Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My first Major League game

 Although I knew it would be a risky proposition, this past summer I took my five year old grandson to his first Major League baseball game.  I felt it was time to start getting him acclimated to my favorite sport before he gets involved in the youth programs for football and soccer in his home state of Texas.  It was a risk because my grandson does not keep still unless he has a video game controller in his hands or is looking at Transformers or SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons on television. But with the help of a giant pretzel, cotton candy, and a snow cone that he happily consumed; we stayed through seven innings. 

My experience with him that evening made me reflect upon the first Major league Baseball game I attended.

The first one should have been on July 30, 1958.  My two brothers went to see the Kansas City A’s play the New York Yankees at old Municipal Stadium with friends in the neighborhood, but decided they did not want their six year old little brother tagging along.   The A’s were a mediocre team that year, finished in seventh place, 71 -83.   Disappointed, I stayed home and listened to the game on my next to oldest brother’s transistor radio.  The A’s were leading 2 – 0 after the top of the fifth inning when it started to rain.  It was a heavy downpour and the game was called after one hour.  My brothers got no sympathy from me when they returned home explaining how they got drenched while running to their car in the stadium parking lot.  I laughed that they had gotten so wet.

It would be three years later; August 20, 1961, when I would walk into Municipal Stadium with my parents’ friend from Topeka and his son to see my first Major League game.  The A’s were playing the Chicago White Sox.  It was the first season for new A’s owner Charlie Finley and the team was headed that year to its second straight last place finish.  The White Sox lineup included future Hall of Fame players Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio, and former Negro Leaguer Al Smith.  Minnie Minoso, who many believe deserves a Hall of Fame plaque, was their left fielder.

Seeing a Major League playing field for the first time, I was awestruck by its beauty.  The grass was the greenest green and the infield dirt the richest brown I had ever seen.  I was mesmerized by the vivid brightness of the blues, grays, and whites of both teams’ uniforms.  It seemed I was looking through a high definition color lens fifty years before HD TVs.  It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.  I have never forgotten it.

There is also nothing like the sound of a solid hit off the bat of a Major Leaguer.  I can still remember the sound of the A’s Norm Siebern’s second inning double.  To me, there is no sound in any other sport like it.  The A’s lost 5-3.

 A double header was scheduled, but we could not stay for the second game as my parent’s friend wanted to visit friends that lived near the stadium before heading home.  I was crushed and felt like crying as I left my seat.  I vowed to never leave another Major League game before it was over, especially a doubleheader.

Even though I have been true to that vow nearly 100% over the years, I was smart enough not to push it with my grandson after seven innings.

What do you remember about seeing your first Major League baseball game?   

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The no-hitter by former Negro League pitcher

According to the Major League record book, there have been 275 no-hitters pitched; seven this year.  The Major League total does not include the no-hitters pitched in Negro League baseball.  But it does include the one by Sam “Toothpick” Jones, the only former Negro League pitcher to throw a Major League no-hitter. 
Past feature articles, game summaries, and game box scores of African-American newspapers indicate there were at least 29 no-hitters thrown in Negro League baseball.  Most notably there were two by Satchel Paige and one each by Hilton Smith, Andy Cooper, “Smoky” Joe Williams, and Leon Day; all Hall of Fame pitchers.  The “invisible color line” that kept African–American ballplayers out of the Major Leagues was not erased until 1947 which was too late for these and other Negro League hurlers who were by then either dead or past their prime.  But there were a few younger Negro League pitchers that got their opportunity in the Major Leagues; Sam Jones was one of them.

Jones pitched for the Homestead Grays in 1946 and the Negro League World Series runner-up Cleveland Buckeyes in 1947.  He got his nickname from having a toothpick in his mouth while on the pitching mound.  It was 1950 when the Cleveland Indians finally noticed the talented hurler that was in their own backyard, but he pitched in only 16 games with them in four years and was traded to Chicago Cubs after the 1954 season.
Once in the National League, the talent Jones displayed in the Negro Leagues proved not to be a fluke.  Jones was a power pitcher with what some said was the best curveball National League hitters faced at that time.  Batters said Jones had a mean streak that was exhibited with his pitches; he hit 14 in 1955 (league leader).  There was an ongoing intense confrontation whenever Henry Aaron faced Jones that is well documented.  Jones struggled at times with control of his pitches; he led the National League in walks four times.  But he also could be overpowering; being the league leader in strikeouts three years and pitching 17 shutouts in his 12 year Major League career.  He was also twice a National League All-Star, winning 21 games with the San Francisco Giants in 1959 and 18 in 1960.  

