Thursday, August 27, 2015

Jack Clark's transformation from wild moundsman to slugging outfielder

Jack Clark’s 18-year major league career was defined by power. Whether he was smashing tape measure home runs or unleashing laser beam throws from right field, Clark’s feats flashed the tools that impressed his rookie league manager Art Mazmanian to pull him from the pitcher’s mound shortly after the start of his professional career in 1973 with the San Francisco Giants.

Clark with the Giants in the minor leagues

Mazmanian, a former infielder who reached the Triple-A level with the New York Yankees in the 1950s, used the keen eyes he developed from being a part of the talent rich Yankees organization to change the fortunes of Clark’s career. He only needed to see Clark pitch a few games for his rookie league team in Great Falls, Montana to know that his future was in the outfield, not on the mound.

“I managed Jack Clark as a rookie (in 1973),” Mazmanian said in a 2009 phone interview from his California home. “They started him out as a pitcher. I had him pitch four [sic] games. He went 0-2. I saw him hit it out of our ballpark and it was 350 down each line. I knew what kind of a hitter he was.”

Mazmanian had some inside intelligence on Clark’s exploits from an unlikely source, his daughter. She had seen Clark play in high school and urged her dad to come out and watch.

“He was one of the better high school hitters in our area,” he said. “He played against my daughter’s team, Walnut High for two years. She kept telling me, ‘Dad, you oughta see this guy, he could really hit.’”

Mazmanian with the New York Yankees

Almost immediately, Clark reminded his manager of one of the Yankee greats that he watched operate during his formative years in professional baseball. He told Clark that his talents were reminiscent of Joe DiMaggio, but were missing a certain intangible that was inherent in the Yankee Clipper.

“After four games, I called him out, ‘Jack, you are a better hitter than anyone we got here, this is ridiculous. Tomorrow I am going to put you in center field. You remind me of Joe DiMaggio, but you are too lazy to be a centerfielder. You are going to play right field in the big leagues someday.’”

Mazmanian’s decision wasn’t without controversy. George Genovese, the legendary scout who signed Clark vehemently disagreed with his manager's position change.

“The scout that signed him got mad at me because he was the one that got me the job at Great Falls. [Genovese] said, ‘Artie, I signed him as a pitcher.’ I said, ‘George, he’s a better hitter than any player that’s here. How many .300 hitters are in the big leagues anymore? And he’s 17 years old.’ I told [Genovese] that he could go back to pitching in instructional ball. Jack fought me on it, he wanted to pitch.”

Clark rewarded his manager’s decision with an extraordinary performance. The 17-year-old newly minted outfielder tore up a heavily collegiate pitching staff in the Pioneer League.

“I put him in center field the next day, and he hit in 17 straight games,” Mazmanian said. “They stopped him and hit in 13 additional straight games. … He [just] missed leading the league in home runs, doubles, RBIs, and total bases.”

Despite Mazmanian’s prediction that Clark would be a top-notch major league right-fielder, the Giants weren’t sold that outfield was where they wanted him to develop. For the next two minor league seasons, he played almost exclusively as a third baseman. The experiment ended after he committed a whopping 109 errors in 147 games.

“The next year, they wanted to make a third baseman out of him,” Mazmanian recalled. “I said to my wife, ‘If he plays third base, he’s going to kill someone in the front row of the bleachers in the first base area because he didn’t have a catch-throw.’ He had a strong arm, but not the footwork. And sure enough, they moved him back to the outfield.”

Clark amassed 340 home runs from 1975-1992, making the All-Star team four times. He was one of the most feared bats in the National League all throughout the 1980s, made possible by a veteran minor league manager trusting his baseball instincts. He never pitched again after Mazmanian pulled him from the mound, and ironically he played four games in the major leagues at third base and handled all of his chances without an error.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Dan Bankhead nearly incited a riot during his MLB debut

The pitching mound in Ebbets Field shouldn’t have been a source of angst for Dan Bankhead when Brooklyn Dodgers manager Burt Shotton summoned him from the bullpen on August 26, 1947. The righty hurler had been playing professionally in the Negro Leagues since 1940, had four other brothers who played in the league, and served as a Montford Point Marine during World War II. Yet despite all of the formidable opponents he faced, it was the possibility of a race riot that he feared most if something went wrong on the hill that day.
Bankhead signs autographs before his 8/26/47 debut

“See, here’s what I always heard. Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch,” Buck O’Neil said in Joe Posnanski’s, ‘The Soul of Baseball.’ “He thought there might be some sort of riot if he did it. Dan was from Alabama just like your father. But Satchel became a man of the world. Dan was always from Alabama, you know what I mean? He heard all those people calling him names, making those threats, and he was scared. He’d seen black men get lynched.”

