Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn Dodgers’

A Bum by Fluke

December 17, 2014
our radio looked a lot like this.

our radio looked a lot like this.

As most people who actually take time to sit and read the things I write know, I’m a Dodgers fan; have been since I was a little kid. Glen asked me a couple of times how, in a house and area full of Cardinals fans, I became a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’d like to say it was some kind of grand epiphany or a youthful show of wisdom. Well, it wasn’t. Actually it was something of a fluke.

When I was little my grandfather and I listened to baseball on a radio, either the one at home, or on weekends at the local barber shop. He was a diehard Cardinals fan who lived and died with the Cards and the stats of Stan Musial. I knew this and appreciated it, but something changed at World Series time. He began to root for the Dodgers. In 1952 he died a little when they lost to New York, then died a little more when they lost in 1953. He was up front about rooting for the Dodgers, so I figured it was OK too. I wasn’t quite sure why you changed teams at World Series time, but that was the way of the world, at least my little part of it. Because when you went to the barber shop at World Series time everyone was rooting for the Dodgers.

In 1954 the Giants went to the World Series along with the Indians. My grandfather listened and commented, but there was no real rooting going on. If the Indians won, fine; if the Giants won, better (it was a National League town). Then in 1955 we got a television. It was  small, black and white, the reception went in an out and I remember my grandfather standing outside holding the antenna pole while my grandmother would shout, “A little more to the right” until the picture cleared up. When World Series time came the Dodgers were back in and this time they won. There was rejoicing in my home and at the barber shop. And there was equal sadness when they lost again in 1956.

By then I was a dyed-in-the-wool Dodgers fan. Everyone seemed to think the Cardinals was the team to support, but the Dodgers were a close second. So I figured that “well, heck, if the Cardinals have number one support and the Dodgers are OK too, maybe someone should help out by making the Dodgers the number one team with the Cards in second place.” So I decided that would be me.

Then came 1957 and the Braves made the World Series. My grandfather rooted for them as hard as he’d rooted for the Dodgers. The guys at the barber shop rooted for them as hard as they’d rooted for the Dodgers. Something was wrong and it took a while to figure it out. The common denominator in all the World Series matchups, except the “who cares?” Series of 1954 was the New York Yankees. My grandfather and his cronies weren’t Dodgers fans at all; they hated the Yankees, and anyone playing the Yanks in the Series was to be supported. When the same thing happened in 1958 I was sure I was right.

But by then it was too late. I was a Dodgers fan with a willingness to root for St. Louis if necessary (sort of the opposite of my grandfather). So that, little children, is how a person from a Cardinals family and Cardinals town becomes a Dodgers fan. Maybe someday I’ll tell you why my son supports the Twins.

Oisk,

June 10, 2014
Carl Erskine

Carl Erskine

If Don Newcombe was the most storied pitcher of the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers, Carl “Oisk” Erskine was easily second.

Erskine was born in Indiana in 1926. He played sandlot and high school ball and was good enough that he was noticed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. While in the Navy, Erskine signed with the Dodgers, but had his contract voided by the commissioner when it was learned he was still in the Navy (there was a rule against that). Despite other and bigger offers, he resigned with Brooklyn  and joined their minor league team at Danville in 1946. He pitched two years at Danville before transferring to Fort Worth in 1948. He stayed two years in Ft. Worth before playing one final minor league season in Montreal in 1950. He also played winter league ball in Cuba where he shared the field with black players and was managed by Martin DiHigo.

His Major League career began in 1948 when he was called up in 1948. He went 6-3 in 17 games (nine starts), tore a muscle in his back (it never healed properly and would bother him for his entire career), then began 1949 in the minors. Again he came up at the end of the season, went 8-1 in 22 games (three starts), and helped Brooklyn to the National League pennant. He got into two games in the World Series going 2.1 innings, giving up three runs, and posting an ERA north of 16. The Dodgers lost the Series in five games and Erskine had no decisions.

With the torn muscle still a problem, he started his last minor league campaign in 1950. He was called up early this time getting into 22 games, winning seven and losing six. After 1950 he would remain in the Major Leagues for the remainder of his career. The 1951 season saw him become a regular in the Dodgers rotation. He went 16-12, and helped lead Brooklyn to one of the more famous playoffs in MLB history. The Dodgers lost a three game playoff to the Giants (Bobby Thomson’s home run being the most famous moment). Erskine did not pitch in the playoff series.

