Search This Blog

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bob's Books - Branch Rickey by Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin has written a short, rather pithy biography of Branch Rickey. It’s sort of a wikipedia of Ricky bios. He feels the need to bring Barak Obama up in the very first paragraph. Which is rather amusing, since Rickey was a life-long Republican and Jackie Robinson supported Richard Nixon. Later in the prologue he gives you a list of the only Rickey books he considers worthwhile.

He seems determined to give you an, “aw shucks” approach to Rickey’s life; as if you were sitting on the front porch having a chat. Factually, I think he did pretty well, since he drew on a couple of the books on his approved list for his tome.

No book is expected to be error-free. But I sat up straight when I read Breslin’s statement that Jackie Robinson played in his first World Series in 1952. Any junior Robinson fan knows that he led the Dodgers to the Series in his rookie season of 1947, and most know that the team was back in 1949. Minimal research would have prevented this error.

Other than being a lot shorter than other Rickey bios, I don’t see why this was written. In the past month I’ve learned more about Branch Rickey (and the Robinson part of his tale) from books by Red Barber, Arthur Mann and Harvey Frommer. Breslin’s book absolutely isn’t worth the cover price (I bought it used). I can’t imagine using it as a resource in the future.

Jackie Robinson is my idol. And naturally, I hold Branch Rickey in great regard. There aren’t a lot of Rickey books out there, but the others are better than this one. And many of the Robinson books are more informative about Rickey than this one as well.

I've now read two books by Jimmy Breslin and wasn't impressed with either of them.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Uncool Dodgers during the 1994 MLB Strike - Bob Costas Tells it Like it Is

In early August of 1994, major league baseball players went on strike, which resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the season and of the World Series. They remained on strike as spring raining began and some minor league players came to camp as replacement players. One such player was Mike Busch of the Dodgers system. The strike ended the week before opening day and all the regular players returned. Busch did not play a regular season game as a replacement player.

On August 29, with the Dodgers barely hanging on to first place, GM Fred Claire called Bush up from AAA. When Busch got to the clubhouse, the players told him to leave and voted to return him to the minors. Claire refused to buckle so they refused to play catch with him before the game and refused to take batting practice with him. When he took infield practice at third base, there was no one standing at first base for him to throw to. No one got in Busch's face, however, as he was 6'5", 220 pounds and had played college football.

I still remember Brett Butler, my favorite Dodger, sounding like a complete jerk as the Player Rep for the Union. I really liked what Bob Costas had to say about the situation when interviewed years later for the book True Blue by Steve Delsohn:

I think it's an indication of how totally lacking in perspective the Players Association has become and the payer as a group are. If your team acquires a felon, here are guys who, literally, say, "Hey, it's okay with us. Everyone deserves a second chance. As long as he can help us, we're happy to have him n the clubhouse."
 These are guys who happily dress next to multiple-time drug offenders. Next to some of the biggest horse's asses who've ever walked the earth in any walk of life. Next to guys who have beaten their wives, showed up late, and tanked on their team in big games. I'm not saying these guys are universally popular, but you don't hear anyone publicly condemning them.
 But the single greatest pariah is a replacement player. "We couldn't possibly play catch before a game with a replacement player. We'd sooner come in proximity with Typhoid Mary." I mean, this is so intellectually bankrupt that it's a joke. My God, a replacement player! Oh, the most odious of individuals. And hey, you know, we'd love to have Albert Belle. We have no problem with Albret Belle. But my God, do we have to hang around with Mike Busch?
Albert (don't call me Joey) Belle
was sort of Manny before
Manny was being Manny
You go Bob!

Butler and the other vocal Dodgers eventually publicly (and insincerely) kissed and made up with Busch because they were getting hammered by the public and some of the press. Butler was getting booed at home.

I remember sitting in the back of an Ohio Legislative subcomittee as Eddie Murray and Kenny Lofton of the Indians testified during that same strike. And the legislators fawned all over them, practically knocking each other out of the way to kiss their behinds. I was a big Eddie Murray fan before that, but not after. These guys, who made over a million dollars a year, at a job every little boy dreams of, not only didn't want to show up for work, they wanted to punish anybody else who did.