But it was on May 12, 1955 as a Chicago Cub that Jones pitched himself into the Major League Baseball record book with a 4-0 no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It was a “Sam Jones” pitched type of game.  He struck out six batters, walked seven, threw a Wild Pitch, and was helped with two double plays.  In the ninth inning, he walked the first three hitters before striking out the final three.
Jones won 102 games in the Major Leagues, but lost 101.  No doubt the inconsistent control of his pitches cost him victories, but he still had 1,376 career strikeouts.  And no other former Negro League pitcher, other than Don Newcombe, had the success in the Major Leagues as Sam Jones.
Along with Don Newcombe and Sam Jones, who were the other former Negro League pitchers that played in the Major Leagues? 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ron Santo: Cooperstown's tribute to National League third basemen of the 1960's

Former Chicago Cub third baseman, Ron Santo, was inducted into the Baseball National Hall of Fame this past July 21.   Santo, who died on December 2 of 2010, had a stellar 15 year Major League career (14 with the Cubs) beginning in 1960 despite playing with diabetes throughout its entirety.    There were many talented third basemen in the National League with Santo during the 1960’s, but only two having plaques in Cooperstown.  The Milwaukee Braves’ Eddie Matthews, whose best years were in the 1950s, was a 1978 first ballot inductee.  And now Santo, who after being passed over 15 times for induction by the Baseball Writers’ Association and three times by the Hall’s Veterans Committee was finally selected this year by the new Golden Age Committee.  He was the prototype for National League third basemen in the 1960s and his Hall of Fame induction stands as a tribute to those others who played the position in the “Senior Circuit” during that decade.   

Just as in the game today, National League teams in the 1960s expected their third basemen to provide power and to be a good fielder.  Ron Santo did that, hitting 342 career home runs and winning 5 Golden Glove Awards as the league’s best fielding third baseman.  And so did St. Louis Cardinal third baseman Ken Boyer who was in his fifth Major League season Santo’s 1960 rookie year.  Boyer hit 255 home runs in his 10 year Cardinal career and won five Golden Gloves, including the one in 1960.  He was a seven time All-Star with a career .287 batting average.  In 1964, Boyer was the National League Most Valuable Player (24 home runs, 119 RBI, batted .295) when the Cardinals won the pennant and World Series.  The two baseball seasons he missed serving in the military (1952 and 1953) may have cost him the home run totals he needed for getting into the Hall of Fame.

For years the Philadelphia Phillies finished in or near the bottom of the league’s standing.  But in 1964 they almost won the pennant, losing a six and a half game first place lead in the last two weeks of September.  One reason for their revival was rookie Richie (Dick) Allen who was a third baseman for the first fourof his 15 year pro career.  Allen was not up to par fielding with his league contemporaries, but he was a hitter.  He batted .318 with 29 home runs, drove in 91 runs, and was named Rookie of the Year.  In the four years Allen played third base (1964 -1967), he averaged 28 home runs, 90 RBI, and batted .311.

Finishing second in the 1964 Rookie of the Year balloting was the San Francisco Giant’s new third baseman Jim Ray Hart.  During his rookie season, Hart hit 31 home runs and drove in 81 runs while batting .281.  Before shifting to play outfield after the 1968 season, he averaged 27 home runs and 89 RBI per season.

Don Hoak batted .282 hitting 16 home runs and driving in 79 runs playing third base for the 1960 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates.  Other National League pennant winners during the decade having solid third base play include the 1961 Cincinnati Reds with Gene Freese (26 home runs, 87 RBI, batted .277) and the 1962 San Francisco Giants with Jim Davenport (14 home runs, batted ,297).

