Saturday, March 30, 2013

Chuck Connors: From the Diamond to the Silver Screen

Connors was tall and wiry at 6-foot-5, 190 pounds. His 1992 New York Times obituary stated that "his square-jawed masculinity made him a natural for rugged acting roles." Before aspiring to a career in celluloid, he spent nearly a decade as a professional athlete.

Connors was a multi-sport star in high school. He signed with the Dodgers in 1940, but went 1-for-11 at the plate in 4 games before sustaining an injury. He temporarily retired to attend college at Seton Hall in New Jersey. He played first base for the university squad and was a center for the basketball team. He also took an interest in the performing arts.

Connors was signed by the Yankees in June of '42. In October of that year, he enlisted in the Army. He later decided to become a year-round professional athlete, playing baseball from spring until fall and basketball in the winter. In 1946, the Yankees waived him during spring training and he was picked up by the Dodgers again. That same year, he became the first player in NBA history to shatter a glass backboard on a dunk while playing for the Boston Celtics. He commented of his days with the Celtics: "My greatest value to the team was as an after-dinner speaker. I did more public speaking than playing."

Connors excelled in the Dodger farm system, hitting 17 homers in the Piedmont League during the '46 slate and establishing himself as a top prospect. He played on four straight minor league championship squads. In '49, he got a cup of coffee in the majors, but was sent back down after just one appearance. He continued to hit well, posting averages of .307, .319 and .290 with Montreal of the International League from '48-'50. With no room for him on the Brooklyn roster, the Dodgers finally traded him to the Cubs in October of 1950.

Connors' longest stint in the majors was with Chicago in '51, when he hit .239 in 66 games as a first baseman. The Cubs were terrible that year, finishing 30 games below .500. Near the end of the season, Connors got his first big break. A casting director offered him a bit-part in the Spencer Tracy/ Katherine Hepburn film, Pat & Mike. His life dramatically changed direction after that. In a 1966 interview, he recalled: "I said right then and there, this is my racket."

Demoted to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League in '52, he retired from baseball before getting another big league call-up. He is best known for his role as Lucas McCain in the television series, The Rifleman, which ran from 1958 to 1963--the golden era of TV Westerns. Connors' character took care of villains with his trusty Winchester. He would appear in more than 40 films during his career along with numerous TV shows and specials. He received an Emmy nomination for his role in the TV mini-series Roots and won a Golden Globe Award in 1959. Among his most notable movie credits were the '57 Disney Classic Old Yeller, the 1973 science fiction epic Soylent Green and the star-studded Zucker Brothers comedy, Airplane II, released in 1982.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Billy vs. Reggie: Remembering the Fenway Flare-up

When Reggie Jackson arrived in the Bronx for the '77 slate, he famously quipped to the press: "I didn't come to New York to be a star. I brought my star with me." Less than 3 months into his tenure with the Yankees, he made disparaging remarks about team captain Thurman Munson. "I'm the straw that stirs the drink," he told a correspondent from Sport magazine. "Maybe I should say me and Munson, but he can only stir it bad." This angered and alienated teammates.

Though  Jackson carried the club at times, he also went into prolonged slumps during which he flailed vainly at anything that came to the plate. While playing with the A's, he had led the league in strikeouts for four straight seasons. He retired with 2,597 whiffs--an all-time record. Still, he was George Steinbrenner's most coveted player and "The Boss" demanded he remain in the lineup even when he wasn't producing. 

On numerous occasions, manager Billy Martin tried to hide Reggie at the bottom of the order, but he invariably heard about it later with Steinbrenner insisting that the slugger bat third or fourth. Martin had strong ideas about how to run a ballclub and he resented Steinbrenner's meddlesome ways. He also resented Jackson's ego and there was friction between the two from the start. Martin had made no bones about the fact that he didn't want Reggie on the club. He had advocated for the acquisition of Joe Rudi, a decent hitter and a phenomenal defensive outfielder. 

