Tuesday, June 13, 2017

REVISITING SOME OF MY PAST WORK (Part III)

One of my favorite projects from the past is Baseball's Most Notorious Personalities, which was published in 2013 by Scarecrow Press. In it, I got to dish the dirt on some of the game's most infamous events and ornery characters. Naturally, this included one of the most hair-brained promotional schemes in history--the 1974 debacle in Cleveland known as Ten Cent Beer Night. 

Here's an excerpt from the book:
 
"The Cleveland Indians have traditionally had difficulty maintaining a fan base. From 1960 through 1974, the club placed fifth or lower in the standings on twelve occasions. And though some talented players passed through that region of Ohio, such as Frank Robinson, Gaylord Perry and Graig Nettles, the Indians averaged less than 10,000 patrons per game in that span. The lack of support was made glaringly obvious night after night by Cleveland Municipal Stadium's spacious capacity of more than 70,000. The run-down edifice came to be mockingly referred to as 'The Mistake by the Lake.'

In 1974, Indians Executive Vice President Ted Bonda called a board meeting to discuss the club's sagging attendance and how to improve it. Someone suggested they follow the example of the Texas Rangers, who had hosted a successful "10-Cent Beer Night." The board agreed and the date for the promotion was set for June 4. It would turn out to be an evening that would live in Baseball infamy.

To begin with, the Indians failed to request the presence of Cleveland police. There were few if any on-duty cops at the stadium to help control the sizeable crowd of 25,000, many of whom showed up drunk or stoned at the onset. There were also no regulations in place to control the distribution of beer. Fans were allowed to buy up to six cups at a time. There were no safeguards to prevent people from buying the allotted six, handing them off to anyone in the stadium and then promptly returning for more...

The Rangers jumped out to a second-inning lead on a homer by designated hitter Tom Grieve. With beer flowing and half the attendees exhibiting "the glow," a woman ran into the Indians on-deck circle and bared her breasts. It was only the beginning. After Grieve had homered in the fourth to put the Rangers up 3-0, a naked man ill-advisedly slid into second base. In the bottom of the inning, the crowd joined together in a hostile chant when Texas Rangers pitcher Fergie Jenkins was struck in the stomach by a line drive. The stadium reverberated with a chorus of: "Hit him again! Hit Him again! Harder! Harder!"

The frat party continued in the fifth, when two more men hopped over the wall and mooned Rangers outfielders. Numerous other fans in various states of undress were dragged off the field by security as the evening wore on, prompting a rain of beer cups, batteries, and golf balls. At one point, firecrackers were tossed into the Rangers bullpen...

Unbeknownst to many in attendance, there was a heck of a game going on. Trailing 5-1 in the sixth, the Indians rallied to tie the score in the bottom of the ninth. They had the winning run on second base when a man jumped out of the stands and tried to steal right fielder Jeff Burroughs's cap. Burroughs turned to defend himself and clumsily fell over. In the Texas dugout, manager  Billy Martin had seen enough. He armed himself with a bat and headed toward the outfield. His players trailed behind him as chaos ensued.

Rangers personnel soon found themselves surrounded by drunken hooligans, some holding knives, chains and blunt instruments torn from stadium seats. Realizing the peril their opponents were in, Cleveland players sprang into action under orders from Manager Ken Aspromonte. Indians reliever Tom Hilgendorf was hit on the head with a chair. Rangers first baseman Mike Hargrove threw a fan to the ground and beat the man senseless. Texas catcher Duke Sims sparred with several thugs. Banding together the players managed to escape to their clubhouses rooms with the wounded in tow...

With insufficient security to control the crowd, the unruly mob rioted for nearly a half hour, stealing bases and anything they could get their collective hands on. Umpire Nestor Chylak was nearly hit by a thrown hunting knife. He was bleeding from the back of his head when he declared the game a forfeit in favor of Texas and exited the field with the rest of the crew. Speaking to members of the press, he referred to those in the crowd as "f--ing animals." 
 


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

REVISITING SOME OF MY PAST WORK (Part II)


I have always been fascinated by the game's early history and the way it was played in the very beginning. This is a topic I have explored in several of my books. In my 2014 release MUDVILLE MADNESS, I described 19th century game play in the following introductory passage: 


"The first officially recorded baseball game took place in 1846 at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. The rules had been established by a New York bookseller and volunteer firefighter named Alexander Cartwright the year before. Any modern fan in attendance would have found the early conventions quite odd.

