All posts by Joe Guzzardi

About Joe Guzzardi

Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com

George H. W. Bush Reminisces About the 1947 College World Series (Bush: 0 for 7)

Given my choice between watching the College or Major League World Series, I’d pick college without hesitation. Even in the opening rounds, the players are more fundamentally well-schooled in the basics: advancing the runner, hitting the cut off man and laying down a bunt. And, to be frank, if those same players put on a Pirates uniform and passed themselves off as big leaguers, few in PNC Park’s stands could tell the difference. Many of the college pitchers throw over 90 miles per hour and field their positions flawlessly.

The College World Series has a rich tradition dating back to 1947 when Kalamazoo, Michigan hosted the event. Two players from that year’s final that pitted the California Bears against the Yale Bulldogs went on to achieve outstanding success in their professional careers: Jackie Jensen with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators and George Herbert Walker Bush, United States president.

Although Jensen pitched for the Bears, by the time he was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1957, he played outfield. Bush was a slick-fielding, no hit first baseman and a decorated World War II hero. Many of the players including Jensen had military experience.

In the series opener, Jensen came through with a pinch hit single to drive in Cal’s tying run. Recalled Red Mathews, Yale’s third baseman, Jensen was “… strong and fast and big. I was very impressed with him.” The game wasn’t close for long. The Bears scored 11 runs in the top of the ninth to win easily; Cal 17, Yale 4.

Then as now, the series final had a best two of three format. In the next day’s deciding double header, Jensen started the opener. The “Golden Boy,” as Jensen was known, gave up a run in the first inning but then held Yale in check until the bottom of the fourth. The Elis made a fatal mistake when manager Ethan Allen ordered Cal’s number eight hitter walked to face Jensen. As Bush recalled: “He [Jensen] hit one that’s still rolling out there in Kalamazoo.”

Eventually, Jensen tired and was lifted in the bottom of the fourth with the score tied, 4-4. In the end, the Bears prevailed 8-7. Bears’ relief pitcher Virgil Butler struck out Bush, 0 for 7 in the series, to end the game. As Butler later remembered: “”On the last pitch, I struck out George Bush on a curveball. I got my 15 minutes of glory!”

In 1961, after only 11 mostly outstanding years in professional baseball and his career shortened by his notorious fear of flying, Jensen retired. While Jensen starred on the baseball diamond, his later life was plagued by personal and financial misfortune. He was married to, divorced from, remarried to and again divorced from Zoe Ann Olson, an Olympic diving star.

In 1974, Jensen returned to Berkeley to coach his beloved Bears who he led to more than 100 wins. But in 1982, age 55, Jensen died from his second heart attack in two months.

Bush, on the other hand, is a hale and hearty 88. His political resume includes two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, stints as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, two terms as Vice President and one as term as President.

As for his College World Series memories Bush disputes his teammates’ criticism that he couldn’t hit. According to Bush, he batted about .250. And, Bush said, “And I think if I were playing today in the bigs, I’d probably get about $8 million bucks a year for that.”

Willie Mays turns 81

On May 6, Willie Mays celebrated his 81st birthday. During those 1950s years the baseball world couldn’t resolve the debate about who was New York’s best center fielder, Mickey, Willie or the Duke. As sports writer Red Smith said:

“Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. You could get a fat lip in any saloon by starting an argument as to which was best. One point was beyond argument, though. Willie was by all odds the most exciting.”

At the time, I lived in Los Angeles and didn’t qualify to have an opinion. In those days, major league baseball hadn’t yet arrived in California so my limited knowledge was based on stories I read in the great old Sports Magazine or in late newspaper box scores. I did, however, see May’s 1954 legendary World Series catch on a tiny black and white television screen. In the Series first game, Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz launched a tremendous shot to deep center field, Mays, looking over his shoulder, caught the ball and fired it back into the infield. (See it here.)

When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, Mays began the second phase of his outstanding career. After Mays retired, the Giants erected a statue of him outside AT & T Park, the address of which is 24 Willie Mays Plaza.

Not until 1972 did I watch Mays in person. Mays had agreed to return to New York as a Mets at owner Joan Payson’s behest. Payson had grown up rooting for the New York Giants; Mays was her favorite player. The 41-year-old Mays was washed up but he agreed to go to New York lured by the prospect that Mets had at least an outside chance of winning the World Series, an achievement that had eluded him since 1954

For parts of two seasons, Mays played like the roster liability he was. His hitting was negligible, his fielding erratic and his speed gone. Nevertheless, on September 25, 1973 at Shea Stadium the Mets held “Willie Mays Night.” Traffic, worse than for any visiting Pope, president or foreign head of state, was backed up from Queens to Manhattan. The Mets flew in Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial to be part of the celebration during which he was given three cars, plane tickets, a snowmobile and a mink coat for his wife.

Mays’ birthday celebration was more subdued. In the bottom of the second inning, Giants’ fans stood to sing “Happy Birthday” to Mays. And from the KNBR radio booth, announcers Jon Miller and Dave Fleming presented Mays with a cake.

For the next few innings, Miller and Fleming exchanged Mays’ vignettes. Time and again the announcers returned to Milwaukee where on April 30, 1961 Mays put on one of baseball’s greatest performances. That Sunday afternoon, Mays hit four home runs, two off Lew Burdette and one each off Don McMahon and Seth Morehead, and drove in eight runners. One of Mays’ titanic homers went so far into the stands that as play-by-play man Russ Hodges made the call, he noted that Henry Aaron—playing out of position in center field—never made a move for the ball as it soared above his head.

When the game ended, a 14-4 Giants rout, Mays was in the on deck circle. By that time, County Stadium fans hoped to see Mays get a shot at his fifth homer. When Jim Davenport grounded out, he got a lusty round of booing from the disappointed crowd.

Today, in addition to his responsibilities as an assistant to the Giants’ president, Mays also serves on the advisory board of the Baseball Assistance Team, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to helping former major League, minor League, and Negro league players through financial and medical difficulties.

Six decades after the who-is-better Mays, Mantle or Snider argument began, most historians give Mays the edge.

An interesting footnote: the Giants’ winning pitcher was Billy Loes who tossed a complete game. Most have forgotten (I know I did) that Loes closed out his career with the Giants where he pitched respectably during 1961 and 1962 ( 63 games; 9-7, 4.50 ERA).

What really happened to “Big Ed” Delahanty the night he died?

“Big Ed” Delahanty was the most successful of five siblings who played in the majors during the 1890s and into the early 20th Century. None of Delahanty’s brothers, Frank, Joe, Jim and Tom could match Ed’s prowess. But during the Deadball Era, no one else could either. From 1894 to 1896 Delahanty compiled astonishing batting marks, averaging a cumulative .402 and winning two batting titles during the span. In 1899, Delahanty hit four doubles in the same game and also collected hits in 10 consecutive at bats.

Delahanty, who collected three votes for left field in the BPP All Time Dream Project, toiled for the Philadelphia Quakers, Cleveland Infants, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators. While the memory of Delahanty’s batting feats have understandably faded, to this day fans associate “Big Ed” with his mysterious death.

Rumors abound. In 1903 while the Senators were traveling between Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Delahanty died after being kicked of a train by the conductor for drunken and disorderly behavior. Was Delahanty’s death a suicide, an accident or murder? Delahanty had, according to some of his teammates, rambled incoherently about death in his last days. There were also reports of a stranger possibly bent on robbery who followed Delahanty as he walked across the International Bridge.

The Delahanty enigma is the first case analyzed in the new book, Mysteries from Baseball’s Past: Investigations of Nine Unsettled Questions edited by Angelo Louisa and David Cicotello.