He had a terrific 1952, going 14-6 with an ERA of 2.70. In June he pitched a no-hitter against the Cubs, walking only one man (the opposing pitcher). The Dodgers were back in the World Series at the end of the season. He lost game two of the Series on 2 October (his wedding anniversary), then won game five in 11 innings.  He also pitched the last couple of inning of a game seven loss without taking the decision.

In 1953, Erskine went 20-6, set a career high in strikeouts, and was the Dodgers ace. He started three games in the World Series, taking a no decision in game one, then came back to win game three and set the all-time record for strikeouts in a World Series game by fanning 14 Yankees, a record broken by a later teammate, Sandy Koufax (and later broken by Bob Gibson).  He started game six, but was not around when New York won the game 4-3 to clinch the Series.

Still in pain, Erskine would produce three more good years: 1954-56. In 1954 he would finally make an All Star team (his only one). In 1955 he would help his team win its only World Series. He started game four, took a no decision as the Dodgers won late, then didn’t pitch again for the remainder of the Series. In 1956, he would pitch his second no-hitter, this one at home against the Giants. He would get into one last World Series, losing game four as the Yankees took revenge for 1955.

Still hurting in 1957, he began slipping badly. By 1958 both he and the Dodgers were in Los Angeles, and he was given the honor of starting the first West Coast game. He got the win. It was easily the highlight of a forgettable year for both pitcher and team. In 1959, he started the year with LA, but retired during the season. The Dodgers made the World Series that year, winning in six games, but I’ve been unable to determine if he got a Series share.

For his career he was 122-78 with an ERA of 4.00 (ERA+ of 101). He gave up 1637 hits in 1718.2 innings, had 14 shutouts, walked 646, struck out 981, had two no hitters, and a WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) of 16.6. He never recovered from the muscle tear and finished his career at age 32.

In retirement he coached baseball at Anderson College winning four championships in 12 seasons. He also served as an insurance man and was chairman of the Indiana Bankers Association. Not a bad legacy for a sore-backed pitcher.

And for those curious, “Oisk” is a Brooklyn corruption of “Ersk”, the first part of his name.

 

The Barber

May 20, 2013
Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie was one of the aces of the Giants teams that won a pennant in 1951 and the World Series title in 1954. His nickname was “The Barber” (a nickname he hated) because he pitched high and inside. He was a good solid pitcher who helped four teams to pennants. In other words, he was a heck of a pitcher. Unfortunately, he’s most famous today for a game he lost.

Magile was born in Niagara Falls (the town, not the falls, obviously) in 1917. He’s another of that generation of players who were first generation Americans (his family coming from Italy). Maglie loved baseball, his parents were certain it was ruining his life. Apparently that was a fairly common problem in the period. In researching a lot of different players, I’ve found an inordinate number had immigrant parents who were entirely buffaloed by their son’s desire to play ball and the country’s willingness to pay the kid to do so.

Maglie played semipro ball while working in a factory in Buffalo. He was good enough that the Double A Bisons picked him up. He was raw and ended up in Class D. Desperate for talent in 1942, the Giants picked him up for their Jersey City farm team. He stayed one year, then left to work in a defense plant. In 1945, the Giants enticed him back to baseball. By the end of the season he was in the Majors going 5-4 with an ERA of 2.35 and a 1.115 WHIP. He was 28 and had finally made it.

In 1946 the Mexican League, under new management, began luring big leaguers to Mexico with big salaries. Maglie, who was playing in the Cuban League (under ex-Giants pitcher Dolf Luque), took one of the contracts. Major League baseball was appalled. Commissioner “Happy” Chandler announced a five-year ban on players who jumped to the Mexican League. That included Maglie. He pitched two seasons at Puebla, establishing himself as a quality pitcher. But the Mexican League was in trouble. The big salaries didn’t translate to big attendance and the league began faltering. Maglie jumped ship in 1948 joining a barnstorming team that folded at the end of the season. He bought a gas station in Niagara Falls, then got a call to join a minor league team in Canada. He pitched in Canada in 1949, leading his team to its league championship. At the end of the 1949 season, Chandler lifted the ban on the Mexican League refugees (it lasted four of the five years) and Maglie rejoined the Giants.

Maglie, now 33, was a hit. He won the ERA title (and the ERA+ crown) in 1950, had his career year in 1951 with a league leading 23 wins, and led the Giants to a three game playoff with the Dodgers. He pitched eight innings of game three, the Bobby Thomson “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” game, but took a no decision. The Giants victory took them to the World Series. They lost to the Yankees, Maglie pitching one game, lasting five innings, and getting clobbered (he gave up four runs in five innings in game three).  He had a good year in 1952, not such a good year in 1953 (he was having back problems), and opened 1954 as the Giants three pitcher (behind Johnny Antonelli and Ruben Gomez). He went 14-6, struck out 117 batters, but allowed more hits than he had innings pitched. The Giants were again in the World Series and Maglie drew game one. Again he picked up a no decision in the game made famous by Willie Mays’ catch and Dusty Rhodes’ homer. The Giants swept the Series with Maglie not taking the mound after game one.

