Saturday, September 16, 2017

John 'Mule' Miles, Negro League star, dies at 90

John “Mule” Miles, an outfielder / third baseman with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues, passed away Friday May 24, 2013 at his San Antonio home. He was 90.

Miles earned the nickname “Mule” from Giants manager “Candy” Jim Taylor after a display of power led him to remark, “You hit as hard as a mule kicks.” He upheld that reputation by blasting home runs in 11 consecutive games in 1947.
John 'Mule' Miles in 2010 - Steve Thurow

In addition to being one of a dwindling number of remaining ex-Negro League players, he was also one of the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-American aviators in the United States Armed Forces.

Miles served with the Airmen in World War II starting in 1942 for a three-year period. He returned to San Antonio after his discharge to work as an aircraft mechanic.

"We had it hard at Tuskegee; buildings weren't completed when we got there, it was hard, but we made it, I wasn't complaining, because at Tuskegee, I learned a trade, I learned how to work with my hands - to do something," Miles said in a 2009 interview with the United States Army.

It was shortly after his return that he was approached fellow San Antonio native Clyde McNeal, who just finished his rookie season with Chicago.

“He was the one who enticed me to go,” Miles said to the San Antonio Express in April, 2013. “If I had to go by myself, I don't think I would have done it.”

He played three seasons for the Chicago American Giants from 1946-1948, playing against the best the Negro Leagues had to offer. One of his favorite subjects was Satchel Paige.

“Satchel was a great pitcher. He could throw hard and he was smart. Nobody could touch Satchel when he didn’t want ‘em to,” Miles said in Brent Kelley’s “Voices from the Negro Leagues.

Miles left the Negro Leagues to after the end of the 1948 season to return to his mechanic job. He continued to play in local leagues and the lure of professional baseball drove him to try out for the Laredo Apaches of the South Texas League in 1952. He made the team, becoming the first black player in the league, batting .281 in limited action. At the age of 30, Miles was past prospect status, and returned home to his job that he would keep until his 1971 retirement.

As the Negro Leagues experienced a renewed interest in the 1990a, Miles’ career returned to prominence. He made frequent appearances across the United States at reunions and speaking engagements.

In 2007, Topps honored him with a baseball card in their Allen and Ginter set. The release of the card caused him to be showered with mail requests daily for his signature, something he relished in his later years. He would often send back signed cards with inspirational phrases such as, “I’m not complaining, just explaining,” or, “Without those passing yesterdays, there can be no bright tomorrows.” It was no surprise that his 2009 autobiography was titled, “A Legacy to Leave Our Youth.

“I loved baseball and I was willing to play it anytime, anywhere. … When I started playing for money, it wasn’t enough to make a living on. You’ve got to understand this was during the forties and fifties. The only baseball players making any kind of money were the ones in the majors," said Miles in Dick O’Neal’s “Dreaming of the Majors."

"We just loved the game, and if someone was willing to pay to watch me, that was fine.”

* This was originally published for the now defunct Examiner.com on May 25, 2013.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tom Wright, 93, Major League pinch hitter extraordinaire and World War II veteran

During the years following World War II, an outfielder who posted batting averages of .380 and .368 in the minor leagues should have found little trouble getting a starting role in the Major Leagues. That is of course unless you played for the Red Sox and two of those outfielders were Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio. This was the tough reality for Tom Wright, one of North Carolina’s finest, who filled the role of pinch hitter extraordinaire for the Boston Red Sox right at the start of the 1950s.

Wright, who went on to play parts of nine big league seasons, passed away on September 5, 2017 at his home in Shelby, North Carolina. He was 93.

Tom Wright Autographed Red Sox Photo / Author's Collection
Growing up on the sandlots of Shelby, Wright caught the attention of Boston Red Sox scout Eddie Montague, who signed him to his first pro contract in 1941 while he was still in high school. Wright left behind the opportunity to get his diploma in order to start his career.

“Eddie [Montague] was in this area and signing all of the prospects in this area,” Wright told me in an interview on New Year’s Day in 2009. “I signed with him during high school. In 1941, I went down into the Palmetto State League and I took Virgil Stallcup's place playing shortstop. I stayed there half of the season. They had a split season. Lawrence, the team I was with, hired the manager of another team, and he was an infielder and I got released. I was hitting about .340, they moved me to third base and I made room for him.”

