in 1901, he placed a franchise, again named the Orioles, in Baltimore and he wanted McGraw to run it. Although he hit .349, his season was shortened due to a nagging knee injury. It would be his last full season in Baltimore as he and Johnson had a falling out. McGraw would get kicked out of a game, a sign of the future perhaps, and forfeited the game. Johnson, incensed, banned him indefinitely. Believing that Johnson was going to fire him anyways, McGraw made a deal with the NY Giants to switch leagues and manage in New York. That decision would begin the second longest managerial tenure in baseball history. Besides signing the largest contract in baseball, McGraw would also lay claim to being the only player to have the hated "reserve clause" removed from his contract in the first 100 years of professional baseball. McGraw also had a number of "Forrest Gump" moments. He was partly to blame for Boston's South End Grounds fire when a fight he started distracted the crowd from the small fire that would eventually burn down the stadium. He was, in large part, the reason there was no 1904 World Series refusing to play the American League pennant winners from Boston due to his feud with Ban Johnson and the new American League. In 1922, when the Yankees and Babe Ruth shared the Polo Grounds with his Giants, he had the owner kick the Yankees out due to the popularity of Ruth's home runs. You could say Yankee Stadium was "the house McGraw built." John McGraw's managerial record speaks for itself. Having only one losing season in the 29 years he managed the Giants, earned him his .586 winning percentage. As a player he scored 100 runs five times and stole 50 bases three times. His career .333 batting average remains 25th all-time and his .466 OBP is third all-time. He is possibly the most important figure in baseball's dead ball era to have both played and managed. Early in the 1932 season McGraw would take leave due to illness. He would help run the team but named Bill Terry, former first baseman and the last National League player to hit .400, his successor. McGraw would have one more tragedy in his life, prostate cancer. He would die February 25, 1934, at the age of 60. His second wife Blanche would one day throw out the first pitch of the 1951 World Series, when the Giants lost to the Yankees. She would outlive him by 30 years. Ty Cobb, baseball's most ferocious player, would say McGraw, "put everything he had into baseball, both as a player and manager. The game needs more like him." John McGraw was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937, the first manager to represent the National League in Cooperstown, a mere 60 miles from Truxton, NY. In 1933, just seven months before his death, he was part of another first, McGraw was asked to manage the National League side in the inaugural All-Star game. It was the final game he ever managed.
First Published 2/5/2023 ~ "Boston's Burning Beaneaters" ~ In 1894 Boston's Beaneaters were a baseball dynasty having just won their third NL Championship Pennant in a row and sixth overall. The franchise was originally known as the Boston Red Stockings, inspired by the fact that many of its first players came from the Cincinatti Red Stockings, baseball's first professional team (1869). They dominated the short-lived National Association winning four of the league's five pennants from 1872-1875. Some say Boston's dominance led to the National Association's demise. Undeterred, Boston became a charter member of the National League in 1876 and before the end of the 1890's would win a league most eight titles. The Boston franchise would go through a number of name changes after the Beaneater days including the Bees, Red Caps and Rustlers before becoming the Braves, the same franchise that now calls Atlanta home. The Beaneaters (Braves) called the South End Grounds home from 1871-1914 and would play in three stadiums during that time. The plot of land they played on was previously owned by the railroad and rectangular making the field "U" shaped much like New York's Polo Grounds. It was in the second stadium that the Beaneaters hosted the Baltimore Orioles (no relation to today's team), on May 15, 1894. The fairytale like stadium was magnificent for its day. Sporting Life called it, "The Handsomest in the country." It was built by three local businessmen who bought the Boston franchise in 1877. They saw the club and baseball as a money maker, and they knew more seats meant more revenue. Arthur Soden, James Billings and William Conant were known as the "Triumvirs" and would run the team for thirty years. Much like the Romans they were named for, their "business first frugality" would be a moniker they would never shake, but they got results and won pennants, signing top players to large contracts when they saw fit and in 1888, they gave the fans of Boston a majestic stadium. Unlike Rome, it would stand for just over six years. The semi-circular grandstand sat 2,800 fans. The lower tier sat another 2,072. The balcony sat 772 and could also be used as a bandstand. Both the rightfield and leftfield bleachers could hold 2,000 people. 15,000 fans, more than double the capacity showed up for opening day, May 15, 1888. The central tower was made of brick on the bottom and terra-cotta on the top that rose 82 feet above the ground. It was topped with a flagpole that rose another 40 feet. The grandstand was flanked by four tulip shaped columns and topped with "witches caps," an architectural feature popular in the Victorian era. It had all the amenities we would expect of a park today. There were "ladies toilet rooms." The restaurants on each end of the pavilion were designed so that pavilion customers would not have to mix with lowly bleacher fans who were hungry. Teams had their own locker rooms and there was a separate press and telegraph section complete with individual folding desks. So imposing, from the Walpole Street entrance, was the edifice that it was often called the "Walpole Street Grounds." The South End neighborhood it was in bordered the newly incorporated Roxbury neighborhood. The Triumvirs had Walpole Street widened to accommodate the foot traffic. The street's houses gave rise, literally, to a cottage industry of selling rooftop seats to watch games without paying full price. Before Fenway Park's famed Citco sign, "Sullivan's Tower" was the city's baseball landmark. Despite efforts by the team to raise netting and cloth sails to obstruct the views of rooftop "deadhead" spectators and despite the city changing its ordinances and sending inspectors to "Sullivan's roost," he would keep building upward undeterred and to the annoyance of the Triumvirs. The Boston Globe would even publish a poem paying homage to Sullivan's Tower. Leftfield bleacher fans would be treated to raining soot and embers from passing trains on the bordering tracks, occasionally delaying games until the smoke cleared. During that game against the Orioles of Baltimore there was smoke of another kind rising. Though the Beaneaters were defending champs, the Orioles were ascendant and about to win three straight pennants of their own. Led by the fiery John McGraw (the same John McGraw who would go on to manage the NY Giants for 30-years), the Orioles would take over the league in 1894. In the bottom of the third inning on that day in May 1894, on a play at third, Boston's first baseman Tommy "Foghorn" Tucker would be kicked in the head by McGraw. Tucker, named "Foghorn" for his boisterous voice and incessant talking during games, and McGraw, who were both considered among the tougher players in a very tough league, would get into a fight. Upon being kicked, Foghorn rose and punched McGraw. The two would exchange blows, and though the inning ending on McGraw's tag, the fight did not. The fisticuffs delighted the Boston faithful so much so that they had not noticed the start of a fire in rightfield. Taking the field for the start of the fourth inning Jimmy Bannon, Boston's right fielder, noticed the then small fire. At first, he tried stamping it out with his foot, then his cap, then the wind kicked it up forcing him to retreat. Likely from a careless match, a fire that could have been stamped out easily if not for the distraction of the fight at third base, became a wall of flame that spread across the stadium and then across Walpole Street. As fans ran onto the field and into the South End neighborhood to escape the heat, John Haggerty, the park's groundskeeper, ran to alert the fire department. After a third alarm was raised, fire departments from a ten-mile radius of the city were sent in. The firemen struggled to find enough water hydrants and precious time was waisted stretching hoses to their limits. The rapidity of the fire forced engine teams to waist more time rolling to safety. In just 45 minutes the "Camelot of baseball" was completely destroyed. In less than three hours 12 acres of the city were leveled including a firehouse, a school and 200 buildings, groundskeeper John Haggerty's house and Michael Sullivan's Tower among them. Some 2,000 people were left homeless. Though most were not insured and as the Boston Globe wrote, "lost their little all," no one was killed in what came to be known as "The Great Roxbury Fire." The Beaneaters, being underinsured themselves by half the worth of The Grand Pavilion, built a much more modest stadium (in just 10 weeks) on the same South End Grounds where the team would remain until 1914. The actual cause of the fire was never determined, but it was known wood debris from stadium repairs was beneath the rightfield stands. Finger pointing as to how the fire was handled never led to any accountability. The Braves would leave Boston for Milwaukee in 1953 and then Atlanta, where they still play, in 1966. They are the only franchise to win a World Series in three different cities and are the oldest, continuously operated, team in all of baseball. Despite all the team's changes the South End Grounds in Boston remain the place they called home the longest, 43 years. In the days after the fire editorials would point the finger at the Triumvirs penny-wise and pound-foolish frugality. Not only was the Grand Pavilion underinsured, but for the sake of a $15 city fee, a fire hydrant inside the Grand Pavilion was never connected.
First Published 1/29/2023 ~ "Martin Hofstetter's Electric Ball" ~ Martin Hofstetter never played baseball, but a ball he kept in his sock drawer for six decades is in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The story of how it got there is almost as great as the family who got it there. Martin Hofstetter's father Jack was an electrician and worked at an electrical supply store in New York City. In 1952 Dodger great Roy Campanella walked in seeking supplies and advice for a wiring project he was doing himself at his nearby home. Jack helped Roy so much during that project that Campanella would return to ask Jack what he could do to "repay" him. Jack said he was merely helping a customer, but he did mention he had a 10-year-old boy at home that loved the Dodgers. Soon after "Campy" returned with an A.G. Spaulding bag holding a baseball signed by the entire 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers. Jack Hofstetter would bring that ball home to a very happy little boy. Martin Hofstetter would go on to have two boys of his own, Adam and Steve. They grew up a baseball family. Being of Jewish ancestry and having an adopted sister who is black, the Hofstetters related well to the Dodgers being baseball's outsiders and "misfits" and breaking the color barrier with the coming of Jackie Robinson and other black players including Roy Campanella. When the Dodgers broke Martin's heart by moving to Los Angeles the family became Mets fans and have many fond memories of going to games together. On rare occasions Martin would show the ball to the boys who would then argue as to who would one day get it. Steve Hofstetter is a well-known comedian who travels the country. In 2014 he had the honor of throwing out the first pitch for the Tampa Bay Rays. That night he called Martin in his New York apartment and left a message on his answering machine, "Dad, I threw a strike. Call me back." A return call never came. Adam and Steve's father had died in his sleep. Suddenly the brothers debate about who would one day get the ball became a reality. They decided it would simply be a "family ball." After all, they are a baseball family. If you ever have the pleasure of touring the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, you will see a statue of Buck O'Neil as you enter. Buck was one of the kindest and greatest ambassadors of the game. He was everyone's gentle grandfather and told amazing baseball stories. He was a terrific player who made two All-Star teams while in the Negro League with the Kansas City Monarchs. His 1940 season is one of the greatest ever and he helped the Monarchs win it all in 1942. Later, with the Cubs in Chicago, he would become MLB's first black coach. It was his vision that helped create the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. It is also one of baseball's greatest oversights that they didn't put "ole Buck" into Cooperstown before he died in 2006. There are simply too many Buck O'Neil accomplishments to list here, but for our story, he is integral. Unbeknownst to Adam and Steve, Buck played a part in getting Martin's ball into the NLBM even if "ole Buck" didn't know it himself. Adam once visited the NLBM, and while there, followed a tour Buck O'Neil was giving to some local politicians. "I sort of stole a tour" Adam would later say. Years later, Steve responded to a Tweet by Kansas City native and former Dodger pitcher Rick Sutcliffe about the kindness of Roy Campanella. It was in this Tweet thread that Steve shared the story of Martin's ball. It was also in this thread that Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick, who helped Buck O'Neil start the museum, asked Steve where the ball is. The rest is history. Adam, feeling he owed the NLBM something for that Buck O'Neil tour he "stole" and Steve agreeing that it was a family ball and that having it displayed for the larger baseball family would honor their father's memory, agreed to have it loaned to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in 2019. This coincided with the 100th birthday of Jackie Robinson. "Part of the amazing thing of this story is that everything seems to line up a bunch of times," Steve Hofstetter said. He would go on to say, "I bet there's a whole lot of baseball history that's in people's houses and not in museums. I hope this encourages people to change that." Among the signatures on Martin's ball are 15 All-Stars, 2 MVP's, 2 Rookies of the Year and 5 Hall of Famers including Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson and, of course, Roy Campanella. The signatures on Martin's ball are in different color pen. It is believed that "Campy" gathered the signatures over a number of days. There is also a "1952" written on the ball by a 10-year-old Martin Hofstetter. When the brothers were asked by the crowd gathered at the NLBM for the unveiling of Martin's ball how the signatures stayed so vibrant after almost seven decades, they credited their father's sock drawer.
