Thursday, December 17, 2015

Jackie Brandt: Baseball's Original Flake

Every era has certain players that teammates, opponents and writers love to talk about; the kind of guys who make playing, watching and covering the game fun. In the early 1960s, Jackie Brandt was such a man.

And for etymologists in the crowd (there is always at least one etymologist in every crowd), it's interesting to note that Brandt may have been the inspiration for the word "flakey" entering the modern lexicon. The term is commonly used now, but until the mid-1950s, it was used only by criminals and the drug culture, specifically for someone addicted to cocaine. Wally Moon and Rip Ripulski hung the moniker on Brandt soon after he showed up to the Cardinals' St. Petersburg camp in 1956 because, as Moon later explained, they felt the young Brandt was so wild that his brains were falling out--flaking out of his head. Whether or not Brandt was actually the first to be called that, it is unlikely anyone else earned or appreciated the handle as much as he did. He happily answered to "Flakey" the rest of his career.

Jackie Brandt was a gifted athlete with great speed, a strong arm, a solid bat and the type of physical ability that made everything he did look graceful. He had a fairly good major league career playing for 5 teams over 11 seasons, with his best years coming in Baltimore from 1960-65. He won a Gold Glove in 1959 and was named to the All-Star team in 1961 when he had his best season, hitting .297 with 16 home runs and 72 RBIs.

Brandt's curse was that, although he was a solid player,  his natural ability made everyone always expect more. The fact that he glided smoothly across the outfield, eating up yardage while appearing disinterested--without his eyes bulging, head bobbing and hat flying off--made people assume that he wasn't trying, even though he in fact covered much more ground in a shorter period of time than the bulging, bobbing, hatless crowd.

Unrealized potential weighs heavily on athletes and those who attempt to manage them. It was Brandt's bad luck that sports people often compared his tools with those of guys named Kaline, Mantle and Mays. "The trouble is that people have said and other guys have written, that I am supposed to be half of each of them," he explained in a 1964 Sport magazine article. "In the first place, that adds up to one-and-a-half people. In the second, I don't want to be any of them. I would rather be me."

And there was nothing wrong with being Jackie Brandt. It's just that he made certain conservative types a bit nervous. You see, Brandt was, to put it politely, different. He did not conform to normal behavioral patterns. Some said he was a nut. True, he was not like anyone else, but is that necessarily bad? Brandt's mind was as agile as his body. There was always something extra going on between those ears and sometimes he didn't seem to bother with the details. Fans and teammates were never quite sure what he might do next, like the time when, hopelessly caught in a rundown, Brandt did a backflip to attempt to avoid a tag, earning great applause from the crowd but an unsympathetic thumbs up from the umpire.

"You gotta have fun," Brandt frequently told inquiring writers.

A new decade was dawning and attitudes were changing; conformity was on it's way out. No more would it be okay just to be another crew cut, button-downed, cliche-spewing man in a little box. Unfortunately for Jackie Brandt, he arrived just a few years too early. "The Sixties" hadn't really taken hold yet. He was ahead of his time. But he didn't know it. Or care.

Brandt didn't seem to care too much about anything and that was part of his charm. He was perpetually happy; impossible to make mad and as loosey-goosey as they came. His laid-back attitude and general contentment with life were sometimes mistaken for laziness. Writers complained that he played too nonchalantly. Aware of this, one spring he vowed to improve his image: "This year I'm going to play with harder nonchalance."

This was another of Brandt's charms. He was full of witticisms and odd views of the world and he was happy to share them. No writer ever walked away from Brandt with an empty notebook. "The most consistent thing about me is my inconsistency," he once explained to a reporter.

But managers, those stodgy slaves to win-loss records and nonlovers of anything different, often didn't appreciate Brandt's schtick. He was noted to have a special talent for driving managers crazy. This was especially acute when he plied his trade for serious-minded, leather-skinned, old-school hard-liners such as Fred Hutchinson, Paul Richards and Hank Bauer. One afternoon, Brandt wore out batting practice pitcher Charlie Lau, hitting 7 or 8 balls over the left field wall. Bauer, standing at the edge of the cage, growled, "Why don't you do that in a game?"

Brandt smiled and replied, "Put Lau out there in the game and I will." While his teammates broke up around the batting cage, the dour manager did his best imitation of a cigar store wooden Indian. Brandt's name was missing from the line-up card that day.

Brandt was never bothered by incidentals like facts and he had an excuse for everything. Once when he came back to the bench after taking a called third strike with the bases loaded, Richards asked, "What pitch were you guessing? Fastball or curve?"

"Neither," came the answer. "I was guessing ball."

In reply to a Bauer query as to what happened on a misplayed a fly ball, Brandt answered without hesitation, "I lost it in the jet stream."

When confronted by writers that one of his excuses didn't hold water, Brandt unabashedly pleaded innocence: "I said that? My lips must have been sunburned."

Brandt was equally quick-witted among teammates. Once as the team boarded a plane that was late due to bad weather, Brandt asked loudly, "What time is this plane scheduled to crash?" Standing nearby, catcher Clint Courtney, who was deathly afraid of flying anyway, was so unnerved by the comment that he left the airport and took a bus.

Many former teammates recall an expedition organized by Brandt. Tired of the minimal ice cream choices in the team's hotel, he gathered his buddies for a 20-mile drive to a place that offered multiple flavors. Once there, he was apparently overwhelmed with the possibilities and ended up ordering vanilla, causing the angry teammates to threaten to make him walk back.

Even being traded didn't seem to bother Brandt too much. In December of 1965, Brandt and young pitcher Darold Knowles were traded from Baltimore to Philadelphia for pitcher Jack Baldschun. Baldschun was then packaged with Milt Pappas and Harry Simpson to the Reds for an "old-thirty" Frank Robinson. For years, Brandt happily told anyone who would listen that if it weren't for him, the Orioles would have never gotten Robinson and won all those pennants that followed.

After the last game one year, Oriole general manager Lee MacPhail wished Brandt a nice winter. "I always have a nice winter," Flakey replied, "It's the damn summers that kill me."

The 81-year-old Brandt retired to Florida long ago. Here's hoping he has many more nice winters. He certainly made our summers more fun.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Philistine Commish Expected to Give Ruling on Goliath Hall of Fame Eligibility Soon

Fans of the former Philistine champion Goliath are anxiously awaiting the promised before-the-end-of-the-year ruling by the new Philistine commissioner on his eligibility for inclusion in the Philistine Hall of Fame. In the past, each new commissioner has steadfastly refused to revisit the case, blindly following the view of the previous regime.

The subject has long been a public relations nightmare for the Hall. Goliath, of course, was once considered to be the mightiest Philistine warrior of all time and many fans remember his enthusiastic pillaging and plundering as the very embodiment of all that Philistia stood for. He was famously quoted as saying that he would walk through Israel in a manna suit just to get on the battlefield. Indeed, if any man deserved to be enshrined on the hallowed walls of the Philistine Hall of Fame it is Goliath of Gath.

It was apparent from the earliest age that Goliath was something special. Inhabitants of his home town recalled that his father, Beelzubub the Belligerent, mercilessly stacked his youth warrior squad and they literally slaughtered all comers. Later, when local officials tried to make more equitable teams, his father pulled him out, aligned him with local youth stars Ashkelon the Big For His Age and Uliat the Held Back For an Extra Year and formed a travel gang that marauded far and wide.

Goliath shot to national prominence in his late teens when a unprecedented growth spurt caused him to swell to giant-sized proportions, gaining two cubits and a span over a period of only three months. Thereafter, he reigned as the undefeated champ until he was upset by the Israelite David in one of the biggest, well, David and Goliath upsets in history.

The fact that Goliath has not been included in the Hall of Fame until this point has long sparked debate and has been extremely disappointing to those who invested heavily in his Topps rookie papyrus, once the most prized piece of memorabilia this side of the Holy Grail. [On a side note, archaeologists have determined that the same batch of bubble gum put in those packs was still being used as late as 1971]. It was originally thought that the crushing defeat to David played the major role in Goliath's exclusion from the Hall, however, recently discovered archaeological documents have shed new light on the subject.

