Saturday, July 4, 2015

Dave Criscione and the Best Two Weeks Ever






Sometimes you stumble across a great story when you're not looking. Such was the case with Dave Criscione, a guy who had a very brief major league career--but made the most of it. He played for the Baltimore Orioles from July 17-31, 1977 and ended his time with a career .333 Major League average and had the one shining moment every kid in America dreams of. I had the good fortune to talk to Dave about his time in the majors in 2012.

Born and raised in Dunkirk, a small New York town on Lake Erie, Criscione was a high school legend and signed with the old Washington Senators in 1969 after being drafted in the 5th round. He then began a minor league odyssey as a catcher that took him to such exotic places as Geneva, New York, Anderson, South Carolina, Burlington, South Carolina and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He eventually worked his way up to Spokane and Sacramento of the PCL, but was unable to move any higher.

Although he had some very good years hitting in the minor leagues, he seemed destined to never get a chance at the bigs--most likely because he bore very little physical resemblance to a major leaguer. The 5-8, 200 pound Criscione was once described as a "beer can in a baseball uniform." Baseball executives, hung up on conformity, never gave him a chance. After seven years in the Texas/Washington minor league system, he was traded to Baltimore in December of 1976 and assigned to AAA Rochester.

In July of 1977, Criscione was playing in his fifth season at AAA, wondering if he would ever get a sniff at the majors. He was a guy who saw himself rapidly getting older, working in a dog food factory in the offseason, with a pregnant wife, wondering how he would pay the bills for a growing family on a minor league salary. It was just a matter of time before he would be forced to call off his baseball career and return to the real world.

The Rochester team had finished a game in Toledo hours earlier and the players were lounging in their hotel rooms when Rochester manager Ken Boyer called Criscione to his room at 11 PM. Boyer delivered the news Dave had waited for his whole life: he was going to the show.

Baltimore catcher Rick Dempsey had been hit by a Don Gullett pitch and fractured a finger. Criscione was being summoned to Baltimore to back up catcher Dave Skaggs. He was told to pack his bags--he was leaving for Baltimore at 6 AM.

These were tense days in Baltimore. The Orioles were in the midst of a tight pennant race at the time--battling the Yankees and Red Sox neck and neck. Criscione arrived in Baltimore to what seemed like a dream world--and a great dream at that. He was put up in the same hotel the Yankees were staying. He watched the famous major leaguers, as well as Howard Cosell, in town to do the Monday Night Game on TV, stroll through the lobby. Dave reported to Memorial Stadium where he was assigned a locker next to Baltimore icon and future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. The forty year old Robinson, playing in his last season, dividing his time between bullpen coach, pinch-hitter and cheerleader, immediately called Dave by his name, welcomed him to the team and made him feel like he belonged.

It was clearly understood that Criscione's stay would be a short one. While a lot of guys in that situation have languished on the bench or made a few forgettable appearances, Criscione made the most of his chance.

After watching his first game in a major league uniform, Dave left with the Orioles for a six-day road trip to Texas and Milwaukee. He sat through the series in Texas, then was given his first chance. Facing the Brewers, he lined out to the second baseman in his only at bat. Before the team made their way back to Baltimore, Dave made a quick side-trip to Rochester to see his wife, who went into labor and delivered their first child.

Back in Baltimore, the new dad was given his first start in the second game of a double header against the Brewers.

The first time up, he singled up the middle for his first major league hit. Brewer third baseman Sal Bando called for the ball and passed it to the Oriole dugout. Dave was amazed when the hometown crowd gave him a standing ovation. He wasn't sure what to do. First base coach Jim Frey told him, "You better tip your hat or they'll never stop."

After the game, Brooks Robinson joked that the ovation was so loud that it woke him up and he almost fell off his perch in the bullpen.

Dave later got another hit and received another standing ovation. In his last at bat, the game was tied with a runner on second and he dutifully laid down a bunt and sacrificed the runner from second to third (the runner would score moments later on a fly ball). As he was returning to the dugout, he received another standing ovation. The Orioles won the game 4-3.

For those keeping score at home, that's 2 hits in 3 at bats, with a sacrifice and 3 standing ovations.

The next day, Dave's older brother and his wife were in Baltimore and in the stands, having driven all night from upstate New York, realizing that there might not be much more time to catch his major league act. It was a damp, rainy night and only about 8,000 living souls stayed for the game.

 Late in the tied game, Oriole manager Earl Weaver used a pinch hitter for catcher Skaggs. When the inning ended with the game still tied, Weaver pointed a gnarly finger in Dave's direction and once again the spotlight shone on him.

Dave walked to the plate with one out in the bottom of the 11th inning. He caught a fastball and hit it into the left field seats. A walk-off home run. He ran at a full sprint almost to second before slowing down to enjoy the moment.





After shaking hands with third base coach Cal Ripken, Jr., he ecstatically jumped the last few steps to home plate where he was mobbed by happy teammates, including Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Earl Weaver.


The game put the Orioles in first place.

Dave's brother joined him in the clubhouse and was entertained by Brooks Robinson while waiting for Dave to finish with the mob of reporters surrounding his locker. Brooks remarked loudly,  "He's been here for ten days and he's already got more reporters that I had in twenty years."

Dave was a major celebrity in Baltimore. "It was Italian Festival downtown that week," he later said. "I could have been mayor."

The next morning the team left for a 13-day west coast trip. Dave soon learned that the Orioles had made a deal for experienced catcher Ken Rudolf; his major league days were numbered. He played in two more games, going 0-for-3, and was soon back in Rochester, never to wear a major league uniform again.

He played one more season in Rochester before retiring. After baseball, Criscione returned to his hometown. He coached college baseball at nearby Fredonia State for over 20 years as well as worked as a quality control lab supervisor.

He has never forgotten the reception he received from Baltimore fans. He still receives letters from fans who remember his shining moment. And the balls he hit for his first major league base hit and the home run still reside in a special place of honor in his home.

