Monday, February 20, 2017

When Johnny Bench's Career Almost Ended at 25

The Cincinnati Reds were only three outs away from being eliminated in the 1972 Playoffs. Trailing the defending World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-2, in the fifth and final game, Johnny Bench led off the bottom of the ninth inning against the Pirates' ace reliever Dave Guisti.

As Bench prepared to leave the on-deck circle, his mother caught his eye. Katy Bench had left her seat and worked her way to the rail near the Reds dugout. Although Katy would later tell a reporter that she yelled, "This is it," in the version Johnny would tell for years he heard her say, “Hit a home run." The exact words are perhaps unimportant, (who can hear clearly when 50,000 fans are screaming?) but his account sounded much better for the myth-makers.

The dutiful son then walked to home plate, swung at an outside two-strike pitch and lined it over the right field wall. Riverfront Stadium exploded. In the broadcasting booth, the voice of 28-year-old Reds announcer Al Michaels reached an octave previously thought unattainable by primates. Although the Reds didn’t officially win the game until a few minutes later when George Foster scored on a wild pitch, there was no doubt that the game was over as soon as Bench’s drive cleared the wall.

It would be remembered as the most dramatic moment in Reds’ history. And the amazing thing about it was that as Bench walked to the plate for that at bat, he was burdened with a secret. None of the fans, no one in the press box, very few in the dugout knew that if he had made an out here, if the Reds failed to advance to the World Series, there was a plausible chance that this would be the last at bat of his major league career.

Johnny Bench had proven himself to be a once-in-a-generation transcendent talent. He hit 45 home runs and 148 RBIs in 1970 and followed that with 40 and 129 in 1972, leading the league in both categories both times. On defense, it was immediately apparent that Bench was special from the first day he laced up the shin guards in a late 1967 call-up. No one else would win a National League Gold Glove for catching for the next ten years.

By the end of the 1972 season, Bench had played in five All-Star games and had taken home five Gold Gloves and two MVP awards--and he hadn’t turned 25 yet.

In addition he had reached a level of pop-cultural appeal rarely seen among baseball players. He had toured with Bob Hope, appeared on the popular TV spy show Mission Impossible and belted out songs on Hee Haw. Few major league players would have even tried pulling off the act of snapping his fingers in front of Junior Samples and a hound dog, surrounded by hay bales and fake corn, wearing a pair of lime-green pants borrowed from Kermit the Frog. He was clearly a man of rare talents and accomplishments.

The trouble started when Reds players had their annual routine physical exams in early September. Traditionally this was a casual off-day away from the ballpark, a chance for Pete Rose and Joe Morgan to hold court trading endless put-downs and wise cracks, for Tony Perez to sneak among his teammates, pinching them on the butt and then scurrying away giggling. Few players took the tests seriously. The players, all marvelous athletic specimens in the prime of their lives, passed easily. All except one.

Johnny Bench got a call the next day from someone at the hospital who wanted him to return for another Chest X-Ray; the first one had been a bit blurry, he was told. So Bench went back the next day and the X-Ray was repeated. Before he could leave, they needed another one—just routine, he was told. Then they wanted to do some more tests. Finally he learned the problem: there was a spot on his right lung. A spot that hadn’t been there the previous year.

Doctors couldn’t tell exactly what the spot represented—it could be benign or it could be cancer; they needed more tests to be sure. Blood tests for the usual suspects, tuberculosis and histoplasmosis, were taken and came back negative. Attempts to reach the lesion with a bronchoscope were unsuccessful. Bench was informed that they would need a more invasive test to determine the diagnosis. The only other option was to just watch the lesion awhile and see if it changed. But if they waited and it turned out to be malignant, the waiting would throw away the only chance of cure.

In 1972 lung cancer was almost uniformly fatal. Immediately jumping to mind was the movie Brian’s Song which had debuted the previous year, making more tough he-men run for the kitchen to avoid public tears than anything since Old Yeller. Dying jocks were on the brain.

What Bench would need in order to diagnose the spot on his lung was a serious surgical procedure. The medical term thoracotomy was derived from old Greek which, loosely translated, means to have one’s chest filleted open like a mackerel. In 1972 technology the most-commonly used, traditional operation was a posterolateral thoracotomy in which the large muscles of the back, the latissimus dorsi, were completely cut through, often accompanied by the removal of a rib. It was, and remains, one of the most painful surgical incisions known, usually resulting in a slow agonizing recovery process. Cutting through and then sewing the muscles results in scar tissue which can restrict free arm movement. Playing baseball at a high level afterwards is an iffy prospect and could take as long as a year, or longer.

While digesting this information and what it might mean--for his career and his life--Bench silently bore the strain and went about his day job. He not only showed up for work, but performed brilliantly in the closing weeks of the season, hitting 11 home runs and 33 RBIs during the month of September as the Reds drove toward the pennant. Only closest family members and friends were told.

One of those let in on the secret, Bench's attorney and friend Reuven Katz, also happened to represent the surgical department of the University of Cincinnati Medical School. Katz made some discrete inquiries about thoracic surgery and came up with the name of Luis Gonzalez.

Luis Gonzalez, 45 years old in 1972, was a trim, dark-haired man with a warm smiling face and a good sense of humor. A war-time Marine before going to medical school, he had been on staff at the University of Cincinnati for a decade and was known not only as an excellent surgeon, but an innovator. Dr. Gonzalez had been an early proponent of a type of incision for these operations that avoided severing the latissimus dorsi and removing a rib.

Bench met with Dr. Gonzalez and a date was set for the surgery to take place in early December. A brief statement was released to the press informing them of the procedure before Bench entered the hospital, just days after his 25th birthday.

Suddenly Johnny Bench was the most famous hospital patient in the midwest. Cincinnati's two daily newspapers, along with those in nearby Dayton, would keep interested citizens informed of his progress with daily articles, in both the front page and sports page, for the next two weeks.

 Modern baseball fans, accustomed to players having a myriad of off-season surgical procedures and returning unscathed the next season, should realize that in 1972, the type of operation Bench underwent, although termed a muscle-sparing procedure, was still a harrowing experience.  The incision started just below his right nipple and arched under his armpit toward the back. A minor muscle, the serratus anterior, was severed to reach the chest wall.

Next, think of the meaty space between the ribs the last time you had a rack at your favorite barbecue joint. This muscle was cut through with a blade. The surgeon then reached for a sinister-looking torture device called a rib-spreader. The scariest aspect of the rib-spreader is that there is no attempt at deception--it does exactly what the name implies: it . . . spreads . . . ribs.

The metal ends are inserted between the ribs and the knob turned, gradually spreading, widening the ribs until adequate visualization of the contents of the chest is achieved. If done too forcefully, this could break ribs or dislocate them from their attachments. Also spreading the ribs stretches the nerve that runs just underneath, resulting in prolonged pain.

Once the biopsy was taken and bleeding controlled, the whole mess was closed with multiple layers of sutures, some in the muscles, some in the tissue beneath the skin and, last, the skin itself. Legend has it that the surgeon, a veteran of more than 15 years in the operating room, remarked that he had never seen a patient with such unusually developed musculature as Bench had in his back.

The operation took two hours and was a success. The lesion, which was slightly larger than a marble, was found in a fissure between the lower and upper lobes of the right lung and was completely removed along with a small amount of actual lung tissue. A frozen section pathology exam was done during the procedure and revealed no sign of cancer.

 The official diagnosis, confirmed with further tests in the lab, was coccidiodomycosis, a fungus which is ubiquitous in the southwest. Infection occurs by breathing in an airborne spore which then causes an inflammatory lesion in the lung. It was felt that Bench had probably contracted it in during a golf tournament in the southwest the preceding year.

