Monday, December 31, 2012

Video of Roberto Clemente batting one month before his death discovered

Roberto Clemente - 1972 Topps
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's fatal plane crash on December 31st, 1972 in San Juan, Puerto Rico in his attempts to ensure that relief supplies were being delivered to the necessary recipients in Nicaragua. While Clemente was coaching in Leon, he was encouraged by fans to step up to the plate and take some batting practice. Sporting his familiar 21, Clemente obliged much to the delight of the fans and the opposing players. Hans Norbert Jaeger, a member of the German team that competed in the Amateur World Series in Leon, discovered footage of Clemente during that batting practice session.

Click here to view this rare video of Clemente. 

This video, which is linked above, is the last known video of Clemente batting. As we celebrate Clemente heroic efforts, watch closely at one last glimpse of Clemente's effortless swings interspersed between his classic gyrations to loosen himself up to hit.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A look back at the Mets 50th anniversary season

The 2012 season marked the 50th anniversary of the New York Mets franchise. While the Mets season commenced with the trade of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays in December, the past 12 months provided many opportunities to catch up with former Mets as they talked about their experiences in Flushing in celebration of the team's 50 years in baseball. Below are links to exclusive interviews with players, some more familiar than others that might have went under your radar in 2012.

For Choo Choo Coleman, It's a Homecoming Long Delayed - Jan 21, 2012

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

6th Annual Lou DeMartino Baseball Clinic to be held at John Jay College December 27th

The Greater New York Sandlot Youth Athletic Alliance will hold their 6th annual Lou DeMartino Christmas Baseball Clinic at John Jay College on Thursday December 27th, 2012, with limited free on-site registration starting at 8am. The clinic, for players ages 10-19, will feature instruction from New York area minor leaguers, George Carroll (Toronto Blue Jays), James Jones (Seattle Mariners), and Matt Rizzotti (Oakland Athletics), as well as well as longtime Chicago Cubs scouts Billy Blitzer and John Ceprini, the latter who represented the Cubs at the 2012 MLB Draft with Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins.

Click here for more detailed information on the event and how to register.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Boyd Bartley, former Brooklyn Dodgers shorstop passes away at 92

Boyd Bartley
The roster of the living former Brooklyn Dodgers is now one player lighter. Boyd Bartley, former shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers passed away Friday evening in Richland Hills, Texas. He was 92.

Click here to read more about the University of Illinois standout and World War II veteran, who after his playing career, became a long-time scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose most prized signing was Orel Hershiser.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Yankee hurler Fritz Peterson explains 'The Art of De-Conditioning'

The Art of De-Conditioning - Lightside Books
Former New York Yankees hurler Frtiz Peterson has a simple, yet effective message with his new book, acceptance. Weary of the rat race to stay in playing shape during his professional baseball career, Peterson found peace within himself once he was able to accept his own eating habits and no longer worry about his weight affecting him on the field.

Peterson’s quick and witty, “The Art of De-Conditioning: Eating Your Way to Heaven,” is an adventure into his journey of extreme de-conditioning. After finishing his 11-year major league career in 1977 that included time with the Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and the Texas Rangers, Peterson vowed he not only wanted to weigh 300 lbs., but that he would never again run another wind sprint, lift another weight, or go on a diet.

Click here to read the entire review of Peterson's journey away from baseball and into the land of  bulging bellies.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Rare color footage of Satchel Paige pitching emerges

Rare footage of the legendary Satchel Paige pitching in 1948 has emerged due to a discovery in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives. The video below is of Paige pitching on November 7, 1948 at a winter league game in California. Paige pitched in the game for Chet Brewer's Kansas City Royals against fellow Indians teammate Gene Bearden's Major League All-Stars. Bearden can be seen around the :23 mark in the video. Also playing in the game was future Hall of Famer James "Cool Papa" Bell, as well as Sam Hairston, grandfather of New York Mets outfielder Scott Hairston, and Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Jerry Hairston Jr.




Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rogelio 'Borrego' Alvarez, 74, Cuban baseball star and Cincinnati Reds first baseman

Rogelio "Borrego" Alvarez, former first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds and Cuban Winter League star, died Friday evening in Hialeah, Florida due to complications from kidney failure according to a former teammate who wished to remain anonymous. He was 74.

Rogelio Alvarez
Alvarez was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1956 out of his hometown of Pinar del Rio, Cuba. I interviewed Alvarez at his home in February 2011, and he vividly recalled his tough transition from Cuba to the United States.

“I was 17 and a half,” Alvarez said. “That year, we came about eight of us all together to Douglass, Georgia. It was a little town, and we went there to train.

“I didn’t know it was so bad, the colored people couldn’t go no place. The white people stayed in the good hotel, we had to go to the black community and stay in a house, stuff like that. We didn’t understand the bad words, so we didn’t know what they said.”

Even worse for Alvarez, he didn’t speak English, and was quickly separated from his Cuban counterparts. The social isolation weighed heavily on the new arrival.

“We had two blacks, me and Leo Cardenas,” he said. “They had 14 teams and they didn’t want colored people. Cardenas got signed and went to Tucson in the Arizona Mexican League. They [Tucson] said, ‘We like you too, but we have a first baseman.’ They left me in Georgia. That broke my heart, to see everybody going and I’m going to stay by myself with no English. Nobody else spoke Spanish.”

Approximately a month later, Alvarez was assigned to the Reds’ affiliate in Port Arthur, Texas. It was another wild journey for the young Cuban on his ascent to the major leagues.

“After a month being on my own there, they called me one day and send someone with a letter, they wanted me to go to Port Arthur,” he said. “They took me to the bus station. I went to Atlanta and changed planes without speaking in the airport. They told me, ‘Everywhere you go, you show this letter.’ If I lose this letter, I can’t find nobody. The letter said, ‘This man is a ballplayer for Cincinnati, and doesn’t speak English. He’s going to Port Arthur; please help him out, Cincinnati will pay any charges.’”

