Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Billy Harris, 79, former Brooklyn Dodger

Billy Harris, 1957 Brooklyn Dodgers
Billy Harris, former pitcher for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers and member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, passed away Friday night at the age of 79 at his home in Kennewick, Wash.
Harris was hospitalized about a month ago for bleeding ulcers after he fainted in his restaurant, Billy’s Bullpen. Discharged from the hospital two weeks ago, Harris never fully recovered from his ailments.

Just a few short months ago in February, I interviewed Harris for a story I authored about his teammate, Clyde Parris. Harris was cheerful and spoke glowingly not only about his Montreal teammate, but his entire career in baseball.

Click here to read my interview with Harris as tribute to his passing. Baseball lost another one of their great storytellers.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mickey Mantle swept through Joplin on his way to stardom

With Joplin, Missouri devastated by an EF-5 strength tornado, the highest possible on the Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado power and intensity, much of the country’s attention is focused on beginning the relief efforts in this southwestern Missouri city.

While baseball may be farthest from the minds of those attempting to put back the pieces of their lives destroyed by the storm, longtime residents remember Joplin as the home of the Class C Joplin Miners of the New York Yankees organization.

Mickey Mantle / Cliff1066 - Flickr
In 1950, a fleet 18-year-old shortstop from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle captured the hearts of this Midwestern city, rallying the team that inhabited Miners Park on 4th and Main. Leading the Western League in almost every offensive category, Mantle batted an astounding .383 with 26 home runs.

Defensively, Mantle did not develop as quickly as his hitting, committing 55 errors in 137 games. Blessed with a strong arm and tremendous range, Mantle went through growing pains at one of the most demanding positions in baseball.

Teammate Cal Neeman, who would go on to a seven-year career in the big leagues as a catcher for five major league teams, knew very well Mantle was a star that needed just a little more polishing.

“Everybody knew he had a lot of talent. There is no doubt about that. He did some fabulous things, but he also made errors too,” Neeman said via a telephone interview Wednesday from his home in Missouri.

Steve Kraly, who pitched with Joplin that year and made it to the Yankees himself in 1953, also shared via telephone Wednesday tales of Mantle’s woes at shortstop.

“If there was an infield pop-up, we’d tell him to get out of the way! He had such a strong arm, when he threw to first, nobody sat in the box seats behind first base.”

Despite Mantle’s troubles in the field, there was no denying his prowess at the plate. Neeman, who had played at Joplin the year before, marveled at Mantle’s power.

“We had a fence in center field that was 420 feet. The first year I was there, nobody hit it over the fence during a game. One night in Joplin, Mickey hit one over it left-handed and right-handed. Incredible!”

Both Kraly and Neeman saw a tremendous change in Mantle’s play in between the 1949 and 1950 seasons. Prior to the start of the 1950 season, Casey Stengel held a training camp for Yankee prospects in Arizona. Neeman attended the camp along with Mantle in January that year.

“Mantle made his mark in a school that Stengel started for prospects in January of 1950 in Arizona. I was there too. In Phoenix, everything everyone knew about him was his power,” said Neeman. “He was left handed and hit it over the left field wall constantly. He’d go the other way right handed and there was no telling where he would hit it.”

Kraly provided the perspective of Mantle's transformation from playing with him during his debut year of 1949 at Class-D Independence.

“When he joined us in Independence, he came in the second month of the season. He weighed about 160 lbs. All he did was bunt and run,” Kraly remembered. “Harry Craft finally told him to start swinging the bat. Then he started swinging the bat and hitting the ball, [but] he didn’t hit too many home runs. The next year we went to spring training in Branson, Missouri with Joplin and you saw the difference in his physique from 1949 to 1950. That’s what you saw in the big leagues. He hit home runs over the light towers.”

During his time in Joplin, Mantle roomed with a trio of future big leaguers, Kraly, Lou Skizas and Bob Wiesler. The four were teammates the previous year in Independence. Kraly said that the experience living together in Joplin strengthened their bond.

“We enjoyed it and we had a lot of fun. We became like brothers, not just teammates,” Kraly said.

Reminiscing about their Hall of Fame teammate, also allowed both players to share their impressions of the devastated town.

“I had all positive memories about Joplin. It was the first placed that I played professional baseball. The whole atmosphere there was really good. People liked the ballplayers,” Neeman said.

He added that the community went out of their way to support the players.