The patient made a quick recovery. Two days after the operation, dressed in red pajamas and a pink robe, Johnny held a press conference in his hospital room. He proudly showed off the gnarly ten-inch scar and joked with reporters that he was taking interviews for pretty young nurses to look after him when he went home. He added that he hoped to be able to use the operation as an excuse in spring training. “If Sparky Anderson gets tough I can just say, ‘Hey, Sparky, I’ve got this lung, you know.’”

Bench spent a restless six weeks recovering. By early February, he was testing his baseball swing and playing golf. By spring training, he was ready. He would catch every game during the exhibition season, a marked increase to his normal spring work load.

Early, there were rumors that his famed right arm was not yet back to strength. In one of the first spring games, two successive Cardinal base runners tried him out and both would-be thieves were gunned down at second. By the time the season started, the rest of the league had regained their healthy respect for Bench's wing. While the 1973 Reds were stealing 148 bases, only 55 brave souls dared to attempt to take a base without permission against Bench. Half were thrown out.

Bench started slowly at the plate, but in early May he had put together a modest nine-game hitting streak when the Reds traveled to Philadelphia to face the Phillies and their ace Steve Carlton. Bench then treated the Hall of Fame-bound Carlton like a batting practice pitcher, slamming three home runs and seven RBIs in a 9-7 win—he was back. Oddly, it was the second time in three years Bench had victimized Lefty with a three-homer game.

To a casual observer, Bench seemed to bear little negative effect from the drama of the offseason. He would play in 152 games (134 as catcher) in 1973 and finish the season with 104 RBIs. He went on to play ten more years, retiring as the all-time leader in home runs and RBIs for a catcher and had more RBIs than any major league player for the decade of the 1970s.

But the operation did have a cost. While remaining a good RBI man, Bench was not the power-hitter he had been. In the three seasons before the operation, he had averaged 37 home runs a year. His best seasons afterwards were 33 home runs in 1974 and 31 in 1977. He later admitted that he was never quite the same player. “I never felt like I was Johnny Bench after that surgery.”

All things considered, it's remarkable he was able to perform as well as he did. And it's awe-inspiring to wonder what might have been, considering his first five seasons.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Say it Wasn't So: Joe Jackson, World War I's Most Famous Baseball Slacker

Here's one you may not have heard: how Shoeless Joe Jackson was briefly turned into America's most-scorned draft-dodger in World War 1. It's true, but as with all Shoeless Joe stories, some work is required to separate fact from myth. It also helps to read published reports from his contemporaries, to view everything in the context of the times and to be aware of other forces which were at work.

The War began in Europe in July, 1914 but had little effect on baseball in America the first few years. The 1916 season had been both successful on the field and profitable for the owners. Business was good. But things would soon be changing. The United States declared war on Germany just days before the start of the 1917 season.

Initially there was talk of shutting down baseball--a thought that mortified owners, who understandably did not want to lose their businesses. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was especially unhappy at the prospect. He had invested heavily to build his championship-caliber team (he spent his money on obtaining players, not necessarily on paying them). His star hitter, Joe Jackson, had been acquired from Cleveland in 1915 in a deal described as worth $74,000--$31,000 in cash and 3 players who had cost Comiskey $44,000--one of the most expensive deals of the time.

Outwardly eager to help the national cause, baseball owners made a great show of their patriotism. They donated cash and rounded up baseball equipment for soldiers to use in their spare time. Exhibition baseball games were played for the benefit of the Red Cross. Special enlistment booths were set up at American League parks. Players went through military marching drills in pre-game ceremonies. There was even a prize for the best drilling major league team.

The Chicago White Sox go through pregame military drills (Jackson is third from the right)

As the war turned into a second year, the owners agreed to abbreviate the 1918 schedule to 140 games. It soon became obvious that benefits and drills and shortened seasons were not going to be enough to keep baseball players out of the war, however. When the U.S. military leaders got their first real good look at the teeth of the German military machine, they murmured around their cigarettes, "We're gonna need a bigger army."

And thus in May, 1918 Provost Marshall General Enoch Crowder issued the famous "Work or Fight" order, stating that every healthy male between the ages of 21 and 30 must find "essential work" by July 1 or face military conscription.

The wording of the order was particularly chilling for baseball owners. It included a list of employment which was regarded as nonessential to the war effort:  "games, sports and amusements, excepting actual performers in legitimate concerts, operas or theatrical performances." Baseball owners were suddenly aware that they needed to round up some guys who could not only hit .300 and play the field, but do so while wearing a Viking helmet and belting out a rousing falsetto. But since such men were in short supply at the time (alas, they always seem to be), other arrangements needed to be made.

Initially owners tried to get special consideration for their able-bodied players. While the government in Washington indicated that they hoped the game would go on, if it could be accomplished "in harmony with the great purpose of putting winning the war first above everything," and Crowder released another statement within a week suggesting that ballplayers would be considered by draft boards on an individual basis, it became clear that a great many ballplayers would be leaving their teams. Overall, an average of 15 players would be lost per team in the 1918 season.

Which brings us to Shoeless Joe. In 1918 Joe was 30 years old and had completed seven major league seasons with a sparkling .352 lifetime batting average. He was considered to be the second best hitter in the land (some thought the best at purely swinging the stick as Ty Cobb usually bunted enough to get more than the five or so hits per 500 at bats that gave him the roughly ten point lead in average, whereas Joe bunted about as often as he read from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare).

In 1917 Joe had hit .301, the worst average of his career, but he had helped to lead the White Sox to the World Series title (he hit .304 in the Series, not bad, but not as good as the .375 he would hit in the more famous Series two years later).

As a great hitter and key member of the World Champs, Jackson was one of the game's most famous personalities. But he was also one of the most difficult for fans and writers to figure out. His very existence seemed to be an amalgam of assorted tall-tales, half-truths and outright lies. Joe himself did little to clear up the confusion when interviewed or spotted on the street.

In a 1916 profile for Baseball Magazine, one of the pre-eminent early baseball writers, F. C. Lane, wrote that "The oddest character in baseball today is that brilliant but eccentric genius, Joe Jackson. . .  To sum up his talents is merely to describe those qualities which should round out and complete the ideal player. In Jackson, nature combined the greatest gifts any one ball player has ever possessed but she denied him the heritage of early advantages and that well balanced judgement so essential to the full development of his extraordinary powers." And that lack of early advantages and well-balanced judgement would prove to be very important to Joe in the years to come.

By the spring of 1918 three of Joe Jackson's brothers had already volunteered for military service. Joe was the sole supporter of his wife, Katie, his mother, a younger brother and a sister. Because of this, the Greenville, South Carolina draft board had placed him in Class 4, making him safe from the draft.

Joe Jackson's draft card (those under the impression that Jackson was unable to write should note the fairly legible signature at the bottom)

After 17 games of the 1918 season, Joe was hitting .354. The White Sox were in Philadelphia for a series against the A's when Joe received a dispatch informing him that the Greenville draft board had reclassified him 1-A. He reported as ordered to the Philadelphia examining board, passed with a perfect mark and was told to expect orders to leave for an army training camp within the next two weeks.

When the White Sox departed for Cleveland the next day, Jackson was nowhere to be found. He soon turned up and announced that he had found a position of employment with the Harlan and Hollingsworth Shipbuilding Company, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel, in Wilmington, Delaware. Work in the shipbuilding industry was considered essential and thus exempted Joe from military service.