As soon as he arrived, the face of Jim Crow loomed large. Armed with only the letter from the Reds, he watched yellow cabs pass him by until finally a black cab stopped to take him to his destination.

“When I got to Port Arthur, there were two cabs, a yellow cab and another cab,” he recalled. “I wanted a yellow and they said no, you take the black cab. I showed them the letter, and they took me to the little town in Port Arthur, the black community.

"The old lady there, she didn’t say nothing. They got a Cuban guy, I didn’t know how they found him, but he came. He talked to me and he told the lady who I am and showed her the schedule that I go week in and week out and I need the room. I go downstairs to the kitchen and eat. I sit down and they come with a menu. I can’t read it or talk. She asked what I want, grabbed my hand, and went to the kitchen. They opened the pot; they [pointed to each] and said, ‘Stewed beef, rice, red beans, and cornbread.’ I ate that meal for a whole month.”

Alvarez’s first day at the park was no picnic either, as he found himself isolated in more ways than one. Even in the locker room, the club found a way to segregate Alvarez from his teammates.

“When I came to the ballpark the first day, I was the only black of 16 ballplayers,” he said. “There was no seat for me. I had to change in the bathroom. The bathroom was my locker. The manager threw me a uniform and it didn’t fit me right. I only weighed 185 lbs.”

Eventually with the help of a local young girl, Alvarez was able to pick up the language and adjust to life in the United States. Over fifty years later, he still was taken back by how quickly he took to speaking English.

“A little girl asked me to see a movie and in three months, I learned what I know,”  he said. “I learned fast; it was unbelievable. They were surprised how fast I learned.”

Despite all of the off-the-field adjustments he had to make, he batted over .300 for Port Arthur. Alvarez returned to Cuba in the off-season, but struggled to get on with one of the four main clubs.

“It took me three years to get on with a team in Cuba,” he said. “My first year, I was a reserve with Cienfuegos. They were people ahead of me, Frank Herrera and Chiquitin Cabrera. I had to go to Nicaragua in the winter because I didn’t play regularly in Cuba.”

Fortunately for Alvarez leaving Cuba to play winter ball proved invaluable to sharpen his skills. Playing in Nicaragua provided him with an opportunity that was far greater than any home run he could hit; he met his future wife there too.

“That’s where I met my wife in 1957,” he said. “I had a good year there. I was second in home runs in the league and after that year, I went back to the Sugar Kings. Then I went back to the reserve and played a little bit more. In the winter of 1959, I played regularly.”

His play in the winter of 1959 when he batted .333 with two home runs in the Caribbean Series, contributed to the mighty success of the Cienfuegos team. They swept the Caribbean Series in six games.

“We won the Caribbean Series and we won six out of six," he said. “We had Pedro Ramos, Camilo Pascual, Joe Azcue, Ossie Alvarez, Leo Cardenas, Chico Ruiz, Roman Mejias, Ultus Alvarez, Cookie Rojas, and I. We beat everyone in Cuba.”

Rogelio Alvarez (r.) with George Altman (l.) and Pedro Ramos (c.) with Cienfuegos / Author's Collection
Nineteen-sixty marked a period of turmoil during the Cuban revolution, one that Alvarez found himself dangerously close to. While playing with the Havana Sugar Kings, shots broke out during a game against the Rochester Red Wings.

“It happened in Cuba stadium,” he said. “That was the last game we played there. We played against Rochester. Frank Verdi was on third base. There were at least 20 police in the stadium watching. You heard, ‘Clack! Clack!’ and one of the bullets came down and hit Frank Verdi. They said we don’t play no more, so we had to move. We found Jersey City.”

Rounding out the rest of the year in New Jersey, Alvarez was all packed and ready to go to Cuba when his plans were suddenly altered.  His call to the show finally arrived.

“Orlando Pena and I were playing for Havana / Jersey City,” he said. “We ended the season in Columbus. Right after the game, we didn’t know that we were going to go; I packed my stuff, ready to go to Cuba to see my people.”

He went one-for-nine during his September call-up with the Reds. The adjustment to the pitching during his first stay in the major was tough.

“I wasn’t ready when that happened,” he said. “I didn’t see that many good pitchers [in the minors]. You went up there and they had four good starters. You’ve gotta be ready, and I wasn’t ready.”

He played one more season for Jersey City and then was sold to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1962. After having a banner year, batting .318 with 18 home runs, the Reds called once again.

“We won the pennant [in San Diego], that’s why they didn’t bring me up before, because we were fighting for the pennant,” he said. “The manager was crazy for me. He gave me the Most Valuable Player. The manager Don Heffner, after we won the pennant, we came back to San Diego. He called me to the office to come see him. He said, ‘Here, take a beer with me. You’re going to Cincinnati tomorrow.’”

Fresh off of his best minor league season, Alvarez's confidence skyrocketed. This time, he had no questions about his readiness for the majors.

“Oh my goodness! I wanted to go to Cincinnati,” he said. “They waited for me in the airport. They took me right to the stadium, dressed and I went to play. I didn’t play because it was a right handed pitcher. I didn’t do too good, but I was ready then.”

He was sold to the Washington Senators after the 1962 season, but the deal was complicated by his return to Cuba. Ignoring the advice of many, a stubborn Alvarez went home despite the many restrictions on travel to and from Cuba.

“After the season I went to Cuba, I didn’t listen to nobody,” he said. “My idea was made and I went. That was a mistake. They sold me to Washington. I didn’t know they were going to send me.” 

According to an Associated Press report in 1963, Alvarez could not get permission to leave Cuba to report to the Senators. While San Diego general manager Eddie Leishman refused to comment on how Alvarez finally arrived there, Alvarez, almost 50 years later filled in the details.

“I went through Mexico to get back to San Diego,” Alvarez revealed.

