Posts Tagged ‘Red Barber’

Building a Winner: Pivot Point

November 24, 2015
Whit Wyatt

Whit Wyatt

In many ways the key year in the Dodgers late 1930s, early 1940s turn around was 1939. It ushered in a series of major changes that led ultimately to the 1941 pennant. So let’s us take a look at the 1939 team.

Arguably the most significant change occurred in the dugout. Manager Burleigh Grimes was terminated at the end of the dismal 1938 campaign by new President and General Manager Larry McPhail. The addition of McPhail was in itself a significant change in Brooklyn’s front office. Grimes’ successor was player-manager Leo Durocher. “Leo the Lip” was loud, abrasive, fiery and hated losing (and I can’t believe I’ve never done anything on him). He brought a fire to the Dodgers that was lacking under Grimes (who could be fiery himself). A number of the players didn’t particularly like Durocher, but he had the respect of most of them. He and McPhail made for a strange and interesting pair leading the franchise.

The infield saw one change. Pete Coscaret went from being the backup to playing the most innings at second, while former starter John Hudson became the primary backup middle infielder. With shortstop Durocher now managing, Hudson saw more action than a backup might normally see (he got into 109 games). Dolph Camilli and Cookie Lavagetto continued to hold down the corners of the infield. Lavagetto hit .300 and was second on the team in home runs (10) and RBIs (87). Camilli led the team in both with 26 home runs and 104 RBIs (his WAR and OPS+ also topped the starters).

The outfield underwent a significant change in 1939. Of the 1938 starters, only Ernie Koy remained a primary outfielder. Gene Moore and Art Parks took over the other positions while Goody Rosen became a backup and Bud Hassett moved to the Braves. Of major significance for 1941, the Dodgers picked up a new backup outfielder when 28-year-old Dixie Walker was picked up on waivers from Detroit. He would, by 1941, become one of the more famous players on the pennant winning team. For 1939 he hit .280 with 83 total bases (0.3 WAR).

Although Babe Phelps remained the primary catcher, the staff he handled added two major pieces to the pennant winning puzzle. Holding on to Luke Hamlin and Fred Fitzsimmons as starters, and moving Tot Presnell from spot starter to a major contributor helped Brooklyn, but the two new guys were key. One was Whit Wyatt. He was 31, had spent several mediocre years in the American League, spent 1938 in the Cleveland minor league system (Milwaukee), and was purchased by Brooklyn for 1939. He went 8-3 in 16 games (14 starts) and made the All-Star game. By 1941 he was the Dodgers’ ace. The other new guy was Hugh Casey. Casey was 25, had a cup of coffee with the Cubs in 1935, and became a full-time player only in 1939 after being picked up by Brooklyn from Memphis. Although known today primarily as a reliever, he started 25 games in 1939 and posted a 15-10 record, a 5.3 WAR, and managed to lead the National League in hit batsmen with 11.

The result of all this was a third place finish and a winning season for the Dodgers; their first in several years. Much of the “Daffiness Boys” syndrome was gone and they were emerging as a legitimate contender in the National League. By this point half the infield was in place, much of the pitching staff was available and the first of the outfield was on board. With Leo Durocher piloting the team, and McPhail ready to make the necessary acquisitions, they were finally moving in the right direction.

As an aside, there was also one other notable addition to the Dodgers, although it didn’t change the play on the field. The 1939 season saw Brooklyn pick up a new play-by-play radio announcer. Red Barber joined the team in the booth in 1939.

 

Calls of a Lifetime

May 11, 2011

The one and only Vin Scully

You know what I miss about modern baseball? No, it isn’t the great pitching, there’s a lot of that around. It isn’t the wonderful fielding, take a look at “Web Gems”. It isn’t the hitting, these guys can hit. What I miss is the men who used to call the games.

I miss Mel Allen. I miss Red Barber. I miss Russ Hodges. They were the main men in New York baseball when I was very young. They knew how to describe a game in vivid words that painted pictures of the game, of the field, of the players, and of the fans. Allen had sheer joy, Barber colorful use of words, Hodges wore his emotions on his sleeve. In fact, Hodges gave us all one of the single greatest calls of a lifetime with his 1951 “The Giants Win the Pennant” repeated a thousand times. Go to You Tube or somewhere and just listen to the joy and astonishment in his voice. Don’t look at the picture, just listen to the voice. You know what happened if you just listen.

Of course there were others. Dizzy Dean was a world to himself. Half the time I didn’t understand him (and neither did anyone else except for maybe Mrs. Dean) but who cared; he was wonderful. Jack Buck was understated and almost emotionless sometimes, and that was a wonderful tonic to the “rah, rah” types that drove me crazy. And nobody ever knew how to simply shut up and let the crowd do the talking than Buck.  Joe Garagiola knew more about baseball than most people could learn in a 1000 years. Both were out of St. Louis (And isn’t it amazing how many great play-by-play guys have come out of St. Louis?) so I got to hear them a lot. Ernie Harwell could describe a play better than anyone I ever heard. Bob Prince was a little too much for me, but his love for his Pirates was so obvious you let it slide sometimes. And Curt Gowdy could announce anything and have you impressed.