The news did not play well in the national press. While many other players were avoiding combat by playing on ball teams in industry and the military, Joe Jackson, the most prominent of the early names, was singled out.

That week's Sporting News carried several editorials about the "Jackson Case," as it was roundly being called. Readers were informed that "at a time of every man doing his patriotic duty," Joe Jackson was "cleverly seeking exemption when by all rights . . . he should be in an Army or Navy training camp." Jackson "owed it to the great game he represents, to join the military and set an example to myriads of youngsters coming of age who hold him as an example."

In the same issue, American League President Ban Johnson "leveled a solar plexus wallop at the baseball slacker." Johnson, who hated Charles Comiskey's ample guts and loved nothing more than a chance to knife his enemy when he was vulnerable, to publicly humiliate him, derail his business and maybe cost him a player or two, announced a warning to players seeking to avoid conscription. He told the writer he would like to yank back by the collar those who entered employment with the ship construction business particularly. Johnson left little doubt this was specifically in response to Joe Jackson's status. Johnson would soon announce that hereafter athletes would have to stick with their clubs until the final Government call, and then go straight to war-service.

That was only the beginning. A scathing editorial soon followed in the Chicago Tribune entitled "The Case of Joe Jackson." Joe, a man of "unusual physical development," who "presumably would make an excellent fighting man," was excoriated and branded a coward and shirker.

Another article entitled "Retreats to Shipyard" stated "The fighting blood of the Jacksons is not as red as it used to be in the days of old Stonewall and Old Hickory for General Joe of the White Sox has fled to the refuge of a shipyard."

According to some sources Charles Comiskey had initially encouraged his players to try to find exemptions to remain playing for the White Sox as long as possible. Always careful of the winds of public opinion, however, he now pompously joined in the scorn of Jackson. Comiskey was shocked (shocked!) that one of his beloved employees would even think of trying to avoid military service in this time of national need. "There is no room on my club for players who wish to evade the army draft by entering the employ of shipbuilders," he told reporters from atop his soapbox. The great man was so disappointed, he threatened to not take the "jumpers" back after the war. Skeptics to Comiskey's pure intentions would later point out that while this posture kept him on the side of patriotism and duty, it also prepared him for future player negotiations, well aware that a man who thinks he is not welcomed back (and has no other employment options due to the reserve clause) is much more pliable at the contract table.

It soon became apparent that the thing that truly rankled Comiskey was not that Joe Jackson was shirking his duty to his country by not carrying a rifle, but that he was doing so while playing baseball for someone else; and doing so while Comiskey's team was certain to fall in the standings.

According to Baseball Magazine, "One disagreeable feature made itself manifest during May--what looked almost like a second Federal League, fostered and developed under the wing of the Government . . . a new league of steel, shipbuilding, and munition plants, with the players mostly well-known stars of the present or the past. There was a gasp of surprise when the list of players gathered by the steel plants was given out. . . It was frankly asserted [by major league owners] that agents of the steel plants were gathering big league stars, promising them fat salaries, nominal positions in the plants, with nothing to do but play ball, and at the same time pointing out that munition workers wouldn't have to go to the trenches. . . . The pot boiled over, though, when Joe Jackson, the great star of the White Sox, after being called by the draft, announced that he would enter a shipbuilding or steel-plant and the steel-folks began to bill him as a star of their ball club. . . . making money on the side."

In the same vein, the Sporting News asserted that "Jackson was not a volunteer in the ship building concern, but was sought out and went because he was importuned to do so."

Owners were outraged that fans (people who should be paying money to them!) were going to see baseball stars (who used to belong to them!) play for someone else.

Through it all, Joe uttered not a word of public comment or protest against the accusations. A solitary writer in the Sporting News offered some defense for Joe, stating that there was something unfair in the Greenville draft board decision. "I can't understand why Jackson was placed in Class One-A. There are many stars of the big leagues who are married and have many times the amount of wealth Joe possesses who are in Class Four." It appeared the Greenville decision was made to give a great show of not offering favoritism to a famous athlete or perhaps as the result of a personal grudge.

Despite the public outcry, work by the ballplayers at the shipyards continued throughout the war. How much work was done and how much baseball did the guys actually play? It's anyone's guess. For the record, they did play a lot of baseball. But a foreman at the ship yard told a reporter, "The boys in the yard all knew they [the ball players] were married men and hence not attempting to duck the draft and they warmed up with them right away when they observed that they meant business. . . and they weren't handed any soft jobs like watchmen . . . they do a good day's work." He added that they only went to the ball field at the close of the work day.

And much good came out of the ballplaying.  They played a series of exhibitions for the Red Cross. One at the Polo Grounds, with Joe as the headliner, raised $6,000. Joe's wife would keep in her scrapbook a letter from a Reading, Pennsylvania organization thanking him for drawing 10,000 fans to a benefit.

The tumult over Joe soon faded from the public's attention as much more pressing matters arose and attention turned to the actual fighting in Europe. As for 1918, it turned out pretty well, Joe Jackson was the star of the Steel League, hitting a robust .393. Harlan won the championship--Joe hit two home runs in the title game--and, oh yeah, we won the war, which is always nice.

So everyone was in good spirits and ready to get back to baseball business as usual for 1919. There was only the small matter of rounding up the players. When the 1918 season had ended early on September 1, the owners had released all players, saving around $200,000 they would have otherwise spent on those pesky salaries. Amazingly, the next spring every single player--technically all free agents--signed back with their original team for 1919 (66 years later this practice would be labeled collusion and would cost the owners millions in a court settlement, but at the time a players union was as inconceivable as another, larger World War ever occurring).

As an example of just how much the owners had baseball writers in their pockets, the said writers soiled themselves attempting to educate fans on all that the owners had done for their country and baseball in general. "[The baseball] fan, when it's all over and the game comes back to its former basis, should remember how the  . . . magnates acted in the hour of need." W. A. Phelon, wrote in Baseball Magazine. Not satisfied with mere praise, Phelon even suggested the public should give them a "Magnates' Day and a lot of floral tokens just to show that these gentlemen, after many years won the public heart at last?"

Early in 1919, Comiskey, that gentleman magnate, let it be known that Joe Jackson had been reinstated to his team. What with the war being won and all, opinions had changed and the big ol' lovable Roman was willing to let bygones be bygones--especially for guys who could hit .350 in their sleep and were willing to do so for a pittance. He signed Joe back for the same $6,000 a year he had been making since 1914.

Joe Jackson and his White Sox teammates quickly proved to be the best in baseball in 1919 as they stormed toward the pennant, and a date with infamy.

So all the ingredients were there: the avarice of owners, the unrelenting drive of organized baseball and writers, working side-by-side, to maintain the proper image at all costs, sacrificing a few players if necessary, the cut-throat rivalry between Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey, and then the players, plugging along on the field, unable to control their own destiny.

Shoeless Joe Jackson, the great misunderstood slugger from Greenville, South Carolina, whose legacy would be still provoking emotional debates a full century later, was, as so eloquently put by Mongo in Blazing Saddles, only a pawn in the game of life. Unfortunately for Joe, it wouldn't be the last time.

Monday, November 21, 2016

It Happens Every Spring: Baseball's Infamous Relationships

Baseball fans were shocked by last week's tweet from Kate Upton about Justin Verlander losing the Cy Young Award vote. It wasn't the fact that a supermodel would express displeasure with voters for a baseball award or even her choice of verbiage that surprised them, however, it was the simple realization that here was news of a baseball player and his significant other that, for once, did not spell doom for the ballplayer. She was merely supporting her guy; which is always nice.