In the days leading up to his death, Delahanty was tortured by heavy drinking, significant gambling debts, marital woes, contractual conflicts and, even though he had won the National League batting championship the previous year, declining baseball skills.

Beginning from the moment the search team discovered Delahanty’s “bloated and decomposed” corpse, contributor Jerrold Casway recreates in painstaking detail the tragic circumstances surrounding the ”King of Swatsville’s” untimely death. The author considers various scenarios about which there have been decades of speculation before coming to his well-researched (police reports, sworn testimony and numerous newspaper accounts) and indisputable conclusion that Del’s demise was a tragic accident.

Other unraveled mysteries include Chick Stahl’s suicide, the strange death of Harry Pulliam, the non-game that featured Wilbur Cooper and Pete Alexander, Eddie Cicotte and his “shine” ball (or not?), the O’Connell-Dolan scandal (or hoax?), the Cobb –Speaker hoax, Josh Gibson versus Satch and the Dodgers move to Los Angeles: was Walter O’Malley the victim, a bum or something else?

In 2007, I reviewed another outstanding book by the editors, Forbes Field: Essays and Memories of the Pirates Historic Ball Park, 1909-1971. Read my review here.

To Make Room for Jackie, “Big” Ed Stevens Sold to Pittsburgh

Here’s a little known chapter from the great Jackie Robinson’s baseball history. Robinson has a connection, albeit an indirect one, to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In 1947, when Robinson was called up to Brooklyn, “Big Ed” Stevens held down first base. Remember that Branch Rickey ordered field manager Leo Durocher (before he was suspended) to play Robinson at first  and leave Eddie Stanky at second. Rickey thought Robinson would be safer at first from the possibility of national league rivals intentionally spiking him or bowling him over. Robinson didn’t move to second base until 1948.

Before the season began, Durocher called a team meeting and announced: “The old man says he’s going to bring the black man up.” What Durocher didn’t add is that Robinson would be inserted as the first sacker. Since Robinson played his minor league career as a second baseman, Stevens didn’t realize that his job was on the line. But when the time rolled around for rosters to be cut to 25, Rickey told Stevens that he was being returned to Montreal in the Dodgers’ best interests.

Rickey said to Stevens:

“If you would let me pull you off the roster and send you down to Montreal, I’m going to put Jackie Robinson in your spot. This will give me enough time to get rid of Stanky who isn’t good for the ball club and Jackie belongs at second anyway. I’ll shake hands with you on a gentleman’s agreement and make the solemn promise to you that you’ll be back as soon as I can get rid of Stanky.”

Rickey swore to Stevens that the young first baseman figured prominently in the Dodgers’ long term plans.

Stevens, who said he was speechless and felt like he “had the rug pulled out from under him,” said he first sensed his ultimate fate when, during a stretch of several early games, Robinson went 0-26 but continued to play.

Rickey never kept his promise. Although Rickey bought Stevens up in September, it was too late to qualify for the World Series. During the few games Stevens played he, like Jackie, endured fans’ and opposing players’ barbs. From the grandstand: “There’s Jackie Robinson’s caddy” and from the visitor’s dugout “How did you let a nigger take your job.”

By the end of his rookie year, Robinson played 151 games and had hit a solid .297. Stevens, on the other hand, was hit .154 in 5 games and the Dodgers sold him to the Pirates.

During the off season, Stevens and his family returned to his native Galveston, Texas where the taunting about being the first white man ever replaced by a black man continued all winter. By spring training 1948, Stevens eagerly joined the Pirates where, as he recalled, “he worked harder than ever” and learned from Ralph Kiner and Honus Wagner. In 1948, Stevens hit .254 with ten home runs (in cavernous Forbes Field) and knocked in 64. But toward September, nagging injuries to Stevens’ hips and shoulders took their toll. In 1949 and 1950, his last year as a major league player, Stevens warmed the bench.

Stevens, who says that to this day people ask him if he resents Robinson for taking his job, remembers Jackie this way:

“I hold no hard feelings against Jackie in any shape or form. At ball games, my wife Margie and his wife Rachael sat together and visited. There were no hard feelings in any way. Jackie showed himself to be a fine player and a good man.”

Stevens, 87, lives in Galveston.

The Eternal Promise of Opening Day

Editor’s note: This originally ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 1.

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Every spring, the ritual repeats itself. As major league baseball teams break camp, managers report that their athletes have never been in better condition, predict that rookies will shine, vow that last year’s underperforming veterans will bounce back and declare that the starting pitching will surprise the harshest critics.

During the summer, the truth will out. Since the turn of the 20th century, when baseball’s modern era dawned, the Pittsburgh Pirates have scaled the highest peaks and plumbed the lowest depths. In 1902, as he departed Hot Springs, Arkansas en route to Pittsburgh, manager Fred Clarke called his squad the best ever assembled. Clarke had good reason for optimism. His team had five returning .300 hitters including the incomparable Honus Wagner and Clarke who, in addition to his managing duties, patrolled left field. The Pirates rewarded Clarke with an astonishing 103-36 record and ran away with the National League title by 27.5 games.

In 1952, however, skipper Billy Meyer’s dreams were dashed early and often. The 13 Pirates’ rookies on the opening day roster included four teenagers. Collectively, they failed and were soon forever gone from baseball. Future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner turned in one of his worst seasons. Kiner lost sixty points off his batting average and slugged five fewer home runs than the preceding season.

The 1952 Pirates were among the worst teams ever to don a uniform. When late September mercifully rolled around, only small handfuls showed up at Forbes Field to watch the 42-112 Corsairs play out the string.

Four decades later, Jim Leyland put on a happy pre-season face. His Bucs had captured division titles in 1990 and 1991. But Leyland knew he would miss his best hitter, Bobby Bonilla, a free agent signed by the New York Mets and his only 20-game winner, John Smiley, traded to the Minnesota Twins. Of all the things that he might have anticipated though, Leyland in his wildest imagination couldn’t have envisioned the gut-wrenching seventh League Championship Series game against the Atlanta Braves that Pirates fans will carry to their graves.

The Pirates, who had battled back from a 3-1 series deficit, held a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth. To the uninitiated, being three outs away from a World Series berth with a two run lead might seem secure. But in baseball, there are many ways to snatch defeat from victory’s jaws. If old Fred Clarke were still around, he could have reminded Bucco backers about an incredible 1901 game when the Cleveland Blues scored nine times with no outs to beat the Washington Senators, 14-13.

Watching from my California home and slumping further into my sofa with each pitch, here’s what I saw unfold in Fulton County Stadium.

The Braves immediately loaded the bases. Doug Drabek surrendered a lead off double, an infield error and walked former Pirates Sid Bream. Dark clouds gathered. Every formula for baseball disaster includes walks and errors.

Exit Drabek; enter Stan Belinda. A sacrifice fly scored one and another walk reloaded the bases. When an infield pop up produced the second Braves’ out, it looked like the Pirates would escape.

But pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera, the last Braves’ position player and a substitute so inconsequential that he batted only ten times during the season, thrust the final dagger into the Pirates. Cabrera singled; two more runs scored. Final: Braves 3-Pirates 2. For the third consecutive year, the Pirates failed to reach the Fall Classic.

From the bullpen, catcher Don Slaught and pitcher Bob Walk’s hearts fell when they saw Bream slide in just under Barry Bond’s throw. More than 2,500 miles away in my living room, I shared their pain. Watching in what he described as “disbelief,” Walk said he wanted to call time out as Bream rounded third but he knew that was impossible. Added Walk, “For two weeks, I tossed and turned. I couldn’t sleep thinking about the lost opportunity.” Slaught called Cabrera’s winning hit and the shattered Pirates’ dreams, “A killer.”