The story of Alvarez’s return to San Diego in 1963 after missing all of spring training and almost the first two months of the season, is one that everyone who has ever played baseball has wished they could have lived to tell. 

“That day I can never forget. I get there, and they came back that night. In the morning, I went to practice. The owner said, ‘I’m going to try some kids. You get some balls, hit, and run, and then in the afternoon you come back with the big team.’ I practice, took a shower, and drank a couple of beers. I figured they would give me a week to practice,” he said.

His manager Don Heffner, however, had different plans. As long as Alvarez was in uniform, no matter how rusty he was, Heffner wanted him available on the bench.

“The manager Heffner said. ‘Hey where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m going to sit in the stands.’ He said, ‘No, come put your uniform and come to the dugout.’ I said, ‘I’m not in shape.’ He said, ‘I want to see you in the dugout.’ I didn’t go to the dugout, I stayed in the bullpen. All game, I was with the pitchers, talking with Jim Maloney,” he said.

Alvarez, who figured that he wouldn't be put in the game after such a long layoff, was lounging the in the bullpen the entire game. He was totally unprepared for what happened next.

“In the 9th inning, the bases are loaded, and Tommy Helms comes to hit,” he said. “The manager calls timeout [and] points to the bullpen. The pitchers said, ‘Heffner called you.’ The game was tied. I said, ‘Me, nah, that’s for you.’ They said, ‘That’s gotta be you.’ I face him [Heffner] and said, ‘Me?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’

"When I go, people start clapping. Everybody stands up and all of the people go crazy. The pitcher was Lew Krausse; he had good stuff. The first pitch, what I saw was woosh! They called a strike! I didn’t see it. He threw hard. After that, he threw me a curveball. Crazy! As a right handed hitter, I didn’t play ball for six months, keep it fast! He threw a breaking pitch; he gave me a chance to see [it]. When I saw the pitch, it stopped, and it stopped breaking. I go with it, and it was a home run! First swing, home run with the bases loaded. Oh my goodness! I was like a king. It was in the papers, headlines, ‘Fat Borrego wins the game with a home run for the Padres!'” 

Alvarez played through 1967 in the Reds system, swatting 226 home runs in 12 minor league seasons. He then played an additional six years in the Mexican League before ending his career in 1973. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Cuban Baseball Players in Exile in 1998. Alvarez was also honored earlier this year in February at a ceremony for the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame at the Big Five Club in Miami.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Gail Harris - A 'Giant' gentleman until the end

Last week, I was presented with the unfortunate news of the passing of Boyd "Gail" Harris, one of the dwindling number of the remaining New York Giants. He just celebrated his 81st birthday a month prior.

Harris was a first baseman with the Giants from 1955-57, and holds the distinction of being the last player for Giants to hit a home run before their move to San Francisco. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers at the end of the 1957 season, and led the Tigers in home runs, hitting 20 in 1958.He played with the Tigers until 1960, but could not capture the success he had during his first year in Detroit.

Autographed photo of Gail Harris
I wrote to Harris in September and asked if I could interview him about his experiences playing in New York with the Giants. Two weeks later, I received a reply from Harris. To my surprise, Harris, on his own dime sent me an envelope filled with signed photos, copies of team photos, photocopied stories about his time with the Giants, and a short note offering to contact him via e-mail or phone to talk.

After delaying for a few weeks due to other projects, I e-mailed Harris at the end of October. After no reply for a few days, I called him at the number listed and left him a voice mail. Sadly, we never connected. Early last week, I received the notice of Harris' passing. Judging by Mr. Harris' generosity, I am sure that he was too ill to respond once I contacted him.

One of the letters he included shared his memories of actor Jeff Chandler, who was a tremendous baseball fan, working out with the Giants when they trained in Arizona. Harris formed a kinship with Chandler, as Harris was part Cherokee Indian, and was given the nickname of "Cochise," the name of the character Chandler played in Broken Arrow. Harris' letter recalling Chandler that he sent is pictured below, as well as a slideshow of all of the correspondence he sent.

While Harris was never the star that many of his Hall of Fame teammates grew to be, the generosity he displayed so late in his life, is another testament to the Hall of Fame character that so many men of his era shared. I have a feeling that if we would have been able to talk about his time uptown in the Polo Grounds, that it would have further confirmed the caliber of Gail Harris. Rest in peace.








Saturday, November 24, 2012

Chuck Diering, former outfielder for the Cardinals, Giants and Orioles, dies at 89

Chuck Diering, who spent nine seasons in the major leagues as an outfielder with the Baltimore Orioles, New York Giants, and St. Louis Cardinals, passed away Friday after taking a fall at his home in Spanish Lake, Missouri. He was 89.

Chuck Diering - 1951 Bowman - Wikimedia Commons

Diering signed with the Cardinals in 1941, and missed three seasons due to his service in the United States Army in World War II. He finally broke in with the Cardinals in 1947, as an understudy for the aging Terry Moore. In his five seasons with them, he earned a reputation for his tremendous speed and defense in the outfield.

The New York Giants acquired Diering in December of 1951 with Max Lanier as part of the Eddie Stanky trade. Speaking with Diering via telephone in 2011, he was perplexed some 60 years later why the Giants wanted his services.

“I don’t know why in the world the Giants got me," he said. "I think I was more or less a throw in with Max Lanier for Eddie Stanky. I think there was something with Willie, and he was going into the service and he might not be there. Well, he didn’t go anywhere.”

Mays stayed with the Giants until June, and Diering was sent to the minor leagues a month later. He played in 41 games, which was ironically more than Mays that season, but only had 23 at-bats.

“I was just sitting there on the bench," he lamented. "In my major league career, that was the worst part of my major league career. I would go out there for those guys just to spot play. [Leo] Durocher, I don’t think he said ten words to me while I was there. I was more or less an outsider. Durocher’s boys were Mays and Monte Irvin. I felt like I was a misfit on the team. I only spot played. Hank Thompson would come up and say, ‘Leo’s going to play you today.’ That was it.”