Darryl Strawberry? Sure! But
not that horrible Mike Busch
Busch, who had a wife and newborn daughter, had 105 plate appearances over the 1995 and 1996 seasons for the Dodgers, hitting .220 with 7 homers. He made about as much money for that 1995 spring training as he would for an entire season in AAA.

Brett Butler was crossed off my list of favorite Dodgers in 1995.

Bob's Books - True Blue by Steve Delsohn

Several years ago, I read Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency by Gerald & Deborah Hart Strober. The book was broken down into different topics and included comments from various people on those topics. They interviewed nearly a hundred people who had insights on various parts of Nixon’s Presidency. And it’s a fascinating inside look. I found it an excellent approach.

Steve Delsohn’s True Blue (subtitled The Dramatic History of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Told by the Men Who Lived It) is just such a book. After a chapter discussing the end of the days in Brooklyn, he looks at every Dodger season in Los Angeles, through 2000. And he interviewed over 100 persons, including scores of former players and coaches, to tell the story.

This is unlike any other Dodger history book on my shelves. Hear Stan Williams talk about Leo Durocher’s backstabbing of Walter Alston in 1962. Read the behind the scenes feelings that led to the famed Don Sutton-Steve Garvey fight. Get inside the clubhouse for Kirk Gibson’s team transformation in 1988.

I’ve always considered Juan Marichal a thug for hitting Johnny Roseboro in the head with a bat. But after reading Roseboro’s comments, I realize the catcher sort of brought the situation on (which his wife has said he admitted to).

Frank Howard, Rick Monday, Tommy Davis, Dave Lopes, Brett Butler, Ron Fairly, Kevin Kennedy: the guys who were there, on the field, in the dugout and up in the front office all tell you just like it was. I’m surprised there aren’t more books out there like this. An excellent read about the Los Angeles Dodgers

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

This Day in Baseball (May 21, 1959) - The Continental League Is Coming!

This book taught me about
the Continental League
Branch Rickey is rightfully in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rickey created the minor league system, which made the St. Louis Cardinals the dominant team of the nineteen forties and was copied by every single franchise. It's still in use today, with my hometown Columbus Clippers (AAA affiliate of the Indians) a prime example.

As if that wasn't enough of a revolution, Rickey would then go on and bring Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn, smashing baseball's unofficial but absolutely real color barrier. I could (and have) written pages about that.

But Rickey, who built on Larry MacPhail's work to turn the perennial loser Dodgers into a powerhouse, had one more major move up his sleeve.

Starting in 1917, the Boston Braves finished in fourth place or worse for THIRTY consecutive seasons: finishing under .500 twenty-three times. The 1948 squad (Spahn and Sain and pray for rain) had made the World Series and the team drew over 1.4 million fans. By 1952 they were back under .500 and drew only 281,000. So, they packed up and moved to Milwaukee in 1953. In only their thirteenth home game of the season, they surpassed their ENTIRE seventy-seven home game total for the prior year in Boston.

The men who took on Major League Baseball
Teams unhappy in their current situations (the Philadelphia A's, St. Louis Browns, NY Giants) paid attention. Especially one Walter O'Malley, who would grow so dissatisfied with his aging stadium and changing demographics in Brooklyn over the next few years that he would demand significant public assistance and, not getting it, move to Los Angeles, taking the Giants with him to San Francisco.

An excellent insider read!
Minor league baseball was popular on the west coast and in the mid-fifties, the AAA Pacific Coast League had been declared an Open League. The general intent was for it to grow to major league status, opening up the west to major league baseball. But that dream died when the Dodgers and Giants moved to California after the 1957 season.

On May 21, 1959, owners met at Pirate owner John Galbreath's Ohio farm. They voted against adding new teams to the majors. Unlike today's over-expanded professional sports world, baseball owners wanted to limit membership in their tightly controlled, anti-trust cabal. The National and American Leagues actually wielded more influence than the Commissioner of Baseball did and ran things as (as Harold Parrot titled his excellent memoir) Lords of Baseball.

