Sunday, August 28, 2011

Carl Erskine explains how he composed his curveball in Cuba

On the verge of his 21st birthday, fresh off his first full season in professional ball, Carl Erskine found himself in a place that was in stark contrast from his hometown of Anderson, Ind. In the winter of 1947, Erskine was sent to Cuba to play with the Cienfuegos team at the urges of Branch Rickey. Erskine would quickly be introduced to a different climate that had nothing to do with the weather.

Click here to read more about Erskine's experiences playing in Cuba.



Saturday, August 27, 2011

Joe Caffie Indians outfielder that started in the Negro Leagues, dies at 80

Joe Caffie, the Cleveland Indians an outfielder who started with the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro Leagues in 1950, passed away at his home in Warren, Ohio, on August 1st, 2011. He was 80.
instant updates.



"I have seen a lot of fast ones, but Caffie is the fastest, and that includes guys like Sam Jethroe," said the legendary Luke Easter in Moffi & Kronstadt’s Crossing the Line.

Caffie had his start as an outfielder with the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro Leagues in 1950, before being signed by the Indians in 1951. He passed away at his home in Warren, Ohio, on August 1st, 2011. He was 80.

Speed was his trademark, which was evident when he led Class-C Duluth with 18 triples and a .342 batting average in 1952. He led the league in six batting categories en route to winning the MVP award for the Northern League, which earned him a promotion to AAA Indianapolis.


Caffie continued to perform well at the AAA level, swiping bases, legging out extra- base hits and covering much ground in the outfield. Finally, Caffie was brought up to the Cleveland Indians in September, 1956. He hit .342 in 12 games and played without making an error on defense.

Unfortunately for Caffie, he did not make the club out of spring training in 1957. With the emergence of young stars Roger Maris and Rocky Colavito, as well as the veteran presence of Al Smith and Gene Woodling, manager Kerby Farrell could not find a spot for Caffie in the crowded Indians outfield.

Determined to find his way back to the major leagues, Caffie batted .330 for AAA Buffalo, making the International League All-Star team. When the Tribe optioned catcher Dick Brown in early August, Caffie was summoned from Buffalo. Only a few weeks later, against the New York Yankees, Caffie would have what was his best game in his major league career, going 4-5, while swatting his first major league home run. He finished the season with three round-trippers in only 89 at-bats.

He would spend the next three seasons at the AAA level, never receiving the call to return to the majors. He ended his playing career in 1961 with Charlotte. He returned to Warren, where he worked as a laborer at Thomas Steel for 37 years before retiring.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Negro League legend Willie 'Curly' Williams left a lasting impact on many

Another eagle has ascended to the soaring skies and taken the legend of the Negro Leagues with him. Willie “Curly” Williams, infielder for the Newark, Houston and New Orleans Eagles of the Negro Leagues from 1945-51, died Tuesday in Sarasota, Fla. He was 86.

I had the good fortune of spending an entire day with Williams in September, 2007 as the city of Newark, New Jersey featured an all-day tribute to the Newark Eagles. Streets in Newark were named after former Eagles legends and the players were honored by the mayor in a private ceremony at the baseball stadium in Newark. Later in the day, the players spoke at the New Jersey Historical Society before being celebrated on the field before a Newark Bears game.

Willie "Curly" Williams (r.) with the author in 2007
Williams radiated as he spoke about his glory days in Newark, holding nothing back about both the highlights and hardships of his career. For a few short hours, Williams transformed into a man of his youth sixty years prior, as he spoke with such vigor about his life in baseball.


Born May 25, 1925 in Holy Hill, SC, Williams was a shortstop for the 1946 Negro League Champion Newark Eagles which featured future Hall of Famers Leon Day, Larry Doby, and Monte Irvin. The departure of Irvin to the New York Giants in the following years opened up the shortstop position for Williams.

With the reins of shortstop secured in his hands, Williams flourished, earning a selection to the 1950 East-West All-Star game in Comiskey Park. By the following season, Williams signed with the Chicago White Sox organization and reported to their Class-A Colorado Springs affiliate.

