Sunday, August 30, 2015

Brooks Robinson 1964: A September to Remember




While baseball is a team sport, it also lends itself to individual achievement--the singular warrior pulling down columns to crush Philistines. Nowhere is this more appreciated than in September during a tight pennant race; that's when legends are made. Unfortunately, some of the most heroic feats are soon forgotten merely for the reason that the hero's team did not ultimately win the pennant. But often the pennant is won with the help of luck and circumstance out of control of the individual--a key September injury by an opponent's best pitcher, a surprise drag bunt for a hit by the individual's pitcher in a late inning that starts an important rally, a bad hop or a line shot that leads to a diving stab by the opponent.

The lack of a pennant should not invalidate a heroic effort. But, unfortunately, it invariably does. With this in mind, I would like to talk about one of the most fantastic pennant-run Septembers; one compiled by Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles.

The year was 1964 and the Philistines Robinson was trying to crush were from New York, winners of eight of the previous nine American League pennants, guys with names like Mantle, Maris and Ford.

The Orioles, barely out of their first decade of existence, were a team on the way up. They had recently-acquired shortstop Luis Aparicio, hulking slugger Boog Powell and great pitching from Milt Pappas, youngsters Wally Bunker (who won 19 in 1964) and Dave McNally, and future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who pitched in 13 wins as a 37-year-old.

The undisputed leader of the Baltimore team was Brooks Robinson. The  27-year-old Robinson had established himself as one of the best players in the league since finishing third in MVP balloting in 1960. He had won the past four Gold Gloves for American League third basemen (on his way to a record 16 in a row), and routinely finished in the top ten in batting average. He was already being referred to as the best fielding third baseman in baseball history. While he made spectacular, never-before-seen plays, he also rarely booted a routine chance--he was in the process of leading the league's third basemen in fielding percentage a record 11 times. Men would literally walk on the moon before the sure-handed Robinson would make three errors in one game (July 28, 1971).

In 1964, the Yankees, White Sox and Orioles battled all season for the lead in the American League and entered September with only two games separating them. And that's the way things would remain the entire month--the three teams going back and forth, never separated by more than two games. It was white-knuckle time--every game held meaning.

Brooks entered September hitting an even .300 with 86 RBIs (trailing RBI-leader Harmon Killebrew by 11), having a good, solid season.

Then, in the heart of the pennant race, he went unconscious. From September 9 through the end of the season, he hit .464 (39-84) and had 28 RBIs. He knocked in 24 RBIs in the last 17 games.

He had 4 hits against Washington September 10, 4 hits against Minnesota September 16, 4 RBIs in the first game of a double header against the Angels September 20 and added another in the second game. September 23, he had 3 hits against the Tigers. He had one stretch in which he had 14 hits in 23 at bats, including 7 hits in a row.


Moreover, he was almost single-handedly keeping the Oriole offense going. Powell was injured and out from August 20 to September 5. He returned to hit .343 in September, but no other Oriole hit over .263 for the month.


But the Yankees were the Yankees. The proud old men summoned one final September run--they won 13 of 14 from September 12-26. The Orioles could not keep the murderous pace and were finally eliminated October 2--finishing with 97 wins, two games behind the Yankees.

Robinson's September of 1964 fares well when compared to some of the more fabled pennant efforts in baseball history. One of the most celebrated, of course, is Carl Yastrzemski's 1967 season. Over the final 23 games of 1967, Yaz hit .427 (35-82) with 23 RBIs. In 1964, Robinson hit .446 (37-83) with 29 RBIs over the same period.

Robinson finished the 1964 season with a batting average of .317, trailing only Tony Oliva's .323 in the American League. He led the league with 118 RBIs and had 28 home runs.  For his efforts, he was named the American League's Most Valuable Player, easily outdistancing second-place finisher Mickey Mantle 269 to 171 points.

His season totals were nice, but it was his September that was inspiring and should be remembered. Unfortunately, it has been lost in the dust of history.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Armbrister and Fisk: A Tale of Two Collisions

On October 14, 1975 two collisions occurred that held interest for the people of New England. One would be of such gravity and magnitude that it would continue to be discussed with great emotion 40 years later and the three participants would forever be linked.

The other one involved the leader of the free world.

That afternoon, on a street in Hartford, Connecticut, a 19-year-old driving his mother's Buick with five of his buddies along for the ride, couldn't stop in time when a motorcade blew through a red light. He broadsided the limo in the middle of the motorcade. His alarm and fear at crunching the front of his mother's buick was surpassed only slightly when he realized that, sitting in the back of the limo, was President Gerald Ford.


When asked for comment, the driver told reporters, "I didn't know who I had hit until I looked up and saw Ford looking at me. When I saw him, I sort of sunk down in seat and started to worry."


Talk about a dude having a bad day.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in either vehicle. The Buick sustained significant damage, but Ford's armour-plated limo only received a dent.


That evening, in Cincinnati, came the more serious of the two collisions. The Red Sox were playing the Cincinnati Reds in Game 3 of the World Series. The Series was tied a game a piece. In the bottom of the tenth inning, with the score five-all, the Reds' Cesar Geronimo led off with a single off Jim Willoughby who was working his fourth inning of relief.

Ed Armbrister walked to the plate to pinch hit for the pitcher. Armbrister was a 27 year old, 160-pound seldom-used outfielder who hit .185 in 65 at bats in 1975. A native of the Bahamas, he had been an unknown throw-in in the famous 1972 Billingham-Geronimo-Morgan-for-May-and-Helms trade with the Astros. Armbrister was the kind of guy Sparky Anderson liked to have on his bench: easy-to-get-along-with, happy-to-be-here, and eager to do whatever the team's superstars needed him to do. Now, in the tenth inning of a tied World Series game, they needed him to drop a bunt to move Geronimo to second so that Pete Rose or Joe Morgan could knock him in.

And everybody in the ballpark knew it.

The right-handed Armbrister, who had a grand total of one sacrifice in the 1975 season, dutifully squared, slid his right hand up the barrel of the bat, and offered at the pitch. The ball hit the bottom of the bat, ricocheted straight down into the dirt and bounced ten feet high in front of the plate.

The speedy Geronimo headed for second as soon as he saw the ball hit the dirt.


Fisk, known as one of the quickest catchers in baseball, flung the mask and was in front of the plate in an instant--so fast in fact that Armbrister had not taken a complete step. They were both looking up at the ball and Armbrister, semicrouched, had barely taken a step with his left foot when they collided. 



Fisk reached up and barehanded the ball, then shoved Armbrister away with his left forearm, took a short step to his right and fired to second. The throw had a tail on it, sailed high, glanced off the leaping shortstop Rick Burleson’s glove and continued into centerfield. Geronimo popped up out of his slide and scampered to third ahead of Fred Lynn’s throw.





Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson immediately charged out of the dugout and he and Fisk confronted home plate umpire Larry Barnett, demanding an interference call. The 30-year-old Barnett, a veteran of six major league seasons, refused to budge. Johnson and Fisk walked up the line and pleaded their case with the first base umpire who, not surprisingly, backed up Barnett.


In the television booth, the announcers clearly sided with the Red Sox. After viewing the slow motion replay, Tony Kubek said, “Armbrister is right in his way. I’ve got to say, right there, he interfered with him.”
“Boy is Fisk hot,” Curt Gowdy said as they watched the argument.
Kubek: “I don’t blame him.” Another slow motion replay once again showed the collision.
Kubek: “Armbrister is definitely in his way.”


Not surprisingly, the umpires were not swayed by the Red Sox' pleas for justice. The call stood.  Fisk was given an error on the throw and the Reds were given an excellent chance to put the game away. With men on second and third and no outs, Boston’s options were limited. Pete Rose was intentionally walked. Johnson brought in lefty Roger Moret, which prompted Sparky Anderson to pinchhit righty Merv Rettenmund for Ken Griffey. Rettenmund struck out. Joe Morgan then hit the ball past the drawn-in outfield and the game was over.

Writers scurried to the Red Sox clubhouse for quotes. They got good quotes all right, but the censors had to bleep out the best parts before they could be printed in family newspapers. Boston writer Ray Fitzgerald called it “the angriest losing locker room I have ever seen.” 

 Some of the printed comments included: 

"We should have had a double play on that ball but the umpires are too gutless under pressure."

"We asked [first base umpire] Dick Stelllo at first to rule on it, too, and he backed up his fellow thief."

"Barnett is the most gutless slob who ever umpired a baseball game."