Slaught had played an essential role in the Pirates’ climb to first place. Not only was Slaught a solid defensive catcher and clutch hitter but he also became rookie Tim Wakefield’s personal receiver. Wakefield and his befuddling knuckleball burst onto the Three Rivers scene in late July to propel the Pirates to the pennant. Wakefield rolled up an 8-1 record before pitching two complete game victories against the Braves.

This winter Wakefield retired from the Boston Red Sox. From the 1992 Pirates only pitcher Miguel Batista, a Mets’ non-roster invitee, is still active.

As the 2012 season begins, Pirates fans wonder if this will be the year that the team reaches .500. Few need reminding that 1992 was the last time the Pirates broke even.

Like Clarke, Meyer, Leyland and his other 25 predecessors, Clint Hurdle likes what he sees. When asked to evaluate the Pirates’ spring, Hurdle described it as, “Just like all doctor’s surgeries—successful.”

Hurdle pointed to the Pirates’ depth and greater experience as its main strengths. Even with A.J. Burnett out for six weeks, Hurdle anticipates improved pitching and better years from his position players including the new long-term Pirates Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen.

Through last July, the Pirates were baseball’s most exciting story. Although the team fell off in the second half, Hurdle thinks losing taught them the invaluable lesson of how to “finish—plays, innings, games and seasons.”

Because of Hurdle’s inspirational leadership, Pirates’ fans became believers again and basked in the Bucs’ brief but heady success. PNC Park sold out 17 times.

Baseball, the game of hope that links the past to the present, began anew on April 5.

Pedro Alvarez: Play Him? Demote Him? Platoon Him?

What to do about Pedro Alvarez? That’s the number one question asked by Pittsburgh Pirates fans during spring training. Alvarez is the highly touted second overall pick from the 2008 draft who signed a $6.4 million contract with a $6 million signing bonus. First called up to the Pirates major league roster in 2010, Alvarez performed well. In 95 games, Alvarez hit .256 with 18 home runs and 64 RBIs.

But in 2011, Alvarez hit .191 and was demoted to AAA Indianapolis mid-season before being called back in September. This spring has been, to put it kindly, a disaster for Alvarez. His batting average is about .150 and he strikes out with alarming regularity. Through Sunday’s games, Alvarez had struck out 24 times and walked once.

Nevertheless, management is poised to start Alvarez at third base with the long shot hope the he’ll get well against major league pitching. At the same time, however, the Pirates are desperate for power, having none to speak of any place in the lineup save for the occasional Garrett Jones dinger. And there seems little reason to send Alvarez back to Indianapolis since that route has been tried without success.

The risk of putting Alvarez on the field day after day is that if he doesn’t perform, the fans will rag him mercilessly. When that happens, and it’s 100 percent certain that it will if Alvarez doesn’t hit, then his psyche would become even more messed up than it already is.

For fans who have endured 19 consecutive losing seasons, Alvarez is symbolic of all that’s wrong with the Pirates.

The Alvarez case has two interesting back stories. First, before he even arrived in Pittsburgh, Alvarez got off on the wrong foot. On August 18, 2008 after finishing his Vanderbilt University career, Alvarez agreed to but did not immediately sign his $6 million Pirates’ contract. When the signing deadline expired, Alvarez was placed on the restricted list. A month later, Alvarez renegotiated a $6.4 million contract. In other words, Alvarez held the Pirates up for $400,000.

Second, after Alvarez flamed out last year manager Clint Hurdle and the front office urged him to play winter ball so that he could practice against high quality players. Alvarez refused. Instead, he chose to “train” in Newport Beach, California. Here’s how Alvarez explained his workout schedule: “Some days I’ll hit for 10 minutes, some days I’ll hit for an hour. I’ll typically be done around noon and then I have the rest of the day just to hang out.”

If you’ve been to Newport Beach, you know that “hanging out” there is a dream vacation that’s not likely to result in a higher batting average.

The 2012 season is crucial for the Pirates and Alvarez. Last year, after a promising start that saw the Pirates in the thick of the National League Central Division race through July, the team fell like a stone. Nevertheless, the Pirates raised ticket prices. The offseason acquisitions, A.J. Burnett, Eric Bedard, Rod Barajas, Casey McGehee, Nate McClouth are aging cast offs. In Burnett’s case, the Yankees were willing to absorb millions from his contract to have him not pitch in New York. Of the 30 teams, only the Pirates were willing to take Burnett despite the Yankees’ subsidy.

As for Alvarez, a .211 career hitter against left handers, he’ll spend most of April on the bench. The Pirates’ early schedule includes games against the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and the Arizona Diamondbacks. That means Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner as well as the league’s top right handers like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Roy Halladay.

Baseball is full of surprises. And maybe the 2012 Pirates will once again be among the contenders that take the National League by storm. From this corner, however, a happy ending for the Pirates seems unlikely.

Opening Day: Warm weather helps

Years ago, I had a good job that required extensive traveling. During the 1970s taking an airplane from New York to, for example, Chicago was something to look forward to. The three major airlines that served Chicago—United, American and the old TWA, offered flights that left every hour. As your taxi pulled up to La Guardia, you looked at your watch, determined which flight you could make and bought your ticket at the gate.

Once on board, the stewardess (as they were then called) treated even coach passengers with a certain amount of dignity. While en route we ate, if not haute cuisine, at least something warm and free.

One of the best features of my job was that I made my own schedule.
During April I attended as many Opening Days as I could. I’d catch the Mets and the Yankees at home and then, with no trouble at all, go out of town to see a third. This, don’t forget, was pre-cell phone and in an era where job security, assuming you carried your own weight, still existed.

So it was that I found myself in Chicago on April 15, 1975 to see the White Sox play the Texas Rangers. During the 1970s the White Sox were nothing special. But that year, Bill Veeck had purchased the team—again and just before it was relocated in Seattle. Chicago was abuzz with enthusiasm that somehow the team could be restored a competitive level. The 1975 White Sox never lived up to the fans’ early hopes. The Pale Hose finished in fifth place, barely ahead of the California Angels but 22.5 games behind the Oakland Athletics.

In retrospect, no one should have been surprised. The Sox had pretty good pitching with Jim Kaat (20-14) Wilbur Wood (16-20) and an emerging Goose Gossage but not much offense. Deron Johnson’s 18 home runs lead the Sox.

Nevertheless, this was April and spirits were high. The Sox had opened poorly, but not calamitously, on the road. After losing two of three to Oakland and California, the Comiskey Park opener was set for Tuesday during the season’s second week.

Veeck walked through the stands, peg leg in place, to shake hands with as many people as he could. The old master talked the White Sox up with his typical enthusiasm. The problem was that only 20,000 showed up.

Those were the among the bravest individuals to ever set foot in a baseball park. I can never recall being colder for longer than that day at Comiskey. According to the weather bureau, the temperature hit 45 degrees but the wild chill, aided by freezing rain and snow flurries, made it seem like 20.

Sensible people would have left after the third inning. By then, you could say you “had gone” to Opening Day; no need to elaborate. But our group included White Sox die hards. And unfortunately, the game see sawed back and forth. The Sox prevailed in, wouldn’t you know it, extra innings, 6-5 in eleven frames played out over a frigid 3:51. I can’t remember a single thing about the game except the elation I felt when Tony Muser hit into a game ending double play to quash the mild threat the White Sox had mounted to tie it up.

By Wednesday, I was still thawing out.

Phil Rizzuto: Great Player, Better Broadcaster

Our friends over at Seamheads.com had a great post about some of history’s most famous baseball voices. Included were Ernie Harwell, Red Barber, Mel Allen, Bob Prince and Vin Scully. I’ve heard them all. None held a candle to Phil Rizzuto who for 40 years did the New York Yankees’ color commentary.