The major league career of Dave Criscione was a long time coming and it was very short; but it was an oh-so-sweet tasting cup of coffee. It consisted of 7 games and 9 at bats--with 3 hits for a cool .333 career batting average.

And one very, very big home run.

Throw in a baby girl and there you have it--the best two weeks ever.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Ryne Duren and the Art of Getting Hit By a Pitch


The recent episode in which a player leaned into a curve ball in the ninth inning to break up a perfect game reminds me of the lost art of being hit by a pitch and a time when it almost helped the Reds win a pennant. The dastardly deed was perpetrated by one of my all-time favorite characters: Ryne Duren, he of the fabled fastball and even more fabled bad eyesight.



The year was 1964 and the Reds were a talented team, languishing behind the rampaging Phillies: six and a half games out with 13 left to play.

On September 20, 1964, the Reds were in the middle of an uninspired game against the Cardinals, trailing 6-0 by the fourth inning. Ryne Duren had come on in relief of a battered Cincinnati starter and, since the game appeared hopeless, he was left in to bat. Duren took exception to the fact that there seemed to be little life, or little hope, on the Reds bench.

I talked to the then-80-year-old Duren in 2009 and he gleefully recounted one of his favorite games:

"I looked around the dugout and everyone was really down; just sitting on their dead asses like it's over," he said. "I got mad and said to everyone on the bench, 'Why don't we just go in the damn clubhouse and take off our damn uniforms and concede the damn game. If you don't want to compete, let's just go home. But if you're out here, let's have a little life.' I balled everyone out for being deadasses on the bench. So they hollered back at me, 'Well why don't you go up there and do something. You think you're so damn good, go up and get a hit.'



But going up there and getting a hit was not an easy matter for Duren, who carried a career batting average of .061 at the time and had been to the plate only three times all year. Duren could hardly be blamed for his lack of hitting prowess; he came by his futility naturally. Duren had some of the worst eyes ever to appear on a baseball field. If modern stats had been in place, he would have been credited as having the lowest VAR (Vision Above Replacement) in the majors.

He wore Coke-bottle thick glasses, usually darkly tinted and stories of his vision-challenged ways are many. Reds catcher John Edwards swears that Duren couldn't even see the signs from sixty feet away: "I finally just told him to call the pitch by moving his glove and I just got ready for anything," he told me.

When Duren pitched for the Yankees, Yogi Berra used to tell opposing batters, "I wouldn't dig in. Neither one of us knows where this pitch will go." And he wasn't joking.

So getting a hit didn't seem to be an option for Duren at this particular moment. "I made up my mind I would take one for the team, which I did," he said.

As the pitch was on it's way to the plate, Duren stepped in front and the ball hit him on the thigh. Those on the Reds bench were amazed, both that he did it, and that he got away with it.

"I'll never forget that crazy damn Ryne Duren with those thick glasses taking one off the knee just to get on base," said Sammy Ellis. "He didn't even try to get out of the way. And there's no way he would have gotten a hit. He couldn't even see."

"Duren walked right into the pitch," said batboy Mike Holzinger. "The Cardinal bench was going crazy but the umpire ignored them."

The whole atmosphere suddenly changed on the Reds bench. Inspired by Duren's actions, his teammates began hitting and ended up with a 9-6 victory.

The game seemed to snap the Reds out of a slumber. The next day came the famous game against the Phillies in which Chico Ruiz stole home on his own with two outs in the sixth inning of a  scoreless game. The Reds won nine in a row and cruised into the final weekend in a dead heat with the Cardinals and Phillies.

"Frank Robinson always gave me credit for waking the club up," Duren said proudly. "Coming from him that was a lot because, as you know, he was a bear-down son of a bitch."




Looking back, it's interesting that in Duren's telling of the game, the at bat came against Bob Gibson. I guess old fish stories and old baseball stories are alike--the fish always get bigger with time. The box score lists the pitcher as Gordie Richardson. Just as well for Duren. With Gibson's reputation, he probably would have picked the ball up and hit him with it again--and this time he would have made sure it hurt.






Sunday, June 21, 2015

Vada Pinson's First Five Seasons: As Good as Anybody's


It's sad how some extremely good players can be forgotten by the younger generation; their memory reduced to a line in a book, their extraordinary achievements not given their fair due. Such a man is Vada Pinson.



I can remember attending a baseball game as a kid at Cincinnati's new Riverfront Stadium in 1971 and being amazed by the fact that one name was either at or within one or two spots of the top of virtually every career offensive category for the team, which at that time had been playing professionally for over 100 years. Hits, runs, RBIs, doubles, you name it, on a team that had possessed it's fair share of Hall of Famers, one man dominated the team's all-time list--it was Vada Pinson. 

And when Vada Pinson died in 1995 at the age of 57 due to complications of a stroke, he had more career hits (2757) than any man not in baseball's Hall of Fame. This may have surprised some, who only remembered Pinson’s last five or six seasons of injury-plaqued mediocrity, but he was once one of the brightest young stars in baseball. In fact, his first five seasons in the majors compare favorably with any man in history.

Vada Pinson was a native of Oakland and had attended the same high school that produced teammate Frank Robinson, Curt Flood and basketball great Bill Russell. Pinson was three years younger than Robinson and they had scarcely known each other in high school, but once on the Reds they became roommates, best friends and inseparable.



Unlike the fiery Robinson, Pinson was easygoing and quiet. Only nineteen years old during his first spring training with the Reds in 1958, he was so quiet that coach Jimmy Dykes spoke to him in broken Spanish for two weeks, assuming that he was Cuban because of the unusual first name and the fact that he didn’t seem to understand how to reply in any language. Pinson finally gathered the courage to tell the startled coach, “I’m from California. I speak English you know.”

