Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

The Last Hero

AaronHenry1I think he may be the greatest baseball player ever. I’ve always thought that.

He still has – and likely will for a long time have – the legitimate record for most home runs in a career. An astounding 755 and he never hit more than 47 in any one season. Across 23 seasons he was the soul of consistency. All those home runs, a career batting average of .305, he led the league in RBI’s four times and averaged 113 runs batted in over a long, long career. He made it to the post season three times and hit .393. He had all the tools – hit for power, hit for average, run, throw and field his position. The complete package. The real deal.

Throwing a fastball buy him, the pitcher Curt Simmons once said, “was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.” He was that good.

Tonight in Atlanta the Braves will remember that cold spring evening 40 years ago today when he broke the most storied record in baseball, the Babe’s record that is now his record. Oh, Bonds may have his name first in the record book, but we all know that story. The real record – no asterisk – is his and he’ll be there tonight like he has always been there since 1954 – dignified, a little reserved, elegant, patient, always, always the very personification of professional.

When Howard Bryant wrote his biography he called him “the last hero” and it’s a fitting title. He came of age in the old Negro Leagues, then played in Milwaukee, then Atlanta and finally back to Wisconsin. His life and career traced the arc of our society’s racial transformation; a sad and vital journey still not finished. His life covered all the distance from his native Alabama, the home, as Dr. King famously of it in 1963, of “vicious racists” and a governor “his lips dripping with the words of  interposition and nullification” to the Hall of Fame.

While he marched on overtaking the Babe’s record in 1974 the death threats piled up. Hard to believe that a great baseball player needed guards to protect him from those who both denied his greatness and his manhood. “Three decades later it still pained him,” Bryant writes, to recall “how a piece of his life had been taken from him and how it had never come back.” It was one of the game’s worst moments, made good only by his grace and greatness.

His was a quiet and oh-so-effective example that told racism it would eventually always strike out. He put up with all the downside of stardom and celebrity, the pressure and pain of a black man quietly, and always with great dignity, making it known that he was the best that there ever was. He missed much of the really big money in the game, but never played for the glory or gain, but for the love.

He was the first player, well Willie too, that I really started to care about. I became a Braves fan because of him and a Giants fan because of the Say Hey Kid.

When he turned 75 a few years ago they threw a big party for him in Atlanta. Bill Clinton came. Barack Obama had just been elected and he said he was “thrilled” that a young black man was in the White House. Not many heroes in sports any more. Maybe too much money and too many egos. Tonight in Atlanta one of the heroes – maybe the last in the greatest game – will be back on the green grass that was his stage.

On this day 40 years ago he made history, but Henry Aaron will always be a genuine American hero.

 

The Doper at Third

AP_arod_alex_rodriguez_tk_130805_16x9_992Major League Baseball waited so long to get serious and was in denial so long about its doping scandal – remember Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire – that it is impossible to outfit Commissioner Bud Selig and his minions with white hats even while the guy who should be remembered as the greatest player of his generation boots away what little is left of his career, not to mention his credibility.

This is really all you need to know about Alex Rodriguez and his creams and shots and lozenges: Major League baseball accepted the word of a “drug dealer” over that of a guy with 654 home runs. Now A-Rod, never one to handle himself with anything other than blind self-interest, is swinging away with lawsuits aimed at nearly everyone – including, unbelievably, his fellow players. I guess if you have enough money and bluster you can convince your lawyers to adopt a legal strategy that doubles down on foolishness.

The tragedy of A-Rod begins, as many tragedies do, with what might have been. When the supremely talented, handsome and sure to be superstar arrived in Seattle years ago literally the entire baseball universe was his to command. But Seattle was always too small a stage for an ego so big. Rodriguez had to have it all – the money, the houses, the celebrity girl friends, Cameron Diaz’s popcorn, the hookers, the records, even if it meant bending, breaking and shattering the rules. I remember sitting in the stands in Seattle when Rodriguez made his first visit back to the Northwest after bolting for the still ridiculous contract the Texas Rangers lavished on him. The fake dollar bills cascaded down from the upper decks as one-time fans chanted “Pay-Rod..Pay-Rod…”It turns out those fluttering fakes were a metaphor for the doper at third.