For 15 of those years, I lived in New York and Rizzuto along with his numerous partners (Jerry Coleman, Frank Messer and Bill White) were my constant summer companions.

Rizzuto was a childhood hero for many reasons, most obviously because of his Italian heritage. The “Scooter,” as Rizzuto was universally known, was also Joe Di Maggio’s roommate. Di Maggio was another favorite…at least until I learned about the darker side of his character.

Years after I left New York for Seattle, I was traveling to Boston. Coincidentally, the Yankees were playing the Red Sox. As I checked into my small, out of the way hotel Rizzuto was walking through the lobby. I approached him, extended my hand which he shook firmly. I told Rizzuto that I had spent countless nights listening to him broadcast Yankee games and that his accounts gave me more pleasure than I could express. Luckily, I remembered his wife Cora’s name so I was able to ask after her, too.

Rizzuto could have brushed me off after I had spoken my piece. Instead he engaged me in a long conversation about baseball in general and the Mariners specifically. And Rizzuto asked me questions about my family, my occupation and whether I was going to the game that night.

Although I had other plans, Rizzuto pulled out two tickets and gave them to me. And somehow it didn’t seem right not to use them. Compliments of the Scooter, I went.

I’ll confess that I wanted to ask him for his autograph but, you know, I was in my mid-30s. And after my visit with Rizzuto, I felt more like a friend than a fan.

White had a great story about what it was like to share the booth with Rizzuto. Once, hoping to clarify a complicated scoring decision, White looked over Rizzuto’s shoulder. In the Scooter’s score book was this notation: “W.W.” A confused White asked his partner what “W.W.” meant. Rizzuto replied: “Wasn’t watching.”

Phil himself told my favorite Rizzuto story at his Hall of Fame induction. Talking about his early career in the Class D Southern League, Rizzuto served grits at his hotel breakfast. Rizzuto, who grew up in Brooklyn, had never seen grits. Not wanting to eat them but also not wanting to leave them on his plate, Rizzuto said: “I put them in my pocket and walked out.” Phil got a huge laugh.

For more Rizzuto humor, read O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto.

Joe Pate, His Brief Major League Career and the “Raw Raw”

During minor league’s heyday from 1920 to 1940, dozens of leagues and hundred of teams played baseball in every corner of the nation. Local kids made up many teams’ rosters. And some players, even talented ones, had little interest in moving up to the Major Leagues.

To many, especially those from rural areas, big city life had no appeal. Others didn’t want to part from their families and sweethearts. Some had to stay close by to help with the farm chores or earn extra cash from their part-time jobs.

For pitcher Joe Pate, it was all of those reasons and one more. Pate couldn’t throw his renown spit ball in the majors, at least not legally.

Pate, relying almost exclusively on his spitter, dominated the Texas League for eleven years.

Starting in 1920 while pitching for the Ft. Worth cats, Pate won 20 or more games three times and thirty games twice. But Pate consistently refused to go to the Philadelphia Athletics, the Cats’ parent team. Despite multiple pleas from Connie Mack, Pate wanted no part of it. Not only did the Texas native prefer to stay near to his ranch and rodeo hobby but the early A’s were a sad lot.

Beginning in 1915 and through 1921, the A’s posted records of 43-109, 36-117, 55-98, 52-76, 36-104, 48-106 and 53-100.

Finally, in 1926 as the revitalized A’s battled for an American League championship, Pate agreed to a promotion.

Pate’s career was short—two years—but possibly one of the most curious in baseball history. In 1926, Pate appeared in 47 games, posted a 9-0 record with six saves and a 2.71 ERA. The left hander helped keep Philadelphia in the pennant race for much of the summer although the A’s ended up in third place behind the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians.

The following year, Pate was finished. His record dropped to 0-3 with a 5.20 ERA. Pate returned to Ft. Worth where he pitched well before retiring to become an umpire.

Whether Pate threw the spitter during his successful 1926 season remained unclear. According to Ira Thomas, a catcher, said

“Pate didn’t need a spitter. I doubt if he threw three spitters in a game.”

Thomas and other of Pate’s contemporaries say that Pate’s “out” pitch was the “raw raw,” the term used in the day to describe a knuckleball.

A Pittsburgh Perspective on the Andrew McCutchen Deal

For the last two seasons, when asked about the possibility of locking up Andrew McCutchen up long term, Pittsburgh Pirates’ General Manager Neil Huntington was purposely vague.

So the Pirates caught Pittsburgh by surprise with the announcement that the team signed McCutchen to a six-year contract worth $51.5 million with a club option for 2018 valued at $14.75 million. The deal included McCutchen’s first two free agency years.

Signing McCutchen was something the Pirates had to do—but for non-baseball reasons. The only thing that’s certain for the Pirates in 2012 is that it will endure its 20th consecutive losing season. Ticket prices have been increased. Last year’s second half fold put the team at an 81 game winning percentage lower than the 2010 John Russell-led squad that lost 105 games. By signing McCutchen, the Pirates can deflect the inevitable fan grousing about how ownership refuses to spend money. But since McCutchen was already on the squad, fans are skeptical that it will make any short term difference.

The Pirates had a rough off season making only marginal, at best, upgrades. The addition of Clint Barmes at shortstop is an improvement over the unpredictable head case, Ronnie Cedeno. Gone are catchers Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit. Their replacement is 36-year-old Rod Barajas. Casey McGehee also joined the team which might help if Pedro Alvarez can’t improve on his .191 batting average.

Perhaps more significantly the Pirates couldn’t lure potentially productive players to Pittsburgh despite dangling millions in front them. Roy Oswalt didn’t return phone calls. Edwin Jackson turned down three years at $30 million to instead sign with the Washington Nationals for one year, $11 million.

Even though Derrek Lee hit .337 with seven home runs in 113 at bats for the Pirates, he had no interest in returning. According to Lee, he would rather retire and forego $6-8 million than play another season in Pittsburgh.

The Pirates pitching staff consists of five hurlers (Eric Bedard, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, James McDonald and Brad Lincoln) who, in a competitive rotation, would be number three or four starters.

Let’s be honest. The ill-fated A.J. Burnett is a Yankee cast off that, coming off two terrible years, no other team wanted. He’s only around because the Pirates opted not to sign free agent Paul Maholm, five years younger than Burnett, 1.5 runs lower in 2011 ERA. Burnett is $2 million cheaper than Maholm would have been.

Luckily, the Pirates have All Star closer Joel Hanrahan to protect those hard earned and always tenuous late game leads. Somehow the Bucs must try to hold opponents to four runs or less since the team is no offensive juggernaut. The Buccos need more pop from the traditional power positions: left and right field, first and third base and catcher.

The sense around town is that there are so many Pirates’ holes to plug that McCutchen is only one tiny piece of the solution. And many long suffering fans are far from convinced about McCutchen’s worth. In the second half of the season, with his team falling off the cliff, McCutchen’s .216 batting average was awful.

Still, McCutchen is a skilled player with unlimited upside who has the gift of speed and power with tremendous outfield range. Last season, he hit 23 homers and drove in 89. McCutchen has the automatic green light and could steal 30-40 bases.

McCutchen’s guaranteed $51 million is great for him and, for the Pirates, an important symbolic gesture. Fans want this year’s team to succeed. If McCutchen leads the charge back to the top, fantastic. But we want results and not more talk about the minor league prospects, last year’s draft picks or the international signings. We’ve heard all that before—for two decades!

More will be known a mere 18 games into the season. The Pirates open with three at home against the National League East champion Philadelphia Phillies before going on the road for nine against the Dodgers, the Giants, the Diamondbacks then returning for six against the Cardinals and the Rockies. Along that path, they will likely face Roy Halliday, Cliff Lee, Cole Hammels, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ian Kennedy and Chris Carpenter.