Pinson was a remarkable athlete. Silky smooth and graceful in all things, he was as fast as anyone in the game. The 5'11, 170 pound Pinson possessed surprising power. All phases of baseball seemed to come easy for him. He hit a grand slam in his second major league game. And he could fill up a box score like few players: his first full season, 1959, he hit .316, with 205 hits, 47 doubles, 9 triples, 20 home runs, 84 RBIs and scored 131 runs. Only the fact that he had been up with the Reds a few days over the limit which governed rookie status in 1958 kept him from being the overwhelming choice as Rookie of the Year. He was proclaimed a “sure-thing Hall of Famer” as a 21 year old.

Pinson proceeded to play in every single Reds game in four of his first five complete seasons, from 1959-63 (he played in 155 of 162 in 1962). He led the National League in hits with 208 in 1961 and 204 in 1963. Over those years, he had 985 hits (197 per year), more than Musial (975), Mays (954), Aaron (917) and Rose (899) had in their first five seasons.

He averaged 26 stolen bases, 20 home runs, 108 runs scored and 87 RBIs over that period.

Pinson was a legitimate five-tool player. He was generally acknowledge to be the best centerfielder in the National League not named Willie Mays. But whereas Mays played with a bugged-eyed, vein-popping, hat-flying electricity, Pinson smoothly and gracefully ranged across the field, gliding so smoothly that his feet seemed to barely touch the ground--often making great plays without seeming to break a sweat. 

Pinson was perhaps cursed with having too much “natural” appearing talent. Everyone always expected more. The great feats he performed appeared to come effortlessly. The term “effortless” would come to haunt him. Front office types, writers and fans began to question his effort.
The Dodgers Clem Labine voiced the thought shared by many around the league in 1960 when he said, “What’s wrong with Pinson? The day he becomes aggressive he will be better than Willie Mays.”



While Pinson was laid back and easy-going, it was impossible to question his desire when one looked at the results listed on the back of his baseball card. Still, improbably, some did. Some of the questions of his effort was undoubtedly the result of racist attitudes of the day and others came from his run-ins with a key reporter, which influenced printed opinion.

Pinson famously had two fights with ubiquitous Reds beat writer Earl Lawson of the Cincinnati Post. The first came in 1962 after a Lawson-column that questioned Pinson’s heart. Pinson confronted Lawson in the clubhouse the next day with, “What made you an expert? What the hell did you ever hit in the majors?” Lawson responded by firing back a few choice words and the argument concluded with Pinson slugging Lawson in the face.

The next day, Lawson wrote in the Post, “When I write that he’s squandered much of his God-gifted talent, I’m expressing an honest opinion, one I share with many, including, if the truth were known, many of his teammates.”

In 1963, as the entire Reds’ team struggled, Lawson again picked out Pinson and repeatedly wrote that Pinson was selfish in his refusal to bunt for base hits more often. After being teased by teammates about the article, Pinson confronted Lawson in the clubhouse. Pinson unleashed what Lawson wrote was a “steady stream of profanity,” then grabbed Lawson by the wrist, then grabbed his shirt collar and ripped it.

The diminutive Lawson made his way to the Cincinnati police station and signed a warrant for Pinson’s arrest. Reds owner Bill DeWitt intervened to keep Pinson out of jail, but a legal hearing was held and the issue went to trial in December. Feeling that the incident had run its course and had produced enough embarrassment for all involved, Lawson soon dropped the charges.

Other than the two incidents with Lawson, by all accounts, Pinson was a decent guy; he was quiet and rarely had troubles with anyone.

I talked to a number of former Reds players from the early 1960s for my first book and they all were impressed with Pinson's physical abilities and most mentioned his laid-back, easy-to-get-along-with personality also.

One of the batboys for the team, then 15 years old, mentioned that Pinson was one of the nicest players when it came to the batboys and that he frequently gave him used equipment because they were both lefthanded.

Dan Neville, a minor league pitcher who was in the Reds spring camp several years, related a story of a spring team road trip to Mexico in which Neville's roommate locked him out of the room for the night after the roommate had procured female company. Neville was lounging in the hotel lobby around midnight, wondering where he might sleep, when Pinson spotted him.Since the veterans had private rooms, Pinson had an extra bed in his room and invited Neville to seek refuge there. "We had a very interesting conversation that night," said Neville. "He was a very bright, interesting guy. And that always struck me as such a great thing to do, because I was just a nobody, a guy trying to make the team."

Interestingly, Pete Rose told a similar story in one of his autobiographies--of being chased out by his older roommate and allowed to crash in Pinson's room. Of course, Pinson and Robinson were the only Reds who would have anything to do with the brash Rose during his rookie season.




After being on the short list of stars of the National League for five seasons, Pinson slumped to .266 in 1964. He rebounded to hit .305 for 1965, but never again topped .290 in his career. Injuries cut into his production. After 1967 he never again played in more than 148 games in a season, often being relegated to 124-138 games by various ailments. He was traded to the Cardinals in October, 1968.    

So began the rest of his career as a journeyman: one year with St. Louis, two with Cleveland, two with California and two with Kansas City.      

He retired after the 1975 season with the above-mentioned 2757 hits and a .286 career batting average. Close to Hall-worthy numbers, but not quite. But as of 2015, Pinson is one of only 15 men who have had more than 125 triples and 250 home runs in a career (he had 127 and 256). The other 14 are in the Hall of Fame. One can't help but think that if Pinson had only had two or three more years without injuries, he would certainly have been elected?

Vada Pinson is one of the forgotten stars of the early 1960s; a man with Hall of Fame talent who showed it for five glorious seasons and then fell just short.



Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Major Baseball Legend: My Interview With Ralph Houk



While I try to maintain a proper journalistic approach in my research, sometimes I find that I have to battle the tendency to feel like a kid again when I get to talk to former major league players. And there was one occasion in which I was confronted with a persona so great that I nearly gave in to my inner-ten-year-old.