Batters were referred to as "strikers." runs were called "aces" or "counts," and outs were commonly known as "hands." There was no defined batter's box and the striker could move forward or backward from the ball. Pitchers stood just forty-five feet from home plate. They were allowed a running start but were required to deliver the ball underhand so that strikers could hit it. There were no called balls or strikes and the first team to score twenty-one times was declared the winner. Nine-inning games were still a few years off.

Players were clad in flannel shirts with wool pantaloons and straw hats. Fielders wore no gloves and catchers stood ten to twelve feet behind home plate without the benefit of protective equipment. A striker could be put out in several ways: (1) a standard ground out, (2) having a ball caught in the air or on one bounce, or (3) being thrown out by the catcher after missing a third swing.

Umpires sat at a table on the third baseline. Their job was to keep a scorebook, make fair or foul calls and settle disputes between teams. There were long spells in which they had very little to do."

In my 2012 book, CELLAR DWELLERS: THE WORST TEAMS IN BASEBALL HISTORY, I elaborated on the sport in the decades that followed.

"...Protective equipment such as helmets, batting gloves and shin guards were unheard of in the early days. Mitts were poorly designed and sparsely padded. A veteran of twenty-six major league seasons, catcher Deacon McGuire fell into the habit of placing raw beefsteak inside his glove to absorb the impact of pitched balls. Even so, X-rays of McGuire's hands taken years after he retired revealed evidence of nearly fifty dislocations or breaks.

Since the rules were not yet refined, unusual occurrences were not uncommon on the diamond. In a game for the New Brunswick championship, a University of St. Joseph player literally collapsed and died while rounding third base. Following close behind, a teammate picked up the lifeless form and carried it to home plate. Incredibly, the umpire counted both runs.

Strategies were far different in the days of old...Before 1895, infielders could deliberately bungle shallow pop-ups in the interest of turning cheap double plays. (The infield fly rule put an end to that practice.) Umpires worked alone and the rulebook was somewhat lenient. Consequently, players got away with murder. First basemen sometimes grabbed the belts of opponents to slow them from advancing to second. They were also known to shove runners off the bag after signalling for a pick-off throw from the pitcher. By the same token, runners took great liberties on the basepaths, occasionally cutting directly across the diamond from second base to home when an umpire's head was turned." 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

REVISITING SOME OF MY PAST WORK

With a new book due out at the end of June, I thought I would share some favorite excerpts from my previous projects. I'll lead off with Mudville Madness, which was released in 2014 through Taylor Trade Publishing. The book recounts some of the more unusual on-field events in baseball history. Here is one of the most bizarre. It's hard to believe that this actually happened. 

AUSGUST 17, 1957


What are the odds? In a game between the Phillies and Giants at Connie Mack Stadium, Philly leadoff man Richie Ashburn hit the same fan twice with foul balls. Ashburn was known for his extraordinary bat control and his ability to spoil good pitches by slapping them foul. Over the course of his 15-year Hall of Fame career (spent mostly with the Phillies), he led the NL in walks and on-base percentage four times apiece.

During the game in question, Ashburn hit a foul that broke the nose of Alice Roth, wife of Philadelphia Bulletin sports editor Earl Roth. Incredibly, as Mrs. Roth was being removed from the game via a stretcher, Ashburn hit her again, in the leg! Informed of her injury, the congenial center fielder visited her in the hospital the next day and apologized. As the story goes, he didn't even know he had hit her a second time until she told him. Ashburn remained friendly with the Roth family for years as their son was a Phillies batboy. 


After his playing days were over, Ashburn moved on to a successful career in broadcasting. 


STAY TUNED FOR MORE EXCERPTS IN THE COMING WEEKS!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

REMEMBERING THE FEDERAL LEAGUE



In 1912, baseball promoter John T. Powers assembled an independent circuit known as the Columbian League. Though it crashed and burned before opening day, Powers was able to generate enough interest to construct a new league the following year. Considered an “outlaw" organization, the Federal League began play in 1913 as a six-team minor circuit. Powers served as president during its inaugural season, but ended up stepping aside to make way for entrepreneur James A. Gilmore. Under Gilmore’s leadership, the Federal League declared itself a major league and began to compete directly with the AL and NL.



There were plenty of major leaguers willing to make the jump to Gilmore’s circuit. Seduced by lucrative contract offers, future Hall of Famers Joe Tinker and Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown left their respective clubs behind. In the early stages of his career, fellow Cooperstown inductee Edd Roush suited up for the Feds as well. In late-June, Hal Chase--the game's premier defensive first baseman--defected from the White Sox. Attendance at games was respectable and the pennant race was tight. The Indianapolis Hoosiers waited until the last day of the season to clinch the pennant over the Chicago Feds. Heralded as the “Ty Cobb of the Federal League,” outfielder Benny Kauff—who had previously played for the New York Highlanders—carried the Hoosiers to the top with the finest effort of his career. He paced the circuit in nearly a dozen offensive categories, including batting average (.370), runs scored (120) and total bases (305--a lofty figure for the Deadball Era).