Reggie was a sub-par fielder though he did possess a strong arm. Between 1968 and 1977, he had led AL right fielders in errors 7 times. He also had a tendency to loaf after balls. In his book The Bronx Zoo, reliever Sparky Lyle wrote: "Let's face it, Reggie's a bad outfielder. He has good speed to the ball, but the catching part is shaky."

On June 18, 1977, the Yankees aired their dirty laundry on national television. The Yankees were visiting Fenway Park and trailing the Red Sox in the standings. As usual, Steinbrenner was griping that the team should be in first place. Billy had asked Reggie to shag some fly balls during batting practice, but George's favorite player had refused. This led to an epic showdown in the Yankee dugout.

The Yanks were behind 7-4 in the sixth inning when Jim Rice hit a blooper to right field that dunked in for a hit. Reggie moved casually toward it then took his time getting it back to the infield. By then, Rice was on second base. Billy was fuming. He came out to the mound to replace pitcher Mike Torrez. He then sent Paul Blair out to replace Reggie. This was obviously an attempt to embarrass the egotistical outfielder, whom Billy had never wanted in the first place.

Sensitive about his public image, Jackson stormed into the dugout and demanded to know what he had done wrong. Martin snarled at him: "You know what you did!" Reggie then made the mistake of calling Martin an old man. Billy had never backed down from a fight during his career and he wasn't about to start. It took three coaches to separate the two: Elston Howard, Dick Howser and Yogi Berra. Reggie yelled at Billy: "You better start liking me!" --An insinuation that if anyone was going to be fired, it would be Martin.

Steinbrenner, who had watched the game on TV with millions of others, decided to fire Billy two days later. But when the story was leaked by UPI writer Milt Richman, the public reaction was overwhelmingly negative. George ultimately changed his mind, but would fire and rehire Martin numerous times over the next few seasons. Reggie would spend a few more tumultuous seasons in the Bronx, averaging 28 homers 92 RBI's and 115 strikeouts per year over 5 seasons.   

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1930s (Concluded)

I'll conclude my survey of the 1930's with the top four candidates for the Hall of Forgotten Greats.

4. Wes Ferrell

Brother of Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell, some would argue that Wes was statistically more deserving though he never received more than 3.6% of the Cooperstown vote. Among the most dominant right-handers of the '30's, Ferrell reached the 20-win threshold 5 times during the decade (6 times in all). A fierce competitor with a fiery temper and a penchant for causing trouble, he traveled a bit during the Depression, playing for the Indians, Red Sox, Senators and Yankees. He was named to 2 All-Star teams. A durable workhorse, he twirled at least 276 innings on six occasions, breaking the 300-inning mark twice. He led the league in complete games 6 times. Ferrell also drew lots of attention for his hitting. He was among the best offensive pitchers of all-time and may have made a serviceable outfielder had he been given adequate time to learn the position. A brief experiment in that regard failed. He holds the record for most homers by a hurler with 38 and posted a .280 batting average with 208 ribbies and 107 extra-base hits in more than 1,100 career at-bats. 

 3. Hal Trosky

Trosky was never named to an All-Star team but it was hardly his fault with Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg patrolling the same station (first base). Trosky's '35 homers in '34 were the most by a rookie--a mark tied by Rudy York 3 years later. Additionally, Trosky was among a handful of players to reach the 200-hit threshold in his debut season. He proved he was no fluke by clubbing at least 25 homers six times and gathering 30 or more doubles on 7 occasions. Additionally, he reached the century mark in RBI's every year from '34-'39. He was named Indians' team captain in '39. Trosky suffered from migraines throughout his career. The condition was poorly understood in his time and he was actually prescribed glasses at one point even though his vision was good. He temporarily retired in '41, but returned to action as a shadow of his former self. He scouted for the White Sox into the 1950's. 