It has become apparent that scribes of the time speculated that Goliath's phenomenal growth spurt did not occur, shall we say, just by living clean and eating unleavened bread. There were wide-spread rumors that his father had arranged for a series of injections which were originally passed off as vitamin B-12, but actually contained anabolic steroids. The suspicion became especially acute when Goliath showed up one spring needing a helmet nearly twice the size of that used the previous fall. And, indeed, one of the problems he had against David was the fact that his head was so large that none of the helmets fit him, leaving his massive forehead exposed as an easy target.

Other scholars point to a more sinister accusation--that of illegal gambling. It had long been suspected that the infamous David match was fixed. Many eyewitness accounts claimed that they did not even see the stone--giving rise to what became known as the "phantom stone theory." It was speculated by some that Goliath was not killed by David at all, but merely took a dive and then was trampled in the ensuing melee as the Israelites stormed the field.

Adding credence to this theory is the discovery of ancient documents which reveal that although Goliath was a prohibitive favorite, local scroll-makers were taking a surprising amount of action on David just before the fight.

Newly damning evidence against Goliath shows up in the recent translation of parchments found among the holdings of Shlomo the Greek, ancient Israel's most notorious gambling kingpin.

Numerous references are found to a "Big G" who placed copious wagers--often on some of the biggest upsets of the time, such as "Big G wants a dime on the Israelites plus 2 and a half over Jerico Sunday" and "One thousand sheckels for Big G on Samsom over Philistines."

One particular inscription states that "Big G may not be good against WLSB this weekend." Biblical scholars now feel that WLSB stands for wimpy little shepherd boy and Big G is indeed Goliath. It is now thought that, despite the fact that gambling on matches by participants was expressly forbidden under Philistine law, "Big G" not only gambled regularly but did so with the other side and ultimately met with a losing streak and found himself heavily in debt to underworld figures, leaving him little recourse but to arrange to throw the fight.

Several ancient Philistine Hall of Famers were quoted in scrolls on the matter. "He should have helped us win the Ark a couple of times but just didn't get it done, now you have to wonder," said one former running mate.

"Everyone knows the rules," said another. "He knew the rules and did it anyway. I hope he never gets in."

As so with these recent findings, Goliath, despite his continued popularity among fans, may have trouble ever getting into the Hall of Fame without a ticket.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Giving Back, Bird Style: Mark Fidrych's Post-Baseball Years

One of the things that attracted me to the Mark Fidrych story was the way he lived his life after baseball--essentially the same way he lived it before. I found this rather remarkable given the circumstances of his career and how it ended.

Here was a guy who, improbably, became the most famous person in the country in 1976, who lit up baseball stadiums like no one ever had before. His youthful enthusiasm, electric talent and unparalleled natural charisma made him irresistible. He was on the cover of seemingly every magazine that year.  For one incredible summer he was on top of the world, loved by fans everywhere.

And then it was over. An injury his second season set off an an agonizing 6-year journey of failed attempted comebacks--done in by a torn rotator cuff.

If anyone ever had cause to be bitter and wallow in self pity, maybe even descend into substance abuse and live a sad, tortured existence after baseball, it was Mark The Bird Fidrych. Since his first season was at the beginning of the free agent era, he never made big money--a year or two later and he could have named his price. Also he played in the days before medical advances that could have diagnosed and maybe even treated his injured arm--a few years later and he could have maybe pitched another 15 years. It should have been enough to drive him mad.

And yet from numerous sources, I learned first hand that he went back to his tiny Massachusetts home town and resumed his life. He remained the same upbeat, incredibly spontaneous, fun-loving, out-going, friendly guy he had always been. He bought a farm and a dump truck and worked for a living. He got married and raised a daughter.

He clearly understood how great his fame had been, yet he remained humble enough that once while working in his mother-in-law's diner--a few feet from a framed cover of Rolling Stone bearing his own smiling mug--in answer to a stranger's inquiry that he looked familiar, he answered, "Well, I used to work at the garage on Main Street."

And he never forgot those who helped him along the way. While busy working for a living, he still found time to lend his fame out for good causes.He regularly showed up on opening day of the local Little League to sign autographs and give inspirational talks to kids. He was active in the nearby Jimmy Fund and Dan Farber Clinic and could always be counted on to show up for charity golf and fishing events. The majority of his charity work involved children, especially those with special needs. "It's called giving back," he told a reporter in 2001. "If I can help a younger kid out that is a great thing to have because people helped me out."

Mark's biggest charitable activity became the Wertz Warriors of Michigan. Baseball fans will recognize the name--before he launched the 1954 World Series drive that made Willie Mays famous, Vic Wertz had been a popular member of the Detroit Tigers and he made the Detroit area his home after baseball. Wertz helped organize the Wertz Warriors in 1982 as a way to fund Michigan Special Olympics. The group uses an annual seven-day, 900-mile cross-country snowmobile ride across the state to provide complete funding for the Michigan State Special Olympics Winter Games.

After Wertz passed away, the group used other former Michigan-area athletes as front men for the fund-raising. Mark Fidrych, through a chance meeting with one of the members, signed on enthusiastically in 1992 and made it for the next 17 straight years. He was the drawing card, giving talks and signing autographs at each stop. Although he was the one everyone showed up to see, he didn't act like a big star. He was one of the guys. He blasted his way through the snow of Northern Michigan with the same enthusiastic abandon he showed on major league mounds. "For me it's the athletes, It's another thing to help out where you can," Mark said.

In talking to members of the Wertz Warriors, it was obvious that they loved the guy.
I recently found some pictures they had given me of Mark on their trips. Unfortunately, there wasn't room in the book to print them all.

Here's wishing every major league baseball player could remain as grounded and happy in retirement as the one and only Bird.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Joe, You Shoulda Made Us Proud: The Disappointing Baseball Career of Joe Shlabotnik

In the annals of baseball history, one name stands tall and resolute when it comes to futility: Joe Shlabotnik. But surprisingly the Joe Shlabotnik story is not one of failure, but of hope, loyalty and endless optimism as seen through the rosy lens of childhood. Shlabotnik's career was saved from the eternal scorn it so richly deserved thanks to the steadfast devotion of his greatest--and possibly only--fan, America's favorite round-headed juvenile baseball aficionado, Charlie Brown.

If idols are, as psychologists would have us believe, a form of identification attachment, Charlie Brown could not have picked a more perfect one. Remarkably fitting for the good-hearted born loser Charlie Brown, Shlabotnik failed spectacularly, and not just on the field. He let Charlie Brown down continually and consistently. But as spectators to the carnage, we somehow understood that no hero is ever as unequivocally infallible as the hero of our youth and Shlabotnik's foibles only made us love him more.

Little is known about Shlabotnik's early years. His last name hints a Slovenian ancestry. He was apparently blessed with enough athletic skill and opportunity that someone (no doubt later driven out of the sporting profession by shame, derision or both) felt that he was deserving of a professional baseball contract. He was signed during the 1950s, before the major league draft; maybe he was courted by numerous scouts and received a bonus, or maybe he was signed as a favor because his uncle was a former player or scout. Whatever the reason, he surely became part of the cautionary tale repeated for years on the perils of scouting and signing young baseball players: "Sometimes your guy turns out to be a Sandy Koufax, sometimes he becomes a Joe Shlabotnik."

In his initial years as a professional Shlabotnik, in the glory of his youthful strength, impressed the front office brass enough with his minor league play that he was eventually promoted to the major leagues. Alas, this is where his story turns sour. For all the promise and potential, Joe Shlabotnik failed to produce at the big league level. It didn't take long for Shlabotnik to establish the fact that he was, in the parlance of baseball men, a no-hit, no-field player.

