Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Greatest Game Ever Pitched

July 2, 1963, Candlestick Park, San Francisco-  In baseball, there are many ways to judge a great pitching performance. One cannot argue that the pinnacle of accomplishments for a pitcher is to face 27 consecutive batters in a game without allowing a base runner, a perfect game. But perfect games are sort of like unassisted triple plays, they're freaks of nature. While a perfect game certainly requires a tremendous pitching performance, it also takes the perfect alignment of the stars to pull it off. Because they are so rare, some of the most famous pitching performances are the perfect games. But it could be said that the real test of a pitcher's mettle comes when he has to face adversity, having to pitch himself out of trouble in a close game, and still not allowing any runs.

There was a game along those lines that stands above the others, a game some people call the greatest game ever pitched. In that game, not one, but two future Hall of Famers faced each other. Each faced adversity, yet neither allowed a run until the very last play of the game. The game lasted sixteen innings and in the end, both starters figured in the decision.

It took place on a cool, windy evening (what other kind were there?) in Candlestick Park just before Independence Day. The two pitchers were entirely different from one another, yet mirror images. One was a right hander, the other a southpaw, one was black, the other white. One was at the beginning of his career; he would become the winningest pitcher of his decade. The other, his 300th win already two years behind him, would become the winningest left handed pitcher of all time. Both pitchers had ridiculously high leg kicks which prevented batters from seeing the ball until the moment if left the pitchers’ hands. Both were known for their tremendous control and ability to mix up pitches. And both featured a screwball in their repertoire.

In the 14th inning, during his third or fourth visit to the mound, just to check on the health of his young pitcher, Giants’ manager Alvin Dark was told by Juan Marichel:

Alvin, do you see that man pitching on the other side? He's 42 and I'm 25, and you can't take me out until that man is not pitching.

“That man” was Milwaukee’s Warren Spahn. The respective lineups the two had to face were not so bad either. They included the two men tied for most home runs in the National League that year. Marichal had to face the likes of future Hall of Famers Eddie Matthews, Henry Aaron, and Spahn himself, who was an excellent hitting pitcher. Spahn’s task on the mound was even more formidable. He had to face Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Felipe Alou, Orlando Cepeda and several other strong hitters in the Giant lineup. Despite Spahn giving up nine hits and Marichel eight, inning after inning both men just kept posting zeros on the line score. Not that there weren't chances. Willie Mays threw Norm Larker out at home in the fourth. The Giants got a couple of hits in the seventh but to no avail. The Giants’ Harvey Kuenn led off the 14th with a double. With Mays, McCovey, Alou and Cepeda to follow, the game looked all but over. But it wasn't. Spahn got out of that jam too. Finally after Marichel got the Braves out in the top of the 16th, Dark told him he was through. Devastated, he confided in Willie Mays that he would be outlasted by the old man. Mays who was scheduled to bat second in the bottom of that inning told Marichel not to worry.



Twelve years earlier at the Polo Grounds in New York, Spahn gave up rookie Willie Mays’ (who had been 0 for his first 12 at bats), first career hit, a home run. The rest of his life Spahn famously joked:

I'll never forgive myself, we might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.

After Spahn’s death, his son Greg said that out of all the pitches his father threw in his illustrious career, the last pitch to Mays on that early morning of July 3rd, 1963 in San Francisco, was the one he wanted back the most.

Mays’ walk off homer in the bottom of the 16th inning won the game for Marichel and the Giants in most likely the greatest pitching duel of all time.

Final score: Giants 1, Braves 0.




Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Baseball Mythology 101

October 1, Wrigley Field- One of baseball´s favorite legends is the story of Babe Ruth´s “Called Shot” during the 1932 World Series. Volumes have been written about it, all asking the important question, did he or did he not point his finger toward the outfield with the intention of telling everyone within eyeshot, that he would hit the next pitch for a home run.





Now if anyone in the history of the game were able to call a home run, it would be Babe Ruth. But consider this, in 1927, the year he hit the greatest number of home runs in his career, 60, he had 540 at bats. Accounting for walks and sacrifices, which aren't counted as official at bats, a conservative estimate would have the Babe facing about 2,800 pitches that year, meaning he hit about one home run for every 50 pitches he saw. Pretty incredible, but imagine the audacity of predicting emphatically to nearly 50,000 fans, and untold millions listening on the radio during the broadcast of the World Series that you were about to do something that back in your prime you were capable of doing only once in fifty chances. That would certainly take a lot of moxie. Did Babe Ruth have a lot of moxie? He certainly did.

