Thursday, January 27, 2011

Barry Larkin leaving the MLB Network?

Baseball barry larkin 2004 It has been rumored that Barry Larkin will be leaving his post at the MLB Network for ESPN. The 1995 National League MVP was part of the Hot Stove crew that debuted the flagship program for the station in 2009. Larkin made an excellent "double play" combination with Harold Reynolds, often providing excellent insider commentary on the "how-to's" of the game.

Scooter: The Biography of Phil Rizzuto

Carlo DeVito
Triumph Books, 2010 
368 pp.
"Holy Cow!" The trademark line from one of New York's most beloved baseball figures resonates vividly in the minds of fans across the country, long after his days in the Yankees broadcast booth. If Phil Rizzuto was still alive, it would be likely that he would exclaim his famous catchphrase after reading Carlo DeVito's “Scooter.”

DeVito provides in-depth detail of the entirety of the Hall of Fame shortstop's life, a career that was almost derailed when Rizzuto dropped out of high school in 1936. Deemed “too small” by the Dodgers and the Giants, Rizzuto was put back on track to embark on what would be a 60-year journey through baseball with the help of his high school coach Al Kunitz and the watchful eye of Yankee scout Paul Krichell.

Signed by the Yankees in 1937, Rizzuto's career was almost over before it started. During his first season in Class-D Bassett, Rizzuto tore a muscle in his leg and was told that his baseball playing days were over. Miraculously, he recovered quickly enough to return that same season and finish with over a .300 batting average. He would go on to hit over .300 at every stop in the minor leagues before debuting with the Yankees in 1941.

DeVito explores the high regard in which Rizzuto's teammates and opponents held his talents. Often overshadowed by the prowess of Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle, DeVito illustrates how many in baseball felt it was Rizzuto that was the vital cog in the seven Yankee World Series championship teams he played for. He would stay with the Yankees through the 1956 season, with his career being interrupted from 1943-1945 due to his service in World War II.

The second half of the biography focuses on Rizzuto's storied broadcast career, which endeared him to a whole new generation of fans, many of which only know Rizzuto from his work behind the microphone. Starting in 1957, with the urges of Yankees' sponsor Ballantine Beer, Rizzuto began a 40-year journey in the booth. DeVito expertly chronicles Rizzuto's ups and downs as one of baseball's most recognizable voices and his ever changing partners in the booth.

The final two chapters in “Scooter”, which detail his playing and broadcast careers respectively are over 100 pages each. In these lengthy chapters, the stories switch so much, that it is difficult to find continuity among the tidbits presented. The book would have been better served to be broken into smaller chapters to enhance the flow of information and keep the reader focused on what DeVito is attempting to illuminate.

Small criticisms non-withstanding, “Scooter” is a great look inside the career of one of New York's most cherished and respected homegrown baseball figures, that will please even the “huckleberries” who choose to pick it up.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hank Aaron ushers in Roberto Alomar to the Hall of Fame brotherhood at 2011 BAT Dinner

Roberto Alomar and Gary Thorne listen attentively while Hank Aaron speaks
When the "king" speaks, everyone listens. All ears were on Hank Aaron as he addressed the crowd and the newest member of the Hall of Fame, Roberto Alomar, at the 2011 BAT Dinner last night in New York City. Although Alomar will have to wait until the official ceremonies in the summer to have his day, Aaron gave Alomar a taste of the reception he will be receiving in Cooperstown. Click here to see photos from the event and see video of Aaron giving advice to a receptive Alomar.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

George Crowe, 89, former Negro League player and major league All-Star

George Crowe, former All-Star first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds passed away Tuesday night in Rancho Cordova, Calif. He was 89. 

Crowe was signed by the Boston Braves in 1949 from the Negro Leagues, where he played with the New York Black Yankees. He tore up every classification from a Class-B to Triple-A, posting averages of .354, .353, .339 and .351 between 1949 and 1952 before being called up to the Braves in 1952. Crowe shared time with first baseman Earl Torgeson his rookie year, batting a respectable .258.

During a 2008 interview that I conducted with Crowe, he shared his theory as to why he didn't get more playing time over Torgeson, who batted a lowly .230. 