“Some of those places would give us a free meal if you hit a double and things like that. It was just really pleasant.”

Kraly echoed Neeman’s feelings about the good-natured people of Joplin.

“I was shocked when I saw that on television. There are a lot of nice people there. It hurts to see a town get wiped out where I was able to play and meet the people there. If they released the names, I probably could remember some of them. The people were nice; they gave us gifts when we performed on the field.”

Over sixty years later, invoking the name of Joplin brought back pleasant memories for two of Mantle’s teammates, playing alongside one of baseball’s brightest rising stars during a more innocent time away from the spotlight that followed their teammate until his passing in 1995.

While Mantle’s spirit may not be able to fix the damage of this tragic disaster, hopefully the memory of his magical season in Joplin will make the day for residents a bit brighter than the last.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wilber "Bullet" Rogan and the Kansas City Monarchs - Book Review

Imagine a player who many regard as a better pitcher than Satchel Paige and the equal of Joe DiMaggio at the plate and in the field. This isn’t the legend of Steve Nebraska, but that of Hall of Famer Wilber “Bullet” Rogan, who is so eloquently profiled by Phil S. Dixon in his book, “Wilber ‘Bullet’ Rogan and the Kansas City Monarchs.

Click here to read an entire review of the book.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Doc and Straw share their thoughts on the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Mets World Series team

Twenty-five years ago, two of the New York Mets youngest and brightest stars shone brightly atop the pinnacle of baseball’s biggest stage, the 1986 World Series. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, both were in their early twenties and had captured the attention of baseball fans not only in New York, but nationwide.

A quarter of a century later, their careers have taken many twists and turns which included multiple run-ins with the law for drug offenses that derailed their once potential Hall of Fame careers. Despite their transgressions, they remain beloved figures in New York sports history.


New York Mets legends Gooden and Strawberry in a charitable mood

Anthony Mason (l) and Dwight Gooden (r) pose with a fan at BOX NYC
New York baseball heroes Darryl Strawberry and Dwight “Doc” Gooden were two of over 1,500 supporters who appeared at “Box NYC” at the Roseland Ballroom Thursday evening. The event which was put together by WCMG Events and Salita Promotions offered a mix of celebrity, charity, fine dining and boxing at one of Manhattan’s premier venues. Click here to read full coverage of Gooden and Strawberry's appearance at the charity fundraiser and boxing match.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

'Macho Man' Randy Savage remembered by his baseball teammate Tito Landrum

Before there was a "Macho Man," Randy Savage was known better as Randy Poffo, an aspiring baseball player beating the bushes trying to get to the major leagues. Poffo was an outfielder, catcher, and first baseman in the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds organizations from 1971-1974.

The former WWF and WCW World Champion died tragically on Friday, May 20, 2011, in an auto accident in Florida. He was a beloved figure in the arena of professional wrestling, known for his trademark "Oooh yeah!" that he would exclaim during his colorful interviews.

Tito Landrum & 1973 Orangeburg Cardinals Program
Playing for the Orangeburg Cardinals in 1973, the 20-year-old Savage was a teammate of a fresh faced rookie outfielder, Tito Landrum, playing together under the tutileage of Jimmy Piersall. Landrum enjoyed a nine-year career in the majors, winning a World Series with the Baltimore Orioles in 1983 and appeared in the 1985 World Series filling in brilliantly for an injured Vince Coleman.

Landrum, during an interview from his physical therapy practice Friday evening, recalled Poffo showing off his wrestling skills while he was still active as a ballplayer.

"We actually played a little bit in St. Petersburg and that's when I remember coming in the clubhouse and him making these mock rings," Landrum said. "He would get in there with some of the other players and they would do these little wrestling choreographed shows for us and it was always quite entertaining."

While Poffo wasn't a surefire prospect, Landrum remembered the same spirit that he displayed on the field that followed him into his long career as a wrestler.

"Randy was a very intense individual in baseball," he said. "I remember Randy being pretty good offensively and defensively. We just had some guys in front of him that he wasn't going to move anywhere. He didn't have the best athletic ability, but he certainly had the most qualified heart that I've ever seen. He just knew he was going to make it big somehow, someway. Of course he didn't make it in baseball, [but] he saw another avenue and he made it."

Landrum relayed another story about his travels with Poffo in the minor leagues. The two were roommates and would jokingly dispute about who owed for last month's rent.