Shlabotnik was first mentioned as the object of Charlie Brown's idolatry in 1963. He had apparently been in the major leagues for some time because Brown remarked that he had been trying for five years to get a Shlabotnik bubble gum card. Like Shlabotnik's play on the field, Charlie Brown's attempts to obtain memorabilia of his idol--no matter the effort and planning--are doomed to miserable, gut-wrenching failure. In typical Charlie Brown fashion, he spends five dollars on baseball cards (which came in 1 cent packs containing one card and one piece of gum at the time) trying to get a card of his hero. Alas, not one of the 500 packs contained a Shlabotnik. Charlie Brown's female nemesis, Lucy, who couldn't care less about baseball, spends one penny on bubble gum and, naturally, discovers a Joe Shlabotnik card in her pack. Determined to get the card, Charlie Brown offers to trade every card he has for it, offering Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax and others. Lucy steadfastly refuses because she thinks Shlabotnik is "kind of cute." After Charlie Brown leaves in dismay, Lucy tosses the card in the trash and admits, "He's not as cute as I thought he was." This sets the trend for several decades of torture and disappointment, for both Brown and Shlabotnik.

As a baseball player and as an idol Joe Shlabotnik was remarkably consistent. He possessed, as they say, a unique ability to take a good situation and make it impossibly worse. But Charlie Brown was certainly no fair weather fan. He, of all people, understood the frustration and addictive nature of the game of baseball. Charlie Brown never lets reality cause disillusionment with his hero. He is all in, for better or worse. After a game in which Shlabotnik goes 0-for-5 and commits three errors, Brown explains to a friend, "When he suffers, I suffer."

Unfortunately, after too many such games team management finally decides to stick a fork in Joe Shlabotnik's major league career. Brown is incredulous and saddened when he learns of the demotion. "Other kids baseball heroes hit home runs, mine gets sent to the minors," he moans.

Offering much-needed moral support, in a letter to Shlabotnik, Brown writes, "I think it was unfair of them to send you to the minors just because you only got one hit in two hundred and forty times at bat."

Refusing to believe anything but the best for Shlabotnik, when a friend attempts to add psychological analysis and asks if his hero had feet of clay, Brown replies pragmatically, "No, he had a low batting average."

It should be noted that the batting average of .004 still stands as the mark in post-1900 baseball for the lowest batting average in a major league season for a player with more than 200 at bats. And, consistent to the end, the one hit Shlabotnik got that miserable year was a bloop single in the ninth inning with his team leading fifteen to three.

Perhaps because he can understand the struggles of Shlabotnik more than anyone else, Charlie Brown remains faithful. He even starts a Joe Shlabotnik fan club and produces the fan club newsletter which appraised the members of the exploits of their hero: playing for Hillcrest in the Green Grass League, Shlabotnik "batted .143 and made some spectacular catches of routine fly balls. He also threw out a runner who had fallen down between first and second." [Unfortunately the newsletter is stopped after one issue because, as Lucy remarked when asked for comment, "Who needs it?"]

Shlabotnik then threatened to become a Green Grass League lifer. He was traded to Stumptown, where his play continued to stink:

When it finally becomes apparent to management that Joe's playing days are woefully behind him, he is offered the chance to begin on the managerial track. He takes over the reins of the Waffeltown Syrups, a team so deep in the bush leagues that they play their home games in a field near a corner so they can play night games under the street lights.

Alas, Shlabotnik's minor league managing career is short-lived. He finishes with a record of 0-1, fired after the first game because he signaled for a squeeze play with no one on base. Despite the failure, he is touched by the continued devotion of his fan.

Shlabotnik's post-baseball career was similarly disappointing. Unfortunately, Shlabotnik played in the years before players made big bucks. As a guy who was sent down around 1963, he probably never made more than $25,000 a year, maybe even less. He was noted to be working for a time in a car wash.

In later years he tried to cash in on the memorabilia craze but had very little success. While some former major league players were able to command large speaking fees, Shlabotnik's stated going rate was only $100 but, as an old softy, he settled for 50 cents to appear at a Charlie Brown testimonial dinner because that was all the dough the committee could muster (unfortunately, Shlabotnik got lost and never made it to the dinner).

Another time Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy paid for tickets to sit at a table with Joe at a sports celebrity dinner, forgoing the opportunity to sit with other sports icons like Willie Mays and Muhammed Ali. Once again, Joe was a no-show as he mistakenly wrote down the wrong event, the wrong day and the wrong city on his planning calendar.

Even though his miserable professional baseball career ended almost fifty years ago, Joe Shlabotnik has not been forgotten. Indeed, the mere mention of the name usually evokes a smile among baseball faithful. Maybe it's because we can all relate to what he went through. Maybe, like us, despite effort, he sometimes couldn't avoid failure. But the failures made his triumphs--like the bloop single--so much sweeter. And he never gave up. Charlie Brown's blind devotion and optimism, tinged with doubts and frustration, are a heart-warming reminder that love should not be based on mere box scores and win-loss records. 

So here's to you Joe Shlabotnik, where ever you are. You King of Catastrophe, Pharoah of Failure, Sultan of Snafu, Dauphin of Disappointment. You did your best. To paraphrase the immortal words of Casey Stengel: "We would have given you an award, but we wuz afraid you'd drop it."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Jump-starting a Baseball Team: Nobody Did it Better Than Billy Martin

As the baseball season recedes and focus turns to next year, a large number of teams will be changing managers, hoping to hit the jackpot. In the past, owners usually resorted to a time-honored formula of following a laid-back player's manager with a fire-breathing tyrant and vice-versa. Often there was a very sad, short list of retread managers who were undoubtedly members of the old-boy network and they simply moved about the league, invariably producing the same results over time. In short, few managerial changes made drastic improvements in a team.

It has often been stated that good players make any manager look good, and there is little a man can do without talent. But there have been a few guys who demonstrated a consistent ability to immediately shake things up. No one did it any better than Billy Martin. Discounting the too-numerous-to-count mid-season dramatics with his buddy George, Billy took over six teams between 1969 and 1983. All of them made predictable jumps in performance. In fact, he never failed.

Below are his results with these teams, with the season immediately preceding Billy followed by his first year:

                                Record             B.A      .      Runs            Steals           Sac              ERA
Twins      1968        79-83              .237              562                 98               69               2,89
                1969        97-65              .268              790                115              65               2.95
Tigers      1970        79-83              .238               666                29               83              4.09
                1971         91-71             .254               701                35               62               3.63
Rangers   1973*       57-105           .255               619                91               45               4.64
                1974         84-76             .272               640               113              81               3.82

Yankees  1975*       83-77             .264               681               102              54               3.29
                1976         97-62             .269               730               163              50               3.19

A's           1979         54-108           .239               573               104              75               4.75
                1980         83-79             .259               686               175              99               3.46

Yankees  1982         79-83             .256               709                 69              55               3.99
                1983         91-71             .273               770                 84              37               3.86

* Martin managed the last part of these seasons

Looking closely at the numbers, one is struck by the remarkable predictability of the results. An owner who replaced his manager with Billy Martin could be absolutely certain about several things, virtually without exception: the team would have an increase in batting average, runs, steals, a lower ERA, and, most importantly, an increase in wins (between 12 and 29 games)

And the numbers aren't even close. His new teams averaged an increase in batting average of .017, an increase in stolen bases of 30 (and this includes the lead-footed, veteran-laden Tiger team in which Billy wisely settled for only an increase in 6), a decrease in ERA of 0.48 and an average increase in wins of 18.67. 

Surprisingly, while some consider bunting to be a staple of the small-ball Billy preferred, sacrifice bunts only went up an average of 2.2--statistically negligible. 

While Billy's long-time pitching coach sidekick, Art Fowler, was sometimes derided as little more than a drinking buddy, it is obvious that the team of Martin-Fowler resulted in dramatic increases in pitching production. Every staff lowered it's ERA (some by as much as 1.29) under Martin except the 1969 Twins, but this must be examined with the understanding that virtually every team had a higher ERA in 1969 compared to the pitching-orgy year of 1968. This is balanced by the fact that modern pitch-count aficionados have criticized Martin for overusing his starters, particularly the young arms on the Oakland staff which turned in the curious stat in 1980 of  94 complete games and only 13 saves and were all out of baseball within a few year (by comparison, in 2015 American League teams averaged 4 complete games and 43 saves).