But did he call that home run in the fifth inning of the game three of the 1932 World Series? This is what we know for certain:

The Cub players both on the field and sitting on the bench in their third base dugout, as well as the fans were riding the Babe mercilessly during that at bat. And the Bambino returned the compliment. Charlie Root, the pitcher for the Cubs, threw two fastballs in quick succession to Ruth which the slugger took for strikes. Ruth made some kind of pointing gesture (some suggest expressing displeasure for Root´s quick delivery between the two pitches). The next thing you know, Root come low and inside with a changeup which Ruth hit with a vengeance, a screaming line drive which landed between the scoreboard and the flagpole about 490 feet from home plate. And a legend was born.

The headline of an article written by Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram reporting on the game the following day stated:

RUTH CALLS SHOT AS HE PUTS HOME RUN NO. 2 IN SIDE POCKET.

(It was Ruth´s second home run of the game). After the game Ruth was asked if he intended his gesture to signal that he would hit a home run on the next pitch. He said no. However the legend would not die. There were several notable witnesses that day who said yes indeed he called the home run.

Lou Gehrig who was on deck at the time swore that Ruth called the hone run. Another very credible witness was no less than a future Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens who had this to say: “My dad took me to see the World Series and we were sitting behind third base, not too far back. Ruth did point to the center-field scoreboard. And he did hit the ball out of the park after he pointed with his bat. So it really happened.”

Contrary to logic, as time went on, memories of details of the event got clearer and clearer. Nearly forty years later, long time Cubs PA announcer Pat Piper who was sitting close to the action, told reporter Steve Forrest that there was a fan sitting within earshot of Ruth who was taunting the slugger. Piper recalled Ruth turning to the fan and telling him: “I´ve heard enough from you. This next one´s going out...“ Then Piper recalled Ruth stretching out his arm saying: “...right over there.“

Ruth´s memory of that early fall afternoon in Chicago also became crystal clear as time went on. With each telling of the story The Sultan of Swat was able to recall more and more details, including precisely what expletives were said by and to whom. Here´s one account directly from the mouth of Babe: “Well, I looked out at center field and I pointed. I said, ´I´m gonna hit the next pitched ball right past the flagpole!´ Well, the good Lord must have been with me.”

The grainy photograph on the right can be reliably attributed to the moment. It shows the Babe in the batter´s box pointing his right hand. It´s impossible to say exactly where he's pointing but to my eyes it looks like he's pointing down the third base line toward left field, or possibly to the Cubs´ dugout. The home run he hit was to deep center field. Babe Ruth was certainly capable of hitting a home run in the direction he was pointing, but it´s unlikely if it was his intention to call a home run, that as a left handed hitter he would point to left field. In the picture, he´s holding his arm straight out, as if he´s pointing directly at someone, the third baseman possibly? Could he have been telling Stan Hack that he was going to hit the next pitch down his throat? Perhaps. But not a very good story since his drive seconds later missed the Cub third baseman by at least one hundred feet.

For his part, Charlie Root didn't buy any of it. He was a 200 plus career game winner in the big leagues but went down in history for that one pitch. This was his take:

“Ruth did not point at the fence before he swung. If he had made a gesture like that, well, anybody who knows me knows that Ruth would have ended up on his ass.” I´m guessing the same would have been the case with most other big league pitchers.

So do I think Ruth called his home run shot off Charlie Root? Well as Babe Ruth himself said to Root after the pitcher asked the slugger years later about the incident:

"No, but it made a hell of a story."

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Pumpsie Green

July 21, Comiskey Park, Chicago- Twelve years, three months, and six days after Jackie Robinson played his first game for Brooklyn, utility infielder Elijah "Pumpsie" Green made his debut with the Boston Red Sox as a pinch runner.

The Red Sox have the dubious distinction of being the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate. Not that they didn't have their chances; the team had a tryout for Jackie Robinson in 1945 and a few years later another for Willie Mays. They passed on both superstar players.