"We actually roomed together in Orangeburg and every time we saw each other, we'd always in front of friends make a big deal about who owed who for the last month's rent," he recalled. "To be honest with you, right down to this day I couldn't tell you if I owed the last month's rent or he owed the last month's rent. I got moved up so I probably owed him, so we'd always make a joke of that."

Years later, Landrum had the opportunity to see Poffo perform at the peak of his wrestling career live and in person. There was one problem, Landrum didn't know of Poffo's Macho Man persona.

"Of course we moved on and all of a sudden one day I got this message to see him at a wrestling match," he said. "I was like, Who is this 'Macho Man?' I didnt know any 'Macho Man.' Then they told me it was Randy Poffo! I just had to go see Randy, so we hooked up there."

Watching Poffo as a professional in his second life as a wrestler left Landrum with wonderful memories of his former teammate. He relished the thought of Poffo's performances.

"Living here in New York I used to go and watch Raw," he said. "He'd leave me tickets and I'd go down there and I was always laughing. I'd tell him, 'I've got more teeth in my mouth than the entire front row Randy!' We had some great times."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca holds spring fundraiser to benefit Sports Angels charity

Ralph Branca with author
Famed Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca proceeded over an evening of "casino and cocktails" to benefit the Sports Angels charity at Langan's Pub and Restaurant in Manhattan earlier this week. Branca is the vice-chairman of Sports Angels, which is a non-profit organization that works to create opportunities for youth sports participation.

Branca, now 85, has been able to use his baseball celebrity and business connections to create a network for Sports Angels that has allowed them to expand since their 2005 inception. "We use our spring fundraiser get our supporters together and create awareness about what we do," Branca said.
 
Click here to see photos and read more about the evening's fundraising efforts.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Duane Pillette, 88, teammate of Satchel Paige on St. Louis Browns

Duane “Dee” Pillette, an eight-year major league veteran pitcher died Friday May 6, 2011 in San Jose, California at the age of 88. Pillette broke into the majors with the New York Yankees in 1949, pitching until 1956 with the St. Louis Browns, Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies. He compiled a 38-66 record, leading the American League in losses in 1951 for the cellar dwelling Browns.

Duane Pillette - 1954 Topps / Baseball-Almanac.com

Pillette was the son of former major league pitcher Herman Pillette, who spent four of his 26 professional seasons in the major leagues with the Reds and Tigers. The elder Pillette pitched until he was 48 in the Pacific Coast League.

Despite his father’s long career in baseball, the patriarch did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. In a 2009 interview that I conducted with Pillette from his home in San Jose, he discussed how his father wanted him to stay far away from baseball.

“My father never talked much about baseball except he didn't want me to play," Pillette recalled. "He fought me tooth and nail when I was a kid. Even though he didn't make much money in the Coast League, he sent me to Parochial schools. He never got past the sixth grade."

His father stressed the importance of getting an education ahead of playing baseball. As a youngster enthralled with the game, he was determined to move forward with the sport.

“He said, ‘I don't give a damn about baseball, you aren't going to make any money. I want you to get a good job and the only way is to get a good education,’” Pillette remembered.

He pleaded his case to his father. His father relented with one caveat, he had to be his de facto agent when scouts approached.

“I said, ‘You don't have any money and I don't have any money. I have to play baseball to get a scholarship.’ He said, ‘I'll let you play in high school, but if you have a scout come around, he has to talk to me.’”

Pillette did in fact get that scholarship, heading to the University of Santa Clara largely due to the involvement of an important Yankee scout.

“One Yankee scout, Joe Devine got me a scholarship at the University of Santa Clara," he said. "I pitched well in high school because I had a helluva ballclub. I don't think San Diego High ever lost a game in the three years I was there.”

Pillette signed with the Yankees in 1946 and immediately debuted with their top minor league ballclub, AAA Newark of the International League. While Pillette found himself playing with upstarts Yogi Berra and Bobby Brown, it was one of his opponents that made everyone take notice, Jackie Robinson. Robinson was playing for Montreal that season, on the verge of breaking the color line in the major leagues. Pillette was impressed with how Robinson handled the pressures of that season.

“A lot of guys were trying to nick him and scare him," he said. "He handled himself very well. I didn't have much trouble getting him out. He hit a lot of ground balls off of me amazingly enough. I'm not saying he took 0-4's against me, that's for sure. Jackie wore us out the first few games against us, he must have hit .600. He would bunt with nobody on with two outs, steal second base and [George] Selkirk would blow his lid.”