Although the early road is tough, Bucco backers expect at a minimum 9-9. A break even record would be the first step to the elusive .500 mark.

A birthday present from Freddy Sanchez

After 60 years of attending Major League baseball games, I finally caught my first foul ball. On a cold, rainy April night at PNC Park San Francisco Giants’ second baseman Freddy Sanchez sent a lazy fly into the deserted stands. I only had to elbow one guy out of the way.

Like most fans, I’ve been close before. Friends have regaled me with their good fortune. In 1960, a buddy snagged a foul of the Chicago White Sox Nelson Fox. The ball had been in play during the previous out. As my friend recreated the inning, with Whitey Ford on the mound and Yogi Berra behind the plate, Luis Aparicio flied out to Roger Maris who tossed the ball into Bobby Richardson. Then, Richardson whipped it around the infield to Bill Skowron, Gil McDougald and Clete Boyer.

By the time the ball landed in my lucky friend’s hands, it had been touched by four Hall of Famers and four other outstanding Golden Era Yankees.

I took my ball home and placed it prominently on my desk. After a week, I thought that the ball would be even cooler if Freddy autographed it. As a Pittsburgh Pirates employee I knew from Freddie’s years with the team that he’s a solid guy who I could count on to sign. By mid-May, the ball along with a return postage pre-paid envelope was on its way to San Francisco. But not long afterward, Freddy returned to his Arizona home to rehab after going on the disabled list.

June, July, and August passed—no baseball. As the months went by, I factored in that it would have to be time-consumingly forwarded from San Francisco to Arizona. I also made allowances for a bummed, injured Freddy following his flailing Giants’ being unenthusiastic about signing. Reluctantly, I downgraded the percentage of probability that I’d get the ball back from 100 percent to 75 percent and then to 50 percent.

When 2012 arrived, I dropped the probability to 10 percent. I had mailed it eight months ago! By then, I second guessed my wisdom in parting with the ball. Still, knowing Freddy’s reputation, I refused to set the likelihood at zero.

Eventually, Freddy rewarded my faith. In late February, the ball arrived inscribed as I had requested: “To Joe, Happy Birthday, Freddy Sanchez”

The blame didn’t rest with Freddy, as I knew it wouldn’t, but with—no surprise—the post office! When I purchased the return postage, the clerk warned me that not so much as a feather could be included with the ball since it would throw the weight off. The scales must work differently in Phoenix than they do in Pittsburgh. The envelope had multiple “insufficient postage” stamps emblazoned on it. Lesson learned—add a few bucks in extra frank to ensure you get your items back promptly.

My treasure is back where it was last April and where it will remain, safely atop my desk.

Puerto Rico Goes to Cuba, Wins 1953 Caribbean World Series

When Alva Lee “Bobo” Holloman began his major league career on May 6,1953 by pitching a no-hitter for the St. Louis Browns against the Philadelphia A’s,  the baseball world was shocked.

But for those who followed Holloman the previous winter in the Puerto Rican League, his success was hardly surprising.

Pitching for the Santurce Crabfishermen, Holloman led the league with a 15-5 record. In the traditional playoff involving the first and second place finishers, the Crabs took on its long time antagonist the San Juan Senators in the best of seven. Holloman pitched a complete 13-inning game to best the Senators, 7-5, and wrap up the series, 4-2. Future New York Giants catcher Valmy Thomas tripled in the winning runs with two on.

During game five, among the many fans were Rachael and Jackie Robinson who were visiting San Juan at the time. Robinson watched his teammate Brooklyn Dodgers’ teammate Junior Gilliam as the Crabs trounced the Senators 15-5. Negro League slugging star Bob Thurman’s grand slam home run and three hits provided the winning runs. The all time Puerto Rican League home run record belongs to Thurman with 117.

The Crabs Puerto Rican League victory assured the team a place in the Caribbean World Series in Havana. The four member countries and the teams representing them were Puerto Rico (Santurce), Cuba (Havana), Panama (Chesterfield) and Venezuela (Caracas). At the time, the Havana Reds were called the “Yankees of Cuba” because of its outstanding roster that included Sandy Amaros, Camilo Pascual, Lou Klein and Bob Usher. Reds’ manager Mike Gonzales said his squad was “at least” the equivalent to AAA.

Holloman dominated as the Crabs swept the double round robin series 6-0. He won the second and sixth games by scores of 7-4 and 9-2. Other Crabs’ pitchers who contributed were future Major Leaguers Ruben Gomez and Cot Deal. The Crabs twice topped Havana en route to becoming the first two-time Caribbean Series winner.

When Holloman reported in the spring, the unconvinced Browns sent him to Syracuse before calling him up in May. Holloman’s time in the bigs was short. After his no-hitter, Holloman struggled. Then, after he mopped up in the second game of a July 19 double header against the Washington Senators and gave up six earned runs in 1.2 innings, a frustrated Bill Veeck sold “Bobo” to the International League’s Toronto Blue Jays.

When the season ended, Holloman returned to Santurce but pitched poorly and compiled a 0-2 record.

With his career over, Holloman returned to Georgia to drive trucks just as he had done in his pre-baseball days. Holloman battled alcoholism for years before giving up drinking in in 1972. Sobriety helped Holloman enjoy his racetrack, golf and stock market passions. In 1987, Holloman died of a sudden heart attack in Athens.

Minnie Minoso: “What’s a Holdout?”

When Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane signed Cuban prospect Yoenis Cespedes to a $36 million, four year contract, I immediately thought back to a simpler time.

During the 1952 Christmas season, the famous Chicago White Sox G.M. Frank “The Trader” Lane set off for Cuba with four blank contracts in his brief case. Lane intended to sign two of his major league roster players, Saturnino Orestes “Minnie” Minoso and pitcher Mike Fornieles. Lane also hoped to sew up two role players, third sacker (and bench warmer) Hector Rodriguez and relief pitcher Luis “Witto” Aloma. The quartet played winter ball in the Cuban League.

Lane secured contracts only from Rodriguez and Aloma. Upon his return to Chicago, Lane speculated that Minoso may be a hold out. But when he was questioned about that possibility, Minoso asked:

Hold out? What in the world is that? I am not a hold out whatever it is. I like to play ball but I want my money. The club offered me only $3,000 raise over what I got in 1952 and I think I am entitled to more.

Fornieles, recently traded from the Washington Senators in exchange for Chuck Stobbs, took the same position. After Lane reportedly offered $5,000, Fornieles said:

After I pay my taxes and spend a lot in Chicago living like a big leaguer, I will have only $500 a month left. I don’t think that is big league pay.

Poor timing victimized Lane. At the time of his Cuba visit, the Marianao teammates were dominating the league. Minoso was second in batting, hitting an impressive .360. Fornieles’ record stood at a tidy 7-3.

The week after Lane left, the Cuban League named Minoso and Fornieles Players of the Year; Minoso won the top veteran award; Forneieles, best rookie.

Lane and his players eventually settled their disputes. In 1953, Fornieles posted a respectable 8-7, 3.59 ERA record; Minoso added 32 points to his 1952 average to end the season at .313, fourth highest in the American League, and knocked in 104.

In 2003 Minoso, then 78-years-old, made a pinch hit appearance for the Independent Northern League St. Paul Saints and drew a walk. With his at bat, Minoso became the first ever seven- decade professional baseball player. Minoso broke in with the Cleveland Indians in 1949.

During his career Minoso, the White Sox first black player, never earned more than $40,000. Fornieles died in 1998 in St. Petersburg, Florida; Minoso, a 10 time All Star, lives in the Chicago area.

