Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ed Stevens: The Other Side of the Jackie Robinson Story


The Other Side of the Jackie Robinson Story
Ed Stevens -
Tate Publishing, 2010.
165 pp.

With Major League Baseball's celebration of Jackie Robinson's debut earlier this month, a lesser known version of that historical day has been illuminated by the voice of Ed Stevens.

Who is Stevens, and why should you care about his story? He is the man who faced the following question for the past 60 years, "How did you let a black man take your job?"

Stevens was the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1946 season, placing second on the team in home runs. He rightfully bested a handful of Dodger hopefuls during their 1947 spring training to earn the starting nod at first base. Stevens was ready to go on Opening Day, until a last minute decision by Branch Rickey to insert Jackie Robinson befuddled the upstart from Galveston, Texas.

"The Other Side of the Jackie Robinson Story," details the never before told story of the man who was displaced by Robinson. Stevens is one of the last living Dodgers who was there for Robinson's debut, and gives an excellent behind the scenes look from the perspective of a talented ballplayer who was pushed aside by the Brooklyn Dodger organization so that Robinson could take the field.

Bitter Stevens is not; he shows no ill will or animosity towards Robinson. "The Other Side," presents the unheard emotions of a man who returned home to the heavily segregated South to face the snickers and sneers of people who could not understand how a white man "let" a "ni--er" take his job.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Baseball Happenings featured on ESPN.com

ESPN.com's senior baseball writer, Rob Neyer featured Baseball Happenings in his Sweet Spot column this past week. He featured our article on Tuffy Rhodes from a few weeks back discussing his prospects of playing another season in Japan. In addition to writing for ESPN, Neyer is an accomplished author, writing or co-writing seven baseball books, some of which are listed below. They're all recommended reading.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

This cup of coffee is hard to swallow for ex-Major Leaguers

A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve
Douglas J. Gladstone -
Word Association Publishers, 2010.
192 pp.

For the 874 retired Major League Baseball players who played between 1947 and 1979 that did not play long enough to qualify for a pension, they have been left with an awful taste in their mouths over the amended vesting requirements of the 1980 contract. Players who entered Major League Baseball after 1980 have only needed one day of service credit for health benefits and 43 days to be eligible for a retirement allowance.

Douglas Gladstone's new book, "A Bitter Cup of Coffee", released in April 2010 by Word Association Publishers, details the plight of the aforementioned players, many of whom are of retirement age, in their quest to get the Major League Baseball Players Association to retroactively amend the vesting requirement to include them. In an April 2010 interview with the author, Gladstone reveals his impetus for championing the causes of those that came along too early. "I hope that my book would in some small way, change the landscape for these guys. These 874 guys, they're dying at a rate of three per month. They're not getting any younger. Given the economy, alot could use pensions to supplement their income. These guys were dues paying members, and now they're being told that all of their contributions went for naught."

His journey began innocently last year with an interview of Jimmy Qualls, who was the young rookie that broke up Tom Seaver's perfect game in 1969. Gladstone described how he was stumped by Qualls when the subject of a pension came up. "Last year was the anniversary of Tom Seaver's "imperfect game". I did some research, knowing that Seaver now has this large vineyard in Napa Valley, but that Jimmy Qualls had it hard after baseball. It seemed to be a perfect David vs. Goliath image, Seaver went to the Hall of Fame, and Qualls is struggling. For the piece, I interviewed Qualls and we had two to three sessions of about 30-45 minutes each. In the last one, he just innocently said, 'Mr. Gladstone, I had a great career in the show. I'm happy, just a country farmer. I just wish I had received a pension.' I knew a little bit about vesting. I asked him why he thought he deserved one when he wasn't clearly vested. He said, 'you don't understand, it's not as cut and dry. Number one, I could accept that it was not mine to begin with. Number two, in 1980, they gave instant pension eligibility, and they never changed the vesting requirements. In 1997, MLB conferred as charitable donations, payments to veterans of the Negro Leagues. I just think it's unfair that they never retroactively amended it.'"

Gladstone wanted to find out if there were other players out there who felt strongly about baseball's failure to include their predecessors in their pension amendments. He wasn't aware they gave Negro Leaguers these pensions, but this book isn't about race. According to him, this is an issue of legal interpretations. "To me this is an employment and labor law issue. You can't give a pension to people who had no contractual relationship with this employer." While some may argue that because Major League Baseball coded the payments to the Negro Leaguers as "charitable contributions" that a precedent wasn't set, but how were they funded ahead of members that actually paid into the system?