"When I was in Boston, Earl Torgeson wasn't that great of a player, but he was high on the totem pole of politics," Crowe said. "The manager was his old roommate. Torgeson and Tommy Holmes roomed together for years. Holmes became the manager. Who do you think is going to play?" 

The following season, Crowe was relegated to pinch-hitting duty, as the Braves, who had now moved to Milwaukee, brought in the powerful Joe Adcock to play Crowe's position. Nineteen fifty-four saw Crowe return to Triple-A, where as a member of the Toledo club, he feasted on the pitching of the American Association, slugging 34 home runs with a .334 average. During that winter, Crowe was a member of the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers, which many regard as the best winter league team ever. He shared a lineup that included Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Don Zimmer, Bob Thurman, Bus Clarkson and pitchers Ruben Gomez and "Sad" Sam Jones. They ran away with the Caribbean Series title that year with Crowe solidifying the lineup at first base.

Crowe's undeniable talent allowed him to wrestle the first base position from Adcock in 1955, where he hit 15 home runs and batted .281. Finally receiving a chance to play regularly, Crowe took advantage of the opportunity and figured to be in Milwaukee's plans as they started to build a World Series contender. A week before the 1956 season opener, Crowe was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for "Hurricane" Bob Hazle, who figured prominently in the Braves run to the 1957 title. 

It was with Cincinnati where Crowe, at the age of 36 would have his breakout season. An injury to Ted Kluszewski in 1957 opened the door for Crowe to play full time. Appearing in 133 games, Crowe smashed 31 home runs and drove in 92 runs. That placed him 6th and 8th in the National League respectively in both categories.

In the 2008 interview, he discussed the merits of playing full-time. 

"The regular playing time helped," he said. "Wherever I was, I played everyday. It's not the same. There's nothing like playing everyday. If you can get in there once every two weeks, you might have a good day, but it's another week or ten days before you play again. It's hard to keep a sharp edge."

Sadly, he was the only Cincinnati Red player not selected to the All-Star game as part of the infamous ballot stuffing scandal. He was beat out by the legendary Stan Musial. He would receive a degree of retribution the following season when he was selected as a reserve to the 1958 All-Star team after batting over .300 the first half of the season.  

Crowe would play until 1961, finishing his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, serving as a mentor to younger African-American players such as Bob Gibson and Bill White. At the time of his retirement, he held the MLB record with 14 pinch-hit home runs. 

In addition to his lengthy major league baseball career, Crowe was a standout basketball player. He was the first Indiana Mr. Basketball award winner in 1939. He played professionally for the Harlem based New York Rens and the Los Angeles Red Devils, the latter of which included Jackie Robinson. Crowe remembered Robinson as, "a good basketball player."  

Crowe lived in the Adirondacks until five years ago when he moved to California to be closer to his family. After suffering a stroke in late 2008, Crowe resided in an assisted living facility until his death earlier this week.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Willie Mays shows Harlem children greatness at Public School 46 appearance

Earlier Friday, Hall of Fame baseball player Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds, the site of his first major league assignment. The memories of Mays darting across the depths of the outfield in Harlem remain vivid in the minds of those who witnessed it; however, some 60 years later, the Polo Grounds have changed, with buildings marking where the historic ballpark once stood. Situated across the street from the site of the former baseball cathedral is Public School 46. The youngsters there received the treat of a lifetime, as the iconic Giants great visited the school with the 2010 World Series trophy.

Willie Mays outside PS 46 / N. Diunte
Mays addressed a full house of over 300 students, staff and parents at the Harlem school. Hanging on his every word, the crowd listened attentively as he regaled the crowd with tales of children bellowing at his window in the morning to play stickball with them in the same city streets where they currently reside. Returning to the area where he built his legend motivated him to address the children.

"[In] 1951, when I first started, I lived right on top of the hill here," Mays said. "I used to go up and down this street all the time so I'm familiar with this area. That's why I wanted to come back and let all of the youngsters know what I was doing here."

He advised the children to further their education and support their families.

"Education is the key to this lifestyle now," Mays said. "You have to get an education ... go as far as you can."