Lawyer William Shea wanted to bring National League baseball back to New York City. For decades, fans could root for the Dodgers or Giants (never both) while hating the Yankees. Suddenly, they were bereft of a team: and they could no more remain loyal to the ones who had abandoned them than they could root for ...gasp; the Yankees!

The Federal League was a major
threat in 1914 and 1915
Major League Baseball wasn't going to expand. So Shea teamed up with Branch Rickey to form a third major league that would become part of the two existing leagues, rather than an outright competitor like the American Association and Federal Leagues had been years before.

So, on July 27, 1959, only two months after that owners' meeting, a press conference was held, announcing the newly forming Continental League. Soon owners were found in seven cities that did not have major league baseball: Atlanta, Buffalo, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Toronto. Plus of course, a NL team for New York City.

Major League Baseball mouthed platitudes of cooperation while doing everything they could to kill the proposed league. Rickey and his group were eventually forced to go to the courts. Baseball's Reserve Clause, which bound a player to one team in perpetuity, made it difficult for the Continental League to get players without resorting to open warfare (the model pursued by the Federal League in the mid-1900s).

Fighting major league baseball is pretty much a losing proposition and the Continental League folded in the summer of 1960 without ever having signed one player. However, the threat that the Continental posed was very real to baseball owners at the time. As well, Congress was pressuring baseball and threatening to revoke its antitrust exemption. That would have spelled doom for the old boy's club.

So, baseball announced they would be adding four teams: two in each league. 1962 saw the New York (Mets) and Houston (Colt 45s, to become the Astros) added to the NL and Los Angeles (Angels) and Washington (the existing Senators were moved to Minnesota and an expansion Senators started up) to the AL.

In 1969, Montreal (Expos) and San Diego (Padres) joined the NL and Kansas City (the Royals, replacing the previously lost A's) and Seattle (the Pilots, who would move to Milwaukee only one year later, replacing the previously lost Braves!) began play in the AL.

A decade after declining to expand, MLB had eight new teams: the same number that the Continental League would have brought into the fold. And when the Colorado Rockies began play in 1993, seven of the eight Continental League cities had major league franchises. Only Buffalo, home of the AAA Bisons, hasn't joined the club. Buffalo's economic situation and location makes it unlikely it ever will.

Just published this
But there is no doubt that Rickey's Continental League pushed baseball into unwanted expansion. And when the threat was looming large, MLB knocked the supports out of the Continental by offering NL expansion franchises to the prospective owners in Houston and New York City (Shea). If not for that, it's possible that the Continental League would have filled rosters and played games.

MLB requires expansion teams to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to join the league. Then they "allow them" to draft unwanted players from the existing teams to fill their rosters. Thus, expansion teams usually stink: in the pre-free agency era, for several years. Ricky's approach of 'separate and someday equal' would have created a third league that could initially stand on its own legs and get stronger. As he said:

"It may seem illogical that you can't get manpower for four extra clubs but you can for eight. But eight teams can compete equally while recognized as a third major league. Our new league would not pretend to be major the first year. But by the end of the third year that would not be unthinkable."

Interestingly, this would have been a strength of the Pacific Coast League, which had the top minor league players and many former major league players. And they had established fan bases. Either the Continental or Pacific Coast League would have likely enjoyed greater competitive and financial success than the expansion teams did. But the Lords of Baseball would not have that monopolistic control over a third league. 

Branch Rickey created baseball's minor league farm system, which is likely the most important development in the game's history. He also signed Jackie Robinson and smashed baseball's color barrier. And, at the end of his career, he nearly established a new major league and in the process, forced the first expansion in decades. Rickey may well have had the greatest influence on major league baseball of any man in the game's history, even if his final accomplishment is largely forgotten today.

I plan on doing a much more detailed essay on the Continental League somewhere down the line. Along with the Federal League, I find it a fascinating story in baseball's history.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Ty Cobb & the Great Tigers Strike of 1912

In May of 1912, Ty Cobb and his 10-13 Tigers came to Hilltop Park to play the hapless Highlanders. The NY squad (which would be renamed the Yankees the next year finished the season at 50-102. Detroit won the first two games, with Cobb playing well. The NY fans razzed him mercilessly, especially a man near the Tiger's dugout. In his memoirs, Cobb described the man as “a character who had ridden me hard in past New York appearances.”  