Despite a good start in 1955, Maglie was traded to Cleveland. After two games in Cleveland in 1956, the Indians sold him to Brooklyn. The Dodgers, needing pitching, returned Maglie to a starting role (he’d mostly relieved in Cleveland) and he went 13-5 with a 2.87 ERA and a league leading 139 ERA+. He pitched his only no-hitter in 1956 and pitched the pennant clinching game for Brooklyn.  That meant the Dodgers would play in their second consecutive World Series, squaring off against the Yankees. Maglie pitched and won the first game of the Series (beating Whitey Ford), then drew game five in Yankee Stadium. It was his most famous game. He was great, giving up only two runs and five hits while striking out five. The problem was that Yankees starter Don Larsen threw the World Series’ only perfect game that day.

Maglie began 1957 with the Dodgers, went 6-6, and was sent across the city to the Bronx. He was 2-0 for the Yankees as they made another World Series. He didn’t pitch in the Series (which New York lost to Milwaukee in seven games).  In 1958 he was 41 and done. He pitched a few games for New York, then ended the season for the Cardinals. They released him before the 1959 season. He’d played parts of 10 seasons in the Majors, becoming the last man to wear the uniform of all three New York teams (this doesn’t count anyone who played for all three teams once the Dodgers and Giants moved to California).

He coached one year in the Cards minor league system, then became Red Sox pitching coach in 1961 and 1962. He was out of baseball in 1963, ’64, and ’65. He spent part of 1965 with the New York Athletic Commission, but most of his time was taken nursing his dying wife (she had cancer). He returned to baseball as pitching coach of the 1966-67 Red Sox, including the “Impossible Dream” team that lost the 1967 World Series. He was fired at the end of the Series (he and manager Dick Williams didn’t get along). He spent time after 1967 as a pitching coach for the Pilots (now the Brewers), general manager for the Niagara Falls minor league team, ran a liquor distributorship, and was a coordinator for the Niagara Falls Convention Bureau. He retired in 1979 and died in December 1992.

For his Major League career “The Barber” was 119-62, had an ERA of 3.15 (ERA+ of 127), 25 shutouts, 562 walks, and 862 strikeouts in 1723 innings pitched (a WHIP of 1.250). He was a member of four pennant winning teams and one World Series champion (1954). In postseason play he was 1-2 with a 3.41 ERA, 20 strikeouts and a 1.345 ERA. All this with four years lost to the Mexican League.

It’s useless to speculated how much Maglie lost because of the Mexican League fiasco. We can never know. He didn’t make the big leagues until he was 28 and didn’t become a regular until he was 33. It was not in the cards that he would join the Hall of Fame. But he was considered one of the better “money” pitchers of his era, especially in the regular season. Not a bad legacy for a man who hated what is one of the better nicknames of all time.

Maglie's final resting place

Maglie’s final resting place

The 50 Greatest Dodgers

November 27, 2012

Don Newcombe, the 8th Greatest Dodger

Back a year or so ago I did a post on the 50 Greatest Yankees ever (according to ESPN). Turns out that the network did an entire series of these lists. You’ll have to look around pretty hard (or type in “greatest Dodgers” or whichever team) to find their lists but they are interesting.

One of the lists is the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers list. The top 10 (in order) look like this: Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, Zack Wheat, Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Mike Piazza, Don Newcombe, Don Sutton, Dazzy Vance. And before anyone asks, Don Drysdale is 11th. Not a bad list actually, here’s a few comments on the list.

1. To create a full team you end up with Gil Hodges (16th on the list) at first, Robinson at second, Reese at short, and Roy Cey (14th on the list) at third. The outfield is Snider, Wheat, and Pedro Guerrero (15th on the list). Campanella catches and the first position player whose position is already covered is Piazza, making him the DH. The staff (four men for a World Series rotation, at least one being left-handed) is Koufax, Newcombe, Sutton, and Vance. Way down at 46th is Ron Perranoski, the only reliever on the list.

2. The list is a decent mix of both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, with LA being slightly favored in the higher parts of the list (see Guerrero over Babe Herman or Carl Furillo for example). There are, as you would expect with the Dodgers, an inordinate number of pitchers in the top 15.