First Published 1/20/2023 ~ "SMALL BALL" ~ In-between games of a double header on August 19, 1951, the St. Louis Browns owner, Bill Veeck, always trying to find creative ways to boost his struggling team's attendance, decided to celebrate the American League's 50th anniversary by wheeling a cake onto the field with 3'7" "midget" popping out of it to the crowd's delight. The "midget" was a 26-year-old man named Eddie Gaedel, who Veeck had wrapped in blankets and snuck into Sportsmans Park before the game. Only a couple people besides Veeck in the stadium knew what he was really there for. When the second game started, the Browns pinch-hit the 3'7" Eddie for leadoff man Frank Saucier. The umpire balked at the idea, but the Browns manager produced a legal contract stating that Eddie Gaedel was signed to play in the majors forcing the umpire to allow him to bat. Bill Veeck had submitted the proper paperwork to the league's offices late Friday knowing no one would read it until Monday morning, the day after the stunt. Eddie Gaedel came to bat wearing the number "1/8." The uniform he wore was borrowed from the team bat boy Bill DeWitt Jr. who was the son of the Brown's owner and he himself is now the owner of the then cross-town rival, St. Louis Cardinals. Eddie was as nervous as nervous could be. He had never played baseball and certainly had never faced a major league pitcher. He was so nervous, one of the coaches had to help him tie his shoes. Adding to his fear was the knowledge that if he even tried to swing at a pitch, a sniper in the stands would shoot him. It was a lie Veeck told Eddie as part of the plan. It worked. Eddie stepped into the batter's box and though he did his best Joe Dimaggio impression, never swung. His strike zone was a mere one and one-half inches due to his size. The Tigers catcher Bob Swift and Tiger pitcher Bob Cain could be seen laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Eddie took four consecutive balls, all high, for a walk. On his way to first, Eddie began to ham it up and tip his cap to the crowd, one of the largest the Brown's had that season. Once at first, a pinch runner was sent in. Eddie patted the runner on the rear the way ball players do and tipped his hat as he stopped to let the crowd lavish him with applause and laughter before exiting the stage into the dugout. It was the only time a little person ever pinch hit in the majors and the league immediately made a rule disallowing the practice. Despite the ruling, his official on-base percentage is 1.000. Before the infamous game, Eddie was famous for being the winged Roman god mascot Mercury for Mercury Records. During WW2 he was a valued riveter utilizing his size to crawl into the wings of planes to do the work larger men and woman could not. He was a member of a performer's union and found work with Ringling Brothers Circus and as Buster Brown at shoe store openings. After the infamous game, Eddie was able to parley his fame into a small fortune with radio, tv and convention appearances. Off the field he was not as jovial. He would lament his size and often ask his mother, who he still lived with, if it was her fault, he was so small. He was picked on in school and throughout his life. He drank too much and was known for his temper. He once cussed out two police officers who mistook him for a child being out too late so badly, they arrested him for disorderly conduct. Late on a June night in 1961, 10-years after his one at-bat, Eddie was coming home from a bowling alley near his Chicago home and was beat up. He managed to stagger home and put himself to bed. He never woke up. His mother found him the next morning unresponsive with cuts and bruises to his face and knees. A coroner deemed Eddie had suffered a heart attack, likely from the events of the night before. It is still not known if Eddie was simply mugged, or something happened in that bowling alley that caused an altercation. The case remains open in Chicago to this day. When Eddie was buried, Bob Cain, the pitcher who walked him, was the only person from baseball to pay his respects. In his honor, Eddie Gaedel Societies exist across the country from Spokane Washington to St. Louis Missouri to Los Angeles California to Three Oaks Michigan and to Elburn Illinois where there is also a bar named in his honor. There is even an Eddie Gaedel Society Chapter in Dublin Ireland. They all gather annually on August 19th, the day Eddie stepped to the plate. In an interesting twist of fate, Dave Stevens who is 3' 2" tall due to being a congenital amputee played a game at second base for the minor league St. Paul Saints in 1996. The owner of that team was Bill Veeck's son Mike. Dave also has the distinction of pinch-hitting for Daryl Strawberry! After being exhibited in Cooperstown, Eddie Gaedel's "1/8" jersey is now on permanent display inside the St. Louis Cardinals distinguished hall of fame where they also have items from the St. Louis Brown's. After Eddie earned his walk, was pinch-hit for and walked back to the Brown's dugout to the roar of a standing ovation, he told his teammate Frank Saucier, the man he pinch-hit for, "I feel like Babe Ruth today!" There are 10 known Eddie Gaedel autographs, and any one of them is worth more than any of Babe Ruth's.
First Published 1/16/2023 ~ "Curt Flood's Stand" ~ As we commemorate Martin Luther King Day, we ought to also remember Curt Flood whose activism changed baseball forever. Perhaps inspired by his time in Mississippi marching with The Reverend King and Jackie Robinson in 1962, it was on this date in 1970 that Curt filed his lawsuit fighting baseballs reserve clause. Flood refused to report to Philadelphia after the Cardinals traded him the year before. In 1969 Flood wrote, then commissioner, Bowie Kuhn asking for the right to decide where he played after being in the league 12 years. "I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes," he wrote. The letter and the lawsuit failed to win Flood his freedom from the much-hated reserve clause, but his actions opened the flood gates of sympathy for the players plight and in five years the reserve clause was removed, and the era of free agency began. Flood's stand for what was right brought players their freedom to choose the city they wanted to play in and more money than they ever imagined. Gone were the days of players working seasonal jobs in the off-season for extra cash to get by. Also gone was Curt Flood's career. After sitting out the 1970 season, he would play just 13 games with the Washington Senator's in 1971 before deciding to retire against the wishes of manager Ted Williams. Flood was a terrific center fielder winning seven consecutive Gold Gloves for the Cardinals in the 1960's. He was a three-time All-Star and won two World Series (1964, 1967). Known for his defense, his lifetime batting average is still .293. Flood was never the same after he took on baseball. He would receive death threats often from fans accusing him of ruining the game. He knew his bravery would end his career saying, "I don't think I'll be getting the opportunity to play again. As big as it is, baseball is a closely knit unit. I doubt even one of the 24 men controlling the game would touch me with a ten-foot pole. You can't buck the establishment." Congress would acknowledge Flood's contributions in 1997 legislation that extended federal antitrust protections to baseball. It is known as "The Curt Flood Act." The St. Louis Cardinals would honor flood in their Hall of Fame. In 2020, a letter written to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, asking them to admit Curt Flood, was signed by 102 member of the United States Congress and co-signed by the Player's Unions of all five major sports leagues. Curt Flood died of pneumonia in 1997, the same year Congress passed the act in his name, he was 59 years old. Two years prior, in 1995, Flood had surgery for throat cancer. The procedure left the man, who was the voice for so many and for future generations of baseball players, unable to speak.
First Published 12/24/2022 ~ "CLEMENTE" ~ The Apostle James wrote, "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled' without giving them the things needed for the body; what does it profit? So, faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead." Roberto Clemente gave his life putting these words and his Christian faith into action. As we celebrate another Christmas and the coming New Year, it is easy to get distracted in all the chaos modern Christmas brings. True Christmas is supposed to mark the birth of Christ Jesus and bring with it the peace that promise fulfills. This holiday season we also mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Roberto Clemente, one of baseball's greatest ever and one of the world's great humanitarians. On September 30, 1972, Roberto would hit a stand-up double, put his hands on his hips, look towards heaven and roll his neck in a fashion his fans would know well. He seemed to be savoring the moment. It was a long way from the Puerto Rican sugar cane fields he grew up working on in a family that struggled to provide. That hit would make him just the 11th player to reach 3000 hits, the first Latino to achieve the mark, and would be the last regular season hit of his illustrious 18-year career, all with the Pittsburg Pirates. Just three months later, he would perish in a plane crash bringing aid to the people of Nicaragua after an earthquake on December 23, 1972, killed thousands and left thousands more homeless in the Central American country. Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker was born on August 18, 1934, in Carolina Puerto Rico. He was an Olympic hopeful in track and field before focusing on baseball. Roberto would use that speed to run the bases with abandon in his easily recognizable style and shag fly balls with the grace of a ballet dancer to the delight of fans everywhere. He would run full steam, make the catch and slide to avoid his center fielder or the foul line wall. His baseball IQ seemingly always positioned him to play the carom in right field cleanly, returning the ball to the infield, often to third or home to prevent runners from scoring, without a bounce. From his debut in 1955 until his final season in 1972 he was arguably the greatest right fielder ever. A devout Catholic and a proud man, he would champion truth while fighting injustice on and off the field. Many white players would look at him only as black. Many black players would look at him as foreign. While in the South for spring training he would have to ride the black bus and wasn't allowed to stay in the whites only hotels or eat in the whites only restaurants. Sports writers would quote him phonetically trying to mimic his thick Spanish accent, something he considered an insult and a sign of disrespect. He and his wife Vera were told they couldn't afford the furniture they were shopping for by a salesman who only saw his color not knowing who he was. Like Jesus, Roberto was often misquoted and misunderstood, but he would persevere with his dignity. Lies are quick, but the truth is often slow. The truth, like cream and Clemente, would eventually rise. He would go from a quiet rookie to a respected team leader. On the field he was a 15-time All-Star who would amass 3000 hits, a career .317 average, 166 triples, two World Series (1960 & 1971) and four batting titles. Known for his cannon of an arm, baserunners knew they were never safe. He would lead the league in OF assist five times and DP's turned by a right fielder four times. His 12 Gold Gloves are tied with only Willie Mays for most by an outfielder. His 1966 MVP and his 1971 World Series MVP are both first for a Latino player. And in the history of baseball, he is the only player with an inside-the-park walk-off grand slam. However, it was when the lights went off at the park and the sports writers and the cameramen weren't with him, that Roberto Clemente truly went to work. Like Jesus, Roberto knew his true purpose was to the common people, not his celebrity. He would donate his time coaching and teaching kids all over the US and Latin America, including his home of Puerto Rico, the tools needed for not just baseball, but life. At his camps, before a kid swung a bat or put on a glove, he made sure to mentor them about being good children to their parents and good people in the world. Roberto would fight for social and economic injustices. He was generous with his time and donations. He had a strong sense of truth and empathy. He would take baseball equipment to sick kids and viewed baseball as a way of bettering the lives of kids everywhere. As a player, he would use his celebrity to gain support for what he called "the biggest ambition of my life." Clemente had a vision of a "sports city" where kids of all backgrounds could live for short periods of time. Clemente and his wife Vera had three sons. They would accompany him doing his offseason work. In the Fall of 1972, after the season ended, they would travel and fall in love with the people of Nicaragua. Roberto was coaching for Puerto Rico in the World Amateur Baseball Championships. It was here that Roberto and Vera befriended and paid for a little boy to fly to the United States and get the prosthetic legs he needed. Just a few weeks after the Clemente's returned to Puerto Rico the earthquake struck Nicaragua. Upon hearing the news, Roberto wasted no time. He would immediately gather a relief committee and work tirelessly, 14 hours a day, through Christmas Eve and Christmas and the week leading up to New Year's, gathering donations and supplies. He would run baseball clinics that week to solicit donations and use his celebrity to go on the radio and gather even more. In just that short time, his committee raised over $150,000 and 26 tons of food, clothes and supplies. He would lease two planes to get the things to Nicaragua. When he heard the Nicaraguan military was stealing supplies and donations, Roberto decided he had to go himself. He went home and said goodby to Vera and the boys. His oldest son, Roberto Jr., predicted the plane would crash. Roberto himself often told Vera he felt he would die young. With only a few hours left in the year, Roberto boarded the plane. There were rumors of it needing repairs. In addition, it was not properly loaded, and it was overweight by 4000 pounds. The plane labored to take off, an engine failed, and the plane crashed just moments and just offshore after takeoff. Five passengers, including Roberto Clemente were killed. He was just 38 years old. If you are ever fortunate enough to visit the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburg, you will see a stained-glass likeness of Roberto making a catch in the outfield. The clouds in the glasswork form angelic wings on his body. By all accounts, Clemente was a good teammate, husband and father. He was a faithful Catholic who made the world a better place. There was a movement to make Clemente a saint, but he fell a single shy of the "Catholic Cycle" and received the next closest honor, being named "blessed" by Pope Francis. In 1973, Roberto Clemente became just the second player to have the mandatory five-year waiting period waived and be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame posthumously, capping a career that gained him almost every award a player can win. Around the world there are more streets, bridges, parks, buildings, memorials, statues and ballfields in his name than could possibly be counted. The bridge, over the Allegany River, connecting downtown Pittsburg to the Pirates Park is the Roberto Clemente Bridge. A stadium in Masaya Nicaragua, the country he died trying to help, is now called Estadio Roberto Clemente. And the Puerto Rican Baseball League changed it's name to Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente and his image getting his 3000th hit is their logo. His son Roberto Jr., who predicted the plane crash, along with his two brothers, run the Roberto Clemente Foundation to this day. Baseball celebrates Roberto every September 15th with a day in his honor. Many players, from all teams, choose to wear his number '21' that day. The Roberto Clemente Award is given annually to the player who "best represents the game of Baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field." Every club nominates a player and that, in-and-of itself, is an honor. The Roberto Clemente Sports City, that he dreamed of, now exist. More than one million children have passed through including major leaguers Bernie Williams, Juan Gonzales and Ivan Rodrigues. When friends and family and teammates gathered in Puerto Rico just days after Clemente's death for the memorial, there was a notable person missing, Manny Sanguillen. Manny and Roberto where teammates for six seasons. Roberto took the young catcher under his wing and a strong friendship was formed. While the memorial was going on, Manny spent days swimming and searching the rough and shark filled waters where the crash took place. "There are no words to describe the appreciation, the gratitude, of knowing that my father's friendship meant so much to someone that he put his own life second. He wanted to find Dad with no regard for anything else. Nothing else was more important to him and that's priceless." said Luis Clemente. Manny Sanguillen would return to those waters a number of times to look for his friend, but Roberto Clemente's body was never found. As we celebrate Christmas and contemplate our New Year's resolutions, perhaps this year we can make a resolution that doesn't focus on losing weight or giving something up that benefits ourselves. Perhaps, this year, we can remember the words of St. James and make a resolution that benefits others like Roberto did. Roberto Clemente was often known to say, "If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for the people coming behind you, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this Earth."