The A’s Gamble on Yoenis Cespedes

The Oakland Athletics stunned the baseball world earlier this week when the team signed the untried Yoennis Cespedes to a 4-year, $36 million contract. Cespedes’ only experience against major league pitching came during the World Baseball Classic where he hit .428 in 24 at bats. In Cuba last year, Cespedes hit 33 home runs in 90 games. Who knows how that translates into a realistic ability to hit in the big time?

The WBC and the Cuban League aren’t the major leagues. While the scouts go crazy over Cespedes and what they view as his can’t miss future, my own thinking is tempered by the opinions of two former big league stars, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Steve Blass.

Schmidt says that there’s no jump harder to make in professional sports than the move up from AAA to the majors. Blass adds that it’s one thing to “make” the big league roster but a different thing altogether to “perform” once you get there. Some note that neither the WBC or the Cuban League approach AAA talent-wise.

Cespedes will begin his Athletics’ career in the minors. There he might run into another international signing, a former “can’t miss” prospect who looks like—well, he may miss. In 2008, the As signed 6’7” 16-year-old Dominican Michael Ynoa for $4.25 million. General manager Billy Beane predicted that Ynoa’s blazing fastball would dominate hitters for years to come. Ynoa pitched nine innings of rookie ball in 2010 before blowing out his arm and undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Another multimillion dollar Cuban defector, Aroldis Chapman, is still in his formative stages. In parts of two seasons for the Cincinnati Reds, Chapman has shown improvement.

Last summer, Chapman threw a 105 mile fastball that Reds’ fans are still talking about

But here’s what pitching great Sal Maglie said in Sports Illustrated in 1958 about pitchers who plan to make their livings with fastballs:

With nothing but a real good fastball, a pitcher can be a winner in high school and college, on the sandlots and even in the minor leagues. But no one—not even a Herb Score or a Bob Feller  —can consistently throw the ball past major league hitters. The guys you run into here are just too good for that.

Maybe without his injury Ynoa would be dominant by now. Cespedes might end up in the Hall of Fame. Long-term investments in any young player are risky. But the odds shift in the general manager’s favor if that player has come up through familiar venues familiar, e.g. college campuses and organized American minor leagues.

If you read my earlier, politically incorrect post about Yu Darvish and the extravagant contract that the Texas Rangers bestowed on him, you won’t be surprised to learn that I view the Cespedes deal with extreme skepticism. I’d like to see more American kids get shots.

As a result of lifting the visa cap for professional athletes, the minor leagues are currently made up of nearly 50 percent foreign-born players.

The new, lax visa regulations add another layer of difficulty for American teens hoping to make the big leagues. Instead of signing hundreds of U.S. high school or college amateurs, historically the business model for stocking minor-league rosters, today teams draft fewer U.S. kids and instead ink more so-called non-draft free agents, the majority young Latin Americans. One reason: the marginal players are cheaper.

Oneri Fleita, the Chicago Cubs minor league player development director explained:

There is no longer a limit on work visas. So, yeah, you might see more foreign players getting an opportunity.

Globalism is good for owners, the players signed to the multimillion dollar deals and for fans if their teams’ players make it big. For the American kid hoping to make his mark, globalism makes his already difficult task nearly impossible.

For Gene Conley, Seasons Didn’t Matter

These are the darkest days. Football is over. I haven’t watched a NBA game from start to finish since I lived in New York when Willis Reed, Clyde Frazier and Bill Bradley led the Knicks to the 1969-1970 championship. As for hockey, I blame my disinterest on growing up in Los Angeles where the only ice I ever saw was in my freezer. But soon the sun will shine again, if not here in Pittsburgh then in Florida and Arizona where spring training will begin in a few days.

As I mulled over the seasonal transition from football to basketball to baseball, I suddenly remembered the man who handled it better than anyone: Gene Conley, the 6’8” giant who excelled on the diamond and the hardwood.

No one else played against Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson and Oscar Robertson or played with Carl Yastrzemski during the summer, then teamed up Bob Cousy for the winter. Only Conley once had a locker next to Hank Aaron and Bill Russell during the same calendar year.

After playing baseball and basketball for Washington State University, Conley signed his first professional contract with the Boston Braves who called him up in 1952. Later that year, Boston Celtics’ guard Bill Sharman recommended Conley to Red Auerbach. During the 1952-53 NBA season, young Gene lived in the Lenox Hotel, one floor below Coach Auerbach.

The following year, the Braves paid Conley a $5,000 bonus to quit basketball. Conley rewarded the Braves with a 14 game winning season in 1954. During the July 1955 All Star Game, Conley struck out in order Al Kaline, Mickey Vernon and Al Rosen in the top of the 12th, then earned the win when Stan Musial homered in the bottom of the inning. In the second of two 1959 All Star Games, Conley fanned Ted Williams. In between Conley’s All Star appearances, he picked up NBA championship rings as Bill Russell’s backup with the 1958-1959 and 1959-60 Celtics.

But by 1958, Conley’s constant drinking and his inability to get along with Braves’ manager Fred Hanley led to his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. Conley later referred to the swap “as the largest in baseball history” since 6’7” Frank Sullivan was the other part of the deal.

By 1960, the Phillies had grown tired of Conley’s dual career and offered him $20,000 to stop playing basketball. When the two parties couldn’t come to terms, the Phillies traded Conley to the Red Sox. At that point, Conley became the only man to play for three major professional teams in the same city.

In 1962, Conley recorded career highs in wins and innings, 15 and 242. But it was also the year of infamous Conley-Pumpsie Green incident. After a 13-3 shellacking on July 26 in Yankee Stadium when he gave up eight third inning runs, Conley began drinking heavily which started him down the road on the adventure for which he is most famous.

En route back to Boston, the team bus got stuck in traffic.  Conley and Green got off the bus allegedly to find a restroom but really to find a bar. When the two players returned the bus was gone. Left to their own devices, the pair resumed drinking before Green came to his senses and left Gene to return to Boston. Conley, however, continued his binge for several days and eventually in a condition described by those on the scene at the airport as “extremely inebriated” bought a ticket to Israel. Because he had no passport, the airline refused to let him board.

By 1964, Conley was out of baseball and basketball; in 1966, he took his last drink. Now 81, Conley now lives with his wife of more  than 60 years in New Hampshire.

Many consider Conley one of the greatest athletes in sports’ history. In all, Conley played 11 seasons in the Major Leagues, three of them with the Boston Red Sox (1961-63), one with the Boston Braves (1952), five with the Milwaukee Braves (1954-58) and two with the Philadelphia Phillies (1959).

Conley also played six NBA seasons, four of them with the Celtics (1953, 1959-61) and two more with the New York Knicks (1963-64).

Conley’s wife Katheryn detailed more wild stories in her husband’s biography of her husband published in 2004, One of a Kind.

Apparently, life with Gene was no picnic and was bearable only because of  his long road trips which, because Conley played two sports, lasted parts of ten months each year.

“Bullet Bob,” Billionaire

One of the things I most miss about baseball’s Golden Era is the blockbuster off season trade. Today when and if trades are made, they usually involve a marginal player swapped for an obscure minor leaguer. Fans have no particular attachment to the marginal guy and no clue about the minor leaguer. We’re robbed of any opportunity to get into a good, old fashioned hot stove league debate about the trade’s merits.

Even though it happened 57 years ago, greatest blockbuster of all time remains the 1954 trade between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles.

In November, 1954, Orioles’ field and general manager Paul Richards, who recently joined the team from the Chicago White Sox, and his New York Yankees counterpart George Weiss put together the largest two-team swap in major league history. So huge was the transaction that the Orioles, who had just moved to Baltimore from St. Louis, and the Yankees announced the deal in two stages.