Pillette battled a groin injury he suffered late in the 1946 season through his next few campaigns in the minors. He played for Newark the following season and then was sent to the Portland Beavers of the PCL to work on his curveball with Tommy Bridges. He developed it well and posted a 14-11 record in 1948, which earned him a spring training invite with the Yankees in February of 1949. He was off to a great start in Florida and earned the confidence of manager Casey Stengel.

“I had a good spring and Casey had told the guys the last day before we broke camp that I was going to be the fifth starter and a long reliever,” he said.

Unfortunately for Pillette, General Manager George Weiss thought otherwise. Very quickly the tides turned for the young pitcher.

"George Weiss had other ideas. He said, ‘He needs to go back to Newark and learn some other things.’”

Pillette found himself in the familiar confines of Newark, but not for long. By mid-season, he was in the major leagues.

“I stayed there about a good month and a half, maybe more than that,” Pillette said. "I was in Syracuse when they called me over. I joined them in Cleveland at six-o'clock in the morning.”

Little did Pillette know that he would be summoned to pitch the first day he was with the team.

“I didn't figure I was going to do anything and Casey came out and gave the sinkerball sign," he recalled, "so I came in the ballgame. We scored a run on our half and went one run ahead. The very first hitter I pitched to hit a line drive at Cliff Mapes. He took a couple steps in and the ball went over his head for a triple and they tied up the ballgame. I ended up losing the ballgame, so I didn't scare anybody.”

Pillette was right; he didn’t scare off his coaching staff, as they had him start four days later.

“Jim Turner liked me a lot and Casey liked me so he started me four days later in Detroit," he said. "I pitched a day before my birthday in July. They scored two runs in the first inning and we lost the game 2-1. Then he started me in Yankee stadium against the White Sox, we went 0-0 for nine innings and Luke Appling hit a home run with a man on first base in the tenth inning and we came back in our half."

Luck, however, was not on his side. Despite his best efforts on the mound, the Yankees couldn't turn the tide to victory.

“[Joe] DiMaggio hit a line drive to right center and he very seldom got thrown out taking the extra base," Pillette said. "They threw him out at second trying to make a double and the ballgame was over. They scored two runs in the first inning off me, then they didn't score two runs until the 10th inning [the next game] and I pitched 17 consecutive innings without allowing a run and I'm 0-3. I'm the worst goddamn pitcher in the world!”

Pillette ended up 2-4 in 12 games that season and did not appear in the World Series for the Yankees in the postseason. He would pitch briefly with the Yankees again in 1950, and then was traded to the St. Louis Browns in a six-player deal. Even though he went from the top team in the American League to the worst, the trade gave him an opportunity to pitch full time. Pillette would be a key cog in the Browns rotation, pitching in 120 games from 1950-1953.

It was there in St. Louis where he would befriend another baseball immortal, Satchel Paige. 'Ol Satch pitched with the Browns from 1951-1953, giving Pillette plenty of time to get to know the ageless hurler.

“I enjoyed the guy. I admired him from all the things I heard about him," he said. "As far as I was concerned, when I saw him pitch and the things he'd do, this guy was absolutely amazing. He had the worst looking legs and everybody would tell you if you want to be a pitcher, you have to have a pair of legs. This guy had some spindles and I don't know how the hell he did what he did, but he was great."

They shared a special connection, as Paige was fond of his father from their battles barnstorming on the West Coast.

“My dad pitched against Satch in Los Angeles," he noted. "I know because Satch told me that he pitched against my father. Satch happened to play against my father in Los Angeles when he was in the winter leagues. My dad picked up extra money playing in the winter leagues. They became pretty good friends because they both had been around awhile. He said he was a fine man. He told me, ‘He didn't pitch like anybody I ever saw. He threw more soft stuff than you could believe but he had a pretty good fastball. You get two strikes on you and you might look for it. He said he never wasted any energy and probably about as smart of a pitcher as you ever saw.’ That’s probably why I got along with Satch so well, he liked my father a lot.”

After an arm injury ended Pillette’s career in 1960, he found success in the mobile home business.

“After I quit baseball, I got in the mobile home business for 32 years," he said. "I helped to build and manage this park. I've got a nice 1,800 square foot mobile home. If you came on the inside, you wouldn't think it was a mobile home. They don't make them like this anymore."

