Friday, July 18, 2014

Ken Griffey's new book 'Big Red' sheds light on a family tradition

Ken Griffey Sr. (r.) with co-author Phil Pepe
Create a strong lineage and your legacy will last forever. Following in the footsteps of Stan Musial, Ken Griffey left the small town Donora, Pennsylvania in search of a career that would be more exciting than a life working in the steel mills.

Two World Series championships and an unprecedented father-son combination later, the Griffey name became synonymous with excellence in baseball. On Tuesday July 15, 2014, Griffey appeared with co-author Phil Pepe at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Manhattan to discuss their new book, “Big Red” (Triumph, 2014).

The video below is the entire 40 minute question and answer session with Griffey and Pepe about many topics in Griffey's career including his relationship with Ken Jr., the Big Red Machine, and why Billy Martin's treatment of a young Ken Jr. caused him never to sign with the New York Yankees.



Monday, July 14, 2014

All Star Game in Minnesota brings back bittersweet memories for Ed Kranepool

Ed Kranepool
The clamor over the 2014 All-Star game at Target Field in Minnesota roused up memories of New York Mets Hall of Famer Ed Kranepool’s selection to the 1965 All-Star Game at Metropolitan Stadium. Only 20 years old, Kranepool was the youngest member of a National League squad that featured Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax.

“That was a tremendous feat for myself, I was only 20 when I made the All-Star team,” Kranepool recalled.

As excited that Kranepool was to be representing the Mets in Minnesota, he would have enjoyed it more if Philadelphia Phillies manager Gene Mauch would have called Kranepool’s number off of the bench.

“I didn’t play in the game. I was disappointed," he said. "It’s kind of frustrating because I never made it again. You want to play. … What’s the sense of sending a guy to the All-Star Game, if he’s not going to play? Not that you want the three days off, you’d rather be in the All-Star Game, but if you’re going there, I want to say I played in the game. Let the country see you play the game.”

Kranepool's ill-feelings towards Mauch lingered well past the All-Star Game.

"I held a grudge against Gene Mauch my whole career," he said. "Every time I played him, I wanted to beat him, because I didn't play and I wanted to play."

While he acknowledges that the managers of the All-Star teams have been more aware about getting everyone involved in the mid-summer classic; however, he still thinks the game can stand a few minor adjustments.

“They do a better job of managing the players today in the game," he said, "they get everybody in, but I think they should have free substitution with a couple of players. They ought to mark before the game, two-to-three guys who play a lot of positions and keep them around. If you put them in the game, you’re allowed to remove them, [to] get everybody in the game. … They should change certain rules. Baseball in certain ways is trying to make changes and other ways, they’re antiquated in their positioning.”

Kranepool explains in the video below how Casey Stengel notified him of being selected to the 1965 All-Star team, and his thoughts on the All-Star voting process.


The entire 1965 All-Star Game.
 

Mariano Rivera and Pelé meet for the first time at the World Cup in Brazil


Pele meets Mariano Rivera, for the first time ever
at a SUBWAY Restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,
on Saturday, July 12, 2014.  
(Photo by Dado Galdieri/Invision
for SUBWAY Restaurants/AP Images)
The greatest closer in baseball history, New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera met with the world renown fútbol superstar Pelé for the first time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Saturday July 12, 2014.

Pelé was on hand to promote Subway's healthy eating campaign prior to the World Cup finals. Rivera met with Pelé during his appearance on Subway's behalf. The two exchanged pleasantries and Pelé shared a story about how he was asked to be a kicker in the NFL while he was playing with the New York Cosmos.

Their entire exchange (in English and Spanish) are in the video below.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bill Renna, 89, played with Yankees, Athletics and Red Sox 1924-2014

Bill Renna, 1955 A's
Bill Renna, outfielder for the New York Yankees, Philadelphia / Kansas City Athletics, and Boston Red Sox from 1953-1959, passed away June 19, 2014 in San Jose, California. He was 89.

Renna returned from military service in World War II to become a two-sport star at the University of Santa Clara, playing outfield for the baseball team, and both fullback and center on the football team. His play on the gridiron earned him a spot in the East-West game in 1949, drawing the attention of the Los Angeles Rams; however, he chose to stick with baseball, learning under the guidance of Santa Clara’s legendary coach, Paddy Cottrell.