Fortunately for Wright, his release didn’t put a premature end to his career, as he signed on with Boston’s team in the Class D Bi-State League in 1942. While he wavered at the plate, his manager noted his good arm and gave him a few chances on the mound, albeit with mixed results.

“I came on back home and in 1942, I went up to Danville,” he said. “I relieved 2-3 games and pitched a whole game. When I wasn't hitting well; I was chasing the high ball. I hit good and I had a good arm, so they were trying to make something out of me. They put me in relief a few times, and they let me start against one of the top teams. I pitched a real good game. George Ferrell, one of the Ferrell boys hit a homerun over a short fence over left field. I slipped on a curve and let it get where he could reach it and he beat me to win the ballgame.”

Just as Wright was trying to figure out if his baseball career would continue in as a position player or a pitcher, he was drafted for military service after the season ended. For the near future his career would be navigated by the Army Air Corps.

“I flew well, but if I knew I was going to fly three days from now, my nerves would get up,” he said. “I'd be thinking about that more than playing the ball game.”

His time in the Air Corps was short lived. He sustained an injury during training that dissuaded him from continuing to fly.

“In the service I was supposed to an aerial gunner,” he said. “I had to bail out of one, and on an emergency jump, I tore my leg and my foot up. I stayed out in Wyoming for a year before they ever put me back on flying status. By that time, I made up my mind I wasn't going to fly anymore, just be on the ground crew.

“I told them that in 1943-44. I spent 1944 on the disabled list because I had a bad foot. When they started to put me back on, I told them, ‘I don't want to fly them things no more. They took my stripes and told me I'll be on the next boat overseas. I said, ‘I think that boat will be slower than that airplane.’”

His switch to the grounds crew proved to be a life altering decision. While Wright was lucky enough to return from service with some injuries that plagued him throughout his baseball career, many from his original Air Corps crew didn’t come back at all.

“Our crowd went to Italy and flew up over Germany,” he recalled. “The best I could find out, they lost about all of them. My radio man came back and was down in Florida after he got his mission. He wrote me a letter and told me to get out because it was hell over there. I did catch that next boat. I spent all of 1945 overseas. I went to the Philippines and I went to South Seas. We were ready to go closer to Japan when the big bombs dropped. You just sat still and waited. When they said the war was over, we quit flying missions.”

Wright returned to professional baseball in 1946 and after three years of only playing recreationally during his World War II service, he jumped right back into the game. The time away from the field took a toll on his throwing arm.

“I got out in spring of 1946 and went right to spring training,” he said. “I messed my arm up down there. It was rainy and cold in South Carolina. I flung the ball rather than throw it. It didn't have enough snap; it hurt me too bad. I carried it on through with me. I'm sure they knew I couldn't throw real good. Nobody tried to talk to me about it or tried to work on it or do anything else.”

If Boston’s brass was aware of Wright’s arm injury, it sure didn’t show at the plate. Wright’s 1946 season was nothing short of amazing. He amassed 200 hits en route to a .380 average for Class C Durham Bulls in the Carolina League. It was the start of his rapid ascent to the major leagues. After batting over .300 for the next two seasons in the minor leagues, the Red Sox called up Wright for a cup of coffee at the end of 1948, a move he thought came too late.

“They called me up in 1948 at the end of the year too, but they had an agreement with Louisville that they wouldn't take ballplayers until they were mathematically out of the playoffs,” he said. “I thought I could have helped them as they didn't have a left-handed pinch hitter.”

With veterans Williams, DiMaggio, and Al Zarilla firmly entrenched in Boston’s outfield, Wright remained at Louisville, where won the 1949 American Association batting title, edging out future Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge, .368 to .362.

“Nineteen-forty-nine was an easy, easy year,” he said. Sometimes you have those. I was one of those hitters who hit all over the ball field. I hit from the left field line to the right field line. That way you get some hits you couldn't get if you were a pull hitter. I went with the ball the best I could.”

