Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Yankee Legends Honored At Newark Bears Game Sunday May 24th

Whitey Ford and Tony Ferrara
On Sunday May 24th, 2009, the Newark Bears welcomed three Yankee legends, World Series MVP's Bobby Richardson and Ralph Terry, as well as Hall of Famer Whitey Ford. In addition to throwing out the first pitch, Richardson and Terry signed autographs for the fans as part of the promotion.

The game pitted the Newark Bears against the York Revolution. The Bears lineup read like that of a Major League almuni team, with the likes of Armando Benitez, Carl Everett, Jay Gibbons, Keith Foulke, Aaron Fultz, Bobby Hill and Tike Redman all making appearances during the game. Both Everett and Castillo hit towering homeruns and the bullpen was led by Benitez and Foulke, with Benitez pitching a scoreless 8th and Foulke sealing the deal in the 9th for the 8-5 win. After the game, Benitez said, "I want to show the Major League teams that I am healthy to play and that I can help." He felt content about his role, alternating with Foulke between set-up man and closer. "The coaches have helped me out, and made me feel good about being here. We both know we can help the club, and at the same time we can show we can be useful on that level again."

The trio was in town along with David Mantle to honor Bears Bench Coach Tony Ferrara. The Bears hung a permanent flag in right field to honor Ferrara's countless years of service in professional baseball. Ferrara played in the 1950's as a farmhand in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, and was a long time batting practice pitcher and scout for the New York Yankees. During the on-field ceremony, Ferrara remarked that, "it is a proud moment in my life to be honored here." Ferrara is pictured on the left alongside Ford during the pre-game ceremonies.
Bobby Richardson, Ralph Terry and David Mantle


Alberto Castillo Connects For a Homerun

Carl Everett Takes One Deep

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson and Ralph Terry to Appear at Newark Bears and Eagles Stadium May 24, 2009

New York Yankee legend and Hall of Famer Whitey Ford will be joined by 1961 World Series Champion teammates Bobby Richardson and Ralph Terry at Newark Bears and Eagles Stadium on Sunday May 24, 2009 to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at 4:05pm. The Newark Bears will be playing the York Revolution of the Atlantic League. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the Newark Bears Official Website.

Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson and Whitey Ford

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Danny Ozark, 85, Phillies Manager, WWII vet and Dodgers farmhand

Death is never a timely thing, especially when there are questions that are left unanswered. That is the feeling I had when I learned of Danny Ozark's passing on May 7, 2009. A few months earlier, I had interviewed a spry Ozark on his cell phone for almost an hour about his baseball career and his attempts to ascend through the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Ozark, like many others of his era, was whisked away from professional baseball to serve in World War II, only to return to a crowded minor league system that was about to experience the effects of integration.

Danny Ozark / Topps
Ozark entered professional baseball in 1942, starting out as a second baseman for Brooklyn's class D team in Olean. It was there where he was teammates with a future Brooklyn Dodger, Cal Abrams. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the Army.

"I was in the Army, and we landed in Europe on D-Day," Ozark said in 2008. "I received the Purple Heart in St. Laurent, France and got out in 1945. I spent three years in WWII, all of them in Europe. I never saw a baseball during WWII. I wasn't even sure I was going to go back [to baseball]."

Ozark described just what it was like to be there on D-Day.

"Well, it was I guess, the way alot of people ask me, and the best thing I probably said was, 'My underwear was very dirty and I didn't have a chance to change it for two weeks.' We were scared like everyone else, but we were young kids and alot of that stuff didn't bother us. Once you've seen death and people dying slowly, things like that stay in your memory. I can still visualize guys drowning after getting out of LCT's (landing craft tanks), because the water was deeper than they anticipated. Some of the guys that went down with the 60 lb. tanks drowned and we never saw them again." 

He was wounded in combat and later received a Purple Heart for his bravery.

"I received a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds off of an artillery shell," he said. "The other battle we were in was the Battle of the Bulge. I spent time in Antwerp while the bulge was coming towards us because of the shipping they had in the docks where all of our equipment came in."

Returning from WWII in the winter gave Ozark very little time to prepare himself for spring training.

"When I got home in December 1945, my brother didn't go into the service and I played basketball with him until spring training," he said. "I got my legs in better shape than I had them before, but I never got to throw or anything like living in Buffalo [in the winter]."

Ozark, as well as many others returning from the war found themselves behind the curve entering Florida in February of 1946. They were also walking into history unfolding before their eyes.