Fans have unfortunately grown accustomed over the years that when something involving a baseball player and his spouse or girlfriend hits the news it is invariably of such depravity and disgrace that fans must force themselves to watch and read about it over and over (and over and over).

I thought this might be a good time to review some of these unfortunate events if for no other reason than the season is over and there are no more games to talk about.

Alex Rodriguez eats popcorn:

Forget about the sulking postseason slumps, the steroid allegations and everything else. The single reason most baseball fans hated A-Rod was the unwanted spectacle of the camera catching his then-best girl Cameron Diaz feeding him popcorn during Super Bowl XLV in 2011. The sight of baseball's highest paid player smugly enjoying such contrived, domestic pseudo-bliss with a gorgeous actress was too much for anyone to bear without yakking in their nachos.

But in A-Rod's defense, what would you do? Some guys just like popcorn.

Leo Durocher-Laraine Day

At the time Leo was the headline-grabbing, much-reviled manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Prematurely bald, loud, rude and selfish, he was also a snazzy dresser and reeked of confidence and masculinity. Since he was known to never lack for female companionship, apparently these latter qualities were considered somewhat desirable to the opposite sex when weighed against the former.

Laraine Day was a pretty young actress who starred in a number of B-level mediocre films, most notably seven Doctor Kildaire flicks as the main character's fiance. She and Leo met, and, in the manner of all classic stories, fell in love.

One slight technicality: Day was married with three adopted children at the time.

Nevertheless, in late 1946 the 26-year-old Day abruptly filed for divorce in California and took up with 41-year-old Leo the Lip. Divorce was not something to be entered into and obtained easily in those days. When she learned that state law required a one-year cooling-off period of separation, Day scurried to Mexico for a quickee divorce in December and married Leo there. There were complications as it would be a year before her divorce and new marriage would be recognized in the states.

Day's ex-husband, as might be expected from the jilted husband of a girl who looks that good in a nursing cap, was not pleased by the whole monkey business. He complained to reporters that Leo was not a fit or proper person to associate with and accused Leo of "dishonorable and ungentlemanly conduct" with his wife (anyone who had ever played baseball for or against Durocher would have wholeheartedly agreed with him on both accounts). Leo, who steadfastly believed that all was fair in love and war and baseball, neither denied nor apologized for anything.

The scandal mushroomed in newspaper print. In February, 1947, the Catholic Youth Organization publicly denounced Leo's behavior as a poor example for youngsters and withdrew its support for the Dodger's Knothole Gang. Meanwhile, Durocher had already been suspected by the baseball commissioner's office of hanging out with undesirable gambling figures and he also became caught up in some skulduggery between the Yankee's Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey. The end result (anyone can draw a conclusion as to which of the problems was the main cause) was that Leo was suspended by Commissioner Chandler for the year.

For her part, Laraine quickly charmed sportswriters and her new husband's players. Although there were later reports of some hard feelings due to disparaging remarks about players and umpires on her radio show, she became known as the "First lady of baseball."

The marriage, much to the amazement of anyone who knew Leo from the baseball field, lasted until 1960.

Johnny Bench's first marriage

In the early 1970s Johnny Bench was generally acknowledged as the most eligible bachelor in sports not named Joe Namath. He was perpetually seen with blond models on his arm and, in a nod to his hometown of Binger, Oklahoma, was referred to as the Swinger from Binger; and the name had nothing to do with his ability with a bat.

By the winter of 1974, the 27-year-old Bench had already appeared in seven All-Star games, won seven Gold Gloves, two Most Valuable Player Awards, two home run titles and three RBI titles. He owned the burg of Cincinnati.

In January, 1975 Bench made the grand announcement that he had become engaged and would be married in a few weeks. The mournful wail of gnashing of teeth loudly echoed throughout the Ohio Valley as female baseball fans learned the news. Several even called the Reds' office and demanded a refund for their season tickets.

The anguish of disappointed ladies-in-waiting notwithstanding, the news was otherwise greatly celebrated in the Queen City. It was as if a royal prince had ventured forth and returned to the realm bearing a princess.

Peasants of the Kingdom were informed that the lucky bride-to-be was Vickie Chesser, a former Miss South Carolina, 1970 Miss USA Runner-up and Ultrabrite toothpaste model.

The last title was not insignificant in the mid-70s, Ultrabrite toothpaste commercials, proclaiming to add sex appeal, had been the launching board for such luminaries as future Charilie's Angels Farrah Fawcett and Cheryl Ladd.

The whole affair dominated Cincinnati society columns, and the thoughts of the good citizens, for weeks. Vickie was feted at a never-ending parade of cocktails and dinners.

Details of the whirlwind courtship emerged in the newspaper and were fawned over by all. The uber-confident Bench had seen Vickie on TV, got her phone number from a friend and cold-called her apartment in New York City (not a baseball fan, she'd never heard of him) and convinced her to fly to Cincinnati to meet him for a date. The couple soon flew to Las Vegas to become better acquainted over the New Years weekend. By January 21 they were engaged. Vickie proclaimed to reporters that it was a "fairy tale love story."

The marriage was billed as the social event of the decade--perhaps the century--in Cincinnati and indeed it was. Some were disappointed to find out local TV was not carrying the event live. The much-talked-about guest list, which one Cincinnati Society column writer joked included "only the immediate city," actually included President Gerald Ford, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Joe DiMaggio and Jonathan Winters (they all sent their regrets).

The marriage took place February 21, 1975. More than 800 attended the ceremony, while a crowd estimated at 400 stood outside the church hoping to catch a glimpse of royalty and soak up some of the aura. The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a four-column, half-page photo of the happy couple smooching on the next day's front page, above the fold.

They honeymooned in Tampa, while Johnny went to work in spring training. While there, Vickie thoroughly charmed all sportswriters. She cooed and giggled and remarked how cute and adorable Johnny was with his little hat turned backwards when he caught and how serious he and his little friends seemed to be as they chased the ball around the field. The middle-aged wags ate it up.

Unfortunately, the happiness was very shortlived. Apparently Vickie soon learned that the life of a baseball wife was not for her. By that fall observers noticed the couple was rarely seen together. By March, 1976, they announced they were divorcing.

Bench tried to take the high road and said publicly that it was a private matter, that they had agreed to disagree and refused to divulge any details or lay blame. Vickie, however, took a different approach.

She went public with a list of details and charges, mostly generic comments such as that he did not respect women and was  "a true tragedy as a person," but the most famous of her specific complaints was that he had spent their wedding night playing ping pong with the best man. Sources later revealed that this was a complete falsehood--it was actually the computer pong game that they played.

Vickie returned to New York City, ostensibly to resume her modeling career, but was never heard from again.

The divorce was settled in 1977, reportedly with the stipulation that neither would ever be allowed to speak or publish details of the marriage.

While it was an embarrassing episode for the highly-image-conscious Bench, he emerged relatively unscathed.

Joe Jackson's Baseball Girls.

Just to let you know that interpersonal relations between men and women did indeed exist before 1920, I present a scandalous story from Shoeless Joe's past. In the winter of 1915, trying to supplement his salary of $6,000 a year from the Cleveland Indians, Jackson toured the south with a vaudeville act billed as "Joe Jackson's Baseball Girls." The act featured several girls who may have passed for attractive in those days, various skits that may have passed for humor, along with Joe giving a monologue referred to by one writer as "a sob rendition of how he rose from a minor place in the cotton mill to a major place in the baseball world." This is what people did for entertainment in the years before they could sit at home and watch reality TV.