For Wright’s efforts, he was awarded another September call up, and in 1950, he finally got a full-time shot with the club, spending the entire season with the Red Sox. He proved valuable as a pinch-hitter, filling that role until Williams injured his elbow. Pressed into more regular duty, Wright hit .318 in 107 at-bats. He explained just how difficult it was to stay sharp with the platoon situation that the Red Sox employed.

“It didn't bother me because it was my job,” he said. “It was the only time I'd get to play most times. I'd go 2-3 weeks and not even get to hit. They ran a funny schedule. You would go on the road and the regulars got all the batting time. I was a left-handed hitter. If there was a right-handed pitcher starting against us, I'd get three swings in batting practice. If there was a left-hander which they pitched on the account of Williams and a few other left-handed hitters, we didn't get to swing.

“It was sort of a one sided deal with them. I always criticized them for it. They didn't keep their players up to date. You see [Casey] Stengel in New York, he put in their extra players and let them play and kept them ready. That's the way they ran it. Normally, when you are on the road, you don't get much time because the home team is taking much of the practice.”

Despite Wright’s dependability as a pinch-hitter, the Red Sox had plenty of young outfield talent in their minor league system and wanted to shuttle Wright between the minor and the major leagues. After proving himself with multiple .300 seasons at both levels, he finally put his foot down.

“I started with Boston until the last spring training day,” he said. “They sent me out and they had a boy Karl Olson they wanted to see, because I think he had to go into the service and I was the one that had to go and make room for him on the roster.

“I was sitting on the bench too much, so I wasn't going to start complaining about nothing. I was going to do the best I can. In 1951, they wanted to send me to Louisville again. I told them they were pushing me back and forth and not to bring me back up here no more. And they didn't. That's the way it went over there.”

The Red Sox traded Wright to the St. Louis Browns, giving him a fresh start with the second division club. The Browns were helmed by Rogers Hornsby in 1952 and Wright quickly found out why the legendary second baseman was disliked by the entire team.

“I opened the season hitting cleanup for Hornsby,” he recalled. “He liked me as far as hitting. If you missed a ball [in the field], you were out of the lineup. We were playing up in Chicago and I wasn't used to those double decker stands and that sun setting. They hit a fly ball behind third base that he might have been able to catch. I called him off, pulled my glasses down and ran into the shade. When I did, everything went black. He pulled me out of the lineup.

“He was not a good people person for the ballplayers. You would get to arguing with an umpire and he would tell you to get back to your position. He did that to me once in New York. There was a pop fly down the line that was interference on it. The boys were arguing like everything and he said, ‘Go on out to your position.’ He'd do that all the time and wouldn't stick up for the players. They called Bill Veeck and told him what he was doing. He came to New York and fired him. I left them about that time. They boys got him [Veeck] a plaque made up saying, ‘The greatest thing since the Emancipation Proclamation.’”

Wright went from the Browns to the Chicago White Sox where he spent part of 1952 and the entire 1953 season in a reserve role. The White Sox shipped him to the Washington Senators in 1954, which was his last full season in the majors. He played nine games in the majors between 1955 and 1956, with the last two coming as a favor from Clark Griffith that didn’t sit well with his manager Chuck Dressen.

“In 1956, I went back to get my few days I needed to get my retirement,” he said. “Calvin Griffith gave me my last 28 days. He told the manager that I was going to get it. He got mad at me and didn't even let me play in spring training or exhibition games. My first at-bat was opening day against the Yankees. I was the first pinch hitter he used. He was sorta dirty with me.”

Those final two games in 1956 proved to be a tremendous help for Wright later on in life. Those 28 days of service qualified him for a major league pension which gave him added security during his post-playing days.

“The pension is helping me in my retirement,” he said. “They sent me to Chattanooga. That was their top team. I went out there and they told me, Griffith said if you play and help this ball club, they'll bring you up at the end of the year. At the end of the year he didn't bring me up. I kept my mouth shut and about Christmas time or so I got a contract to come to spring training in 1956 and it all worked out.”

Wright played one more season with the Birmingham Barons in 1957, and that was only after some serious negotiation with his parent club. His old flying miseries from World War II caught up with him and the air travel became too much to bear.