Bankhead's famous windup
Bankhead made history as the first African-American pitcher in major league history on that day in 1947, following his teammate Jackie Robinson in the record books who had broken baseball’s color barrier earlier that season. Pitching in relief of Hal Gregg who gave up six runs and only lasted one inning, Bankhead didn’t fare much better against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. He was charged with eight runs in three-and-a-third innings, ending the day with a 21.60 ERA. To his credit Bankhead homered in his only at-bat, but what was almost prophetic was an incident that occurred in the top of the fourth inning.

Bankhead's first MLB home run

With the Pirates leading 8-2 with two outs, outfielder Wally Westlake approached the plate. Like Bankhead, Westlake was a 26-year-old rookie and World War II veteran trying to find his place in the game. Westlake hit a home run earlier in the game and looked to add another to his totals. Bankhead wound up and fired off one of his patented fastballs for the first pitch of the at-bat, but as it left his hand, his worst nightmare unraveled before his eyes.

He hit Westlake squarely in the upper arm.

“It was like the fans held their breath waiting for the reaction,” the now 94-year-old Westlake wrote in a 2008 letter. “He was just another dude trying to get me out and I was trying to whack his butt.”

The first game an African-American man pitched in the majors and he hit a white batter. The crowd waited for Westlake’s next move. Was the pitch retaliation for his home run earlier in the game? A split second decision by Westlake to charge the mound or take his walk down to first base would have a significant impact the fate of African-American pitchers in the majors. Fortunately, Westlake chose the latter, with little regard to what the fans expected him to do.

“I think I disappointed the rednecks,” he said.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How one baseball card pack ignited a writer's quest to discover the afterlife of a major league career

Opening a pack of baseball cards for a child in the 1980s brought feelings of tremendous anticipation not only for the cards that were hidden beneath the sealed wax paper, but also the stale piece of gum that was pressed up against hopefully the worst one in the bunch. For many, those images on the front of each card and the stats on the back were burned into memory after spending hours poring over their contents. Well before the advent of widespread availability through cable television and the internet, these cards were often one's only visions of the players we followed in newspaper box scores. These men stood as heroes to an entire generation, frozen in time due to a picture on a baseball card, but what happens when that fame melts and the players are left to deal with the closing of their careers at an age when most of their peers are just establishing theirs? 

Author Brad Balukjian cracked open a pack of his favorite 1986 Topps and after sorting out the players, he set out to find the next world for a ballplayer after an entire generation has passed since they ended their career. Engaging in a cross-country trek across the United States from his home in California, he put over 10,000 miles in seven weeks on his 2002 Honda Accord to meet with and examine the lives of the 14 players in one pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards for a book cleverly entitled “Wax Pack.”

1986 Topps Wax Pack (WaxPackBook.com)

Fast forward thirty years and every statistic that can be measured or imagined exists a mouse click away on the internet. While seemingly every bit of data exists about their effectiveness on the field, for most of the players in the 792 card set, little is written about what happened to them after they put their gloves away and hung up their spikes. The idea for breathing life to the stories of each of the men in this singular pack of baseball cards was spawned from Balukjian and a friend reminiscing about their childhood.

“One of my best friends and I were talking about growing up in that era and how we really felt like some of the best stories could be told from some of the players who were not superstars,” Balukjian said during a stop in Brooklyn in July, 2015. “These guys maybe have not been asked as often about their careers and their lives. We started to think about what would be a project that would allow us to start to explore those stories from those guys who were not the superstars. I had the idea that what was really fun about buying a pack of baseball cards as a kid was the random factor, you don’t know what you’re going to get in the pack.”