The faithful wife, Mrs. Katie Jackson, sitting at home with Joe's family in South Carolina during that winter, began to hear rumors drifting back that Joe was spending an inordinate amount of time after the shows with one of the "baseball girls." When Joe refused her demand to abandon the show and return home, stating that they had sold out the theater in Atlanta for two weeks running, Katie visited a lawyer and announced that she was considering filing for divorce--a notion so scandalous at the time that it was illegal in South Carolina (she would have had to file in their summer residence of Cuyahoga County, Ohio). Not leaving it with only that threat, Katie went to the sheriff of Greenville, South Carolina and swore out a warrant to have Joe, as a wayward husband, brought back home.

The sheriff dutifully took a train to Atlanta, went to Joe's hotel and served the warrant. Joe agreed and quickly packed his bags but on the walk to the station, the sheriff said something that angered the ballplayer and a scuffle ensued. The sheriff was KOed with one or two punches and Joe walked away.

Joe later reconsidered, boarded a train to Greenville, reported first to the sheriff to answer the legal charges, and then went home to face a much grimmer fate at the hands of his scorned wife. The whole scandal was much celebrated in papers of the day.

Joe and Katie quickly worked things out, however. All charges were dropped and the Jacksons lived a happy married life for the next 36 years; until death did them part.

The Fritz Peterson/Mike Kekich trade.

Fritz Peterson was a very good pitcher for the New York Yankees in the late '60s and early '70s. The lefthander won 20 games in 1970 and appeared in that year's All-Star game. And when the old Yankee Stadium was demolished years later, it was announced that Peterson, with a sparkling 2.52, had the all-time lowest ERA at the venerable House that Babe Built (Whitey Ford was second with 2.55). Unfortunately, casual baseball fans only know Peterson for a bit of off-field activity.

In March, 1973 Peterson and fellow Yankee pitcher (also lefthanded of course) Mike Kekich shocked the sports world by announcing that they were swapping wives, kids and dogs.

Kekich and Peterson had been friends and roommates since 1969 and their families had socialized together frequently. They noted that complicated feelings had developed and after intense consideration, came up with the plan for the trade. Peterson stated that they weren't just a bunch of swingers joining in the latest craze. He said that he hoped people "won't make anything sordid out of this."

But they did.

The deal made front-page news across the country. Most folks on the old side of the generational gap pointed to it as Exhibit A of the complete collapse of morals and western civilization being wrought by youngsters. Embarrassed club officials said little publicly, but apparently were willing to look the other way as long as the two helped their team win.

But it was not to be. The pair of pitchers endured boos and taunts all over the league and it appears their play suffered. Kekich, a mediocre pitcher before the swap, couldn't get anyone out, was sent to Cleveland before mid-season and his baseball career quickly fizzled. Peterson, who had averaged 17+ wins a year the previous four seasons, went 8-15 in 1973 and was traded to Cleveland in April, 1974, where he pitched fairly well, going 23-22 the next two years for a bad team.

Kekich, who enrolled in medical school after baseball and became a doctor, came out much worse on the trade. He and the former Mrs. Peterson did not stay together through the 1973 season.

Peterson and the former Mrs. Kekich, however, were still married after 42 years in 2015 when Peterson told an interviewer, "We're still having a blast."

Aroldis Chapman learns an important lesson (or did he?)

By the end of May, 2012, Chapman, aka the Cuban Missile, was the hottest thing in the majors. A 24-year-old, third-year lefty who lit up Juggs guns all over the league to the tune of 105 mph, he was sitting on a 6-year, $30 million contract and had not given up an earned run in his first 21 games of the season.

May 29, 2012, while the Reds played the Pirates, it was announced in a police report that a robber had ransacked Chapman's hotel room, tied up a 26-year-old female guest inside, and made off with a bag containing $200,000 worth of jewelry.

Hmmmm. Where do we start on this one? Guest? Jewelry? $200,000?

The "guest" said she answered a knock on the door to find a plumber who claimed to have been called for maintenance. Once inside, the plumber produced a gun and proceeded with his dastardly crime. Her story soon changed, however, to involve running into an unidentified man on the street who followed her back to the hotel. That one didn't stand up under questioning any better than the first.

Three weeks later police announced they were charging the lady, Claudia Marique, a stripper from Colombia, with false reporting. Her stories had continued to morph and she had failed a polygraph.

Turns out, she had been "dating" Chapman for a short time, meeting him at hotel stops around the league according to the Reds' schedule. It also turned out that she was married to someone else, but she defended herself by saying that the marriage wasn't important because it was only an arranged affair used for her to gain access to American soil. Also, she was apparently on the lamb because she owed thousands of bucks to a human smuggler.

She pleaded guilty in November, paid a menial $164 fine (police no doubt just happy to be rid of her) and went on her merry way. No mention was ever made about the jewelry.

Chapman, for his part, later told police he suspected she may have been in on the crime from the start (apparently the Reds were not paying him all that money for his ability to solve differential equations).

All of this raises the very important question every major league rookie should be asked each spring: "If you can't trust a married Colombian stripper to remain in your hotel room with $200,000 worth of jewelry while you are at the ballpark, who can you trust?"

Wade Boggs does more than eat chicken 

In the late '80s casual fans knew two things about Boggs: due to superstition, he ate chicken before every game and he was one of the best pure hitters in the game, routinely hitting around .350. Unfortunately, they soon learned more about Boggs than they ever wanted to. . .

Margo Adams, a self-professed mortgage broker, stated that she had met the married Boggs in a restaurant in 1984 and soon became his regular side-piece, traveling throughout the league to accompany him on the road, claiming as many as 64 trips in one year. The fun lasted until 1988 when Boggs, no longer enthralled with what he felt was becoming a hen-pecking, demanding "partner," broke things off and reneged on an agreement to compensate her for lost wages while she was chasing him around on the road.

Adams did not take the rejection well.

She filed a palimony suit, eventually seeking $12 million. Boggs charged her with blackmail, fearing the release of numerous pictures. The public eventually got much more than pictures.
While Adams did not collect on her exorbitant demands (the court threw out $11.5 million and she and Boggs settled the $500,000 for an undisclosed amount), she hit the jackpot by cashing in on her newfound celebrity. She crossed the country in 1989 appearing on all the talk shows: Donahue, Larry King, Geraldo, and more. She was introduced by Arsenio Hall as "the most notorious woman in America," and appeared in a salacious cover (or uncovered, depending on your point of view) story in Penthouse. She made $250,000 from Penthouse alone.

In all fairness to Adams, while there were those who considered her to be merely a bimbo spilling her guts for cash, she played the part very well and audiences loved her. She spared few details, was quick with double entendre one-liners and even claimed credit for his hitting prowess. "His [batting] average when [his wife] was with him was about .221," she said, "and his average when I was with him was .341." She openly compared Boggs' "talent" with that of another of her former baseball playing friends, Steve Garvey (hint: Boggs was a better singles hitter, but . . .).

She was swarmed by sportswriters at every stop. "What the hell, this is better than talking to Dwight Evans about his swing," quipped one Boston Globe writer.

Meanwhile, rather than take the time-honored ballplayer-defense of denying his butt off and verbally attacking his accuser, Boggs did a very strange thing: he admitted it and then went on television for an extended mea culpa. In a very disturbing and uncomfortable (for viewers) interview on 20/20 with Barbara Walters, sitting between her and his wife, who remained faithfully by his side for more that three decades, he admitted that he was a sex addict (baseball fans had never suspected that was even a thing).

While Adams was quickly forgotten, Bogg's reputation was never the same.

Wade, Wade, Wade. There are some things best left unsaid.