2. Mel Harder

Harder would probably have been considered the greatest Indians' pitcher of all-time if Bob Feller hadn't come along. Only Feller has more wins with Cleveland. Harder had a long career that began in the '20's and peaked in the '30's.He won at least 15 games every year from '32-'39 and finished with double digit win totals 13 times. He was a 20-game winner twice. Joe DiMaggio couldn't touch him, hitting .180 in his career against Harder and citing the Indians' tall right-hander as one of the most difficult hurlers he had ever faced. Harder led the AL in ERA during the '33 slate and finished second the following year with a stellar 2.61 mark. He also paced the loop in shutouts during the '34 campaign with 6. A 4-time All-Star, Harder holds a record for most innings pitched without giving up a run. He worked 13 All-Star frames in all. He later became a pitching coach in Clevleand and was largely responsible for converting Bob Lemon from a positional player to a Hall of Fame pitcher. Early Wynn and Bob Feller also cited Harder's advice and guidance as being integral to their success.

1. Cecil Travis

Making his debut in '33, Travis earned a full-time roster spot in Washington the following year, hitting .319 in a season shortened by a serious beaning. The sure-handed infielder was adept at both third base and shortstop. After the '36 slate, he spent increasingly less time at the hot corner. As a third baseman, he led the league in double plays during the '35 slate. At short, he finished among the top 3 in fielding percentage 3 times. Travis generally hit in the middle of the lineup. Batting fifth, he compiled a .330 average with a .384 on-base percentage. As a clean-up man, his numbers were similar--.324/ .381. During the decade of the '30's, he topped the .300 mark in every year of service except for one season, when he "slumped" to .292. His most productive campaign would come in 1941, when he led the league with 218 hits and reached career-best marks in RBI's (101) and batting average (.359). Drafted into the Army, he was an accomplished soldier, earning a Bronze Star and three Battle Stars. He suffered an injury during the Battle of the Bulge, losing part of his foot to frostbite. When he returned in '45, he had lost his swing. He refused to blame it on the amputation, however, even though it reportedly affected his balance. Travis insisted that it was his timing that had been disrupted. The mild-mannered infielder was in his prime when he went off to war and, using sabermetric measurements, his lifetime totals have been projected at 2,843 hits, 511 doubles and a .332 lifetime batting average. Those numbers, according to statistician Bill James, would have landed him in the Hall of Fame.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1930s (Part II)

Among the most colorful decades in baseball history, the 1930's featured lots of offense and rowdyism. Some of the most powerful sluggers of all-time played in the Depression Era--Among them Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio (who debuted in 1937). It was easy to get overlooked playing alongside these matinee idols. Here is the second installment of my list of FORGOTTEN GREATS.

8. Joe Vosmik
Vosmik was the son of Autro-Hungarian immigrants. He was told by one of his schoolmasters that he would amount to nothing. That prediction rang false when he was called to the big leagues near the end of the 1930 slate. He began his career with the Indians and spent 7 seasons in the Forest City. During the 1930's, he hit no lower than .312 on 6 occasions and gathered no less than 84 RBI's 7 times. He reached the century mark in ribbies twice and led the American League in base hits during two campaigns. His finest offensive showing came in 1935, when he topped the circuit with 216 hits, 47doubles and 20 triples while hitting .348. He helped the Indians to a respectable third place finish that year. Vosmik was a tough man to strike out,whiffing just 272 times in more than 6,000 career plate appearances. Defensively, he was one of the better left fielders in the majors, posting the highest AL fielding percentage among players at his position 3 times. He finished in the top 5 every year from 1931 through 1939.  From 1937 through 1941, he played for the Browns, Red Sox and Dodgers. By '41 his best years were behind him.