There aren’t a lot of them left. You still hear Jay Randolph on an occasional Cardinals broadcast (see what I mean about St. Louis) and there is not, nor has there ever been, anyone quite like Vin Scully. Take time someday and just listen to the man. Even his non-baseball talks are a treat to the ears.

Now it’s not that the new guys are bad, they just aren’t quite as good. Too many of them simply call a game and don’t describe it. I guess that’s television and the idea that you can see for yourself what’s going on. But you know what? I miss the old guys who knew you had to describe a game as well as call it.

Great Calls

May 6, 2010

The death of Ernie Harwell reminded me how much I miss the truly great voices of baseball. SportsPhd had a wonderful comment on Harwell (which you should read, especially if you’re a dad) and mentioned the now stilled voices of the past.  He mentions a lot of them, missing  Bob Prince at Pittsburgh and Russ Hodges with the Giants.  But then it’s a short blog, not a dissertation. It’s right that we sit and remember these people. They mean as much to baseball as the players, the managers, the peanut vendors, the owners, the fans, the print reporters, and the guy who trims the ivy at Wrigley Field. For some of us, it’s how we got our baseball.

They are sometimes famous for catchphrases like Red Barber’s “catbird’s seat” or Mel Allen’s “how about that”. Others are noted for the delivery style like Dizzy Dean’s mangling of the English language or Vin Scully’s use of classical allusion. Still others are best noted for simply knowing when to shut up. Jack Buck being the great practitioner of that.

There are specific calls that ring in my head when I think of baseball. None are more memorable than Russ Hodges’ “The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant.”  The call that announced that New York was going to the World Series in 1951 gets my vote as greatest call ever. Others will disagree. I know several people who love Bob Prince’s call of Bill Mazeroski’s home run in game seven of 1960.

Jack Buck also has two of my favorites. One is his response to Kirk Gibson’s home run in 1988, “I don’t believe what I just saw.” The other is his comment when Gene Larkin hit the little single that put the Minnesota Twins over the top in 1991, “The Twins are going to win the World Series.” What a wonderful bit of understatement. Then the Twins swarmed on the field and Tom Kelly went to the Braves bench to congratulate the Braves. Buck’s response? Silence. He knew when to shut up and let the camera do its job.

My personal favorite is Vin Scully, but then I’m a Dodgers fan. I love his use of the  language. I still remember him calling Sandy Koufax’s perfect game late in the evening on the radio. Wow.

I’ve left out a bunch: Joe Garagiola, Jay Randolph, etc. But there’s no slight meant. I’d give a whole lot just to hear the voices of those that are gone and those that are retired. I hope the generations that follow get to hear something like them. If not, those generations are really going to miss something very special.

Rest in Peace, Ernie Harwell.

Good Bye, Bobby

January 29, 2010

I missed the news the other day that Bobby Bragan died. He was 92 and an old ballplayer. He was also a hero of mine.

Bragan was from Alabama and got to the majors in 1940 as a shortstop with the Phillies. He played 597 games over 7 seasons, the last four years with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He spent most of his time as a backup shortstop and catcher. For a career he hit .240 with 15 home runs and 172 RBIs. He was one of the Dodgers players who signed the infamous petition to keep Jackie Robinson off the Dodgers prior to the 1947 season. After his playing days ended he served as a manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 and 1957, for the Cleveland Indians in 1958, and for the Braves (both in Milwaukee and Atlanta) from 1963-1966. He had a .481 winning percentage as a manager and never finished above 5th. 

“Hold it,” I hear you say, “this guy was a marginal player, a failed manager, a racist, and he’s a hero of yours? What gives?”  Let me tell you.

I once heard an interview with the Dodgers radio play-by-play man Red Barber, also a Southerner, in which he acknowledged his racism in 1946 and then commented that in terms of race Jackie Robinson “matured” him. Bragan was never that eloquent, but I think he might have agreed with the sentiment. Within a few weeks of Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn, Bragan had changed his mind about Robinson. He saw him as a superior player, as a good person, saw the abuse the man took, and saw Robinson’s response to it. Somewhere along the line, Bragan had an epiphany and decided that he was wrong and that Robinson, and by extension black Americans, was OK. He became one of Robinson’s best friends on the Dodgers, later served as an honorary pallbearer at Robinson’s funeral. I’ve seen a picture of Bragan and Rachel Robinson embracing. As a manager he became known as a sympathetic ear and something of a mentor to black and Latin ballplayers, most specifically Roberto Clemente. He solidly backed Hank Aaron in the rush to the home run record.

Most of us, me included, have a lot of trouble finding an internal flaw. We tend to ignore them and when confronted with one fall back on “it’s not my fault” or “who, me?” or some such response. Bragan didn’t.  He confronted his racism head on, saw it’s evil, and changed his ways. Then he became a supporter of that which he’d previously despised. Quite a change for anyone. That makes him a hero of mine. Rest in peace, Bobby.