When I was growing up in the late '60s, the Yankee dynasty was a thing of the past, but all of us kids knew enough about baseball and it's history to appreciate the fact that it was something to be treated with reverence. Ralph Houk was the manager of the Yankees at the time and we knew that he had presided over some of baseball's all-time best teams (including the 1961 team that won 109 games) in the early part of the decade--a time that, although only seven years earlier, seemed like it belonged to a different epoch.

And so, it was with great anticipation that I picked up the phone in an attempt to make contact with this living legend (the oldest living manager of a pennant-winning team at the time) in early May of 2010. Working on a book about Mark Fidrych, I was ecstatic when I was able to find a number for the 90-year-old Houk, who had retired to Winter Haven, Florida after baseball. Houk had been the Tiger manager in 1976 when Fidrych arrived in the majors and could provide invaluable information on the season. But how would he receive the call? Would he be willing to talk to me, a mere mortal? How good would his memory be?

I heard a gruff voice pick up the phone. I stammered out a brief introduction and the reason for the call. I was relieved to hear the voice soften and I thought I could hear a smile on the other end. "I'd be happy to talk to you about Mark Fidrych," he said. "We're expecting company any minute, but can you call back tomorrow, say about one?"

I found it difficult to concentrate the rest of the day, my mind continually drifting back to Ralph Houk. This man was a direct link, not only to the Jurassic Age of baseball, but to some of the most important events of the twentieth century. As a young ballplayer, working his way through the Yankee system, he had his career interrupted by World War II. After joining the Army Rangers, he had landed in France shortly after D-Day and fought his way across Europe, spending a cold December of 1944 in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He left the war with a battlefield promotion (the source of his future baseball nickname of "The Major"), a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a Silver Star and a helmet with a hole just above the ear where a bullet went through, narrowly missing his skull.

Ralph Houk had been known as a man with a fierce temper, but also as one of the classic player's managers. It had been said of him that he could handle men better than any manager who ever lived. He was both respected and loved by his players.



I found myself becoming more star-struck as I contemplated this man's history throughout the day. Ralph Houk had told Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris what to do! The degrees of separation with immortality were so narrow it was awe-inspiring: he had replaced as manager of the Yankees, one Casey Stengel, who had once played on the New York Giants for John McGraw, who had, seemingly, invented the game of baseball as we know it.

       

And, even more awe-inspiring, as a catcher with the Yankees, Houk had backed up Yogi Berra, who had been tutored in his early years by Yankee catching great Bill Dickey, who had played on theYankees with--the Holy Grail of all baseball conversations--George Herman Ruth himself.


I did not sleep much that night.

At precisely 1:00 PM Eastern Standard Time the next day, I made the call. I had briefly considered delaying until 1:01, to not seem overeager, but I quickly dismissed the thought. Mr. Houk was warm and friendly when he answered the phone. He gave one of his famous chuckles and launched right in. "Mark Fidrych was one of the finest young pitchers I ever managed," said the man who had also handled Whitey Ford, Dennis Eckersley and Roger Clemens. "He had a lot of confidence, outstanding stuff and the best control of any pitcher I ever managed."

He proceeded to prowl through a ream of memories. I found that his recall was remarkably accurate and, realizing that I was getting great stuff, I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and let the man talk. I listened as his 90-year-old mind peeled back the years as easily as if they were a ripe banana.

"He thought he could get anybody out and he probably could," he said of the rookie pitcher.

"All the other players liked him right away. He was always so enthusiastic. He just kind of grew on you. All you could do was like him."

"He was one of the most competitive pitchers I ever saw. In a close game in the eighth or ninth inning, you didn't have to worry. You knew you had the game. You didn't even think about the bullpen with him in there."

After talking pleasantly for a while, I worked up the courage to ask an important question I knew might be touchy. Ralph Houk had taken heat from many sources over the years for the arm injury that ended the baseball career of Mark Fidrych. Some said the cause of the injury was overuse. I carefully brought up the subject.

Mr. Houk immediately knew what I was hinting at. I could hear his voice rise slightly and his pace quickened, betraying a hint of his famous temper. "I think his arm got injured just because of the way he played. He played so hard." The words came faster: "Writers are always looking for different reasons for his injury. There's no way that I used him too much. I would have never done anything to hurt him. But he put so much effort into his throwing that I'm surprised he didn't hurt it before."

[Although the 250 innings thrown by the 21-year-old Fidrych in 1976 would be considered abuse by modern pitch-count-fanatics, in defense of Ralph Houk it should be noted that, at the time, 250 innings wasn't even close to the numbers other young pitchers were routinely putting up: Vida Blue threw  312 innings in 1971 as a 20-year-old, Frank Tanana threw 268 in 1974 at 20, Bert Blyleven averaged 291 innings in the six seasons from 1971-76, from 20 to 25 years old. These guys all ended up with more than 200 wins in their careers. Pitchers were expected to throw a lot of innings back then.]

Before hanging up we talked briefly about Fidrych's painful final baseball years, the last two of which came while trying unsuccessfully to make the Boston Red Sox roster in 1982 and 1983. The Red Sox, not coincidentally, were managed at the time by Ralph Houk. "It was really sad," he said. "The arm just wasn't close to what it had been. We gave him as much of a chance as we could. We were really rooting for him to make it back. I would have done anything in the world for him. It was really hard to let him go."

I couldn't help but feel elated the rest of the week after talking to Ralph Houk. Not only had it been a great interview, providing me with valuable insight and some good quotes, but I had touched history. And he seemed like a great guy.

It was with great sadness that I learned, less than three months later, of the passing of Ralph Houk. I thought back to his final comment after I thanked him for his time before hanging up: "No problem. I enjoyed it. I love talking about Mark Fidrych. He was one of my all-time favorites. Call back anytime."

I wish I had.