First Published 12/14/2022 ~ "BOSTON'S ROYAL ROOTERS" ~ The Royal Rooters called the Third Base Saloon their headquarters, so named because it was often patron's last stop before going home. It's owner, Michael T. "Nuf Ced" McGreevy, was their leader and nicknamed for his ability to break up arguments and bar fights simply by separating the combatants and saying "nuf ced." The group was made up of about 150, mostly second-generation, Boston Irish, and included Boston's Mayor Fitzgerald, the grandfather of future president John F. Kennedy, among its ranks. The Rooters trace their beginnings to the late 18th century when they traveled with the National League Boston Beaneaters (Braves) to Baltimore where they won the NL Pennant of 1897. The good fortune they helped bring their team would be the start of a 20-year tradition of mayhem. They switched their allegiance to the Boston Americans (Red Sox) when the American League started in 1901. McGreevy and his "Rooters" would march down Boston's Huntington Avenue to the Huntington Avenue Grounds, where the Red Sox played then, in a parade to draw attention to the game and bring out spirited fans to root for the home team. A marching band, members armed with their own drums and noisemakers of all kinds would make as much commotion as humanly possible to cheer on the Red Sox. If you are not a fan of Boston fans today, you have, in part, the Royal Rooters to thank. They traveled to other cities and even spring training at a time when this was rare. The Rooters would cheer and sing non-stop during the course of a game. They would stomp on enemy dug outs and heckle the heck out of opposing players, standing as close to them as possible to intimidate them. They are the origins of the modern sports traveling clubs, and they were the first sports fan club to be acknowledged nationwide. Newspapers across the country would write about their antics with the Sporting News calling them "clowning seekers." In the first World Series, in 1903, they traveled to Pittsburg and helped bring the Red Sox their first title after being down three games to one. The Pittsburg Dispatch called them "howling maniacs" and wrote that the Rooters "war dances, cheers, yells and songs resounding clear across the Allegany River." Pirate outfielder Tommy Leach would go on to say, "I think those Boston fans won the Series. We beat them three out of four and then they started singing that "Tessie" song." "Tessie" was from a play and had nothing to do with baseball. It was about a parakeet, but the Rooters would change the lyrics to mock future Hall of Famer Honus Wagner. Instead of "Tessie, I love you madly," The Boston gang would sing, "Honus, why do you hit so badly?" Wagner hit .355 that year, leading both leagues and winning a batting title, but in the eight-game series he went just 6-26 and had six fielding errors at shortstop. Honus Wagner was so upset by his performance that he eventually refused to send along his portrait to the Hall of Fame to commemorate his batting title pointing to his 1903 World Series performance as the reason. Many Pittsburg players cited the Rooters and "Tessie" for their collapse. The Boston Post wrote of the Rooter's performance, "Like escaped patients from an insane asylum." "Tessie" and the Rooters would be there for the Red Sox 1904 Pennant and in 1912, at a new Fenway Park, the Rooters would nearly incite a riot when their seats along "Duffy's Cliff" were sold from out and under them. They forced their way into the game and Boston Police on horse had to be called to quell the mob. Incensed by their injustice the Rooters eventually had the Red Sox employee responsible fired. The Boston Braves won the 1914 World Series with the Rooters help for the National League team of the city. The Royal Rooters were so well known that opposing owners or League Presidents would reserve a block of tickets for them at their ballparks. In the 1915 World Series however, Philadelphia Phillies owner William Baker refused until the league commissioner stepped in, demonstrating the power and respect McGreevy's club had earned. The 1916 World Series against Brooklyn, the Rooters took Dodger (Robins) fans under their wing, teaching them the finer points of rooting for one's team. In 1917, without a Boston team in the championship, World Series officials invited the Royal Rooters anyway in recognition of their 20 years of promoting baseball. And in 1918, the last World Series title of the Red Sox Golden Era, the Rooters and "Tessie" were there one last time. In all, the Royal Rooters and "Tessie" where there for six Red Sox pennants and five World Series Championships before the group fragmented and the song died out. In 1919 Babe Ruth would have his breakout season hitting a new league record 29 home runs on a team that hit 33. He would lead the league in virtually every statistical category and pitch 133 innings with a 2.97 ERA. Despite Ruth's historic season the Red Sox would finish sixth in the AL, 20.5 games behind Chicago. That offseason Ruth was sold to the Yankees in what would come-to-be known as "The Curse of the Bambino." In 1920 Prohibition would force McGreevy to close Third Base. As the Rooters and Third Base went so went the Red Sox. Boston would go 86 years before winning their next title. Third Base is considered the World's first sports bar with baseball bats, used by players, as light fixtures and hundreds of photographs of players and stadiums of the day. During McGreevy's years leading the Rooters, he befriended Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Smokey Joe Wood and players from other cities like Ty Cobb and many others, whose photographs covered virtually every inch of wall space. When prohibition began and McGreevy had to close Third Base, he would lease the space to a branch of the Boston Public Library, the oldest library in the nation. In 1923 he would also donate his collection of photographs to the library. It is considered among the most important collections of early baseball images in the country. These images are so valuable that about a quarter of this collection was stolen in the late 1970's. About half of the stolen photographs have since been recovered, but no one has ever been caught for the theft. The legacy of the Royal Rooters and "Nuf Ced" lives on. The New England Historical Society called him, "The Grandfather of Red Sox Nation." Versions of Third Base have come and gone and there is even a Royal Rooters bar in NY City, of all places, called Foley's. There are also versions of Royal Rooters clubs that meet virtually. Pins, worn by the Rooters, with tiny photographs of the Rooters and team photos worn on their lapels are worth a small fortune, if you can find one. The 1915 pin has a rookie Babe Ruth in the team photo and it is believed there are only five of the 1903 pins in existence. In the summer of 2004 Boston Band the Dropkick Murphy's released their own version of the song "Tessie." Some of its lyrics include, "The Rooters gave the other team a dreadful fright-Boston's tenth man could not be wrong-Up from Third Base to Huntington-They'd sing another victory song." It was the first time a version of "Tessie" had been played at Fenway Park since 1918. That year, down three games to none, the Red Sox made baseball's most historic comeback against their ancient rivals the New York Yankees to win the pennant and went on to win the World Series and break their 86-year Championship drought....Nuf ced.
First Published 11/29/2022 ~ "Rickwood Field" ~ It is estimated 180 Baseball Hall of Famers have stepped onto Rickwood Field, more than any other park in baseball history. More than Fenway, more than Wrigley and more than Yankee Stadium. It is also the oldest stadium in professional baseball, two years older than Boston's Fenway Park, but it's not in Boston or NY or Chicago, nor is it in St. Louis or Cincinatti or Philadelphia. Rickwood Field is in Birmingham Alabama. Though it is unlikely to be the city most seamheads think of, Birmingham has a rich baseball legacy. Birmingham Alabama was a planned city. Industrialists from the railroads and steel industries as well as cotton planters and bankers named the city after Birmingham England in hopes of having similar industrial success. Birmingham, AL. is also the only known place in the world where iron ore, coal and limestone, the three main ingredients for making steel, are found in large quantities in close proximity. This is how Birmingham became known as "The Pittsburg of the South" and it would be that steel that would build Rickwood Field in 1910. Woodward Iron Company was founded by Allan Harvey "Rick" Woodward's farther and uncle in 1891. "Rick" was a manager there and a lover of baseball. He was a good catcher in college and managed the company team. In 1909 he bought the Birmingham Barons, a team that traced its lineage back to 1885. He immediately started planning a new stadium. He would contact manager and future Hall of Famer Connie Mack seeking advice. Mack would even visit the site and offer his insight on how to best shape the field. It was modeled after Shibe Park, where Mack's Philadelphia A's played and Forbe's Field in Pittsburg, another steel city. Rickwood Field, as it would be named in a newspaper contest, was the first "concrete and steel" stadium ever in the minors and in the South at a time when the major leagues had just four of their own. "Rick" would throw out the first pitch (in uniform and it counted) on August 18, 1910, in front of a packed house as the entire city of Birmingham was closed for business that day. The Barons would score two, dramatically, in the bottom of the ninth to earn their first win. It was just the beginning. For the next 77 years (with a few gaps) the Birmingham Barons would call Rickwood Field home and fans would be witness to Ty Cobb, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, Pie Traynor, Mel Allen, Chief Bender, Joe Cronin, Eddie Collins, Rube Marquard, Enos Slaughter, Early Wynn, Joe Tinker, Casey Stingle, Lou Gehrig, Duke Snider, John McGraw, Al Kaline, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Mathews, Pee Wee Reese, Heinie Manush, Phil Rizzuto, Warren Spahn, "Lefty" Grove, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial and Ted Williams to name but a few. The fans of Birmingham would be treated to major leaguers visiting on "Barn Storming" tours or heading back north from Spring Training or as an affiliate of a Major League franchise. Due to the close proximity to the field, local kids could chat and ask for autographs and take pictures with their heroes. "While the Barons are away, watch the Black Barons play," read the advertisement. From 1920 until 1960 The Birmingham Black Barons would share Rickwood Field and bring even more Hall of Famers to the park including, "Cool Papa" Bell, Ernie Banks, Oscar Charleston, Rube Foster, Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Monte Irvin, Bullet Rogan, Willie Wells and Turkey Stearns. Again, just to name a few. It wasn't just about other teams future Hall of Famers passing through. Rickwood Field had plenty of home-grown talent and history of its very own. While the Barons where affiliated with the Oakland A's, a young Reggie Jackson would make his professional debut managed by Hall of Famer Joe Dimaggio. Pie Traynor manned third for the Barons and before Mike Schmidt and George Brett, was considered by many the greatest third baseman ever. The Dixie Series often had the Barons representing the Southern League against the Texas League champs. In one match up the Barons 43-year-old pitcher Ray Caldwell out dueled a brash young and future Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean 1-0 in the 1931 championship game Dean promised to win. Satchel Paige, regarded as perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, won more games with the Black Barons than any other team he pitched for. Burleigh Grimes, the last legal spit baller, toed the mound here for the home team, as did Charlie Pride before going on to Country music's Hall of Fame. Dan Bankhead played for the Black Barons and was the first African American pitcher in the major leagues. He was also one of five Bankhead brothers in the Negro Leagues. George "Mule" Suttles, who once hit three home runs in an inning, swung a 50oz. bat and hit over .300 in 12 straight seasons called Rickwood home for three years. Fans would chant, "Kick Mule kick" as he would hit towering home runs that drew Ruthian comparisons. He would finish his Hall of Fame career among the all-time leaders in home runs, doubles, RBI and slugging percentage for the Negro Leagues. When the Barons where affiliated with the White Sox, Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas wowed crowds with spectacular hitting. And after a Hall of Fame basketball career, Michael Jordan came to Birmingham to give baseball a crack. His Barons manager was future three-time Manager of the Year and World Series Champion Terry Francona. And a 16-year-old "kid" from the neighborhood, who would only play center field for the Black Barons home games because he was too young to travel for the away ones, Willy Mays, played here too. Some say he was the greatest five tool player ever. The year was 1948 and he was part of a Black Barons team that would represent the Negro American League in the final Negro Leagues World Series ever. In all the Barons won 12 and the Black Barons won 4 League Titles. There were some seasons the city had no team in the 60's and 70's before the Barons played their final game at Rickwood in 1987, they lost the game but won the Southern League title in a run that was known as "one more for Rickwood." Birmingham News sports editor Alf Van Hoose once wrote, "No city ever has enough happy places." Rickwood Field was one of those happy places and played host to more than baseball. The circus, baseball collector shows, and rock concerts all took place here. The Alabama football team called Rickwood home for a time and an Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn too was played here. After the Barons moved across town for the 1988 season the stadium fell into disrepair. Ironically, it would be a movie about baseball that would help bring Rickwood back. In 1994 the baseball scenes for "Cobb" were filmed here. As were the baseball scenes for "Soul of the Game" in 1995. The movies helped fund restorations and brought publicity to the "Friends of Rickwood" who, since 1992, help maintain the park as a living museum to this day. They host the annual "Rickwood Classic" between the Birmingham Barons and a Southern League opponent every spring complete with teams and umpires in vintage uniforms and many folks in the crowd in period dress. Local high schools and a college use the field now. Fans are encouraged to visit and take a self-guided tour. Visitors can admire the Spanish mission style tiles on the roof, the famous steel light towers, the manual scoreboard and the old cement wall where a red "X" marks the spot Walt Dropo hit his famous home run (believed to be the park's longest). Old signs adorn the current outfield wall. You can walk through the umpire's room, the room where the "Dugout" restaurant once fed folks and the locker room complete with the movie locker of Jackie Robinson from the movie "42" also partly filmed at Rickwood. Inside the movie locker are the real Robinson jerseys from his KC Monarchs days and an authentic 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers jersey he actually wore. There are old photographs of players and managers that passed through like Rollie Fingers and of Willy Mays celebrating the 1948 pennant with the team. Seats from the original Polo Grounds, once home to the NY Giants, and once used at Rickwood after the Giants left for San Fransisco, can be seen. There is even the original cash register used on opening day in 1910. The only place off limits is the old home team manager's room. It is perfectly preserved and sealed since the day it was locked for good in 1948. Inside there are all the things you would expect to see in an office, a trash bin, a coat rack, a bookcase, notes hanging, a baseball, a rotary phone and a pin-up calendar. There is also a wood roll top desk and on its corner is a dog eared and browning newspaper from that day with a headline you can read through the window, "Babe Ruth, 53, dies of Cancer."