Pillette continued to stay active late in his life, gaining notoriety for his dancing. The notoriety wasn’t so much for his skills, but that he was one half of the oldest couple on the dance floor.

“On Friday and Saturday I dance with a lovely young lady that's 85, and I'm 86," he said. "We even got our picture in the paper because we are the only two whiteheads on the dance floor and they were curious. The people from the paper came in to the hotel for a party of people who were retiring. We get out there and do a little bit of a dance and this outfit took some pictures.

“The gal [Bev] who I take out was the bridesmaid at my wedding. About 10 years after her husband passed away, she called me one day and said that she wasn't sending anymore Christmas cards and she wanted to warn me. So we got to become good friends and she was a marvelous dancer. They got a hold of Bev and asked her some questions. They interviewed us at her home the next day. They showed the top part of us that we were dancing. A little story was written about it. We found a photo of Beverly in her album from my wedding and they put that in there too.”

Pillette returned to New York last summer as one of the seven living members from the 1950 World Series team. He was thrilled about his appearance at the new stadium.

"It was just wonderful being there surrounded by all of these greats," he said. "There aren't too many of us from that team left."

Even though Pillette fell below the .500 mark for his career, he was an All-Star to the fans, generously signing autographs through the mail and speaking to researchers and historians with such candor about his career. Somewhere in heaven, Pillette is having a meeting on the mound with his Paige and his father, conspiring how to retire the next batter.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Willie Mays inspired a rookie teammate in his final campaign

George Theodore was a rookie left fielder for the New York Mets in 1973 when he found himself sharing the outfield with one of baseball's greatest legends, Willie Mays. Mays and Theodore were on the opposite ends of their respective careers; the veteran Mays playing in the last of his 22 Hall of Fame seasons, and the young Theodore working to gain a toehold in the Mets starting lineup. Returning to Flushing during the weekend of Mays' 80th birthday for a series of New York Mets Alumni Association events, Theodore reflected on Mays' ability to energize his teammates just by his presence on the field.

“Willie Mays had a magnetism that nobody had," Theodore said. "You could just feel it. He'd get up to hit and you kind of fed off the crowd. He was such a positive person; I was so happy to get to know him.”

George Theodore / N. Diunte
Ironically Theodore's greatest memory of playing alongside Mays was not the lessons he learned on how to patrol the outfield, or watching Mays rekindle the spirit of the Polo Grounds, but a time when he was given an error on a play Mays made that displayed Mays' “sixth sense” in the field. On June 11, 1973, they shared the outfield during a game against Mays' former team, the San Francisco Giants. In the fourth inning, a 400-foot smash was hit to left-center and both outfielders pursued it. Theodore described the events of the play as it unfolded.

Willie Mays / N. Diunte
“One game on national TV, I was in left field and he was in center," he said. "The ball was hit into left-center and I think I'll go get it because Willie couldn't throw too much at the time. He beats me there with his beautiful instincts [which were evident] even then, and he gets to the ball.

“He then tosses it to me for me to throw it, but I didn't know it was coming, so it dropped. I quickly picked up it and I threw it in. They gave me an error. I think they changed it subsequently, but that was the biggest honor I could have, taking that error from Willie Mays.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

New York Mets partner up with Jillian Michaels to benefit Dress for Success

John Franco, George Theodore and Mr. Met jump start the event
The New York Mets Alumni Association, presented by Citi, as part of their ongoing “Teammates in the Community” series, lent a hand Saturday in Battery Park to Dress for Success for their annual power walk fundraiser. Mets alumni John Franco, George “The Stork” Theodore and Mr. Met were on hand to help kick off the event, along with Dress for Success' official spokesperson, fitness guru Jillian Michaels. Click here to see photos and read a complete recap of the event.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

New York Mets alumni week appearances May 6-8

Former New York Met George Foster / N. Diunte
The New York Mets will be showcasing their alumni this weekend at events throughout the city including appearances at Citi Field. For this current home stand, Edgardo Alfonzo, Kevin Elster, George Foster, John Franco, Ed Hearn and George "The Stork" Theodore will all be involved in the festivities for what has been dubbed, "Mets Alumni Week."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bill White: Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play

Bill White, the former All-Star first baseman, National League president and New York Yankees broadcaster recently released his memoirs, Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play. White speaks openly about his lengthy multi-faceted career in baseball and why he has distanced himself from the game. Click here to read the entire review of the book, as well as video of White speaking from his book signing in New Jersey.