Ralph Houk, 1919-2010





Sunday, June 7, 2015

Baseball Economics Part 2: Bargaining Collectively and How the First Baseball Strike Cost the Red Sox the Pennant


April 1, 1972 baseball owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association played the cruelest April Fool's Day joke of all on fans. Only it wasn't a joke. They stopped the game. They shut it down. Never before in the 103-year history of professional baseball had the game, and it's fans, faced a work stoppage due to labor discord. It was the first baseball strike in history.

Fans had been reading about the troubles between owners and players for several years. There had been a near-strike in 1969 which was threatened but never came off and few thought they would actually go through with it. Why would they? Players should have considered themselves lucky to do what every red-blooded male in the country would have done for free--play baseball for a living. Owners appeared to be making money--everyone should have been happy with the sport that was indisputably the national pastime.


But as fans watched players pack their equipment and go home, and the scheduled Opening Days of April 5 came and went with empty ballparks still locked up, fans were left on their knees, pounding their fists in the sand, screaming, "You maniacs! You blew it up. Damn you. Damn you all to hell!"

It was an epic event that would change the game's finances forever. While researching Pudge, I had the opportunity to discuss the first strike with several former Red Sox players.

Trouble had been brewing ever since 1966, when the Player's Association had hired 48-year-old attorney Marvin Miller, a former big gun of the United Steelworkers Union. Major League owners quickly realized the threat to their nice private party that Miller represented and tried to scare players away from following him. "I was with the Dodgers [in 1966] when Marvin Miller first came in," says utility infielder John Kennedy. "He went to every team to tell them what he wanted to do. Bavasi [Dodger general manager Buzzie] called a team meeting the day before Miller was scheduled to come in and he told us, 'You can't have a union guy. That means strike. You've got families. You've gotta think about that.' And he went on listing the reasons not to strike. After he got finished and left, we looked at each other and knew--if they were that afraid of him, Miller was our guy."



Gary Peters: "I was the player rep all those years [in the sixties with the White Sox and 1970-72 with the Red Sox] . Back then that didn't make you popular with management. We got to the point where they wouldn't even deal with us. [Red Sox owner] Tom Yawkey was great. If more owners had been like him we wouldn't have hired Marvin Miller in the first place. Think how the game would have been different. But three or four owners wouldn't even talk to us. that's why we had to hire Miller."

In 1972, the major league minimum salary was $13,500 and the average was $34,092. Carl Yastrzemski was the top dog, still working on his unprecedented 3-year/$500,000 deal (a cool $167,000 per). Most major league players worked winter jobs to help make ends meet. Even the stars relished the chance to get an endorsement deal to add extra cash. Players lived in small towns back home, in unassuming houses, in real neighborhoods. In short, they were just like everyone else.

Club owners were upset about losing ground in the past few bargaining agreements. The big issue for 1972 was an increase in pension funding and players' health benefits, but the real cause was player solidarity. As the deadline for signing a new Collective Bargaining Agreement approached, the owners vowed to hold the line and back the union into a corner. While they knew they would lose short-term cash if games were cancelled, they felt they would make it back in the long term if they could break the union.

Team meetings were held all over the league. It was not an easy decision. "The Red Sox had the best owner in baseball," says Peters. "They were the best treated. It was difficult for the Red Sox to strike. They wanted to get on the field for Mr. Yawkey. We had to convince them they weren't striking against Yawkey, but all the players in the league had to show solidarity."

The vote among major league players was reportedly 663-10 in favor of a strike if needed. Armed with that vote, players reps and their assistants all got together to make the fateful decision.

"I was the assistant player rep," says Red Sox pitcher Ray Culp. "In the middle of spring training we [all the team reps and assistant reps] got on a plane and flew to Dallas. We all met at a hotel at the airport and had the meeting to vote to strike." The vote was not close: 47 out of 48 voted for the strike. "Then we went back to Winter Haven. We had a meeting with our players at the Holiday Inn there and told them to go home or go to Boston. We didn't know how long this thing was going to last."



"We had a game in Lakeland, Florida against the Tigers," says Kennedy. "After the game [Red Sox general manager Dick] O'Connell came in and said, 'You guys are on strike, everybody has to leave.' The next day we put everything in garbage bags. We couldn't use any of the clubs' ball bags or trunks. We went to the airport carrying all our stuff in garbage bags."

Owners were betting that players would cave and crawl back; that players with such widely differing incomes would never stand together. They appeared to have seriously underestimated the players' resolve. "O'Connell didn't think the Red Sox players would stay out," says Peters. "It was a difficult time in the spring."

For players, the strike was scary. Most players wanted to play baseball and they didn't know how long their money would hold out. "We knew why we were doing it, but it was awfully hard," says Kennedy. "We weren't making a lot of money to begin with and we wouldn't be getting paid. It was difficult."

"The strike hurt everybody," says Red Sox manager Eddie Kasko, who was anxious for his players to get back on the field and worried about how they would stay in shape. "Everybody was in the process of getting ready for the season and then it stops. Some of them got together at Tufts University in Boston and worked out, but they couldn't use any of the Red Sox' facilities."

It was with great rejoicing almost two weeks later when a deal was finally signed. Players ended up being out from April 1 to April 13; a total of 86 major league games were cancelled. Buried at the end of the articles announcing the happy occasion was the fact that part of the agreement stipulated that none of the postponed games would be replayed and that players would not be paid for the missed games. It was a seemingly insignificant detail--but would turn out to have huge consequences for at least one divisional race.





Gary Peters, far left, stands behind Miller as they announce the end of the strike. To Peters' left is Wes Parker of the Dodgers and, sporting a pair of righteous sideburns, Joe Torre of the Cardinals. At far right is Miller's assistant Dick Moss.


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Fans showed their resentment by staying away. Average attendance dropped 10,000 a game for some teams throughout the season. The fans who did show up for games voiced their displeasure with boos for the players, particularly for the leaders of the strike. But, for the most part, the boos were limited to the first few games. Otherwise, once the games started, the strike was forgotten--until the last week of the season, when the missed games cost the Boston Red Sox the chance to win the pennant.