Next, the Yankees bought into the hype and doubled down with an even bigger contract. A-Rod and Derek Jeter should have made for the best left side of the infield in modern baseball history, but the chemistry and selflessness was never there with Rodriguez. Baseball, for all its individual statistics and records, is still a team game. Jeter was a teammate, a superstar with his ego in check. A-Rod, who grumbled on moved from Jeter’s position to play third base, nevertheless acted like he’d been born there after hitting a triple. I’m pretty certain suing the Player’s Union will enhance his standing in the clubhouse – or maybe not.

As the New York Times reports, the lawsuit Rodriguez has filed has the ironic side effect of putting into the public domain the very investigative report Major League Baseball used to suspend him in the first place. “The report, attached to the legal filing Monday,” the Times reports, “relies on the testimony of [Anthony P.] Bosch [A-Rod's dealer], as well as his phone records, his patient notes, text and BlackBerry messages. It also incorporated the findings of investigators hired by Major League Baseball, and the testimony of a senior baseball official and a senior Yankees executive, among others.”

Rodriguez’s complex drug regime looks like what a recovering cancer patient might require rather than a guy who plays baseball for a living.

But, back to what might have been. With all his natural tools and his good looks Rodriguez could well have conquered the baseball heights just by showing up, working hard and acting like a human begin. He chose the path that took his gifts and broke them like a used syringe.

Rodriguez, of course, will always have his defenders and the sordid details of how Major League Baseball amassed evidence against him will make any fair-minded person uncomfortable. Still, when all is said and done, Alex Rodriguez isn’t going to jail Bernie Madoff-style for his cheating. He’s just losing a few million dollars, 162 games and a chance to be in the Hall of Fame one day. The Yankees save some money and will find they are better off without him. Rodriguez never thought that the game he reportedly loves was even a little bit bigger than him. It’s always been about him. Now, its about him alone with his denials and with more bluster – always more bluster.

When baseball’s enforcers were closing in on Rodriguez he arranged a hotel meeting with his drug supplier during a Yankee road trip to Atlanta. “Try to use service elevators,” Rodriguez wrote in a text message. “Careful. Tons of eyes.”

Rodriguez’s basic defense is that Major League Baseball is out to get him even as he refused a chance to make a deal that would have saved his career. He couldn’t even testify in his own defense. On one thing he is right. They were out to get him and it’s about time. As for the doper on third, it’s hard to think that the service elevator isn’t too good for him. The tons of eyes that A-Rod has depended upon to supplement his drug-enhanced career are looking away, ashamed and sad for what might have been.

 

So Long to The Stick

Bat BoyThis photo could have been taken during the first game I saw at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. I think it was 1987 or maybe 1988. Will “The Thrill” Clark was thrilling that afternoon and had a career day – seven RBI’s my memory says – and about 1,500 people showed up for a game in the middle of the week. I loved it all on a beautiful summer day. Love the Giants still and, while I’m ready for Christmas I’m really ready for spring training and harboring a strangely nostalgic feeling about The Stick.

The 49ers football team will play the last game at The Stick tonight and one more old ballpark will go the way of the wrecking ball. Most will say “good riddance.” I’ll be left, like so much that is my life with baseball, with memories. I fell in love all over again with the great game at The Stick all those years ago.

With some friends on another trip to see the Giants we left Union Square in the heart of downtown San Francisco for the bus ride out to Candlestick for a night game. It was August and a glorious Bay Area afternoon – sunny, about 72 degrees with a pleasant light breeze. By the third inning the notorious Candlestick Point fog was rolling across the stadium and from our vantage point in seats up above the third base line you could barely make out Kevin Mitchell in left field. The wind was swirling, hot dog wrappers were circling the field faster than a player could circle the bases, and beer was out of the question. Too cold. Stocking caps and gloves came out – it was August remember – and ballpark vendors were hocking hot chocolate. It wasn’t very good hot chocolate, but it was selling fast. I held the cup to keep my hands warm.