Some of Billy's reclamation projects were startling, particularly in Texas and Oakland where he took over moribund bottom-feeders and turned them into contenders. 

Unfortunately, for both Billy and baseball owners, there was one more thing that everyone could be absolutely certain of; one slightly annoying quid pro quo to the use of his managerial brilliance; a downside to the whole Billy Martin-as-a-team-savior thing. Invariably within two years he would do or say something that would injure or embarrass--or both--a player, an owner, a coach or a marshmallow salesman. That would render all of his on-field heroics moot and he would be shown the door. Such was the Greek tragedy that was the managing legacy of one Alfred M. Pesano, aka Billy "The Kid" Martin.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Adam's Rib: The First Surgery

Editor's note: Now that the baseball postseason has concluded I thought it would be good to take a very short respite from baseball and throw up a non-baseball post before the hot-stove campaign begins.

            In church recently, mention was made of God removing one of Adam’s ribs to create Eve. It struck me that this was actually the first recorded medical operation. With the recent national debate over health care, I thought it would be interesting to examine the case a little closer. Luckily, biblical scholars have recently finished decoding a lesser known archaeological discovery, the Dead Sea Twitters, and they reveal new information on this.
            By all accounts, the procedure went very well. The surgeon was perfect, obviously, and the patient lived to the ripe old age of 930 years. Also, it set the precedent for all future surgeons to think they are God. 
            What is not commonly known, however, is that there were a few minor problems. First, the procedure had to be moved a number of miles to the east, to the land of Nod, because the hospital in Eden did not participate with Adam’s insurance plan. Although the Nod Community Hospital accepted Adam’s plan, the anesthesia group there did not. This is the reason God placed Adam into a deep sleep instead of using general anesthesia. 

            Initially the insurance company refused to reimburse God for the surgery, claiming it was a pre-existing condition. After numerous phone calls, letters and burning bushes, God was able to convince them that since the Earth was only a few weeks old, it could not have been pre-existing. Then the insurance company denied the claim because the appropriate ICD-1 diagnosis code for "needs a mate" was not used. In God's defense, at the time ICD-1 only consisted of one medical diagnosis: "loss of immortality due to eating forbidden fruit," and that diagnosis had never even been used. The claim was eventually paid—but not without great gnashing of teeth.
            Unfortunately, God was hit with a hefty fine from OSHA for merely covering the wound with skin and not following accepted guidelines for aseptic technique. And when details of the procedure were printed in the Bible, God was fined again for violating Adam’s HIPAA rights as Adam had not signed a specific waiver consenting to the release of his personal health information.

            Later, Adam filed a malpractice lawsuit against God claiming that the preoperative informed consent document should have warned him about the potential risk of his new partner tricking him into eating the forbidden fruit and all the complications which resulted from that. God countered that even He could not have anticipated all the remote complications which were possible. The suit was settled out of court, but God’s malpractice premiums sky-rocketed.

            The family practice doctors of Eden were outraged when it was reported that God was reimbursed 30,000 shekels for the case.  Actually, He received only 567 (this included a 5% reduction because He didn’t demonstrate meaningful use of electronic health records for the year). In addition, Adam did not pay his portion of the deductible and God was forced to send him to a collection agency.

            God was further frustrated when the new Holy of Holies HMO plan restricted direct patient access to Him. When declining reimbursements along with rising overhead and small business taxes made it impossible to continue, God retired from the practice of medicine, even though he was universally regarded as a Great Healer—actually a genuine miracle worker.

            It was many years before He came out of retirement for the famous Lazarus case. By then, thing’s were much smoother as the Israelites were covered under Rome’s National Health Plan. Of course, the backlog of cases and rationing of care required Him to wait four days before bringing Lazarus back to life, but that’s another story.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Gee, Thanks Brooks: Robinson to Give Away Fortune in Memorabilia

In 1971 Brooks Robinson, fresh off the greatest individual World Series domination in baseball history, visited the Massachusetts studio of Norman Rockwell. It was a classic pairing: the man who chronicled mid-twentieth century Americana on canvas and the man who embodied mid-twentieth century Americana on turf. The setting was commissioned by the ATO corporation, a conglomerate that owned the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company. Brooks had put on a fairly good advertisement for one of their products, a leather glove. The resulting painting by Rockwell was named, "Gee Thanks Brooks" and pictured the Orioles star signing an autograph (left-handed of course) for a star-struck youngster.

When the book Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson came out a few years ago, an occasional complaint was that it overemphasized his legendary niceness. I'll admit that perhaps I should have edited out a few more of the redundant quotes to that effect, but in my defense, I did edit out about a third of them. The problem was that virtually everyone I talked to immediately launched into a story about what a thoughtful/kind/congenial/charitable/big-hearted/down-to-Earth  (pick one or more) guy he was and almost all of them mentioned, usually within the first five minutes, that he was the nicest person they ever met or the best teammate they ever had. Also, and quite unusually, almost no one turned down a request to talk about him. They all eagerly contributed their memories--they all wanted to have their say about how much they loved the guy. I'll admit, I was blown away. After a while I felt like interrupting and reminding them, "I didn't ask about Mother Teresa, I asked about Brooks Robinson."

I don't write bubble gum books. My goal is not to make my subject look perfect; it is to explain the personality of the guy, what makes him tick and what makes him unique. And for Brooks Robinson, for better or for worse, that is it in a nutshell--he was a uniquely good guy. It's a totally unusual attribute for a highly successful professional athlete, many of whom have been pampered and given too much leeway throughout their lives because of their extraordinary talent.

Now comes the announcement that Brooks Robinson is unloading almost all the memorabilia from his 20-plus year career for auction. He is not doing this because he needs the dough; doesn't need to divide up the loot to make it easier to split up for ravenous heirs; isn't in any kind of dire financial straits. He and his wife of 55 years are doing quite nicely and they are donating 100% of the proceeds to their charitable foundation.

This is not just a few old broken bats or a mangled jersey. He is giving away almost everything, including the 1964 American League MVP award, the 1970 World Series MVP award and 16 Gold Gloves. The only thing he is keeping is his Hall of Fame ring--call him selfish. It is estimated that the haul will bring over one million dollars. The original print of the Norman Rockwell, which Brooks purchased at auction for $200,000 in the 1990s and has been loaned out to museums over the years, will be offered in a separate auction and should bring more than the rest of the stuff combined.

Sixteen Gold Gloves? Yeah, with so many of the things laying around, they did get to be a bother, constantly taking up space. Actually this is the second time he's tried giving them away. Over the years he gave Gold Gloves to his brother, his parents, the Boys Club in his hometown of Little Rock and a lawyer who helped him out, among others. As part of his farewell from baseball ceremonies, in 1977 the Rawlings company had 16 new ones recast and presented them to him. He probably thought, "What's a guy gotta do to get rid of these things?"

In recent years we have seen quite a few aging athletes auction off items. But never before has anyone given up his entire collection and donated the whole amount for charity. This is the sort of thing that immediately provokes questions. You know, the "What kind of a . . ." type questions. As in "What kind of a guy just gives away over a million dollars worth of precious pieces of his career?" And also, just as baffling,  "What kind of kids did he raise that are okay with him giving it all away and not bestowing it on them?"

One of the very sad things in reading about former sports greats is the fact that frequently the only emotion provoked from so-called loved ones in their declining years is unspeakable avarice. The only thought is in how to exploit the old guy for all they can get. Apparently Brooks Robinson's children do not feel the need to plunder his memorabilia for their own means. Imagine that.