First Published 11/1/2022 ~ "Lucky Lohrke" ~ Jack Lohrke would go 0-2 in the two-pinch hit at-bats he had in the 1951 World Series, but the fact that he was there at all was a miracle. Born in Los Angeles in 1924, Jack was noticed as an excellent infielder in high school and was given an opportunity to join the Pioneer League. He had an immediate impact and won the MVP with the Twin Falls Cowboys that year before being called up to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. Then he was called to World War II. The troop transport train he was on derailed and burst into flames burning many and killing three. Lohrke walked away unscathed. He survived the Normandy landing and the battle of the Bulge. He survived extensive combat throughout the European theatre, saying at least four men fighting right next two him died in combat (two on either side). After the war, in New Jersey, he was bumped from his flight home to California by a senior officer. He was mad. It would be his first time flying and he couldn't wait. 45 minutes into the flight the plane went down. There were no survivors. Despite all these improbabilities, Jack still wasn't known as "Lucky" Lohrke. He made it back into baseball with the Spokane Indians of the Western International League. Lohrke was batting .345 and playing third. The Indians were playing a double header on the final day of their homestand. Between games the team gathered for the annual team photo. The next morning the team road out via bus to Bremerton Washington for their next series. Lohrke got on the bus not knowing he had been called up to the San Diego Padres of the West Coast League again. The team manager got the idea to have the Washington State Police track the bus down. They found the team and Lohrke having supper at a diner. Jack was given the option of hitchhiking back to Spokane or riding with the team to Bremerton and then finding his way to San Diego. He chose to say goodbye to his teammates and hitch a ride. That decision likely saved his life. Later that night, June 24, 1946, the team bus crossed the Cascade Mountains on a slippery, foggy road. The driver had to swerve from an oncoming car that had crossed the median, sideswiping the bus. The bus then went into a skid, crashed through the guard rail taking 125 feet of steel rail with it, down a cliff 300 feet (some estimates say it was closer to 500 feet). Men were tossed from the bus windows as it tumbled into a ravine and ended up-side down bursting into flames. Six men died instantly, two died later at the hospital and one died two days later. Infielder Ben Geraghty would struggle up the hill despite a severe head injury and flag down help. "I saw the headlights coming toward us on the wrong side of the road...We went through. We went down." Outfielder Levi McCormack told the A.P. after the accident, "I've never heard such hell. I don't know why we didn't smash the other driver. It might have been better." The team photo, taken just the day before would be the last photograph ever taken of outfielders Robert Paterson and Bob James, pitchers George Lyden and Bob Kinnaman, shortstop George Risk, first baseman Vic Picetti, second baseman Fred Martinez, catcher Chris Hartje and player/manager Mel Cole. Jack Lohrke made it back to San Diego only to learn of the crash, and then the news that both his roommates had been killed. The six survivors were badly injured and three would never play baseball again. Baseball had no rules as for what to do next. Other teams would send players to help the Spokane Indians cobble together a roaster to finish the season. A charity was set up, the Spokane Baseball Benefit Association. It would raise over $100,000 for the survivors' families. He never liked the name, but Jack "Lucky" Lohrke, as he would be known in baseball circles, would go on to play seven seasons in the majors as a respected utility player. The NY Giant's picked him up in 1947 and he got a hit in his first at-bat. He only had 22 home runs in his career, but two would break then records. That same year, he would hit the teams 183rd and 184th home runs of the season tying and breaking the single season record for home runs by a team set by the 1936 Yankees. In 1949 he would play all over the diamond and bat .267. In 1951 his manager, Leo Durocher, tried unsuccessfully to trade him to the Cubs for Andy Pafko. Later that year, when the Giants and Dodgers had a three-game playoff series to decide the pennant. Lohrke was warming up to come into the game, but as luck would have it, the man he was going to replace the next inning, Bobby Thomson, hit "The Shot Heard 'round the World" to win the NL Pennant. The man who watched Thomson's home run go over the left field wall was Andy Pafko. Lucky Lohrke witnessed one of baseball's greatest moments with few knowing how close he had come to replacing either man. Jack would go 0-2 in his only World Series appearance and would go on to finish his career with the Phillies for two seasons and then play six more seasons back in the Pacific Coast League. He was player/manager of the 1959 Tri-Cities in Washington not far from the crash site. He lived until the age of 86 and left behind his wife of more than 60 years Marie. Together they had 6 children, 10 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren whom the world would never know if Jack Lohrke wasn't so "Lucky." The Spokane Indians bus crash remains the deadliest transport accident in professional sports. Of the nine men killed that night, eight survived action in WW2.
First Published 10/20/2022 ~ "A Diamond in the Desert" ~ He commenced work on the field almost as soon as he arrived. With the help of volunteers, they cleared the sagebrush, leveled the ground and picked up all the rocks. He diverted an irrigation canal to flood the field so the Bermuda grass he sowed would take. He made a trench to the outfield "wall" to water the line of castor bean plants that would eventually grow to ten feet tall. The white foul lines were drawn with flour. The bases were sacks filled with rice. There were proper dugouts and a grandstand that held 3000 people. In all, the stadium held 7000 fans. Home plate was made from scraps of wood. The field was named "Zenimura Field" after the man who built it, Kenichi Zenimura. Zenimura was born in Hiroshima Japan in 1900. His family would move to Hawaii shortly after. Kenichi first found baseball in high school where he excelled at all nine positions. He was a natural with a mind for the game. Upon completing high school, Kenichi would go to Fresno California where he met his future wife, Lillian. They married and had three sons. They would travel between Hawaii and Fresno for a time before leaving their eldest son Kenji with Kenichi's mother in Hawaii and moving to California permanently with their other sons Howard and Harvey. Kenichi would work selling Studebaker cars and form a baseball team called the Fresno Athletic Club. Baseball was introduced to the Japanese in the late 19th century when the country was looking to Western ways to modernize. The concept of team play and fundamentals fit well with Japanese values. The Japanese who immigrated to Hawaii and the West coast of the U.S. brought their enthusiasm for the game with them and formed leagues up and down the coast. Asians experienced much discrimination in America at the time and baseball was seen as a way toward acceptance. Japanese American teams would travel to towns where signs declaring "No Japs" would sometimes be taken down after a game of baseball and a bond was formed between the visiting Japanese Americans and the locals. Hisei, Japanese living in the US who were born in Japan, would never be allowed citizenship by law. So, the Nisei, first generation born in the U.S., played baseball partly to prove they were American. They had a saying, "Putting on a baseball uniform is like wrapping yourself in the American flag." Baseball was seen as a way to bridge cultures. Between 1905 and 1940 there where over 100 tours between teams from the two countries. College, semi-pro, and professional Negro Leagues and MLB teams would tour Japan regularly. The MLB All-Stars would make the trip on nine occasions alone. After the Yankees won the World Series in 1927, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig participated in a West Coast Barnstorming tour. Kenichi Zenimura was among the handful of Japanese American players selected to play in a game between the "Bustin' Babes" and the "Larrupin' Lou's." It was from this meeting that Zenimura was able to orchestrate the Babe's 1934 tour of Japan. He also helped arrange the Philadelphia Royal Giants of the Negro Legues to tour Japan twice. As an ambassador, a player and a coach of baseball he became known as the "Father of Japanese Baseball." Then Pearl Harbor happened on December 7th, 1941, and things would change dramatically for Japanese Americans living along the West Coast. Their baseball leagues would be dissolved and 120,000 of them would be placed in internment camps for fear they may feel loyalty to Japan. Per President Roosevelt's order, Kenichi, his wife Lillian and their sons Howard and Harvey would have to sell or store their belongings and be shipped to the Gila River Camp in the Arizona desert. In all, 13,000 Japanese Americans were sent to Gila River making it the third largest city in Arizona at that time. Undeterred, Zenimura built his field and formed a baseball league with 32 teams in three divisions. He would charge teams $5 to play and would split the gate with the visiting team. Grandstand fans sat in numbered seats and were charged for their tickets. Coffee cans hung at the gates for standing fans to donate. Lillian would help run the kitchen that sold food. The games were played outside the barbed wire of the camp and under the watch of a guard tower. The games where immensely popular with both the camp residents and the guards. The camp director even threw out the first pitch opening day. Over 7,000 people would attend regularly. Often it was standing room only and for many of the Hisei it was the first time they saw a baseball game. "It was demeaning and humiliating to be incarcerated in your own country. Without baseball, camp life would have been miserable," camp resident George Omachi would say. The camps where so hot, double roofs were made to temper the stifling desert heat in the barracks. Cloth was stuffed between floorboards to protect from the dust storms. The bathrooms had no dividers. Despite having everything that was "American" taken away from them such as radios and their freedom, the residents would embrace the most American of things, baseball. All 10 internment camps had fields with teams and there where softball fields for the woman. The woman would hand sew the teams' uniforms from mattress fabric. They would pay careful attention to making the team names colorful with only the supplies they found inside the camps. Seemingly everyone, who was able, played or participated in some way. It was a community affair and kept a sense of normalcy in an otherwise dismal camp setting. Zenimura would coach the Eagles and play for the Gila River All-Stars. The games were seen as good for moral, and travel was permitted between internment camps so teams could play home and away. Local white teams would come to play and Zenimura would use the opportunity to spread good will. As coach of the Butte H.S. Eagles, his team would upset the Tuscon Badgers in the bottom of the tenth inning (Zenimura's son got the winning hit). The Badgers were three-time state champions and 52-0 before they met. When the Badgers started toward their bus to leave, it was Kenichi Zenimura who invited them for a picnic. The two teams shared watermelon and sumo wrestling lessons. Many of the Badger players would go on to say how the experience changed them for the rest of their lives. After the war the Zenimura's, like many of those interned, would return to nothing. Often their property was stolen, and they were forced to start over. Kenichi would only find menial work due to resentment toward Japanese Americans after the war, but he would remain the "Dean of the Diamond" and played baseball until he was 55. He was active in coaching and even helped get his sons Howard and Harvey professional contracts with the Hiroshima Carp in 1953. It was here that Howard and Harvey would see their older brother Kenji for the first time since they were kids. Kenji, who was left with his grandmother in Hawaii, was eventually taken back to Japan before the war. During the war he would serve in the Japanese Imperial Navy. The objective in baseball is to go home. "Tadaima" translates to "I'm home" in Japanese. From Hawaii to Fresno to the Gila River Camp to Hiroshima, the Zenimura family would call many places "home." Kenichi Zenimura died in a car accident in 1968 in California. The wooden home plate he made by hand while interned at Gila River, the only thing left of Zenimura Field, is in Cooperstown....the "home" of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