“Paddy Cottrell my coach at Santa Clara was a bird dog [scout] for the Yankees,” Renna said to me in a 2008 interview. “He used to teach us everything that was taught in spring training by the Yankees.”

Cottrell tipped Yankees scout Joe Devine to his prized outfielder who signed Renna in 1949 to a contract for $5,000. His signing paid immediate dividends, as he hit an eye-opening .385 with 21 home runs for Twin Falls in the Pioneer League. His play impressed his Twin Falls manager Charlie Metro, who was a former major leaguer himself.

“He hit like heck up there, and they called him “Bull,” because he was a big guy,” Metro said in his autobiography “Safe by a Mile.” “He was a delight to have on the team.”

The Yankees were so impressed with Renna’s 1949 season that they sent him to their AAA team in Kansas City. Renna was hit with the injury bug injuries in 1950 and could not duplicate his torrid start from the year prior. The Yankees sent him down to Class B Norfolk, where he hit .291 with 26 home runs.

“Bull” worked his way back to AAA in 1952 and played well enough to earn a promotion to the big leagues with the Yankees in 1953.

“I went to spring training with the Yankees in 1953 and there was an outfielder spot available, so I grabbed it and held onto it,” Renna said to Ed Attanasio of This Great Game. “Stengel platooned me with Gene Woodling in left field, alongside (Mickey) Mantle in center and with (Hank) Bauer and (Irv) Noren in right field.”
Bill Renna - 1953 Yankees

Renna hit .314 in 61 games, filling in at all three outfield spots to spell Mantle and Woodling while they recovered from various ailments. While he was on the roster for their World Series championship, he did not see any action during the series.

“I did not get to play but I was on deck to pinch hit a couple times,” Renna said. “It was a little frustrating to get that close and not even get an at-bat.”

Despite being shut out during the World Series, one of Renna’s fondest memories from his rookie season with the Yankees was witnessing Mantle’s monstrous shot off of Chuck Stobbs in Griffith’s Stadium.

“I saw him hit the 565-foot homer out of Griffith’s Stadium in 1953 against Chuck Stobbs,” Renna said to John McCarthy of the Old Timers Baseball Association in 2008. “Mickey was batting right-handed against the lefty Stobbs who threw him an off-speed pitch that almost fooled him, but he stayed back and waited on the pitch. When it left the bat we all stood up in the dugout and watched the flight of the ball as it kept on going and when it cleared the clock at t at the top of the stadium in left-centerfield we were all in total amazement.”

Renna’s glory days with the Yankees would be unfortunately short-lived. In the 1953 off-season, he was part of an 11-player deal that sent Vic Power to the Philadelphia Athletics in exchange for first-baseman Eddie Robinson and pitcher Harry Byrd. Going from the perennial champs to the perennial cellar dwellers would have fazed most players, but not Renna.

“I have no complaint about that deal,” Renna said in 1958 to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “In fact, the trade was a benefit for me because I got the chance to be the regular right fielder with the A’s.”

Now with the opportunity to play full-time, Renna had his best major league season in 1954. In 123 games, he hit 13 home runs while gunning out 13 runners from the outfield. He played two more seasons with the Athletics, staying with them through their move to familiar territory, Kansas City.

“Moving back to Kansas City was kind of neat being I played there for awhile,” he said in his 2008 interview with me. “Kansas City received the A’s very well. They were excited about it. … They had a great fan base that liked the game of baseball.”

During the 1956 season, Renna was essentially traded for himself, returning to the Yankees in exchange for Eddie Robinson.

“The Yanks had a plan in mind for me, which probably boiled down to giving me another crack at making the grade,” Renna said in 1958. “I admit that I didn’t do the job at Richmond that either the Yankees or I expected that I would do. That’s why they traded me when I told them that I either stay in the majors or be traded.”

Renna got his wish, as the Yankees traded him to the Boston Red Sox for Eli Grba and Gordie Windhorn. After a monster 1957 season with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League where he slugged 29 home runs and drove in 105 runs, the Red Sox gave him another chance at the major league life.