NPR had a great piece this morning on The Stick. Reporter Tom Goldman remembered that Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham signed the deal to build at Candlestick in 1957 during a morning visit when the wind was calm. Stoneham subsequently visited later in the day. “It’s said he asked a worker,” Goldman recounts, “Does the wind often blow like this? Yeah, every day, the worker replied. But only in the afternoon and early evening.”

Willie Mays played a good deal of his career at The Stick and slapped his 3,000 hit there in 1970. The Beatles packed them in during a 1966 concert. In recent years, with the Giants off in the cozy confines of their new park South of Market, Candlestick has been the football home of the 49ers, but that will end next year when the team decamps for a new stadium further south in warmer Silicon Valley. It can’t possibly be as cool as The Stick and in more ways than one.

I’ve reached the age where I don’t like to see anything torn down. OK, maybe, the Berlin Wall, but not old buildings and not icons like Tiger Stadium in Detroit or the real old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. [Every rule has its exceptions. Mine would be the Kingdome in Seattle. Good riddance to that concrete monster.]

Instead of humming Christmas carols today I have the old Sinatra song stuck in my head.

And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy I’d never seen
And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used a ballpark right here

While the kids wait for Santa in a couple of days, I will note that there are about eight weeks until pitchers and catchers report. Once The Stick is gone they’re putting up a shopping center. Not a fair trade – memories of The Say Hey Kid for a Dillard’s. I hope its windy and cold when they open.

Pleasures of the Ear

JoeCastiglioneI’ve spent the World Series with Joe Castiglione. I hope he’s enjoyed it as much as I have.

For baseball fans who have been glued to the tube during this remarkably engaging World Series, I should mention that Castiglione is one member of the radio broadcast team for the Boston Red Sox. Along with the great Vince Scully and Jon Miller, he has one of the wonderful and distinct voices in the game. I’ve been without television for this Series and frankly haven’t missed a thing. Once again I’ve rediscovered the pleasures of the ear – listening in the dimming twilight to a baseball game on the radio. I highly recommend it.

I grew up in South Dakota listening to the Minnesota Twins’ flagship radio station WCCO in the days before baseball on television amounted to little more than “The Game of the Week” on CBS. Ray Scott, Herb Carneal and Halsey Hall – what a great baseball name – did the play-by-play and helped make me a life-long fan. WCCO was, and is, a monster station, 50,000 watts and “clear channel.” The signal was so strong that on a summer night in the Black Hills Herb Carneal could have been sitting in my bedroom. In fact, I think he might have been.

The New York Times had a great piece yesterday on another of the Midwest’s monster stations KMOX in St. Louis, the home of Cardinals baseball and the station that produced Jack and Joe Buck and, in an earlier day before too many Buds, a guy named Harry Caray. Reporter David Waldstein set out to see if he could literally drive out from under the KMOX signal in the length of time it took the Red Sox and Cards to play Game 4. He drove more than 300 miles during the game, ending up in Mississippi with a strong, clear signal on his car radio.

Waldstein reports near the end of his wonderful story “the reception is so clear, I probably could have driven straight into the Gulf of Mexico and still heard the sad postgame show. [The Cardinals lost.] Instead, I listen to the hissing report — the content of the show is hissing, not the signal reception — as I head toward Memphis and the Blues City Cafe for a well-deserved plate of ribs, full rack, and a last pit stop at a West Memphis gas station.”

FOX and Turner Broadcast have paid millions – billions? – for the television rights to baseball playoff games. I hope they’re getting their money’s worth. I’ve never shopped in a Shaw’s Market – a major sponsor of Joe Castiglione’s broadcasts – but I can tell you the specials this week. Joe keeps reminding me.