"A Bitter Cup of Coffee" seeks to answer why these men have been rebuked by their own union and fellow family of baseball players. With the large salaries going to current players who are immediately vested into the pension program, couldn't they spare a little bit of their future earnings for those who paved the way before them?

With the issues of retroactively adjusting the vesting requirements on the table for the 2011 collective bargaining negotiations, Gladstone has posed the following questions to the current union reps. "I would ask every ballplayer who has been a player rep since 1980, to look into their heart, and look into their soul and say to them, why didn't you do this? Is it a question that you didn't want your piece of the pie diminished? Would paying these guys detract from the revenue share stream that you are going to get? I would hate to hear that come out of the mouth of any current ballplayer. I really hope that isn't the current prevailing attitude. The other question I raise, is have these guys even been told about this? The guys on the pension committee, they really believe to a man, that Donald Fehr and Marvin Miller to a lesser extent, never told these guys about the situation. Whatever occurred, either scenario is reprehensible."

Let's see if during the next series of contract negotiations that the MLBPA rights this wrong. Gladstone's "A Bitter Cup of Coffee" is definitely one that will fire up discussions in hot stoves across the country.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ralph Branca reflects on Jackie Robinson's April 15, 1947 debut

Ralph Branca with Jackie Robinson (L) and Pee Wee Reese (R).
Courtesy of Walteromalley.com

Brooklyn Dodger legend Ralph Branca was in town this week for the Sports Angels spring fundraiser, where he is Vice-Chairman of the organization which serves to support local youth sports initiatives. With Thursday's event occurring 63 years to the date of Jackie Robinson's April 15, 1947 major league debut, Branca, who would go on to win 21 games for the Dodgers in 1947, gave his recollections of being present for the historical breakthrough.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ferguson Jenkins and Montclair youth baseball pay homage to the Negro Leagues

Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins was in Montclair this past Saturday to support their youth baseball league's tribute to the Negro Leagues. Yogi Berra Stadium was filled with players aged 12 and 13 fitted in uniforms that not only sported the names of championship teams such as the Chicago American Giants, Homestead Grays Kansas City Monarchs and Newark Eagles, but also displayed the names of legends such as Cool Papa Bell, Larry Doby, Josh Gibson, Ray Dandridge and Satchel Paige. This event was the brainchild of Richard Berg and league president Garland Thornton. Berg hopes that the uniforms provide a sense of pride for the youngsters.

Ferguson Jenkins (standing) among all of the Montclair players honoring the Negro Leagues / N. Diunte

"Each time these kids go to bat or make a play in the field, they will be representing one of the greats of the Negro Leagues," Berg said.

Berg should know a thing or two about the history of the Negro Leagues, as he was the former president of the Negro League Baseball Players Association. During the opening day festivities Berg presented Jenkins with a proclamation from Montclair's Mayor Jerry Friend, who deemed April 10th Ferguson Jenkins Day for his support of Montclair baseball and his philanthropic efforts nationwide. Jenkins took the time to explain the current efforts of his foundation.

"I work with the Fergie Jenkins Foundation in St. Catharines, Ontario," Jenkins said. "We were just in spring training in Mesa. We worked with the Cubs, Texas, Oakland and the Giants. We brought players in, they gave their time, signing autographs and letting people know that the foundation was raising money for all different types of charities.

"Bob Feller, Vida Blue, Gaylord Perry, and Rollie Fingers have all signed on with us. We raise money for the Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers / Big Sisters, Make a Wish Foundation, American Red Cross, Institute for the Blind, and cancer research. We try to let people know that we're raising money on a daily basis to help these organizations. It gives people the opportunity to come and get an autograph, and when you bring in other Hall of Famers, I think that brings the public in and raises the awareness for the causes we support."
 
Jenkins who was also in town for a pitching clinic later that day, participated in the opening day photo shoot with the league's players and coaches. Even though Jenkins did not play in the Negro Leagues, he recognized the importance of promoting the league's history.

"The Fergie Jenkins Foundation has been in touch with the Kansas City Museum with Buck O'Neil before he passed away," he said. "The museum in Kansas City is struggling right now. Unfortunately, without donations, it might go under. I'm not sure if its going to go under. Right now, they're looking for pledges and donations across the country. Everyone is hoping that they can get enough money to keep it open. It used to be open all day, now it is open only on the weekends."

Knowing that the museum is experiencing difficulties, Jenkins has hit the pavement to spread the word directly to a growing diversity of fans. He aimed to increase awareness about how the game has grown due to integration and globalization.