“This is a game that would have given us the edge and now we’re just bleeped.”

“Bleep the umpires.”

“That bleeping slob of a plate umpire, Larry Barnett, has been bleeping the Red Sox all season long.”

When all the niceties were out of the way, noted philosopher and cosmic lefthander Bill Lee added his perspective, stating that if you watched the NFL all season you wouldn’t see a better body block by an offensive lineman. He called it the worst bleeping miscarriage of justice since he was in Little League. He said that he would have bitten the umpires’ ear off it he had been close. “I would have Van Gohed him,” he said, adding a new verb to the lexicon. “The Series is now even: one for us, one for the Reds, and one for the umps.”

Over in the Reds’ clubhouse, Armbrister said, “The ball bounced high and I stood there for a moment watching it. As I broke for first base, Fisk reached over my head for the ball before I could continue on. I stood there because he hit me in the back and I couldn’t move.”

All parties agreed that a collision had taken place. And it had taken place in fair territory. In the opinion of Dick Stello, who was umpiring at first, “The batter has as much right to go to first base as the fielder has to go for the ball.” 

When questioned later by reporters, umpire Barnett defended his decision, “I ruled that it was simply a collision. It is interference only when the batter intentionally gets in the way of the fielder.” When looked up, the rules that covered this, numbers 6.06 and 7.08, say nothing of intent, however.
Darrell Johnson said that, in his argument with Barnett, the umpire never mentioned intent, but said only that it was a judgement call. A judgement call can not be protested, but an interpretation of the rule can be. The protest would have needed to be made before the next pitch, however, and so, at that point, the poor bleeping Red Sox were indeed bleeped.


When one Zapruders video of the play [what the heck--if Bill Lee can invent verbs so can I] it appears that Armbrister started to run but was stopped by the collision when he was rear-ended by Fisk. The collision did not interfere with the throw, as Fisk was set before throwing. A good throw by Fisk would have eliminated the controversy. With Geronimo’s speed, it would have been a close play at second for the force. The relay to first would have easily gotten Armbrister, due to his late start. There was not time to tag Armbrister and then throw to second for a tag play on Geronimo. Fisk took a gamble by going for the double play instead of the easy out and it cost him.

 The most damaging factor to Fisk and the Red Sox was the unusual quickness of Carlton Fisk in getting out of his crouch to make a play. Most catchers would have gotten there slower than Fisk, would not have collided with Armbrister, and would have been forced to take the easy out at first. 



Lost in the confusion, but clearly shown on the video, was the end of the play which backed Red Sox third baseman Rico Petrocelli’s later claim that Geronimo’s legs overslid third base and he ended sitting on his butt, a few inches off the base. Petrocelli applied the tag before Geronimo could reach back with his hand, but the umpire apparently didn’t see it, possibly because of all the commotion brewing back at home plate.

Aftermath:

Back in Hartford, the 19 year old was obviously upset, both with the state of his mother's Buick and the fact that he had potentially injured the president. After a good grilling by some serious-looking secret service agents, who had to ascertain whether or not this was an assassination attempt, he was left to return home, presumably after exchanging insurance info with POTUS. The investigation determined that the fault lay with a motorcycle cop who failed to adequately secure the intersection. The incident was soon forgotten, except by the young driver, his buddies and his mother.

The second collision had more legs.

The Red Sox went on to stand toe-to-toe with the Big Red Machine over the next eight days and the 1975 World Series would come to be known as one of the best in baseball history. The Red Sox lost Game 7 in the last inning by one run and lost the Series by one game. A different outcome in Game Three looms large. It would be 29 more years before the Red Sox would win a world championship.

The call would be debated throughout the winter. In February, 1976, NBC ran highlights of the World Series and had Kubek, Garagiola and some of the participants in the studio to rehash the Series for more than two hours. While reviewing new camera angles and footage, Kubek continued to argue for the interference call. He and Barnett took turns reading the rule book, each offering support for his interpretation. A view from the first base side was shown in which Barnett was removing his mask just as the collision appeared to be finishing—raising the possibility that he was unable to see the crucial step.

 Barnett would later have his life threatened in a letter which demanded he return $10,000 the writer claimed to have lost on a wager due to the call. But all things have a silver lining. Barnett noted in the spring that he had made between ten and fifteen thousand dollars over the winter in speaking fees based on the call. “Tell me, when’s the last time you can remember anybody, I mean anybody, paying money to see or listen to an umpire?” He also was signed to do some commercials. He received hundreds of letters over the winter to his Prospect, Ohio home, which ran about 2 to 1 against him. One memorable letter was addressed to “Larry Barnett, Home Plate Umpire, Third Game, 1975 World Series, Prospect, Ohio.” It read, succinctly and eloquently, “You stink!”

Like any good umpire, Barnett would never have any public doubts. Even today, almost 40 years later, he is satisfied with his decision. He also points out that Major League Baseball has always maintained that the call was correct and, in fact, video of the play was used for years to teach umpires the interference rules.


Was the call correct? Everyone has an opinion and at this point it really doesn't matter. Perhaps that's one of the great things about the human element of baseball--it gives us stuff to talk about long after an event, and keeps us from ever running out of interesting topics.

This is little consolation to Red Sox fans, all of whom still remember Barnett's name, albeit often with the same middle name that Bucky Dent would later come to enjoy.






Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Talking to Ex-Reds Pitcher Jim O'Toole: The 1961 Pennant and Tough Love From Manager Fred Hutchinson



Over four years in the early sixties, Jim O'Toole was the best left-handed pitcher in the National League not named Spahn or Koufax. A brash, competitive battler, starting in 1961 he won 19, 16, 17 and 17 games for the Cincinnati Reds.

After his playing days, the Chicago-raised O'Toole made Cincinnati his adopted city. A member of the Reds' Hall of Fame, O'Toole never misses an Opening Day and has a reputation as a great story-teller. I had the chance to sit down and talk to O'Toole a few years ago while researching the Fred Hutchinson book. He introduced me to the Cincinnati institution of Camp Washington Chili. Both O'Toole and the food turned out to be as good as advertised.

O'Toole was signed by the Reds in December of 1957 and proceeded to go 20-8 at AA Nashville in his first year of professional baseball. "I had a good year, won 20 games in the minors and was named minor league player of the year," he said. "I came up at the end of the year and pitched a 2-hitter against the Braves [ed. note: 7 innings, 4 hits, 1 earned run] who were the National League champs that year. They had their ace lineup that game too: Aaron, Adcock, Mathews. Then Parade Magazine flew me to New York because I was minor league player of the year and I go on the Ed Sullivan Show. Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra were there too and they were getting ready to face the Braves in the Series. So here I was 21 years old telling Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra how to pitch to the Braves. You think I had a big head?"

The Reds of the 1950s had been a team with good hitting but woeful pitching and had rarely contended except for the slugging team of 1956. Managers Birdie Tebbetts and Mayo Smith were not exactly disciplinarians and the Reds were viewed as one of the rowdiest off-field teams in the league. All that changed when the Reds fired Smith and brought in Fred Hutchinson midway through the 1959 season.

“When Hutch took over, we knew his reputation because both [Jim] Brosnan and [Eddie] Kasko had played for him in St. Louis,” said O’Toole. “So we knew what we were getting. When he said to do something, you didn’t ask why, you just did it. If he said to get the hell out of the shower and out of the clubhouse and get on the bus after a bad game, you didn't waste time looking for a towel. He was tough. But we were glad because we had talent and needed discipline.”



"I hadn't been pitching a lot in 1959, they had been going with the older pitchers. When Hutch came in, he saw what I had and gave me the ball. I ended up winning every other game. He gave me the confidence I needed. Hutch was a guy who had been a pitcher, he knew pitching. He knew how much I wanted to win. I was a lot like him. We were both very competitive and hot-tempered. He was a great guy to play for."

Perhaps because they were alike, the two sometimes butted heads. "In 1960 I got married during the season. We planned it for when the team was in Chicago, our hometown. There was a big party and most of the guys were there and we were out late. The next day I get to the ball park feeling pretty bad. I didn't think I would have to pitch but Hutch goes, 'You're starting.' It was hot and humid and miserable. I was dead after just warming up. The first batter fouls off about 25 pitches and finally I throw one on the black and the umpire, Jocko Conlon, calls it ball four. Conlon was known for his quick temper. I called time out and got right in Conlon's face and called him all sorts of names."

"He took off his mask and said, 'O'Toole, I've heard enough of your bullshit. I know you got married last night and you want to get thrown out. But if we all have to suffer in this heat, you do too. I'm not throwing you out. Now get your ass back out there and pitch.'"