Chuck Finley gets bit by a whitesnake

Chuck Finley pitched in the major leagues for 16 years, compiled a record of 200-173 and is one of the best pitchers in California Angels history, but he will forever be known for the rocky ending to his five-year marriage to Ms. Tawny Kitaen.

Kitaen, who had previously been married to David Coverdale, leadsinger of the hairband Whitesnake, and famously slithered all over the hood of a car in their 1987 video "Here I Go Again," was arrested by Newport Beach, California police in April 2002 after a 911 call. She apparently had become enraged and began beating Finley with, among other things, a stiletto heel while he was driving their car.

Finley soon filed for divorce and the marriage ended. But the jokes and sneers at his expense did not. When he pitched in Chicago against the White Sox later that month, the director of stadium music queued up "Here I go Again" on the sound system (he was later fired and the team apologized), and late-night comics welcomed the addition to their material.

Kitaen, who also starred opposite a young Tom Hanks in the 1984 film Bachelor Party (their respective careers went in slightly different directions afterward) later underwent successful drug rehab and the couple, while no longer married, was reportedly on good terms when last heard from.

Eddie Waitkus becomes a natural

The Eddie Waitkus story is the granddaddy of all cautionary baseball-chick tales. Waitkus was a single, talented player for the Chicago Cubs and Phillies; an All-Star in 1948 and 1949. Waitkus had received four Bronze Stars for his participation in savage action in the Pacific during World War II, but this experience did little to prepare him for what happened in a Chicago hotel room in 1949.

 On the night of June 14, 1949, while the Phillies were in Chicago, the 29-year-old Waitkus returned to the team's hotel, the Edgewater Hotel, around 11 PM and found a note: "It's extremely important I see you as soon as possible. We're not acquainted but I have something of importance to speak to you about. Ruth Ann Burns, Room 1279-A."

Waitkus made his way to Room 1279-A where 19 year old Ruth Ann Steinhagen was waiting for him. He later noted that she had a fixed, almost zombie-like expression and acted somewhat peculiar when he entered. But enter he did and as he sat down she told him, "I have a surprise for you." She went to the closet and pulled out a .22 caliber rifle.

"For two years you've been bothering me," she said according to the New York Times account, "and now you're going to die." With that she shot Waitkus in the chest. She then called the hotel operator and to report the shooting and was found on her knees, cradling his head when authorities rushed to the room.

The news was sensational.

Steinhagen was arrested and charged, however, less than three weeks later a judge declared her insane and ordered her confined to a psychiatric hospital.

The story emerged of one of the earliest cases of criminal stalking. A Cubs fan, she had become infatuated with Waitkus when he played in Chicago. According to her family, she collected photos of Waitkus and talked about him incessantly. "I used to go to all the ballgames just to watch him," she later wrote in a court-ordered autobiographical statement. She suffered a breakdown when he was traded to the Phillies after the 1948 season. She began acting erratically and built an elaborate shrine to Waitkus in her room. Finally realizing that she could never meet him under normal circumstances, she resolved, "if I can't have him nobody else can."

She was declared cured and released after 3 years and lived quietly with family until her death in 2013.

Waitkus narrowly survived. The bullet pierced on of his lungs and lodged near his heart.

But he was back in the Phillies Opening Day lineup, going 3-for-5 to start the next season. Waitkus played six more years after the shooting, getting in the 1950 World Series but was never the same ball player. He reportedly never showed any anger toward Steinhagen, but instead accepted the fact that she was sick and he was the unfortunate victim.

After the Waitkus incident players all over the majors cautiously checked closets before entertaining female friends--at least for a few weeks.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Veteran's Day Salute: Phil Marchildon, major league pitcher, tail gunner, POW

It always amazes me when I read about the sacrifice so many major league players made during World War II. Yes, it was a different time and a different type of war, but for the most part they all joined in when called, with little public grumbling. Few of them had any idea of what they might be getting themselves into, or of the horrors they might see, but they went and did what they were told. And many of them were changed forever by what they experienced.

I recently came across the story of Phil Marchildon. He is not a household name. But he should be remembered.

Phil was born in Ontario in 1913. Raised in a struggling family during the depression, his destiny appeared to be working in a nearby nickel mine. His life's course was altered, however, when he starred for the company baseball team as a pitcher with a blazing fastball. A friend arranged a tryout with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. Even though at 25 he was a little old to be starting a professional baseball career, he was signed and two years later was pitching in the major league for Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's.

In 1942, fresh off an impressive 17-win season, Phil was inducted into the Canadian military. As a known professional athlete, he was given the opportunity to remain in North America as a physical trainer but he opted instead for the Royal Canadian Air Force. "I didn't want people saying that Phil Marchildon, the big-league ballplayer, had taken the easy way out," he later wrote.

Judged too old to start training as a pilot, Phil was made a gunner--because of his excellent eyesight and depth perception, he was told. He was assigned to a Halifax bomber crew as a tail-gunner and soon found himself in England, ready to battle the Germans for control of Europe.

The Halifax was a bulky four-engined bomber, not unlike a flying crate. And it was not built with stealth in mind. When the beasts filled the sky on a mission, the ground trembled and the noise reverberated for miles, announcing their arrival to all.The fact that it had a target painted on it's butt did little to inspire confidence in the crew.

 On missions, the Halifax flew in a slow, tight formation without maneuvering to evade the enemy. The defense of each plane was based on maintaining the integrity of the formation; each gun was vital to the protection of its neighbors.

The Halifax compensated for the lack of speed and deception with dependability and the ability to take a punch. This came in handy on one of Marchildon's early missions in which he heard a loud noise from his plane amid heavy antiaircraft artillery and felt a shudder. When they made it back to base they counted 30 shrapnel holes in the bomber, including one perilously close to the fuel tank.

Marchildon and his 6-man crew flew out of a base in Yorkshire. Their early missions included softening up the Germans in France in advance of the Normandy invasion.

It was harrowing duty. The Halifax flew night missions. The gunners sat cramped and uncomfortable -- so cold their guns sometimes froze--and strained their eyes scouring the sky for enemy fighters. Once the danger of fighters was passed, another terror awaited--anti-aircraft fire. The crew could do little but helplessly sit and wait as shrapnel burst all around; and occasionally watch as fellow planes fell from the sky.

The tail gunner sat alone in the rear of the plane, completely exposed with nothing but a sheet of plexiglass and open air between him and shrapnel and enemy fighters. Moreover, the enemy fighters knew where the guns were located in the formation and planned their attacks accordingly. Tail gunners had the lowest survival rate of any bomber crew.

While the Americans faced enormous risks during their daylight bombing, night duty held terrors of its own. "In the day you can't see the stuff shooting up at you," Marchildon explained in a Sporting News interview in July, 1945. "But at night, Wow! It's tracers and rockets all around that scare you to death." Also by the time Marchildon arrived in Europe, the Germans were employing powerful searchlights that scanned the night sky looking for targets.

On the night of August 16, 1944, Marchildon and his crew took to the sky. They had already endured 25 missions; only 5 short of completing their tour. A German fighter surprised them before they reached their target, however, and in a flash the bomber was crippled and on fire at 17,000 feet. The Captain gave the order to bail out. Aware that everything could explode into a ball of flames at any second, Phil plunged into the darkness and felt his parachute jerk open, not knowing if he was over land or water.

Phil splashed down into the icy Baltic Sea, near the Denmark-German border. After clearing the entanglements of his parachute, Phil heard his friend, the navigator, screaming for help. It was well-known that the navigator couldn't swim. Phil managed to maneuver over through the crashing waves and calmed him down, assuring him that the life jacket would do its job. The navigator later credited Phil with saving his life. They never saw any of their other buddies again (it was later confirmed that all the others had died in the crash).