Who was your favorite 1960s National League third baseman?  Whoever it was, he received recognition in Cooperstown this year through the Hall of Fame induction of Ron Santo.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Historial facts about the first Major League Draft - 1965

Seven of the first 31 players chosen during the 2012 Major League Baseball draft that was held at the beginning of last week in New York were African-American, the first selected; Byron Buxton picked number two by the Minnesota Twins.   Here are four historical facts about the first Major League draft which occurred in June 1965 that saw five African-American baseball players chosen.

The first African-American picked in the initial draft was Larry Hisle; chosen at number 38 by the Philadelphia Phillies.  Hisle’s rookie season with the Phillies was 1969, he finished fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting; but was demoted back to the minor leagues in 1971.  After being traded to the Minnesota Twins in 1973, Hisle had five stellar seasons before signing as a free agent with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1978.  After hitting a career high 34 home runs, Hisle suffered a career ending shoulder injury the next year. 

The other notable African-Americans chosen that first amateur draft were Amos Otis (drafted at number 93) by the Boston Red Sox and Hal McRae ( drafted at number 117) by the Cincinnati Reds.  After a stint with the New York Mets, Otis became the starting center fielder for the Kansas City Royals in 1970.  McRae was a reserve for Sparky Anderson’s first two pennant winning Reds teams (1970, 1972).  He was then traded to Kansas City after the 1972 season and became their regular left fielder/designated hitter.   Otis and McRae were integral parts of my favorite Kansas City Royals Western Division Championship teams (1976 – 77, 1980).

There was a link to Negro League baseball in that first draft.  The 301 selection by the Chicago Cubs was Johnny Hairston, son of Negro League player Samuel Hairston.  After Jackie Robinson broke through pro baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Negro League baseball became the main supply of African-American talent to the Major Leagues.  Because of the overall success of the Negro League players, Major League teams continued to seek talented African-American players after the Negro Leagues dissolved in the late 1950s.  Sam Hairston’s Major League career consisted on just four games (five At Bats) for the Chicago White Sox in 1951, while his son Johnny’s consisted of three games (four At Bats) for the Chicago Cubs in 1969. 

But there were more off springs from the Hairston family tree in other Major League drafts.  Sam’s other son Jerry was selected 54 by the Chicago White Sox in 1970.  And Jerry Hairston has had two sons drafted:   Jerry Hairston, Jr. (345 pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 1997) now playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Scott Hairston (98 pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001) now playing for the New York Mets.

Who was your favorite African-American ballplayer who made it to the Major Leagues in the 1960s?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Remembering Jackie Robinson

This past April 15 marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play Major League baseball.  When Robinson put on the Brooklyn Dodger uniform to play at Ebbet’s Field against the Boston Braves on April 15, 1947; he broke through the racial barriers that had been established by Major League team owners since before the turn of the century.   To baby boomers like me who were infants during his Major League career, Jackie Robinson was an African-American sports pioneer that continued to fight for the civil rights of his race long after he retired from playing.  But what I did not fully understand at the time was how good Jackie Robinson played baseball.

My love affair with baseball began when I was six years old in 1957, the year after Robinson retired.  So I was not able to collect his baseball card, look at the baseball box scores in the daily newspaper sport pages during the summer to see how well he did, or see him play on television.  The Jackie Robinson I saw marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights campaigns of the 1960’s.  With his speckled gray and black hair, Robinson had an authoritarian voice that spoke out for the concerns of black people with strength and courage that got attention.   As a young black baseball fan, I realized Jackie Robinson was on a higher pedestal than Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and the other African-American players I idolized whose careers were in progress.

But after reading a number of the books published about  Robinson written since 1997, the 50 year anniversary of his erasing of baseball’s “invisible color line”; I have an awakened revelation of his playing career.  Although Robinson was not the best player in the Negro Leagues when the Dodgers signed him from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, he had an outstanding Major League career. 

He was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1947.   Robinson was voted National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1949 and was in the top ten receiving votes for the award three other seasons.  With a career batting average of .311, Robinson hit over .300 six times and under .295 only twice.  He scored over 100 runs six seasons, and had over 150 hits in seven.  Selected for six All Star Games, Robinson batted .333 in the mid-summer classics.  He also led the National League in stolen bases twice.    