First Published 10/13/2022 ~"What a Rube" ~ He entered the ballpark through the grandstands in street clothes. The noise of the fans grew as he made his way through the crowd. From the opposite side of the stadium fans could see the commotion of pushing and shoving and laughing and taunts and peanuts being tossed. He took bites of hot dogs and sips of beers that were not his as he made his way to the field. When he finally got to the pitcher's mound, he took off all his clothes, to the delight of the fans, and changed into the uniform he had carried under his arm. He was the home team's starting pitcher, a lefty, and his name was Rube Waddell. Before Babe Ruth, Rube Waddell might have been baseball's most popular player and one of the very first superstars. He was a strikeout machine, but it was his non-baseball antics that equally contributed to his fame. He would often be late for games because he was playing marbles with kids on the street. He would leave the dugout in the middle of a game to go fishing and he would run from the mound, while pitching, to go chase a firetruck if he heard the siren. Lefties have long been known for their quirks. Babe Ruth's escapades are well documented. Lefty Gomez was nicknamed "El Goofo." Al Hrabosky was called "The Mad Hungarian" and Bill Lee, who would often give long monologues of head scratching logic, was known as the "Spaceman." But no one, no one was Rube Waddell. He was a hulk of a man, strong as an ox with the mentality of a boy. He was born George Edward Waddell on Friday the 13th, 1876 in perhaps a sign of what was to come. He grew up in rural Pennsylvania. His father was in the oil industry and Rube would get strong working sometimes on the oil rigs of his father's company or digging coal. He would strengthen his arm and his accuracy throwing rocks at birds. When he was three, he was found at the local fire station where he had been for days while his parents frantically searched for him. Fires and fire trucks and going missing would-be themes throughout his life. Perhaps autistic or attention deficit, his mental capacity was estimated to be a third of his age. He was called a "Rube" as a boy for his simple ways and the name would stick for the whole of his short life. Opposing fans would hold up puppies enticing him to leave the mound to pet or distract him with something shiny in attempts to throw him from his game. It often worked. He turned professional in 1897 with the Louisville Colonels and spent his first $500 on a drinking binge. The Sporting News would call him the "Souse Paw." His time with Louisville was tumultuous and he would bounce between leagues. He loathed early morning practice and if he found his pro team too demanding, he would simply disappear only to be found pitching for a school or a semi-pro team somewhere else. He did not seem to care who he pitched for as long as he was playing baseball, but boy could he pitch. In his semi-pro days, he would tell his teammates to stay in the dugout as just he and his catcher would strikeout the side. Other times he would have the entire outfield and infield sit behind the mound as he did the same. He once pitched six shutout innings underhanded. He would sometimes forget the rules and throw the ball at runners in a painful attempt to get them out. After Louisville he spent two years in Pittsburg and one in Chicago. On occasion he would do hand stands or cartwheels from the mound to the dugout and, at least once, to the nearest bar after a win. His antics and drinking would often lead to suspensions. While suspended in 1901, he was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers of the Western League. Connie Mack, a future Hall of Famer, was the manager. After pitching and winning a game by hitting a triple in the 17th inning Mack would offer Rube a fishing trip if he pitched the second game of the doubleheader also. He pitched a complete game shutout. In all, he pitched 22 innings that day and got both wins. Connie Mack would soon become the Philadelphia A's manager and be, perhaps, the person who had the most success at keeping Waddell's attention on baseball. Whether kidnapped or simply escorted by Pinkerton detectives, Mack had Waddell brought back to Philadelphia from the West Coast League where he was pitching for the Los Angeles Loo Loo's. It was the second time Waddell was "kidnapped." A rival school once kidnapped Rube at gunpoint to pitch one game for a dollar. It was here in Philadelphia that Waddell would most succeed, winning 20 games in each of his first four years with the team. He beat Cy Young, baseball's winningest pitcher, in a 20-inning game in 1905. In 1908 he would tie the major league record with 16 strikeouts in a game. Weeks later he would sit 17 down in 10 innings beating the great Walter Johnson 2-1. Connie Mack said, " He had more stuff than any pitcher I ever saw." Mack would try to harness him either by rooming with him on the road or assigning him a "guardian." Nothing worked. Rube would leave the room under the guise of going to make a phone call and come back drunk after paying a bell hop to get him drinks. He would knock on Mack's door in the middle of the night and ask his manager if he wanted a bite of his Limburger and onion sandwich, he called a "Pizzazza." Roommates would have their contracts state that Rube wasn't allowed to eat crackers in bed due to the crumbs. Rube was forbidden from wearing red long johns due to his proclivity to tear of his uniform and run after firetrucks in them. And, once on a train, Waddell attacked a teammate for wearing a straw hat after Labor Day injuring his arm in the melee and missing the 1905 World Series, Philadelphia's first chance to win one. There was even an investigation into whether or not Rube was on the take and faked the injury. He was eventually cleared. Waddell was a force no one could stop. He was always up to something. While in spring training he would punch a lion while drunk and get bit on his pitching hand. He would sneak into an ostrich farm and be caught riding the birds like horses. He even wrestled and alligator and would be asked not to return to an alligator wrestling farm by the real wrestlers for fear of Rube outperforming them. He went missing from the team for so long once they stopped looking, only to find him right in front of their noses leading a marching band down the street. He was in full uniform. He attacked a fence post for 30 minutes with an ax in Brooklyn once because he did not pitch well. He played two professional football games for Reading PA. His team won both games handily by shutout with Rube making crowd pleasing tackle after tackle. And he gave motorcycle racing a try. The folks at the track liked Rube so much they let him be a track official. He even gained national popularity acting in a vaudeville play called "The Stain of Guilt." He was awful and couldn't remember his lines. However, his ability to ad lib and to throw the actor playing the villain across the stage drew sell-out crowds. Eventually his antics would force even Connie Mack to give up on him. He was unpredictable, once accidentally shooting a friend in the hand, and unreliable going missing often. He would exacerbate his teammates and managers. "If my son acts a little odd at times, please understand, since I am a little odd too," his father would ask. Mack was accused of treating Rube differently and, feeling the pressure from the rest of the team, sold Rube to the St. Louis Browns where he would win 19 games and have a 1.89 ERA in 1908, but only win 14 games combined in 1909 and 1910 and once pass out on the mound. His professional career was over. His life off the field was also in disrepair having been married and divorced three times. He once attacked his father-in-law with a flat iron and hit his mother-in-law with a chair when they tried to collect some rent from him while he was drunk. There was a warrant out for him, but he fled town, and the charges would later go away. Despite all his foibles and selfish acts, he was often a hero. Connie Mack would lament that more had been done to Waddell than he did to others. Rube once saved a woman from drowning while piloting a riverboat. And he didn't chase those firetrucks just to watch. He saved a little boys red wagon from a fire, burning his hands in the process. He once carried a burning stove that had been knocked over out of a department store saving many lives. Firefighters of the day often admired the zeal Waddell would attack the fires with. Waddell's greatest heroic act took place in Hickman Kentucky in 1912 and 1913 when major floods occurred. Rube spent hours in the frigid water stacking sandbags helping to save the town and countless lives. The town honored him, naming him both sheriff and deputy fire chief. He would develop serious pneumonia. His reckless abandon and his drinking were catching up to him. Unable to recover quickly now, he was becoming frail and complained of elbow pain from pitching. "I have a hunch that something is wrong in the elbow that isn't something a doctor can fix," he would proclaim. In his 13-year pro career Rube Waddell would amass 2,316 strikeouts, a 193-143 record and a 2.16 career ERA with 50 shutouts. He won the 1905 Pitching Triple Crown and led the league in strikeouts six consecutive years and ERA twice. He was the first AL pitcher to have an Immaculate Inning (1902) and his 349 Ks in 1904 are still a record for lefties. He was elected to the HOF in 1946. It's difficult to imagine what his numbers might be if he was more focused and served fewer suspensions. Branch Rickey said, "When Waddell had control and some sleep, he was unbeatable." The great Walter Johnson said of Waddell, "He had more sheer pitching ability than any man I ever saw." In 1914, Rube moved to Texas to recuperate near his sister, but tuberculosis had set in from his time in that flood water. He died, alone, in a sanitarium that spring at the age of 37. It was April Fool's Day.
First Published 10/2/2022 ~ "Vida"~ In the Northwest corner of Louisiana, in the town of Mansfield, is DeSoto High School. Rural, economically poor and when Vida Blue attended in the 1960's, still segregated. Mansfield didn't have a baseball team. That all changed the day the school principal noticed a group of kids playing a pick-up game. He was particularly impressed with Vida Blue's arm, so much so that he decided to form the school's first baseball team around him. In the corner of the football field the school made a diamond. It wasn't much, but a future Cy Young winner would pitch there. The principle would supply gloves and equipment, but Vida had his eye on a glove he saw in the Sears catalogue, so he got a job picking cotton and saved for that glove. Although wild, his arm was powerful. Despite walking 10 he would pitch the school's first no-hitter, striking out 21 in a seven-inning game. Blue's powerful arm translated to football as well. As quarterback in his senior year, he threw for 3,400 yards and 35 touchdowns while rushing for another 1,600 yards. Born, Vida Rochelle Blue Jr., in 1949, he was the oldest of six kids. He would say of growing up that his parents provided all he needed but nothing he wanted. His father, Vida Blue Sr. worked at a steel mill for 25 years. Vida and he would watch baseball on Saturdays and drink beer. His farther said it was only allowed when it was with him. When he sneezed, coal dust would come out. His father died at the age of 45. Depressed, Vida took some time off from sports. Then, realizing he was now man of the house, and to provide for his family, he accepted a 2-year $25,000 offer from the A's who drafted him 27th overall. Despite football being his preferred sport and scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Purdue and Houston at a time when there were no black college quarterbacks, he chose baseball for the money. "When you're from Mansfield, Louisiana, that's a trillion dollars," Blue would later say. Drafted before his 18th birthday and called up to the majors before his 20th birthday in 1970, Vida Blue would have an immediate impact. On September 21, 1970, he would become the youngest pitcher to throw a no-hitter. He was one walk away from a perfect game. The following year, in 1971, he would go 24-8, have eight shutouts, 24 complete games in 39 starts, 312 innings, 301 strikeouts and a league-best 1.82 ERA. He would win both the Cy Young and MVP and lead the A's to their first post season since Connie Mack led the team in 1931. It would be the best season of his career. The team visited the White House and President Nixon called Vida "the most underpaid player in baseball." The President even jokingly offered to negotiate Vida's next contract. Vida's salary of $14,750 was so small that he qualified and lived in subsidized housing in Oakland. Oakland's eccentric owner Charlie Finley would try to hide that fact by giving Vida a powder blue Cadilac and a gas card. Blue used the card to fill up the cars of the single mothers in the projects and he gave the Caddy to his mother. Sensing how poorly he was being treated, Vida hired a lawyer, and his contract troubles began. Carrying the torch Curt Flood had lit a few years prior, Blue and others like Reggie Jackson were battling Finley and the hated reserve clause. Blue even threatened to retire and become a plumbing executive. He sat out two months to start the year and when he returned, he struggled and would mostly pitch out of the pen that year. Sports Illustrated even had a picture of Blue, in full A's uniform in the dugout, titled "Vida Blue, Plumbing Executive." Eventually the contract would be mediated and settled with the help of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Blue's new salary was $63,000, but Finley had it worded to look more like the original $50,000 salary he offered, with a $5,000 signing bonus and $13,000 college fund. Blue even had to apologize to the fans for sitting out. Vida would be an integral part of the A's dynasty, winning 5 division titles ('71-'75) and three-straight World Series ('72-'74). In 1975, the Red Sox would sweep the A's in the ALCS and end Oaklands dynasty. It would be the last time a team Vida was on would go to the playoffs. The A's owner, always looking for publicity, once offered Vida $2000 to change his middle name to "True." Vida "True" Blue, had Finley had his way, refused. In 1976 Finley tried to trade Vida to the Yankees, only to have the deal blocked by Commissioner Kuhn. "I hope the next breath Charlie Finley takes is his last." Vida was quoted as saying. Despite the contract disputes, the name change insult and the open animosity, Vida would remain with the A's longer than many of the dynastic lineup. The relationship finally ended when Vida was traded across the Bay to the San Francisco Giants in 1978. Blue would win 18 games and be named The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year for the National League. Vida started the All-Star game that year and after starting for the American League in 1971, became the first pitcher to start an All-Star game in both leagues. It would be his last great season. That offseason he would be introduced to cocaine by his teammates on a trip to Las Vegas. Having his struggles with alcohol already, perhaps from those Saturdays with his dad, cocaine would lead him down an even darker path. Family relations would be strained, DUI offenses would become common, and his career would become a shadow of what it was. In 1983, while with the Kansas City Royals, Vida was arrested along with three teammates. Baseball was cracking down on its cocaine problem. Blue would serve three months in jail and be suspended for the 1984 season. He made a respectable comeback with the Giants in 1985 in a mixed starter/relief role. In 1986 he won 10 games as a starter. The following year, in a twist of irony, as a free agent he signed with the A's but retired abruptly. There were rumors of him avoiding the embarrassment of testing positive for drugs. After he retired, Blue stayed in baseball, playing in the Senior League. He has done broadcast and philanthropic work and mentors' kids about the pitfalls of substance abuse and the virtues of baseball. He still makes the autograph tour and signs his name with his signature "blue" Sharpie. On occasion he would come back to that Northwest corner of Louisiana to visit his mom and to teach pitching and give talks about his struggles to the kids at DeSoto High School. Bill James ranks Vida Blue as the hardest throwing lefty and the second hardest thrower of his contemporaries only to Nolan Ryan. He also ranks him the 86th best pitcher ever. Pete Rose said Blue threw as hard as anyone he ever faced. In all, Vida Blue won 209 games, 3 World Series, was in 6 All-Star Games, won a Cy Young and an MVP. Despite these, a poor post season record, a suspension and substance abuse issues likely knocked him off the ballot for Hall of Fame consideration after just four years. Writer Rich Puerzer wrote of Blue, "In many ways, the ups and downs of Blue's baseball career, both on and off the field, reflected the times during which he played perhaps more than any other of his contemporaries." In his autobiography, Vida talked about his struggles, "I reached the point where I had to choose between baseball and life." In Spanish, "Vida" means life.
