I was not disappointed with the Hall of Fame vote yesterday, just sad. Sad because the lack of an inductee emphasized for me just how much “cheating” has screwed up our sports and our society. Forgive me for the simplicity Bill James, but it used to be that if you hit 400 home runs, got 3,000 hits or won 200 games as a pitcher, you’d have a good shot at getting into Cooperstown. Not any more. Why? Because those numbers and the athletes who compile them can’t be trusted. Just like bicycle race winners, 100 meter dash times, and 260 pound chiseled NFL linebackers with sprinter speed can’t be trusted. We will never again take performance on the athletic field of competition at face value. Why? Because greed and ego have turned the pursuit of victory and honor into anything but that. Now I’m not naive enough to believe that every one of the existing Hall-of-Famers were men of sterling character and I’m certain that if they had the opportunity to take PEDs many would have. But now that we have actual proof that some on the list of eligible candidates did, the absence of honor and honesty is no longer a question and that makes me sad.
Today is like a holy day of obligation for Big Apple sports enthusiasts. On this date in 1916, the “Great DiMaggio” was born in Martinez, CA. He was and probably still is one of the most revered athletes in our country and perhaps the world. As a kid growing up, all I knew about DiMaggio was based on his statistics as a player, the nostalgic observations of sportswriters and the often embellished memories of the older generation of Yankee fans who were my neighbors on the west end of Amsterdam. While his stats indeed indicated DiMaggio was a great player, the latter two sources considered him a “God.” In fact, during my childhood, one of the most frequently heard lines in any argument between a young fan of Mickey Mantle and an older fan of Joe DiMaggio was “Mantle couldn’t carry DiMaggio’s jock strap.”
I’ve since read quite a few books about DiMaggio and about the Yankees during the DiMaggio era. The last one I read was the critical 2001 biography by Ben Cramer. I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the aura that surrounded the Yankee Clipper was based on his amazing baseball skills and achievements. But a large part of it was also due to the fact that the New York and national sports media of his era worshiped the guy and Joe maneuvered that worship brilliantly. This level of celebrity pandering by the media has become much less possible because today’s athletes get too much exposure. For example, Yankee fans can watch their team play every single spring training, regular and postseason game on high definition, big-screen TVs. Sportswriters are no longer free to embellish something that everyone is seeing with their own eyes. The Internet and the proliferation of sports bloggers has also made hiding a star player’s off-the-field behavior nearly impossible. Just ask A-Rod.
I would have loved to watch Joe DiMaggio play the game but I didn’t get the opportunity. As a die hard Yankee fan, I celebrate his accomplishments. But I believe the truth is that DiMaggio eventually got wrapped up in his own press clippings to the point that he actually believed he was perfect and that everyone else was out to get him. It was the pressure of maintaining that image that made DiMaggio a bitter man, the superstar who would not say a single word to a young Mickey Mantle during the Mick’s rookie season, who thought Casey Stengel was trying to embarrass him into retirement, and who pretty much abandoned his only son. Why is it that people who have so much going for them have such a difficult time just being happy?
Several years ago, I took my boys to a Yankee game and we were sitting next to a young Yankee fan who loved Don Mattingly. He knew everything about the then current team but not so much about Yankee history so when he told me that Mattingly was a better hitter than Mantle was, I couldn’t help myself. I found myself saying, “Son, Mattingly couldn’t carry Mickey Mantle’s jock strap.” I have to admit the line felt good coming out of my mouth until the completely unfazed kid responded with “What’s a jock strap, mister?”
The argument is easy to make that Whitey Ford is the greatest Yankee starting pitcher of all time. “The Chairman of the Board” was a winner from the get-go, helping New York capture the 1950 pennant in his rookie season by winning nine of ten regular season decisions. He then pitched eight and two thirds innings of shutout ball to earn his first of ten World Series victories in that year’s Fall Classic against the Philadelphia Whiz Kids.
After a two-year hitch in the military, Ford rejoined the Yankees in 1953 and began a streak of thirteen consecutive winning seasons. I firmly believe that if anyone other than Casey Stengel managed the Yankees during the fifties, Ford would have had a lot more regular season victories. Stengel liked to manipulate his rotation so he could match up Ford against the opposing team’s best pitcher, which caused Whitey to average about six to eight less starts per season than the aces of other Major League teams during that decade. When Ralph Houk took over from Stengel in 1961, he gave Ford the ball every fourth game down the stretch and the southpaw responded well to the regularity and extra workload. He had his best year in 1961, when he captured the Cy Young Award with a stunning 25-4 record. In 1963, he went 24-7 and in 1964, eight of his seventeen victories were complete game shutouts.
A native New Yorker, Whitey, country bumpkin Mickey Mantle, and the fiery Californian, Billy Martin, formed a friendship triumvirate that created a lot of success for the Yankees on the field but lots of trouble off of it. Since Ford only played once every five games, he could party hard six nights a week and rest up the evening before his scheduled start. As position players, Mantle and Martin didn’t have that luxury and there were many an early afternoon game when Whitey would sit in the dugout laughing at the play of his two hung over drinking buddies while Stengel fumed.
