Notes from the annual Art of Baseball Exhibit at the George Krevsky Gallery

PhotobucketWinky, San Francisco Seals, 2010, Stacey Carter

I’m standing next to Tom O’Doul, 67, who looks so much like his famous cousin Lefty O’Doul it’s uncanny, and as we view a painting of a bat boy for the team Tom once knew, he says it’s fairly accurate. Never a bat boy himself, though he got to go in the dugout during games, Tom explains a subtly the artist captured, how San Francisco Seals bat boys received a blue cap with SEALS in white block letters, while players got caps with SF lettering.

It’s the sort of attention to detail that sometimes gets neglected in other works. Art and baseball don’t always have the smoothest conflux, as Lefty O’Doul could attest from his time trying to teach Gary Cooper how to properly swing for Pride of the Yankees or the makers of Field of Dreams might cop to, since they had Shoeless Joe Jackson bat right-handed since he hit from the left but Ray Liotta could not. Still, many of the works in the 13th annual Art of Baseball exhibit at the George Krevsky Gallery in San Francisco accurately reflected the game.

I attended the exhibit Thursday evening with Tom O’Doul and other members of the Society for American Baseball Research, which I recently joined. Coincidentally, the gallery is three blocks down Geary Street from Lefty O’Doul’s bar and restaurant.

I’m generally not much of a museum guy. While some people spend hours looking at a painting, I could probably do the Louvre in under a half hour. Heck, I even breezed through the National Baseball Hall of Fame when I was there in 1997. So I don’t have any sophisticated artistic expertise to offer here, besides to say that aesthetically, I found the show pleasing.

The works varied in style, though some of my favorites had a lifelike quality to them. Arthur K. Miller contributed paintings of Mickey Mantle, Juan Marichal, Satchel Paige and this one of Tim Lincecum:

PhotobucketTim Lincecum, Arthur K. Miller

I enjoyed talking baseball with the various people in attendance, including gallery owner George Krevsky, who said he played baseball for Penn State. I pride myself on my baseball library, and Krevsky has one that could rival it in the office that connects with the main room of his gallery. Along with classics I’ve read like The Boys of Summer and Baseball’s Great Experiment, I noticed copies of three books by Jim Bouton, one of my favorites. Krevsky said Bouton used to play handball with his father, who was nationally ranked and that in years past he’s wanted to get Bouton to the show.

This year, Krevsky featured a reading and signing by another author, Jeff Gillenkirk, who’s written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Mother Jones magazine and whose latest book, Home, Away debuts this month (Gillenkirk said a glitch on Amazon says it can’t be purchased there until September but that it’s available on his publisher’s Web site.) The book is about a ballplayer who leaves the big leagues to be closer to his son, and Gillenkirk read an excerpt where the 39-year-old protagonist winds up in independent league ball at $65 a game.

All in all, it was an enjoyable night and probably the last time I’ll go to an art show for a long time unless I meet a girl or the San Francisco Giants invite me to a gallery opening. In a perfect world, both could happen.

I’ll close with this last work by Valentin Popov, a Ukrainian-born artist Krevsky said he’s admired for years but had never painted baseball before and “didn’t know baseball from a pineapple.” I would be interested to see what other baseball works Popov can produce.

PhotobucketFriday Night, Valentin Popov

The Kid leaves the picture

All the talk yesterday regarding a blown call costing a pitcher a perfect game may have taken some attention away from what would have otherwise been the story of the day: the retirement of Ken Griffey Jr.

Granted, it wasn’t as surprising a story, since the once seemingly-eternally young Griffey looked more fit for a senior softball league by the end, hitting below .200 for the Mariners and purportedly falling asleep in the clubhouse, missing pinch hitting duties. It wasn’t fun to see Griffey at the end, a beloved player for his youthful energy, supreme talent in the first half of his career and his (we all hope it’s true) steadfast refusal to use performance enhancing drugs. And he was a tragic figure for having more injury-marred seasons than healthy ones in the last decade.