From 1947 -1956, the Dodgers won six National League pennants and one World Championship.  While Pee Wee Reese was the field captain of those winning Dodger teams, Jackie Robinson was the emotional leader; the teams’ heart and soul.  A fierce competitor, his aggressive playing style sometimes antagonized opponents; but it brought an excitement to the game fans had not seen.

What has to be remembered is the pressure he was under.   All that Robinson accomplished his first years was done with the weight of his race on his shoulders.  At the very least, he had to be better than mediocre white players to make it.  If he had failed, who knows how long it would have been before the door opened again for black ballplayers.  But Jackie Robinson did not fail.  Because of his late start, he was 28 years old his first Major League season, Robinson played only 10 years.  But his performance on the diamond during his relatively short career changed baseball forever. 

What are your memories of Jackie Robinson?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

1965: A year of change for baseball

The last year I collected baseball cards was 1965, one sign of the late beginning of my adolescence.  The nation was also going through changes that year.  It was the first full year of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.  Malcolm X was assassinated that winter (February 21).  And after bloody civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 was passed by Congress that summer.  The passing of time results in changes to each aspect of our lives, even to the game we love; baseball. There were three changes in Major League baseball that occurred or were about to occur during the 1965 season I remember.

The frustration of New York Yankee haters finally was relieved in 1965.  After winning the American League pennant nine out of the previous 10 years and four World Series, the stronghold the dreaded Yankees had on the rest of the league was over.  The effect of aging and nagging injuries had taken its toll on Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Roger Maris and the other core players on the team.  Their farm system was not able to restock the team with young players with big league talent.  And they could no longer dump their older players in trades for younger prospects of other teams as they had done in the past.  Losing the 1963 and 1964 World Series were clear signs of the team’s pending demise.  In 1965, they finished in sixth place and would not win their next pennant until 1976,

The Houston Colt 45’s were renamed the Houston Astros and opened the season playing in the first indoor baseball stadium, the Astrodome; called “The Eighth Wonder of the World”.  The first game in the new facility was an exhibition contest between the Astros and New York Yankees on April 9; and Mickey Mantle hit the first Astrodome home run.

My first exposure to baseball was from Henry Aaron and the World Champion 1957 Milwaukee Braves.  However, by 1965; only Aaron and an aging Eddie Mathews were the remaining star players from the successful  Braves teams that won more games than any other National League franchise between 1953 and 1960 (719).  With fan attendance in Milwaukee declining and a great financial opportunity luring by becoming the first Major League franchise in the south, Braves management moved the team to Atlanta after the season. 

What do you remember about the 1965 baseball season?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Remembering Don Mincher

During the late 1950s and early 1960s there were many utility players in the American League that would have been perfect Designated Hitters.  They were good at hitting a baseball, but had fielding liabilities that kept them on the bench accept for pinch hitting situations.  But the American League did not put the Designated Hitter Rule into place until 1974, after the careers of these players were over.  Don Mincher was one those players.  Mincher died this past March 4, 2012, he was 73 years old.

Initially signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1956, Mincher was a part of the successful effort to be competitive by the lowly Washington Senators in 1960.  He was acquired from White Sox that April, but Senators’ fans did not get to see much of him.  The team moved to Minneapolis after the season and became the Minnesota Twins.

By 1964, the Twins were a contending team with a power hitting line up of future Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Earl Battey, and 1964 newcomer Tony Oliva; all capable of hitting the ball a long way.  When Don Mincher played first base in place of Killebrew, opposing pitchers did not get much of a break.  Mincher was also a home run threat.

After the Twins hit six home runs against my hometown Kansas City A’s on May 2 that year; my friends and I decided to go see this power show on display the next day.   The A’s won both games of the doubleheader, but what I remember most was the rocket shot home run Mincher hit the second game.  

When Killebrew missed a part of the next season, 1965, due to injury; Mincher stepped in and helped the Twins win the pennant.  He hit 22 home runs and drove in 65 runs.  He also hit a home run in the Twins’ Game 1 World Series win.