3. They did put Dixie Walker on the list (he’s 25th). With the way he left the team (his opposition to Robinson) I half expected he’d be overlooked.

4. Wheat in the top 5 is inspired, as is Vance in the top 10. It’s unusual for guys who played that long ago to get much support when up against newer players that voters remember. However, Wheat over Campanella is questionable. Wheat and Vance are the only two players on the list who spent significant time with the Dodgers prior to 1940.

5. During their time together (most of the 1970s) Steve Garvey got a lot more press than Cey. This list placed Cey higher (14th to Garvey’s 17th). I think that’s probably right.

6. Jim Gilliam is at 43rd. That’s way too low. His versatility (second, third, center, and left) made him so much more valuable than his hitting stats (which aren’t bad either) made him appear.

7. Reggie Smith is at 26th. Again, I think that’s too low. I might slide him into the top 15. I know I’d put him in the top 20. I might even jump him over Guerrero. Smith is one of the more overlooked players in both Dodgers and Red Sox history.

8. The picking of  Newcombe over both Sutton and Drysdale is  interesting. Both ended up with more wins and Newk did have the drinking problem. I’m not sure the voters got it right. Maybe yes, maybe no.  Newcombe was the ace of the most famous (if not most successful) team in Dodgers history and that has to be worth something. Now, if he coulda just won a single World Series game (he went 0-4).

9. Now about first place. When I first became interested in baseball, Robinson was my hero. As he waned, Snider replaced him. Then as the Duke faltered, Koufax became my guy. That got me through high school and hero-worship of big leaguers. So I have no problem with those three being in the top positions. I’m not sure about the order. The ultimate problem is Robinson’s status as a civil rights icon. It so overshadows his on-field accomplishments that I’m not sure it didn’t get him first place more than his playing  ability did. Having said that, I recognize he was a heck of a player and when added to his late start (because of circumstances not of his making) and the abuse he suffered, maybe he is first. But Snider was as good, maybe better. And Koufax is simply the greatest pitcher I ever saw. I have my own order, but I have no real problem with the current order.

10. The location of a few more well-known names: Hershiser (12th), Valenzuela (13th), Wills (22nd), Reiser (31st), Podres (33rd), and Nomo (49th).

11. The most glaring omission? Carl Erskine.

Multi-Purpose

April 24, 2012

You ever listen to baseball fans about how the Designated Hitter is the worst thing that ever happened to baseball because it changed the game? Or how about that interleague play is awful because it changed the game? I remember all the way back to when they argued that adding a round of playoffs would change the game. You know what? Baseball has never been static. It changes all the time and the notion that the game is set in stone and that nothing should ever change flies in the face of reality. Let me give you one real simple example.

In the beginning (catchy, right?) of baseball there were small rosters. Those made it absolutely necessary for players to be adept at playing more than one position. We call those guys utility players and in 19th Century baseball they were ubiquitous (didn’t think I knew a word that big, did you?). Then they began to die out as rosters expanded and free substitution was allowed. Those kinds of players are still around and still valuable, just not as common as 120 years ago. Two of the best played against each other in the 1950s.

Gil McDougald

Gil McDougald arrived in New York with the Yankees in 1951. He stayed through 1960, retiring rather than move to the expansion Los Angeles Angels. He was one of the Yankees’ finest players and most people never noticed. He regularly played 120 to 140 games (his low was 119 in 1960 and his high was 152 in 1952), usually hit in the 280s (he hit .300 twice and as low as .250 in 1958), popped an average of 14 home runs, and had an OPS+ above 100 all but two seasons (and one of those was 98). In other words he hit well and had he been a fulltime started might have hit even better. What he did was fill the infield hole, wherever it was. Over his career he played 599 games at second (come on, Casey, give him one more game at second), 508 at third, and 284 at shortstop. In 1952 and 1953 he spent more time at third than any other player while still logging a number of games at second. In 1954 he had more games at second than “regular” second baseman Joe Coleman. By 1956 he’d moved to shortstop where he settled in for that season and the next. In 1958 he went back to second base. No matter the infield position (except first, where I’ll bet he would have done well also), McDougald could be plugged in and you were set for the season. In his last two years he floated among all three of his former positions and solidified the infield. He was never flashy, never a star, but was a solid and important member of the 1950s Yankees dynasty.