First Published 9/25/2022 ~ "SCOOTER" ~ At try outs in 1935, legendary Yankee manager Casey Stengel told, a 5'6" 150-pound, Phil Rizzuto to "get a shoeshine box." In 1941 Rizzuto would become the everyday short stop for the New York Yankees. "Scooter," so called for the way he ran the bases, played short stop for the Yankees his entire 13-year career and retired second in MLB history with 1,217 career double plays turned and fielding percentage for a short stop (.968). Rizzuto was a 5-time all-star, a 7-time World Champion, he was the 1950 MVP. He is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame (1994) and the Yankees retired his number 10. How's that for "Holy Cow." Casey Stengel would later say of Rizzuto, "He is the greatest shortstop I have ever seen, and I've seen some beauties." The Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, said his Red Sox would have won those Yankee pennants in the 40's and 50's if they had Rizzuto. A classic "small ball" player Phil Rizzuto is the only MVP to lead the league in sacrifice bunts. He would lead the league in sacrifices from 1949-1952. Later he would teach bunting at Yankee spring training and lament about its declining use during his broadcasts. Scooter was a slick fielder, leading the league in double plays and total chances three times. He twice led the league in put-outs and once in assists. He once went 238 consecutive chances without an error, a single season record. Pitcher Vic Rashi would say, "My best pitch is anything the batter grounds, lines or pops in the direction of Rizzuto." Not known for his offense, he was still clutch. In his three World Series game sevens (1947, '52 and '55) he would hit .455. In September of 1951, the Yankees and Indians where in a virtual tie for the pennant. Facing the great Bob Lemon with bases loaded, Rizzuto came to bat. He took strike one, argued with the umpire for a moment about the call while placing a hand on each end of his bat, signaling a squeeze play to Joe Dimaggio on third. The next pitch, Joe D broke too soon and Lemon, sensing what was happening, threw the ball high in an attempt to prevent the bunt. Rizzuto, jumped with both feet in the air and bunted in the winning run. Lemon would throw his glove (with the ball in it) into the stands. Rizzuto would say, "If I didn't bunt, the pitch would've hit me right in the head." Casey Stengel, who once told Rizzuto to "get a shoeshine box," called it "the greatest play I ever saw." In 1956 the Yankee front office released Rizzuto in a classless way. They called him up to the office to go over the lineup card asking him to name who should be left off. It was Rizzuto they wanted to release for recently acquired Enos Slaughter. Phil would begin a broadcasting career in 1957 and call Yankee games for 40 years, the longest tenure of any Yankee broadcaster. "Holy Cow!" would become his catchphrase and make it into popular culture on Seinfeld and in the classic Meatloaf song "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." Not a big fan of nature, Phil was afraid of lightening and, if a storm was bad enough, was known to leave the booth until it passed. He was afraid of snakes and players would often tease him with a rubber snake in his glove that he would make a teammate throw away before going near it again. When the Yankees retired his number, they had a cow with a halo (Holy Cow) at the ceremony. The cow stepped on Rizzuto's foot knocking him over. During his hall of fame induction speech, he was constantly bothered by bugs causing him to ramble a bit. Rizzuto served three years in the Navy during WWII. He was in charge of a 20mm gun crew in the Pacific before contracting malaria. While recovering in Australia he coached the Navy baseball team. He is one of the Bob Feller Act of Valor winners for his service. Away from baseball, Phil led a full life. He met his wife of 64 years while speaking at a communion breakfast. "I fell in love so hard I didn't go home", Rizzuto would tell the story saying he rented a hotel to be near her. He would marry Cora Esselborn in 1943, have four children and remain together until his death in 2007. Phil was generous with his time and would raise money for the first Ukranian Church near his home in New Jersey despite being Catholic and having no affiliation. At a charity event in 1951 Phil would meet Ed Lucas, a boy who was blinded by a hit ball playing the game with his friends when he was 12. From that moment until his death, Phil would raise millions for St. Joseph's School for the blind. He would host the annual Phil Rizzuto Celebrity Golf Classic and the "Scooter Awards." He would donate the profits of his television commercials and his books to the school. And when nearing his death he sold his awards, trophies, and even his World Series rings, donating most of the proceeds to St. Joseph's School. Ed and Phil would remain friends throughout the years. Ed would go on to become an accomplished reporter and broadcaster and was introduced to his second wife by Phil. He would marry Allison Pfeifle, Phil's florist, who was also losing her sight. Due to Rizzuto's influence, Ed Lucas's wedding in 2006 is the only one ever held at the old Yankee Stadium. They were married at home plate; George Steinbrenner paid for everything. Lucas was one of the very last people to visit Rizzuto before he died in nursing home. The day Lucas was blinded in that baseball accident in 1951 was the same day Bobby Thompson hit his "Shot heard 'round the World."
First Published 9/18/2022 ~ "LOUISVILLE'S BASEBALL HISTORY" ~ Louisville Kentucky was founded by George Rogers Clark in 1778. Less than a 100-years later Louisville would be a founding member of the National League. George's younger brother, William Clark, would explore the West and reach the Pacific Ocean as part of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. His grandson, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. would build Churchill Downs and found the Kentucky Derby. Located along the Ohio River, Louisville was a key riverboat portage town and strategic during the Civil War. The Riverboat "Belle of Louisville" is moored downtown and claims to be the most traveled riverboat ever. The first woman riverboat pilot, Mary Miller, got her license in Louisville. After the war, the city's industrial base boomed. The first bridge designed for automobile traffic across the Ohio River was here. The largest distillery in the world opened here after prohibition ended and Louisville was the largest rubber producer in the world during WW2. Reynolds Wrap was invented here, as was flavored bubble gum and the "Happy Birthday" song. Bourbon Balls, the Kentucky "Hot Brown" sandwich and the "Old Fashioned" drink were all invented here. Speaking of inventions, Thomas Edison worked in Louisville just before his 1000-plus patents came to be. John James Audubon spent ten years as a successful businessman in Louisville before going on to his bird drawing fame. Cave Hill Cemetery is an accredited arboretum and the final resting place of native son and heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali and Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Louisville is also home to the largest baseball bat in the world. A 120-foot wooden bat stands above the entrance of the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum. Louisville's baseball heritage dates back to the Civil War. A founding member of the National League, the Louisville Grays were the cities first pro team in 1876. The meetings between owners that established the National League took place in Louisville. The Grays only lasted two seasons due to a cheating scandal, the most infamous until the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal baseball would see. Louisville had a number of pro and semi-pro teams in the second half of the 19th century. They had fierce rivalries, so much so that saloon owners would enforce rules prohibiting the talk of baseball in their establishments. The Louisville Colonels would be the most successful of these early teams. They started out as the Louisville Eclipse from 1882-1884, named after the park they played in and were part of the American Association (AA). An Eclipse pitcher by the name of Guy Hecker held the major league record for WHIP of 0.077 for 118 years until Boston's Pedro Martinez broke it in 2000 (0.076). Some historians consider Hecker the best two-way player of the 19th Century. He won pitching's triple crown in 1884 and pitched a no-hitter in 1882, a week after his teammate Tony Mullane pitched the first no-hitter in AA history. The two no-hitters by the Louisville Eclipse pitchers nine days apart still remains the closest two no-hitters were ever pitched. Hecker remains one of two pitchers to hit three home runs in one game. In all, there would be three Eclipse Parks beginning in 1874. In 1885, the Eclipse would change their name to the Colonels and continue to play at the first Eclipse Park until 1892. It was here that Pete Browning would become a baseball legend known as the Louisville Slugger. In 1884 a 17-year-old boy named Bud Hillerich would skip work at his father's woodworking shop to come see the star slugger play. Unfortunately, Browning was in a slump. After Browning broke his bat, young Hillerich offered to make him a new one at his father's shop. Browning would even go to the shop to help choose his specifications. The next day, with the new bat in hand, Browning would get three hits. Fellow players, seeing Browning's success, would begin to order bats of their own and the Louisville Slugger Bat was born. The American Association (AA) would last for 10 seasons. In several seasons the AA would play the NL for the championship in an early form of a World Series. The Colonels won the Championship in 1890. The previous year they went 27-111, making them both the first pro-baseball team to lose 100 games and the first team to go from last to Champion. In 1892, the Colonels would move into the second Eclipse Park and joined the National League after the AA folded. Honus Wagner, the greatest short stop ever, would make his debut here. In all, five future Hall of Famers would play for the Colonels. Honus Wagner, Rube Waddell, Fred Clark, Hughie Jennings and Jimmy Collins. The team's owner, Barney Dreyfuss, would go on to purchase the Pittsburg Pirates in 1900 and take 14 players from the Colonels to Pittsburg, effectively ending major league baseball in Louisville. It was at this time the National League would contract from 12 to 8 teams. The depleted Colonels were one of the four teams contracted. With the addition of so many ex-Colonels especially Wagner and Clarke the Pirates, perennial losers, would go on to win three consecutive pennants and appear in the first World Series in 1903. Other teams in different minor leagues used the Colonels name, most notably the American Association minor league team. That Colonels team would make history by winning 15 titles, the most in that league, until it folded in 1962. The Louisville Black Caps and the Louisville White Sox would represent the Negro Leagues for a couple years. Predating the Negro Leagues by a decade, the city had the Unions "The Best Black Team You've Never Heard of." Minor League baseball is well represented today with the Louisville Bats. In the 1980's The St Louis Cardinals affiliate, The Louisville Red Birds, became the first minor league team ever to draw a million fans in a season (1983). They led the league in attendance four years consecutive (1982-1986). Louisville native, Hall of Famer and Colonels alum, Pee Wee Reese's number is retired at their park. The success of the Red Birds in the 80's led to a campaign for the return of a major league team to the city. Kentucky native and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning led the unsuccessful charge. Bunning is the only Hall of Famer to be elected to the Senate. In all there where three Eclipse Parks and all three were destroyed by fire. Pete Browning would go on to play for National League teams in Pittsburg, Cincinatti, Brooklyn and St. Louis. His .341 career average is fifth highest among righties and he and Shoeless Joe Jackson are the only two in the top ten for average not in the Hall of Fame. He too is buried at Cave Hill Cemetery. The contributions of Louisville to baseball are immense. Countless major leaguers have played on Louisville's minor league teams, or as a visiting player or representing one of the city's teams. Major leaguers Gus Bell, Jay Buhner, Mike Greenwell, Dan Uggla and Adam Duvall were all born in Louisville, to name but a few. To this day, Louisville Slugger bats are made in Louisville and over 8000 major leaguers have contracted with the company, all because a kid skipped work to see a baseball game. As great and proud as Louisville's baseball history is, they remain the only city to suffer the National League's contraction that never got a team back.