The pair floated in the rough sea for several hours, nearly succumbing to hypothermia before they were plucked by a Danish fishing trawler. But the danger was far from over. A German patrol was waiting for them when they pulled into port. They were prisoners of war.

Phil was taken to the infamous Stalag III, which held more than 10,000 Allied prisoners. Six months earlier a large breakout, later made famous by the Steve McQueen movie The Great Escape, had taken place at Stalag III. The attempt had been largely unsuccessful as 50 of the 76 escapees had been shot to death by the Germans.

While captive, Phil suffered from dysentery and lost almost one-third of his weight. As the war neared its end, the prisoners were hastily roused one morning and told to line up for a march. Not knowing where or why, many fearing the worst, they were led on several forced marches over the next few weeks--they later learned they were being moved to keep ahead of the advancing allies. Finally they were liberated by a British patrol in May, 1945.

The war had ended for Phil Marchildon, but the fight was far from over.

Phil returned to the United States, married his pre-war girl and resolved to regain weight, get in shape and resume his baseball career. After pitching briefly for publicity at the behest of owner Connie Mack near the end of the 1945 season, Phil was back good as ever in 1946, winning 13 games. In 1947 he was 19-9 for a lousy A's team in one of the best years a Canadian pitcher not named Fergie Jenkins ever had.

But it was not to be a Hollywood, feel-good ending for Phil Marchildon. He began to be plagued by nightmares and grew distant from teammates. While warming up before a game in 1948, he experienced an episode of severe dizziness and numbness. The ball felt like dead weight; his body felt drained of all strength. He went home and the next day was back to normal but the episodes began to come and go without warning and with increasingly alarming frequency. He began chain-smoking and was noted to be irritable. Phil's record in 1948 sank to 9-15.

Phil never talked about his war experiences with anyone. Teammates were confused. "My, he had good stuff," shortstop Eddie Joost said years later. "He could throw the ball as hard as anybody. We called him 'Fidgety Phil.' He could never sit still or stop moving his hands. I was told he had been gassed during the war and that had changed him. . . . He'd often get into what I called 'thinking trauma,' and would wander behind the mound, fool around with the resin bag, and hit his palm with his glove for maybe thirty seconds. You'd know something was wrong. . . . Every once in a while he'd start to shake and not be able to concentrate. We'd walk to the mound, but we couldn't settle him down."

"[Older players had said] he had been confident and gung-ho [before the war]," said third baseman George Kell, a teammate in 1945 and 1946. "The way I heard it, and I never could get it confirmed, was that he had been a prisoner of war. All the guys told me that he became a different fellow. He could still pitch, but he had a funny look in his eye that hinted his thoughts were about the war and not baseball. He was extremely nervous."

After the disappointing 1948 season in which his mental and physical condition had deteriorated alarmingly, Phil checked into a Toronto VA hospital. When physical tests were normal, he was told to "lighten up" and consider all the blessings he had.

In 1948 the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder did not even exist. No one knew how to treat it. Phil was left alone to sort out his problem. "On every mission I'd spent hours scanning the sky for night fighters, always fearing the worst," Phil later wrote. "During the march I never knew what to expect . . . a guard might shoot me because he was in a bad mood that day. . . No one around me seemed to understand the emotions I was experiencing."

"My hands shook as if I had palsy, and I was constantly on edge. My biggest struggle was overcoming the left over fear that something terrible was going to happen."

"I'd kind of drift away from concentration. I'd think about how lucky I was to get out of it all." Along with the feeling of luck, was guilt over surviving instead of his comrades.

Phil's baseball career unraveled. He hurt his shoulder in 1949, was ineffective and finally released by the A's. He caught on with the Red Sox for one game in 1950, then his baseball career was over.

Phil struggled after baseball but, with the help of his patient wife, eventually recovered. He worked at a Toronto furniture factory until retiring at 65. He was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, published his memoirs in a very good book, Ace: Phil Marchildon, and lived a full life. He died in 1997 at the age of 84.

As Veteran's Day approaches we should pause to remember--and thank--Phil Marchildon, and everyone who fought with him, for sacrificing so much so that we have had the opportunity to keep playing ball for generations.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Fifty Years Ago the Orioles Stunned the Dodgers With the Most Dominant World Series Pitching Ever

 When the Indians pitching staff threatened to send this postseason back into the deadball era after the first four games, I was reminded that it was exactly fifty years since the greatest World Series pitching performance by a team: 1966, Baltimore vs. L.A.

The Orioles had been in existence barely a decade and although they had threatened in recent years, this was their first pennant. They had bludgeoned the American League and clinched with weeks to spare. While they still relied on the Paul Richards-Oriole Way foundation of defense and great pitching, the 1966 version of the batting order had some definite muscle, and not just that provided by the great off-season addition of Frank Robinson. All season, the one-two-three punch of Frank, Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell had devastated opposing pitchers. At least two of the three were hot at any one time. Brooks finished with 23 homers, 100 RBIs, Boog 34 and 109, and Frank ended with triple crown numbers: 49 homers, 122 RBIs and a .316 average. They were 1, 3 and 4 in the league in RBIs. Brooks would finish second to Frank in the MVP voting, with Boog third. In addition to their offense, the Oriole defense boasted one of the best infields in history, with perennial Gold Glovers Robinson and Luis Aparicio making the left side near impenetrable and soon-to-be Gold Glover Davey Johnson at second.

             The Oriole pitching staff, while solid, was considered to be a potential weakness going into the Series. Twenty-year-old Jim Palmer led the staff with 15 wins and lefty Dave McNally was second with 13. The rest of the Orioles starters had battled sore arms all year, with manager Hank Bauer cobbling together whoever was healthy at the time to fill out his rotation.
             While the Orioles coasted through September, the winner in the National League was not decided until the Dodgers won the second game of a double header the last day of the season. The Dodger strength was their legendary pitching staff. Sandy Koufax boasted a record of 27-9 in 1966, with an ERA of 1.73 and 317 strike outs. In addition to Koufax, the Dodger rotation contained two other future Hall of Famers, Don Drysdale and twenty-year-old Don Sutton, as well as 17-game winner Claude Osteen.  
The Dodger pitching was rock-solid, but their ability to score runs was an entirely different matter. Second baseman Jim Lefebvre was the big gun, so to speak, of the L.A. offense: a .274 batting average with 24 home runs and 74 RBIs. Lou Johnson was second on the team with 17 homers and 73 RBIs. The Dodger game plan was to play a brand of small ball more suited to marbles, stringing together enough bunts, steals and infield hits to squeeze out a run or two and then hope their pitching staff could hold on. It was a formula that had worked well enough to win a tough National League pennant race, but no one was confusing them with the '27 Yanks.        
The Dodger hitters indeed did nothing to inspire fear, except among their own fans. In a bit of foreshadowing to the series, the New Hampshire Forestry Division sent a message to the Dodgers congratulating them for being the major league team “which has done the most to conserve wood—one of our most important natural resources.”
            Although the Orioles were strong, the Dodgers were still, well, THE DODGERS, winners of the World Series in 1963 and 1965.  Among the Orioles, only Frank (Cincinnati in 1961), Aparicio (Chicago in 1959) and reliever Stu Miller (San Francisco in 1962) had been to a Series before and none had played on a winner. And so, despite the anemic L.A. offense, bookmakers had the Dodgers favored 8 to 5. Few could have predicted what would happen.