During the ceremony Mays gave out 12 autographed baseballs to "A" students. When he got to the 12th student, he was out of baseballs. Mays, being the entrepreneur that he is, reached into his pocket and gave the child a crisp $100 bill. During the assembly, he fielded questions from the students who had researched his career before his appearance. One of the things he discussed was his fondness for the "Big Apple".

"I don't think I ever left," he said. "I didn't go to San Francisco by choice, I was asked to go by the team. New York has always been part of my home."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Roy Hartsfield, 85, first manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, 1925-2011

Roy Hartsfield, the first manager of the Toronto Blue Jays and former second baseman for the Boston Braves passed away January 15, 2011 in Ball Ground, GA. He was 85.

Hartsfield played second base for the Braves from 1950-52 while maintaining a .273 batting average. He was traded after the 1952 season to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Andy Pafko. He would not return to the major leagues as a player after the trade.

The rugged second sacker entered organized baseball in 1943, playing for the Atlanta Crackers before entering World War II. Hartsfield served in the Navy at the famed Great Lakes Naval Base. In a 2008 interview with Hartsfield, he described the baseball legends that awaited him at Great Lakes.

"I played my first year in the Navy," he said. "I was the only minor league player on the ball club. All of the others were major leaguers. We had Virgil Trucks, Schoolboy Rowe, Clyde McCullough, and Billy Herman. We played a 50 game schedule, we won 48 and lost 2; I guess we did pretty good. Billy [Herman] helped me quite a bit with my fielding ability. He treated me very good. In fact, they all treated me like I was their son because I was so much younger than them. I was only 18 years old!"

After a year, he was sent out to finish his service. He detailed his service upon leaving the Naval Base.

"I spent 10 months riding a banana boat between Mobile, AL and Central America (Honduras and Guatemala). I was riding that boat when the war was over."

After returning from his military service, he floated between Single-A and Double-A before catching a big break in 1949. He was signed by Braves organization from Dallas in the Texas League that year and had a standout season at their Triple-A affiliate in Milwaukee.

"It was a little tougher, but probably that year, I had the best year in my life," Hartsfield said.

That career year catapulted him to the major leagues the following spring.

Hartsfield was the regular second baseman for the Boston Braves in 1950 and 1951. Looking at Hartsfield's stats, one might wonder how a second baseman who hit .273 suddenly disappeared from the majors without a downturn in performance. Hartsfield revealed why he didn't have a longer career with the Braves.
"I had a severe case of heat exhaustion before I went to the big leagues. I played in a double header in Savannah, GA and I became completely dehydrated. I didn't realize what was happening to me. Nothing like that had happened to me ever before. They took me to the hospital like it was all over. The second game of a doubleheader was when it hit me, got cramps like football players. The doctor told my wife, 'He'll never be the same in the heat anymore.' And he was absolutely right. I couldn't play doubleheaders. I played as long as I could but then I had to walk off the field. I realized at the same time, I was losing the job. They didn't pay two salaries for one job in those days. I have nothing against the Braves, they did everything they could to help me, sent me to every doctor you could think of. That was the reason. I have a lot of people ask me to this day why I didn't play longer. They didn't know that because I didn't tell anyone that. It didn't come out until later on."

Hartsfield would not return to the majors after being traded to the Dodgers, spending five seasons at the Triple-A level, including one as a player-manager before managing full time in 1958. He saw the writing on the wall after being traded away from Boston.

"When I was traded from the Braves to the Dodgers, I knew I wasn't going to go back to the big leagues as a player because of my reputation of not being able to play in the heat," he said. "I knew that. I told my wife, 'If we're going to stay in this game we've got to go in another direction instead of playing.'"

Luckily for Hartsfield, the Dodgers opened the door to managing that would make him part of the family.

"They gave me my first managerial job," he said. "I was very appreciative of that. They treated me very very well. I was fortunate in that the Dodgers gave me a job managing to begin with. In those days, they had started losing teams every year. The first year I managed was Class-A ball in Des Moines. I was told by Fresco Thompson that he couldn't promise me anything past the first year, because they were losing clubs. They not only lost the team, the whole league folded up."

For a 32-year-old, the prospect of being unemployed after spending their whole career in professional baseball was daunting. Hartsfield described how Fresco Thompson saved his career.