Of course, this doesn't surprise me and I already know the answers to the above questions. You see, in researching my book, I talked to nearly a hundred people. I heard people who went to high school with him tell how he seemed to know everyone in the largest high school in the south, and called them out by name in the halls, from the lowliest freshman to the captain of the football team. I was taken out to dinner in Little Rock by some of his childhood friends and listened as they recounted stories and told how close they have remained over the years and how highly he is still regarded by their classmates after 60 years--as a friend, not as a celebrity. I heard more than one former batboy discuss how Brooks treated them as equals and made them feel as if they were his friends. And I listened to a crusty former manager--once the scourge of umpires all over the league--almost break down and sob as he described an act of kindness from Brooks.

So I'm not surprised at all by this totally unselfish and memorable gesture by Brooks Robinson. As Earl Weaver told me, "Only Brooksie would do that."

Baltimore fans will never realize how lucky they are that their icon has been one of the best guys off the field in sports history. They have never had to worry about scandals distorting their opinion of their idol. He is truly unique among great athletes and is the kind of guy they would be proud to have their children emulate. So they should just smile and say, "Gee, thanks Brooks."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Excerpt of "Pudge" in this Week's Boston Globe: How Carlton Fisk's 1975 Home Run Changed TV Sports Forever

Carlton Fisk jumps as he sees his home run hit the left field foul pole in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. 

GAME 6 OF THE 1975 WORLD SERIES was nearly four hours old, only minutes away from being the longest in Series history. The press box had already anointed it one of the best, highlighted by Bernie Carbo’s pinch-hit three-run homer to tie the game in the eighth inning and Dwight Evans’s acrobatic game-saving catch and throw in the 11th.
It had been five days since the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds had last played. But with the teams returning to Fenway Park and the Reds leading the Series 3-2, the gloomy New England skies had darkened, and it poured. Three days in a row Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn slogged across the soaked field, conferred with the Fenway groundskeeper, and declared it unplayable. The players anxiously awaited news of when they could resume. Sitting around the clubhouse, playing cards, taking a little indoor batting practice at college facilities, they just wanted to get it over with. In reality, the three-day rainstorm was served up by the gods as a meteorological sorbet, to cleanse the palate for the best course to come. Finally, Kuhn gave the go-ahead on October 21, a Tuesday night.

Now, in the bottom of the 12th inning, with the game tied 6-6, Fenway Park had taken on a surreal atmosphere. . .

Read the entire article

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Remembering Gordy Coleman

Gordy Coleman was a streak-hitting, sometime-sweet-swinging first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds in the early 1960s and a vital part of the 1961 pennant-winning team. He was also one of the nicest, most agreeable, easy-to-get-along-with guys in team history this side of Sean Casey. Always smiling, with a great sense of humor, Coleman was popular with fans and teammates. In fact, it could be said that Gordy never met anyone he couldn't get along with, unless that someone happened to be a ground ball or a pop fly near the stands.

You see, Gordy had his troubles in the field. Not that he didn't try, but despite hours of work under the exasperated eyes of manager Fred Hutchinson, he was still a butcher in the field. For several years he roomed with third baseman Gene Freese, a hard-hitting man also known to blow a play or two in the field. It was a running team joke that there was no use in ever calling their room because neither would be able to successfully pick up the phone.

Coleman came to the Reds with little expectations, a throw-in in a December, 1959 deal with Cleveland in which the Reds got pitcher Cal McLish, second baseman Billy Martin and Coleman in exchange for popular second baseman Johnny Temple. At the time Coleman was 25 years old and had 15 major league at bats worth of experience.

Manager Hutchinson saw something, however. Impressed with Coleman's desire and determination, he put him in the lineup. After playing part time in 1960, Coleman broke out in 1961 with 26 home runs, 87 RBIs and a .287 batting average as the Ragamuffin Reds stormed to a surprise pennant. In the World Series against the Yankees, Coleman hit a two-run homer in Game 2 to help the Reds to a 6-2 win in their only victory of the Series.

In 1962 Coleman came through with another solid year with 28 home runs, 86 RBIs and a .277 average. Coleman had an unorthodox, bucket-footed swing that a reporter said looked like he was falling out of bed. But he was a devastating curve ball hitter. Tim McCarver, catcher for the Cardinals said there were two guys he never called for a curve when they were up: Willie Mays and Gordy Coleman. And for reasons no one could ever figure out, the left-handed Coleman wore out Hall of Fame lefty Warren Spahn, one of the few left-handed hitters who could handle Spahn.

Although Coleman's hard work eventually improved his fielding, injuries and the arrival of sluggers Deron Johnson and Tony Perez cut into his playing time and he never regained the form of those two years. However, he compiled enough numbers and good memories before retiring in 1967 that he was later elected to the Reds Hall of Fame.  

Coleman was also one of baseball's all-time great worriers. In a 1962 preseason interview in Sports Illustrated he said, "I'm a worry wart. When I hit, I worry I'll stop. When I don't, I worry I won't start." He also worried constantly about his fielding and whether or not he would keep his job. When the reporter mentioned that he was the only first basemen on the Reds' roster that spring, Coleman smiled and replied, "I guess if I'm the only first baseman on the roster, he [Hutchinson] thinks I can do the job."

When told that Hutchinson had said that there were two or three other guys who could play first if needed, Coleman began worrying again, "That's why you have to worry. There are always guys looking over your shoulder who aren't even there."

Reds infielder Eddie Kasko remembered a tight extra-inning game in 1961 in L.A. against the second-place Dodgers as the Reds were fighting for the pennant. With two outs and Dodgers all over the bases, the Reds managed to get the final out. As they were leaving the field Kasko said to Coleman, "I was praying we'd get that last out."

Coleman replied, "I was just praying they didn't hit it to me."

But it was Coleman's personality that inspired the most lasting memories. "Everybody liked Gordy Coleman," said Mike Holzinger, who was a teenaged batboy for the Reds in the mid-60s. "He was just a great guy. Always happy, always seemed to go out of his way to be nice to everybody. He was a gentleman's gentleman. I remember when I went on a road trip with the team to New York, he looked at me and said, 'I don't want you going anywhere without my permission. This is a big city.' He was just like that; always wanting to help."

The gregarious Coleman naturally went into public relations work for the Reds after retiring, working in ticket sales, as part of the team's speakers bureau and serving as color commentator for Reds televised games from 1990 to 1994. A popular speaker, he made as many as 200 speeches a year throughout Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia for the Reds. Thousands of fans in the area still have warm memories of being entertained by Coleman.

He died of a heart attack in 1994.

Gone but not forgotten; one of the good guys.

Gordy Coleman 1934-1994.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

2016 Pre-Integration Committee Releases Candidates for Baseball Hall of Fame: Sorry, There's No Room in the Inn

First, let me state categorically that I love the Baseball Hall of Fame; love the history, love the tree-lined streets of Cooperstown in the summer, love the beauty of Lake Otsego, love everything about the place. Most of all, I love the reverence of the hall of plaques, appropriately presided over by life-size statues of The Babe and Mister T. Ballgame.

There is nothing more sublime than watching the face of an excited young kid, oversized baseball cap hanging over his ears, with eyes as big as Dodger Dogs, as his dad points out the plaques of immortals like Stan the Man, Hammerin' Hank, Joltin' Joe and Rapid Robert.

But it is also very disappointing to watch teenagers glance at a name and walk right by while muttering the difficult-to-answer questions of "Who the hell is that guy?" and "Why is he here?" Unfortunately, there are getting to be so many people on the hallowed walls that only someone with great baseball knowledge can answer the first question and, often there is no answer for the second other than something like, "Well, he was a crony of Frankie Frisch who got ramrodded in through a bogus committee."

And now the 2016 Pre-Integration Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame has released its list of ten candidates for selection for baseball's ultimate honor. The candidates, who will be voted on by a special committee December 7 include Doc Adams, Bill Dahlen, Sam Breadon, Wes Ferrell, Garry Herrmann, Marty Marion, Frank McCormick, Harry Stovey, Chris von der Ahe and Bucky Walters.

Now I'm sure all of these guys made a great contribution to the game, either as players or executives and I have no doubt that the committee members are experts who have done research and really know their subject. I concede that they know much more about baseball history than I do.