7. Tony Cuccinello
Cuccinello was one of those little guys (5-foot-7, 160 pounds) who played like a much bigger man. He was unafraid to break up a double play or throw fists around when he needed to. "Cooch" got his start with the Reds in 1930, hitting .312 with 10 homers and 78 runs-batted-in. Had there been a rookie of the year award back then, he would have been a top candidate.  Traded to Brooklyn in '32, he played four seasons there then finished the decade with the Braves. Cuccinello's primary station was second base. He was a solid defensive player, leading the league in double plays and assists three times apiece. He also paced the circuit in putouts once. He had decent power for a diminutive middle infielder, raking 30 or more doubles 5 times and finishing with double digit homer totals on four occasions. He was used most often as a 5th slot hitter, compiling a .291 average in that capacity. He hit .289 and drove in 242 runs as a clean-up man. He gathered a career-best total of  94 ribbies in 1934 with Brooklyn. Cuccinello aged pretty well, narrowly missing a batting title at the age of 37.

6. Lon Warneke
Warneke was dubbed "The Arkansas Hummingbird" for his quick, darting delivery. He spent most of the '30's toeing the rubber for the Cubs, becoming a full-time member of the Chicago  starting rotation in '32. He was Traded to the Cardinals at the end of the '36 slate for slugger Rip Collins and pitcher Roy Parmalee. A 5-time All-Star, Warneke was a vital cog on 2 pennant winning Cubs' squads. He pitched poorly in the '32 Series against the Yankees, but was lights out in the '35 Fall Classic against the Tigers with a 2-0 record and 0.54 ERA. His two victories represented Chicago's total win-share in the Series. Warneke's best season came in '32, when he posted a 22-6 record with a 2.37 ERA. He followed up with an 18-win effort the following year and would have posted the lowest ERA in the league (2.00) had the Giants' Carl Hubbell not trumped him with a ridiculously low mark of 1.66. Warneke would reach the 20-win threshold three times in all and claim no fewer than 18 victories every year from '32-'37. Sabermetric measurements match him favorably to Dazzy Vance, Stan Coveleski and Bob Lemon--Hall of Famers all. He retired with 192 career victories.

5. Tommy Bridges
 Bridges relied heavily on his curveball, but was periodically accused of throwing spitters. He was thin to the point of being almost gaunt at 5-foot-10, 155 pounds. Frequent battery mate Mickey Cochrane once referred to him as "150 pounds of courage." The right-handed throwing Bridges got off to a rocky start in his first full season with the Tigers, going 8-16 with a 4.99 ERA. He honed his craft and eventually became one of the top hurlers in the American League. Bridges nearly missed a perfect game in August of '32. It was broken up in the ninth inning when Senators' manager Walter Johnson sent one of the top pinch-hitters in the American League (Dave Harris) to the plate. The slender moundsman tossed a one-hitter the following year and would finally get the elusive gem at the age of 40 in a Pacific Coast League game. Bridges was named to 6 All-Star teams. He led the AL in strikeouts in '35 and '36, finishing among the top 10 in that category on 12 occasions. He was a 20-game winner for three straight seasons beginning in 1934 and retired with 194 career victories. Bridges was far less successful off the field as chronic alcoholism destroyed his life. At one point, he was homeless and living on the streets of New York City.                                                           

Monday, March 18, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1930s

As the curtain opened on the 1930 campaign, offense was in full swing. It would remain that way throughout the decade as the era of the big blast forever replaced the "small ball" conventions of old. Babe Ruth finished up his illustrious career with 714 homers. Though this was light years ahead of the competition, scores of others began clearing the fences as well. In 1930, a total of nineteen players collected at least 20 long balls. At the close of the decade, sixteen men turned the trick. 

In the American League, the Yankees were a force to be reckoned with, capturing 4 straight world championships from 1936 through 1939. The National League was dominated by the Cardinals, Giants and Cubs, who claimed 3 pennants apiece. While unemployment rose to record proportions and many people were standing in bread lines, players like Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx and  Mel Ott created a welcome distraction from the miseries of the Great Depression. The first All-Star game was played in 1933 and, though it helped put many small market players on the map, plenty of names were lost in the shuffle. 