Ford retired in 1967 after spending his entire seventeen-year career in a Yankee uniform. His 236 regular season victories are still number 1 on New York’s all-time list. His incredible .690 career winning percentage is also still the best of any pitcher with 300 or more career decisions.
Back in 2008, during the ESPN television broadcast of the final game at Yankee Stadium, Ford and his longtime battery mate and fellow Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra, were invited up to the broadcast booth to share their memories of playing in the Stadium. Those thirty minutes listening to two of my heroes talk about their Yankee playing days was the personal highlight of that 2008 baseball season. Whitey turns 84-years-old today. How did all those years come and go so fast?
My favorite story about “Flash” came from his Yankee teammate, Tommy Henrich. According to Old Reliable, reporters were questioning Yankee manager Joe McCarthy in New York’s locker room after a game and asked him why he liked Joe Gordon as a player so much. McCarthy had frequently claimed Gordon was the “best player in baseball.” Instead of answering the question, McCarthy called his second baseman over and asked him what his batting average was. Gordon replied that he did not know. Next, McCarthy asked Joe how many home runs he had hit so far that season and again the Flash told his skipper that he had no idea. McCarthy then excused the infielder and after he walked away, answered the reporters original question. “That’s what I like. All he does is come to beat you.”
Joe played for the Yankees from 1938 until 1943 and then served in WWII. During those six seasons the Yankees won five World Series, Gordon made five All Star teams and he won the 1942 AL MVP award. He was also a magnificent second baseman. When Scooter joined the Yankees in 1941 he and Flash formed a terrific middle infield until Pearl Harbor blew it apart. When Gordon returned to the Yankees from military service after the war, he hit just .210 and New York’s front office, thinking his best playing days were behind him, traded Joe to Cleveland for pitcher Allie Reynolds. It turned out to be one of those transactions that worked well for both teams. The hits and power returned to Gordon’s bat and he teamed with Indians’ player manager Lou Boudreau to lead Cleveland to a 1948 World Series victory. Gordon blasted 32 home runs and drove in 124 that season. He played for Cleveland until 1950, retiring after 11 big league seasons. He eventually became a manager, skippering Cleveland, the Athletics and the Royals.
Joe died in 1978 and was voted into Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee in 2009. I listened to his daughter make the acceptance speech and the loving words she shared about her Dad made it clear that Gordon was much more than just a great ballplayer. Joe was born in LA on February 18, 1915.
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Mickey Mantle was my idol growing up as a kid in the west end of Amsterdam, NY. I can still remember the feeling of euphoria that would come over my entire body on those very rare moments when I would tear open a pack of Topps baseball cards and there hiding in the gum-smelling stack of five pieces of glossy cardboard would be a Mickey Mantle. He was the very best player on the very best baseball team in the world and during my first five years as a Yankee fan, he led New York to five consecutive World Series appearances.
I had a poster of Mantle on my bedroom wall until I was about sixteen years old. I memorized his hitting statistics for each of his 18 regular season and 12 World Series performances. Watching him hit a home run in a televised Yankee contest was as enjoyable for me as seeing the Beatles for the first time on Ed Sullivan, watching the last episode of MASH and the first episode of the Sopranos all in one.
The first time I saw Mantle in person was a Sunday morning outside Yankee Stadium. Me and my brothers were altar boys when we were kids and we never skipped church on Sunday except for the two or three times each summer when our Uncle would take us to Yankee games. I may have been brought up to love Jesus but Mantle was a better hitter.
In any event, on this particular Sunday we were standing behind the police barricades outside the Yankee Stadium player entrance watching the Yankees arrive for that day’s game. All of a sudden, someone much taller than me screamed, “It’s him! It’s him! Here comes Mickey!”
He walked by just five feet in front of me wearing a short-sleeved golf shirt and kaki pants and the first thing I noticed were the muscle lines in his arms. The guy was ripped. People all around me were screaming his name but I was speechless and in total awe. My stupor didn’t matter because Mickey ignored us all. Most of the other Yankee players would wave as they walked by these barricades and some would even stop to shake a fan’s hand or sign an autograph. Not Mantle. He kept his head down and a frown on his face and walked straight inside the Stadium.
I was shocked when just about two hours later, listening to Bob Sheppard announce the Yankee’s starting lineup for that day’s game, I discovered Mickey would not be playing. In fact, Mantle not playing was a pretty common occurrence for me after many of those long drives my Uncle made to Yankee Stadium during the sixties. Instead we’d watch Hector Lopez, Bob Cerv or Jack Reed take the oft-injured Commerce Comet’s spot in the lineup. In fact, not once during the seven seasons we traveled to the Stadium during Mantle’s playing career did I see Mickey hit a home run. I began to think that my being at Yankee Stadium was somehow jinxing Mantle.