After opening a few packs to get one with a mix of players that were attainable to reach, Balukjian settled on a collection that included 14 players and one checklist. Once he had his pack laid out in front of him, he had to decide how he was going to string together this group who all shared one thing in common, their presence on the eerily familiar black bordered 1986 Topps baseball card.

“Being a random selection of players, most of the guys are not going to be the superstars,” he said. “I thought there are 15 cards in a pack, 15 chapters in a book, it sort of lends itself to that format to make a book about that single pack. Initially we talked about doing a book pack about the 1985 season told from the varying perspectives of whatever 15 players we got in the pack. As we tried to figure out how to do that, it got a little bit difficult because there might not be a cohesive narrative from 15 random guys, so we decided it would be better to focus on the journey of trying to track down the 15 guys in the pack, telling the story of the journey, and each of the individual players.”

Now that Balukjian had a plan in mind, he set out to track down the men in his pack of baseball cards. They ranged from the highly recognized (Carlton Fisk and Doc Gooden), to the controversial (Vince Coleman), to the relative unknown (Jaime Cocanower). Spread out across the country, the author filled his summer with appointments stretched out from coast to coast.

“Most guys were pretty receptive,” he said. “Garry Templeton and Steve Yeager both were guys that on the first phone call, they seemed like they would cooperative. They may not have fully understood the project, but when I said, ‘Hey I’m going to be in your town on this date,’ they said, ‘I could do that.’ With a couple of exceptions, most of the guys were pretty easy to work with.”


Garry Templeton with the Wax Pack / (WaxPackBook.com)

Of course the story wouldn’t be so interesting if all of the players fell in line. It turned out that the highest profile players in Balukjian’s pack turned out to be the most elusive. Using tactics that could serve him well as a private investigator, he turned to covert methods to try to track down the likes of Fisk and Coleman, which he kept running tabs of in his blog.

“In a way those failures makes the book better,” he said. “I think it is better that I don’t get all 14 players. The story of sneaking my way into an exclusive golf course in Sarasota, Florida to try to ambush Carlton Fisk after he plays a round of golf is going to be really fun. Tracking down Vince Coleman’s childhood home, his high school in Jacksonville, and the story of how he told me basically to ‘f-off,’ those stories would be kind of more fun — the quest aspect.” 

As close as the author would get to Fisk in Cooperstown (WaxPackBook.com)
As Balukjian continued to survey the players in his pack of baseball cards while spending endless hours on the road counting off whether Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts had a grip on each locale, he found a consistent theme with each of the retired athletes. They no longer basked in their glory days the way fans romanticize their on-field accomplishments.

“There is a disconnect between the fans’ enthusiasm for some of the stuff in baseball history and the players that were actually part of that history,” he noted. “As fans we tend to glorify and get really enthusiastic about our memories. The guys that actually lived through that stuff, even the really positive moments, I found a lot of the guys kind of had the attitude of being not too excited to talk about or relive those moments. 

“I think there are a couple of reasons why that may be. It may be painful; relieving those glory days is a reminder to them that they will never be that athlete again. You are dredging up a lot of feelings and memories about a time when their entire lives were dedicated to achieving this goal. Once you are past your prime, you know you will never win another World Series or hit another home run. It could be kind of painful to have to talk about that.”

Many of the players had difficulty replacing the highly regimented schedule of a Major League baseball player and the adulation that comes with playing in front of 30,000 fans every night. Their struggles with the transition to a regular civilian caused problems in many facets of their lives, including their relationships and what vices they sought to help them cope.

“It was hard for all of them,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that some major life changes happened in those years right after they retired. Some guys started drinking, some guys got divorced, and some tried some other professions where they didn’t catch on. I think they all had a hard time letting go of playing. Even if they were going into coaching, Randy Ready said something like, ‘Putting the player inside to bed, letting that person go is a very hard thing to do.’ They all spoke to the competitive nature they needed to have to get to the major leagues, and how hard it is to know that you’ll never be able to do that again.”

This isn’t to say that all of these men are disgruntled ex-athletes, rather Balukjian’s odyssey revealed how human these ballplayers are. While most only get to know them from their baseball cards and television highlights, he was fortunate enough to be able to engage them in some deep conversations that had nothing to do with stepping in between the lines.