First, on November 18 the Orioles confirmed that the team had sent the “Second Coming of Bob Feller” Bullet Bob Turley, the season’s American League leader in strike outs, Don Larsen, 3-21 and starting shortstop Billy Hunter to the Yankees for pitchers Harry Byrd and Jim McDonald, outfielder Gene Woodling, shortstop Willie Miranda and minor league catchers Gus Triandos and Hal Smith who won the American Association’s batting champ with a .350 average.

Because of waiver and draft regulations the rest of the trade was not officially announced until December 2. Baltimore sent pitcher Mike Blyzka, catcher Darrell Johnson, first baseman Dick Kryhoski, and outfielders Ted del Guercio and Tim Fridley to the Yankees to complete their end of the deal. The Yankees threw in pitcher Bill Miller, second baseman Don Leppert and third baseman Kal Segrist. By the time the trade was completed, the seventeen player deal was—then and now— the largest in baseball history.

With the addition of Turley and Larsen, considered the sleeper in the deal, to the Yankees still effective but aging staff that included Whitey Ford and Eddie Lopat, Las Vegas installed the Bombers as odds on favorites to recapture the American League pennant the Cleveland Indians had stolen away the summer before. The wise guys were right; the Yankees edged the Indians by 3 games.

Turley’s Yankees’ career was marked by ups and downs. But the high point came in 1958 when went 21-7. His .750 winning percentage led the league and helped him win the Cy Young Award which, during the 1956-1966 era, only one pitcher from both leagues were so honored. Turley is included with Don Newcombe, Warren Spahn, Early Wynn, Vernon Law Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Don Drysdale and Dean Chance in that category.

In the 1958 World Series against the Milwaukee Braves, Turley dominated. After being knocked out in the first inning of the second game, Turley pitched a complete game shutout in the fifth and earned saves in the sixth and seventh games. His 6-2/3 inning relief appearance that ended game seven is a record. Turley was named the series Most Valuable Player.

In the following year, Turley hurt his arm and, after struggling for several seasons, in 1963 the Yankees sold him to the Los Angeles Angels. He finished the 1963 season with the Boston Red Sox and then became the team’s pitching coach in 1964.

Retirement has been very good to Bullet Bob. He joined an insurance firm, made millions and now lives on Marco Island, Fla. where his home overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. While Turley may not quite have amassed billions, his toughest decision these days is whether to fish for marlin or grouper off his 35-foot yacht that sleeps six.

Dick Stuart Helps Pirates Win 1960 World Series—By Sitting on the Bench

On SABR Day last week at the Forbes Field Chapter, our guest speaker was Dick Groat, Pirates’ shortstop on the 1960 World Champion’s captain and National League’s Most Valuable Player.

Groat told a captive audience about his All-American Duke University basketball career and his days in the NBA with the Ft. Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons. The Pistons were so eager to have Groat on its squad that it chartered a plane to take him back and forth from Pittsburgh to Ft. Wayne so he could play for both teams.

Inevitably, the conversation got around to that famous World Series when the Pirates upset the heavily favored New York Yankees.

Groat speculated that one of manager Danny Murtaugh’s most insightful moves was to bench Dick Stuart for the seventh game. Whether facing righty starters (Art Ditmar and Ralph Terry) or the lefty Whitey Ford, the right handed hitting Stuart batted clean up in five of the preceding six games.

In the seventh game, however, Murtaugh inserted Rocky Nelson at first possibly because Stuart was in a slump (.150, the worst average of any regular on either team) or a better fielder. In my last blog, I wrote about Stuart’s notoriously bad fielding.

Both reasons could be correct. In the bottom of the first inning, Nelson hit a two run homer off Bob Turley to stake the Buccos to a 2-0 lead.

But more importantly, as Groat remembered it, Nelson made a play in the top of the ninth inning that Stuart may not have.

Here are the details. The Yankees trailed 9-7, Gil McDougald was on third and Mickey Mantle, who had driven in Bobby Richardson to make it 9-8, was on first. Yogi Berra hit a smash down the right field line that Nelson grabbed. (Berra: “I hit the heck out of it.”) After Nelson stabbed Berra’s shot he stepped on first for the second out. But Nelson inexplicably didn’t throw home to nail McDougald who had taken off and scored the tying run. If Nelson had thrown to catcher Hal Smith in time, the game would have ended and the Pirates would have been winners.

All the while Mantle, sensing he would have been a dead duck, didn’t try to get to second. Instead, Mantle safely dove under Nelson’s tag. Score tied 9-9, Mantle on first, two outs.

The next batter, Bill Skowron, hit into an inning ending force play, Groat to Bill Mazeroski, that set the stage for Maz’s bottom of the ninth heroics.

What if Stuart and not Nelson had been the Pirates’ first baseman? If Berra’s grounder gets past Stuart, it ends up in the deepest corner of the cavernous Forbes Field. McDougald scores easily and maybe the fleet footed Mantle too (but maybe not with Roberto Clemente’s arm in right).

The worst case for the Yankees is Mantle on third, one out with Skowron at bat, slugging Johnny Blanchard on deck and Clete Boyer in the hole. The Yankees also had two capable pinch hitters on the bench, another home run threat Bob Cerv and Hector Lopez who hit .429 for the series. Whether the Yankees would have kept on scoring is speculation but its probable that the Pirates would have needed more than Maz’s one-run homer to win the seventh game.

Ironically, Stuart was in the on deck circle to bat for pitcher Harvey Haddix while Maz was at bat. As he watched Terry get ready to deliver his fateful pitch, Stuart thought that if he got to bat, he could have been the hero. What Stuart didn’t realize is that by staying on the bench, he had already played an important part in the Pirates’ unlikely World Series victory.

Dick Stuart and the Managers He Frustrated

After Dick Stuart hit 66 home runs and drove in 171 runs for Lincoln Chiefs in the “A” Western League in 1956, he began to add the digits “66” to every autograph. But by the time Stuart was promoted to the Hollywood Stars in 1957, he always signed with a five-point star above his name. What no one could figure out, then or now, is whether the star reflected Stuart’s team or his image of himself.

As Stuart immodestly said after his record breaking season:

If the pitching was better, I would have hit 90 home runs. I had to chase a lot of bad balls to get those 66 homers.

By 1957, the Pirates minor league system was starting to produce high quality prospects. Stuart was considered among the brightest. In his typically brash manner, when he arrived in Hollywood awash in publicity Stuart immediately announced that he would lead the league in homers and RBIs.

At the season’s start, it looked like Stuart would make good on his promise. Playing—of all places—in right field, Stuart took the collar in the season opener of a day-night double header in San Diego. Then, in the night cap, Stuart blasted two homers, one estimated to travel 500 feet which led the Stars to a 14-1 victory. Over the next two games, Stuart smashed three more. But soon after Stuart’s bubble burst. He stopped hitting homers; in fact, he quit hitting singles,too. To complicate matters, Stuart’s fielding—“Dr. Strangeglove”—was atrocious.

By mid-May, Stuart was on his way back to Lincoln via the Atlanta Crackers. Paul Pettit, who after arm trouble had re-invented himself as an outfielder, took Stuart’s place in right and remained there for the season’s balance.

As Hollywood manager Clyde King said to Stuart on his way out the door: “You’re losing me more games with balls hit through your legs than your winning me with home runs.”

Stuart’s Hollywood line: AB 72; BA .236; HR 6; RBI 17

No matter where his managers placed him, and they tried the corner outfield slots as well as first and third base, Stuart couldn’t field. Writing for Sport Magazine in 1962, Larry Merchant summarized Stuart’s glove skills (or, better said, lack of glove skills):

In the outfield, his indifference bordered on contempt. At first base, he resembled a dinosaur egg. Stuart’s trouble—it is theorized—is that he hates all pitchers including his own.