In addition to the dozens of Hall of Famers who played at least a small portion of their careers in the 1930's, there were plenty of other semi-greats who appeared alongside them gaining less acclaim. In the next few installments of my blog, I will compile a TOP TEN LIST of the decade's FORGOTTEN STARS. My list begins in Washington. 


Myer began his career in the Capital City, but was traded away in 1927 for veteran shortstop Topper Rigney. Senators' owner Clark Griffith referred to it as "the dumbest deal" he ever made and brought Myer back for the '29 campaign. The speedy infielder had led the league in stolen bases with Boston the year before. Shifted from the hot corner to second base, Myer proved his worth defensively, leading the league twice in fielding percentage. He consistently finished among the top 5 in putouts and assists throughout the 1930's. Using swiftness to an advantage, the Mississippi native appeared near the top of the batting order for most of his career, hitting .302 as a leadoff man and .307 out of the second slot. He peaked at .349 in '35, capturing a batting title. With Hall of Famer Heinie Manush hitting behind him in the Washington lineup, Myer scored no fewer than 90 runs per year from 1930 through 1935. He made two All-Star appearances before retiring in 1941 with a .303 lifetime batting average.    

It's easy to forget a guy with such a plain name. Johnson was of Cherokee descent. His older brother Roy would have a few big offensive seasons for various clubs during the 1930's. Roy was miserable with a glove, however, setting the all-time single season mark for errors by an outfielder (31) in 1929. Bob was most definitely the more talented of the two. He joined the A's in 1933 after the club had made 3 straight World Series appearances. Slugger Al Simmons had departed for Chicago. Catcher Mickey Cochrane would leave for Detroit shortly afterward and first baseman Jimmie Foxx would join the exodus, finding a home in Boston. Johnson was left to pick up the pieces of a slowly crumbling dynasty. He did so quietly and without much fanfare. Defense was one of the strongest aspects of Johnson's game. In the yawning expanse of Shibe Park, a strong throwing arm came in handy and "Indian Bob" had one of the most powerful guns in the history of the game. From 1933 to 1945, he led AL left fielders in assists 6 times and finished his career with 184--more than any player at that position. He also led the league in errors as a left fielder on 5 occasions, but partially redeemed himself with 2 fielding titles. On offense, Johnson was among the most reliable RBI men of the 1930's, reaching the century mark in five straight seasons while collecting no fewer than 92 ribbies every year from '33 through '39. In the same span, he gathered at least 60 extra-base hits each season while scoring 91 or more runs. Since his numbers were highly consistent and not eye-popping, he gained little support on Hall of Fame ballots after he retired.    


Friday, March 15, 2013

Gone Too Soon: Harry Agganis: "The Golden Greek"

I'm not old enough to remember Harry Agganis. But I did pay a pretty penny to add his 1955 Topps baseball card to my collection a few years ago.  

Harry Agganis was born in 1929 to poor immigrant parents in West Lynn, Massachusetts. His folks had emigrated from Sparta, Greece. Harry was a gifted athlete and gained acclaim for his baseball skills at the age of 14 while playing for the Lynn Frasers in a semi-pro league. There were several major league pitchers in the loop, who played on weekends while serving in the military. Agganis hit .342 before he was even old enough to drive.

Football was undeniably his best sport as he threw 29 touchdowns in his junior year of high school while leading his team to a national championship. Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy commented that Agganis was the "finest prospect" he had ever seen. Scouts literally camped out near his home as he was pursued by 75 colleges. He chose Boston University to avoid being separated from his widowed mother. He was so highly touted that one of his freshman college games attracted 20,000 fans. During his senior year, he was being compared to the great quarterbacks of the era such as Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh.