One might attribute the team’s reluctance to integrate on Boston itself, a city with a checkered reputation when it comes to race. However the crosstown Braves were one of the first MLB teams to integrate, signing Sam Jethroe in 1950. Some place the blame for the Red Sox dragging their heels squarely on the shoulders of long time team owner Tom Yawkey. Yawkey apologists say perhaps it was his manager Joe Cronin, or his GM Eddie Collins, both long time veterans of the racially restricted major leagues, or perhaps the team’s farm system which was comprised primarily of clubs that played in the South.

In a Sports Illustrated article published in 1965, staff writer Jack Mann wrote an article about the years of Red Sox futility. Mann got an interview with Yawkey for the piece. Interspersed with questions about the topic at hand, Mann got to the subject of race. Yawkey asserted that the team was only concerned about finding good ballplayers and there were simply no black players available who were good enough to make the team. Here’s a snippet of the wisdon of Yawkey from that article:
They blame me... and I’m not even a Southerner. I’m from Detroit....I have no feeling against colored people, I employ a lot of them in the South. (where he spent his winters) But they are clannish, and when that story got around that we didn't want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club. Actually, we scouted them right along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer.
This may or may not be the smoking gun pinning the team’s institutional racism upon the man at the top. But it does give the reader a good idea of where he was coming from. Either that or he and his staff were just remarkably inept at scouting talent.

Pumpsie Green had a five year major league career with a lifetime .246 batting average and a respectable .357 on base percentage. His may not be a household name but he will go down in history as the man who completed the painful process of integrating the Major Leagues.

Mr. Green retired after many years of teaching and coaching baseball. He lived in California with his wife of 50 plus years, Marie until his passing last year at the age of 85.

Here is a tribute to him that aired after his death:


Saturday, May 30, 2020

Curt Flood

At the end of the 1969 season, the Phillies traded Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnston to the Cardinals for Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, Joe Horner and Curt Flood. Flood, a star with the Cardinals, was a twelve year MLB veteran, not counting two years in the beginning of his career up and down with the Reds. In late 1969, Flood wrote a letter to then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stating his objection to the game´s reserve clause system, which bound a player to his team for perpetuity. Flood´s letter began this way:
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.
Flood went on to state that he deserved the right to consider offers from other teams, in other words, to become a free agent. Not surprisingly, his request was turned down. Despite division among the players, the baseball player´s union headed by Marvin Miller, took on Flood´s case and along with Flood sued Kuhn and MLB.

Former US Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg represented Flood arguing, ultimately before his former colleagues that the reserve clause unfairly restricted players´ rights to be compensated fairy through he governance of the free market, and violated the government´s anti-trust laws. MLB argued that the reserve clause was preserved “for the good of the game ” In a 5-3 decision, the Court ruled in MLB´s favor, based strictly on the results of previous court decisions; however the Court warned that baseball´s claims for exemption from federal anti-trust laws was tenuous at best.

Despite losing the battle, the player´s union would ultimately win the war. In 1970 the National Labor Relations Board decided that baseball came under its jurisdiction and three years later ruled in favor of two ballplayers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally who after sitting out one season, became eligible to re-negotiate new contracts as free agents.

This precedent began a new era in baseball and the other professional sports as well where players, after a certain amount of seniority would become eligible for free agency, thereby determining their own destinies. Needless to say it also set in motion the explosion of players´ salaries, but that´s a story for another day.

For his part, Curt Flood lost a lucrative contract and essentially his career. He came back to play for the Washington Senators in 1971 but fizzled and retired. Years later when asked about the wisdom of his actions, he said he understood the risks and did it for those who followed him.

Curt Flood died in 1997, aged 59.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

OVERVIEW: MINNESOTA TWINS

In case you were wondering, yes this blog has been hijacked by some guy who thought about filling the void of a spring and summer without baseball, by posting stories about baseball. I'll be back posting the drivel that that normally appears in this space, when and if baseball ever returns. In the meantime, here's a story written several years ago for another site, about the franchise that currently plays up in the great state of Minnesota:

The Minnesota Twins franchise, one of the eight charter member teams of the American League, began its life in the Major Leagues as the Washington Senators. In 1909, the great baseball writer Charles Dreyden coined the phrase that would follow the team through its time in the nation's capital and by extension, the expansion team (today's Texas Rangers) that replaced it:

Washington: first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.