But I feel compelled to say this, as respectfully and forcefully as I can:

Enough is enough.

Yes, they were all very good at times, but my problem is this is the Hall of Fame. Not the Hall of Pretty Good, or even the Hall of Great-For-Several-Seasons. This is the resting place of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, The Yankee Clipper, the Say Hey Kid, The Mick, The Iron Horse and The Rajah. These guys are the reason the Hall of Fame was created and the reason tons of people make the pilgrimage each year.

We now have 310 members of the Hall of Fame, with 244 players (including those from the Negro Leagues), 28 executives and 10 umpires among those selected as the greatest immortals of the game's long history. While all have had there supporters, some of the 310 obviously do not belong. And the more mediocre candidates who are admitted, the murkier the standards for inclusion become.

I know in this day and age of all-inclusiveness and participation-trophies-for-every-kid-who-shows-up we don't want to leave anyone out, but for this, just this one thing, we need to resolve to be very exclusive. We need to make the tough decisions, regardless of who's feelings get hurt and stand our ground. The sanctity of the Hall deserves it.

As far as the specifics, very few fans will recognize the names Dahlen, Adams, Stovey or von der Ahe. They were all guys from the 1800s. I agree that all fans should tip their hats and recognize those pioneers who made great contributions to what would eventually become the National Pastime. But do we really need to keep adding guys to the Hall of Fame who very few fans have even heard of? Doesn't the definition of "fame" sort of include something about maybe, perhaps, being famous or at least remotely known?

And how exactly do you determine if players from that era really deserve to be in the Hall of Fame now? The game was so different in those years, with all the different rules, that numbers from that era are virtually impossible to evaluate and understand. In 1880, for example, a pitcher could take several steps before flinging the ball--from 50 feet--a foul ball caught on one bounce was an out, eight balls was a walk and the batter could call for a high pitch or a low pitch if he so desired. How would a mid-20th century slugger, someone like Mickey Mantle, fare if he could ask for a high or low pitch? Ask Denny McLain.

Sure, you can compare them with their peers, but that doesn't give you an idea of whether or not they are more deserving than some guy who played great in the 1960s but is still on the outside?

And these guys have had their chances, often by voters who were 80 years closer to their careers than those of today. The second class of voters, in 1937, selected Ban Johnson, who got his start in baseball in 1893, George Wright, who played from 1871-1882 and 1800s league executive Morgan Bulkeley.

Incidentally, Bulkely was one of the first men to gain admission to the Hall for less than stellar credentials, setting a precedent for future men who do not belong. Bulkeley was the first president of the newly formed National League in 1876--fine and dandy. But does that alone merit inclusion in the same room as The Babe? Bulkely only served one season, leaving baseball work in 1877 for politics. His only other baseball involvement was participation on the infamous 1905 Mills Commission that erroneously--some think intentionally erroneously--credited Abner Doubleday with inventing baseball in Cooperstown (a conclusion that, of course, made the inhabitants of Cooperstown eternally grateful but did not exactly endear him to proponents of truth).

There have been many more chances. A Centennial Commission selected old-time players in 1937 and 1938, then a renamed Committee of Old Time Players and Writers voted on old-timers in 1939 and a similar committee added old-timers in 1944, 1946, 1949. Starting in 1953 a new Committee on Veterans began adding people regularly for the next few decades. So these guys have had their chances. Files and papers and records have been combed and mined and now the only names left from the 19th century are those that excite no one except researchers and hard-core historians.

I'm not suggesting that these guys weren't important; they are. The efforts of all of these men helped in the evolutionary process to make the great game what it is today. But we don't have room for any more of them. I think a better solution would be to make a special section of the museum for a tribute to the pioneers. Have an exhibit to celebrate their accomplishments and educate fans of their contributions. But please do not include any more of them in the Hall.

As far as the players selected who played more recently, again, I'm sorry. They were all very good for a time, but none could be even remotely considered among the greatest of their era. None of them got any support when they first had the chance to be voted in by the people who actually watched their careers. It used to be that Hall of Fame credentials included nearly 3,000 hits, 500 home runs  or 300 wins. And it was routinely felt that unless there were very special circumstances--like retiring early due to severe arm pain after absolutely dominating for 5 or 6 years--a guy needed to prove his worth for maybe 15 or so great years.

Now we are selecting 1,700-hit guys? Really? Do you know how many major leaguers have accumulated 1,700 hits? I don't. And I don't care because I know it's a lot. I would go so far as to say that it's a veritable plethora. And we don't need a plethora of guys in the Hall.

First, there's Marty Marion, according to old-timers one of the best fielding shortstops of his era. He was a one-time MVP and a seven-time All-Star. He was really good. I don't dispute that. But his career batting average was only .263; and he hit 36 home runs (in his career, not just one year folks) and had only 624 RBIs and only 1448 total hits. His best season, the MVP season of 1944 (when most good players were off saving the free world), he hit .267 with 6 homers and 63 RBIs. These are not Hall-worthy numbers by any stretch, even for a great-fielding middle infielder on a championship team.

My biggest problem with Marion is that if we let him in, then what the heck do we do with the much, much better shortstops who have garnered few votes in the past 40 years?

Alan Trammell, who hit better than .300 seven times in a career in which he had 2365 hits, a .285 lifetime average, 185 homers and 1003 RBIs and Dave Concepcion, a nine-time All-Star who had 2326 hits, a career average of .267, and 950 RBIs as well as 321 stolen bases were each superlative fielding shortstops and had much better careers than Marion.

Those two are a lock if Marion gets in,but what also do we do with Bert Campaneris, Dick Groat, Maury Wills or even Don Kessinger? Campaneris was the spark plug for 3 consecutive World Championship teams, a six-time All-Star, had 2249 hits and 649 stolen bases. Groat was a five-time All-Star, had one MVP and hit .286 in his career with 2138 hits. Wills hit .281 with 2134 hits and 586 stolen bases, made five All-Star teams and played on four pennant-winners. Kessinger has received very little Hall consideration from the people who watched his entire career, but he was a six-time All-Star and one of the best fielding shortstops of his generation. He had a .252 average--not too far below Marion's and compiled in a much more hitter-unfriendly era--and 1931 career hits. If Marion gets in the slippery slope of comparables will lead to an avalanche of mediocrity in the halls of the Hall.

I have the same problem with the other candidates: they were good, but not great.

Frank McCormick was a solid first baseman and an eight-time All-Star. He had three great years, from 1938-1940, but dropped off very fast after that. And he only had about 9 complete years and parts of 4 others. He ended up with only 1711 career hits and a .299 career average with 128 homers and 954 RBIs. Looks an awful lot like Fred Lindstrom and nobody wants anymore of those in our Hall. And first basemen of McCormick's era were leviathans with names like Gehrig, Greenberg and Foxx--he wasn't close to those guys. Also, to be considered, like Marion, he played through the war, when a lot of the good comp was off in the armed services.

McCormick's career pales drastically when compared with a recent guy who has had trouble garnering votes: Don Mattingly. Mattingly had 13 years--and the most frequent complaint apparently has been that he didn't have enough good years for a HOF career. He had a .307 career average, 2153 hits, 222 home runs and 1099 RBIs. By any comparison, Mattingly trumps McCormick and at this moment Mattingly is probably secretly hoping that McCormick gets in as that will give his fans plenty of ammo to mount campaigns in the coming years.

Bucky Walters was a quality pitcher who, like McCormick, had some very good years and helped the Reds to pennants in 1939 and 1940. He won 20 games three times, had a career record of 198-160 and a lifetime ERA of 3.30. For six years, Walters was very good, winning 121 games from 1939-1944. But again, I think his overall career was not Hall-worthy. He compares unfavorably to Luis Tiant, who hasn't been able to gain much Hall traction. Tiant had an identical 3.30 career ERA, won 20 games four times and was 229-172 for his career. People howled when Don Drysdale lowered the bar by getting in with a 209-166 record, albeit with an excellent 2.95 ERA and an impressive postseason resume. Letting Walters in would be another significant step in lowering the bar.

