Saturday, August 29, 2009

Branch Rickey On Signing Bonuses

With the news of Stephen Strasburg's recent record setting 15.1 million dollar guaranteed contract, I want to refer to a passage from "Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book" on signing bonuses from over 50 years prior. Similar sentiments are felt today by the fans and many players who had to work their way up through the minor leagues to secure a Major League contract. In this passage, Branch Rickey was discussing the merits of eliminating the, "High School Rule," which prohibited teams from even discussing a professional career with a player who had high school eligibility remaining.

"Now there is another good reason to be rid of the High School Rule as written or proposed: It promotes the "bonus," and that is the greatest menace to the continued solvency of a great many major-league teams. Some teams are spending as much as a half-million dollars yearly in signing new, young, untried players about whose ability nothing positive is known. The bonus inherently affects the player in a number of negative ways. The player's morale is upset. He is often ruined by the sudden possession of large amounts of money. His ambition is stultified. And his self-sufficiency is pronounced (even his habits in the direction of the "good life" are affected).
The club is likewise affected, because it is just too bad to have 25-year-old, tried and true players view with amazement the presence of one or even a half-dozen bonus players who get more money to sign a contract as an 18-year-old than most of them can ever hope to save in a lifetime of playing.
The financial structure of the game is jeopardized. Most clubs cannot possibly pay between $300,000 and $700,000 a year for new, unknown material of tender age and be assured of staying solvent." Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book, p.55


While the figures have grown significantly, Rickey poses multiple observations of the effects of a large signing bonus: complacency, loss of focus, animosity between veterans and rookies, and giant financial risks for the Major League teams. Let's hope that Strasburg becomes a front-line starter for many years to come, or else the Washington Nationals checks might be sporting a new logo, Spalding.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Davey Williams, 81, 1927-2009 New York Giants Second Baseman

Former New York Giants second baseman Davey Williams passed away on August 17, 2009 at the age of 81 at his home in Dallas, Texas. Williams made his debut with the Giants in 1949 and stayed for good after the 1951 season, making the All-Star team in 1953 and appearing in two World Series (1951 and 1954). He had his career ended in 1955 after he suffered a back injury from being run over by Jackie Robinson while covering a bunt.

I had the opportunity to interview Davey in December 2008 and he recounted the events of the collision with Robinson. "Jackie was a great competitor. He had the right to get even with alot of guys. Jackie told Howard Cosell that I was the only guy he ever hurt intentionally. I got there late, it was my fault. [Sal] Maglie threw at him. The next pitch, Robinson turned to bunt, and instead of covering first and allowing him to go in and cover the ball on that side of the infield, I'm standing out there waiting for the fight to start. Robinson bunts the ball, and Maglie doesn't go over to field the ball, Whitey [Lockman] goes over to field the ball, and now I wake up and have to cover first base. I got there the minute he got there, and I didn't have any momentum going for me at all, and he ran right up the middle. Somehow, I held onto the ball, he didn't knock it out of my hand. I was out too, I didn't play again for 11 days."

He had fond memories of playing with Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge in Minneapolis. "He had great hands and for the life of me, I don't know why he didn't get a chance to play in the big leagues. He was impressive." During the same time he was there with Dandridge, Willie Mays was making his debut in Minneapolis. After briefly playing with Mays, he knew that Mays, "would be a franchise player somewhere." Definitively, Williams described Mays as, "the best player I ever saw."

With the National League up 2-0 in the 7th inning, manager Charlie Dressen inserted Williams into the 1953 All-Star game, replacing Red Schoendienst. Williams told the story of his brief appearance in the contest. "I caught the last out in the All-Star game off of a pop-up from Yogi Berra. I always told people if I dropped the ball, we could've padded the score; heck we might still be playing! I got to bat off of Mike Garcia. I went up to hit against him in the 8th inning, and he threw the first pitch, and I thought, 'Whoa! My gosh!' He surprised the heck out of me, he threw a fastball. I hit against him a hundred times before and he really startled me when he threw that first pitch in the All-Star game. It was kinda like he threw it 110 MPH. It wasn't that way in the World Series a year later. I wasn't that surprised [regarding their meeting in the 1954 World Series]. I hit the ball out of the ballpark against him and it was foul by about a foot. I was around by second base and I come back across the mound, and Mike said, 'I must have made that a bit too good.' I said, 'You must have if I hit it that well.'"




Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Braves Recall Reid Gorecki, Will Make His Debut Against His Hometown New York Mets

The Atlanta Braves recalled outfielder Reid Gorecki to replace Nate McLouth who was placed on the 15-day disabled list. While Gorecki made his official debut on August 17th as a defensive replacement, he should get his first Major League at-bat against his hometown New York Mets. Gorecki, a native of Queens, played his high school baseball at Kellenberg Memorial in Long Island before going on to a letter-winning career at the University of Delaware. Gorecki spent 8 seasons in the minor leagues before the Braves called him up this week. This blogger has a special place for Gorecki, as I competed against him in high school and college, and I am glad to see him make the big leagues after "beating the bushes" since 2002. His father Ron is the head baseball coach at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Review - Black Barons of Birmingham: The South's Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players - Larry Powell

"Black Barons of Birmingham: The South's Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players "
Larry Powell
McFarland Publishing, 2009
220 pages

Hall of Fame icons Willie Mays and Satchel Paige resonate deeply with baseball fans, as both were prime examples of perfection at their respective positions. They both share a common bond, as they played for one of the Negro Leagues most storied franchises, the Birmingham Black Barons. University of Alabama professor Larry Powell provides not only a history of this Southern staple of Negro League Baseball, but first hand narratives from the players who lived to tell it.

Staring in 1920, Birmingham was home for such Negro League greats as Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Bill Foster, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Piper Davis, Artie Wilson, Charley Pride and Dan Bankhead who was the first African-American pitcher in Major League baseball. The team was a fixture in an area that had very few options for African American athletes and fans. They provided hope and entertainment for many during the Depression and Jim-Crow segregation.

Birmingham's consistent presence in black baseball allows Powell to take the reader on the roller coaster ride that was Negro League Baseball, as the league peaked and then tried to hold on as key players were scooped up by Major League Baseball. He separates the book into pre and post-era integration, as the Black Barons were one of the few Negro League teams that played from the inception of the Negro National League in 1920 and survived until the Negro Leagues complete demise in 1960. This gives Powell the opportunity to isolate the perspective on how the league changed once the door opened to Major League Baseball.

The book is dominated by the interviews of the living Black Barons, most who played after 1950 when the league was considered less than Major League caliber. Such is the function of writing a narrative on the Negro Leagues in 2009, as there are only a few surviving players from the 1930's and 1940's. Many of the teams had disbanded and Major League Baseball was raiding the top talent of the league. While the competition may not have been as strong in the heyday of players like Davis, Paige and Suttles, their stories share the same hopes of making it big, the conflicts of playing for little pay versus working in local steel mills, and persevering in spite of the strong arm of the Jim Crow laws in the segregated South.

You will be intrigued by the tales of the play of these great men, and moved by their experiences of fighting against segregation to play baseball. You will discover names of the greats that you never saw play, and by the end of the book you will wish you had been there to see them. These are the stories of the Birmingham Black Barons, and they are the ones that our future generations need to hear.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cubs Minor Leaguer Julio Castillo Convicted For Throwing At A Fan

ESPN.com reports that Chicago Cubs minor league pitcher, Julio Castillo has been convicted of felonious assault causing serious physical injury for throwing a baseball that hit a fan in Dayton last year. During a bench clearing brawl against the Dayton Dragons, Castillo threw a ball in the direction of the Dragons dugout to keep their players off of the field. The ball missed its target and struck fan Chris McCarthy in the head, causing some scarring and recurring headaches. Castillo faces anywhere from probation to a 2 to 8 years when sentencing occurs on Thursday.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mike Schmidt - Autograph Craze Is Out of Whack

Mike Schmidt Signing Autographs Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt weighs in on his take on autographs after the recent Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown. How far over the line have autograph seekers gone in their quest to obtain signatures? This is from Sports Illustrated's online website.


For The Associated Press

It was 1970, at the College World Series, where I signed my first autograph. I'll never forget it: Our Ohio University team had just beaten No. 1-ranked USC in game one, and I was asked to sign a ball on the way to our bus.