"Here I am sitting in November without a job after my first year. My phone rang and it was Fresco. He said because of leagues folding, the only opening was in Class-D ball."

Faced with the choice of a demotion or not knowing where the next check was going to come from, the choice was simplified for Hartsfield.

"I realize there is more prestige in managing Class-A ball then Class-D ball, however, I told him, 'I've yet to go to the grocery store and buy any groceries with prestige, so just run it on out here and work.' I did that two times for him. I stepped down twice. He told me I would be considered if anything opened above. I moved every year until I got the top job, managing  Spokane for three years before I got a job with the big club."

True to his word, Thompson moved Hartsfield up the ladder where he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as coach from 1969-1972.

In 1977, he was named the manager of the expansion Toronto Blue Jays during their inaugural season. The Jays struggled with young talent as they matured at the major league level. Hartsfield knew that he would have to build from within as the other teams weren't going to make their top-level talent available in the expansion draft.

"We developed our own because nobody was going to give you anything in this racket," he said. "We agreed to have the right type of veterans mentally that would fit into our scheme of things."

While managing the Blue Jays, Hartsfield had a lanky rookie that would go on to have an All-Star career, albeit in another sport, basketball. Danny Ainge was a 20-year-old rookie out of Brigham Young University when he showed up for the Jays in 1979. Hartsfield had experience playing with another dual sports star, sharing the field with Hall of Famer Bill Sharman in St. Paul. Hartsfield related the situations of both Sharman and Ainge, as both chose basketball as their main careers.

"Sharman was a pretty good player on the Triple-A level," he recalled. "At the time, I wasn't judging Bill because he was a good teammate and friend. He made the right decision [with basketball], same as Danny Ainge, who played for me in Toronto. When you have an expansion ball club, you don't have full fledged major leaguers at every position. Bobby Doerr was my hitting coach and he was the one who signed Danny. He told me when he signed that his sport was basketball. Bobby was right. Ainge was a fierce competitor. He could have used a few years on the minor league level that he did not have. Who knows, maybe it would have helped, maybe it wouldn't?"

After being replaced as the Blue Jays manager to start the 1980 season, Hartsfield cited family responsibilities as the reason he retired after a short stint thereafter as a minor league manager. 

"I left Toronto and managed a few years in the minors," he said. "I was vested in the pension plan. I had 10 years on the major league level, so I didn't want to just manage for the sake of managing anywhere they offered me a job. I had a family that I didn't get to spend too much time with, so that determined my quitting."

In retirement, Hartsfield didn't follow baseball as closely as he did when he was playing and managing. He would visit the Braves annually, where for a day; he was back in the spotlight.

"Bobby Cox is a close personal friend of mine. The Braves invite me every year for an autograph session one night. They treat me royally and I get to visit with Bobby a little bit."

Somewhere in Heaven, the red carpet has been rolled out and the spotlight again is on Roy Hartsfield. 


Martin Luther King said Don Newcombe helped to ease his path to lead the civil rights movement

Don Newcombe 1956 Topps
As we celebrate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, take a look at this piece documenting the historic relationship between Brooklyn Dodger hurler Don Newcombe and the legendary civil rights leader. King paid Newcombe the highest tribute only a month shy of his tragic demise.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ryne Duren's impact was a lot stronger than his 100 MPH fastball

Famous for his Coke-bottle glasses and his blazing fastball, Ryne Duren was an integral part of the 1958 World Series champion New York Yankees and a three-time All-Star. He passed away Thursday at his home in Lake Wales, Florida at the age of 81.

Ryne Duren / Author's Collection
Duren was signed by the St. Louis Browns in 1949 and made his debut as a September call-up in 1954 when the franchise moved to Baltimore. He spent the next two seasons in the minor leagues perfecting his repertoire. It is during that time in the Pacific Coast League with Vancouver where Duren's legend grew. Hollywood Stars and future Pittsburgh Pirates hurler Cholly Naranjo remembered the reluctance his teammates showed to face Duren on a bitterly cold Opening Day in 1956.