More than any other sport, baseball is a game every fan plays inside their head. You wonder if the pitcher is getting tired? Should someone be warming up? Is David Ortiz really going to get another hit next time? Shouldn’t the Cardinals pitch around the real Mr. October? I can even see Mike Napoli’s awful beard on the radio. That guy, by the way, needs an appointment with a pair of scissors. The great game is the most cerebral game and the most personal. Listening in on radio, bathed in the sound of Joe’s New England twang, God is in his heaven and God is a baseball fan and this year God may be a Red Sox fan.

On the radio I can see my dad crouching in the catcher’s position to catch a strike from my brother who only had a fast ball, never a curve. I can see Harmon Killebrew at the Old Met in Bloomington. And Junior at the awful KingDome. I can imagine Ruth at Fenway and Enos Slaughter’s mad dash from first to home.

I’ll be near a television tonight and I might watch Game 6, but I also might turn off the too much, too obvious commentary of Buck and McCarver and listen to a few Shaw’s grocery spots instead. Let’s get on with it. I can’t wait and I never want it to end.

 

 

Jim Crow’s Playmates

One of the best things about the new film about baseball great Jackie Robinson is actor Harrison Ford’s portrayal of baseball executive Branch Rickey, the man who found the guts in 1945 to sign Robinson to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals and then in the 1947 season, against all odds, brought the first African-American player to the major leagues.

By all accounts Mr. Rickey, as everyone called him, wasn’t much of a ballplayer himself. He only played in the majors for four seasons, had a career batting average of .239 and hit only three home runs. Granted it was the “dead ball” era, but those numbers don’t get you to Cooperstown.

Rickey got to the Hall of Fame on the strength of his success as a baseball manager and executive. He had a hand in three great and enduring innovations – the establishment of the farm system to identify and nurture talent, breaking the color line with the signing of No. 42 and late in his life helping start the Continental League, a proposed third major league that failed to get off the grass, but nevertheless ushered in expansion of baseball to new markets.

The great sportswriter Jim Murray said Rickey “could recognize a great player from the window of a moving train” and the great man’s nickname, “The Mahatma,” was recognition of his pioneering ways and the deep Christian faith that he wore on his sleeve. One contemporary said when Rickey met you for the first time he wanted to know everything about you, then set out to change you.

In the wake of seeing the Robinson movie – it’s a must for any baseball or history buff – I read a splendid piece by another great sportswriter Red Smith. Writing in 1948, the year after Robinson broke the Jim Crow barriers around baseball, Smith was reporting – and not with any surprise – about how little support Rickey had received from the other leaders of the national past time.

“A curious sort of hullabaloo has been aroused by Branch Rickey’s disclosure that when he went into the ring against Jim Crow, he found fifteen major league club owners working in Jim’s corner,” Smith wrote. “It is strange that the news should stir excitement, for surely it couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.” Those other owners – Red Smith called them “Jim Crow’s playmates” – were worried about alienating fans, suffering public abuse or hurting their investments. Most likely all three. Questions of morality often get snagged on the sharp edges of commerce. Morality wins, as it did in 1947, when a big man – make that two big men – act with a sense of righteousness and with history on their side.

It’s hard, I think, perhaps even impossible, for anyone born after the awful era of Jim Crow to grasp the degree to which economic, political and cultural forces were aligned to keep black Americans from jobs, health care, public services, the ballot box and the sense of decency that goes with simply being respected. It was a shameful, nasty and profoundly disturbing period of American history. One reason for young people to see the Robinson film, in addition to the well-told heroic story, is to get a taste of the appalling racism that Robinson and so many other Americans of color deal with every hour of every day.

A spectacular new book by Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson expands on the political implications of the Jim Crow era, and yes the implications still echo today, by exploring in detail the Faustian bargain Franklin Roosevelt entered into in order to push his New Deal agenda through a southern dominated Democratic Congress in the 1930′s. The Robinson story fits squarely in the history lesson Katznelson tells so well.