Wes Ferrell appears to be possibly the one forgotten gem, but even he falls short. He won 20 games six times and had a career record of 193-128 for an impressive .601 winning percentage, more impressive since he pitched for some mediocre teams in Cleveland and Boston from 1929-1941. His career ERA was a pedestrian 4.04, but that was affected by the hitter-friendly era in which he played. But only 193 wins? He barely had a good decade and had no postseason heroics to add luster.

And if Ferrell gets in, what does that mean for Jack Morris, sitting at home each July with his 254-186 record and 3.90 ERA? What does that mean for all the pitchers who have won 190 games in the last 40 years? Does anyone realize that 141 pitchers have won 190 games or more in their careers? One hundred and forty-freaking-one! They're going to need a bigger Hall.

The final two, Breadon and Herrmann, were executives. I have to admit that I don't like executives or umpires being in the Hall of Fame with players. Virtually no one pauses for even a second to look at the plaques of the umpires or executives. As a great philosopher once said, "If they were so great, why didn't they slap their picture on a card and sell it in packs of bubble gum?"

Sure, there is a long list of owners whose contributions have been great and who have added to the color of the game. Wrigley, Yawkey, Griffith, Finley, Stoneham, Ebbets, Steinbrenner, Reinsdorf, Crosley, Veeck, O'Malley, Busch, DeWitt, Turner, Navin, the list is endless. But one man's beloved iconic owner is another man's conniving egotistical tyrant--it all depends on who you root for. I can't seem to come up with a uniform set of criteria for an owner to get into the Hall of Fame. Owning a team for a long time? Being popular with writers and fans? Keeping players happy? Owning a team that wins a lot of pennants? Maybe. But, really, few fans care. Of course, a few guys like Branch Rickey or Connie Mack were giants, but otherwise, all executives and umpires should be in a separate wing like writers.

On this years ballot is Garry Herrmann who was the president of the Reds from 1902-1927 and chairman of the three-man National Commission that ran the game from 1903-1920. But was wielding that influence enough to make him Hall-worthy. Sure, he was the Grand Poobah for those years, but under his watch the game was lousy with gambling--and he even appeared to look the other way or whitewash the openly egregious gambling sins of the notorious Hal Chase while Chase was on his team. An argument could be made that Herrmann may have almost allowed the game to be ruined or wind up with the public confidence and relevance of jai alai or modern heavyweight boxing.

In summary, there's a good reason none of these guys have previously been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Please, no more committees. Someone has to stand up and say it, "We've got too many already. The doors are closed."

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Baseball Economics Part 3: The aftermath of the 1972 Strike and the Lost Class of Player Reps

The 1972 baseball player strike was historic as the first labor-related work stoppage in American professional sports history. During the short-lived strike, the players showed an unexpected resolve and ability to stick together and bargain collectively. It would prove to have drastic implications over the next decade and would influence player salaries in ways no one could have imagined at the time.

Often forgotten is the fate of the team player reps from that period. While some owners claimed to put the strike behind them and get on with the business of baseball, most openly viewed the union with scorn and vowed to continue the fight. Like any giant business when confronted by the threat of a pesky union, Major League baseball owners set out on a course of union-busting. They had gambled that the solidarity of the players would fragment when confronted with the prospect of missing paychecks during the strike. Instead, the union emerged stronger than ever and owners were still searching for a way to maintain the upper hand. Often the player reps made an easy target of retribution.

The position of team player rep had never seemed so important. Traditionally, the post was filled by a team vote during the spring, or during the season if the position suddenly fell open. Sometimes serious veterans, respected by their peers, who understood the issues and had a plan, guys like Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning, took the post. Other times the vote was basically a popularity contest among the few players who indicated they weren't violently opposed to taking on the job.

In Ball Four, Jim Bouton talked about committing a social faux paux one season by actively campaigning for the position. He went so far as to write up a two-page statement on why he felt he would be a good player rep, what qualities he thought they should look for in a rep and why he felt he met those requirements. Bouton, who was never the most popular man on any team, mainly because he tended to ask annoying questions and speak sometimes when he shouldn't, mimeographed his well-thought-out treatise, handed it out to his teammates for their perusal, then got exactly three votes out of the twenty-five man roster.

Player reps attended two meetings a year, one at the All-Star break and one after the season. Their job description included keeping teammates informed of health care, pension plans and other issues facing the union, along with looking after the day-to-day complaints and needs of players. For much of the 1960s, the needs of players were confined to maybe an extra shower head in the locker room or private rooms on the road for veterans. The union held about as much power as the average elementary school student council.

The hiring of Marvin Miller in 1966 to head the union drastically changed the dynamic of player-owner relations. Everyone knew that serious confrontation was coming. And the job of player rep suddenly became more important, and dangerous.

Milt Pappas, player rep for the Cubs, said being a rep was, "The most thankless job in baseball. You get abuse from the athletes as well as the front office. A lot of reps lose their jobs or are sent to the minors."

Billy Cowan, rep for the Angels, noted that while in the past reps had been given the use of a car, "All we get now is complaints and a few hearty hand clasps. And sometimes we get traded. My wife about went out of her goard [during the strike]. I was getting 15-20 phone calls a day from players, writers and broadcasters."

When the April 1-April 13,1972 strike ended and play resumed, team player reps were singled out for the most vitriolic boos in almost every major league city. Even local deity Brooks Robinson was booed in Baltimore for the first time in memory. This was not by accident. The reps had been held up as the public face of the strike, and fans, inflamed by the almost uniformly negative press, reacted as expected.

Actually, for several years the press, no doubt encouraged by management, had referred to individual reps as troublemakers and poison in their locker rooms--merely for doing their jobs. Billy Cowan was noted to be  the "Clarence Darrow of the baseball clubhouse" by The Sporting News in 1972 (a novel way of restating the overused insult "clubhouse lawyer"). Other reps reported being badgered by management for information to reveal the inner workings of the union in order to give the owners an advantage.

In addition to the mental abuse reps took, the talk of job insecurity by Pappas and Cowan was a very real threat. Between October, 1971 through the summer of 1972, an astonishing 16 of the 24 team reps were traded, sold, or released and three other resigned under duress for fear of a similar fate.

Some of the reps were of such talent and local reverence that they were obviously untouchable, like Brooks Robinson, Joe Torre, the assistant rep in St. Louis, coming off an MVP year in which he hit .363, and Tom Seaver. Twenty-five year old Johnny Bench, who took over in April of 1972 when the previous rep resigned and was in the middle of his second MVP season in three years had as much job security in Cincinnati as the Pope had in the Vatican City.

A few others, like Jim Perry of the Twins, one year removed from a Cy Young Award season, and Dave Guisti, the relief ace for the World Champion Pirates, were not quite Hall of Famers but were good enough on the field to feel safe about their employment.

Unfortunately, the majority of the reps were not so comfortably indispensable to their teams. In fact, most of the other reps soon proved to be entirely dispensable if nothing else.

Some of the players changing teams or being released could be explained by normal attrition. After all, they were mostly veterans, some nearing the end of their careers, and veterans were most likely to be traded at the time. But the sheer numbers begs the question of whether they were targeted specifically for their union activities. Many of the moves were puzzling from a baseball standpoint and are difficult to understand for any reason other than revenge or attempted union-busting.

Jim Lonborg was an intelligent, serious-minded seven-year veteran, a graduate of Stanford and the player rep for the Red Sox, as well as their pitching ace. A series of injuries had slowed his performance on the field, and a change of scenery was the reason given when he was traded to Milwaukee in October, 1971. He quickly became the player rep for the Brewers (the previous rep, Lew Krause, had been part of the deal for Lonborg). Lonborg performed very well for the miserable 1972 Brewers, going 14-12 with a 2.83 ERA. He was only 30 years old and appeared to be near the top of his game but was traded along with Ken Brett and Ken Sanders October 31, 1972 to the Phillies for Billy Champion, Don Money and John Vukovich. Although Money was a reliable third baseman, the other two did not contribute. Lonborg had 5 or 6 more productive years after the trade. Any way you look at this one, before or after, it was a terrible deal for the Brewers and one must consider the fact that Lonborg's player rep status must have figured into him being dumped.