"In 1956 we had opening day up in Vancouver and it was cold man," Naranjo recalled. "Duren was the starting pitcher. The guys from our ball club didn't even want to go up to hit. That son of a gun used to throw so hard with those thick glasses. Everybody got back in the clubhouse to get close to the heaters, nobody wanted to go to hit."

Stories have been told of Duren being so wild that he threw warmup pitches off of the backstop. Others thought it was to make sure batters never got a strong toehold in the box. Johnny Romano, who later became an All-Star for the Cleveland Indians, was Duren's catcher in Vancouver. He felt that Duren knew exactly what he was doing with his occasional spells of wildness. Romano told how Duren silenced the Pacific Coast League's top power hitter Steve Bilko with a temporary loss of control.

"I just came from Double-A and went up to Vancouver. I never caught a guy that could throw so hard at that particular time," Romano recalled. "I remember that season the home run king was Steve Bilko. Steve was hitting the ball constantly against us when we played in Vancouver. He came up this one time while Duren was pitching. When he faced Ryne, he was standing back one-and-a-half to two feet from the plate because he was afraid he was going to get hit. The way he was hitting, he was probably going to go down. The first pitch pushed him back off the plate and after the third pitch, he must have been back three feet from the plate. He didn't want nothing to do with Ryne. Then Ryne threw three strikes down the middle. Steve didn't flinch. They couldn't say he was wild. He was known to be a wild pitcher, but he wasn't wild if he could throw three straight down the middle."

In 2003, Duren along with the president of the non-profit organization Winning Beyond Winning, Tom Sabellico, authored, "I Can See Clearly Now" a memoir about his baseball career, struggles with alcoholism, and life after baseball. Sabellico established an enduring relationship with Duren that went far beyond baseball.

"I met Ryne about 13 years ago and he was as big in person as I remember him as a kid, watching him hop over that bullpen fence," Sabellico said. "He had the attitude that he could get the job done. He became a big speaker for Winning Beyond Winning. His life experiences, his openness, his willingness to share with kids and any youth group was just extraordinary."

Sabellico discovered the power that Duren's story had on the fans he met while traveling with him. He found that Duren left an indelible mark on those he encountered.

"After we wrote the book, he used it as a tool in his speaking with groups," he said. "When we went on these tours and met people, I'll never forget the faces of these people and the expressions when they thanked him for having either saved their lives or their loved ones. It was extraordinary how many people knew his story no matter where we went, whether it be Wisconsin, Florida, or Pennsylvania. The people, as soon as they would see him, would thank him. Whether through his clinic in Wisconsin or his talks, one day at a time, he helped to save them."

Duren had urged Sabellico to help him with the book because of how proud he was of what he did after his struggles with alcoholism. Sabellico discussed Duren's impetus for writing his second work.

"He became much prouder later in life," he said. "That's why he wanted the book written of what he accomplished off the field rather than on the field because he felt that he screwed up a bit with the alcoholism when he was on the field and he could have been so much better. He was given a second chance and was able to accomplish much more. His first memoir, "The Comeback," Robert Drury wrote in 1978 and he felt he had accomplished a lot since that time. He wanted me to get that out, not only to retell his story but to add what happened since the first book. He told me, 'I like the way you write, I want to give you the opportunity to rewrite this story.' I spent a lot of time with him in Florida and researched it. What he really wanted to get out was, not just the baseball part of it, but the education part of it. He wasn't anti-alcohol, he was pro-education; he wanted people to understand what it was about and how it affected them. You not only needed to treat the person but the people around the person so they would understand the addiction."

Duren's passing left Sabellico with unforgettable memories of a man who turned his life around to help others. He touched the author in the same way he did those who struggled with substance abuse.

"He was a powerful no-nonsense guy," Sabellico said. "He had been to the bottom. He tried to commit suicide a few times and when he spoke about it, he was serious and could affect people's lives. I'll tell you my life was affected by him; I'll never forget him."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A tribute to the major league baseball players who died in 2010

Sparky Anderson
Bob Feller
Robin Roberts
With 2010 in the rear view mirror, let's stop and reflect on the deaths of the members of the major league baseball family, which included three Hall of Famers, Sparky Anderson, Bob Feller and Robin Roberts. Click here to see a more in-depth profile of those that we lost this past year.