The original Senators were so famous for their losing ways, they even made a Broadway musical about them. Damn Yankees is a modern day Faust story about a Senators fan who sells his soul in exchange for a chance to help his beloved team win the pennant against the eponymous Bronx Bombers.

But it wasn't all gloom and doom for the Senators; unlike the St. Louis Browns, (today's Baltimore Orioles) who were truly an atrocious team for practically all fifty years of their existence in The Gateway City. In that same period of time the Senators boasted three American League pennants and one World Series title, all during the twenties and early thirties, competing directly against those Damned Yankees who themselves were fielding some of the most storied teams in the history of the game.

In 1907, the best player the organization has ever put on the field joined the team. He was a 6'1" pitcher from Humboldt, KS by way of Fullerton, CA, with an easy looking side-arm delivery which belied the incredible speed of his fastball, the likes of which no one had seen before, and few have since. His name was Walter Johnson. Baseball writer and statistician Bill James among others, rates Johnson, with some reservations, as the greatest pitcher in the history of the game.

Through thick and thin, Johnson, aka ”The Big Train,” spent his entire playing career, all 21 years of it, with the Senators. He pitched just shy of 6,000 innings, finishing his career with an astonishing 2.17 ERA and a winning percentage of .599 which given that he played half of his career pitching for losing teams, is saying something. In 1914, Johnson accounted for 40 percent of the victories for his team, 36.

Another name indelibly linked to the organization is Griffith. Clark Griffith, a former major league pitcher and player/manager with the Reds and the Highlanders (Yankees), was hired as manager of the Senators in 1912, buying a percentage of the team in the process. That year, Griffith took a team that never had anything close to a winning record, to a second place finish and a 91-61 record, virtually inverting their previous year’s record. It would take twelve more years of ups and downs, but the Senators finally won their first pennant in 1924, as well as their only World Series title when they beat John McGraw’s New York Giants in seven games. The Big Train, who lost his first two starts in that Series, won game seven coming in as a reliever, pitching four scoreless innings despite giving up that triple shown in the video below to Giant second baseman Frankie Frisch in the top of the ninth. The President and First Lady Grace Coolidge, herself a huge baseball fan, were at the game:



By that time Griffith owned controlling interest of the team, and he would remain in charge for the rest of his life.

Upon Clark Griffith’s death in 1955, ownership transferred to his nephew (and adopted son), Calvin Griffith. Like his adopted father, the young Griffith, also a former ballplayer, was a baseball man through and through, known for his remarkable scouting talent. Unfortunately the younger Griffith was less skilled at PR; he was a king of the malaprop, and a life-long sufferer of foot-in-mouth disease. After the glory days of Walter Johnson and the team’s success in the twenties and thirties, the team languished, seldom making it out of the second division of the American League. Attendance in the fifties at Griffith Stadium was also abysmal and as several major league teams opted to leave their cities in search of greener pastures, Washingtonians feared the same fate would befall their Senators. Not to fear Calvin told them. In 1958 Griffin wrote:
I have lived in Washington, D.C. for about 35 years. I attended school here and established many roots here. The city has been good to my family and me. This is my home. I intend that it shall remain my home for the rest of my life. As long as I have any say in the matter, and I expect that I shall for a long, long time, the Washington Senators will stay here, too. Next year. The year after. Forever.
Two years later, he moved the team to Minnesota.

As a cash-strapped organization for most of its existence, the Senators/Twins organization did have a strong farm system which was starting to produce promising talent in the their waning years in Washington. Harmon Killibrew came to the attention of Clark Griffith in 1954 on a tip from then Idaho senator, Herman Welker. The 17 year old slugger was hitting .847 in semi-pro ball in his home state, and the Senators scooped up the youngster, beating out other interested parties by signing him as a Bonus Baby. Other excellent young players developed in the Senator’s farm system who made the trip to Minneapolis were pitchers Camilo Pasqual, Jim Kaat, shortstop Zoilo Versalles, and outfielder Bob Allison.

