Thursday, November 29, 2012

Managerial Meltdown

There are few things more entertaining in baseball than watching a manager completely lose it. When I think of epic meltdowns, two names instantly come to mind: Earl Weaver and Billy Martin.

Weaver, Hall of Fame Orioles skipper, was tossed out more than ninety times during in his career (twice before games had even started). He became infamous not only for his profanity laden tirades but also for the tactic of turning his cap around backwards so he could get closer to umpires in the heat of battle without making physical contact.

Martin, fired five times by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, patented the act of kicking dirt on the shoes of men in blue. Ejected forty-six times as a manager, he occasionally bullied umps into changing their calls (as was the case in the notorious Pine Tar Game of 1983). "The day I become a good loser, I'm quitting baseball," he once said.

Volatile as these two men were, the award for most bizarre and amusing tantrum in history goes to a little known skipper by the name of Philip Wellman. Manager of the Double-A Mississippi Braves, Wellman let sanity fall by the wayside during a game in June of 2007. When his pitcher was ejected for allegedly applying a foreign substance to the ball, the veteran dugout boss temporarily took leave of his senses. After covering home plate with dirt and drawing an outline of a larger one in its place, he sauntered over to third base, uprooted the bag and launched it into the outfield. Not finished with his theatrics, he crawled on his hands and knees to the pitcher's mound, where he grabbed the rosin bag, pulled an imaginary pin with his teeth and tossed it like a grenade at the home plate umpire. Before exiting the game, he ejected the ump at third, moved second base into right center field then blew a kiss to the wildly cheering crowd. Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" blared on the PA system throughout.

To date, Wellman's one man Vaudeville act has drawn more than 600,000 views on YouTube.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Miracle of Motion Pictures

Shortly after Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech, movie producer Samuel Goldwyn purchased the rights to the story. The ultra-suave Gary Cooper was recruited to play the role of Gehrig, but his baseball skills were limited and adjustments had to be made. A natural righty, Cooper was too awkward to pull off a convincing facsimile of Gehrig’s powerful left-handed swing. Despite technical assistance from former NL batting champ Lefty O’Doul, the sequences had to be shot right-handed with Cooper instructed to run to third base when he hit the ball. The film was later “flopped” with the number on Cooper’s back reversed.
In an attempt to add some authenticity to the film, Babe Ruth was recruited to play himself on screen. Unfortunately, “The Sultan of Swat” didn’t have much swat left in him at the age of forty seven. With the Babe unable to generate the titanic blasts of his glory years, director Sam Wood called upon another former big league great, Babe Herman, who at thirty-nine was finishing up his career in the Pacific Coast League. Herman was also used as a stand-in for Cooper in faraway shots. Wood’s efforts paid off as The Pride of the Yankees was nominated for eleven Academy Awards.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Diamond Deaths (Concluded)

A question that sporadically appears on various baseball trivia sites is as follows: Has anyone ever died on a baseball field? I addressed the answer (to some extent) in two previous posts and will attempt to put the topic to rest in this installment.

Chapter One of my book Cellar Dwellers provides anecdotal evidence of an on-field death that occurred during a nineteenth century game between the University of St. Joseph and the Chatham Stars at New Brunswick. The Stars were leading 2-0 in the ninth when a St. Joseph's player named O'Hara (reputedly the team's weakest hitter) doubled to left. The next batter, a man named Robidoux, slammed a ball over the center fielder's head. As O'Hara was rounding third, he suddenly collapsed and died of unknown causes. Upon encountering his fallen teammate, Robidoux picked up the lifeless form and carried it with him to home plate. The umpire reportedly counted both runs.

In June of 1916, former major leaguer Johnny Dodge was struck and killed by a pitch from Nahsville's Tom "Shotgun" Rogers in a Southern Association game. Rogers would reach the majors the following year and hang around long enough to compile a 15-30 record for the Browns, A's and Yankees.

Long after Dodge's on-field demise, another horrific scene unfolded during an Evangeline League game in Alexandria, Louisiana. On June 16, 1951, twenty-one year-old Andy Strong of the Crowley Millers was killed after being hit by a bolt of lightning. The game had been delayed due to a thunderstorm and, when Strong took his center field post in the sixth inning, he was struck down.