His stint with the Giants left a blemish on his career, one that he felt affected his hitting. In a rare turn of events for a major leaguer, he was happy when they sent him back to the minors.

“As far as anything else, it really hurt my career, the way they’re going for averages," he said. "I didn’t play enough. I had very few hits. It kept me from hitting .250. I hate that .249 number. That’s what happened to me with the Giants. I’d start the game and you’d get towards the end of the game and they’d wave and pinch hit for me. I was happy when I went back to Minneapolis and finished up with them."

Diering spent all of 1953 with Minneapolis, where he batted .322 with 12 home runs. In the off-season, he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles who were looking for new talent after moving north from St. Louis. It was just the change that Diering needed.

“I had a good year and that’s when Baltimore drafted me, when the Browns sold to Baltimore," he recalled. "The article in the Sporting News said, ‘Why did they draft Chuck Diering?’ Art Ehlers [Orioles General Manager] said, ‘We need someone to cover that territory in that football field.’ He was right, I had three good years there.

“They voted me the MVP for the team the first year. Bob Turley was voted most popular. I thought I was going to get the Cadillac. I still have my trophy and he doesn’t have his Cadillac!”

Much of Diering’s prowess as an outfielder was praised in Jason Aronoff’s, “Going, Going … Caught,” an excellent collection of accounts of the greatest outfield catches prior to 1964. He described Diering’s May 27, 1955 grab on a Mickey Mantle drive at Memorial Stadium rivaling Mays’ 1954 catch in the Polo Grounds.

“For all the publicity, and deservedly so, that the Giants’ Willie Mays received for his famous ’54 World Series catch, the feat doesn’t compare to Chuck Diering’s spectacular run and grab last night of Mickey Mantle’s tremendous 440-foot wallop,” Aronoff cited from Hugh Trader of the Baltimore News Post. "Just at the moment when Diering caught the ball, he collided with Hoot Evers, who was coming in from right field. Both went flying, but somehow Diering held on to the ball."

The running catches like the one Diering made in Baltimore, where he seemingly ran the length of a football field to track the ball down, he says are no longer possible due to the construction of modern parks.

“They don’t have the fences like we had," he said. "Today they’re all backyard fences. They want to make those catches with their gloves over the fence. When left field went to center in Brooklyn, you had a little niche because they changed the fence because of the street. From right field to center field, there was an incline and then another fence and then a mesh way up in the sky. You had to learn how to play the ball off of that mesh and then how to go back because of the incline and then learn how to play it off the different materials. It wasn’t deep at all in right field. Philadelphia had one of those real high fences too. Then halfway up, it was corrugated metal so you had to figure out how to play the ball off of that. Pittsburgh had a 450-foot center field with a brick wall. The batting cages were in left center and you had to judge that."

Like many in his era, Diering remained attached not only to the game he played, but how it was played when he came up.  Fifty years later, he noticed a totally different style of play on the field.

“The era of baseball right now is boring because they don’t play baseball like we used to," he said. "People today do not know what they’re missing. … They missed the game of baseball and how you had to do things different in baseball. Everything now is the home run. Offensively, guys had to hit and run, and steal bases. Now they’re all up there swinging for home runs. They play an all together different defensive type of game.

"To me the center fielder runs the whole outfield. These guys, they don’t run in and take fly balls that the shortstop is running to in the middle of left and center field. The center fielder should be catching that ball in front of him. … I used to chase [Red] Schoendienst and [Marty] Marion off all the time. These guys don’t charge hard and try to throw somebody out. I asked Cardinal players why they don’t try to throw the guy out at home. They said, ‘We’re trying to prevent the double play.’”

Diering remained active in retirement, golfing two-to-three times per week until his death, and enjoyed appearing at the annual St. Louis Cardinals Winter Warm Up, where he would gladly sign autographs.

“I’ll sign anything," he said. I even had my son make pictures of me and I give them away. I’ll take about 100 pictures over there and I’ll autograph them, in addition to whatever stuff they want."

His generosity extended past just sitting at a table for a few hours and greeting the fans. He would talk around the public areas after his designated signing time, offering to sign for anyone that was interested.

“Now, I’m the only one [player] that does this," he said. "My son and I will walk in the crowd. We’ll see a kid and ask them if they got an autograph. If they didn’t, we’ll give them an autographed picture. They’ll ask, ‘Well who is it?’ We tell them, ‘It’s a Cardinal baseball player.’ When I tell them I am the guy in the picture, they say, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding!’ That’s the biggest part of my life, is kidding people, talking with them and having fun. That’s the closure in my life.”

Thursday, November 22, 2012

1962 Chicago Cub Tony Balsamo shares the gentlemanly spirit of Buck O'Neil 50 years later

Buck O'Neil - Wikimedia Commons
In 1962, Tony Balsamo was a 25-year-old rookie pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. One of his mentors that season was Buck O'Neil, a long time player and coach in the Negro Leagues who was a rookie of his own sorts, breaking the color barrier as a coach in the Major Leagues.

Last week, Balsamo, speaking at a charity dinner in Long Island, N.Y., reflected upon his experiences with O'Neil, whom he described as, "a true gentleman."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Former Yankee Frank Tepedino leads off First Annual Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner

Frank Tepedino
Part of the valor of being a firefighter is accepting the responsibility that one might perish in the course of saving others. That same unselfish spirit was on display Thursday evening at the Chateau Briand in Carle Place, N.Y., for the First Annual Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner. The foundation, which serves to assist victims of fires and disasters, brought some much needed support to a region that was greatly impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

Over 200 dinner guests came together under the guidance of FFCF's president Frank Tepedino, a veteran of eight major league seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Yankees.

Click here to see photos and read more about the wonderful affair which had close to a dozen former major league baseball players supporting the cause. 