After the game, when asked why he had O'Toole pitch the day after his wedding, Hutchinson told reporters, "I didn't set his wedding date."



One game against the Dodgers, O’Toole appeared to be struggling but didn’t appreciate the fact that the manager wanted to bring in a reliever.  “I’m ahead 3-2 in the ninth and the first guy gets on with an error,” said O’Toole. “The next batter breaks his bat and the ball comes floating at me in slow motion and goes right through my legs. I’m really steaming. Hutch comes out and growls, ‘Gimme the ball. Field your damn position.’”

 “I said, ‘No way. I’m finishing this game. Our bullpen hasn’t gotten anybody out in a week.’”
“And he says, ‘Gimme the damn ball.’”
“And we argued back and forth, calling each other names and cussing at each other. Kasko and Blasingame are right behind me adding up the fines, saying ‘That’s a hundred dollars. That’s two hundred dollars.’”

“Finally, I say, ‘Here’s the damn ball.’ And I walk off the field.”
“And he goes, ‘I’ll see you after the game.’”
“So I go in the clubhouse and cool down. Brosnan gets them out and we win. Hutch comes in and walks right by me, doesn’t say a word. I’m starting to feel bad for acting that way and I’m sure I’m going to get hit with a huge fine. So I go into his office and say, ‘I’m sorry for blowing my stack out there, but I just didn’t want to come out of that game.’”
“He looks at me and says, ‘O’Toole, if you weren’t like that I wouldn’t have you on my team. Now get the hell outta here.’”


The Reds finished the 1959 season at 39-35 for Hutchinson and had promise for 1960, but a series of injuries and slumps rendered the season a disappointing 67-87.
Most national publications predicted more of the same for the 1961 Reds; few gave them any consideration for even a first division finish.

“Nobody gave us much of a chance to be good in 1961,” said O’Toole. “No one thought we had a shot. But Hutch really rallied us. He drove us. He was the perfect guy for that team."
The Reds surprised teams early and got off to a good start.

A key turning point in the season came in late April in Los Angeles. The Reds were swept in a three game series by the Dodgers. “We got killed. We played like a bunch of high school kids. After the [last game] Hutch calls a meeting. We had been out there from ten in the morning. Now its seven at night and he says, ‘Guys, don’t take your uniforms off.’ We all looked at him. We were worn out. He said, ‘We’re going to go back out there and I’m going to teach you how to play this game.'” The weary team trudged back on to the field and were put through a simulated game  with pitchers throwing full speed and everyone hustling under the watchful eye of their manager.

“Everyone was bitching but he taught us a lesson. That night, we said, ‘There’s no game tomorrow, let’s go out.’ So we all went out together as a team. It brought us together because we were all tired and mad at Hutch. So we all went out and had a good time.”

To make one further point, Hutchinson pulled a rare bed check that night. O’Toole was scheduled to pitch the next game and came in around midnight like a good boy—not so the rest of the team. A standing rule on the team was that players were not allowed to drink in the hotel bar, that was where the coaches and manager drank.
“[Gene] Freese rode back to the hotel with me, but instead of heading up to his room, he went in the hotel bar for a few more drinks. The first guy Freese sees when he goes into the hotel bar is Hutch. Not knowing what else to do, Freese bought Hutch a drink.”

 Unknown to the third baseman, the manager had just called his room and his roommate, Gordy Coleman, covered for him and said that Freese was in bed asleep and he didn’t want to wake him.

“Hutch said, ‘Hey Gene, it’s good to see you, tough game today. Oh, by the way, I just called your room and your roommate said you were sleeping.'”

“Out of the 25 guys on the team, I think he caught 20 of them out late that night. He fined everybody a hundred bucks. After that, we got the message.”


Not long afterwards, the Reds launched a ten-game winning streak and vaulted into first place.
By June the Reds were still leading the pack. Someone in the press coined the term “Ragamuffin Reds” for the underdogs and the name stuck. Rather than feel insulted, however, the players made it their battle cry.



Another key moment came in late June against Milwaukee. O’Toole and the Reds felt that the Braves were stealing signs. “I was throwing pretty good but they’re hitting line drives all over the place. Mathews hit one out down the left field line and he’s a lefthanded pull hitter. There’s no way he could have hit that unless he knew what was coming. I get to the bench and I’m hot. I said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’"

“And [Joe] Jay says, ‘I just saw [Braves pitcher Bob] Buhl. He’s got binoculars down there in the bullpen and he’s relaying signs.’"
“So we changed the signs, but I’m still pretty hot. The next inning I got on first base and I tell Adcock, ‘You guys are stealing signs. There’s no way Mathews hits that curve ball out to left.’
And he says, ‘Now you know we wouldn’t do that.’”

“And I said, ‘Tell Mathews the next time I see him digging in like he knows what’s coming I’m going to stick it right in his ear.’ So I guess he must have relayed that to Mathews. A few innings later, I’m on first again and Kasko hits a double off the wall. I round third and try to score but I slipped and fell down. Then I got in a rundown between Mathews and Torre.”

As Mathews went to tag O’Toole, the pitcher's elbow "accidentally" landed on the third baseman’s chin. Mathews jumped on O’Toole and the benches cleared for one of the biggest fights in baseball that year. At one point, O’Toole’s father, a Chicago cop who was watching the game, started to join the brawl. He had one leg over the rail before he was pulled back by family.

When Hutchinson worked his way to the middle of the pile and pulled off Mathews (a guy who frequently came over to Hutchinson's Florida house for cookouts in the offseason), he asked, "What are you trying to do to my pitcher, Ed?”
Mathews replied, “But Hutch, he tried to knock the ball out of my glove.”
Hutchinson responded, “What did you want him to do, give you a kiss?”

“That fight kind of brought us together," said O'Toole. "We felt like it was us against the world."

And in the 1961 season, the Ragamuffin Reds beat the world. They roared to the pennant behind the slugging of Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and the world's greatest pinch-hitter, Jerry Lynch. Joe
Jay won 21 games, O’Toole 19. Freese and Coleman each hit 26 home runs. Relief pitcher Jim Brosnan saved games and wrote another best seller. It was the high point of their lives. O'Toole used his World Series share for a down payment on a house--a house in which he still lives 64 years later.

Although Hutchinson was tough, his players universally respected him and, O'Toole was quick to add, he had a heart of gold. The money from the LA-bedcheck fines? He gave it all back at the end of the season. The guys who paid with checks discovered that the checks had never been cashed.

O'Toole (right) and Fred Hutchinson discuss the Bronx Bombers in Yankee Stadium in Game One of the 1961 World Series. O'Toole pitched well but the Reds lost to Whitey Ford 2-0. Number 9 is catcher Darrel Johnson, who later fans will remember as facing the Reds as the Red Sox manager in the 1975 Series.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      * 

O'Toole recalled the pain of the 1964 season. Hutchinson had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in the offseason and was told by his brother, a famous cancer surgeon in Seattle, that he probably had less than a year to live. Rather than wallow in pity, Hutchinson gamely tried to finish out the season with his team.

The players watched as their manager refused to complain, but lost weight and withered before their eyes. "To see a man who was built like John Wayne go from 220 pounds to 150 pounds over three months was terrible," said O'Toole. A late winning streak put the Reds into position to play for the pennant on the last day of the season, but they lost. "We tried so hard to win it for Hutch but fell just short. When he went around the clubhouse shaking hands and saying goodbye after that last game, there wasn't a dry eye in the place."

Hutchinson died shortly after the season ended. O'Toole traveled from Cincinnati to Florida for the funeral.

Today Hutchinson is honored with the annual Hutch Award, given to the major league player who demonstrates courage and overcomes adversity. The award is presented in a ceremony in Hutchinson's hometown of Seattle where the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center stands. "They flew me out to Seattle to give the Hutch Award to Trevor Hoffman a few years ago. I got to see Hutch's wife [90+ year old Patsy] again; a sweet lady. Before the game [Seattle vs. New York] she asked me if I could get an autograph for her grandson of Derek Jeter. So I asked Torre and he called the clubhouse boy over and said, 'Tell Jeter if he wants to play today I need an autographed ball for Fred Hutchinson's wife.' The ball was there in two seconds."

O'Toole never forgot Hutchinson, who he regards as the best manager he ever had. "He was a great one. I think about him all the time."



Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Chemistry 101: Why an Extremely Talented Twins Team Failed to Win the 1967 Pennant

 Team chemistry is one of those nebulous terms often tossed about by sportswriters. Like industrial chemistry, when it's good, often no one notices, but when it's bad, it leads to a huge pile of foul-smelling toxic waste.

Regarding this topic, I decided to discuss one of the mysteries of my youth: why didn't the powerful Minnesota Twins run away with the 1967 AL pennant--a pennant no one seemed to want for much of the season, one that was there for the taking if they had only played up to a portion of their potential. It's a worthwhile exercise if only because it involves so many classic characters.

The biggest puzzle of the first two months of the 1967 season was the American League team from Minnesota. A deep, talented bunch with the best hitting and best pitching from top to bottom in the majors, a team that had taken Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers to the brink in the 1965 World Series, they floundered spectacularly.

The Twins were managed by Sam Mele, a cliche-spouting, amiable man who had been in the top position since mid-1961. He had taken over a perpetual second division club and made them into one of the best teams in the American League. They had finished in second place in 1962, third in 1963 and won the pennant in 1965.



But while Mele wore a uniform and filled out the line-up card, he was actually little more than a puppet and, unfortunately, everyone knew it. Owner and President Calvin Griffith had been in charge since taking over from the uncle who raised him in 1955. Griffith was one of the last of the baron baseball owners, a man whose business interests started and ended with the team. While some good owners, aware of their own deficiencies, leave the professionals to run their clubs, Griffith had grown up with baseball—albeit mostly losing baseball—and involved himself in every aspect of his team. He functioned as his own general manager and often made trades without consulting his manager. He was quoted in the papers more often than any of his players or managers


Griffith made a habit of meeting with his manager nearly every day at 4 PM to go over the status of the team, what he expected and what he wanted to do. Being late for the meeting was not tolerated because 5 PM was Griffith's nap time.

 While he sometimes publicly complained that Mele was too nice a guy, Griffith’s relationship with Mele was generally supportive. In 1964, however, Mele had endured the public indignity of having his salary slashed by Griffith because of a drop in the standings, one of the few times a manager had this happen; but at least he retained his job.

Whereas other laid back managers similar to Mele have led successful teams, the constant, very public, emasculation by Griffith made it inevitable that Mele would not be able to maintain the respect of a room full of hyper-testosteroned competitive men.

But Griffith did have a good eye for talent, both on and off the field. Before the 1965 season, he had pulled off a masterpiece by bringing in two excellent assistant coaches to help Mele: Billy Martin and Johnny Sain.

 Martin was recommended by Mele. They had been friendly rivals when Mele played for the Red Sox in the fifties. Martin had played with the Twins at the end of his playing career in 1961. When Mele was forced to cut him in the spring of 1962, convinced that he had all the makings of the classic feisty second baseman-turned-great-manager, he promised to find him a job in the organization.

True to his word, Mele convinced Griffith to hire Martin, starting him out as a scout. Martin quickly showed an aptitude for the management side of the business and worked his way up the ladder. Mele recommended Martin for the third base coaching position before the 1965 season, then gave him extra responsibility. With the directive to get the power-hitting Twins moving, Martin laid the foundations for what would later be called Billyball. Suddenly even refrigerator-with-muscles Harmon Killebrew was sliding into bases like a ballerina and the Twins drove teams crazy on the basepaths.
                .

Martin showed that he not only knew the game, but he was a great teacher. One of his prized pupils in 1965 was shortstop Zollo Versalles. A multitalented, tempermental hot dog, Versalles was a puzzle. At times, he looked like the best all-around shortstop in baseball. Other times, he was prone to sloppy errors and sulking. In the spring of 1965, Versalles became enraged when Mele pulled him out of an exhibition game for giving a less than satisfactory effort and complained to reporters that he was through listening to his manager.

But Martin was able to work wonders with Versalles, harnessing the talent and keeping the temper under control. Versalles continued to openly defy Mele, telling the press that he would do what Martin directed, not what Mele ordered, but he hustled and sparked the team all year, ending up as the 1965 AL MVP, leading the league in doubles and triples and winning a gold glove.


Martin also greatly helped jack-of-all-trades Cesar Tovar and, in 1967, a sweet-swinging, stone-handed young second baseman named Rod Carew. Shy and temperamental, the 22-year-old Carew had temporarily bolted two minor league teams (in Wilson, North Carolina and Orlando) after disagreements with managers and disappointing performances. In 1968 he would try the same with the Twins after being benched: he packed his bags, headed to the airport and the Twins manager was forced to dispatch a coach to drag him back.

In the spring of 1967, Carew was a guy from the low minors and most doubted he was ready for the majors. After tutoring Carew, and being impressed that he drank up instruction and worked hard, Martin told Griffith, "I think the kid can make it." Martin spent hours helping Carew's infield play that spring. Carew became an immediate All-Star and proceeded to hit .292 and win the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

By all accounts, Mele and Martin held mutual admiration for each other, worked well together and were genuine friends. Not so with the other coaching prodigy.

Johnny Sain was a pitcher-whisperer who manufactured 20-game winners wherever he went. Griffith had coaxed him to Minnesota with an offer of $25,000 a year, making him the highest paid coach in American League history. The Twins ERA dropped from 3.57 in 1964 to 3.14 in 1965. Big lefty Jim Kaat won 18 games. Mudcat Grant became an ace, winning 21. Twin pitchers loved their new coach. "Johnny was the best thing that ever happened to me," Grant said in 1968.

         

 The 1965 Minnesota Twins ran away with the American League pennant and extended the Los Angeles Dodgers to seven games in the World Series—only losing to Sandy Koufax’s Game Seven excellence.





Everyone was happy in the glow of a pennant celebration.


But things soon changed.


While Martin and Sain had proven to be great coaches and were key figures in the team's success, there were a few mildly annoying habits a team and its management needed to put up with; a quid pro quo for the use of their brilliance.

Martin had a temper and was a mean drunk. This was unfortunate because being drunk was a frequent off-field state for Billy the Kid.

Sain was a true iconoclast when it came to leading a pitching staff. He defied old-style pitching commandments such as excessive running and treated his pitchers as men first, professionals second. The prototype teacher-coach, he developed personal relationships with each pitcher and didn't give orders, he made suggestions and explained things intellectually. He was also very territorial, treating his pitchers almost like a separate team. He stated, "My pitchers come first. The press, the manager, and the front office come second." He greatly irritated owners by encouraging his pitchers to "climb the golden staircase" and demand what they were worth in salary negotiations.

Not surprisingly, Sain was very popular with his pitchers. He developed almost a cult following. And he didn't hesitate to correct superiors who interfered. He knew what he was doing, got good results which were plainly visible for all to see and felt like he should be left alone to do his job. The media often felt this way as well and irritated his superiors by stating so in print. Sain’s unsolicited advice about who should pitch, and when, in the rotation and when pitchers should be removed from games—decisions usually left to the manager (and decisions which, if they go wrong, frequently cost the manager his job) were a constant source of irritation to his managers.

In mid-1966, the inevitable happened in Kansas City. Martin erupted and cussed out one of Sain's pitchers after a failed bunt attempt. Sain took personal the fact that someone else had dared upbraid one of his minions, had words with Martin and the match was lit on the powder keg. The conversation reportedly included this exchange:

Sain: "Getting a bunt down on a squeeze play is not that easy."
Martin: "Yeah it is. That's why we used to beat your asses, because we executed and you made excuses."
From there, the argument degenerated into personal attacks which left feelings irreparably hurt.

Already annoyed that Sain was undermining his authority, Mele sided with his friend Martin. The pitchers, demonstrating that while you sometimes can't live with them, you certainly can't live without them either, rallied around their pitching coach. Sain moved his stuff out of the coaches dressing area and took a locker among his pitchers, dressing there the rest of the season.

Mele rarely talked to Sain the last half of the 1966 season. At times, the two only communicated by notes passed through another coach. At the conclusion of the 89-win 1966 season, Mele told Griffith that he could no longer work with Sain, suggesting, “Either he goes or I go.” Griffith, also annoyed at Sain's insubordination, backed his manager and parted ways with Sain.

The departure of Sain immediately caused unforeseen problems for Griffith and his team, however. Griffith had underestimated the enormous bond between Sain and his pupils. Jim Kaat, who had won 25 games in a career-year of 1966, wrote a much-publicized open letter to Twins fans and distributed it to newspapers in the Twin cities and it quickly was spread across the country on the wire services.