"We try to enhance the knowledge of youngsters and adults that the Negro Leagues were in existence like the Major Leagues, and that a lot of players didn't get the opportunity to play because of their skin color," he said. "Jackie [Robinson] was the first, [Larry] Doby was second, and then it was a kind of a snowball effect that brought players in. It enhanced the game even more; it made teams better. Now what you see in baseball is an international game. Kids from all different places like Canada, Australia, Germany, Phillippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba are playing."

Jenkins first learned about the history of Negro League baseball from his father Ferguson Holmes Jenkins, who played in the Negro Leagues in Canada. It is a legacy that he continues to pass on wherever he travels.

"My father played in the Negro Leagues in Ontario," he said. "His nickname was Hershey; he played on two championship teams in 1938 and 1939. The Chatham team was called the Chatham Black All-Stars, the next year they were the Black Panthers. They toured through Detroit, also in Buffalo, all across Ontario. They barnstormed a lot. My dad didn't tell me they had a lot of problems. People went out to the park to see baseball. That was fundamentally what they were trying to do, play the game of baseball."

He viewed Saturday's clinic as an avenue to share his advanced knowledge about the game to children who are at a younger age then when he was able to receive it.  He hopes that they will take that information and use it on the field.

"I hope that the kids grasp a little bit from what I'm trying to get across to them," he said. "When I was younger, I didn't learn how to pitch until I was 16 years old. These youngsters are 12 and 13. I played a lot of hockey growing up and on the advice from one of my coaches, I stopped playing hockey at 17. I was able to get my interests more in the game of baseball and pitching, and I was able to sign after my senior year in high school. I just hope that the kids understand that what I am trying to get across is something that was taught to me at an older age. They're getting taught at an younger age, and if they can grasp it they can use it when they play in their leagues."

While not every player at the clinic is going to play baseball in high school and beyond, Jenkins wanted to deliver the message that baseball is to be enjoyed. It is a message that he feels is often lost in today's current hyper-competitive climate of youth sports.

"I tell kids to have fun," he said. "Learn to play as a team with your teammates and understand that all of your coaches try to give the best advice they can, because none of them are ex-MLB players, so they're just trying to pass on the same knowledge that I am getting across to them. The game is fun, have fun! What you try to learn now at a young age, you try to build on so that by the time you get into high school, the coaching aspect will be a lot more and you will be much better ballplayers."

New Yorker Reid Gorecki finds himself a spot in the Yankees organization

East Rockaway native Reid Gorecki is making a home with the Yankees organization at Double-A Trenton after appearing in 31 games for the Braves last season. Click here o read more about Gorecki's journey with his hometown club.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Tuffy Rhodes reaches a crossroads

Tuffy Rhodes
According to Tuffy Rhodes, he has stopped waiting for the phone call. Speaking with Baseball Happenings via telephone from his home in Houston Wednesday, Rhodes had no leads for the 2010 season

"None whatsoever," Rhodes said.

At age 41, he was released in November after finishing his third season with the Orix Buffaloes, batting .308 with 22 home runs, 62 RBIs, in 295 at-bats in just 84 games. Rhodes felt that he could have been effective long enough to challenge for 500 career homeruns and 2,000 career hits.

"I could have played two more years," he said. "I was still at the top of my game. Of course I was older and wasn't as fast, but I was still hitting 40 home runs, with 100 RBIs, and [batting] over .280. You can match those numbers up anywhere in the world of baseball and see that those are pretty good numbers."

He played 13 seasons in Japanese baseball, amassing 464 home runs, 1,269 RBIs and 1,792 hits, all of which are the highest totals ever produced by a foreigner in Japan. He became fluent in Japanese, which added to his popularity during his career. He became such a fan favorite that he could not travel publicly without being besieged with autograph requests. When the veteran of six major league seasons first arrived in 1996, he thought he wouldn't be there long enough to see the new millennium.

"When I first got out to Japan, I told myself I was going to play there as long as possible," he said. "I wasn't thinking 13 years; I was thinking maybe two to three years at the most. Next thing you know, three years came rolling around, then it was four, then the next thing you know it was eight years for one team (Kintetsu Buffaloes). After that I was like heck, if another team wants me, I might as well see how long it could possibly go and it went 13 years."

Playing baseball in Japan was an adjustment that many American players had trouble handling. Rhodes learned early on to embrace it.

"My first year was rough," he said. "Then, I got accustomed to the way Japanese culture was and I never looked back."

The business-like tone of the game differs greatly from that of the United States. He described some of the differences he observed from playing professionally in both countries.