Blessed with good looks and a well-sculpted frame (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), Agganis became a cover boy for numerous magazines, including Sport and the Saturday Evening Post. When the Korean war arrived, he chose to serve even though he could have avoided it. He later turned down a $50,000 offer from the Cleveland Browns, signing for less with the Red Sox. Baseball wasn't even his best sport as he had hit at an even-.300 clip in two seasons at Boston University.

Agganis made the majors after one year at the AAA level with the Louisville Colonels. He led the American League in assists as a first baseman in his rookie year, but hit just .251. He vowed to raise his average above .300 in his second season and was on track before falling seriously ill in mid-May of 1955. Stricken with viral pneumonia, he was hospitalized for ten days and returned to the lineup too soon. He fell ill again a week later during a road trip.  His lung infection was complicated by phlebitis, but he appeared to be on the mend when he died unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism on June 27th. He was only 26  years old.

Flags were flown at half mast and congressmen gave tribute speeches in Washington. Agganis's services were held at St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, which Agganis had helped build by donating a substantial portion of his Red Sox salary. His funeral was attended by thousands. Today, there are still streets and stadiums named after him. A foundation bearing his name has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to New England students. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

World Series Weirdness (Concluded)

I'll wrap up my survey of unusual World Series moments (for now) with another small sampling.

1939 World Series: New York Yankees vs. Cincinnati Reds—Game 4

Lombardi Becomes a Goat

A fan favorite in Cincinnati, catcher Ernie Lombardi would spend the latter part of his career trying to forget about the following play, which took place during Game 4 of the 1939 FallClassic:
The Yankees had shortstop Frank Crosetti on second with one out in the tenth when outfielder Charlie Keller reached base on an error. Joe DiMaggio then singled to break a 4-4 tie. Things took an unexpected turn when the ball was mishandled by Ival Goodman in right field. Keller rounded third and Lombardi, who later claimed that he was feeling dizzy from the heat, prepared to take the throw. Keller collided with the big backstop, hitting him squarely in the groin (according to some accounts). As Lombardi lay on the ground in a stupor, DiMaggio completely rounded the bases, delivering New York’s seventh run of the contest. It was more than they would need as the Reds failed to score in the bottom of the frame. Members of the press unfairly blasted Cincinnati’s star receiver, implying that he had “fallen asleep” on the play (which would forever be labeled “The Lombardi Snooze” or "Swan Dive"or "Swoon"). Pitcher Bucky Walters later admitted that only one run would have scored had he been properly backing up the play.

1970 World Series: Cincinnati Reds vs. Baltimore Orioles—Game 1

Eyes in the Back of His Head?

Umpire Ken Burkhart made one of the worst calls in Series history During the 1970 Fall Classic. In the sixth inning of Game 1, pinch-hitter Ty Cline of the Reds hit a chopper near home plate. Orioles’ backstop Ellie Hendricks came out to field the ball as Bernie Carbo came racing home. Burkhart had positioned himself to make a fair or foul ruling on Cline’s tapper and was blocking the plate. Carbo attempted a hook slide around the official as Hendricks dove toward the runner with his glove out. Burkhart was in no position to make the call at that point with his back to the play, but he ruled Carbo out anyway. Replays clearly showed that Hendricks tagged Carbo with an empty glove as he held the ball in his right hand. Carbo touched home plate coincidentally during the the ensuing argument. Baltimore scratched out a run in their half of the sixth, winning a nail-biter, 4-3. Demoralized, the Reds dropped the Series in 5 games.