In the letter, Kaat called the firing of Sain "the great mistake" and said it was "like the Green Bay Packers allowing Vince Lombardi to leave." He concluded saying that "if I were ever in a position of general manager, I'd give John Sain a 'name-your-own-figure' contract to handle my pitchers (and, oh yes, I'd hire a manager who could take advantage of his talents)."

Astute observers appropriately took this as a slap at both Mele and Griffith.



 While Griffith quickly told newspaper men that he had talked to both Mele and Kaat and that things were taken care of, it was apparent in spring training that a serious rift had formed in the Twins’ clubhouse. There were now Sain-men and Mele-men. The leader of the Sain-men was obviously Kaat. Once the season started, he insisted on taking Sain's old locker and turned it into a shrine to his departed pitching coach, decorating the walls with pictures and articles of Sain. When Mele complained, Griffith made Kaat remove everything.

Several of the position players were firm Mele-men, steadfastly defending their duly-appointed field leader. Others, namely shortstop Versalles, did not care for Mele, but were staunch Martin-men and so opposed the Sain-men. The few newcomers, such as pitcher Dean Chance, had never played under Sain and so, naturally supported the manager, but were actually left confused, floating in the middle between two warring camps.


The two acknowledged leaders of the team were two of the best hitters of the era, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva. They were also generally felt to be two of the nicest, most easy-to-get-along-with men in all of baseball. Few baseball men will ever be found who will say a bad thing about either the consummate gentleman Killebrew or the perpetually smiling Oliva. They led by example and by sheer force of talent, but neither was a butt kicker. And the 1967 Twins needed someone who could stand up, kick some butts and force the issue. They needed a Frank Robinson but, unfortunately for them, Frank Robinsons were hard to come by.





The real butt-kicker for the Twins should have been Jim Kaat. At $54,000, the second-highest paid player on the team, Kaat was outspoken and a ferocious competitor. He was a terrific athlete and a natural leader of men. But as one of the main men involved in the palace revolt, he could not speak to the team at large. He was part of the problem and, thus, could not be part of the solution.


The result of this was a very divisive, frustrated, tense clubhouse. And this is the way the very talented Twins’ team started the 1967 season.

Not surprisingly, the team got off to a poor start and slowly got worse. Several stars slumped, routine plays in the field were botched and previous All-Star pitchers couldn’t find the strike zone. The Twins defense throwing a ball around resembled a "company picnic softball team half way through the second keg," according to Sports Illustrated.  June 8 the Twins blew a 9th inning lead against lowly Cleveland and Griffith decided he had seen enough. His team was 25-25 and mired in sixth place, 6 games out.

Griffith surmised that Mele had lost the team and a change was needed to prevent the once promising season from slipping away. June 9, as Mele was putting on his uniform in his office at Metropolitan Stadium, Griffith called him and said that he wanted to see him in his office. Mele reported to Griffith’s office and learned that he was no longer a major league manager.

In view of the clubhouse turmoil, Griffith wisely decided to go outside the team for a new manager. This surprised many who felt that the combustible, energetic, baseball-savvy third base coach Billy Martin would be the obvious choice. Although Martin had made no secret of his ambitions to one day manage a major league team, he had taken pains to avoid any perception of back-stabbing and had remained steadfastly loyal to Mele during the troubling season. His time would come later. To finish out the 1967 season, Griffith made a brilliant choice of an outsider--a complete unknown to major league fans and writers--the manager at the Twins’ triple-A Denver club, Cal Ermer.


Calvin Coolidge Ermer was 43 years old in 1967 and had been a minor league lifer. His major league experience had consisted of the grand total of one game as a player and one season as a coach. As a late season call up for Clark Griffith’s Washington Senators in 1947, Ermer had gone 0-for-3 in his only big league game. He later told anyone who would listen that it should have been only 0-for-2, he laid down a bunt that would have been a sacrifice except for a lead-footed runner: "It was a good bunt,” he liked to say.

Ermer had fashioned an impressive reputation managing the likes of the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Birmingham Barons, winning several Southern Association titles in the 1950s. He had a taste of the major leagues as a coach with the Orioles in 1962, then went back to the minors to manage in the Twins system. Ermer was known as a good teacher and was had been popular with his minor league players.

One of those players, at Chattanooga in 1957, was a powerfully-built youngster who had spent several years sitting on the bench of the Senators, losing his confidence as the result of the bonus rule. Ermer spent hours alone with Harmon Killebrew, throwing him extra batting practice and building up his confidence. Within two years, Killebrew was the best slugger in the American League.

Killebrew never forgot and was forever an Ermer fan. Years later, he would say Ermer "helped me more than anyone."  When Killebrew was offered the Texas Ranger managerial job in 1976, he initially made it a condition of the job that he would only take it if Ermer was brought in also (he later decided against becoming a manager).
   .
While it is standard operating procedure for owners to replace a fiery manager with a laid-back one, and vice versa, Griffith violated protocol by picking one almost identical to the one he had fired.  Ermer was friendly, rarely cursed, except during conversations with umpires, and was considered to be one of the best dugout story-tellers in baseball. With his premature gray hair and lanky build, he was almost identical to the easy-going Mele, in appearance and temperament. In fact, Ermer had sometimes been mistaken for Mele at the Twins’ spring training complex while he was there with his Denver team. Griffith apparently felt the problem with the team wasn’t necessarily the disposition of the manager, but the personality problems that were hurting the atmosphere in the clubhouse, causing his key players to underperform. "I still think this team can win the pennant," Griffith told reporters. "I think new leadership can provide the spark to get us going."

Ermer received the call from Griffith in Denver at 2:30 PM. At 4:30 he was was on a plane for Minneapolis. He climbed into a uniform 20 minutes before the game, then watched his new team get trounced by the Orioles 11-2.

After the first loss, the Twins won 5 of the next 7 and 20 of 31. Kaat immediately turned around--he had been 1-7 with an ERA of 6.38 and 0 complete games under Mele. After Mele was fired, he proceeded to win 7 of his next 8 starts and would go 15-6 with an ERA of 2.13 and 13 complete games the rest of the season.

But getting rid of Mele didn't suddenly cause the Twins to sit around the clubhouse holding hands and singing campfire songs after each game. There were two more causes of serious friction.

The pitching staff was overloaded with great starters; on the surface, a nice problem to have but, in reality, it caused trouble. In the offseason, they had landed Dean Chance who possessed perhaps the most electric stuff in the league; a 26-year-old who had won the AL Cy Young Award in 1964 with the lowly Angels by going 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA. Based on his overpowering arm, Chance immediately became the ace of the talented staff. In addition to Kaat and Grant, the Twins also had hardthrowing 22-year-old Dave Boswell, who would win 20 games in 1969, 23-year-old lefty Jim Merritt who would win 20 games with the Reds in 1970 and Jim Perry who would win 20 and 24 games for the Twins in 1969 and 1970. If you're scoring at home, that's six pitchers on the staff with the talent to win 20 games within a 5 year period.

 The problem was that there was only one ball and no way to keep everyone happy. In the mid-60s no one wanted to be a reliever. Several pitchers grumbled about not getting enough work. Perry and Grant were most consistently the odd men out, moving in and out of the rotation, becoming frustrated.

Also, there was a serious race problem on the team. Griffith had accumulated a very diverse team, based on talent. The Twins clubhouse contained Cubans Sandy Valdespino, Versalles, and Tony Oliva, Cesar Tovar from Venezuela and rookie Rod Carew, who had been born in Panama and moved to New York at the age of 14. Mudcat Grant and catcher Earl Battey were African Americans.

But Griffith was far from an enlightened owner. He was notoriously cheap and "plantation" was a term often bandied about by both players and writers. The players did not mesh--several groups kept to themselves, mostly along race and language lines. One former Twin later said of a white teammate "you could tell he didn't like blacks."

In 1962, catcher Earl Battey had filed a complaint with the Minnesota State Commission on Discrimination against the Twins because they were the only team that still segregated players during spring training in Florida. Despite heavy pressure from media and civil rights groups, the team's policy remained unchanged until 1964.

At least twice in 1967, race-related incidents flared into nasty confrontations. In mid-June, during a bus ride from the airport in Detroit, back of the bus fooling around by Boswell led to a verbal duel between Ted Uhlaender and Sandy Valdespino. Teammates and coaches intervened to keep them from taking swings.

Grant didn't get along with either Ermer or new tough-guy pitching coach Early Wynn, whose solution for whatever ailed a pitcher was to run his legs off. Grant also smelled racism on the team.
In July, after losing his starting spot while battling knee problems, he complained to reporters about his bullpen role and asked to be traded. "My mind was warped," said Grant in 1968. "For the first time in my life I had hate in my heart. . . I got to hating just about everybody. I thought every white man was a ****. I was crawling with hate."