With the relative success of the 1914 campaign, several other players of note joined the Federal League, among them Cooperstown-bound hurlers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender. The 1915 season featured a slightly different assortment of clubs. The Hoosiers disappeared and the Newark Peppers made their debut. Two other teams changed their nicknames. The Chicago Feds became known as the Whales while the Buffalo Buffeds played as the Blues. The campaign saw five different teams seriously competing for top honors. Again, the pennant race came down to the last day of the season with the Chicago club emerging victorious. Benny Kauff continued to dominate offensively, winning a second consecutive batting crown. He also led the league with 55 stolen bases.



In the 1914/15 offseason, Federal League owners filed an anti-trust suit against the American and National Leagues. The case found its way to the desk of future baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. It remained in limbo as Landis tried to bring about a peaceful settlement. In the meantime, the Federals began to flounder financially. After the 1915 slate, baseball’s third “major league” disbanded. Whales owner Phil Weeghman bought the Cubs and moved the club into Weeghman Park (later known as Wrigley Field). Terriers owner Phil Ball purchased the Browns. Other owners were offered cash settlements. The Federal League was the last serious challenge to the monopoly of the American and National Leagues.     

Sunday, April 9, 2017

THE ECCENTRICITIES OF PETE BROWNING



Baseball has had its share of unusual characters and Pete Browning was undoubtedly among the most colorful. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, he had a troubled childhood. Afflicted with a rare disorder known as mastoiditis, he lost a majority of his hearing and dropped out of school. He remained semi-literate throughout his life. Making his formative years even more difficult, his father was killed in a cyclone, leaving his mother to raise eight children alone.



An excellent athlete, Browning aspired to the major league ranks in 1882 with the Louisville Eclipse of the American Association. His medical affliction caused him to suffer from crippling headaches. At some point, he began to self-medicate with alcohol, telling one reporter: “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle.” Tales of his epic hangovers abound. He once literally fell asleep while leading off of second base. On another occasion, he was in such a daze at first, he allowed opposing pitcher Dave Foutz to wander over and tag him out. 

Browning was obsessed with his eyesight. He referred to his eyes as “lamps” or “peepers” and believed that it improved his vision when he stared into the sun for extended lengths of time. On at least one occasion, he held his head outside the window of a moving train to cleanse his eyes and ended up getting cinders in them. He was also known to soak his “peepers” in buttermilk.



He demonstrated a host of other eccentricities as well, fielding fly balls on one leg, refusing to slide into bases and never failing to touch third on his way to his outfield position. He was a monumentally poor fielder, committing 269 errors in 998 outfield assignments—an average of one miscue for every four appearances. Players didn’t use mitts in Browning’s era, but that was no excuse. His lifetime fielding percentage was a dozen points below the league average. One of Browning’s managers allegedly complained that the team would be better off with a wooden cigar store Indian in the field since there was an odd chance that a batted ball would hit the statue and bounce back toward the infield. 



Despite his shortcomings, Browning was an outstanding batsman. He hit for the cycle twice during the 1880s and won three batting titles in a ten-year span. He had above average power for the era, gathering more than 400 extra-base hits over portions of thirteen seasons. He kept a running tally of his batting averages on his shirt cuffs and would sometimes declare himself the current batting champion when he stepped to the plate. He retired with a lifetime .341 average.



Browning is best known for putting Hillerich and Bradsby on the map. He was the first to purchase bats from the company, popularizing a product that would later be named the “Louisville Slugger” in his honor. Browning established a personal relationship with each of his bats, talking to them and giving them names—often of biblical figures.



After his retirement as a player, Browning’s physical and mental health deteriorated. In 1905, he was briefly committed to a psychiatric facility. He died in September of that year due to a host of ailments, among them cancer, cirrhosis and alcohol-related brain damage. He received some consideration for the Hall of Fame but ultimately fell short.      

Saturday, March 25, 2017

MEMORABLE OPENING DAY HAPPENINGS



Opening day of the major league season is among the most anticipated events in all of sports. It marks the arrival of spring and the beginning of a new chapter in baseball history. It’s a day filled with hope and promise. Even the worst teams start out with a clean record. And the most obscure players can have a major impact. As a collective unit, the American and National Leagues will celebrate their 114th anniversary in 2017. To honor the occasion, I’ve compiled a short list of remarkable opening day events.