“The minor leagues even started flying. And I asked them out there, ‘Put me somewhere they don't fly.’ They put me in Charleston, West Virginia and the only way you could make schedule up there was to fly. They had a little Purdue line, a C-47. They would cram the ballplayers on there and they'd have to shuffle them around to have to get the plane balanced. They'd fly nine hours. I wouldn't go with them, but I got to hitting and helping the ball club. They offered me everything to stay, but I needed to get away from those airplanes. If you didn't fly, you had to pay your own way, but I never did. The few times I flew, they took care of that. They sent a pitcher or someone who wasn't going to play to ride with you and keep you company. It is two days to get to Omaha from Charleston on the train. They were trying to be good to me. I was hoping to play a little longer, but those planes got me so nervous and shook up, I didn't want to do it.”

After baseball, Wright went into the clothing business, making polyester until he retired in 1982. He stepped away from the game, but still enjoyed the interaction with baseball fans through the letters he received in the mail.

“I never had a desire to coach,” he said. “They wanted me to coach kids, but I didn't want to put up with families. I still watch some games. Normally Atlanta, Boston if I can get to see them. I'm not a great big fan, I wasn't a fan when I played. You lose a little bit of your drive [after you stop playing].

“I get autographs all the time. Topps maybe gave you a watch or something like that. They have given us more since. They want us to sign the 1954 cards. They sat and watched me sign every one of them. It was about 250 of them. I got paid good for them. I was glad to sign them. I would have signed them for nothing, I was never one to ask for anything to sign an autograph.”

Sunday, September 3, 2017

2017 Topps Clearly Authentic is a fresh look for card collectors

Topps is taking a new product for a spin with 2017 Topps Clearly Authentic Baseball, featuring on-card autographs on acetate in fancy encapsulated holders. As each box only contains one of these signed cards, collectors are banking on unearthing a gem once they get past the plastic wrapping on the box.
2017 Topps Clearly Authentic / Topps

A majority of the autographed acetate cards are in the design of 2017 Topps with new pictures from the base set. To up the ante for collectors, Topps has added four colored parallels (Green, Red, Blue, and Gold) to track down.

2017 Topps Clearly Authentic Andrew Toles / Topps

For those who are searching for a vintage touch, Topps has created Clearly Authentic reprints of major rookie cards, including those of Al Kaline, Hank Aaron, Bo Jackson, Ichiro, Mike Trout, and Sandy Koufax. These autographs are markedly scarce compared to their modern counterparts in the set, coming at the rate of one for every 10 boxes.

2017 Topps Clearly Authentic Rookie Reprint  Bo Jackson / Topps
As the list of signers is loaded with nubile rookies, the odds are weighted that you are more likely to come away with the likes of Dan Vogelbach, Jharel Cotton, and Jacoby Jones, instead of Bryce Harper, Ichiro, and Mike Trout; however, that should not deter you from checking out this product.

The acetate is an attractive diversion from traditional Topps products, as both the images and signatures stand out against the clear background. The chase of snagging one of the reprinted rookie cards at a fraction of the cost of buying a signed original rookie on the open market is also an exciting play for this product.

With any guaranteed hit offering, collectors are taking a risk by hoping that the one card in the box turns out to be a winner. Judging by the overwhelmingly positive response by collectors since its release, signs point to getting a box of 2017 Topps Clearly Authentic is one that is not only worth pursuing, but an enjoyable one at that.



Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: They Call Me Pudge - Ivan Rodriguez with Jeff Sullivan

The intense emotion displayed on Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez ‘s face on the cover of his new biography “They Call Me Pudge," perfectly captures the spirit with which he played throughout his 21-year major league career. Newly minted in 2017 as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Rodriguez became part of an exclusive group, joining only Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Mike Piazza as the living catchers currently enshrined in Cooperstown.

They Call Me Pudge / Triumph Books

It is obvious after reading through the early chapters of “They Call Me Pudge,” that Rodriguez’s story is one of commitment to the game. From a young age, he showed an insatiable desire not only to play the game, but to love the training that made him into a Hall of Famer. His legendary workouts including making 150-mile roundtrips from Key Biscayne to Key Largo, kept his engine pumping when many thought he was out of gas.

Rodriguez stressed that it was his dedicated training and not anything else that kept him as the top player at his position for two decades. Multiple times during the book, he vehemently denied using steroids.