"Japanese people take baseball very seriously," he said. "It's like a job opposed to a game. We had meetings, batting practice and infield every day. It was more business orientated. Don't get me wrong, baseball in America is great and I love baseball in America first and foremost. Japanese baseball was more like a college atmosphere. We practiced every day. We were working together as a unit. At spring training, there was no family allowed. We had two-a-days the first month. It was rough, but it got you in shape. They worked all the time on baseball. Everything was baseball non-stop, 24/7,  as opposed to America, we would take breaks and work our way into the season."

Now with time to reflect on his glorious career in Japan, the subject of the Japanese Hall of Fame looms ahead. Rhodes is confident that his playing record will do most of the talking.

"I really didn't pay attention to it [while I was playing]," he said. "If it is going to happen, it's going to happen. I'm going to let my numbers speak for itself. If they feel my numbers are good enough to be in the Japanese Hall of Fame that's great. If they don't, that's great too. I know what I did over there was an accomplishment in itself."

While his numbers are serving as the ambassador for his playing days, his energies are now focused on a different target, his son T.J. He is a high school point guard, playing for the Houston Hoops AAU club, where the elder Rhodes is one of the coaches.

"I'm focused on my son and his basketball career," he said. "I'm helping my son with his basketball team. They just finished the high school season and they're now in AAU."

His son had little ambition to follow in his father's baseball footsteps. He got a quick taste of the game and decided it wasn't for him.

"One time he played baseball for a month and he didn't want no part of it," he remarked.

With Rhodes turning the page away from baseball, he has left fans with a wondrous body of work that expands across the world, merging a career that started as a skinny 17 year-old in the Gulf Coast League with a Hall of Fame career in Japan.
 
More on Tuffy Rhodes -
West High grad Tuffy Rhodes is a star in the firmament of Japanese baseball - Cincinnati Magazine

Tuffy Rhodes' Career Retrospective in Baseball Cards

Made with Slideshow Embed Tool




1994 US News and World Report Article On Rhodes' 3 Homerun Opening Day Performance
 

Orioles pitching ace Mike Cuellar dies at age 72 (1937-2010)

The sad news of Mike Cuellar's death from stomach cancer on Friday caused me to reminisce about our meeting in Florida last August which was captured in the above photo. Cuellar, standing proudly in the center in his red shirt and fancy hat was in a joyous mood surrounded by his fellow teammates and countrymen.

The native of Santa Clara, Cuba began pitching for Almendares in 1957, and would later help lead them to the Carribean Series championship in 1959. That would be the same year that Cuellar would make his Major League debut with the Cincinnati Reds. He made his debut in April, and was quickly sent back down to Havana after pitching just 4 innings.

Cuellar's career didn't end there, and it is a story of perseverance. He would not return to the big leagues for five seasons. After bouncing around AA, AAA and Mexico, the screwball tossing lefty resurfaced with the Cardinals in 1964 and would spend the next 14 season playing with the Astros, Orioles and Angels. It is with the Orioles where at the age of 32, Cuellar had his resurrection.

In 1969, Cuellar won 23 games en route to winning the Cy Young award and leading the Orioles to a World Series appearance. Cuellar would help to drive the Orioles to the World Series the next two years, winning 24 and 20 games during each of those seasons. At the age of 37 in 1974, Cuellar won 22 games, making him a four-time 20 game winner.

Cuellar most recently lived in Orlando, and spent the last few months of his life hospitalized after suffering a brain aneurism, followed by the removal of his gall bladder, all of which preceded his stomach cancer. Adorned by many, I choose to remember the strong man I met during a warm summer day surrounded by members of his Cuban baseball family. Rest in peace Mike Cuellar.

More Articles on Mike Cuellar -

El béisbol cubano está de luto: Murió Mike Cuellar - Terreno de Pelota
Baseball Legend Struggling in Orlando Hospital - Orlando Sentinel
Steady Cuellar, A Master of the Screwball - ESPN.com
Cuban Pitcher Mike Cuellar passes away - Orlando Sentinel
Former Baltimore Orioles Ace Mike Cuellar dead at age 72 - ESPN.com

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pat Venditte switch pitches during Yankees spring training game

New York Yankees farmhand Pat Venditte made his debut in a Major League spring training game earlier this week. While the debut appearance of a relief pitcher isn't usually newsworthy, Venditte's story is special in that he pitches with both arms. Venditte threw both left-handed and right-handed during one and one-third innings of work against the Braves. Click here for a full recap and photos of Venditte's appearance in spring training.