"I didn't even pick up a baseball you know. Brooklyn sent me a contract to report to Spring Training in February. They brought us down to Sanford, Florida. That's where Jackie [Robinson] came in, right near Daytona Beach. It was the first time I got to meet him too. We were in spring training together in '46. Heck, the first week we started playing exhibition games. I got a sore arm like everyone else. We couldn't throw the ball, yet they kept pushing us. It took time to get our arms in shape, our bats to hit the ball, and for us catch the ball because we never played baseball [during the war]."

There was immediate competition from the players that lived on the West Coast and those that spent their military service playing baseball.

"Guys in the service, especially in the Navy, some of them played with teams in exhibition games where the war was going on, guys like [Bob] Feller, Virgil Trucks, etc. We had so many guys coming from California where they can play year round. They were so far ahead of us in spring training, fielding, hitting, throwing, as far as baseball was concerned. It took us a whole month to catch up, sometimes longer because so many players in the service came out and reported. Pitchers hurt their arms because they threw too soon. [Branch] Rickey wanted to see how hard you could throw. We didn't have the doctors like they have today where you could mend in a short time and bring it back like it used to be."

At one point during that 1946 spring training, there were over 600 players in camp. Ozark marveled at the talent that was there.

"There were so many guys that could have surely made it," he said. "It wasn't that there was a shortage of talented players, there was a shortage of roster spots for them in the majors."

The problem with having so many players in camp was due to the reserve clause; you weren't free to leave for another team that could use your services.

"We were in there like a bunch of slaves," he recalled. "That was for every Major League team. We had farm system, and you couldn't leave them unless they released or traded you. [Brooklyn] wouldn't listen to you. They said, 'Hang on and you'll get your opportunity'."

For Ozark, that opportunity never came. After returning from WWII, the Dodgers converted him from a second baseman to a first baseman. Not only was he behind Robinson at first base [in 1947], when Robinson moved over to second base, he was stuck behind another Dodger mainstay, Gil Hodges. He looked back at what was a hopeless situation.

"Every year, I was stuck behind Gil Hodges. Where could I go?"

He felt like he had at least one supporter in the long time Dodgers executive Fresco Thompson.

"Fresco Thompson did the most for me," he said. "He helped me along quite a bit. He gave me a rule book. He said, 'You read this thing, and as your career goes on this thing will come in as handy as you can imagine.' He admired my family. He liked me and kept visiting me wherever I managed. I felt like I was going to get a shot to going up there [to Brooklyn]."

He did the best he could playing out the string in the Dodgers farm system, experiencing a few brushes when he thought he was going to get called up.

"The closest I thought I was going to get was in 1953. I always played against the big club in exhibitions, but they never took me though if they had an A or B game. Brooklyn needed a third baseman at that time, as they had [Don] Hoak and [Don] Zimmer [in Montreal]. I think finally they picked up Billy Cox and he was struggling too that year. I was hitting really well and Fresco came to the ballpark to watch me. I asked Tommy Holmes, 'Why did you put me at third base? I had no time there.' He said, 'Just to give you a change, we had Clint Weaver at first base, he was left-handed'. I wondered after all of these years if Fresco Thompson was looking at me to play third base." 

A few years later, Ozark thought that opportunity was once again knocking on his door.

"In '55, the same thing happened," he said. "I was sure I was going to go in '55. Hodges was having a tough year and they needed a third baseman and a first baseman. Thompson came again [to see me], but Frank Kellert took my place in '55. I'm almost 100% sure that is what happened."

Ozark batted over .300 in both AA and AAA. He was also among the league leaders in home runs every season. At times he felt like he was getting used to shore up the farm teams of the Dodgers instead of getting a shot at the big league club.

"You take the Kansas City team of the Yankees," he said. "[Lew] Burdette was there. I used to wear those guys out. They had [Moose] Skowron and [Bob] Cerv on their way up. These guys looked at me like, 'What is this guy doing down here?' You could have said, 'I guess I'll never make it,' but I never gave up. I just played to win."

He seemingly played for every farm club in the Dodgers organization, moving around so much that he almost hung it up in 1950.

"They sent me from AAA to Class B [Newport News] and then I went to Elmira [Class A]. It seemed like every time they sent me somewhere, it was a losing proposition. They sent me there to build up the team. We won the pennant in Neport News, I was the most valuable and popular player. In Elmira in 1950, I went back to St Paul, made two-to-three trips out of St. Paul [to Ft. Worth]. We really liked it there [St. Paul]. Our first child was born there in 1949. In 1950, they sent me to Elmira. That was when I was close to saying goodbye. They called me back to St. Paul though, and I kept going."