He made the Red Sox in 1958 and spent the entire season as a backup to Ted Williams.

“I was Ted Williams’ caddy in Boston,” he said in our 2008 interview. “Vern Stephens and myself; he was lefty and I was righty. We’d play left field whenever Ted didn’t play.”

Williams tried to impart sage hitting advice to Renna one day during batting practice, but as many that Williams attempted to council would find out, what came naturally for Williams was a struggle for most.

“One day we were in the outfield during batting practice and Ted said to crowd the plate a little more. I said, ‘I can’t handle that, just like you do, you have a quick bat and you hit that inside pitch really well’. He said, ‘You want them to pitch you tight.’ I said, ‘I don’t want that, I can’t hit on that part, that hard fastball gives me trouble. I have plate coverage; I go over the plate and tap the outside. I’m not going to crowd the plate; I can’t flip the bat like you do.’”

The Red Sox sent Renna back to the minor leagues during the 1959 season and he retired after finishing out the year with San Diego. While he felt he could physically play a few more years, family responsibilities trumped his desires to continue.

“I retired in 1959 from San Diego, came here to San Jose, and got a job with Central Concrete Supplies selling ready mix concrete,” he said. “I had three children to worry about; I didn’t want to follow a minor league club around as a coach with three kids that were getting ready to start school. I didn’t think it was fair to them.”

Renna worked with Central Concrete for over 26 years retiring in 1990, retiring to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren.

Very much a student of the game, Renna looked at the current state of play in Major League Baseball with a critical eye.

“When I was playing,” he said, “there were only 16 teams, as opposed to 30 now. Half of the league wouldn’t have had a shot. There are a lot of more opportunities to play in the majors now. It’s a different situation completely. It was more difficult then to make it to the majors then it is now. There were a lot more kids playing professional baseball, as there were so many leagues.

“If you watch the game the way it is played in the majors now there are a lot of things that are done that shouldn’t be done because if they have been taught to play the game, they would know to do these things the proper way. For example, people running into each other, infielders and outfielders. Its communication, I learned it in college. When we went into the pros, we were taught it again in the minors. Evidently, these poor kids aren’t taught a lot of this stuff. It’s unfortunate.”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

July 4, 1939 was also Johnny Welaj Day at Yankee Stadium

Johnny Welaj
For a special group from Manville, NJ, July 4, 1939 was Johnny Welaj Day at Yankee Stadium. The pride of Manville, Johnny “Legs” Welaj was a member of the Washington Senators, only two months into his major league career.

Over 150 family members, friends, and elected officials traveled forty-five miles to celebrate his newly minted big league status. The Yankees and Senators were scheduled to play a double header and prior to the first game, Welaj was showered with praise as Manville mayor Alex Batcho addressed the crowd. It was only as they were proceeding with the ceremony, that Welaj was notified that Lou Gehrig would be giving his retirement speech in between games.

Welaj sat the first game of the double header, and had a rather difficult task to follow Gehrig’s iconic speech as the lead-off batter of the second game.

Welaj spent four seasons in the major leagues with the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics, losing three years to military service in World War II. He continued to play in the minor leagues through 1956. He then spent the next 43 years working for the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers in various front office capacities, fully retiring in 1999.

He passed away September 13, 2003 at the age of 89 in Arlington, Texas. 
 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review - Saving Babe Ruth by Tom Swyers

School is out and summer has arrived, time is abundant and the sun never seems to go down; a perfect storm for children to fill baseball fields across the country. Pass by most of the spacious greens now and they’re rarely used unless you are part of the elite who can afford the exorbitant rates collected by travel teams across the country. Securing not only the pocketbooks of parents nationwide, they’ve taken a firm grasp of the permits that control the access to these fields.

Standing in the face of these ever-expanding travel teams is David Thompson, a crusader for his town’s local Babe Ruth program. Thompson is the central figure in Tom Swyers’ novel, “Saving Babe Ruth,” which is based upon a true story of one parent’s fight to keep the field that has served his community so dearly for the continued use of all of its residents, instead of the exclusive group of the outsider travel program.

Click here to read why Swyers makes the cause of Babe Ruth one worth saving.