Like the St. Louis Browns before them who moved to Baltimore, the change of scenery did good for the former Senators, now the Minnesota Twins. With a nucleus of solid players, in their 1962 sophomore season in Minnesota, the Twins won 92 games, their best record since 1933. It was that year the organization signed yet another young prospect who would become a star, a right fielder from Cuba by the name of Tony Oliva. Oliva would join the the big club in 1964. The following year, the Twins came out on top of a tight three way pennant race, winning their first pennant in Minnesota, the organization’s first since 1933. In a classic World Series, it took a brilliant game seven shutout performance by LA Dodger great Sandy Koufax to defeat the Twins.

Although the Twins would remain competitive for a number of years, they failed to win another pennant under the ownership of Calvin Griffith. Despite some brilliant moves including the discovery and signing of a young Rod Carew, Griffith found it difficult to compete in the new age of baseball free agency.

Cut out of the same cloth as his adopted father as well as other long-gone baseball owners such as Charles Comiskey and Connie Mack, Griffith was the last major league baseball owner who depended entirely on the game for his income. Likewise, his methods of running the team were based more on the 1920s model. For example, he refused to spend money that he didn't have. Perhaps in his opinion his greatest accomplishment, something he always took pains to point out, was the fact that his Twins never owed anybody a cent. His tight-fisted running of the team, (“He throws around nickels like they were man hole covers” was one of the cleaner descriptions of him), was blasted by fans who longed for a winner and couldn't understand why the their team could not compete against teams with owners with deeper pockets such as the Yankees.

Griffith’s mouth certainly didn't help matters. In 1978 before a gathering of the Lions Club of Waseca, MN, Griffith was quoted as saying this about the team’s move to Minnesota:

It was when I found out you only had 15,000 black people here. Black people don't go to ball games, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it'll scare you to death. It's unbelievable. We came here because you've got good, hardworking white people here.
For his part, Griffith claimed he made those remarks while trying to get a chuckle out of the crowd after a few drinks. He'd spend the rest of his life apologizing for them, but it didn’t matter, from that point on in the eyes of Minnesotans, Griffith was not only a cheapskate, but a racist too, a combination that didn’t fly in progressive Minneapolis.

Other than the inane remark, the exact contents of which are questionable, there isn’t much evidence that Calvin Griffith was an honest to goodness bigot. He was simply an out of touch man who refused to change along with the changing world around him. In 1976 when his pitcher Bill Campbell became a free agent, Griffith offered him what he considered a generous $8,000 raise to his $30,000 contract.

Campbell turned Griffith down, choosing to accept a $1,000,000 contract form the Red Sox instead.

The Griffith family sold the Twins in 1984 to Carl Pohlad, a wealthy local banker for $32 million.

Turns out, Pohlad got the team for a song.

In 1987 and again in 1991, the Twins went to the World Series, this time winning the championship both times. The seven game ’91 Series against the Atlanta Braves is considered by many to be one of the greatest Fall Classics of all time. Star players from those teams included pitcher Frank Viola, first baseman Kent Hrbek, and center fielder (and Chicago native) Kirby Puckett, all of whom were products of Calvin Griffith’s eye for talent, and his beloved farm system.

The Twins haven’t been to the Big Dance since.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Art of Fiction is Dead...

October 15, Dodger Stadium- Consider Ernest Thayer's poem Casey at the Bat. Imagine at the end of the tale where “the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow”, the protagonist had made contact with the ball instead and sent it flying out of the park, winning the game much to the delight of the bedraggled fans of the Mudville Nine. Would we still be reading the story well over one hundred years after its creation?

I seriously doubt it. It probably would have been tossed into the trash along with the copies of the San Francisco Daily Examiner where it was first published in 1888. Great hope springing eternal only to be smashed to pieces in the end by bitter disappointment is the typical lot of the baseball fan, and if the story had a happy ending, no one would have taken it seriously.

That's why if what took place on that night of October 15, 1988 in Chavez Ravine had been a work of fiction, it would have been dismissed as drivel, a predictable tale of feel good nonsense, the stuff of dime store novels or second rate children's literature.

But the story is true, that much I can testify having seen it unfold before my eyes that Saturday night nearly thirty two years ago.

The Oakland A's were far and away the best team in baseball that year. They won 104 games, and steamrolled through the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. They were a complete team, featuring good defense, the big bats of Dave Henderson, Don Baylor, Mark McGwire and Jose Conseco, excellent starting pitchers Dave Stewart, and Bob Welsh, an untouchable 45 save closer, Dennis Eckersley, and were led by one of the best minds in baseball, Tony LaRussa.