Griffith's cheapness and race feelings apparently changed little from decade to decade. Pedro Ramos, a Cuban pitcher in the 1950s, later said of trying to negotiate a $500 raise out of Griffith, "He told me if I didn't like that I could stay in Cuba and cut sugar cane . . .We were like slaves."

In 1978 a boozed-up Griffith told a gathering at a Lions Club that he had moved his franchise from Washington to Minnesota because "I found out you only had 15,000 black people here. . . we came here because you've got good, hardworking white people here."

Rod Carew responded to some name-calling in the same speech by telling a reporter, "I'm not going to be another nigger on his plantation."

And then there were the players who were just hard-headed, slumping and unhappy, like shortstop Versalles, who was in the process of experiencing one of the most perplexing and precipitous plunges of any MVP in history. He would end the season at an even .200 and lead the league's shortstops in errors for the third straight year, mostly on foolish throws. He publicly ripped Ermer when he was finally benched in August and was essentially worthless the rest of the season. After being traded at the end of the season, he would complain that the Twins would have won the pennant with Mele [whom he had also hated].

Despite the continued turmoil, the talented Twins played good ball under Ermer. They took over first place August 13 and held either all or part of first place every day from September 2 to the end of the season except for two days in mid-month.

They pulled into Boston for the final two games of the season with the standings looking like this:

Twins     91-69
Red Sox 90-70

The Twins had gone 66-42 since Ermer took over. Ermer was on the verge of becoming the first man to lead an American League team to a pennant after taking over in midseason. They had Kaat, who was coming off a monster September, winning 5 games, and Chance, who had already won his 20th game, ready.

But old feuds proved fatal. On the Friday before the final two games that would decide the pennant, the team met to decide on postseason shares. Normally this is a mere formality, with little quibbling and often great generosity being shown to bat boys and clubhouse attendants. The Twins, however, quickly degenerated into an enraged mob as they debated whether or not to give Mele any portion of a share.

Kaat told a reporter, "It was just an overwhelming majority against him [Mele] getting a share. Nobody led any opposition group to Mele."

Kaat's opinion was not shared by everyone, however. "I was never so ashamed of anything in my life," an unnamed veteran was quoted in Sports Illustrated. "And we had enough problems before that came up." Eleven players and one coach said that if commissioner Eckert didn't order the Twins to give Mele a share, they would give it to him out of their own pockets.


In that state of lack of cohesiveness, the Twins went out the next day for a date with destiny at Fenway Park. They proceeded to drop both games to the Red Sox and Carl Yastrzemski. The season was over.










      *       *       *       *

Johnny Sain had moved to Detroit for the 1967 season, where he turned around their talented but underperforming pitching staff. The next year Denny McLain would win 31 games and Mickey Lolich would take three in the World Series. Sain would be fired after the 1969 season at the urging of the Tigers manager, Mayo Smith, who felt that Sain had too much power and didn't communicate. Sain would move to Chicago where he would help newly-acquired struggling lefthander Jim Kaat win 20 games two more times.

Cal Ermer, the toast of the American League the last half of 1967, would be fired at the end of the 1968 season in which the Twins finished in 7th place, 24 games behind the Tigers. Griffith stated he felt Ermer was too nice and lacked firm control. Billy Martin, who was definitely not too nice, was named manager. Late in the 1969 season he would punch out his 20-game winning pitcher Dave Boswell in an alley behind a Detroit bar. He would lead the Twins to the west division championship but would be fired at the end of the season.

The Twins would not win another American League pennant until 1987, three years after Calvin Griffith had sold the team.
            

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Leona Fisk: A Life Well-lived

One of the things I enjoy most about doing research for my books is meeting interesting people. Of all the people I have been privileged to meet, however, there is one who will always hold a special place in my heart.

Through interviews with people who grew up in the small town of Charlestown, New Hampshire in the 1950s and 1960, I had heard many stories of Leona Fisk, who was known to all as Lee.

Virtually every interview eventually worked it's way to her, always in loving, reverential tones. They spoke of her phenomenal athletic ability; I heard how she had been a great softball player, once even breaking up a no-hitter in a men's fast-pitch game. She had once shattered the head of a pin in a duck-pin bowling alley because she threw so hard.

They spoke of how she always made time to play sports with area kids in her yard during the summers. The large field next to their house was the gathering point and sports arena for all neighborhood kids. And she always seemed to have more fun than they did. She could kick a football and throw a baseball farther than any of the high school athletic standouts.


They spoke of her renowned abilities as a cook, especially her famous home-made cinnamon rolls, which were always setting out for anyone who passed by. They spoke of how she maintained the family farm, grew beautiful flowers, delicious berries and canned untold jars of jelly and vegetables each year.

She had a beautiful singing voice and continued to sing publicly at church into her 90s. This past Christmas Eve, she sang "Away in a Manger" in church for the 60th consecutive year--at age 95.

She taught Sunday School and kindergarden and coached high school softball championship teams. Her marriage lasted 69 years. She raised six children who were highly successful, in no small part due to the wisdom and work ethic imparted by her and her husband. In brief, she cast a giant shadow over the entire town. "She did all that without complaining," said her oldest son Calvin. "She was a wonder woman."

"If you went to Sears and Roebuck and ordered the ideal mom, it would be Lee Fisk," said one of the guys who grew up with her children.

The ladies at the Charlestown Historical Society told me, "Everyone in town loves Lee Fisk."


And then I met her.

I found that all the previous stories did not do justice to this wonderful lady. It wasn't their fault--it's just that words could not possibly ever do her justice.

Even though she had been battling health problems, she bounded up, greeted me and welcomed me into her home as if I were an old friend. As she showed me around and poured out stories, I felt very fortunate that my son, on a break from medical school, had accompanied me. I somehow felt that being in the presence of this great lady would provide a lesson for him.

When she mentioned that she had not had time to pick the bountiful crop of berries yet this year because she had slowed down for some reason (not mentioning that the reason could have been that she was 95), I offered to help and so my son and I found ourselves squatting in the backyard, picking blueberries and blackberries and listening to stories.

Ten minutes after we left, I received a call from Mrs. Fisk's daughter--her mother had one more detail she wanted to be sure to tell me. I am convinced that Leona Fisk is one of the finest people I have ever met and it was indeed an honor to be welcomed into her house.

I received a phone call Thursday morning from one of the guys I had interviewed who had grown up in Charlestown with her children. I found myself fighting a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as he told me she had passed away this week.

The world is somehow diminished by her departure, but I believe few people have ever gotten more out of life than Leona Fisk. Charlestown, New Hampshire will never be the same, but neither will anyone who ever had the privilege of meeting her.



Leona Fisk  1919-2015

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dan Neville: The Man Who Got Close to His Dream But Couldn't Touch It


Ray Kinsella: "You came this close. It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they'd consider it a tragedy."

Moonlight Graham: "We just don't recognize life's most significant moments while they're happening. Back then I thought, 'Well, there'll be other days.' I didn't realize that that was the only day."
----Field of Dreams



Dan Neville was once one of the more promising pitching prospects in the Reds system and a man who lived out the dream of his childhood--almost. I had a chance to speak with him in 2009. When I called, fittingly, he was watching a baseball game on TV.

Dan Neville grew up across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in Covington, Kentucky. He loved baseball from as early as he could remember. He loved everything about the game. He spent hours as a youth collecting baseball cards and throwing a rubber ball against a wall and fielding it, dreaming of one day playing for his beloved Cincinnati Reds. He spent many days at Crosley Field, walking across a suspension bridge to watch his idols Ted Kluzewski, Wally Post, Joe Nuxhall and Gus Bell.

Dan developed into a good baseball player--a right-handed pitcher with heat. The summer after his junior year at Covington Catholic High School, he played for Eagle Savings Bank, a top traveling amateur team that included future major league shortstop Ed Brinkman and a skinny hustler from west Cincinnati named Pete Rose.

Dan signed with the Reds in 1960 and played in the rookie league at Geneva, New York with Rose, Tony Perez and Art Shamsky. He blazed his way to a 15-4 record with a 1.94 ERA in 1961 and his future looked bright. While at Tampa the next season, however, a shoulder injury almost ended his career. When the Reds' brass wanted to cut him loose, he convinced Tampa's manager, Johnny Vander Meer (yes, that Johnny Vander Meer) that he would do anything to hang around. He agreed to essentially be the clubhouse boy for the 1962 Tampa team. For five months, Neville washed uniforms, shined shoes and picked up for teammates who were lucky enough to still be playing baseball.