For Williams, like many black players in the 1950’s, playing minor league baseball in a small town was a cold reminder of the isolation they faced due to Jim Crow segregation.

“I went out to Colorado Springs, ain’t too many black people in Colorado," Williams said during a 2007 interview in Newark. “They found a preacher’s house for me to stay in. One black preacher was in that town; they found that house and that’s where I stayed the whole season.”

Williams climbed the ladder of the White Sox system, advancing to AAA the following season. He thought that an invitation to spring training with the parent club would follow in 1953. Sadly, that invite never arrived.

"I thought I should have got a better shot at the Major Leagues, and I didn't get it. I was madder than anything about it. I didn't even get an opportunity to go to spring training with a Major League team. After playing in Toledo I thought I could have gone to spring training the following year,” Williams said in a 2008 interview with MLB.com.

Williams headlines with the Toledo Mud Hens / April 4, 1952 Toledo Blade

As one door closed for Williams, another opened, this time in a distant place, Canada. He played north of the border from 1953-1963, including an eight-year run with Lloydminster that earned him the title Mr. Baseball. He found something in Canada that he couldn’t find in the United States, peace.

“We had so much fun there and everybody was accepted, you know, didn't have problems going any place we wanted to eat. [They were] just wonderful people.  [I] may not have made a whole lot of money, but people were excited and they enjoyed you and would invite you to their homes,” Williams said in an interview with Jay Dell-Mah.

In addition to playing in the Negro Leagues, minor leagues, and Canada, Williams also starred for the Mayaguez team in the Puerto Rican Winter League from 1949-50. Upon his retirement from baseball, he moved to Sarasota, working 27 years as a crime scene investigator for the coroner’s office. In 2009, Topps gave Williams his first baseball card ever in their Allen and Ginter set.

2009 Allen and Ginter Willie Williams / Topps
His image and voice continue to resonate in my mind as I reflect on our day together in Newark. The clearest memory I have of Williams, besides the open invite to be a guest at his home in Sarasota, is the story he told that moved everyone in the room to tears. The picture he painted about enduring the harsh realities of segregation while in Colorado had a profound impact on all who were within earshot of his interview.

“I went to spring training in Avon Park with the Colorado team. They had a place with a preacher for me to stay. [There was] a café with my table in the kitchen. Every time that door swung open, all I could see [was] all my teammates out there. They had a table for me set up in the kitchen. That hurt. And what hurt so bad, they had a Mexican guy for my roommate; he could go in there. At night, I just cried and it made me feel better,” said Williams.

I cried a bit and gave Williams a hug after he told the story. He pulled out a kerchief and dried his eye. The memory of him sitting in the kitchen of the restaurant, only to see his teammates in the dining area while the door swung open has stuck with me every time I’ve thought about our meeting. I hope that the opportunity to tell his story, while painful, made him feel better to share it with us.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Carl Erskine tells the story of his first major league home run

 This is Part 1 of a series of interviews with Brooklyn Dodger great Carl Erskine about his experiences playing with the storied franchise. Erskine appeared recently in New York on behalf of the Bob Feller Museum and was kind enough to grant us access to produce this series of vignettes regarding his career.

Nineteen-fifty-five was a banner season in Brooklyn. The Dodgers finally won the pennant, proclaiming themselves bums no more. Johnny Podres shut down the heralded Yankees in Game 7, rightfully placing the champagne on the Brooklyn side of the dugout. Roy Campanella edged out teammate Duke Snider for National League MVP honors. The Dodgers, for once, were the sole kings of New York.


For pitcher Carl Erskine, 1955 holds a more special distinction in his heart. Click here to read about and see video of Erskine discussing his first (and only) major league home run.






Monday, August 15, 2011

Strawberry brings Mets magic to Douglaston for Community Day

Darryl Strawberry was able to make a little more Mets magic happen in Queens, only this time it wasn't at the ballpark, but at his restaurant Strawberry's Sports Grill in Douglaston. This weekend saw Strawberry's former teammates Terry Leach, Barry Lyons and Kevin Mitchell as well as 1986 Mets coach Bud Harrelson, and ex-New York Giants punter Sean Landeta appear to raise money for Strawberry's Foundation for Autism Awareness.