The Dodgers by contrast were overachievers that year. A team built around pitching and speed, they scored 160 fewer runs then the A's in 1988. The highlight of their season was the overall performance of Cy Young Award winning starter Orel Hershiser (23-8, 2.26 ERA) who at one point in the season, pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings. Their one offensive threat was Kirk Gibson whose impressive batting stats were enhanced by the fact that most of his hits seemed to come in the clutch. His performance that year earned him the National League MVP award.

Unfortunately, the aging Gibson was hurt. In seventh and deciding game of the National League Championship Series, where Hershiser shut out the Mets, Gibson who was already suffering from a pulled hamstring, sprained ligaments in his knee. His status was doubtful for the World Series. He wasn't even introduced to the home town crowd before Game One of the Series, Most folks felt they should just give the trophy to the A's.

It didn't seem any better after Jose Conseco hit a grand slam off LA starter Tim Belcher in the second inning of Game One. The Dodgers did manage to score three runs off Dave Stewart and their pitching kept the powerful A's at bay into the ninth.

But the Dodgers could only look forward to facing the most dominant closer of the year in the bottom of the ninth. In addition to his 45 saves, Dennis Eckersley had a phenomenal 70/11 strikeout to walk ration in 72 innings pitched. Meanwhile, Kirk Gibson sat in the Dodger clubhouse watching the game on TV. He listened as play by play man Vin Scully said: “Kirk Gibson, spearhead of the Dodger offense, will not see any action tonight for sure.” As if on cue, Gibson got up and started hitting baseballs off a tee. He told the batboy to go and tell his manager, Tommy Lasorda that he'd be ready in case he needed him.

Out on the field, Eckersley did what he always did that year, got batters out. There would be no point in bringing Gibson into the game unless there was a chance to win it, he'd only be good for one at bat and in his condition, he might not even survive that. Gibson sent the message to Lasorda that he would only come up to bat if somebody got on base, and now with two outs, that looked very unlikely. The Dodgers' last hopes rested with outfielder Mike Davis who Lasrorda put in to pinch hit for shortstop Alfredo Griffin. At bat, Davis started playing mind games with Eckersley; after every pitch he'd step out of the batter's box and take a few practice swings. Given the pitcher's impeccable control, this seemed pointless, but it began to pay off. Davis' antics threw the reliever's timing off and Eckersley got behind in the count. Before you knew it, Davis was on first base, the beneficiary of only the 12th Eckersley walk of the season. The crowd began to rumble. Lasorda pulled Dave Anderson from the on deck circle without someone to replace him. There was an awkward moment with no one ready to bat for the Dodgers. “You've gotta have a batter Tommy” said the home plate umpire. There was no batter visible because Kurt Gibson was in the tunnel limping from the clubhouse to the dugout. When he finally emerged and hobbled to home plate, the home town crowd went wild.

Despite the heroics, Gibson looked terrible. He quickly fell behind the count 0-2; Eck knew Gibson's condition and figured he'd just blow fastballs by the ailing slugger who'd never be able to catch up to them. He was right.

Now 0-2 is a pitcher's count and Eck thought he'd waste a pitch, placing the ball just outside the strike zone hoping that Gibson might chase a pitch that he couldn't possibly hit in his condition. Gibson did bite, he hit a squibber down the first base line. He hobbled toward first as fast as his ailing legs could carry him. Fortunately the ball eventually rolled foul. With new life, Gibson took the next pitch which was exactly in the same place. The ump called ball one. After that, Gibson managed to work the count to 3-2. Like Mike Davis before him, Gibson called time and stepped out of the batter's box. When he took his place back in the box,, He put all his weight on the front leg, the opposite of what every batter is taught. He was looking for the backdoor slider which cuts into the plate from the outside on a left handed hitter. Eck's 3-2 pitch was just what Gibson expected, a slider in at the knees.