In a 1974 Carolina League contest, eighteen year-old prospect Alfredo Edmead of the Salem Pirates made a diving catch in right field. As he did so, he collided with second baseman Pablo Cruz. Specifically, Edmead's head slammed into Cruz's knee. According to numerous sources, the force of the blow killed the aspiring outfielder. The unfortunate incident happened in 1974.

Twenty-two years later, umpire John McSherry collapsed and died on opening day in Cincinnati. He called just seven pitches at Riverfront Stadium before walking back toward the stands and collapsing. The fifty-one year-old arbiter never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead of a massive heart attack at University Hospital.

Yet another on-field tragedy occurred in 2007. During a Texas League game between the Tulsa Drillers and Wichita Wranglers, Tulsa's third base coach Mike Coolbaugh was hit by a line drive while standing in the coach's box. The thirty-five year-old Coolbaugh had played briefly for the Cardinals and Brewers. Sadly, he left behind a pregnant wife and two sons. His death brought about a rule requiring coaches to wear helmets on the field.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Brief Reign of "Super Joe" Charboneau

Joe Charboneau's road to the majors was wrought with peril. While waiting for the Indians' team bus outside a Mexico City hotel during spring training of 1980, he was stabbed by a crazed autograph seeker with a BIC pen. The implement sank deep enough to strike a rib. Teammates restrained the assailant until police arrived and the dazed rookie was taken to a Mexico City Hospital. Charboneau later described the conditions there as "awful" and commented: "The closest I ever want to get to that country again is a Mexican restaurant." His attacker was fined a meager fifty pesos for his actions and released.

Back in the states, Charboneau endeared himself to Cleveland fans with a fine debut performance, hitting .289 with 23 homers and 87 RBI's. He captured Rookie of the Year honors on the strength of those numbers. Charboneau had some highly unusual talents off the diamond as he was known to open beer bottles with his eye sockets then drink the contents with a straw through his nose. He was also fond of dyeing his hair garish colors. Always good for a quote, he remarked of the incident in Mexico City: "I'm going to get a commercial with the BIC people. I can go on TV and say 'BIC pens are best. (They'll) even write under blood.'"

 It ended all too soon for "Super Joe."During spring training of '81, he hurt his back executing a headfirst slide. His numbers suffered immensely and he was demoted to Charleston. He fought his way back to the big club the following year, but managed an anemic .214 average in 22 games. He underwent two back surgeries during his brief career. "Baseball is full of peaks and valleys," he told one writer. "When you're hurt, it's even valley-er."

Charboneau had a non-speaking part in the 1984 Barry Levinson film, The Natural. This was fitting, since he knew plenty about being a short-lived phenom. Despite only having appeared in 201 games, he landed among the Top 100 Cleveland Indians when the club compiled an all-time all-star list in 2001.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Diamond Deaths (Cont'd)

Because of its picnic-like atmosphere, people sometimes forget how dangerous the game of baseball is. Major league hitters have less than a second to react to react to the 9-inch rawhide sphere, which weighs roughly 5 ounces and arrives at the plate in the blink of an eye. In August of 1920, the ball became a lethal projectile at the Polo Grounds at New York.

On a damp, overcast day, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman stepped into the box to face Yankee hurler Carl Mays. The 29 year-old Chapman had decent speed but little power. He was just coming into his prime offensively, having hit .300 the previous year and carrying a .304 average into this game. Mays was a submariner with a good rising fastball. He could make the ball sink or curve depending on his arm angle at the time of release. He was known to throw an occasional spitball. Hitless in two appearances, Chapman crouched slightly and crowded the plate as Mays wound and fired. Camouflaged in a wet, hazy background, it's doubtful that Chapman even saw the pitch, which struck him squarely in the left temple. There was an audible crack.