Griffey played in his final game on May 31, one day after the 75-year anniversary of the last time Babe Ruth shuffled out in a Boston Braves uniform that never looked right. Both Griffey and Ruth left the game at 40, shells of the immortals they once were, and, as I wrote in November, their ends bring to mind other greats like Rickey Henderson and Willie Mays who looked like old men by the end of their careers.

Really, short of Ted Williams, who hit .316 his final year and homered in his last at-bat, star players rarely seem to bow out near the top of their games. They generally stay until teams will no longer play them, or — in recent years — if they have some kind of steroid-related disgrace, as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, and Jose Canseco could attest.

I think I understand why players don’t want to leave. I know I do what I love in life because something feels missing from it when I don’t. In my case, I’m lucky because one of the things I love most, writing, can be a lifelong pursuit. Baseball players get a limited number of years to pursue their passions, and while the sport offers more years of competition than many others, it probably still feels all too short. So I’m sure there must be a temptation for a player to squeeze every last bit of enjoyment out of baseball while there’s still time, to milk every last cheer, to earn every last contract dollar.

Griffey at least had the good sense to make his retirement effective immediately, instead of opting for a tear-filled farewell tour. It seems he’d make a great hitting coach somewhere should a team give him a shot. If Mark McGwire can get this opportunity, as I wrote about in October, it seems only fair to consider Griffey as well.

With everything being said, Griffey finished with 630 home runs, likely rates among the finest ballplayers of his generation and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I have family in Seattle and am happy to say that childhood trips there included a few visits to the Kingdome where I saw Griffey in his prime, when he had one of the most graceful swings I’ve seen. That’s the image I’ll keep of him.

The perfect storm

I was nearing the end of my work day yesterday evening when my Twitter feed began to light up with “Oh my God, what the hell just happened?” type comments. I checked ESPN and found the story many sports fans have probably heard in the last eighteen hours: With two outs, in the bottom of the ninth, an umpire named Jim Joyce blew a call at first base and cost a pitcher from the Detroit Tigers named Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

It would have been the third perfect game this season — in fact, the third in the last month — and there’s talk of Major League Baseball reviewing the call, which video showed was clearly off. A mountain of words has already been written and Tweeted about this story, including a column by Joe Posnanski that’s better than anything I could come up with here. I won’t say much, though some comment seems obligatory. I’ll offer the following.

While I hope the call gets reversed and Galarraga is credited with the 21st perfect game in big league history, I feel for Joyce. Short of returning punts or being a practice team tackling dummy in football, I think officiating might be the most thankless work in sports. Umpires are subjected to job performance demands I doubt most people ever encounter. Nothing short of perfection is demanded from a ref, and one blown call can permanently detract from decades of otherwise fine work. It’s a worse job than telemarketing.

I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been if Joyce had blown a call in Galarraga’s favor to give him the perfect game. From my time as a sports writer covering high school and college games, it got to the point that I would rarely write if fans were griping about officiating. It’s a common complaint on losing ends. Fans are generally quieter when a muffed call helps their team win, even if over time, I would venture that, for most clubs, blown calls help them as often as they hurt them. While the complaint is certainly legitimate this time around, it’s part of a much greater, tiresome debate.

Of course, had there been an opportunity for Joyce to blow a call in Galarraga’s favor and he’d gotten his tainted perfect game on that, some baseball purists might cry foul. Still, I doubt the storm would be anything like this.

Postscript: Less than 20 minutes after I posted this, ESPN reported that Bud Selig will not reverse Joyce’s call.

Different player/Different era: The Meusel Brothers

Today marks the first appearance of a new Thursday feature here, Different player/Different era. Each week, I will examine a player who might have thrived in another era. My debut piece looks at two players, Irish and Bob Meusel.
What they did: They’re essentially a poor man’s version of the Waner brothers, Paul and Lloyd, who are both in the Hall of Fame and have the all-time record for hits for brothers with 5,611. Neither of the Meusel brothers lasted anywhere near as long in the majors as the Waners did or came close to Cooperstown, but in their primes, they swung similarly sweet.