First Published 9/10/2022 ~ "R.I.P. QUEEN E!" ~ Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson met Queen Elizabeth in London in 2019 when the Yankees and Red Sox played a two-game series there. He said she was impressed he removed his "bonnet" to greet her. In the 1988 movie Naked Gun Reggie played himself and the Queen (played by Jeanette Charles) threw out the first pitch, a screwball, in a fictitious game at Dodger Stadium. The real Queen Elizabeth did actually attend an MLB game. In 1991 she watched the Baltimore Orioles host the Oakland A's. Before the game she and her husband Phillip shook hands with players, including Cal Ripkin Jr. and Manager Tony Larrusa. Pitcher Dave Stewart even tried to impress the Queen with his Curly impression of Three Stooges fame. He says she gave him a smirk. Cal, who was no stranger to big games, noted how there was an electricity in the stadium that night. President Bush joined her in a private box at the old Memorial Stadium where she waved to the crowd and was very well received by all in attendance. Upon the news of her passing on Thursday, teams honored her with a moment of silence and images of her on scoreboard screens. In the Naked Gun movie, a hypnotized Reggie Jackson repeatedly mumbled, "Must kill the Queen." After her passing he Tweeted, "Now we all know I was innocent! Amen! RIP! Queen E!"
First Published 9/4/2022 ~ "BOSTON'S MILLION DOLLAR OUTFIELD" ~ "He was a team player. As great a hitter as he was, he wasn't looking out for his own average. Speaker was the bell cow of our outfield. Harry Hooper and I would watch him and know how to play the hitters." Red Sox teammate Duffy Lewis speaking about Tris Speaker. From left to right, Duffy Lewis, Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper made up the Red Sox "Golden" or "Million Dollar Outfield." They were a unit in Boston from 1910-1915 winning two World Series (1912 and 1915). When Fenway opened in 1912 there was a slope in left field that rose into the wall now called the Green Monster. Duffy Lewis was so adept at running up it to make spectacular catches the slope became known as "Duffy's Cliff." In one of the great World Series performances, Lewis would hit .444 against the Phillies in 1915. Harry Hooper's range was so well known there was a saying among fans that if the ball was hit into another country Harry would catch it. His home run robbing catch off of Larry Doyle in the 1912 World Series is still legend. Hooper won four World Series with the Red Sox (1912, '15, '16 and '18). In 1971 he would make the Hall of Fame. He still holds the franchise record for triples (130) and stolen bases (300). In 1913 he would become the first player to hit a leadoff home run in both games of a doubleheader, a feat that stood for 80 years until Rickey Henderson matched him. Tris Speaker, the "bell cow" of the trio was ranked the 27th greatest baseball player ever by The Sporting News. He is on MLB's All-Century Team and was inducted into the Hall of Fame's second class in 1937. Speaker's 792 career doubles, 449 career outfield assists, and 6 unassisted double plays are MLB records still. Speaker would be traded by Boston to Cleveland after a contract dispute in 1915. He would go on to lead the Indians to their first title in 1920. Perhaps this is why he is often overshadowed by Boston legends Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. But Speaker would retire a .345 hitter (9th all-time) with 3,514 hits (5th all-time) better than the three Hall of Famers mentioned. He remains the last batter with 200 triples. Both Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth said that outfield was the finest they ever saw. Baseball writer Grantland Rice wrote, "The greatest defensive outfield I ever saw. They were smart and fast. They covered every square inch of the park - they were like three fine infielders on ground balls. They could move into another country if the ball happened to fall there."
First Published 8/22/2022 ~"THANK YOU VIN SCULLY" ~ It's been said that if baseball had a poet laureate it would be Vin Scully. On August 2, we lost that voice and a national treasure. Upon hearing the news of the legendary broadcaster's passing at the age of 94, Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts said, "There's not a better storyteller, and I think everyone considers him family." I believe both claims to be true. As a little boy in Brooklyn, a red headed Vin Scully would lie on a pillow underneath the family's four-legged radio, snack on saltines and listen to football games. The roar of the crowds got him to thinking he would like to call these games some day and be a part of it. And be a part of it he was. In 2016, at the age of 88, Scully retired after calling the Dodgers games for 67 years, the longest tenure of any broadcaster for one team in history. After serving in the Navy for a year, Scully attended Fordham University where he studied broadcasting, lettered and played outfield for the baseball team for two years while calling sports games on the School's WFUV. He sent 150 letters to radio stations looking for work. Eventually he was noticed and recruited by legendary broadcaster Red Barber to call college games. Soon after, in 1950 at the age of 22, Scully would join Barber in the Dodgers radio booth. In 1953 a 25-year-old Scully would become the youngest person to broadcast a World Series, a record that still stands. In 1958 he would make the move to LA when the Dodgers relocated. Although he broadcast other sporting events, he always remained a Dodger constant. His poetic and lyrical style, his even tone, his positive demeaner, won him legions of baseball fans across the country, many of whom who had no rooting interest in the Dodgers. He was like listening to your grandfather's stories through the radio. Fellow broadcaster Dick Enberg said of Scully, "He paints the picture more beautifully than anyone who's ever called a baseball game." And though known for his mastery of the English language, it was often his silence that was critical to his broadcast excellence. He knew when to let the game breathe. He allowed the listener to enjoy the "moment" and to hear the crowd reaction. He never buried us with useless statistics just to "fill" or have something to say. Unlike most frenetic and stress filled broadcast booths today that are overflowing with three or more chatty talking heads tripping over each other to present the next pointless stat and rushed to squeeze in endless bullet points, never failing to miss the actual game in an effort to hear themselves talk about exit velocity and launch angles and bat flips. Scully was a one man show, an oasis of solitude, relaxed, measured and calming. For many of us, he was the only "therapy" we needed. He allowed us to escape life's annoyances, not remind us of or become one of them. Vin would seamlessly stitch together a quilt from patches of factoids and history and all manner of subjects to keep us warm and enthralled while never losing focus on the game. He preferred to tell us "who" someone was not "what" someone was. If baseball is the thinking man's game, Vin was the professor. He was a master. Scully vowed to be unbiased and factual in his career. When asked to be more of a "homer" by management early on he stayed true to himself and said no. This did not prevent him from sharing his feelings on many subjects including his disdain for socialism. His patriotism was on full display when Rick Monday thwarted a would-be flag burner in the outfield and after baseball resumed after the attacks of 9/11. Or his social commentary when Hank Aaron broke Ruth's home run record in Atlanta against his Dodgers. "What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world - a black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking the record of an all-time idol." In 1959 the Dodgers held Roy Campanella Night. The HOF catcher was paralyzed in a car crash and proceeds from the night where to help with his medical expenses. The lights were turned off as Pee Wee Reese wheeled Roy to the pitcher's mound as a record of more than 93,000 fans held candles for the vigil. Scully eloquently asked, "Let there be a prayer for every light, and wherever you are, maybe you, in silent tribute to Campanella, can also say a prayer for his well-being." Scully was deeply religious and often shared his faith with listeners. He even narrated a CD of the Holy Rosary for Christian players. Throughout his life his Roman Catholic faith would be tested. He was only seven when his father died. In 1972 his wife of 15 years Joan died suddenly, making him a widower with three children. He lost his son Michael at age 33 in a helicopter crash. In 2021 his second wife Sandra passed after a long battle with ALS. They were married 47 years. Through all the tragedies, Vin endured with grace. "I believe it's all part of God's plan," he would say after Sandras passing. Always kind and humble, always deflecting accolades and applause with his typical "It's just me" style, Scully would express his gratitude saying, "God has been incredibly kind to allow me to be in the position to watch and to broadcast all these somewhat monumental events. I'm really filled with thanksgiving and the fact that I've been given such a chance to view. But none of those are my achievements; I just happened to be there." Well, you did have achievements Vin. He is the only non-player in the Dodgers Ring of Fame, the Dodger broadcast booth bears his name, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1982 he won the Ford C Frick Award. He won the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award. He has a Day and a street named after him in LA and has been named California Sportscaster of the year 21 times. He has won Emmy's including one for lifetime achievement. He is in the National Radio, Sportscasters and Baseball Halls of Fame. And he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, the highest civilian honor, to name but a few. In his remarks President Obama told the crowd how Scully asked him if he was sure he had the right person. Scully said, "I'm just an old baseball announcer." The President reminded Vin that, "To us, you are an old friend." Vin Scully called over 10,000 games and in a twist of fate his final game was the Dodgers clinching the division over his boyhood team the Giants. In all, Vin called 25 World Series, 18 no hitters, 12 All-Star Games, and three perfect games including Don Larson's, the only perfect game in a World Series. To us baseball fans you called 10,000 perfect games and we thank you for each and every one of them.
First Published 8/20/2022 ~ "ALL BAT, NO BRAG TODD HELTON" ~ Happy Birthday to Todd Helton. The "Toddfather" played his entire 17-year career with the Colorado Rockies. At the time of his retirement in 2013, Helton led the franchise in just about every offensive category including games played (2247), hits (2519), runs (1401), doubles (592), HR (369), and RBI (1406) to name just a few. He is the first MLB player to have 35 doubles for ten consecutive seasons (1999-2007). He is the first Rocky to have his number retired (17). In college he won the Dick Howser Award for National Collegiate Player of the Year. In 1998 he finished second to Cub P Kerry Wood for Rookie of the Year. The first baseman would go on to accumulate 3 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, 5 All-Stars and a batting title in 2000. Helton is ranked no.8 all-time in fielding percentage (.9962) by first basemen. He is only one of three first basemen to have at least a .315 average in eight consecutive years (Bill Terry and Lou Gehrig). Helton would finish his career a .316 hitter with 2500+ hits, 550+ doubles, and 350+ home runs. Only one other player in baseball has done that, Stan "The Man" Musial. Time will tell if Todd Helton will be the first Rocky in the Hall of Fame. He has the numbers and accolades, but perhaps Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post made the best case for Helton's cause in a 2004 Denver Post article. "If the baseball gods are keeping score, (Todd) Helton will be the first player wearing a Rockies cap in Cooperstown. In this era of the asterisk, when a bleacher bum cannot be certain if the homer he just grabbed was the product of a juiced ball or a synthetic slugger, there are no doubts about Helton. Helton is a pure meat-and-potatoes, made-in-America athlete. He is the pride of the Rockies. The Colorado first baseman never cheats a paying customer. Loves winning, hates to talk about himself. His game is no brag all bat."