Accounts of what happened next vary widely. According to a newspaper report, the ball rolled to Mays, who scooped it up and fired to Wally Pipp at first base. Pipp stepped on the bag, making the apparent out as Chapman staggered out of the box then collapsed in a heap. At some point, the Cleveland infielder regained consciousness and was helped to his feet. He tried to walk, but fell again before being transported to St. Lawrence Hospital. Eight hours later, he was dead. Just like that, major league baseball was dealing with the fallout of its first pitched ball fatality.

In the aftermath, the game "cleaned itself up"--literally. Umpires were encouraged to put fresh balls into play more often. Balls had previously been used  until they became lopsided and soggy as fans were pressured to throw foul pops back onto the field. As for Mays, well, he became one of the most universally disliked figures in the game, commenting after his retirement, "I won over 200 big league games. No one remembers that. When they think of me, I'm the guy that killed Ray Chapman."

More than ninety years later, we still remember him that way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Keep Your Eye on the Ball!

Back in the early days, there were fewer baseballs to go around. Umpires kept balls in play even after they became tobacco-stained and lopsided. Fans were encouraged to throw foul balls back onto the field--sometimes under threat of arrest. This led  to some interesting events on the field.

In an 1891 game between New York and Cincinnati, pitcher Bob Barr--making his Giants' debut that day--was injured in bizarre fashion when he was hit in the head by a ball thrown back over the grandstand by a conscientious fan.

Though no injury resulted, Pirates' third baseman Tommy Leach suffered an embarrassing moment during a 1904 exhibition game. Chasing a pop up behind the bag, he was temporarily blinded by the sun. "I seemed to see two specks of white up above the blinding rays, but I put my hands up as I ran and a few seconds later had the ball in my glove," he explained to a writer from the Cleveland Press. Immediately following the catch, he was surprised to see teammate Honus Wagner standing near third with another ball in his possession. Wagner explained that the ball Leach had caught was a foul thrown back onto the field by a fan. The other had dropped behind third base for a double.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Baker Bowl (Cont'd)

In 1929, Philadelphia's Baker Bowl witnessed an offensive explosion (nearly) unparalleled in baseball history. On July 6th of that year, the Cardinals dropped their eleventh straight with a 10-6 loss to the Phillies in the opening game of a doubleheader. The nightcap was a coming out party for the Redbirds.

Using the klunky dimensions of the Baker Bowl to an advantage, St. Louis scored 10 runs in the first and 10 more in the fifth on the way to a 28-6 thrashing of the home crew. The run and hit totals for this game were a National League record for the twentieth century. Other records were set as well with nine Cardinal players scoring at least 2 runs and five players collecting at least 4 hits apiece (one of them was Fresco Thompson of the Phillies).

For Philadelphia pitchers, it was a day to forget. Claude "Weeping" Willoughby and Elmer Miller were charged with 8 runs between them without retiring a single batter in the first inning. Right-hander June Greene, who took over in the disastrous 10-run fifth, gave up 11 runs on 12 hits the rest of the way. Not surprisingly, it was his last major league appearance.

Hall of Famer Jim Bottomley was the busiest Cardinal of all with a grand slam and 7 RBI's to go with his two homers in the opener. Together, the two clubs combined for 73 hits in the doubleheader, tying a major league record set by the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies on July 4, 1896. Can you guess where THAT game took place?

That's right--The Baker Bowl.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Sad Tale of Andrew "Rube" Foster

The best writers in Hollywood could not have crafted a better script than the true life story of Andrew “Rube” Foster. A barrel-chested giant with a devastating screwball, the sly right-hander kept batters at a severe disadvantage for nearly two decades. With an 18-strikeout performance and a 51-win season under his belt, he gained control of the Leland Giants in 1909, molding them into one of the most successful franchises in the history of black baseball. His power and influence reached a zenith in 1919, when he founded the Negro National League. Within four years, the circuit had developed a fan base in the millions.

A domineering presence in the dugout, Foster once hit a player over the head with his meerschaum pipe for tripling with a bunt sign on. In the boardroom, he was equally despotic. Dayton Marcos’ owner John Mathews made the mistake of falling asleep during a league meeting. He reportedly awoke to find that Foster had split up his team and divided the spoils amongst other owners.