Leaving the Twins after 1966, Mincher became an All Star at first base for the California Angels in 1967 and the Seattle Pilots in 1969.  His last season was 1972, the year before the Designated Hitter Rule was initiated.  Mincher would have been the ideal Designated Hitter.  He hit 200 career home runs as basically a reserve player.   I believe he would have been a nightmare for opposing pitchers as a DH.

Who else do you think would have been a good DH from Mincher’s era?  What about Gates Brown or Dick Stuart?   

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Who was C. I. Taylor?

On this past January 28, 2012, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum had its Twelfth Legacy Awards ceremony.    The awards were given to Major League players and managers chosen by the museum for their outstanding performances during the 2011 season and other individuals recognized for outstanding achievement in baseball.   Each award is named after a baseball pioneer drawn from the archives of Negro League baseball.  The museum is in Kansas City where the first official Negro baseball league, the Negro National League, was formed in 1920.

One highlight of the evening was Texas Rangers’ Manager Ron Washington receiving the CI Taylor Award for American League Manager of the Year.  Washington has gained national attention by leading his team to winning the American League pennant the last two seasons.  But the award also brings deserved attention for whom it is named, CI Taylor. 

Who was CI Taylor?  Negro League baseball was criticized for having unstructured teams with undisciplined players.  Although some of the criticism was valid, it unfairly became a stereotype of all Negro League teams.  However, neither the criticism nor stereotype was true for Charles Isham (CI) Taylor.

Co-owner and manager of the Indianapolis ABC’s (1914 -1921), CI Taylor was a strict disciplinarian that had a dress code for his players.   The son of a Methodist minister, Taylor’s manner was different than most of his contemporaries, black or white.  He did not curse, nor rant and rave at his players. There was a sense of calm and composure about him rarely seen on a baseball field.  Described as being fair, honest, and patient; Taylor was well liked by his players.  CI taught them the fundamentals of the game and many went on to be managers themselves in Negro League baseball.  He was especially a mentor for his brother, Ben, and Oscar Charleston, both in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  

Most importantly, CI Taylor’s teams won.  His 1916 ABC team was the best black team in the midwest that year.

When the first official Negro League was formed in 1920, Taylor played a key role.  His team was a charter member of the Negro National League (NNL) and he was the league’s Vice-President.  Taylor’s unexpected death in 1921, at age 48 was a setback for Negro League baseball.   Without his leadership, the ABC’s disbanded after the 1923 season.

Who is your favorite manager from the archives of baseball history?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Baseball free agency and the 'hot stove league'

The “hot stove league”, the winter off season for professional baseball, is a time for baseball fans to look forward to the upcoming new season with enthusiasm and optimism about their favorite teams.    Baseball’s winter off season has become shorter because of Major League Baseball’s expansion.   Whereas the World Series used to be over before mid-October, this past season officially ended on October 28 and spring training for each Major League club will begin in less than a month.          

But the major change in the “hot stove league” has occurred because of player free agency.  The biggest attention grabber during winter used to be blockbuster trades.  In December, 1965, the Cincinnati Reds traded All Star Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles.  Robinson won the American League Triple Crown and Most Valuable Player award that next season and helped Baltimore win four pennants and two World Champions.  What “hot stove league” trade do you remember that helped your favorite baseball team?

But now free agent signings are what stoke the coals during the winter.  This past December, three time National League MVP Albert Pujois left the St. Louis Cardinals and signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  And last week, Milwaukee Brewer All Star slugger Prince Fielder signed with the Detroit Tigers.  Due to free agency, over 40 players will take the field next season with a different team.  For baseball fans of the free agency generation, dramatically different team rosters from year to year have always been an aspect of the game.

Baseball fans of the “baby boom” generation; however, fell in love with the game when players were bound to the team in which they signed their first professional contract.  Player movement was totally controlled by team owners.  It was not a good system for the players, but it was great for fans because the core of their team stayed together year to year.   St. Louis Cardinals fans did not have to worry about losing Stan Musial, Ken Boyer, Bob Gibson, or Bill White to free agency. 

But, free agency is more beneficial for the players.  They are no longer “well paid slaves” as the late Curt Flood, former Cardinal, called them.  So forgive us baby boomers if we miss those times when teams were together longer.  We are still adjusting.

  What “hot stove league” trade do you remember that helped your favorite baseball team?