Because the San Francisco Giants had rudely refused to concede, winning their last six games, the Dodgers had entered the second game of a double header October 2, the last day of the season, needing a win to avoid dropping into a tie. Sandy Koufax had been pressed into service and threw a complete game, so he was not available on two days rest for Game One of the World Series. Dodger Game One starter Don Drysdale, Robin to Koufax' Batman, was not viewed as a huge step down, however. With his menacing presence on the mound, 6-foot-5, featuring a whip-like delivery that was almost side-armed, Drysdale had the ability to keep right-handers loose in the box and was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career of his own. 

But in the top of the first inning with one out and Russ Snyder on first, the Robinson boys struck. Frank bombed a home run. Brooks stepped in. Drysdale, snarling and nasty, threw the obligatory duster high and inside. The second pitch was a fastball and Brooks turned on it and drove it seven rows deep in the left field stands giving the Orioles a quick 3-0 lead. The Dodger Dogs were barely warm in the concession stands and the Orioles had already scored as many runs as the Yankees (one in two games) and the Twins (two in three games) had in the past two World Series in Dodger Stadium. No one knew it at the time, but the Series was essentially over.
But there was still a little drama. After watching his lead grow to 4-0, Oriole starter Dave McNally experienced control problems and was soon in deep trouble. Unable to get used to the severe slope of the mound, he was consistently wild-high. He gave up a run in the second, then walked the bases loaded in the third, throwing only three strikes to his last four batters. Oriole reliever Moe Drabowsky then walked out of the bullpen and into baseball history.
            . Drabowsky had been a flame-throwing phenom when signed in 1956 by the Cubs, but arm trouble quickly hampered his progress. By 1966, he had bounced between four different teams and had not had a winning record since 1960. After being converted to a full-time reliever by the Orioles, Drabowsky had turned in the best season of his career, going 6-0. 
              Drabowsky struggled with his own control initially, walking Jim Gilliam on a 3-2 count to force in a run, and going 3 and 2 on John Roseboro. The Dodger catcher then fouled off an obvious ball four and popped out on the next pitch to end the inning. Drabowsky had a good arm and, when he was right, possessed an excellent fastball that was capable of overpowering hitters. It quickly became apparent that Moe was throwing particularly hard on this day. When Dodger teammates asked Lou Johnson, who struck out leading off the next inning, what Drabowsky’s pitches were doing, he replied, “They aren’t hitting the bat.” Drabowsky proceeded to have the best game any reliever has ever had in a World Series—he struck out eleven men (all swinging) over the last six and two-thirds innings (six in a row at one stretch) while limiting the Dodgers to one hit. The Orioles won the game 4-2.
 Game One set the tone. The rest of the Oriole staff, including Game Two starter Jim Palmer, couldn't help but note that what their advance scout Jim Russo had told them about the Dodgers was true--they could be beaten with high hard stuff.   

    Sandy Koufax took the mound for the Dodgers under the bright West Coast sun for Game Two. Koufax had just completed one of the most dominating four-year stretches in major league history, with a record of 97-27, leading the league in ERA all four years (his worst ERA of that stretch was 2.07). Facing Koufax was twenty-year old Jim Palmer. Nicknamed Pancake that year due to his superstition of always eating pancakes the day he pitched, he had inflamed a tendon in his right shoulder while painting the nursery in his house earlier in the season (he was making $7500 that year and could not afford a painter). He entered the World Series concerned about his arm.
But Koufax had concerns of his own. Although he was still a young man, only 30 years old, his left arm had aged in dog-years. It was not fully known at the time of the Series, but he had been in severe pain all year. He had thrown 323 innings during the season and had started seven games in the last 26 days of the season—the Dodgers had needed every one of them as they battled to the last game for the pennant. The World Series start was his third in eight days.
While Koufax was not overpowering in Game Two, he was still good enough to win, had he gotten a little support with the leather. The Orioles could not manage a run through the first four innings, then in the fifth they received a gift. Dodger center fielder Willie Davis lost two consecutive fly balls in the sun, then picked up the ball and made a bad throw to third for another error. When the carnage was over, Davis had a World Series record three errors in one inning and the Orioles had a 3-0 lead.
            The comedians in the press box were having a good time at Davis’ expense. When he was late coming out for the next inning, one of them asked, “Do you suppose he may be about to commit suicide?” Another answered, “Hope not, he might miss and kill an usher.” A third pondered, “I wonder if Davis will be able to catch the plane to Baltimore.”

The Dodgers were unable to score off Palmer and the Orioles added three more runs, courtesy of a total of six Dodger errors. Palmer finished with a complete game four-hit shutout. 

           The teams traveled to Baltimore for Game Three. The Orioles’ Game Three starter, 21-year-old Wally Bunker, had been 19-5 in 1964, but had experienced arm trouble ever since. Although not technically a power pitcher, he smartly followed the recipe of Drabowski and Palmer and fed the Dodgers fastballs. And once again the recipe produced a masterpiece. Bunker was in control the whole game, scattering 6 hits and a walk. Only two Dodgers reached second base. Dodgers pitchers Claude Osteen and Phil Regan nearly matched Bunker, giving the Orioles only 3 hits, but one was a big one, a fifth-inning home run by Paul Blair. The blast stood up as only the third time in history a 1-0 World Series game had been decided by a home run. After the game Bunker sat in front of his locker, all but neglected by the press. “I guess shutting out the Dodgers isn’t news anymore,” he joked. Apparently, it wasn't.
            In Game Four the Dodgers came back with Drysdale, holding Koufax ready for the next game if needed. A fourth-inning two-out Frank Robinson home run gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead. Boog Powell followed with a towering drive to deep center field that appeared to add to the lead. Willie Davis turned his back and ran to the fence, waited, took five steps to his right--just in front of the 410 sign--and jumped. With the armpit of his fully extended right arm above the fence, he caught the ball to rob Powell of a home run.

The great play in center field gave the Dodgers a spark of life as they prepared to hit. Jim Lefebvre opened the inning with a single. The next batter, Wes Parker slapped a bouncer into the hole to Aparicio’s right. Brooks Robinson ran to his left, stretched and stabbed the ball, stumbled, took a couple of steps to regain his balance, then delivered a perfect chest-high throw to Johnson at second who relayed it quickly to first for a double play. The Dodger momentum was over.
There were still tense moments, however. In the eighth, Lefebvre drilled a long fly to center that looked like a tying home run. Blair ran back, leaped at the fence and robbed him (a spectacular play, but not quite as good as Davis’ at nearly the same spot in the fourth). In the ninth inning, with one out and the Orioles clinging to a 1-0 lead and starter Dave McNally still on the mound, pinch hitter Al Ferrara singled to center and was replaced by a pinch runner. McNally walked the next batter, giving the Dodgers their most serious threat in nearly a week. Willie Davis then popped out to right field, too shallow for the runners to advance. With the crowd roaring on every pitch, Lou Johnson worked the count to 2-2, then lifted a can of corn to Blair in center to end the series. 

            The pitching dominance was startling. Throwing mostly high fastballs, Oriole pitchers had blanked the Dodgers for the final 33 innings of the Series—giving them no runs after the fourth inning bases-loaded walk in Game One. More astounding, the Dodgers only advanced one runner to third base over the final 25 innings. Palmer, Bunker and McNally threw consecutive shutouts. The Series set a record for low batting averages: .147 for the Dodgers and .200 for the winning Orioles.
            The Orioles did not commit an error in the four games. Manager Hank Bauer, playing the hot hand, used only 13 men the whole Series and--modern managers take note--used a grand total of four pitchers the entire Series.