The Sox were a team with a lot of talent, but they started slow. Carl Yastrzemski injured his leg and spent much of May on crutches and then slumped when he returned. Other stars Reggie Smith and Rico Petrocelli also had their struggles. The pitching staff was hit by injuries as well with Ray Culp, one of their steadiest pitchers (who averaged 16 wins a season for four years), tearing his rotator cuff in July, which essentially ended his career.

The Red Sox were carried through the first half by the unexpected Rookie of the Year season from their catcher, Carlton Fisk. The strike had cost Fisk the chance to compete for the starting job and he began the season as the Sox' third catcher. When starter Duane Josephson went down with a severely pulled muscle in the first week and backup Bob Montgomery gave up four stolen bases to the Indians two games later, Fisk was installed as the starter and never looked back--leading the team with a .293 average and 26 home runs.

More importantly was Fisk's attitude. In early August, he made some statements at an appearance in Springfield, Massachusetts to the effect that he didn't think the team's veterans, particularly Smith and Yaz, were providing much leadership or hustle and, as high-paid stars, they should have been doing more. While the statements bought headlines in Boston for a week and caused hurt feelings (especially from Smith), the team caught fire soon after and won nearly two out of three the rest of the way and climbed into contention, battling the Tigers of fiery second year manager Billy Martin.

The other important factor in the revival of the Red Sox was the reemergence of pitcher Luis Tiant. The indeterminately-aged Tiant had smoked the American League like one of his thick Cuban cigars in 1968, winning 21 games for the lowly Indians while compiling a 1.60 ERA. An arm injury the next year had gotten him traded to the Twins, who cut him at the end of the 1971 spring training. Every other major league team gave up on him. He was given a short trial by Atlanta's AAA team, Richmond, only as a favor to pitching coach Stan Williams, a friend of Tiant's. He was soon released by Richmond, but the astute eyes of (Red Sox AAA) Louisville manager Darrell Johnson had noticed something when Tiant pitched against his team. Johnson called his bosses in Boston and convinced them to snap up Tiant.

Once in Louisville, Tiant pitched great and was soon called up to Boston. The 1971 season did not go well for Tiant, however, (1-7 with a 4.85 ERA) and he began the 1972 season as the last man on the staff, pitching mostly in mop up roles the first half of the season. When given his chance to start after injuries to other, he rose to the occasion and was installed as a regular. He proceeded to reel off an 11-2 record with 11 complete games, 6 shutouts and an ERA barely above 1.00 in 13 starts in August and September of 1972.

As the final week of the 1972 season approached, it was noticed by observers that there could be no tie. Due to the fact that some teams had more games cancelled than others, the Tigers would play 156 games, the Sox 155. As luck would have it, the Red Sox pulled into Detroit for the final series with the standings looking like this:

Boston: 84-68
Detroit: 84-69

The Red Sox had to win two of the three games to win the East Division title.

Monday, October 1, 1972, the Red Sox faced twenty-game winner Mickey Lolich in front of more than 50,000 fans. The Sox trailed 1-0 in the third when they threatened to break the game open and run Lolich out. With one out and runners on first and third, Yaz hit a rocket to center. Nearing first, he saw the ball bounce off the top of the fence and roll back toward the infield. He kicked into high gear, thinking triple or inside-the-parker. As he streaked toward third, however, he was surprised to find Luis Aparicio, the runner from first, crawling back to the bag.

The fleet Aparicio, one of the best baserunners in history, had misstepped and hit the third base bag in the middle instead of the inside edge, slipped and fell in the wet grass. Yaz pushed Aparacio toward home, feeling he could still make it, but Aparicio stumbled and was trapped by the throw. He returned to third where Yaz, with no place to go, was tagged out. Instead of being up by a run with one out and a man on third, the Sox had merely tied it with two outs. Reggie Smith followed by striking out and the Sox were done for the day. Lolich proceeded to throw a complete game, striking out 15, while giving up 6 hits, 5 walks and 2 hit batters and won the game 4-1.

The next day the Tigers scraped across a run against Tiant and added two off of reliever Bill Lee and won 3-1. The Sox won the last meaningless game. The final results were:

Detroit 86-70, .551
Boston 85-70, .548

Among the cancelled games had been five head-to-head contests between the Tigers and Red Sox, three of which were in Boston.

The Red Sox, and their fans, will never know what would have happened. Sox manager Eddie Kasko is still sore after all these years: "Why the hell didn't they straighten this out when the strike was on. You've got to say that this might happen when you look at the schedule. But I guess whoever was running things was just happy to get back on the field and didn't bother to look ahead. It hurts to get that close and not have a chance."

Although Commissioner Bowie Kuhn publicly stated that there were no winners in the strike, it was obvious that the players were the big victors. While the missed games cost a player making around $20,000 a year about $1,100 and guys higher on the pay scale close to $10,000, the loss had been worth it. With the agreement to conclude the strike, the owners agreed to add $500,000 to the players' pension fund and, more importantly, agreed to add salary arbitration to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Arbitration was a huge victory for the players. Now there was a process, in front of an independent judge, which would allow players to resolve contract disputes with owners. This unprecedented move would prove fateful for owners, and their beloved reserve clause, within four years.

More important that any gain made in the agreement was the fact that the players had shown the resolve to bargain collectively, to stick together. As stated by UPI writer Fred Down at the time, it was starkly evident that a "new and fundamental relationship now exists between the players and the club owners." Baseball, and salaries, would never be the same.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Robinson Boys: How Brooks and Frank Formed an Unlikely Alliance and Led the Orioles to the Promised Land




It's not uncommon these days to see debates raging on sports talk shows in which two big-time players on the same team are clashing over whose "team" it is. It's often difficult for two hugely talented players to mesh for the good of the team. I am reminded of a time when just such a pairing of very unlikely comrades resulted in a perfect team atmosphere.