Then, toward the end of the season, he started tossing a ball against the side of the dugout and noticed that his arm didn't hurt anymore. He was able to get back in uniform and did well: 13-9 with a 2.70 ERA at Macon in 1963.

Neville attended spring training with the Reds in Tampa in 1964. He still remembers the thrill of being in the same locker room as Joe Nuxhall, a player he had idolized as a youth, and how Nuxie treated everyone the same--like a king. He also recounted a story of a spring road trip in which his roommate procured female companionship for the evening and locked him out of their room. Neville was rescued from the lobby sofa by veteran Vada Pinson, who allowed him to sleep in the extra bed in his room for the night.

Neville pitched well that spring but, unusually, the Reds were loaded with pitchers that year: Joe Jay, Jim Maloney and Bob Purkey had all won 20 games in the previous one or two seasons and lefty Jim O'Toole had averaged 17 wins over the previous three years. Neville was one of the last pitchers cut and was sent to San Diego.

As the Reds fought for the 1964 pennant, Neville and several others were called up from San Diego in September. It was a talented bunch that included future Big Red Machine mainstays Tony Perez and Tommy Helms.



With the pennant race so tight, the newcomers didn't get much playing time. Neville dressed in a
Reds uniform but only got to warm up twice. He did not get in a game.

So close he could smell the coffee, but didn't get a taste. Although Neville didn't get to play, he didn't feel too bad. He was sure he would be back. He was only 23 years old. There was plenty of time.



But then, there wasn't.

In 1965, Neville was once again in AAA San Diego, once again doing well. The Reds announced that Neville would be called up after San Diego's weekend series in Indianapolis. He pitched poorly in relief that weekend and the call-up never happened. The second near-miss was crushing. "I just lost it," he said in 2014. "I was defeated. To this day I wish somebody would have dragged me aside and given me a heart to heart."

Neville began to drink heavily. When the Reds tried to call him up at the end of the season, he refused to go. He was traded to the White Sox and his career quickly unraveled.

"It's nobody's fault but my own," he said.

After baseball, Neville returned to the Cincinnati area and worked for Procter and Gamble for 29 years.

So what's it like to get so close to your dream that you can taste it and then lose it? What if you thought you had lost it, got it back again and then lost it again forever? Would you be bitter? Would you hate everything about your dream?

Neville said that he has remained a baseball fan and still watches the Reds whenever he can. He still loves the game.

"I don't have any regrets," he said of his time on the Reds bench at the end of the 1964 season, even though he didn't get to play. "It was the best two weeks of my life."


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Denny McLain and the Raccoon That Changed Baseball History*

* Or did it?





One of the more curious, and potentially disturbing, episodes in baseball history came at the end of the 1967 season.

The 1967 American League pennant race was one of the closest ever and it occurred in the years without any divisions or playoffs--there were no extra chances for finishing in second place.

At the end of August, the Twins, Red Sox, White Sox and Tigers were all within one and a half games of each other. The Twins were a potentially great team, wracked by dissension, in no small part caused by a young coach named Billy Martin. The White Sox were hitless wonders, made even more hitless by the skulduggery perpetrated by their field maintenance crew to help their pitchers. The Red Sox were the surprise team, a bunch of youngsters led by Yaz who was having an amazing year.

The Tigers appeared to many to be the favorites, however. They were a deep, talented bunch with the best catcher in the league, Bill Freehan, along with sluggers Norm Cash, Willie Horton and the venerable Al Kaline. They also had a great pitching staff topped by Earl Wilson, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain.

After 159 games, absolutely nothing had been settled--four teams were still within one and a half games of the promised land. The White Sox finally dropped out after 160 games, but 3 teams went into the last weekend with a chance for the pennant.

But something was wrong in Detroit.

McLain, who had already established himself as one of the best pitchers in the majors, was not performing up to par. In 1966, he had become the youngest twenty-game winner in the American League since Bob Feller. In 1967, at the age of 23, he should have been on top of his game. His record stood at 17-14 after a complete game 3-hitter August 29 but, during the tight pennant race, he would not win another game that year.






The brash McLain was a man of excess. He threw continuous fastballs, even when the situation called for something offspeed--and seemed unrepentant about giving up homers in such situations, joking that "I like to challenge a hitter, unfortunately this year I've lost 34 challenges." He reportedly drank as many as 25 Pepsis a day. And he made a habit of playing in nightclubs on his Hammond organ into the late night hours throughout the midwest, bragging that he was the best 20-game-winning organ player around. No one, especially Tiger manager Mayo Smith, seemed to mind because McLain usually won on game day. He had quickly become one of the most outspoken, widely-quoted fan favorites in baseball.




McLain was said to have "wrenched his back" in late August, 1967. In September and October he made 5 starts, did not get out of the sixth inning in any of them, averaged 3 innings and 3 runs per start, and Detroit went 1-4 in those games.

Most perplexing was that he showed up September 18, the day after losing to the Red Sox, with a swollen foot, hobbling on crutches and appearing to be done for the year. The team physician examined him and reported that he had dislocated the two outside toes on his foot.

There was apparently some confusion as to the exact cause of the foot injury. The story that McLain repeated most often, and seemed to be believed by out-of-town writers (those in Detroit, who knew McLain more intimately, strangely had their doubts), was this version, printed in the December, 1967 issue of Sport Magazine: "my wife went to bed and I sat on the living room sofa to watch TV. Up here The Untouchables comes on at 1 A. M. . .  I fell asleep. . . . A raccoon knocked over an empty garbage can and it startled me. . . So I jumped up. My left leg was sleeping and I turned my whole left ankle." Because the foot was asleep, he didn't realize the pain and took a few more steps on it, further injuring it.

Other stories soon popped up, however. One had him outside chasing the raccoons when he injured his foot. Another (attributed to Mickey Lolich) had him kicking a water cooler. Some reporters said McLain told them he kicked some lockers in the clubhouse in anger after the loss to the Red Sox.

The Associated Press September 21, 1967 quoted Mayo Smith as saying, "He was sitting down at home Tuesday and his foot went to sleep. When he stood up, his ankle rolled out from under him."

Whatever the cause, McLain was on crutches for about a week, then Smith started him the second game of a double header on the final day of the season. A Tiger win would have forced a playoff with the Red Sox. McLain lasted  only 2.2 innings, gave up 3 runs and the Tigers lost, paving the way for the Impossible Dream of the Red Sox.

And so the story ended: a bad luck injury had knocked out one of the best pitchers in the majors during the heat of a pennant race in which one win would have made the difference. Everyone had a good laugh and the particulars were forgotten. Sport Magazine noted that the Tigers would probably win the pennant in 1968, "provided, of course, no one falls off a couch."



The next season, a healthy McLain lit up the baseball world, winning 31 games and leading the Tigers to the pennant. In 1969, he won 24 games and his second consecutive Cy Young Award. He had won 108 games in 5 years and was still only 25 years old. He was suddenly bigger than the game.



And then, things got interesting.

In January, 1970, the FBI conducted a crackdown on a five-state gambling ring with ties to organized crime. Their haul included numerous underworld figures and low-level gamblers.Some of the unindicted co-conspirators, as unindicted co-conspirators are wont to do, sang to save their miserable necks. In doing so, they alerted authorities to some interesting happenings in the Detroit-area sports arena.

Morton Sharnik, who had written for Sports Illustrated for a decade on boxing and baseball, picked up some of the rumors and nosed around. He did not name his sources other than to say that they were "several law-enforcement agencies" and a one-time Detroit Mafia lawyer who spilled his guts to the authorities. Sources also apparently included a Flint, Michigan sportswriter who covered the Tigers and a Flint detective--both of whom spent a lot of time hanging out, drinking and gambling at a seedy Flint club and steakhouse named the Shorthorn.

The result of Sharnik's work made the cover of SI on February 23, 1970 in one of the magazine's biggest block-busters to date:


Denny McLain and the Mob! The American League's two-time reining Cy Young Award winner and one of baseball's most popular and biggest personalities apparently, according to the magazine, was mixed up with "The Mob." Organized crime. Underworld figures. Gangland members. It was unbelievable.

The article claimed that McLain was involved in a bookmaking operation run out of the Shorthorn in Flint, which was under the protection and backing of the Syrian Mob, apparently an organization of great importance in the Detroit area.