Cobb gave it back to the man and it got so bad during the third and final game on May 15 that Cobb didn't even go back to the bench after the second inning, staying out in the horse carriage area beyond center field. Cobb insulted the man as he went to the dugout after the fourth inning and got back even more taunting. Teammate Sam Crawford (a Hall of Fame outfielder) asked Cobb what he was going to do. 

At which point Cobb jumped into the stands, ran up to the twelfth row and knocked down his nemesis, Claude Lucker, and began stomping and kicking him. The man only had two fingers; the result of a printing press accident. 

Pretty darn good casting
Lucker recounted, "He struck me with his fists on the forehead and over the left eye and knocked me down," Lucker said. "Then he jumped on me and spiked me in the left leg, and kicked me in the side, after which he booted me behind the left ear. I was down and Cobb was kicking me when someone in the crowd shouted, 'Don't kick him. He has no hands.' Cobb answered, 'I don't care if he has no feet!'"

Reportedly, some teammates had followed him into the stands with bats and held any would be rescuers at bay. Finally an umpire and a police man pulled Cobb away. Cobb was ejected while the Tigers went on to win 8-4.

This scene was included in the movie, "Cobb" starring Tommy Lee Jones (definitely worth a watch). Jimmy Buffett played the heckler.

Now, keep in mind, there was no footage of this event. It wasn't plastered all over ESPN and youtube. However, American League President Ban Johnson happened to be at the game that day and suspended Cobb indefinitely. 

Two days later in Philadelphia, the Tigers sent a letter to Johnson, saying they would not play if Cobb's suspension was continued. “If the players cannot have protection, we must protect ourselves,” the Tigers wrote. Yes, those handicapped men in the stands were a real threat to life.

The Tigers were going to be fined $5,000 (a lot of money then) if they didn't play the game. So team owner Frank Nevin ordered Hall of Fame manager Hughie Jennings to field a squad to play against the Athletics (yep: the A's started in Philadelphia, moved to Kansas City then finally stopped when they hit the Pacific Ocean in Oakland).

With the help of a local sportswriter, Joe Nolan (not the future Braves catcher), Jennings slapped together a team of amateurs and semipros. Most of the players were recruited by Alan Travers, assistant manager of the St. Joseph's College baseball team, from his neighborhood for $25 apiece. Travers was going to play right field, but when he found out the pitcher was to earn $50, he took to the mound. 
The team included Billy Maharg, a professional boxer who was a bagman in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. 48 year old Tigers coach Deacon McGuire, who had played in almost 1,700 games in his career, caught. 41 year old Joe Sugden, who had played a dozen years in the majors, played first.  The 49 year old Jennings (nicknamed "Ee-yah" for his exuberance) as a .312 career hitting short stop, pinch hit. 

This bunch was to face the two-time defending World Series champs and had three future Hall of Famers.  After 1 hour 45 minutes and nine errors, the Tigers had lost, 24-2. The game counted in the standings.
Travers, who pitched a complete game, gave up 24 runs (14 earned), 26 hits and 7 walks, but does strike out one. At third base, Maharg was hit in the mouth by a ground ball and lost several teeth. “This isn’t baseball,” he said. “This is war.”
An embarrassed Navin wanted to cancel all further games until the suspension was lifted, but Cobb urged his teammates to end the walkout. So, they resumed playing the following day. Ban Johnson fined each Tiger $100, except Cobb, who he fined $50 and suspended for ten days. 
So ended one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of major league baseball.
Cobb was probably the most reviled man to ever play in the majors. He nearly caused a riot when he spiked the A's Hall of Fame third baseman, Floyd 'Home Run' Baker. Cobb filed his metal spikes to razor sharpness and used them as a weapon.

Babe Ruth had the perfect summary of Cobb: "Cobb is a prick. But he sure can hit. God almighty, that man can hit."