During his brief 13 game stint with the New Orleans Pelicans in the Southern League, Stuart fielded .889.

By 1958, Stuart was in the big leagues to stay first with the Pittsburgh Pirates, then the Boston Red Sox followed by cameos with the Phillies, Mets, Dodgers and Angeles. His major league tenure was full of ups and downs.

Along his way Stuart alienated the Pirates’ brass at every stop—Branch Rickey, Bobby Bragan, coach Dick Sisler and King.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the most famous fielding play that Stuart was ever involved in—while he was sitting on the bench during the 1960 Pirates-New York Yankees seventh game.

Two Home Runs Kings Reunite; Aaron and Oh Meet in Los Angeles

A few weeks ago around the Hall of Fame voting announcements, I took a Cyberspace visit to the Ted Williams Museum and its Hitters Hall of Fame.

Using what Williams described as his “secret formula” (actually the stat OPS), he identified his twenty greatest hitters of all time. BPP readers can and have debated over Barry Larkin and Bert Blyleven’s credentials. Looking at Williams’ stellar group, there are many fine hitters, and we’ve written of the museum before.

Included in Williams’ original 1995 inductees is Hank Aaron, possibly one of the most underrated of the Cooperstown Hall. The Williams’ Hall has other inductees which it updates annually. In 1999, the museum added Japanese-Taiwanese Yomiuri Giants’ slugger supreme Sadaharu Oh.

In 1974, Aaron and Oh went head-to-head in an unprecedented international home run hitting contest of epic proportions. CBS offered Aaron $50,000 and Oh, 6 million yen ($20,000) plus a silver trophy to the winner.

That year, the New York Mets were in Japan for a post-season good will tour. The Aaron-Oh showdown would be part of a November 2 of pre-game ceremony between the Mets and the Japanese All Stars.

Aaron, then with the Atlanta Braves, didn’t take the event seriously. In an interview, Aaron stated that the Japanese ball parks were so much smaller than the ones he played in stateside that any comparison between his home run prowess and Oh’s was “totally unfounded.” Aaron didn’t bother to bring any of his bats to Japan but instead borrowed Ed Kranepool’s longer, lighter Adirondack.

The contestants chose their own pitchers. Aaron gave the nod to Mets’ coach Joe Pignatano while Oh stuck with right handed Giants’ batting practice pitcher Kiniyasu Mine.

The format had been agreed upon in advance. Each player would be allowed 20 fair balls with their at bats taken in alternating sequences of five. At the end of the first round, Oh led 3-2.

At the beginning of round 2, Oh blasted three more homers to take a 6-2 lead. Later, Aaron laughingly said that he never thought he would hear the day when Mets’ wives would be chanting, “Let’s go, Henry.” By the bottom of the second round, Aaron tied the score 6-6 with four titanic blasts.

Aaron moved ahead in the third round, 9-7. Locals feared that Oh was out of gas. But Aaron, who hadn’t held a bat in six weeks, was running on empty, too. In the final round with the score tied at 9, Aaron had five more swings; he flied out, grounded to short and then lifted the winning shot over the left field fence. Final score: Aaron 10-Oh 9.

Ironically, only a few hours later, the Braves traded Aaron to the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Aaron and Oh challenge began a lifelong friendship. Earlier this month the two, who had a total of 1,632 career homers, were in Los Angeles for the 20th Anniversary Children’s Baseball Fair Luncheon.  Aaron, 77, and Oh, 71 co-founded the organization in 1990. When Frank Robinson, ninth on the all time homer list, arrived a few minutes late, the three men represented 2,209 homers. [Aaron, Oh Are at Head of Power Luncheon, by Mike Di Giovanna, Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2012]

As always, Aaron was gracious. He politely but vaguely answered Barry Bonds questions.

Robinson, however, bluntly said:

In my mind, Hank is the home run king, no question.

Aaron and Oh were generous in their praise of each other.

Oh, said Aaron, “could have held his own in the major leagues.”

About Aaron, Oh said:

A lot of people were concerned about winning the derby. I was just grateful for his presence in Japan, for Hank to be in uniform, to show the Japanese fans and kids how great a person and player he is.

Richie Ashburn, My Non-wWAR Overview

When my colleague and fellow baseball historian Adam Darowski wrote that Richie Ashburn was a better player than he had thought, I was pleased. Like the BBWAA writers, I have my biases and one is Ashburn. But using the standard that Adam developed for the “Small” Hall of Fame that I favor, Ashburn came up quite sort. Adam set 105 wWAR as the minimum for entry to the Small Hall; Ashburn had 84.8.

Ashburn, if nothing else, was one of the most dependable players of his era. During the ten year period from 1949 through 1958, he played in 98.6 percent of the Phillies’ games. Only seven players had higher percentages over a similar period: Lou Gehrig, Billy Williams, Nellie Fox, Cap Anson, Stan Musial, John Morrill and Ron Santo.

Ashburn must have been a manager’s dream. Phillies’ pilots Eddie Sawyer, Steve O’Neil, Mayo Smith and, for a season with the Mets, Casey Stengel knew they could pencil Ashburn into the lineup and he would deliver.

A superb outfielder who played in the shadows of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider, Ashburn couldn’t hit for power and was considered to have a weak arm (although in the bottom of the ninth of the 1950 single game playoff for the National League pennant against the Brooklyn Dodgers and with the score tied 1-1, he threw out Cal Abrams at home plate.)

As a leadoff hitter, however, Ashburn completely bedeviled pitchers. Choking up on his bat, Ashburn used his shortened stroke to slap the ball through the infield. When he was not delivering a single, he would bunt his way on base or draw a walk, then steal second. Ashburn knew how to work a pitcher. Once he fouled off 14 deliveries from Cincinnati’s Corky Valentine before he finally walked.

Ashburn’s teammate, Johnny Blatnik told this story about his friend’s bat control:

One night in Philadelphia, there was a loud mouthed guy who was getting on one of our players, I can’t remember who it was. Rich told our man ‘Point him out to me.’ Rich went up to bat and hit the guy in the chest about five or six rows up in the stands with a line drive foul ball. That’s a true story.

Few outside of Philadelphia know that when the 1950 decade ended, Ashburn had more hits than Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mays or Mantle.

After his playing career ended, Ashburn had the wisdom to turn down an offer to go into Nebraska politics as some urged him to do. Instead Ashburn accepted the Phillies invitation to join the broadcast team where he enamored the notoriously tough Philadelphia fans for decades.

When in 1995 the Hall finally inducted Ashburn, he said showing his famous sense of humor:

I’m flattered that so many baseball people think I’m a Hall of Famer. But what’s hard to believe is how one-hundred and fifty plus people have changed their minds about me since I became eligible because I haven’t had a base hit since then.

Ashburn’s Cooperstown plaque reads, in part:

DURABLE, HUSTLING LEAD-OFF HITTER AND CLUTCH PERFORMER WITH SUPERB  KNOWLEDGE OF STRIKE ZONE. BATTED .308 LIFETIME WITH NINE .300 SEASONS AND 2,574 HITS IN 2,189 GAMES, WINNING BATTING CHAMPIONSHIPS IN 1955 AND 1958. AS A CENTER FIELDER, ESTABLISHED MAJOR LEAGUE RECORDS FOR MOST YEARS LEADING LEAGUE IN CHANCES (9), MOST YEARS 500 OR MORE PUTOUTS (4) AND MOST SEASONS 400 OR MORE PUTOUTS (9).


At Ashburn’s 1997 funeral, players and fans showed up in droves and stood in line for hours to pay their final respects to the man whose skills on the field and voice behind the mike was legendary. Some grown men, crying, left their transistor radios beside Ashburn’s casket to pay the ultimate tribute to the man they admired and loved for years.