According to the article, McLain bet heavily with the Syrians on basketball and hockey and lost regularly, resulting in a large debt. He apparently so flaunted baseball's rules that he openly placed bets on the phone in the clubhouse. Also, it claimed, in February of 1967, McLain had agreed to put up his own money to back the bookmaking operation. Things turned sour, however, as McLain was later swindled by the bookmakers--they kept the winnings themselves and sent lost bets to McLain to pay off.

Allegedly, trouble started in mid-summer 1967 when a Battle Creek man won $46,000 on a long shot in a horse race and he was sent to McLain for the funds. When McLain refused to pay, the man went to a street fixer with Mob ties for help.

The article claimed that it was this mobster who stomped on McLain's foot in September of 1967 as a reminder to pay his debts.

The magazine further claimed that a "gangland source" stated that the mobster had bet heavily on the Red Sox and Twins to win the pennant and against the Tigers in McLain's last start.

In the most salacious detail, and an act stretching the line of respectability of journalism, the article concluded with the sad news that the gambler who was owed the $46,000 dollars was later found dead at the scene of a very suspicious single-car accident on a lonely road (adding that it was in a period of good visibility and weather). The obvious conclusion left for the reader was that someone (possibly even McLain?) involved in the gambling ring was responsible for the man's death.

Sports sections all over the country blew up with the news. It was indeed, as stated by the UPI, "Baseball's worst scandal since eight members of the White Sox were banned for life for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series."

If the article was to be believed, here was one of the game's biggest stars who was not only heavily indebted to gamblers and organized crime personalities, but participated with them in organized crime; that one of the mobsters had played a role in a pennant race by damaging a key pitcher for a contender and, possibly, had influenced that pitcher to throw other games.

And, by the way, they may have killed a guy.


Behind the scenes, notified by the magazine of the article a week ahead of time, Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn immediately called McLain to his office in New York and questioned him. McLain admitted to gambling quite often on basketball and hockey and to being involved with the bookmaking operation run out of the Shorthorn. But he stated that he gotten out in midseason and, since he was himself swindled and received no money, he felt that he was an innocent victim. He denied everything else in the article.

Bowie Kuhn was then in a precarious situation. He astutely realized that we can't have, um, raccoons running around affecting the outcomes of pennant races. But he faced the classic Baseball Commissioner-conundrum: How to ensure that raccoons don't influence pennant races, and punish those who may traffic with raccoons, without admitting publicly that baseball may have a raccoon problem--or any other kind of a problem.

It's a delicate two-step that other commissioners had successfully pulled off in the past. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, of course, established the precedent by banning for life the members of the Black Sox and then later refusing to acknowledge that any similar crime could ever be committed (see Cobb/Speaker).

Happy Chandler suspended Leo Durocher for a year before the 1947 season for associating with low-lifes with organized crime and gambling ties, but conspiracy theorists can point to the cover-up perpetrated in the otherwise excellent movie "42" in which the stated cause of the suspension was the outrage of Catholics over Durocher's dalliance with married actress Loraine Day--throwing Happy under the bus in the process by making him look like a dolt--and not even mentioning gambling.

Bowie Kuhn, if nothing else, considered himself to be a master of maintaining the appropriate appearance. He famously wore a short-sleeved shirt during a frigid night World Series game, in hopes of convincing the television audience that the rest of the Nanook-dressed crowd was overly sensitive and that, obviously, it was not at all cold.

Later he suspended the retired Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays from baseball activities because they had taken jobs shaking hands and schmoozing customers at casinos where, gasp, gambling took place.

Kuhn released a well-crafted statement the day the magazine hit the racks. He announced that he was suspending McLain indefinitely, pending further investigation. He was careful to make it clear that the suspension was for the bookmaking activities and was "not based on allegations contained in a magazine article, many of which I believe will prove to be unfounded." He added that "his [McLain's] own gullibility and avarice had permitted him to become the dupe of the gamblers with whom he associated."

Soon thereafter, Kuhn announced that the investigation was completed and that McLain would be re-instated July 1. In case anyone was wondering, he added "There is no indication that [McLain's activities] in any way involve the playing or outcome of baseball games."

Not long after McLain returned, perhaps having realized how popular he still was as over 53,000 fans crammed into Tiger Stadium for his first appearance, Kuhn suspended him for the rest of the season, this time for a very vague charge of carrying a gun on a Tiger road trip. McLain stated that he did indeed have a gun, legally owned and registered (perhaps to fend off marauding raccoons) but that he never took it on a road trip. Confusingly, no one could be found who actually saw the gun--there were only unsubstantiated rumors of a guy who knew a guy who said he heard McLain had a gun on the road trip.

Many felt that it was Kuhn's way of further punishing McLain and removing him from the limelight without saying the dirty G-word again.

Baseball could have had a very big problem on its hands (imagine, a Hall of Fame-talent star who felt himself to be bigger than the game mixed up in gambling) but Kuhn was rescued from any further decision-making as natural history played itself out and McLain's arm was soon deader than his organ-playing career and he was out of the game within two years.


But that brings us back to the original question--what really happened in 1967?

McLain wrote two autobiographies, the last of which, published in 2007 was aptly called, "I told you I wasn't perfect."



In it McLain speaks very freely and  admits that he:

a) gambled heavily on football, basketball and hockey during the sixties.

b) became involved as a financial backer for the bookmaking operation run out of the Shorthorn.

c) occasionally, in his youthful arrogance, did call in bets from the clubhouse or press room at baseball fields.

But he maintains that, finding out that he was being taken, he opted out of the bookmaking operation in early August of 1967--before any of the alleged bad things happened.

Regardless of anything else, McLain had obviously shown a propensity for getting himself mixed up with very unsavory and unreliable characters. Early in his Detroit career, when reporters mentioned his fantastic consumption of Pepsi, a Detroit Pepsi Vice President and marketing director, who McLain referred to as a classic jock-sniffer, immediately contacted him, befriended him and began delivering 10 cases of Pepsi to his house each week and got him a $15,000 promotional fee from Pepsi. He also introduced him to his gambling buddies and bookie.

McLain and his new friend bet, and lost, heavily. McLain claimed he lost as much as $200 to $300 a week (at a time in which his baseball salary was around $25,000).

McLain's organ playing also led him to unsavory characters. He had developed a nightclub act that was quite entertaining to boozed up sports fans. In 1966, he played a gig at the now-infamous seedy Flint club called the Shorthorn. The owner, a low-grade mobster, took bets on the side and became the bookie for McLain and his Pepsi friend.

With their gambling losses mounting, McLain and his friend decided they would do better if they were the bank. They agreed to join the bookmaking operation of the Shorthorn as the financial backers. McLain took out personal loans totaling over $10,000 to bankroll the deal.

All these things McLain readily admits, but he steadfastly denies any of the other claims of the SI article and sticks to the story of the raccoon.

Who else can we look to for the truth?

In 1970, amid all the hoopla over the article, a Detroit television sportscaster who knew the alleged mobster, brought said alleged mobster to the TV studio and, in a live interview, asked him point blank, "Did you ever step on Denny McLain's foot to prevent him from pitching or whatever else?"

The mobster, who appeared to be a very nice gentleman and was appropriately perplexed by all the fuss, denied that he had ever even met McLain and stated categorically that no, he did not ever step on McLain's foot to prevent him from pitching. Or whatever else. He didn't add, but we can safely assume, that he was also shocked, shocked to find out that there was gambling going on in Detroit.

And so there you have it--from the mouths of the alleged perps. Although there are those who remain doubtful, all we really have to go on is speculation and the old statements of some very unreliable characters, some of whom were trying to save there own hides when talking.

McLain's post-baseball career has been well-documented and includes several major prison terms for some very nasty offenses, including racketeering, loan-sharking, trafficking, cocaine dealing and looting the retirement funds of a company of which he was part owner.

He eventually became known as a very talented and once great footnote to a very troubling time in baseball history; and a cautionary tale.

The amazing thing is that, for all the bombastic claims, the original 1970 article from Sports Illustrated appears to have been quickly forgotten. The sports world simply moved on to a new topic next week--who's hot? who's not?

No one seemed to care about the poor dead gambler or any of the other details. No one was ever prosecuted regarding anything printed in the article.

But this still leaves us with the very unsettling thought: Did a raccoon, or some other nocturnal creature, really influence the outcome of one of the closest pennant races in baseball history?

We will never know the truth--and that's probably just as well, for all of us.