It was the perfect pitch, for Gibson. He had no legs but plenty of upper body left which he put to good use. His swing was all hips and arms, actually one arm as his trailing left hand let go of the bat midway through the swing. It was the ugliest swing imaginable but it got the job done. The ball cleared the right field fence and on TV, Vin Scully let the crowd reaction do the talking as Gibson gingerly circled the bases while pumping his fists. When Gibson finally touched home after what seemed an eternity, the first words out of the Hall of Fame Broadcaster's mouth were: “In a year that has been so improbable the impossible has happened.”

It would be Kurt Gibson's last at bat that World Series. What makes our story even more improbable is that without him, the Dodgers went on to beat the A's four games to one.

Writing a generation earlier about the same team but in a different city and an entirely different outcome for them, the baseball writer Red Smith wrote this:

The art of fiction is dead, reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressively fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

In other words, you just can't make this stuff up. But our story doesn't have an entirely happy ending. You see, I was rooting for the A's.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

There Used to Be Two Ballparks Here

Aerial photograph of Shibe Park, bottom and Baker Bowl, upper right,
Philadelphia, September, 1929.
Photograph by George D. McDowell
I love this photograph. It shows not one, but two Major League ballparks at the time concurrently in use in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Swampoodle. For some reason I don't think they call it that any more. Anyway, it may be surprising, but this isn't the only such photograph,

Yankee Stadium was built in the Bronx, just across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants and later the Mets. Those two parks co-existed less than a half mile apart as the crow flies, until Shea Stadium was built in 1964, replacing the venerable old Manhattan ballpark.

In St. Louis, on the corner of Grand and Dodier which has seen baseball played continuously for longer than any spot on the planet, stood the ancestral home of the St. Louis Cardinals known as Sportsman's Park. That original park became run-down and in 1893, the team built a new facility Robinson Park,  a few blocks away. Then in 1902, the Milwaukee Brewers, one of the charter members of the then fledgling American League, moved to St. Louis and took over the Cardinal's original name, the Browns, and their former ballpark. The two St. Louis teams played in ballparks a couple blocks away from each other for twenty years until the Cardinals moved back to Sportsman's Park which was re-built in 1909 as a permanent steel and concrete structure as was the new trend at the time. 

That trend began in Philadelphia.

Shibe Park, also built in 1909, would become the home of the American League Philadelphia Athletics. It  usually gets credit for being the first Major League ballpark to have been built of steel, brick and concrete. But actually its neighbor five blocks to the east, National League Park, later more famously known as Baker Bowl, the one time home of the Phillies, is the true holder of that distinction.

Baker Bowl was built in 1895 on the same spot as its predecessor which was destroyed by fire. That was the ultimate fate of most ballparks to date as their wooden grandstands would ignite at the slightest provocation, often resulting in catastrophe. An 1894 fire that began during a game at the South End Grounds in Boston, probably originating from a carelessly discarded cigar, not only destroyed what was perhaps the most ornate ballpark ever built, but twelve acres of the residential neighborhood surrounding it!

Baker Bowl not only has the distinction of being the first "fireproof" ballpark to take advantage of new construction techniques and materials, it also was the first to feature a cantilevered upper deck grandstand.

Despite its technical innovations, Baker Bowl was one of the most idiosyncratic ballparks in the big leagues. The playing field was never level, due to a railway tunnel which ran underneath. The acute rectangular site the park was built upon resulted in odd dimensions. The foul lines ran nearly parallel to the stands resulting in enormous foul territories. That boon to pitchers was mitigated by the tight right field which measured only 280 feet from home plate. To prevent ridiculously cheap home runs, a sixty foot high wall was constructed to keep balls that would be easy outs in other venues, from landing on Broad Street. That wall which measured thirty feet higher than the beloved Green Monster of Boston's Fenway Park, provided the park's most memorable feature, a giant advertisement for Lifebuoy Soap. The copy on one of the iterations of the sign read: "Safe from B.O., The Phillies use it!" That provided the running joke for the decades of the sign's existence, uttered by the notoriously hostile Philadelphia fans: "The Phillies may use Lifebuoy but they still stink!"
   
Baker Bowl, I'm guessing in the early twenties. This photograph illustrates the seamless relationship between the ballpark and its surrounding urban environment, a common feature of ballparks of the day. The building in deep center field was actually part of the ballpark and served as the clubhouse for both teams. Note the figure in the foreground with the megaphone, the ballpark's PA announcer.
                 