First Published 7/24/22 ~ "CLASS and THE HALL OF FAME CLASS of 2022" ~ In a world seemingly full of the seven deadly sins, seven players who represent the good qualities of humanity went into the Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday. If the childish rhetoric on some "news" channels or the general negativity of society, have you feeling down, I suggest you watch the induction ceremony, baseball fan or not. I suggest you turn your phone off and let the seven speeches given Sunday reaffirm your faith in our country. I also suggest some tissues. Thankfully, the toxicity and arrogance of Washington D.C. did not reach Cooperstown, at least not Sunday. In contrast to the deadly sins, it was a pleasure to watch and listen to the virtues of patience, honesty, kindness, charity, perseverance and humility on full display. Patience. The dapper Jim Kaat spoke of his dad turning down the temptation of a $25,000 offer that likely would have allowed his son to be in the majors immediately, but in a limited roll. Knowing many players did not last with similar offers, his dad instead took a $4,000 offer for his son to start in the minors. That patience led to Jim learning baseball deeper allowing him to have a 25-year career in the bigs, the third longest in history. Honesty. Gil Hodges won three World Series with the Dodgers and managed the "Miricle Mets" to their first title ever. We lost Gil in 1972, so his daughter Irene gave his induction speech. She spoke of his Marine days teaching scared Japanese children to play baseball during WW2. She also spoke of him, having just won the World Series for the Mets, waiting to make a long-distance call until he got home and not from his managers office as to not run up a charge. Kindness. Twins great Tony Oliva joked about his English and his wife's Spanish while sending nothing but kind thoughts to the people of his adopted home of Minnesota. Charity. Three-time Red Sox Champion David Ortiz did more than hit 541 home runs, he helped heal a city after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Today he runs the David Ortiz Children's Fund that provides cardiac services for kids in his native Dominican Republic and his new home of New England. Big Papi showed his appreciation of this country further by becoming a US citizen in 2008. Perseverance. White Sox great Minnie Minoso left the sugar cane fields of Cuba to be among the first players to cross the color line. Bud Fowler, who was born just down the road from Cooperstown in 1858, played in over 25 states and Canada trying to get a steady role with a white team that would allow a black player. He would die in poverty but until Jackie Robinson came along, he would be the only known black man to play 10 professional seasons. Humility. Buck O'Neil was among the most interesting and lovable people in all of baseball's history. He had an excellent career as both a player and manager in the Negro Leagues. He was a scout for the Cubs who found three players that would make the Hall of Fame before him. He eventually became the first black coach in baseball (1962 Cubs). He was also a huge part in the formation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Despite not making the Hall while living, Buck never complained. We lost a national treasure in 2006 at the age of 94. Famous for his stories and kind, gentle, grandfatherly demeanor. The humble kid from Florida, who use to harvest celery to help support his family, who shagged fly balls of future Yankee Hall of Famers in Spring Training practices as a kid, who spoke glowingly of all, would never say he "deserved" to be in the Hall. He would only say, "God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful." Sunday's ceremonies not only showcased baseball, but they also showcased what America is and what we can be. Be they White, Black, Latin or another, America is a melting pot for people seeking a dream. The goal of life and baseball are the same, to find home. Seven more people, from very different backgrounds, persevered and found home in Cooperstown Sunday. What is more American than that? The Baseball Hall of Fame is meant to preserve the history of the game and the people who played it or where a part of it in some way. Perhaps too, it is helping preserve our country by helping restore our souls.
First Published 7/23/22 ~ "DON DRYSDALE" ~ Don Drysdale would have been 89 years old Saturday. The Dodger HOF pitcher won a Cy Young, 3 World Series and was an All-Star 9 times. He set many records including once recording six consecutive shutout wins. When his rotator cuff forced him to retire early, he held the record with six 200+ strikeout seasons (later broken by Tom Seaver with 10). He was also regarded as one of the fiercest pitchers of all time. He led the league in hit by pitch a record six times. "My own little rule was two-for-one. If one of my teammates got knocked down, then I knock down two on the other team." One legendary story about Drysdale happened when his Dodgers hosted the rival, Cardinals. St Louis catcher Gene Oliver admired a home run too long and yelled for the bat boy to "come get the bat," loud enough for Drysdale to hear. The next Oliver at bat Drysdale drilled him with a fast ball. As Oliver was writhing in pain on the ground teammates and trainers gathered around him. Drysdale said loud enough for everyone to hear, "hey bat boy, come get Oliver."
First Published 7/11/22 ~"MIKE BRITO" ~ Most baseball fans are familiar with Fernando Valenzuela and the phenomenon known as "Fernandomania." The pitcher who led the Dodgers back to a World Series title in 1981 with his lefthanded, knee-lift up to his ear, corkscrew, eyes to the heavens delivery. Some baseball fans are familiar with Robert "Babo" Castillo. He would pitch nine seasons for the Dodgers and Twins earning a 3.94 ERA over 250 games. Fewer fans know Mike Brito, but without him, Fernando and Babo and dozens more major leaguers might never have been. Mike Brito was born in Cuba in 1935 and played in the Washington Senators minor league system as a catcher. He reached Triple-A in the 50's and then played professionally in the Mexican League in the 60's. He later moved to LA, drove truck a while to make ends meet and operated his own adult amateur league "The Mike Brito League" in LA. He found work as a Mexican League scout because his passion to stay in baseball was so strong. Eventually he was asked to scout for the Dodgers by then GM, Al Campanis. He jumped at the opportunity. Brito recalled, "It's like you find a guy in the desert and ask him if he wants a glass of water." He would often suit up for his own league games when schedules allowed. In one game, with bases loaded, Brito would strike-out. Unsure of the pitch that got him, he would ask the pitcher post-game. The Pitcher was Robert "Babo" Castillo, and the pitch was a screwball. The very first player Brito signed was Robert "Babo" Castillo. The next year he signed Fernando Valenzuela. Both he and Campanis agreed Fernando had electric stuff but was in need of another pitch. They sent him to work with Babo and in two weeks' time Fernando had mastered what would become his signature pitch, the screwball. Fernando would become the winningest Mexican pitcher all-time, earn a Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Award (the first to earn both in the same year). He would win three games in the 1981 World Series helping the Dodgers beat the Yankees in seven. Fernando would play 17 seasons and earn six All-Star Games. In all, over 30 players would make the majors thanks to Brito's talent evaluating skills including Yasiel Puig, Juan Castro and current Dodger pitcher Julio Urias to name a few. Well respected among his peers, Brito would be named International Scout of the Year in 2014, win the Tony Gwynn Award in 2021 for lifelong contributions to the game and was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005. Brito was a fixture at Dodger Stadium along with his cigar and Panama hat behind home plate with his radar gun. "You're not going to believe it, but I use to smoke cigars when I was 15 in Cuba," Brito once told an interviewer. For more than four decades and well into his 80's, Brito helped keep the Dodgers among the elite teams in all of baseball. He even played a role in one of baseball's most iconic moments, Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Brito was asked to scout A's closer Dennis Eckersley before the series began. Brito noted Eck would often throw a two-strike backdoor slider to lefties. He passed this info on to Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda and the team. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Lasorda would pinch-hit an injured Kirk Gibson. Gibby would hit a two-strike slider for, arguably, the most memorable walk-off in baseball history. Mike Brito passed away Thursday night at 87. "My heart may be very heavy right this moment," Valenzuela said. The next time Fernando aims his eyes to the heavens he'll see his friend scouting from the best seats in the house.
First Published 6/22/22 ~ "RUSS VAN ATTA" ~ Russ Van Atta was born today in 1906. He would pitch for seven seasons with the Yankees and St. Louis Browns and compile an unremarkable 33-41 record and a 5.60 ERA. In his 1933 rookie season however, Van Atta would bat .283 and be tied with A's future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove for best win-loss percentage of .750. Success would illude Van Atta in the seasons to come. His numbers would steadily decline for the rest of his career after a tragic event in December of 1933 (some reports say it was 1934). During a fire at his home in NJ he broke a window to rescue his dog. The resulting cuts caused nerve damage to his pitching hand, and he was basically forced into a relief role for the remainder of his career. He would go on to be a successful businessman and was even elected sheriff for a three-year term with the help of a campaigning ex-teammate named Babe Ruth. Russ Van Atta would live until he reached 80 years of age and for most of those years, he would have one particularly special day to look back on. On April 25, 1933 he made his MLB debute and pitched the Yankees to a 16-0 shutout over the Washington Senators who would go on to win the pennant that year. He would also go 4-4 batting. To this day no other AL pitcher has four hits in his major league debut.
First Published 6/17/22 ~ "DICK HOWSER" ~ On this date in 1987, Dick Howser died of a brain tumor at the age of 51. Though a two-time All-Star at short stop, Dick Howser is best known for managing the Kansas City Royals to their first World Series in 1985 despite being down 3-1 in both the ALCS and the World Series. His teams took on his persona and battled. Before taking over the reins in KC, Howser was famously fired by George Steinbrenner in New York after they lost the 1980 ALCS to the Royals in a 3-game sweep. Steinbrenner didn't like third base coach Mike Ferraro's decision to wave in Willy Randolph who got thrown out at home and wanted Ferraro fired on the spot. Howser stuck up for his coach and after the series both he and Ferraro where gone. He was a man of principle. He managed for parts of eight seasons. In his six full seasons managing his teams never finished below second place. As the defending World Series skipper, he would manage the 1986 All-Star Game. It would be his last. At the event there was talk of Howser having memory problems and not looking well. Fellow Royal and All-Star George Brett brushed the talk aside joking that he thought his manager looked good considering the teams 11-game losing streak. Despite the festivities, things where in-fact dire. The Thursday after the All-Star game Dick was in the hospital. By Friday the diagnosis was in. Brain cancer. In a twist of fate Mike Ferraro was named interim manager. He would attempt a comeback the next Spring Training, but after just two days he had to retire feeling too weak from treatment. After his passing, the Royals retired his number 10, the first number to be retired in franchise history. In his home state of Florida, the Dick Howser Trophy was established. Meant to be the Heisman Trophy of baseball, four Dick Howser Award winners have been drafted first over-all since its inception. Florida State would also rename their stadium after its former player and coach. Howser is one of three players from the Royals "Golden Era" to die from brain cancer. Closer Dan Quisenberry died in 1988 at the age of 45. In 2003 Ken Brett, pitcher and older brother of George Brett died. He was 55. "There's a Mennonite proverb, 'Man, like a tree, is measured best when cut down.' " - Dan Quisenberry
First Published 6/16/22 ~ "JIM THORPE" ~ On this date in 1909, Jim Thorpe would make his pitching debut in the Eastern Carolina League. His Rocky Mount team would beat Raleigh 4-2. He would go on to play six seasons in the majors with the NY Giants, Reds and Boston Braves. However, it was football that he excelled at, eventually entering the Football Hall of Fame. Considered the greatest athlete by many, he even considered a pro hockey career. In 1912 he became a household name by winning two Olympic gold medals (Pentathlon and Decathlon) in the Stockholm Games. However, due to his semi-pro time in the Eastern League, he would lose those medals for "armature rules violations." The International Olympic Committee (the IOC) would eventually restore his medals in 1983, 30 years after Thorpe's death. The IOC held a ceremony in L.A. that year to return the medals to the Thorpe family. Jim's daughter Charlette said, "After 70 years the marathon is finally over."
First Published 5/25/22 ~ "WHALEVILLE" ~ Although built in 1914, the Chicago Cubs did not move into today's Wrigley Field until 1916. That's because Wrigley Field (Originally named Weeghman Field) was first home to the Chicago Whales of the Federal League. Charles Weeghman was a restaurant entrepreneur who made his fortune opening a number of quick-serve lunch counters around Chicago. An avid sports fan, he attempted to buy the St Louis Cardinals in 1911. When that failed, he turned his attention to starting a new baseball league. In 1913 he became one of the founders of the upstart Federal League and owner of the new Chicago Whales. Called "The Third League" or the "Outlaw League" by its detractors, the Federal League was popular with players because it caused salaries to rise and because they played outside of the "National Agreement" players weren't subject to the hated "reserve clause." In 1913 the league operated as a minor league, but in 1914 they declared themselves the "Third Major League." For two seasons, 1914 and 1915, eight teams played in the Federal League. Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Pittsburg, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Buffalo all built new stadiums to join the "FL." The Whales played a large part in the short-lived history of the Federal League. The Whales would be the first team to lure a player from the established leagues signing Joe Tinker on as player/manager. Charles Comisky, owner of the American League's Chicago White Sox, would send the Washington Senators $10,000 so as they could keep star Walter Johnson in DC, far away from his new cross-town rival. In the 1914 the Whales would finish second by just 1.5 games to the Champion Indianapolis Hoosiers. In 1916 they would win the title by .001 winning percentage over St, Louis and .004 over third place Pittsburg. Although attendance was comparable to the other leagues, financial problems became too much. Oversaturation in some markets and the looming World War were factors. The Federal League felt forced to sue the two established leagues for interference. The judge in the case, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who would eventually become the first commissioner of baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, insisted the leagues settle their disputes. As part of the settlement Federal League players were sold back to the NL and AL. Some, however, were never welcomed back including the Whale's Joe Tinker. Also, part of the settlement Charles Weeghman was allowed to purchase the NL's Chicago Cubs. The Cubs struggled with their attendance at the West Side Grounds, where they played since 1893, so Weeghman moved the club to his "new" stadium at 1060 Addison St. in 1916 where they play to this day. A few years later Weeghman would fall on financial hard times and lose control of the Cubs to William Wrigley of chewing gum fame. Weeghman Field would go through a couple name changes before settling on what we know it as now in 1926. Wrigley is the second oldest park in baseball (Fenway 1912) and the only remaining Federal League Park.

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