As we returned to discuss Jackie Robinson and the topic of baseball's integration, Ozark brought up two pioneers in their own rights, Hall of Famer Willard Brown and Clinton "Butch" McCord. Both were alumni of the Negro Leagues, and Brown holds the distinction of being the first African-American to hit a homerun in the American League. While Brown sputtered in his short trial with the St. Louis Browns in 1947, Ozark saw flashes of greatness from the 40 year-old player in the Texas League that Puerto Ricans labeled "Ese Hombre".

"I was in a home run contest with Willard Brown," Ozark recalled. "They gave us 10 swings, he beat me 9-8. He was kind of a hotdog. He could run, but never energized himself. He had a good arm and good power."

He explained how McCord's inspired play in heavily segregated Macon, Georgia mesmerized the fans.

"I had Butch McCord in Macon," he said. "He was a super guy. A good contact hitter, he didn't strike out much. He hit over 300. He became the most popular player on the team and the MVP. He was pretty close to 30 years old when I had him, and wasn't the one the organization was watching to replace Hodges at first base."

Towards the end of our discussion Ozark reflected on his coaching and managerial days in baseball.

"I retired in 1984 from managing after getting 20 years in the pension for being a major league coach and manager. I still worked for the Giants as a scout, reporting to Tom Haller who was the GM at the time. I worked for the Dodgers all my life until '72. I went back with them from '80-'82, coaching in the World Series versus the Yankees which we won in 1981. I was in three World Series with them. As I look back, five of us from the 1955 Fort Worth team, Sparky [Anderson], Dick Williams, Norm Sherry, Maury Wills, and myself all went into managing. Talk about a lineup!"

Ozark, as many others from his generation shook his head about how modern pitchers rarely throw a complete game.

"Alot of guys that are pitchers now can't finish games because the pitching coaches are counting clickers all games. The only person that knows when it is time to come out is the man upstairs. How can you apply the same rule [100 pitches] to each pitcher? We have two different bodies, you live differently, you have different eating habits, take different vitamins, etc. How can you tell whose arm can last longer?"

He cited changes in the height of the pitching mound, as well as increases in strength training as reasons for pitchers being injured more frequently.
 
"Today, guys like Clemens lift 300 lbs. In my day, you couldn't lift a feather. You had to have loose limbs. They can throw harder, yet they are tearing muscles more, due to the extra strength training. The big factor in pitching came when they changed the dimensions of the mound, when they flattened it out. They're using more of their arm instead of their legs and back, going downhill. Who would have thought that someone like Spahn would pitch the way he did for that many years? Now these relievers can't go more than one inning and get hurt. The mound has an effect and the baseball itself. They'll never raise the mound again because people want to see action."

Living in Vero Beach in 2008 gave him the opportunity to visit Dodgertown for the last time before the Dodgers moved to Arizona. The thought of the Dodgers moving signaled an end of an era to Ozark.

"It was sad to see the Dodgers leave Dodgertown, as I spent alot of time there with the organization," he said. "I went to Dodgertown the last year to watch a few games, and to visit Joe Torre, Tommy Lasorda, and Larry Bowa."

Ozark spent over 40 years in baseball as a player, coach, manager and scout. A baseball lifer and World War II veteran, he was a true hero and gentleman in every sense of the word. Some reporters had commented that Ozark was "too nice," when he managed the Phillies in the 1970s, but after speaking with him I couldn't imagine Ozark any other way. We could have kept on going that afternoon, but I felt that I had already occupied enough of his time. Upon ending the interview, Ozark left me with these final words.

"Anytime you need me, you give me a buzz,"  he said.

I wrote him three days before his death to see how he was doing. I can only wonder if he received my letter before he passed.

Rest in peace Danny Ozark. The man upstairs might need some good counsel on when that pitcher needs to come out.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Spook Jacobs steals the show at the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society Cuban Baseball celebration

Spook Jacobs
Forrest "Spook" Jacobs is back stealing again; this time it's not bases, but the spotlight from two prominent former Major Leaguers. Nine-time All-Star Minnie Minoso,19-year veteran Tony Taylor, as well as former Pirate Cholly Naranjo spoke the highest praises of "Spook" Jacobs at the recent Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society tribute to these former stars of the Cuban League. While Jacobs only played parts of three seasons from 1954-1956 with the A's and Pirates, his play south of the border left an indelible impression on those that watched him.