Jim Gilliam

Throughout most of the 1950s into the mid-1960s, the Dodgers had a similar player, Jim Gilliam. “Junior” spent a short amount of time in the Negro Leagues before the Dodgers picked him up. His debut was 1953, when he won the National League Rookie of the Year. He was a switch hitter who could play anywhere. Over his career he hit .265, had about two and a half walks for every strikeout, scored over 1100 runs, and generally had an OPS+ in the 80s or 90s. Again, like McDougald, what he could do best was plug a hole. Over his career he played 1046 games at second, 761 at third, 203 in left field, 222 games in the outfield in which he switched positions during the game, and a smattering of games in right field, center field, and first base (never at shortstop). He came up to replace an aging Jackie Robinson at second and by 1955 was also spending a lot of time in left field. In 1958 (with the arrival of Charlie Neal) he was more or less the fulltime left fielder, although he put in 44 games at third. In 1959 and 1960 he was the regular third baseman. In 1961, ’62, and ’63 he was sliding between second and third. In 1964 and 1965 he was more or less the primary third baseman. His final year was 1966 and he spent most of his time at third.

Both McDougald and Gilliam were valuable assets to their teams, while falling below the level of stars. Both had difficult jobs having to fill in whatever position the team needed that year (or occasionally that week) and both did their job well. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that without these two men, the Stengel Yankees and the “Boys of Summer” would have been less successful.

Can’t Catch a Cold

May 16, 2011

The other "Babe"

The Brooklyn team of the late 1920s and early 1930s was known more for comic relief than for playing baseball. They had, in Dazzy Vance, one really good pitcher. They also had a handful of decent hitters. But they may have led the National League in boneheaded play. For that they were nicknamed “The Daffiness Boys.” If one player stood out as the poster boy for the team, it was Floyd “Babe” Herman.

Born in 1903, Herman arrived in Brooklyn in 1926, hit .319, and became a fixture. In 1927 he hit .272, then began reeling off .300 seasons with regularity, peaking in the offensive explosion season of 1930 with an average of .393 (second to Bill Terry). He walked more than he struck out, had decent power (peaking at 35 homers in the inflated air of 1930), had OPS numbers ranging from the lower eights to over a thousand, and drove in a lot of runs. He hit for the cycle three times.  In other words he was a pretty fair hitter in the greatest hitting era in 20th Century baseball history.

In 1932 he went to Cincinnati for a year, then on to the Cubs for two. While at Cincy he led the league in triples, his only league leading number. Chicago shipped him to Pittsburgh, who sent him back to Cincinnati. In 1937 he played 17 games for Detroit and was through at 34. World War II got him back to the big leagues in 1945 when he played 37 games for Brooklyn as a 42-year-old pinch hitter. For his career he hit .324, slugged .532, with an OBP of .383, giving him an OPS of .915 (OPS+ of 141). He had 2980 total bases spread over 181 home runs, 110 triples, and 399 doubles. He had 1818 hits, scored 882 runs, and knocked in 997 RBIs. Again, not a bad hitting career.

Of course it was his fielding that caused the problems. He was dreadful. He had a decent arm twice coming in second in the NL in assists. He simply couldn’t judge the ball or catch it, which is a minor problem for an outfielder. He was so awful it led one writer to complain that Herman “couldn’t catch a cold.” A teammate said Herman only wore a glove because the team required it. A great story about him is that on being told by his bank that someone was impersonating him he told the manager “Hit him flys. If he catches them, it ain’t me.” Accused of  being hit on the head with a fly ball, his defense was that it was the shoulder, not the head, that was hit.

He also was noted for not paying a lot of attention while at the game. Balls went over his head while he was absorbed in his own thoughts (what they were is anybody’s guess). On 15 August 1926 he hit a gapper for a double that he tried to turn into a triple. The problem was that the bases were loaded, one man scored, the second stopped at third, the third guy stopped at third. So did Herman. Pirates third baseman Pie Traynor got the ball, tagged all three and flipped the ball to the umpire. His comment is supposed to be “Here, you figure it out.”  The papers said that Herman “doubled into a double play.” In his defense, the runner on third who scored turned out to be the winning run. Twice he’s supposed to have stood at second admiring a home run long enough that the guy who hit it passed him on the base paths creating an out and negating the home run.

My favorite Herman story goes like this. He took his son with him to a game in Brooklyn. With the game over, he showered and bummed a ride home with a buddy. About halfway across Brooklyn it dawned on our intrepid hero that there were only two people in the car. They went back to Ebbets Field and found the kid helping the groundskeepers.  The kid was safe and Mrs. Herman’s comments are not recorded. BTW the son went on to teach High School math (obviously he took after Mom).

Herman did some scouting after his retirement. He never got much support for the Hall of Fame and never seemed to complain much about it. He died in 1987 and is one of the people interviewed in the great The Glory of Their Times.