Innovations of Baker Bowl notwithstanding, Shibe Park rightfully deserves the distinction of being called the paradigm of the classic Major League ballpark, all of them built within a little over a decade. Of those, only two exist today, Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field. You can tell from the photographs that Shibe Park wasn't just a set of stands quickly thrown up to seat paying fans surrounding a ball field, it was a serious work of architecture. I love the aerial photograph because it shows how the ballparks of a century ago were built to fit into their urban surroundings. Perhaps there is no better example as these two ballparks take advantage of every inch of their sites as determined by the pattern of the city streets. 

Shibe Park blended in with its surroundings so well that for its first decade or so, from a streetwise view walking up Lehigh Avenue, the street running up and down in the photograph, one would have been hard pressed to know exactly the function of the building. Architectural critic Paul Goldberger calls Shibe Park:
...the first true palace of baseball...the most fully realized architectural statement baseball would make in the first decade of the twentieth century. 
In his book Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, Goldberger continues:
...more than any ballpark before it, (Shibe Park is) a statement about the role of the ballpark as a civic building, as a public gathering place, and as a civic institution worthy to take its place beside museums, courthouses and concert halls. 

Shibe Park shortly around the time of its opening in 1909. For its first few years,
its most distinctive feature, the cupola was visible from the playing field.
That would change after the grandstands were substantially expanded in the twenties..

From the inside, like its smaller neighbor five blocks to the east, the most distinctive feature of Shibe Park, not yet built when the aerial photograph was made, was its right field wall. However it wasn't the distance of 324' down the right field line that necessitated the construction of a massive wall, it was the neighbors. Just as Wrigley Field, from their homes, Shibe Park's neighbors on 20th Street had a perfect view of the ballpark. Originally this was only a slight irritation to the ball club, especially after the neighbors constructed grandstands on their roofs, (sound familiar?) and charged folks half the price as the ballpark to see a game. But in the twenties the Athletics were perennial challengers with the  mighty Yankees for the American League pennant. In fact shortly after the aerial  photograph was made, Shibe Park hosted the World Series where the Athletics beat the Cubs in five games. The ballpark was selling out anyway so what difference did it make that the neighbors were reaping benefits? That all began to change in the following years as the A's began slipping in the standings. More significantly, the Great Depression meant fewer people were coming out to the ballpark. To make matters worse, the "rooftop owners" were actively soliciting fans in line to buy tickets at the box office, attracting them with their half price seats.That was the last straw and in the winter between the '34 and '35 seasons, the owners of the team, the Shibe family along with the most famous name in Athletics history, Cornelius McGillicuddy. better known as Connie Mack, constructed a thirty foot wall to block the view of the neighbors.

It would become known as the "Spite Wall" and its construction all but destroyed the team's relationship with the community, which never healed. Making matters worse, Connie Mack who also managed the team, (he was the last person to manage a team from the dugout wearing street clothes), shortsightedly traded or sold off all his star players.

Meanwhile Baker Bowl which had never been properly maintained, was slipping year after year into decrepitude. Borrowing a page from the Cardinals who began sharing Sporstman's Park with the Browns in the twenties, the Phillies abandoned their old home in 1938 in favor of renting the ballpark owned by their cross-town, or more accurately, down-the-street rivals the A's.

With a few exceptions, as Connie Mack grew older and less with it, the Athletics languished in the second division of the American League until 1954 when they pulled up stakes and headed west to Kansas City. They did a lot  more languishing there until finally finding success in Oakland in the seventies. 

Ironically, the year the Athletics moved to KC and Mack was effectively pushed out of the business, Shibe Park was renamed Connie Mack Stadium. Old man McGillicuddy continued to hold court in his opulent office in the cupola of the ballpark at the corner of Lehigh and 21st that now bore his name, until he passed away in 1956, aged 94. The Phillies would continue to play at Connie Mack Stadium which itself was showing its age, until they played the final game there on October 1,1970. Like so many of their fellow MLB teams, the Phillies abandoned their beautiful, classic ballpark for a nondescript, doughnut-shaped multi-purpose stadium which itself would become obsolete in not all that many years.

That monstrosity known as Veterans Stadium was replaced by a new ballpark, Citizen's Bank Park that was, as was the trend at the time, built to resemble the look and feel of you guessed it, the classic ballparks of 100 years before.

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