Hundreds of supporters came to the small enclave near the Long Island Rail Road to see their Mets alums, participate in the many events and partake in the excellent cuisine of Strawberry's restaurant. Below are articles featuring video and interviews with the aforementioned members of the 1986 World Series Championship Mets team.

Kevin Mitchell returns to his baseball roots at Douglaston Community Day




Terry Leach delivers for autism awarness at Douglaston Community Day

Barry Lyons shares how B.A.T. sheltered him from Hurricane Katrina's destruction

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ernie Johnson, 87, Braves pitcher, announcer and World War II veteran

Earlier this evening, it was reported during the Atlanta Braves telecast that their legendary announcer Ernie Johnson Sr. died Friday after spending time in hospice care. He was 87.

One of the friendliest voices in baseball, Johnson spent over 50 years with the organization as a player, executive, and broadcaster. Johnson was one of a handful of players who are left from the Braves’ playing days in Boston. After getting a cup of coffee in 1950, his 15-4 record at AAA Milwaukee the next season paved the way for his full-time role with the Braves pitching staff in 1952.

Ernie Johnson / Topps
Johnson was a key factor in the Braves 1957 World Series victory over the New York Yankees, pitching effectively in relief for three games. He stayed with the Braves through the end of the 1958 season, playing one more year for the Baltimore Orioles after being released.



In 2008, I had the opportunity to interview Johnson via a telephone call from his home in Cummings, Georgia. He spoke with an unparalleled level of clarity and familiarity about his experiences in baseball and his service in World War II.

For a rookie like me it was like speaking to a sage of baseball, but yet he held no pretenses about himself. His voice was as inviting as I remembered it from the countless evenings I watched the Braves on TBS.

As the number of living major league players who served in World War II continues to dwindle, Johnson’s experiences serving his country speak highly to his character. He happily shared his journey during his time in the military.

Signed in 1942 by the Boston Braves, Johnson pitched briefly at Class A Hartford before entering World War II. Johnson spent three years in the Marines, seeing action in Japan during the Okinawa invasion. Unlike some ballplayers who did not want to go overseas, Johnson saw the call of duty as his opportunity to help lead the country to victory.

“I could have stayed in this country," Johnson said. "The captain called me in the office and asked me if I wanted to play baseball here. The captain told me, ‘We'll keep you from going overseas, and you can play for the base team.'"

Mulling over the decision of whether to stay or leave, Johnson decided to go to Japan. He just could not desert the troops he trained with for so long.

“I don't want to sound gung-ho, but I got through spending a year or two with these guys and we were prepped and ready to go overseas," he said. "I just thought to myself, ‘I didn't want to play baseball; I joined to help win the war. I'm gonna stick with these guys.’ We went overseas, and I was in the Okinawa invasion.”

He returned for the 1946 season suiting up with Class B Pawtucket. Luckily for Johnson, his best years were ahead of him; however, others returning from service weren’t as fortunate.

“I didn't take me too long to get ready," he said. "I was young in the service. I missed three years and I was still only 21, 22. I got back in shape pretty fast. I felt sorry for guys that went in when they were 25, 26, and now they're 28 and you could see they lost it. They would say, ‘I can't do it anymore.’ The guys I was with in Pawtucket, they couldn't play like they used to and they didn't last very long. It was sad, they missed three to four years and it really affected their careers.” 

As a pitcher, he felt that he had an easier road back from World War II than a position player. He felt it was a lot easier to recover your arm strength than it was your overall feel for the game in the batter's box.

“Pitchers are more apt to not lose it," he said. "They get back in shape and on the mound, it's not different. [The] hardest thing is hitting; you lose your timing and your bat speed, and that's when you lose your career.” 