The Duke of Flatbush

March 2, 2011

Out where I’m from there’s only one “Duke.” He rode tall in the saddle, represented everything that was good in the USA, won an academy award for wearing an eyepatch. When you say the name “John Wayne” people stand to attention and remove their hats and begin humming the national anthem. Well, I was that way about Duke Snider too, so his death hit me hard. Sunday I put up a very brief note about the death of Snider. Today I want to talk a little more about him. I don’t want to spend it going over his stats. You can look those up for yourself. I want to explain why his death hit me so hard.

Ebbets Field 1957

When I was a kid there was one team I rooted for year after year, the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’ve never been quite sure why. Maybe it was because my grandfather hated the Yankees and the Dodgers played them a lot in the World Series. Maybe it was because they had great players and I recognized that. Maybe it was just to be perverse and bug my grandfather who was a Cardinals fan. Whatever it was, they were my team and they were glorious in the way only a child can understand glory.

It didn’t take a genius, and as an elementary school student I certainly wasn’t one of those, to see just how much Jackie Robinson meant to the team. For a while I wanted to be Robinson more than anyone else in the world. But a little bit of watching and listening told me that by the time I was wholly aware of the team, other players were better than Robinson, but you could tell he was still the engine that made the team run. He was still the heart and soul of the team. Roy Campanella’s greatness was obvious and no one ever swung a bat harder.  Carl Furillo’s arm was a sight to behold and with him out in right field Abe Stark’s sign was almost never hit. Pee Wee Reese’s leadership was obvious too, but Snider was something very special.

He was easily the best hitter by this point. You’ve probably heard by now that he had more home runs and RBIs than anyone else in the 1950s. That’s true, but it’s a little disingenuous. Snider had the entire decade, while Mays lost part of a couple of years to Korea and Mantle didn’t show up until 1951. Of course neither of those things diminishes his ability and, frankly, I neither knew nor cared about any of that back when I watched him play. I kept trying to figure out if I could duplicate his swing. I couldn’t. 

He was a great center fielder who seemed to catch everything. I remember he had this funny habit of backing up for the ball, not turning and running to a spot then turning back to the ball like Mays did it. I tried to do that as a kid and usually fell over my feet. The Mays way I could do, so in some odd sort of way I decided that Snider was a superior fielder to Mays because he did something that was harder and did it well. I may have been wrong, but it worked for me way back when. And all that falling over my feet got me a trip to first base where I played for several years back in little league. Thanks, Duke.

The team moved to LA in 1958. Now I was wedded to the team, not the town, so, unlike a lot of people, the move didn’t bother me. As long as the guys were still there I found it easy to transfer my love from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Snider’s numbers began to falter. The LA Coliseum was death on left-handed hitters. The Dodgers won the World Series in 1959 with him still in center field so it didn’t matter to me that he was getting weaker. By the time I noticed he was falling off, I’d transferred my allegiance to a kid pitcher named Koufax who seemed to have some promise, so it didn’t hurt quite the same when Snider was sent to the Mets. It did hurt when he ended up with the Giants. The Giants? God, that was almost as bad as sending him to the Yankees. The @#$%ing Giants? What didn’t they just send him to the @#$%ing Yankees and get it over with?

I sort of lost track of him after he retired. I got older and he got obscure. Later on when he finally made the Hall of Fame I started paying attention to Snider again. He did color work for the Expos, got in trouble with the IRS over money from card shows, but he was still a  hero to me. Back a few years ago ESPN did a thing where they asked you to vote for the greatest player of each team. Robinson won for the Dodgers and Koufax was second. Snider came in third. Despite a genuine admiration for both Robinson and Koufax, I voted for the Duke.

They are mostly gone now, my old heroes. Snider was in some ways the last of them–the heroes of my earliest youth. I know Don Zimmer and Tommy LaSorda are still alive, but I don’t think I even knew who Zimmer was and I never associate LaSorda with anything but managing. Dodgers aces Carl Erskine and Don Newcombe are both still around also, but when your new hero is Sandy Koufax (if you don’t believe me, see my avatar), other pitchers tend to fall by the wayside. But Snider remained the last link to my first heroes. I know that soon there will be no more Brooklyn Dodgers (I think Koufax may be the youngest left and he’s in his 70s) and that will make me sad.

So good-bye to the Duke of Flatbush. He never knew he was a hero of mine, which may help account for his longevity. May he rest in peace.