 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Joe Ginsberg, original New York Met dies at 86

Joe Ginsberg - Baseball-Almanac.com

Myron “Joe” Ginsberg, a veteran catcher of 13 major league seasons and an original 1962 New York Met, passed away Friday November 2nd, at Sunrise Retirement Living in West Bloomfield, Mich. He was 86.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pascual Perez ex-Yankee fatally stabbed in home invasion

Pascual Perez signed card - Baseball Almanac
Pascual Perez, former pitcher for the New York Yankees, was found dead at his home on Thursday in the Dominican Republic. His death was the result of an apparent home invasion, where he was fatally stabbed in the neck. He was 55.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Joe Hicks' mighty swing toppled the Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1963

Joe Hicks never fancied himself as a home run hitter, yet for one magical day on July 17, 1963 as a member of the New York Mets, Hicks supplied the necessary power to slay the defending National League champs, the San Francisco Giants. The 80-year-old Hicks, speaking from his home in Virginia, vividly recalled a shining moment from his career that put the bat in his hands with a chance to win the game against one of the elite teams in baseball.

Joe Hicks

“We were playing the Giants in the Polo Grounds on a Wednesday afternoon," he said. "The Giants were in town and they were the defending National League champs. They had Gaylord Perry pitching against us. Gaylord was in the early stages of his career and we knocked him around pretty good. … We jump off to a 5-3 lead and they started to chip back, and at the end of the 9th [inning] it was 7-7. We’re batting in the bottom of the 11th inning and they bring on Don Larsen to pitch. Joe Christopher, he was the lead off hitter, and he led off with a single.”

Hicks was waiting on deck. Everyone in the house including Hicks knew what was coming next, a sacrifice bunt.

“I knew I was going to be sacrificing," he said. "I look down at third [base] and sure enough Solly Hemus gives me the bunt sign.”

Hicks, an expert bunter, placed the ball in the perfect location, but the laws of physics intervened.

“I lay down a nice bunt, and would have had a hit, but at the last minute it kicked foul," he said. "I’m walking back [to the plate] and I’m so glad it went foul because as I’m going back to the batter’s box, I’m looking back at Solly Hemus, and Old Casey had taken the bunt off."

Stengel knew as Larsen’s former manager, what his next pitch would be after the bunt rolled foul. He relayed that information to Hicks, which proved pivotal moments later.

“He had managed Larsen in New York, and knew that if a guy sacrificed, on the next pitch he would throw him that high hard fastball," he said. "I was looking for that pitch and I pull it down the right field line to hit a home run into the upper deck to win the game. We didn’t call them walk-offs back then, just a game winning home run. That day against Larsen was my best in the major leagues.”

His heroics earned him a spot on Kiner’s Korner after the game along with Choo Choo Coleman. Hicks was an eyewitness to Coleman’s brief, but classic interview that is still told fondly today.

“At the end of the game, he sent for me and Choo Choo Coleman to be on his show," he said. "I’ll never forget the interview; we had to climb up in the TV booth. We get up there, and Ralph Kiner said, ‘Hey Choo Choo, I saw your wife at the game today. What’s her name?’ He said (in a southern drawl), ‘Mrs. Coleman.’ Choo Choo didn’t know anyone’s name. He would just say, ‘Hey Bub!’”

Hicks started in the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1959, and came to the Mets after the 1962 season, when he was purchased from the Washington Senators. He debuted with the Mets halfway through the 1963 season after tearing up Triple-A Buffalo, batting .320 with 14 home runs in only 81 games. The Mets hoped that he would be a shot in the arm to their struggling offense, and for the first eight games, including the aforementioned one against the Giants, he was. He batted .419 with three home runs and nine RBIs during that span.

“I enjoyed my time with the Mets," he said. "I was with Buffalo and they brought me up for the last half of the season in 1963. I was playing regularly in Buffalo, but they [the Mets] would play me only every time a right handed pitcher pitched. I had a great start with them, but then again I was on the bench a lot. I was not a good bench player, as I was so used to playing all the time.”

Even though his manager didn’t play him every day, Hicks was endeared to Casey Stengel and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game.

“I really liked him, even in spring training. He was a great guy. He had such knowledge of the game. Back in those days, they didn’t have computers for all this stuff; he had all that information in his head,” he said.

Stengel was also known for his ability to spin yarns from his many years in the game, often lasting hours at a time. Hicks recalled one of those storytelling incidents with Stengel during spring training.

“One day we’re supposed to get there at nine o’clock to St. Petersburg," he said. "We get there and it’s raining. We’re in the dugout and Stengel starts talking to us. He talks for about an hour and asks the trainer to check if the rain stopped. When he found out it didn’t stop, he kept talking for another few hours. It was hard to concentrate on what he said because he jumped around so much. He would say, ‘A guy leads off with a double with nobody out, it’s so important to get that guy to third base with nobody out because if you get that guy to third base, there are 12 ways to score without getting a base hit. I will give $100 to anyone who figures that out.’ I figured that out over night and I brought them in. He said, ‘Hicksy, how did you know that?’ I said, ‘Skip, I’ve followed this game since eight years old.’”

The early years of the Mets was a mix of young talent and aging veterans. One of Hicks’ partners in the outfield was an aging Duke Snider, who was a legend in New York from his years with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Stengel was famous for platooning his players, and the future Hall of Famer wasn’t exempt from sitting on the bench. One game against the Dodgers, Hicks found himself on the bench alongside Snider while Sandy Koufax was pitching. Late in the game, Stengel peered down the dugout to look for a pinch hitter to bat against Koufax.

“Casey, who loved to platoon, had all of his right-handed hitters in the lineup and the left-handed hitters were on the bench," he said. "We get to the 9th inning and Casey has a problem ... he doesn’t have any right handed pinch hitters to hit against Koufax. He turns around and says to Duke, ‘Do you want to hit?’ He said, ‘Not particularly.’ Casey just turns around says nothing. He’s headed my way and before he gets to me, I said, ‘Hey Skip, I’ll give him a try.’”