As Kevin Boyle wrote in reviewing Fear Itself in the New York Times, “[FDR's] calculation was simple enough. Thanks to the disfranchisement of blacks and the reign of terror that accompanied it, the South had become solidly Democratic by the beginning of the 20th century, the Deep South exclusively so. One-party rule translated into outsize power on Capitol Hill: when Roosevelt took office, Southerners held almost half the Democrats’ Congressional seats and many of the key committee chairmanships. So whatever Roosevelt wanted to put into law had to have Southern approval. And he wouldn’t get it if he dared to challenge the region’s racial order.”

Franklin Roosevelt, Katznelson argues, made a “rotten compromise” with the southern politicians of his own party who dominated Congress in exchange for being able to govern effectively in a time of depression, war and deep and persistent fear. While FDR didn’t challenge a segregated culture, ironically the New Deal served to both prolong Jim Crow and made its demise inevitable. FDR’s “rotten compromise” fails as a profile in courage, but the Hudson River valley aristocrat who fancied himself a Georgia farmer eventually made so many changes in the way we use and view government that his New Deal made Harry Truman and eventually Lyndon Johnson possible.

In the same way that Branch Rickey, The Mahatma of baseball, saw a wrong and tried to right it, first Truman and later Johnson, fully understanding the political consequences, abandoned the old Democratic Party of Jim Crow and ushered in the civil rights era; an era of unending struggles, that still dominates politics and culture today.

Every time I read or hear about another effort to make voting more difficult for minorities in America or hear a politician suggest that “American exceptionalism” makes it clear we don’t have to worry about race and class in this “post-racial” time in our history, I’ll remember Jackie Robinson’s one-time Brooklyn Dodger teammate from Alabama Dixie Walker. Walker, a fine ballplayer and a career .306 hitter who lead the league in hitting in 1944, also led the push back against Robinson playing with the Dodgers. Walker demanded to be traded and drew up an anti-Robinson petition that he and other Dodger players were determined to present to club president Branch Rickey.

Dixie Walker’s career dried up after 1947. Rickey traded him to the lowly Pirates and he retired in 1948, but would come back to coach in the majors often working  without issue with black ballplayers. In his 2002 book The Era, the great writer Roger Kahn quoted Walker as saying: “I organized that petition in 1947, not because I had anything against Robinson personally or against Negroes generally. I had a wholesale business in Birmingham and people told me I’d lose my business if I played ball with a black man.”

Fear is a great motivator. History has a tendency to reward people who push back against it. Rickey and Robinson are in the Hall of Fame. Truman’s stock at a great president continues to rise. Johnson’s place as the president who sacrificed his party’s once invincible regional base in the south in exchange for civil rights legislation is secure. Dixie Walker told Roger Kahn the anti-Robinson petition was the “stupidest thing he had ever done,” and he regretted it for the rest of his days.

Dixie Walker was by all accounts a devoted family man who, as Harvey Araton wrote in 2010, was “without much formal education, [but] he was curious and informed. Representing N.L. players, he helped devise the major leagues’ first pension plan, suggesting its revenue be generated from All-Star Game proceeds.” None of that has helped erase the stigma of what Dixie Walker did when driven by his own fear during the season of 1947.

Time may heal wounds, but reputations are much harder to repair. The playwright said it:  ”The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Fear itself stands in the way of so much.

 

Baseball on Film

I hope the new biopic about the great Jackie Robinson is as good as the hype, but even if it’s not I’m looking forward to seeing the film about No. 42 for a variety of reasons. It’s a great story and certainly Robinson deserves to be widely remembered and praised for his role in tearing down the awful barrier that existed prior to the 1947 season that prevented black players from reaching the major leagues. I’m also looking forward to the Harrison Ford portrayal of another hero in the story Branch Rickey. For at least a couple of hours this die-hard Giants fan can root for the Dodgers.

Another reason I hope 42 is worthy of becoming a classic is that there are relatively few really good movies about baseball. I think I’ve seen all of them. From the loopy Major League, best remembered for Bob Uecker stealing the show - “just a little outside” – and Renee Russo looking like, well Renee Russo, to the pretty awful Babe Ruth Story starring a classic actor, William Bendix, miscast as the great Yankee. As one description of that film put it Bendix “resembles Ruth slightly in looks and not at all in baseball ability.” That pretty much sums up the movie.