The Better Angels of our Nature

February 4, 2011

Robinson and Reese

When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract, the Brooklyn Dodgers split on the issue of having him join the team. A number of players from the North and West accepted his coming, a number of others signed the petition circulating through the clubhouse that demanded he not play. The Southern players, except for one man, all signed the petition. The exception was Harold “Pee Wee” Reese.

Reese joined the Dodgers in 1940, settling in as the regular shortstop. He remained there through 1942, including a trip to the 1941 World Series. In 1943 he left for military service, losing all of 1943, 1944, and 1945 to his country’s  war effort. In 1946, he returned to a much changed Dodgers team. Jackie Robinson had been signed to a contract and was playing in Montreal. Everyone knew that he was destined for Brooklyn in 1947. The problem for Reese was two-fold. Robinson was a shortstop and Reese was from Kentucky, traditionally viewed as a Southern state, at least in terms of race. Reese handled both problems well. When told the Dodgers had signed a black shortstop his response was that if the guy could beat him out for the job, then Robinson was welcome to it. And when a number of Dodgers players petitioned for Brooklyn not to bring Robinson to the big leagues, Reese refused to sign the petition. His exact comment is undisclosed.

With the arrival of Robinson in 1947, Reese remained at shortstop while the newcomer took over first base. The next season Robinson slid over to second base, which became his primary position on the field. The two men became fast friends and worked well together on the field. There are a number of stories of Reese coming to Robinson’s aid during the early days of the latter’s career. The most famous is following a particularly awful series of catcalls and boos aimed at Robinson, Reese is supposed to have walked over, put his arm around Robinson, and told him to forget it. There’s a statue in Brooklyn commemorating the event:

Robinson-Reese Statue in Brooklyn

 The obvious acceptance of a black player by a white one certainly helped ease Robinson’s transition to the Major Leagues. It also cemented their friendship, which lasted until Robinson’s death. Robinson’s widow, Rachel, represented him at Reese’s enshrinement ceremony at Cooperstown. Reese gets a vote from me as a man with true class. There aren’t a lot of those in any field, including baseball. Most of us really don’t listen all that often to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Reese did.

My favorite Robinson-Reese story goes like this (with an acknowledgement that the exact quote takes on a couple of different versions). The Dodgers were on the road when Robinson received a note saying someone was going to shoot him if he showed up to play ball that afternoon. During the team warm ups Robinson stood by Reese as was normal when Reese told him “Want to move a little further away?” Stunned, Robinson replied, “I thought you were my friend.” Reese’s response was, “I am, but that dumb SOB may have lousy aim, miss, and hit me.” Tension broken, Robinson went on to have a fine game. Now there’s a friend for life.

The Crusader

February 2, 2011

Wendell Smith

Crusader is one of those words that’s really out of fashion today. It brings up all the images of religious zealotry and fanaticism that make people shy from it. But there is a place for crusading zeal. Wendell Smith knew where that place needed to be and he worked long and hard, with unquestioned zeal, to help accomplish the integration of American sport.

Born in Detroit in 1914, Wendell Smith graduated from West Virginia State College (a segregated university). He edited the sports page for the college newspaper, majored in journalism, and played baseball. After graduation he joined the Pittsburgh Courier the leading black newspaper in Pennsylvania in 1937. By 1938 he was sports editor. He waged a continuous campaign to integrate American sport, especially baseball.  Although individual sports like track and boxing could produce excellent black athletes like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, team sport (outside a handful of universities) was a bastion of segregation in the era. Smith argued that if black Americans could excel as individuals, they could do equally well as members of a  professional team, something players like Jackie Robinson had proved in college.

With World War II still going on, Smith hit upon the idea of having a tryout of Negro League players. He reasoned that with many of the Major League stars off at war, the teams would need the best quality talent they could get in order to win. This would be especially true of teams that were not usually in pennant contention and contenders who were losing because their best players were gone. And if they didn’t, then it showed their racism to the world.  He managed to talk Tom Yawkey’s Boston Red Sox into holding a tryout on 16 April 1945 for three black players: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethro, and Marvin Williams. The Red Sox evaluation was that they weren’t good enough. Robinson, of course went on to win the first Rookie of the Year Award and make the Hall of Fame. Jethro also won a Rookie of the Year Award. Turns out the BoSox were right about Williams (1 out of 3) and Smith was right about racism.

Undeterred, Smith continued to support integrating baseball as the sport that would gain the most instant credibility for black players. There is no evidence that he personally influenced Branch Rickey’s move to integrate the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946-7, but Smith certainly supported the idea. His newspaper paid for Smith to accompany Robinson during both the 1946 minor league year and also during the 1947 season on team road trips. Until the arrival on Dan Bankhead in the 1947 season, Smith served as a sort of unofficial roommate and confidant of Robinson, especially in those towns where Robinson was not allowed to stay in the same hotels as the white players. His articles on the road trips are some of his best work.