“A lot of the time we haven’t talked about baseball directly,” he said. “It’s been about relationships — really candid, really powerful and emotional stuff about relationships with their fathers, relationships with their kids, with spouses, and the game itself. Some stuff that comes up has been very traumatic that they’ve talked about.” 

These deeply guarded layers are ones that he intends to reveal in his book. He hopes that by peeling back the curtain on their lives that he will appeal to a group wider than just baseball fans.

“I’m more interested in understanding these guys as people and men,” he stated. “I’m less interested in asking about their favorite memory in their baseball career was or how they felt when they won the World Series; they’ve been asked that a million times. I’m more interested in what they did the day after they retired, or how did being on the road for all those years affected their marriages — things of broader interest than baseball.”

One such player that he connected with beyond balls and strikes was former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Don Carman, who was Balukjian’s favorite player growing up. Carman is now a sports psychologist that works for super agent Scott Boras, whose clientele includes New York Mets ace Matt Harvey.

“I felt like after spending a couple of days with him, it sounds cheesy, but it almost was like I was meant to have him as a favorite player,” he said. “Getting to know him personally I really identified with who he is as a person. He told me a lot of stories about growing up in Western Oklahoma in a difficult family situation. He said his dad never spoke to him directly ever. His dad died of a heart attack when he was 15, so there’s a lot of pain there. I couldn’t relate to that because I had a good relationship with my dad, but Don described sort of being sort of an outside as a kid, always being a little bit different. That’s something I could relate to. When you make these human connections with a guy that was literally my idol as a kid, it is a really unique thing. It’s no longer, ‘I’m a fan and he’s my favorite player,’ it’s sort of a relationship between two people.”

Balukjian with Don Carman (r.) / (WaxPackBook.com)

At 34 years old, Balukjian is about the same age as when many of his subjects ended their professional baseball careers. This journey has allowed him to examine many questions about his own life, taking bits of wisdom from each of his interviews to help him gain some perspective on his own direction.

“Frankly, it’s not even about baseball,” he said. “Really it’s a story about growing up. I am now the age these guys were when these guys had to retire and stop playing the game for a living. I’m a single guy, 34, no kids, nowhere near married. I’m sort of facing my own questions in life; do I need to grow up? I always bucked against the trend of getting married, settling down, and doing the traditional thing career wise. This book is giving me an opportunity to think out loud about myself and also learn from the lives of 14 other men that had to grow up themselves when they could no longer play baseball.”

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Doc Daugherty, 87, former Detroit Tiger and World War II veteran

Harold “Doc” Daugherty went down swinging in his first major league at-bat. He waited patiently for Detroit Tigers manager Red Rolfe to give him an opportunity for redemption; however, that chance never came. He joined a handful of major leaguers whose careers lasted one fleeting day.

Daugherty passed away August 15, 2015 in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. He was 87. Speaking with Daugherty over a half-century after his debut, the memories of his lone plate appearance were still crystal clear.

“It was in Chicago, it was cold, and it was snowing,” Daugherty said in a 2008 interview. “They sent me up to pinch hit against Billy Pierce. He was quite a pitcher, a really good pitcher. I fouled a couple off and missed the third one. That was the extent of my major league career.”

Doc Daugherty

He made the club out of spring training in 1951 after an injury to third baseman and future Hall of Famer George Kell created a need for depth in the infield. An Associated Press report on March 28, 1951 gave Rolfe’s scouting report on the newest member of the Tigers.

“Manger Red Rolfe said Daugherty is okay defensively, but is weak at the plate. He is being given a thorough trial now with Kell benched on account of a spike wound in his hand.”

Kell’s injury turned out to be less severe than expected and with Johnny Lipon firmly entrenched at shortstop; there was little room for Daugherty in the lineup. Right on the day rosters were set to be trimmed, the Tigers recalled knuckleball pitcher Marlin Stewart from Toledo, sending Daugherty to the minor leagues, effectively ending his major league career.

“I stayed with them for a month,” he said. “They took some of the rookies north with them and May 15th, was the cutoff date where they had to be down to a certain number. They sent the rookies out to the farm clubs. From there I went to Toledo.”