"Let's make that as crystal clear as possible — I never took steroids," Rodriguez said. "If anyone says differently, they are lying. Here's what I did do: I worked my ass off. I was a guy who played the game the right way. I was disciplined in my workouts and my diet. I worked as hard as I could to do the best that I could - every day for 20-plus years. I loved the game of baseball."

Perusing deeper into Rodriguez’s book uncovers the strategies of the Hall of Fame catcher, as he carefully breaks down how he handled a nubile World Series pitching staff with the Florida Marlins, as well as how he approached Barry Bonds during their faceoff in the 2003 National League Division Series.

“If you don’t have to pitch to him — meaning it’s not bases loaded in a tie game in the ninth inning —put him on first base,” he said. “If you need to pitch to him, our deepest sympathies. And don’t strain a neck muscle or anything turning around.”

When the Texas Rangers thought that Rodriguez was on the decline, he bet on himself, signing a one-year deal with the Marlins in 2003. His leadership steadied their pitching staff, guiding them to an improbable World Series Championship.

Once again left to fend for himself at the end of the season, Rodriguez proved doubters wrong when he signed with the Detroit Tigers in 2004. Detroit’s team doctors felt that Pudge was only worthy of a two-year contract due to his injury history. In order to make the deal work, he gave up guaranteed money to sign a four-year, $40 million contract. This time, Pudge came out a winner, as the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006.

“I knew I was healthy,” he said. “I know I could play the five years, depending on if they picked up the option. And I played eight more years after that. I mean, the doctors can tell you whatever they want to say, but it’s how you feel that counts.”

Omnipresent throughout the book is the fact that Pudge was always a gamer. When he wasn’t playing baseball, he was breaking down video, going over scouting reports, or watching highlights on ESPN. If you are looking for tales of carousing, innuendo, or hi-jinks, look elsewhere, but if you want an inspirational story of how a kid with a golden throwing arm made it to the Hall of Fame all the way from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, feel free to step in the batter’s box with “They Call Me Pudge.”

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

2017 Topps Chrome - Boom or Bust for Collectors?

With the meteoric rise of Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, it was of little surprise that collectors bum rushed stores nationwide to pick up boxes of 2017 Topps Chrome Baseball. Whether was in search of the first Topps rookie this season of the second-generation Dodgers upstart Bellinger, or an insert of the 2017 Home Run Derby champ, this year’s Topps Chrome literally flew off of the shelves. Collectors almost immediately went online post-release either sharing photos of the joys of their finds, or desperate shots of empty shelves at nationwide retailers.

2017 Topps Chrome Box / Topps
Topps struck gold with this release due to the timing of the success of the two power-hitting rookies, as well as the anticipation of Bellinger’s first official Topps major league card. Many looked to jump on the heels of their ascent with the anticipation of turning a quick profit or snagging a rare parallel for their personal collections. With prices easily eclipsing those of suggested retail, collectors hoped for a huge payout knowing they might come up short of the big “hit” that they’re searching for.

With each of the 24 packs in the box yielding only four cards, there was a feeling of urgency going through each quartet, hoping that a coveted variation of the aforementioned East and West coast supernovas emerged. In between the anticipation of the big names also sat a host of refractors, a rainbow of colored parallels, glossy 1987 Topps themed inserts to keep the excitement level high while perusing the contents of the box.

2017 Topps Chrome / Topps
After the dust settled, we had good reason to shout, “All Rise,” as an Aaron Judge rookie was among the dividends, as well as a chrome refractor of fellow Rookie of the Year candidate, Andrew Benintendi. Unfortunately, Bellinger’s debut issue was absent, as well as a high end autograph, with the box serving up two rookie autographs of Donnie Hart and Eddie Gamboa.

Donnie Hart Topps Chrome Autograph / Topps

There are a bevy of reasons why baseball card collectors should be excited about 2017 Topps Chrome; the design is outstanding, the parallels are worth chasing, and the narrative of the young stars will have fans coming back to this product as the pennant race heats up. For the few left on the fence deciding whether to take the plunge into 2017 Topps Chrome, it’s an exciting dive that collectors hopefully know the risk of the waters they’re jumping into.