Irish Meusel hit .310 lifetime with 1521 hits and was a standout for the New York Giants in the 1920s. He had perhaps his finest season in 1921 when he hit .343 with 14 home runs and 87 RBI and helped the Giants prevail over the Yankees in the World Series by hitting .345 in eight games. His younger brother Bob Meusel managed a .309 clip with 1693 hits and was part of the Murderers Row Yankees. In 1925, when teammate Babe Ruth played just 98 games, Bob Meusel led the American League with 33 home runs and 138 RBI.

Era they might have thrived in: Current

Why: There are a couple of big reasons.

First, each Meusel brother was done in the majors by 34, in an era when the vast majority of players didn’t last much beyond 35. Modern medicine might help each Meusel brother play longer. In the current game, they also might make tremendous designated hitters. Paul Molitor, one of the first regular DHs to be enshrined in Cooperstown, only had a few hundred more hits than either Meusel brother around the age each bowed out. Molitor’s .306 lifetime average is also below their career clips.

The second reason I could see the Meusel brothers thriving in the current game is a little more subtle, but was also common in their day when Major League Baseball did not exist west of St. Louis. The brothers were both born in the San Francisco Bay Area and each played for a California team in the Pacific Coast League after their time in the majors ended. A lot of ballplayers left the show for more money and warmer weather in the PCL, and many were Golden State natives, men like Tony Freitas and Joe Marty.

If the Meusels played in the majors today, I could easily see them spending their latter seasons DHing for the Angels or A’s and building up sufficient Cooperstown credentials.

Roberto Clemente: Could he have been bigger than a Yankee Clipper?

Today, I’m pleased to present a first-ever guest post for Baseball: Past and Present. A writer and fellow Society for American Baseball Research member, Joe Guzzardi recently mentioned my site in a column he wrote. He subsequently emailed me and volunteered to write for this site. His name and work will appear weekly, at least for the remainder of the baseball season.


In a post by Graham Womack about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Willie Stargell, a reader commented that Willie Mays once said that if Roberto Clemente had played in New York, he would have been more popular than Joe DiMaggio.

Although I can’t find the quote anywhere, Mays probably said it. Not only did Mays admire Clemente’s skills from the opposing Giant dugout but they were teammates on the 1954 Santurce Cangrejeros Caribbean League and played together on more than a dozen National League All-Star games including the 1961 contest. In that 5-4 NL victory, Clemente drove in two runners, one of them Mays.

To answer the question about whether a New York-based Clemente would have been more popular than DiMaggio, you first have to consider the magnitude of surpassing the level of admiration showered on the Yankee Clipper.

Such was DiMaggio’s popularity that during World War II, he was not sent into combat. The fear was that if DiMaggio were mortally wounded, the nation would be so psychologically scarred it would not recover. For three years, DiMaggio was stationed in Hawaii to coach baseball.

For the sake of today’s debate, let’s put Clemente in Yankee Stadium’s right field in his rookie year, 1955, through his final year, 1972. Since Giants and the Dodgers had one foot out of town by 1955, it makes more sense to speculate about Clemente as a Bronx Bomber.

As a Yankee, Clemente would have played in seven World Series, more than the two he participated in with the Pirates but fewer than DiMaggio’s ten.

What would have given Clemente’s popularity a big boost is the supportive press coverage he would have received in Manhattan during those seven championship seasons.

For most of his career, Clemente and the Pittsburgh print media had a contentious relationship. The press considered Clemente a constant complainer and malcontent. For his part, Clemente regarded the writers as racists who did not appreciate his many baseball skills and never missed a chance to belittle his accented English. Clemente said his image suffered in mostly white Pittsburgh because he was, in his words, a double minority: black and Latino.

Pittsburgh’s slanted media treatment of Clemente hurt him with the national press, too. Most Valuable Player voting reflects the writers’ indifference to Clemente, no matter what he accomplished on the field.

During his four National League batting championship seasons (1961, 1964, 1965 and 1967), Clemente won the MVP only once. In the others three years, he finished fourth, eighth and ninth.