I was speechless and in awe the second time I saw Mantle, as well. The span between encounters was about twenty years. I had just landed at the airport in West Palm Beach, Florida with my wife Rosemary and two young children and we were walking to the baggage claim area. Unlike today, the West Palm Beach airport was not very crowded and I was pushing my youngest son in a stroller when I saw a pilot, two stewardesses, and a guy dressed up in a suit carrying a garment bag walking toward us. The guy turned out to be Mickey.
I mumbled to my wife “That’s Mickey Mantle!” and then froze as they continued to walk toward us. Rosemary kept telling me to ask him for an autograph but I couldn’t move or talk. I just stood there with my hands frozen on the stroller handles watching Mantle get closer and closer. That’s when my bolder better half sprang into action. She walked right up to him and said very nicely, “Mr. Mantle, that’s my husband standing over there and you were his idol growing up as a kid. Could you do me a huge favor and sign this for him?” With that she handed him the US Air Ticket Envelope and a blue Flair marker.
Mantle’s response went something like this. “Did they announce I was in this f _ _ _ _ _ g airport! I hate this God d _ _ _ _ _ d s_ _ t! Give me that pen lady.”
My wife and I just stood there speechless, she holding the signed ticket envelope. We realized Mantle’s life must have been filled with these annoying requests but the bitterness and anger in his reaction indicated the man was either deeply disturbed or he lacked even an ounce of humanity, compassion, or plain and simple class. At that moment, Mantle was no longer a hero of mine. When we left the airport I tossed the signed envelope into the garbage container just before I got inside my father-in-law’s Lincoln.
It wasn’t until another fifteen years passed and I watched a news report showing a dying Mantle apologizing to his fans for being such a selfish uncaring jerk all those years, that he became my hero again. I remember after Mantle finished speaking from the hospital press room that day, getting up from my chair in the living room of our house, going to my bedroom and pulling out my metal storage box from the top shelf of my clothes closet. I pulled out that US Air ticket envelope and just stared at that patented Mickey Mantle signature. I finally knew why I had made my Father-in-Law return to the arrival loop of the West Palm Beach Airport that day and why I scrimmaged through that filthy trash can to find the discarded, begrudgingly signed envelope.
Of all the incredible things I’ve learned about Wee Willie Keeler during my research for today’s post, I was most impressed by the fact that it is now called a third strike when a Major League hitter fouls off a two-strike bunt attempt because of this guy. Evidently, Willie never ever failed to make contact with the ball when bunting so he could just foul two strike bunts off all day long and run the opposing team’s pitcher and infield ragged in the process.
At just 5’4″ tall, Willie had to learn how to bunt, slap-hit and high-hop his way into baseball immortality. He developed and refined these skills as a member of the great Baltimore Oriole clubs of the 1890s, where he teamed with future Hall of Famers, John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, Hughie Jennings and Dan Brouthers to win three straight NL Pennants.
Keeler joined Brooklyn in 1899 and jumped to the Yankees (then called the Highlanders) in 1903 before retiring as a player with the Giants and his old friend McGraw, in 1910. His record of eight straight seasons with 200 or more hits was only just broken in 2009, by the great Ichiro Suzuki. Willie batted a remarkable .341 lifetime and was considered one of the baseball’s all-time great base-runners and defensive right-fielders. He died in Brooklyn in the same apartment he was born in, at the age of fifty, in 1923. He was one of the most beloved figures in Big Apple sports during his era.
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Joe Sewell turned another man’s tragedy into an opportunity that eventually landed him in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. When Cleveland shortstop, Ray Chapman was struck and killed by a pitch thrown by the Yankees’ Carl Mays in a late-season game in September of 1920, Sewell was called up from Cleveland’s farm system to replace Chapman. During the remainder of that month Sewell did not field his position very well, committing 15 errors in just 22 games, but what he did do was get on base, averaging .329 with a .413 on base percentage. That was enough to earn Sewell the Indians’ shortstop job for the next season and Sewell never looked back. There were quite a few other things Sewell never or hardly ever did while wearing a Major League baseball uniform. He never broke his bat. In fact, Sewell used the same bat during his entire 14-season big league career. He also never took a day off. From that first game as a replacement for Chapman in September 1920 until May 2, 1930, Sewell played in 1,103 consecutive games, which was the Major League record until Lou Gehrig shattered it. And Sewell hardly ever struck out. In fact, the 5’6 inch left-handed hitter, whiffed just 114 times in 1,903 games for an average of about eight strikeouts per 154-game season. It was said of Sewell at the time that if he didn’t swing at a pitch, umpires knew it wasn’t a strike. When Sewell played in just 109 games for Cleveland in 1930 and his batting average slumped to .289, the Indians coldly released him. That’s when the Yankees signed him and manager Joe McCarthy made the Titus, Alabama native his starting third baseman. Sewell responded by hitting .302 and scoring 102 runs during his first season in pinstripes. The following year, Sewell and McCarthy both won their first World Series rings on a team that included seven other future Hall of Famers in addition to the Manager and third baseman. Sewell played one more season for New York and retired. He had a .312 lifetime batting average and a .391 career on base percentage. He passed away in 1990 at the age of 91.
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