Fortunately for baseball, Johnson’s career blossomed after his service and led him into our homes for many years as the unmistakable voice of the Atlanta Braves. The legacy he left behind from his entire career as a baseball player, father, broadcaster, and veteran has left an indelible mark on everyone that was able to know him.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Federoff's influence has a lasting impact on the Tigers organization

“He was the best manager I ever had,” said current Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland in the Detroit News. Al Federoff was Leyland’s manager during his 1964 rookie campaign in Lakeland, Fla. It was also Federoff who rescued Leyland a few years later when the Tigers weren’t sure what to do with him while filling out their minor league rosters.

“Leyland was my good luck charm. I took him everywhere I could,” said Federoff during a 2008 interview I conducted with him from his home in Taylor, Mich.

While Federoff has received notoriety for mentoring Leyland, many are unaware that he was a sure-handed, light-hitting second baseman for the Tigers in the early 1950s. He died in Glibert, Ariz. last week at the age of 87.

Al Federoff / Author's Collection
Federoff was one of the fastest players in major league baseball in the 1950s, clocking a 3.8 second time from home to first batting right handed, placing him sixth in major league baseball according to the September 3rd, 1952 issue of The Sporting News.

He entered professional baseball in 1946 with the Jamestown Falcons of the Class-D PONY League after serving in the Air Force in World War II. After a few years of climbing the rungs of the minor league ladder, he was a late season call-up with the Detroit Tigers in 1951.

Inspired by his taste of the big league action, Federoff hit a solid .288 at AAA Buffalo in 1952 and was recalled in July when second baseman Jerry Priddy went down with a leg injury. It was during this time that he would bear witness to two of Virgil Trucks’ greatest pitching performances ever.

The first one happened August 6, 1952 against the ageless Satchel Paige and the St. Louis Browns. Trucks and Paige battled to a scoreless tie in the ninth inning when Trucks was lifted for a pinch-hitter. The 46-year old Paige pitched the entire 12 innings for the victory. Federoff took the collar twice against Paige in his five trips to the plate. Federoff insisted age wasn’t a factor in Paige’s performance.

“You can’t take nothing away from him [Paige]; if you’re good, you’re good,” said Federoff of the Hall of Fame hurler.

Federoff had a more involved role in Trucks’ August 25th masterpiece at Yankee Stadium. Hank Bauer, the Yankees strong left-fielder, stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth. Bauer squared up one of Trucks’ fastballs right in the direction of Federoff.

“I get my name mentioned in the paper every now and then when Trucks pitched that no-hitter against the Yankees," told Federoff. "I made the last put-out on a hard smash by Hank Bauer for the final out; I saved the no-hitter!”

He finished the season with a .242 average and did what he was expected to do, play good defense at second base. His sure hands attracted the attention of another Hall of Famer, Tigers GM Charlie Gehringer.

“He came to me personally and told me, ‘You did damn good, your fielding was terrific,’” recalled Federoff.

While his fielding impressed Gehringer, his overall play did not do enough to sway manager Fred Hutchinson to give him an extension for the 1953 season.
 
“I was disappointed when they sold me to San Diego in 1953,” said Federoff, who thought he could add some youth to an aging ballclub. “Johnny Pesky was a good ballplayer, but he was already in his mid 30s, [Billy] Hitchcock was in his mid 30s and [Jerry] Priddy couldn’t run after that broken leg. Hutchinson kept him and he couldn’t even run; I hadn’t even hit my prime!”

Federoff was caught in a numbers game that was typical of his era, one that was prior to expansion and free agency.

“Another thing people don’t consider is that each league only had eight teams," he said. "Now they have an additional 320 40-man roster spots in each league. In our day, they sent you down to AAA and you would get lost down there because they had so many good players. Who was going to replace Jackie Robinson or Pee Wee Reese? If you were a SS or 2B [behind them], you were out of luck!”

Detroit wanted to send him to Buffalo, but he didn’t want to go back up north again after playing there the previous season.

“They tried to send me to Buffalo, but I wouldn’t go. I stuck around for a few days and they sold me to San Diego,” he said.