Ray Fosse of Cleveland was a two-time All-Star catcher and only 25 years old. He had a subpar season at .241 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 1972 but was still on the short list of the better catchers in the league. Fosse took much local heat in the period leading up to the strike--especially when the Indians voted unanimously to strike. He was traded to Oakland with Jack Heideman for Dave Duncan and George Hendrick in March of 1973. Long-term, this one proved about even for the two teams, but at the time, Fosse was one of the lowly Indians' better players and a well-liked, hard-working leader--not normally the kind of guy who would be on the trading block.

Dick Dietz was a hard-hitting, below-average-fielding catcher for the Giants. In 1970 he was an All-Star who hit .300 with 22 home runs and 109 RBIs--great numbers for a catcher, especially when you throw in the fact that he usually got a lot of walks and had a great OBP. As the Giants player rep, he was in obvious danger given the hardline rhetoric from old-school owner Horace Stoneman. After a 1971 season in which he had hit 19 home runs, Dietz was surprisingly placed on waivers April 12, 1972--in the middle of the strike. He was claimed by the Dodgers and used as a backup, then sent to Atlanta for 1973. He was released and not offered a contract for 1974 by anyone and, at 32 years old, his baseball career was over. It's difficult to believe that not one American League team could have used his solid bat as a DH.

Dietz's predecessor as the Giants rep, Gaylord Perry, was a future 300-game-winner, and one of the best pitchers in the league. As such, he should have been considered untouchable. However, he had been involved in one of the 1971 postseason's blockbuster trades. On November 29, 1971 he was sent to Cleveland for their ace Sam McDowell. The trade was viewed as an even swap at the time. McDowell, incidentally, had been Cleveland's player rep and Fosse's predecessor on that hot seat. Dietz's successor in the San Francisco-rep job was the venerable Willie Mays. One of the games' highest paid players at $165,000, Mays had been a vocal supporter of the players' cause during the strike. At 41 years of age, he was obviously in decline and a liability to the team at that price. His role as player rep may or may not have hastened his exit from San Francisco because Stoneman, strapped for cash, had been looking for a way to painlessly rid himself of the Say Hey Kid's salary for some time. On May 11, 1972, Mays, the face of the Giant franchise for two decades was traded to the New York Mets.

There were other deals, not involving All-Stars, that were suspicious as well:

Jack Aker was 31 years old in 1972 and the rep for the Yankees. In 1971 he had a fine season in the bullpen, going 4-4 with a 2.59 ERA in 41 games--obviously a valuable commodity. But he was sent to the Cubs May 17, 1972 as the player-to-be-named-later for the January, 1972 deal for a broken-down Johnny Callison--a move that appears to be an obvious dump.

Cecil Upshaw was a 29-year-old, 6-year-veteran quality reliever was the rep for the Braves. Atlanta's general manger, Paul Richards, had been one of the most vocal anti-union hawks during the strike. Upshaw, who would have several more productive years, was traded in April, 1973 to Houston for backup outfielder Norm Miller, much less than he should have commanded in a fair-market deal.

Joel Horlen had been a frontline pitcher for the White Sox since 1963. At 34 years old in 1972, he was coming off a subpar, but not terrible, year of 8-9 with a 4.26 ERA. He had been the player rep in 1971 and 1972 and had openly clashed with general manager Stu Holcomb in the days leading up to the strike. The day after the strike started, April 2, 1972, Horlen was released by the White Sox. He was quickly picked up by Oakland's Charlie Finley and he played the 1972 season with the A's, going 3-4 with 3.00 in 32 games, mostly in relief. He was released in December and retired.

Although it looks suspicious, in fairness Horlen was aging and nearing the end of his career and age may have played as much a factor as being a rep in the demise of his playing time. Such was also the case with Gary Peters. A 35-year-old, 13-year veteran and one of the top ten pitchers in the league for a decade, Peters was the Red Sox rep and was coming off a solid 14-11 year. For 1972 the Sox had acquired a younger starter in Marty Pattin, picked up the ageless Luis Tiant who had a break-out year and also brought up quality younger starters Lynn McGlothlin and John Curtis. Peters found himself out of the rotation. He got just 4 starts in 33 games in 1972, compiled a 4.32 ERA and was released at the end of the season. The Red Sox were fighting for the pennant and it is unlikely that Peters' role as rep played a part in the pitching decision.

For borderline players who were reps, their fate was often settled swiftly and savagely. Some of them lost not only their position on their team, but their job in baseball as well. Ron Brand of the Expos was a 32-year-old backup catcher. Nine days after the strike was settled, he was sent to Peninsula of the International League and his salary was cut from $22,000 to $7,000. Later in the season when the club wanted to drop him further in the minors, he retired.

Reds pitcher Jim Merritt, 28 years old in 1972 and a 20-game winner in 1970, had been booed regularly throughout the 1971 season. His record of 1-11 had much to do with it, but so did the inflammatory comments against Merritt from the local press, of which the Cincinnati Enquirer was owned by the Reds majority owner. Merritt voluntarily gave up his job as player rep April 16, 1972 to Johnny Bench and was soon demoted to the minors. He spent most of 1972 at AAA Indianapolis and was traded to Texas in December. He was out of baseball within a year.

Billy Cowan, a 33-year-old veteran outfielder, had been with the Angels for three years. He had been the club's top pinch-hitter in 1971 and had received a raise to $55,000 for the 1972 season. He was released on May 2, 1972--two weeks after the strike. No other major league team offered him a contract and he went into the insurance business, his baseball career over. He and the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance, alleging that the release was due to his union activities. The Angels argued that he was released according to section 7(b) (2) of the Uniform Players Contract that said a club could terminate a player who failed to exhibit sufficient skill to be a member of the team. It's a tricky position to argue and the arbitrator ruled in the Angels' favor and Cowan was officially an insurance salesman and no longer a major league baseball player.

Cowan, incidentally, had volunteered to be the assistant rep in 1971 to help Jim Fregosi. When Fregosi was traded (little controversy here--when you get a chance to get Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi, you take it) Cowan took over as the main man. At the time he said, "I believe either the rep or the alternate rep should be a player who isn't playing as a regular so he won't be distracted." While a logical thought, the fact that a player wasn't valuable enough to be playing regularly put him at a very definite risk for continued employment if he dabbled in union activities.

Indeed, borderline players should not have applied for the job. Ed Spezio, a below-average third baseman for the lowly Padres is a prime example. In 1972, Spezio was a 30-year-old, 8-year veteran; a career backup who got a chance to play for the expansion Padres and promptly showed why he had been a career backup. In 1971 he had hit .231 with 7 home runs. In the spring of 1972, he refused a demand from the Padres to take the maximum 20% pay cut and was sent to the minors. He returned to San Diego in midseason only to be sent to the White Sox in early July of 1972, thrown in for a player to be named later and cash. He was released the following March and his baseball career was over.

Thirty-something-year-old, journeyman backup players are considered to be easily replaced and there was little fanfare or questions when reps Dal Maxvill of the Cardinals, Bob Barton of the Padres, Joe Keough of the Royals, Don Mincher of Texas, Denny Lemaster of the Astros, Jim Price of the Tigers, and Tom Haller (Price's replacement) of the Tigers were traded, demoted to the minors or released within the year. Like Spezio, Cowan and Dietz, a surprising number of them were not offered contracts by any other team, raising the specter of organized blackballing.

Overall, the carnage was swift and nearly complete. When questioned point-blank by reporters, Dodger general manager Al Campanis said it was "asinine" to suggest that player reps were more prone to being traded, sold or released. The above were mere coincidences and normal business.


Maybe not.