From afar, Koufax looked hittable. That apparition quickly changed as Hicks approached the plate.

“From the dugout Koufax looked so easy because he was so smooth," he said. "I get to the on deck circle, he looked faster. When I got to the batter’s box, he looked a lot faster. I worked the count to 3-2 and I’d seen two of his fastballs and I knew his fastball was coming. I had it timed perfectly and at the last minute, it had a little rise to it. I struck out; I’m walking back to the dugout, and Stengel says, ‘Hicksy, don’t let it fret you, don’t let it fret you. He struck out a lot of guys and he’s gonna strike out a lot more.’ I was glad to hit against him because Duke said no.”

Hicks played another three seasons in the minor leagues with Buffalo from 1964-66, but despite hitting .282 and .318 the next two years, the Mets never brought him up to experience Shea Stadium.

“They were beginning to make their youth movement and I was in my 30s at the time," he said. "They were beginning to bring up guys like Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda, and Cleon Jones. I just never got a chance after that.”

After retiring from baseball, Hicks returned to Charlottesville, where he became the athletic director for the city. Going strong at 80 (a year older than his "baseball age", which was changed at the urging of the scout that signed him), he continues to umpire and play handball. I caught him on a Sunday evening in July after he spent the entire day on the field.

“I umpired three games today," he said. "I’m the commissioner for the high school baseball umpires. I recruit and assign them games and do some games myself. I also do girls fast pitch and [schedule] those umpires. I do all of that by myself without the computer. It gives me something to do when I’m not playing handball. I learned the game at the University of Virginia, fell in love with the game, and I’m still playing it.”

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Les Mueller, 93, played with Detroit Tigers in 1945 World Series

Les Mueller
Les Mueller, one of the last remaining players from the Detroit Tigers 1945 World Series championship team, died Thursday in Belleville, Ill. He was 93.

Mueller signed with the Tigers in 1937, and made his major league debut in 1941, pitching in four games before enlisting in the Army midway through the 1942 season. He went to the Jefferson Barracks Reception Center in St. Louis where his baseball skills kept him stateside.

“I was 23 years old when I went into the service" Mueller said in a 2008 interview via telephone from his home. "I was in St. Louis and I stayed there. I was very fortunate. The first year I played quite a bit. We had several major leaguers and played about 70 games that summer."

Muller continued to keep his skills sharp during his service, playing semi-pro ball during his breaks. Just as he was preparing to go overseas in 1944, doctors found a hernia during a physical and gave him a medical discharge.

He joined the Tigers in 1945 eager to prove himself to the Detroit brass. He took whatever role the club needed, winning six games as both a starter and reliever, with two shutouts and a save. During that season, he set a major league record by pitching 19 2/3 innings against the Philadelphia Athletics on July 21st. Amazingly, he received a no-decision when the game ended in a tie after being called after 24 innings due to darkness.

"I always kept hoping we'd get a run, and I'd get a win, but it didn't work out that way," he said to SABR member Jim Sargent.

The Tigers won the American League pennant in 1945 to advance to the World Series. They faced the Chicago Cubs in an epic seven-game battle of the Great Lakes. Mueller was provided an immediate opportunity to contribute when was summoned in the eighth inning of the first game of the series by manager Steve O'Neill to stop the onslaught of the Chicago lineup.

"It was the first game of the series that Hal Newhouser started," Mueller recalled. "He really got clobbered that day by the Cubs. I remember one or two other pitchers got in that game. I was the only pitcher that day that shut them out. I pitched the 8th and 9th innings. I walked a man and had a strikeout, but I didn't give up any hits; I felt pretty good about that."

Mueller's clean slate in Game 1 was his only appearance during the series. The experience of being on the mound in that atmosphere is something he held close over 60 years later.

"It was an experience I will never forget," he said. "It was a boyhood dream come true, getting to pitch in the World Series and getting a ring."

Riding high off of his performance in the World Series, Mueller was confident that he would return with the Tigers in 1946. Right before the season opener, he pitched four innings of shutout ball in an exhibition game against the Boston Braves. Feeling good about his showing, he went north with the team to Detroit, eager to suit up for the season opener; however, in a cruel twist of fate, Mueller was called into the manager's office prior to the start of the National Anthem. He was completely unaware about the devastating news he was about to receive.

"I go up there and George Trautman, who was the general manager at the time, said, 'We're going to send you to Buffalo.' … It was a shocker," he recalled.

After a few days of contemplating his decision, he went to Buffalo where he developed a sore arm. Despite receiving expert medical care for his arm, his career was finished by 1948. He returned to Belleville and took over the family business Mueller Furniture from his dad, managing it until his retirement in 1984.

Despite his relatively quick exit from baseball after his World War II service, Mueller never lost his love for the game.

"I've been a continued fan," he said. "I've had season tickets to the St. Louis Cardinals since 1968."

As someone who started his professional career over 70 years earlier, Mueller had his musings on the major changes he's seen in the sport. 

"The hitters dig in a lot more, and if they almost get hit, everybody blows up and the umpire runs outs and warns the clubs," Mueller lamented. "That's been kind of exaggerated and takes something away from the pitchers. The biggest thing that has made the home run so prevalent is the thin handle bat. Hank Greenberg's and Rudy York's bats were like wagon tongues. Now they get more bat speed with these bats. I picked up some of the bats the guys they used in our days, [and they] were heavy and big. I don't think a lot of guys who hit home runs now could swing those bats."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Catching up with former New York Met Steve Springer

Steve Springer - Checkoutmycards.com
For Steve Springer, baseball has always been an issue of quality over quantity. Springer tried to make the most of his 17 major league at-bats with the Cleveland Indians and the New York Mets, and is now working with young players helping them to do the same. “If you know my story, I didn’t start in high school, I got three at-bats as a freshman in high school, and three my freshman year in college. I go around the country inspiring kids not to quit,” said Springer via telephone from his home in California.