His 1960 MVP slight particularly galled Clemente. During Pittsburgh’s World Series championship year, Clemente finished eighth on the MVP ballot behind Pirate captain Dick Groat despite having better statistics in almost every offensive category.

Consider, on the other hand, how a player of Clemente’s caliber would have been received in New York during the 1950s.

When Clemente broke into baseball, the great wave of Puerto Rican migration was underway. Affordable air travel enabled tens of thousands of islanders to uproot and move to New York.

His status as an All-Star player on the perennial champion Yankees would have made him a hero not only in the Puerto Rican community but among African Americans also. In 1955, Clemente would have joined Elston Howard as one of the Yankees’ two-first black players.

And in the ’50s, New York had six daily newspapers. Their Clemente coverage would have been glowing and his national reputation enhanced accordingly.

Would Clemente have been, as Mays speculated, “more popular” than DiMaggio?

Probably not. Ultimately, DiMaggio’s stats were better: 13 seasons (an All-Star in each of them, an achievement never matched); .325 BA, 325 HRs, 1305 RBIs, 3 MVPs versus Clemente’s 18 seasons, .317BA, 240 HRs, 1537 RBIs, 1 MVP.

During his career, DiMaggio had single seasons with 46 home runs and 167 RBIs (1937) and hit as high as .381 (1939). DiMaggio also holds the record that most analysts agree will never be matched, his 1941 56-game hitting streak.

But, if he had been a Yankee, Clemente would undeniably have been more popular nationally than he was in Pittsburgh, a parochial western Pennsylvania city that never created the media hype that automatically comes with super-stardom in New York.

Joe Guzzardi is a writer and member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Contact him at

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Don Newcombe

Today marks the first appearance of a new Tuesday feature for Baseball: Past and Present, “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” I first wrote about the Hall of Fame here in May 2009 when I made a list, The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. Now, I could probably name 50-100 such players. I intend to look at as many as possible here.

Claim to fame: Newcombe was the ace pitcher on an iconic team, the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers written about in Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. The 1949 National League Rookie of the Year when he went 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA, 19 complete games and five shutouts, Newcombe proceeded to win at least 20 games three out of his next five seasons. He peaked in 1956 when he won the MVP and Cy Young awards, going 27-7 for Brooklyn.

Newcombe was gone from the majors by 1960 at 34, with a 149-90 lifetime record and 3.56 ERA, and as it emerged later, he battled alcoholism during his career. While Newcombe has just one less win than Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean and a better lifetime ERA than two other Cooperstown members, Red Ruffing and Waite Hoyt (another pitcher who later disclosed that alcoholism marred his playing), one has to wonder what Newcombe would’ve achieved if he’d found recovery sooner.

He said he’s been sober since 1967 and told in 2007, “I’m glad to be anywhere, when I think about my life back then. What I have done after my baseball career and being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track and they become human beings again — means more to me than all the things I did in baseball.”

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Newcombe exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1980, peaking at 15.3% of the vote that year; he’s eligible for enshrinement with the Veterans Committee.

Whether he belongs in Cooperstown: The Veterans Committee could do (and has done) worse than to honor a player like Newcombe, a fine example to any player struggling with substance abuse. I’ve read that the Dodgers of the 1950s overused their pitchers, so the argument could be made that Newcombe would have left the majors early regardless of if he drank, but I still think his Cooperstown induction could positively effect the game. It could send the message: If you’re a talented player who falls short of the Hall of Fame behind drugs or alcohol, and you turn your life around after you leave the big leagues, we’ll take note.

If I understand correctly, the Hall of Fame is about celebrating the best of baseball, just as it’s about honoring players with gaudy career numbers. While I don’t know if what Newcombe has done in retirement is enough to make up for his truncated career and earn him a nod from the Veterans Committee, it would be a bright spot for a game whose players have famously struggled with alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine and steroids. If it were up to me, I’d give him a plaque. He’s in my Hall of Fame.