A World War II veteran, Daugherty served in the Army after playing football at Ohio State in 1945. After serving for a year-and-a-half, he signed with the Tigers before the start of the 1948 season. They brought him to major league spring training and the 20-year-old immediately turned heads.

“Look at him pick ‘em up out there,” manager Steve O’Neill said in a 1948 Owosso Argus-Press article. “He’s got ‘class’ written all over him.”

Unfortunately, Daugherty never lived up to those lofty expectations, as Rolfe proved to be correct in his assessment of his batting skills. He finished his minor league career in 1953 with a .230 lifetime average. After hanging up his cleats, Daugherty entered the coaching ranks, managing in the Tigers organization, as well as at the high school level in three different sports for over 30 years.

“When I quit playing my professional career I did some scouting for the Tigers and managed some teams in the rookie leagues,” he said. “I taught high school for 33 years coaching football, baseball, and basketball.”

His love for athletics was passed down to his children, with his son Mike forming a husband and wife coaching tandem, serving as the associate head women’s basketball coach at Washington State University with his wife June at the helm. Mike, who was an Ohio State alum, played professional basketball overseas.

“My oldest son and his wife have been coaching for 15 years,” he said. “They coach the women's basketball team at Washington State University in the Pac-10. They both played at Ohio State and both played overseas. She's the head coach and he's the assistant. They're doing quite well.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bud Thomas went once around the bases for the St. Louis Browns in 1951

John “Bud” Thomas, a former infielder who played with the St. Louis Browns in 1951, passed away on Saturday in Sedalia, Missouri. He was 86.

First noticed by the Browns as the shortstop for the West squad in the 1945 Esquire All-American Game at the Polo Grounds that featured Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb as honorary managers, Thomas signed with the club in 1947. Within four years he made the jump from the lowest rung of the minor league ladder all the way to the majors.
Bud Thomas

Click here to continue reading how Bud Thomas made the most of his one month as a major leaguer in Bill Veeck's regime.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fritz Peterson revisits the Horace Clarke Era in his new book

Fritz Peterson spent almost nine seasons with the New York Yankees playing alongside the likes of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford. Surely playing with those legends would have guaranteed the lefty pitcher a shot of making the playoffs at least once in his career, right? Think again.

Playing with the Yankees from 1966-1974, Peterson endured one of the roughest stretches in Yankees history, as the bulk of his time included pairings with offensive juggernauts such Jerry Kenney, Gene Michael, and Horace Clarke. The latter served as the inspiration for the title of Peterson’s newest book, “When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Era.


Peterson tells the good, the bad, and often the ugly about the myriad of teammates that went through the Yankees revolving doors of the late 60s and early 70s. The book is dotted with often hilarious nuggets about his Yankee brethren ranging from the aforementioned Hall of Famers to obscurities including Alan Closter, Bill Burbach, and Cecil Perkins. These inside baseball stories that he shares gives a glimpse into the hi-jinks that ballplayers often engage in without revealing the personal clubhouse matters that his former mound mate Jim Bouton exposed in “Ball Four.

Fritz Peterson signing a copy of his new book / N. Diunte

Each chapter is set up neatly for each of the nine “innings,” that he played with the Yankees. His offseason tales of his job as an adjunct professor at his alma mater Northern Illinois University, his contract negotiations with the Yankees front office, and his foray into hockey broadcasting serve as digestible buffers in between his narratives about the hodgepodge collection of teammates that comprised the “Horace Clarke Era.”

Listen below to hear Peterson discussing his new book and the likes of teammates Thurman Munson and Mel Stottlemyre.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Jerry Blevins left with a dubious record after suffering season-ending injury

Jerry Blevins set a record this season that he would surely relinquish if he had the opportunity to do so. Blevins suffered a broken left-arm when he was struck by a line drive in an April 19 game against the Miami Marlins. At the time of his injury, he set a major league record by retiring all 15 batters he faced for the season.

Click here to discover how a freak accident has unfortunately cemented Blevins' place in the record books, one he would quickly like to take back if it meant he could play again this season with the New York Mets.