Federoff enjoyed four solid years with the Padres, helping to lead them to the 1954 PCL championship, walking 108 times against only 34 strikeouts.  During that championship season, he enjoyed the company of yet another mystical baseball figure, Luke Easter.

“He was my buddy; I liked him very much," Federoff recalled. "He protected me at second base. Any time he stepped up to the plate, the other teams were hoping he didn’t hit the long one."

Even though he was no longer in the major leagues, Federoff, like many other veterans enjoyed the comforts of playing on the West Coast. The warmer weather and improved travel were attractive propositions for ballplayers that endured the long bus rides that came with years of beating the bushes.

“In the PCL at that time, the playing conditions were better," he said. "We had a lot of good older players coming from the big leagues because the conditions were wonderful. A lot of great ballplayers finished their careers there and they were paid better than the big leagues. We played a week at home and a week at each city. We flew by airplane, and the weather was wonderful, especially in San Diego."

The same door that opened the opportunity for him to enter the big leagues is also the same one that closed his career. Bit by the injury bug, Federoff was robbed one of of the key elements of his game, speed.

“During my last year in San Diego, I was over the hill," he said. "San Diego traded me to Seattle. I played a year there. Then they sent me to Louisville, I played a half year there. I was sold to Atlanta and that was the end of my career. At the end I was overcoming a broken leg; I lost a lot of my speed. They had me there to fill in and just to work with the kids. They were interested in playing kids that had a chance to get up to the big leagues. You seem to know when you’ve had enough.”

After he hung up his cleats as a player, he entered the Tigers minor league system as a manager in 1960. He managed ten seasons, ending his career in 1970 ironically in the PCL, the place where he spent the bulk of his minor league time.

Despite never returning to the majors after the 1952 season as a player or a coach, Federoff was satisfied with his baseball career.

“I enjoyed it. I had some good days and bad ones like everybody else.”


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Astros Martinez first home run riles up his hometown supporters

Moments after J.D. Martinez hit his first major league home run, the action at Casanova's Baseball Academy in Hialeah came to a screeching halt. His first-inning blast off of Dontrelle Willis had the phone ringing off the hook. Former major leaguer Paul Casanova picked up the call and excitedly shouted, “Flaco did it! He hit his first home run!” All of the players working out stopped and cheered for the hometown rookie.

“Flaco” is the nickname which most of the people at the baseball academy call Martinez. Trained under the watchful eyes of major league veterans Casanova and Jackie Hernandez, Martinez built his legend right in Casanova's backyard, literally.

Casanova runs a training facility out of the backyard of his home, complete with pitching machines, batting cages and video recording equipment. Martinez has been faithfully attending sessions at the academy since he was a budding superstar at Miami's Flanagan High School. He was called up less than a week ago to replace Hunter Pence after his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Both ex-major leaguers had ear-to-ear grins as the calls poured in and the highlights flashed on the MLB Network.

“He's been coming here since he was a kid," Casanova said. "Everyone down here knows he was working with us and we are just happy to see him do it.”

As Martinez topped off the rest of the game with two doubles, one of which narrowly missed being a home run, Hernandez confidently asserted that this will be a normal occurrence for Martinez. “He's been doing this everywhere he's been. Every level, he's hit. We will see him in left field for many years to come, just watch.”

While the cheers in Houston may have been plentiful for Martinez, they were just as loud in Hialeah, as the hopefuls watched one of their own begin to build his legacy in the majors.

“All of Hialeah is pulling for him.” Casanova said.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bob "Tex" Nelson's career a golden example of the flawed bonus rule

Imagine signing a high school slugger for a few million dollars and the following week putting him at the plate against the likes of Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia. Bob “Tex” Nelson in 1955 did just that, debuting against Hall of Famers Early Wynn and Bob Feller right after his high school graduation. He was signed by Paul Richards as one of his hyped “bonus babies” in June of 1955. He died suddenly last week in Texas at the age of 74.

Click here to read more about Nelson's career and why it never got off the ground.