What a high. Not the victory, but the elevation to celebrity status. Of course, that was back when an autograph was just that - a signature of a person obtained in remembrance of a moment, a place, an exchange that could be cherished for some personal reason. No commercial value was tied to it. No sneaking around security, no stalking, and no fake story or act was involved.

In the early 1960s, my grandparents shared space on a flight to Dayton, Ohio, with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. My grandmom brought me, then in my early teens, all three signatures on business cards. I still have them in a frame. One says "Best Wishes Mike,'' the other "Mike, Best of Luck'' and the other "Mike, Best Wishes Always,'' followed by their names. That's where I got my often-used autograph salutations.

Coincidentally, several months back I did an appearance with Jack Nicklaus and showed him the 45-year-old signatures. He not only agreed they were authentic, but was enamored at the very fact that I had them. He said they must have been obtained on a plane when they were headed to play Firestone in Akron. I won't go into the value he put on them in today's market. The point is, I was an excited kid, the one getting the autograph.

Then at some point back in the late 1970s to early '80s, the sports memorabilia industry came to life and the autograph, as we once knew it, was history. Unfortunate, yes. No longer would young Mikes have a chance to appreciate three business cards signed by three famous golfers in the same way ever again.

Fortunate, yes. Old Mike has made a couple million he never counted on. Companies like Upper Deck sprang up and paid celebrity athletes megabucks for exclusive rights to signatures on products. Dreams Inc. specializes in creating unique sports- and Hollywood-related items designed specifically for signatures of famous people to be mass marketed. There are scads more. None of the product has value without the authentic celebrity signature. I ask, isn't the provider of the value, the signature, entitled to a piece of the profit?

I just returned from Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. It happens every July in the quaint little town in upstate New York. What once was a gathering of baseball fans for a once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the Hall museum and the enshrinement festivities is still that for some.

But for many, it is memorabilia heaven, a chance for vendors to stock up on product, for collectors to expand their collections. And somewhere, lost in the crowd must be little Mike who just wants a memory. That is the sad part of it. Hall of Famers, including me, packed into a house, sitting behind tables selling autographs. Sad. That little guy who, along with his father, had a chance to meet and get an autograph remembrance of the moment spent with his hero, is gone. He'll most likely never again get that experience without paying for it.

The autograph might be the most sought after commodity in today's society. Even the targets want them. Yogi Berra, Gaylord Perry, Bob Feller, me, even Sandy Koufax getting signatures from friends to auction for a charity back at home. When will it end? Never, as long as there are famous people and a demand for the John Hancock.

I'll be perfectly honest, I hate playing the cat-and-mouse game with collectors on the street. It was one of the reasons I retired early. Being targeted and stalked everywhere by people seeking a chicken-scratched slash on an inventory item is not fun. I'm not saying I'm a victim of paparazzi, but when airline luggage handlers wait for you in airports, your right to privacy is gone. When someone jumps out from behind a pillar in a parking lot as you're getting a rental car, you're being stalked. This isn't little Mike and his dad. These guys play games, they dress in costume, they hire little kids with sad faces and pretty girls in skimpy outfits, they make up stories, they lie, they even act polite, anything to get you to sign.

I even had some young adversaries who I came to know by name because we would laugh about the games they play on the streets. It was a friendly contest of who could fool whom. I'd figure out ways to beat them at their own game, by wearing a disguise or taking a secret route to the park.

Sure, there are some who say "I'll never sell this'' and maybe they are serious. But understand one thing - with my signature, sell it or not, that item increased in value from $10 to $100. Someday by someone it will be sold. No more throwing out the old baseball cards found in the attic like my Mom did.

So here's my quandary: I feel sorry for little Mike, he's been squashed in this mess, I can't tell which one he is in the crowd of collectors who all claim to be him. On the other hand, I like that my signature has value, and that I'm paid well just to sign my name. I can't decide whether to sign freely on the street and hope that little Mike is in the crowd, or refuse because most of them are collectors or working for dealers and sign only in a controlled environment, where both sides understand the industry parameters.

Honestly, what has happened is ugly. Our society has become so callous, rude, and motivated by money that even something as American and simple as shaking hands and signing a baseball for a young person can seldom occur today. Who would have thought that back in Omaha in 1970 my excitement over autograph No. 1 would have led to this?