I remember watching The Stratton Story with my baseball loving dad. Jimmy Stewart played Monty Stratton, a successful real life Chicago White Sox pitcher who loses a leg in a hunting accident and makes a determined comeback in the minors. The movie wasn’t bad, but the trailer with narration from the adorable June Allyson, who plays Stratton’s wife, is a 1949 Hollywood classic. You can watch it here.

The laconic Gary Cooper looks a little better in pinstripes than William Bendix and does a passably good job of playing the great Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. The moving story of Gehrig’s career and tragic death has to be on any must-see list of baseball films. The real Babe Ruth along with Yankee greats Bob Meusel, a lifetime .311 hitter who probably belongs in the Hall of Fame, and catcher Bill Dickey, who is in the Hall and deserves to be, make appearances in the film looking very much like the aging stars they were when the movie was released in 1942.

But none of those films make my top five. The best of the best baseball stories on film are not about real players, but often about the game, its rituals and the fact that baseball more than any other sport has a mystery and rhythm to it that has been, at least a few times, translated very well on the big screen. Here in descending order are my five best baseball movies:

5) Field of Dreams is a classic for the sentiment and its myriad connections to literature, history and baseball lore. I was lucky to play catch with my dad and debate Shoeless Joe Jackson’s guilt or innocence. What baseball fan hasn’t? And, of course, “If you build it, he will come,” is a line that has passed into movie lore and found its way into everyday usage. To me the line and the film are really references to a fanciful dream that comes true and wonderful dreams are good, even if they sometimes don’t pan out. Who wouldn’t like to see the 1919 Black Sox playing on your own diamond out by the corn field? Enough said.

4) Bull Durham is a classic baseball movie (and, yes, a little raunchy, too) that is also about life, love and second chances. OK, maybe I like it a little because Susan Sarandon stars as the groupie who haunts the Durham Bulls Class A team. Kevin Costner plays aging catcher Crash Davis who once made it to “the show,” but now observes baseball’s curious rules in the low minor leagues. His “I believe in…” speech delivered to Sarandon and the dense, wild but fast pitcher played by Tim Robbins is great. “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone,” he says, “I believe there ought to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter rule…” Need to see it again.

3) A League of Their Own makes my top five list for Tom Hanks’ outrageously good performance as the manager of a woman’s professional baseball team in the 1940′s. Also for Genna Davis’ sweet acting job as the team’s talented catcher and for some seriously funny and memorable lines. “There’s no crying in baseball” has entered the ballpark vocabulary and will stay there forever. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are both believable as players and are wonderful as teammates. Hanks explaining to one of his players the importance of hitting the cutoff man is a priceless scene.

2) The Natural is, well, a natural. Robert Redford plays “the natural,” outfielder and big stick Roy Hobbs, who mysteriously shows up in the major leagues after, as he says, waiting “16 years to get here.” The screen adaptation is of the fine novel by Bernard Malamud and is very generally based on a real life incident involving Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus. As with all these films a woman – or several in this film – play as big a role as the baseball does.

1) For my money the single best baseball-themed movie is the hauntingly beautiful screen adaptation of Mark Harris’ novel Bang the Drum Slowly. A young Robert DeNiro turns in a superb performance as a less-than-bright catcher, Bruce Pearson, who is dying of a terminal illness. Michael Moriarty is his pitcher friend, Henry Wiggins, and the film’s narrator. The fine character actor Vincent Gardenia is very good as the crusty manager. (Isn’t every baseball movie manager crusty?) The film is set around baseball, but it’s really about friendship, respect, teammates and ultimately living and dying. I love the film and particularly Wiggins’ last line – “from now on, I rag on no one” – which he delivers after telling us that none of Pearson’s teammates had bothered to show up for his funeral.

Three of these all-time greats were made in the 1980′s. Bang the Drum was released in 1973 and A League of Their Own in 1992. Here’s hoping the acclaimed Robinson film ushers in a new golden age of the baseball movies. I’m headed to the movies.