Two quotes from Cobb himself sum up the man, who seems to have learned a bit with age:

"I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me...but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch."

"I think if I had my life to live over again, I would do things a little different. I was aggressive, perhaps too aggressive, maybe I went too far. I always had to be right in any argument I was in, and I wanted to be first in anything...I do indeed think I would have done some thing different. And if I had, I would have had more friends."

Yep. Quite the popular fellow, that Cobb

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Eddie Stanky - "Don't Come Home, Son"

"Dear Son:

Received your letter and am sorry to hear that you are so homesick.

You will notice that I did not forward any money for your passage to Philadelphia. The reason was not that I didn't have it to send to you, but that you were trying to tell me in your letter that you wanted to come home right away.

Edward, I have tears in my eyes while I'm telling you this, but if you do come home, please do not come to 915 East Russell Street. We do not want quitters in this family.

Your Mother"

That's Stanky next to Robinson, with Pee Wee Reese on the other side
and John (Spider) Jorgensen.
That's the 1947 starting infield during Robinson's rookie year. 
This is a real letter sent to Stanky as the 20 year old began his baseball career with the Philadelphia Athletics (yep, the A's started there, moved to Kansas City and finally finished the migration west in Oakland). Apparently the tough love approach worked, as Stanky did not come home.

In fact, Stanky was the opening day second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by starting at first. Stanky had told Robinson that he didn't like him but they'd get along and play together because he was his teammate.

And it was Stanky who jumped to Robinson's defense on that dark day in Philadelphia when manager Ben Chapman led his team in the most brutal taunting that Robinson endured that rookie season. Robinson later wrote that it was the closest he came to quitting. Stanky had jumped up and started screaming at the Phillies to pick on somebody who could fight back.

The scene (somewhat embellished) was included in '42'.

Stanky was far from the most athletically gifted player. Leo Durocher once said of him, "He can't hit, can't run, can't field. He's no nice guy ... all the little SOB can do is win." But he was a three time all star who lasted 11 years in the bigs and made it to three World Series': all with different teams.

Stanky had major league managerial stints in the fifties, sixties and seventies (for one game). He had a lasting impact as the head baseball coach at the University of South Alabama. Formerly a doormat program, he created a national powerhouse. Forty-three of his players made it to the major leagues and Stanky (nicknamed 'The Brat' as a player) changed his hard nosed philosophy to one of teaching the game and getting every player in-game experience. The ballpark at South Alabama is named Eddie Stanky Field.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bob's Books - 'Off the Record' by Buzzie Bavasi

Buzzie Bavasi started out with the Brooklyn Dodgers, moved west with them to Los Angeles, was in on the ground floor for the expansion San Diego Padres and worked for Gene Autry with the Angels. With a break for World War II, he was in the baseball business from 1938 to 1984.

Off The Record is his memoir of a life in baseball. I gave five stars to Harold Parrott’s own baseball bio, The Lords of Baseball. Parrot worked with Bavasi in Brooklyn and LA and the book truly provided a look ‘behind the curtain.’

Bavasi’s book feels lightweight. As if you were talking over a few beers and he was telling stories. Which is fine. But it’s largely one short anecdote after another. There’s not a lot of detail or substance to the stories. Just sort of a “So I fired Durocher for badmouthing Alston. But Walter told me to hire him back the next day.” Then the next incident.

I’m always interested in books that tell about the Dodgers’ days in Brooklyn. Bavasi was there, and he does recount some things, but there’s not much to it. That’s not to say it isn’t without interest. He tells of his running the Dodgers’ minor league club in Nashua in 1946. While Jackie Robinson was playing in Montreal, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were integrating the New England League.

Bavasi tells of Jackie Robinson’s disingenuousness regarding his retirement instead of accepting a trade to San Francisco. And he certainly shares his thoughts on the changes in the game regarding players’ attitudes, agents and salaries (the book was published in 1987 and salaries were nothing like they are today).

This isn’t a bad book: but it feels like a single. And with Bavasi’s baseball resume, it could have been a home run. It falls in the bottom half of my Dodgers library.

Bavasi with Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella: three Hall of Famers