1966 World Series Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Baltimore Orioles

Davis’s Inning from Hell

In Game 2 of the 1966 Fall Classic, Dodgers’ center fielder Willie Davis committed 3 fifth inning errors, resulting in 3 Baltimore runs. According to an LA Times report the next day, Davis came back to the dugout between innings and apologized, explaining that he lost both of the dropped fly balls in the sun. His third miscue came on a throwing error.
"Don't let it get you down," a sympathetic Sandy Koufax replied.
"Hell, forget it...You've saved plenty of games with great catches," Don Drysdale added.
There was no saving this one as the Dodgers committed 6 errors that day. The Orioles would go on to sweep the Series. Perhaps looking to improve his defense, Davis later became a member of a Buddhist sect. From that point on, he could be found in the clubhouse before every game, chanting with prayer beads.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

World Series Weirdness (Part II)

As promised, here's the second installment of my latest series:

 The Debacle of 1919--Cincinnati Reds vs. Chicago White Sox
Making a Show of It

Most reasonably informed fans know about the 1919 Fall Classic--How eight Members of the White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the Series. What many people don't realize is that not all of the conspirators performed poorly on the diamond.

Pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams carried the brunt of the dirty work, combining for a 1-5 record while collectively yielding 31 hits, 13 walks and 19 earned runs in 38 innings. (That's a 4.50 ERA) 

Shortstop Swede Risberg played in all 8 games and compiled a miserable .080 batting average (with 4 errors). Center fielder Happy Felsch wasn't much batter at .192.

But burdened by a guilty conscience, "Shoeless Joe" Jackson played hard throughout, collecting 12 hits. Third baseman Buck Weaver did little to hurt the club with a .324 average. First-sacker Chick Gandil collected 5 RBI's--2 of them game winners--while utility man Fred McMullin got paid mostly for keeping his mouth shut. He was 1-for-2 at the plate.

Players who did not participate in the fix reportedly received a bonus from owner Charles Comiskey in the Fall of 1920. "The Old Roman" worked hard to rebuild a winner, but the ChiSox ended up in the second division for 15 straight seasons. 

1922 World Series--New York Yankees vs. New York Giants--Game 2
Called on Account of Lightness

At the end of the tenth inning, the score was tied at 3. It was exactly 4:40 according to the center field clock in the Polo Grounds when umpires George Hildebrand and Bill Klem declared the game a tie on account of darkness. But according to numerous accounts, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was still shining (though just beginning to fade). 

The crowd of 38,000 let out a roar of disapproval when the announcement was made and a mob of angry fans surrounded Commissioner Mountain Landis's box, shouting insults and epithets. He was escorted by police from the stadium as a riot was narrowly avoided. Rumors immediately surfaced that the two teams had allowed the tie to happen in order to increase revenue, but Landis quickly put an end to this when he announced that the proceeds (more than $120,000) would be donated to charity. 

Apparently, Landis was unhappy with the ruling, himself, and had confronted Hildebrand after the game.
"Why in Sam Hill did you call the game?" he demanded.
"There was a temporary haze on the field," the ump replied.

The Giants won the next three games to claim their second straight world championship. Game 2 was the last tie in Series history as guidelines were established to continue suspended matches at a later date.   

1925 World Series--Washington Senators vs. Pittsburgh Pirates--Game 3
A Secret Carried to the Grave

After a split in Pittsburgh, the Series moved to Washington. In the seventh inning of Game 3, the Senators scratched out a pair of runs off of Pirates' hurler Ray Kremer to take a 4-3 lead. Washington's player/manager Bucky Harris made a defensive shift in the eighth, moving Sam Rice to right field and installing Earl McNeely in center. It would prove to be a good move as Bucs' catcher Earl Smith hit a long drive to the deep recesses of the park. Rice tracked the ball all the way to the temporary bleachers that had been installed and made a lunging stab at it, flipping head over heels into the stands. For ten full seconds, he was out of view of the umpires. When McNeely pulled Rice to his feet, the ball was in his possession. After a heated debate, the umpires ruled that it was a fair catch. The Senators went on to win, 4-3. Commissioner Landis questioned Rice if he had actually made the catch after the game and the enigmatic outfielder replied: "Judge, the umpire said I did."