In December of 1965, the baseball world was rocked by news of a blockbuster trade; one that would go down in history as one of the greatest (for Oriole fans) or worst (for Reds fans) trades of all time. While commonly billed as Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, it was actually a three-team, six-player deal. As part of the agreement, the Orioles obtained relief pitcher Jack Baldschun (whom the Reds desired) from the Philles for under-performing outfielder Jackie Brandt and young pitcher Darold Knowles, then immediately packaged him with Pappas and itinerant outfielder Dick Simpson, and sent them to the Reds for Frank Robinson who had been one of the dominant sluggers in the National league since 1956.

The Orioles had been on the border of greatness for several years. They had superior pitching and defense which, of course, was their trademark for two decades, but their offense was just a bit lacking. They had some weapons, particularly third baseman Brooks Robinson, who had been among the top hitters in the American League since 1960 and who had won the MVP award in 1964 on the strength of a .317 average and a league-leading 118 RBIs. They also had a great table-setter in shortstop Luis Aparicio and a potential big run producer in Boog Powell, who had shown a propensity for both excellence and injuries. But they lacked . . .  something. Then, came the trade.

But would it work? Sure, Frank brought a potent bat, but what about the all-important aspect of team chemistry? The question put forth throughout the winter was "can the team's two most important players get along?" On the surface, the pairing of Brooks and Frank Robinson looked like trouble. Brooks had been the acknowledged team leader, fan favorite and highest paid players for five years. Now an interloper was moving in. And Brooks and Frank were about  as different as any two men could be.

Brooks was white. Frank was not.

Brooks had been raised in a happy, middle class, two-parent family, with one brother (essentially growing up in a smarmy 1950s  black-and-white television show). Brooks was from Little Rock, Arkansas--a 100% segregated society. Not only that but, reporters at the time loved to point out, he was a graduate of Little Rock Central High School, possibly the most infamous symbol of attempted 1950s integration--think National Guardsmen assisting students walking to school past crowds of screaming rednecks (Brooks had graduated in 1955, two years before the nastiness).

Frank was raised by a hard-working mother (his father left when he was three), the youngest of ten children. Frank grew up in highly-integrated Oakland and rarely saw prejudice in his early years--he was shocked at his first minor league stop in Utah when, attempting to see a movie, he was turned away at the door by a ticket-lady who told him, "We don't patronize Negroes." The indignities due to his skin color would only grow over the next ten years.

Brooks had a unique personality among professional athletes. He treated everyone he met like a small-town bank president greeting friends at the local country club. He was revered by fans, friends, opponents and the press. He was so well-liked among his peers that after retiring he was elected president of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and still holds the office more than thirty years later. Brooks Robinson was a genuine nice guy.

Frank, on the other hand, was not. In fact, Frank Robinson was one of the most reviled men by opponents in major league baseball. He was known as a cut-throat competitor who would stop at few things in order to win a ball game. Some called him a "Black Ty Cobb," and it was not meant as a compliment. Additionally, the Reds front office had leaked word over several years that Frank was a troublemaker, a clubhouse lawyer.

Brooks was loved by every single manager and coach from high school through the end of his professional career--he never had a documented problem with any of them and they all went out of their way to gush about how much they loved the guy.

While Frank viewed his high school coach as a second-father, as he did his first major league manager, Birdie Tibbetts, he had well-publicized run-ins with Reds managers Mayo Smith and Fred Hutchinson and later butted heads with others, particularly Walt Alston and Bobby Winkles. Even though managers loved his hustle and all-out style of play, they sometimes criticized his work habits and confrontational style. Frank was not diplomatic and didn't seem to mind hurting feelings if he had something he felt needed to be said.

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Frank was physically imposing, even among professional athletes. Brooks, with his receding hairline and sloping shoulders was often mistaken for a club executive out of uniform. Brooks was called "Jugbutt" by friends in high school as an ode to his physique.

Their high school basketball pictures illustrate the difference between the two. Both were great basketball players. Brooks (below) was selected All-State as a junior and was offered a basketball scholarship to the University of Arkansas. Frank (at right, back row, far right) won several state championships in high school, although he had a little help from the team's center--a guy named Bill Russell (not pictured).













Check out the guns on teenage Frank. And remember this was the days before weight-lifting. Even as a teenager, Franks' biceps were ripped. Now look at Brooks' stick arms and legs. Suffice it to say that no one ever accused Brooks Robinson of taking steroids.








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And so with all these differences, it was perhaps natural (and convenient) for sportswriters, needing copy during those long cold months of January and February, to speculate that Frank and Brooks would never be able to coexist. Add to the above the fact that Frank, coming in at $65,000 a year, would immediately replace Brooks, at $50,000, as the highest paid player on the team and all the ingredients were there for a good old-fashioned freeze-out, a battle for the upper hand as leader of the team and the idol of local fans and sportswriters. 

And then spring training started.

Frank later wrote that as soon as he took the field in Florida, one of the first players to see him was Brooks, who immediately walked over, extended his hand and, with a huge smile, said, "Welcome to the team, Frank, you're just what we needed."




The thing that outside writers overlooked was the fact that, for all their surface differences, they shared one very important attribute--each viewed winning as their ultimate goal and would do whatever the team needed. Neither was a selfish player. They both recognized this trait in the other and instinctively knew that the other would help the team reach its goal.

Residing next to each other in the clubhouse, they immediately formed a mutual admiration society. And they set the tone for the whole team. I interviewed a number of former Orioles for "Brooks" and they all voiced the same sentiment--Brooks was an unparalleled fielder and a great clutch hitter, but Frank brought that extra something the team needed and was the key to the championships. The opposite personalities of the two were symbiotic in helping lift the team to greatness. Several former players discussed how unselfish both Brooks and Frank were and noted that when your best players act like that, the other guys naturally follow and it makes for a winning team atmosphere.