Click here to read more about Springer's time with the Mets, and his transformation into a hitting specialist whose disciples include superstars such as Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Darryl Strawberry's restaurant in Douglaston to close

Darryl Strawberry interviewed at the opening of his restaurant
In Douglaston, N.Y., the straw will no longer stir the drink. Strawberry's Sports Grill, which bears the name of the former Mets and Yankees slugger Darryl Strawberry, will unexpectedly shut down this Sunday evening.

Click here for a complete report on the closure of Strawberry's restaurant, including many photos and videos that attracted a wide variety of baseball players and celebrities to the Northern Queens establishment. 
 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

1986 World Series hero Howard Johnson brings excitement to the 2012 Harrison Apar Field of Dreams Golf Classic

Howard Johnson (c.) led a group of ex-MLB players at the Harrison Apar Golf Classic
Howard Johnson’s sweet swing was on display once again Monday afternoon, but it was not the one that often filled outfield seats at Shea Stadium, but a smooth touch that lit up Mohansic Golf Course at the 2012 Harrison Apar Columbus Day Golf Classic. Johnson was part of a handful of retired major leaguers that also included New York Yankees All-Star pitcher Tommy John, George Alusik, Dave Lemanczyk, Don DeMola, Matt Merullo, and Rick Surhoff, all who played in support of the Harrison Apar Field of Dreams Foundation.

Click here to see a video interview with Johnson about his feelings about participating in the event, his return to playing baseball last year, and his thoughts about the current state of the New York Mets.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt once again speaks out about autographs

Mike Schmidt signed card - Baseball Almanac
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt is back again, complaining about autographs, this time about the awful scrawl of modern athletes. In 2010, we spotlighted a Sports Illustrated article by Schmidt entitled, "The autograph craze is out of whack," where Schmidt takes to task all of those who try to get his autograph in public for free by covert methods.

Schmidt has followed that up with, "Perfect penmanship becoming a thing of the past with autographs," where he calls out modern players for having illegible autographs, and again takes the time to go after collectors who try to get players outside team hotels and other places they frequent. This is coming from someone who purposely signs in a much sloppier fashion the rare times he signs for free in public, to make sure he protects the value of his autograph. One can understand that as a Hall of  Famer, a big asset is your signature, but when you are getting paid tens of thousands of dollars per public appearance, do you really care if a few people somewhere down the line make a few bucks from your signature because they couldn't afford the $75 the promoter is asking at a show?

The quality of modern autographs have seriously deteriorated, as players try to meet the increased demand at games, spring training, etc., but yet a few great examples remain, such as those of Michael Cuddyer, Huston Street, and Pat Neshek. If Schmidt is so concerned about the quality of current signatures, he should take a few players under his wing, just as the late Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew did with Cuddyer, and fellow Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda did with Street. A word from this Hall of Famer might just carry enough weight to make a difference.

Former Yankee All-Stars come together to help 'kick' cancer

Graig Nettles (far left), Darryl Strawberry (c.) and Mickey Rivers (r.) with the volunteer staff.
New York baseball legends Dwight Gooden, Graig Nettles, Mickey Rivers, and Darryl Strawberry were all on hand this Saturday to help benefit the Jason Krause Kick Cancer Scholarship Fund at Kennelly’s Grille House in Congers, N.Y. The benefit, which is now in its third year, had a record turnout this weekend, due in part to the generosity of the aforementioned superstars.

Click here to read more about the event which helps to raise money for brain cancer research, as well as provide a scholarship annually to a Clarkstown North High School soccer player. Photos including all of the baseball greats are included.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Frank Saucier's promising career derailed by more than Veeck's midget intervention

Frank Saucier once batted an astonishing .446 in 1949 while playing with the Wichita Falls team of the Big State League; a total that to this day stands as one of the highest ever for a single professional season. Yet over 60 years later, Saucier’s claim to fame is not his towering feats at the plate, rather it is the distinction of being the only player in Major League Baseball’s history to be replaced by a midget.

On August 19, 1951, Saucier returned from right field to the bench of the St. Louis Browns at the bottom of the first inning after helping to hold the Detroit Tigers to a scoreless first frame. The events that transpired after Saucier went to grab a bat from the rack to face Tigers’ hurler Bob Cain permanently engrained Saucier’s name in the depths of baseball’s annals.

Before revealing the details of Saucier’s historical moment, let’s go back a few months to the beginning of the 1951 season. He began the season on the suspended list when he held out for a bonus and refused to sign his contract. Saucier turned his attention to managing oil fields in Okmulgee, Okla., content with the money he was making away from baseball. With the season marching along and no attempt from management to make amends on his contract demands, Saucier donning a major league uniform in 1951 seemed almost as absurd as a midget taking the field. The thought of either happening at the time might have been a foregone conclusion, unless your name was Bill Veeck.

Veeck led a group of investors that bought the Browns midway through the 1951 season, and one of the first moves he made was to personally visit Saucier to persuade him to join the club. After an hour of discussions, Saucier penned his name on a major league contract worth $10,000. Veeck hoped that the popular Saucier would energize the fan base and get the turnstiles moving. Slightly over two weeks after he was signed, Saucier made his major league debut on July 22, 1951. Rusty after taking a three month break from playing, Saucier developed bloody blisters on his hands that made it hard for him to swing a bat, and acute bursitis that made it hard for him to throw. The World War II veteran soldiered on for the rest of the season, with most of his appearances coming as a pinch runner. So why was Saucier in the lineup on July 19th?

A week prior to the game, Veeck alerted the newspapers in Saucier's hometown of Washington, Mo., that he would be playing. The news of his appearance brought a few extra thousand people to the game, something the Browns desperately needed. Saucier hoped Cain didn’t have his best stuff that day because he was in no shape to take a hack.