The Senators lost the Series in 7 games. In the years that followed, members of the media hounded Rice for the truth about the catch. He could have made a lot of money selling his story, but declined, insisting that the mystery was "more fun." At the request of historian Lee Allen,  Rice drafted a letter to be opened after his death. It ended up in the hands of Hall of Fame president Paul S. Kerr and, when Rice passed away in 1974, it was opened publicly. The play was recounted in great detail. At the end of the memo, Rice asserted: "At no time did I lose possession of the ball." 


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

World Series Weirdness

I'd like to begin another series of blogs with one of my favorite topics: The World Series.Winning a Fall Classic is the crowning achievement of any given season. It's what players strive for--even in the today's age of dwindling loyalties and blockbuster contracts. Baseball's October Showcase has provided a fair share of unusual moments in over a century of competition. Here's a list of some of the strangest plays in World Series history.


Two's a Crowd

Red Faber was elected to the Hall of Fame on the strength of his pitching not his base running skills. The ultra-competitive Chicago  hurler committed an inexplicable blunder during Game 2 of the 1917 Fall Classic. In the fifth inning, Faber singled and advanced to second on a throw to third. Determined to bring home another insurance run to pad his 7-2 lead, he forgot that Buck Weaver was ahead of him on the base paths. On the first pitch to teammate Shano Collins, he took off for third running full tilt with his head down. Sportswriter Grantland Rice commented afterward: "It was a clean steal. The only drawback was the annoying presence of another Sox mate in charge of the same spot." Giants' third baseman Heinie Zimmerman tagged both men and Faber was called out, ending the inning. He was credited with a win that day, but would be razzed by teammates for years to come.

Doing It All By Himself

The 1920 World Series featured several odd moments, some of them occurring off the field. Before Game 4, Brooklyn's star hurler Rube Marquard was arrested for trying to scalp six box seat tickets for $350 (a pretty penny in those days). He claimed the offer had been a joke, but a judge disagreed, fining him $1 plus court fees before sending him on his way. Though Marquard made a relief appearance in Game 4, Brooklyn owner Charlie Ebbets was furious, benching the hurler for the rest of the series then trading him in the offseason.

Game 5 featured a number of unprecedented events, including the first grand slam in World Series history and the first Series homer by a pitcher. In the 5th inning, fans in Cleveland witnessed a play that has not been duplicated since. Brooklyn's Pete Kilduff singled to left and Otto Miller followed with another hit to center. Clarence Mitchell smashed a hard liner to Indians' second baseman Bill Wambsganss. It looked like a sure hit so both runners took off. The man referred to as "Wamby" (because his name contained so many consonants) made a lunging stab and came up with the ball. He stepped on second, doubling up Kilduff as Miller continued to lumber toward him. Wambganss reached out and tagged Miller for the only unassisted triple play in the history of the Fall Classic. Newspapers reported that it happened so quickly the crowd took several seconds to react. When they did, the field was littered with straw hats.

The One That Got Away

This series wasn't expected to go the distance. On the eve of Game 7 in Washington, tickets had not even been printed yet. Fans camped out all night at Griffith Stadium and, when the box offices opened on game day, there was mass confusion. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife were on hand to witness a marathon 12-inning encounter that was decided on the last play of the game.

With the score knotted at 3 in the bottom of the twelfth, Giants' pitcher Jack Bentley induced a popup near home plate off the bat of Muddy Ruel. Catcher Hank Gowdy settled under it, but stepped on his discarded mask in the process. It stuck to his foot and, despite repeated attempts, he could not shake it loose. The distraction was enough to allow the ball to drop in foul territory. Given a second chance, Ruel doubled to left field. Walter Johnson, who had tossed 4 scoreless innings in relief on less than two-days' rest, then reached on an error by shortstop Travis Jackson.Washington's Earl McNeely followed with what appeared to be an easy double play ball to Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom at third base. In an anticlimactic end to a fiercely contested Series, the ball took an improbable hop right over Lindstrom's head into left field. Ruel scored the series-clinching run on the play. It was the only world championship for the Senators of old.