Keeping the league afloat was a colossal undertaking—especially with the establishment of the rival Eastern Colored League. In 1924, Foster wrote that the pressure was “almost beyond endurance.” By 1926, the cracks were beginning to show. Two weeks before Christmas that year, the troubled executive had a manic outburst in his Chicago apartment. His wife phoned the police and, after a violent struggle, he was taken into custody. Declared incompetent, he was committed to a mental facility. Infielder Dave Malarcher assumed managerial responsibilities in Foster’s absence, leading the Giants to a Negro National League championship. Sadly, Foster was in no state of mind to savor news of the victory. He suffered from various delusions, among them the notion that he had been selected to throw out the first pitch at the major league World Series. He remained institutionalized until his death in 1930. He was just  fifty-one years old.    

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Philly's Ugly Duckling

Among the ugliest ballparks in major league history, the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia was home to the Phillies for over fifty years. Whenever I conduct research on pre-war baseball I find myself drawn to this place with its ungainly dimensions and crumbling interior. The right field foul line was situated just 280 feet from home plate and, although a sixty foot wall and screen barrier was installed to deter cheap home runs, outfielders spent many long afternoons chasing the unpredictable caroms. There was little that could be done to compensate for a "hump" in center field, which was created by a railroad tunnel underneath. With measurements more suitable for Wiffleball, a staggering total of 1,187 runs were scored there in 1930--an average of 15 per game. The career of any Philly pitcher was apt to be quite short as the staff compiled the highest ERA in the National League every year from 1923 through 1934. During the offensive explosion of 1930, the cumulative team ERA was an astonishing 6.71.

Sportswriter Red Smith once appropriately referred to the stadium as a "rusty, cobwebby house of horrors." In addition to its odd dimensions, the park was structurally unsound as sections of the bleachers collapsed on two separate occasions, killing a dozen while injuring more than two-hundred. Owner William F. Baker and his successor Gerry Nugent were notoriously frugal, trading away the club's best players year after year. Baker was so cheap that he prosecuted an eleven year-old fan named Reuben Berman in 1923 for not returning a foul ball he had caught. A judge sided with the poor kid, ruling that he couldn't be blamed for wanting a souvenir. Aside from a World Series appearance in 1915, the club fared quite poorly at the Baker Bowl, allegedly prompting a wise-cracking graffiti artist to spraypaint an editorial comment on the famous Lifebuoy billboard in right-center field. After the jokester had added his finishing touches, the sign read: "The Phillies Use Lifebuoy Soap...And They Still Stink."

Midway through the 1938 campaign, Nugent finally decided he had had enough, moving the club into Shibe Park, which was jointly occupied by the Athletics.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Nasty Little Ump

The first two chapters of Cellar Dwellers are dedicated to the topic of nineteenth century baseball--a wild and lawless era. Historian Bill James once described the tactics of the 1800's as "violent" and "criminal." Connie Mack astutely observed that: "Baseball historians dwell considerably on the 'days of violence.' These days make exciting reading, but it should be considered in proper perspective that during these same times there was violence everywhere. It was an age of violence."

During Mack's so-called "age of violence," even the umpires were nasty. Among the nastiest was Tim Hurst, whom I mentioned in an earlier post. Though he stood only 5-foot-5 and carried the nickname "Tiny Tim," he instilled fear in the hearts of players and managers. Among the most ill-tempered arbiters in history, Hurst once knocked New York Highlanders' manager Clark Griffith out cold during a heated debate. During an 1895 contest, a foul tip shattered Hurst's mask, driving a wire into his forehead and hitting an artery. To Hurst, it was merely a flesh wound. He remained in the game.

Hurst's first experience as an official happened by coincidence. While attending a Southern League championship game, he volunteered his services after one of the umpires suddenly quit. In the game's final inning, the freshly recruited Hurst called one of the home team's players out on a close play at the plate. The run would have tied the score and, realizing the call might be controversial, he allegedly pulled a pistol from his pocket. As the story goes, the play went uncontested.