In 1938 Smith applied for membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was turned down. It wasn’t because he was black (Of course, it wasn’t. They just wouldn’t do that, would they?) but because his newspaper was not owned by a white person (Say what?). In 1948, the BBWAA changed its mind and Smith became its first black member. That made him the first black man who could vote for the Hall of Fame.

In the late 1940s, Smith moved to Chicago and began covering mostly boxing for a local newspaper. In 1964 he joined WGN and became the television station’s first black sports anchor. He continued to write a newspaper article or two while working on television. He died in 1972. In 1993 he was award the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing (thus getting his name in the HofF) and in 1996 his wife donated his papers to the Hall of Fame, where they are available for research.

The above should tell you I really like Wendell Smith. He’s not the greatest writer to win the Spink Award (I think Grantland Rice is), but he wa very good. His style was somewhat folksy, but his ability to cut through the nonsense to get at what he wanted is excellent. He understood the value of confrontation (ala the Red Sox episode), but could also let his prose make his case for him (like the Robinson hotel stories did). I think it took much too long to get him the Spink Award and I think he deserves to move a step beyond that. I’d like to see his full enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, plaque and all. I know a lot of people will disagree with me. After all, the man didn’t play the game. But then neither did Ban Johnson, William Hulbert, Tom Yawkey, and a lot of other members of the Hall. For what he meant to both the sport and the country, I think he should be there.

This post allows me to begin a celebration of black history month in the US with a look at a black American writer. I intend to make a few more looks at the Negro Leagues and other aspects of black baseball off and on during the month. Hope you will enjoy them.

A Good Word for the Geezers

June 17, 2010

So I see that Jamie Moyer just became the oldest pitcher to pick up a win against the Yankees. Good for him. I remember when he first came up. Frankly, he wasn’t very good. It took him until age 30 to find his place on the mound. Since then he’s won over 250 games. As usual with baseball, he’s not the first pitcher to discover his abilities after he’d become a geezer in baseball terms. Meet Charles Arthur “Dazzy” Vance.

Vance was born in 1891 in Nebraska. He made it to the Major Leagues in 1915 with Pittsburgh. He was 24. He also wasn’t anything special. He went 0-1 and was sent to the Yankees, where he was equally bad going 0-3. He went back to the minors, came back to the Yankees for a two game stretch in 1918, went 0-0, then wandered back to the minors. So far he was 0-4 and age 27.

He resurfaced in 1922 at Brooklyn, aged 31. He’d spent the years in between gaining control of his fastball. He went 18-12, picking up his first win at age 31. For the rest of his 30s, he was a premier pitcher in the National League. Between 1922 and 1928 he led the league in wins twice, topping out at 28-6 in 1924. He also led the NL in strikeouts every year. His peak was 262, also in 1924. His career year was obviously 1924. He won the MVP. He was 33. He won two ERA titles, with 1928 being his lowest at 2.09. By 1930 he was 39. It was the year they changed the ball and offenses exploded, especially in the NL. Hack Wilson had 58 home runs and set the RBI record. Bill Terry hit .400. Want to guess who won the ERA title? You guessed Vance, didn’t you? Of course you’re right. His ERA was 2.61, the only ERA under 3.00 among NL starters with 20 or more games.

He had two more good years, then his career began to collapse. Of course he was 42 when that happened. There was a trade to St. Louis in 1933. He went to Cincinnati in early ’34, then back to St. Louis to end the season. He went 1-1 in 19 games (only four starts), but got into his only World Series as a bullpen pitcher for the Gas House Gang Cardinals. He got into one game, pitched 1.1 innings, giving up an unearned run and no decision.

In 1935, at age 44, he went back to Brooklyn for a final season. He went 3-2 in 20 games, all in relief, then retired. For his career he was 197-140 with an ERA of 3.24. He had 2045 strikeouts to 840 walks in 2967 innings. In 1955 he made the Hall of Fame. He died in 1961.

With the possible exception of Moyer, Vance is probably the greatest “old” pitcher ever. He has 197 wins, all after the age of 30. A lot of pitchers have won 200 games after age 30, but they had good, substantial careers prior to age 30. So Vance is kind of unique. By way of comparison among Dodgers pitchers, remember that all of Sandy Koufax’s wins come prior to the age when Vance won his first. Not bad for a geezer, right?

Dazzy Vance