1907

With the Giants trailing the Phillies 3-0 at the Polo Grounds, fans begin to wander onto the field while the game is in progress. Other unruly spectators participate in a massive snowball fight, forcing umpire Bill Klem to declare a forfeit in favor of Philadelphia. Another point of interest, Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan becomes the first major league catcher to wear shin guards during a game. He is widely ridiculed for it.

 

1915

A’s southpaw Herb Pennock holds the Red Sox hitless for 8.2 innings. With two outs in the ninth, Boston’s speedy right fielder Harry Hooper beats out a high chopper for an infield hit, spoiling Pennock’s no-hit bid. The Hall of Fame hurler settles for a 1-hit shutout.    



1923

After sharing the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants for a decade, the Yankees open their new stadium for business. Fittingly, Babe Ruth is the first player to go deep, thrilling the crowd of 74,000-plus with a moon shot off of Red Sox starter Howard Ehmke. For Ruth, it’s the 198th home run of his career. Including the postseason, he’ll add 530 more before he retires.  



1940

Bob Feller picks up where Herb Pennock left off 25 years earlier, going 8.2 innings without yielding a hit to the White Sox. With two-outs in the bottom of the ninth, former batting champ Luke Appling draws a walk. But Feller bears down and retires right fielder Taffy Wright on an easy grounder to second base. It’s the first opening day no-hitter in history. The feat has not been duplicated since. 



1946

In preparation for their home opener, the grounds crew at Braves Field applies a fresh coat of red paint to the outfield bleachers. Unfortunately, damp weather prevents the paint from drying completely. Hundreds of disgruntled fans go home with crimson stains on their clothes, obligating the Braves to cover dry-cleaning costs. The game ends well for the hometown crew as they walk away with a 5-3 win.



1947

Ignoring multiple death threats, Jackie Robinson appears at first base for the Dodgers, officially breaking the Major League color barrier. More than 26,000 fans at Ebbets Field watch the “Bums” beat the Boston Braves, 5-3. Robinson scores the first run of his career and handles 11 chances without an error.  



1974

On his first swing of the season, Hank Aaron takes Reds starter Jack Billingham deep, tying him with Babe Ruth for the all-time home run lead. Four days later, Aaron will club #715 off of Al Downing, becoming baseball’s reigning home run king.  

Friday, March 10, 2017

MY UPCOMING BOOK RELEASE



For years, I have felt that the contributions of Latino ballplayers have been largely overlooked. My latest book gives more than 140 Latin American standouts due credit for their accomplishments. It's called Latino Stars in Major League Baseball and is scheduled for a June release. I'm posting the introduction here to give potential readers a feel for what it's all about. 



Some of the best players in major league history were born outside the United States. According to an ESPN article, Latin American ballplayers held twenty-seven percent of all major league contracts and forty percent of all minor league contracts in 2013. In fact, Latino players represent one of the fastest growing ethnicities in baseball. But the road to “The Show” has not been easy for many.
            MLB’s dreaded color barrier prevented many of the greatest players of all time from competing on baseball’s grandest stage. Though Cuban luminaries Cristobal Torriente, Martin Dihigo and Jose Mendez were all elected to Cooperstown, none of them saw major league action. The abolishment of the color barrier did little to alleviate other problems faced by Latin American ballplayers. Many grow up in poverty using improvised materials (such as milk cartons for gloves and tree branches for bats) to learn the rudiments of the game. Language barriers leave many feeling isolated and misunderstood once they reach America.
            Recognizing the depth of the talent pool in Venezuela, major league teams began establishing training camps there during the 1990s. At one point, twenty-three major league clubs had set up operations. But by 2016, only four camps remained. Economic troubles, political unrest, food shortages and rising crime rates have made it difficult for the surviving facilities to function.
            An entirely different dilemma is faced by players from Cuba, where the communist government prohibits prospects from signing with major league teams. Desperate to realize their dreams, many players risk life and limb escaping the country. Dodger outfielder Yasiel Puig was held hostage by the criminals who smuggled him out of Cuba. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu nearly drowned in fifteen foot waves.  
            The struggles faced by numerous Latin American players make their stories all the more triumphant. And as the diversity of baseball continues to grow, the quality of play is enhanced exponentially. At the time of this writing, there were ten Latino players enshrined at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Many others have played on major league All-Star teams, led their respective leagues in various statistical categories, won prestigious awards and guided their clubs to the postseason. The most succesful Latino stars are profiled on the pages that follow.