It's worth noting that the race part of the equation was not insignificant. Remember, this was the mid-60's, cities were on fire with conflict. Although Brooks had been raised in a segregated society, he never had a documented episode in which anyone accused him of prejudice. Somewhere along the way, he was taught to respect everyone.

Frank later wrote that, under Brooks' leadership, the Orioles' team racial atmosphere was the best of any team he ever played on, before or after. Whereas on most teams at the time, blacks and whites fought together as teammates on the field, then went their separate ways afterwards, Frank wrote that Brooks often made a point to invite him, Paul Blair and Sam Bowens (the three African Americans on the team) to dinner on the road after games.

The familiarity helped break down barriers, and build true friendships. They enjoyed ragging one another and soon nothing was off-limits as far as jokes. Once, during a tense summer of riots, as the Oriole bus drove through a simmering section of Detroit, some of the white players told Frank, "Get up in the window so they can see you," reasoning that, seeing a black face, the crowd would go easy on them. Frank crouched under a seat, laughing, and said, "I'm not getting hit when they shoot at you--you're on your own."

Another time, Paul Blair saw a picture in the paper of Boston's George Scott and told Frank that he resembled him. When Frank protested, Brooks looked at the picture and said, "I agree, you do look alike."
"That doesn't count," Blair countered. "You thinks we ALL look alike."

This was not a small thing in the mid-sixties.




Together, Brooks and Frank formed the heart of the Baltimore Orioles. They led the team to four World Series (two titles) in the six years they played together from 1966-1971. The only two years they didn't make the Series during that run, 1967 and 1968, Frank was hurt and missed considerable time.






And the two have remained friends since.



               Oriole Hall of Famers meet for a special ceremony and unveiling of Brooks Robinson's statue at Camden Yards, September, 2013. Left to right: Cal Ripken, Jr., Eddie Murray, Earl Weaver, Brooks, Frank, Jim Palmer.





Monday, May 25, 2015

The Rusty Nail

            
This month marks the three-year anniversary of the death of a cousin who died much too soon. It’s funny how life pulls you different directions but something can occur that brings back memories of good times and makes the years melt away. The selfies of our childhood are safely locked and cataloged in our brains, never to be lost. I am reminded of a time when we were young and our worries, however great they seemed at the time, were trivial; of a time when the biggest concern to our nine-year-old minds was whether or not we would both be selected for the Green Bay Packers so we could play together in the pros and what kind of punishment our mothers would mete out when (we knew it was never if, it was always when) they learned of our latest shenanigans.

There were the endless games of baseball, basketball and football; roaming the neighborhood barefooted, swimming in creeks, secret forts, spying on big kids and a seemingly eternal succession of dogs named Pete.

I found this story of one of our adventures that I wrote several years ago: 

With all the bad things in the news today, modern kids have many things to fear. We were lucky growing up in the sixties. We only had two things to worry about; two things our mothers had ingrained in us to avoid at all costs. The first was to be bitten by an unknown dog. To suffer this unlucky event, every kid knew, would require rabies shots. And we were all acutely aware that by the 1960s medical science had progressed to the state that rabies shots always had to be given—in a series and very painfully—in the stomach. In every town in America there had been at least one poor kid who had needed this horrifying treatment and mothers reminded their children of it at least once a month.
            The second thing to avoid was the rusty nail. Apparently you could be completely run through with a clean nail and nothing would happen. But let one solitary piece of rust be on the nail and your worst nightmare would come true: tetanus, lock-jaw. We had no idea why it was so dreadful to have your jaw locked. We only knew that when mothers spoke of it, our spines tingled and our skin crawled.
            One fateful day my cousin and I were on our way back to his house from a Little League game when we decided to take a short cut through the woods. His mother had warned him not to go through these woods because teenagers went there to take drugs. In the sixties, according to my aunt, teenagers were always sneaking away to dark places to take drugs--when they weren’t doing other dastardly deeds such as lacing candy hearts with LSD or listening to Beetles music.
            As we were cutting through the woods, our eyes keeping a sharp lookout for drug-taking teenagers, it happened. My cousin didn’t see an old board on the ground and stepped on a protruding nail. The nail pierced the soft rubbery sole of his tennis shoe and cut into his foot. And to our horror, we discovered that this was not just any nail. On close inspection our worst fears were confirmed—this was the dreaded, sinister rusty nail!
My cousin complained about bad luck, but I knew better. I had been to Sunday School enough to recognize the M.O. This had all the signs of a classic Old Testament smiting. Verily God had looked down upon us and had been disappointed that we had disobeyed our mothers and He had decided to smite us.
We hurried to my cousin’s house as fast as we could—certain that sudden death would overtake him at any minute. Luckily his mother was not home yet. He quickly made the life-or-death choice only a nine-year-old can make: it was better to die of tetanus than to face the wrath (and “I told you so”) of his mother. We searched the medicine cabinet for something to clean it up with. Hydrogen peroxide—that would work, just look at the way it bubbles! We cleaned the wound and destroyed the evidence before his mother arrived. 
Then, a miracle occurred: we got away with it. She never suspected a thing. I spent a few sleepless nights worrying that his mother would find him dead at any time—his jaw completely locked--but he pulled through.

Over the years my cousin and I never discussed the episode again—too ashamed most likely. To this day I can not quite look my aunt in the eye, afraid that she may see the long-hidden truth. I’m afraid that she might grill me and I would certainly crack under the pressure and spill my guts like only a guilt-ridden middle-aged man can. I sometimes think we should go to her and confess to the whole sordid affair. But I’m afraid that she might be disappointed by the fact that, since he lived through it, perhaps the episode proves that what she had been warning him of all those years had not really been true. And if that wasn’t true, what about the teenagers and those candy hearts she never let him eat and Beetles music? 
What indeed?


RIP Scott Engle, 1962-2012