Tony Taylor
"[Jacobs] was a guy I've known for many years from when I was a young man in Cuba," Taylor said. "He played baseball in Cuba many years there. I remember watching him and I used to say, 'Someday I wish I could play baseball like that man.' I remember him playing in Cuba as a good hitter, a good second baseman with a lot of speed. One thing I liked about him, he hustled. He played baseball how you're supposed to play baseball. I enjoyed watching him play. When I signed into professional baseball, I was a reserve in Havana. I got traded to the same team where he played second base, and I finally got to practice with him to learn how to play second base."
Minnie Minoso

Minoso cited Jacobs as his reason for attending the event. A friendship made over 50 years ago lured the Cuban great to the reunion.

"It's beautiful to be here," Minoso said. "I didn't come here for money, not for anything. [I came for] a good friend, Spook Jacobs, the second baseman. I remember him very well, because I used to hate the way he hit us! He used to be a crazy hitter in Cuba. I used to hit .260, .280, he used to hit .300 easy! [It amazed me] he wasn't in the big leagues. I used to say, 'Geez this guy is a hell of a hitter. How does nobody take him in the big leagues?' Finally he made it. He's a good person. That's the reason I am here."

Naranjo had the opportunity to host Jacobs while he was in Florida for the recent Cuban Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Naranjo recounted how he reunited with Jacobs.

"I had a call from some time back that Spook Jacobs was coming to Miami because he was being nominated into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame," Naranjo said. "Bobby Bragan called me and let me know he was coming to Florida, for me to give him a call. Bob, Spook and I met for the first time 1952. Spook went to play second base for us, Bobby was our manger and it was my first year in winter ball in Cuba. I told Spook he was welcome to stay with me for this occasion. Spook was kind enough to visit. In response to that, Spook called to invite me to come to Philadelphia, and here I am."

Cholly Naranjo
For these players, this event was an opportunity to reconnect with men whom they shared a special bond from playing in Cuba together over 50 years ago. Jacobs was delighted to spend precious time the other three players over the reunion weekend.

"I was very happy they could come up from Florida and Chicago for me," Jacobs said. "I was excited to see Minnie. We played against each other in Havana for six winters. We battled back and forth, good naturedly of course. Being in Havana, most of the American players stayed with each other and didn't associate with the Cuban players, not because we didn't want to, but that is where we were supposed to stay. The only time we got to talk with the Cuban players was either during the ballgame or at the ballpark. I thought it was a shame that we didn't associate with the Cuban players while we were there. It was very nice to be able to spend time with the Cuban players here today."

Minoso relished his recent encounter in Miami with Jacobs for the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame induction. They spent many hours reminiscing on their playing days and their lives after baseball.

"We met again in Miami for the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame Banquet," Minoso said. "It was the first time through all of those years that we were together. We ate dinner together with Naranjo. We played dominoes and I cooked chicken and rice. It was great to have the opportunity to talk so long with Jacobs. He has a great family, his wife and his son."

The event, which was sponsored by the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society served to not only celebrate the merits of their efforts in Cuba over a half-century ago, but to raise funds for the volunteer organization. The Historical Society is a tremendous resource for the fan and researcher alike, with a wonderful museum in Hatboro that showcases the history of the Philadelphia Athletics as well as baseball from that time period. The members of the society went through great efforts to organize the event and should be commended for a job well done. The atmosphere was friendly and inviting. One could gain a sense that they were surrounded by many others who shared the same love for the national pastime. Naranjo summed up his feelings for the event, which were also shared by the other three former Major Leaguers in attendance.

"I've been away so long, it's like coming back again to the old times when people really know about you, and you find out that you are still welcome."


Bobby Shantz, Minnie Minoso, Tony Taylor

Friday, May 1, 2009

Jack 'Lucky' Lohrke, 85, New York Giants Infielder, 1924-2009

The ballplayer who earned the nickname "Lucky" for his escapes from brushes with death, died on April 29th at the age of 85. Jack "Lucky" Lohrke was an infielder in the Major Leagues from 1947-1953 with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies, appearing in two games for the Giants during the 1951 World Series. After his playing days had came to an end, Lohrke shied away from the 1946 Spokane Indians bus crash that earned him his nickname. Lohrke moved to San Jose in 1971 and lived there until his death. To read more in-depth about Lohrke, Sports Illustrated interviewed Lohrke 1994 about his career and his moniker. The piece was entitled, "O Lucky Lohrke."