"I go over to the bat rack and pick up my Louisville Slugger, model K44, and I step up to the plate. And I hope (Tigers pitcher) Bob Cain walks me because I sure can't swing the bat," Saucier said to ESPN.com.

He didn’t even get the opportunity to dig his cleats in the batter’s box when his at-bat was interrupted by a stark announcement that boomed across the stadium.

"When the announcer called Eddie, I was thinking this is both the greatest act of show business I've ever seen, plus it's the easiest money I've ever made," Saucier said.

Three-foot-seven-inch midget Eddie Gaedel waddled up to the plate, and true to Saucier’s hopes, Cain couldn’t find the plate. Thoroughly distracted by Gaedel’s miniscule strike zone, he walked him on four pitches. After a few waves to the crowd, Gaedel eventually made it to first base and was replaced by Jim Delsing. Gaedel walked off the field, never to be heard from again by his baseball teammates. He died at 36 in 1961 after suffering a heart attack.

As for Saucier, he finished the season with a .073 average (1-14); limited by the nagging injuries that plagued him all season. He was recalled to active duty by the United States Navy in April, 1952 to serve in the Korean War. Four years after starting his baseball career, it was over. He spent two years in the service, receiving his release from active duty in April, 1954. He returned to the oil business, and then became a financial consultant in Amarillo, Texas before his retirement. The baseball fields at his alma mater, Westminster College are named in his honor. At the age of 86, Saucier is living in Amarillo, the last living player from the St. Louis Browns that participated in the July 19th affair. Saucier has embraced his role in baseball history, generously sending out numerous articles about his career after recent correspondence with him via mail (pictured below).

A tip of the cap goes to Bob Lemke's article, Frank Saucier's brief but memorable career now commemorated, which provided valuable background information for this piece.



Monday, September 24, 2012

Tom Umphlett, former outfielder for the Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators passes away at 81

Tom Umphlett, former outfielder for the Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators died Friday, September 21st, in Norfolk, Va. He was 81.

Umphlett played three seasons in the major leagues from 1953-55, finishing second in the 1953 American League Rookie of the Year voting to Harvey Kuenn. He was part of a youth movement by the Red Sox in the early 1950’s to fill the voids left by Ted Williams’ military service and Dom DiMaggio’s retirement. “[Lou] Boudreau, the manager, was going for the young talent even in spring training. You had Ted Lepcio at third base, Milt Bolling at short, Goodman at second, and Dick Gernert at first base. I played center field and Jimmy Piersall played right,” he said during a 2008 interview from his home in Ahoskie, N.C.

Click here to read more about Umphlett's career including his memories of playing with the greatest hitter that ever lived.

 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dwight Gooden to appear at Greenwich Citibank on Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dwight Gooden / N. Diunte
Dwight “Doc” Gooden, a 2010 inductee into the New York Mets Hall of Fame and member of the of the New York Mets Alumni Association Presented by Citi, will be greeting fans and signing autographs from 12:00-1:30 pm on Tuesday, September 25th at the Citibank branch at 16-18 Railroad Avenue in Greenwich, Ct., in support of Citi Tuesdays.

Gooden was the 1984 National League Rookie of the Year, the 1985 National League Cy Young Award winner, and part of the Mets 1986 World Series championship team. He is ranks in the top 3 on the Mets all-time list in various pitching categories, including games won, strikeouts, inning pitched, won-loss percentage, and complete games.

Citi Tuesdays is a program designed to provide added value to Citi customers and Mets fans. For more information and details on all Citi Tuesday offers, please log on to www.Mets.com/CitiTuesdays or visit the Citi Tuesday information booth located by the Shea Bridge at Citi Field on every Citi Tuesday.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mookie Wilson strongly endeared to Shea Stadium

Mookie Wilson at Citi Tuesdays - N. Diunte
For Mookie Wilson, he will always find comfort in the confines of Shea Stadium. For 10 years, Wilson was a fixture in center field, tracking down balls far and wide to the delight of the New York Mets faithful. It is no surprise that despite spending time as a coach for the Mets in their new digs at Citi Field, he remains loyal to its predecessor. “It’s interesting that you use the word home because that’s what Shea was. To me, Shea was home. Don’t get me wrong, Citi Field is a beautiful ballpark; I think that it is fan friendly. I would have loved played at Citi Field, but you can’t replace Shea. That was home for us,” said Wilson while making an appearance Tuesday afternoon as part of the Mets Citi Tuesdays promotion at Citibank in Lower Manhattan. “It was old, [and] yes it needed repairs, but it was home and we loved and enjoyed playing there. I don’t think you can compare the two. Shea has its history and Citi Field is in the process of making its own history and it’s going to take time.”

Click here to read more about and watch video of Wilson's thoughts about playing for the Mets, his trade to Toronto, and his desire to return to coaching. 

 

Tom Saffell, former MLB outfielder and WWII veteran dies at 91

Tom Saffell, an outfielder who played parts of four big league seasons from 1949-1955 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Athletics, passed away last week. He was 91.

Saffell was the president of the Gulf Coast Rookie League for 30 years from 1979-2009, working until he was 89 years old. That capped a career in baseball that started almost 70 years prior in 1941 in the Class D Newport Canners of the Appalachian League.

Click here to read more about Saffell's career which features excerpts from a 2008 interview and his SABR bio. 

 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Johnny Antonelli opens up the doors to his baseball life with 'A Baseball Memoir'

Johnny Antonelli has been out of baseball for 50 years, yet with the release of his new autobiography, "Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir," Antonelli finds himself back on the mound once again. “It feels pretty good. I’m not one that ever flaunted myself to be recognized. This has given me something that I probably missed since 1962 when I left. It’s something that kind of brings back memories,” said Antonelli during an August telephone interview. The southpaw collaborated with award winning journalist Scott Pitoniak to chronicle his story, one that he was initially reluctant to engage. “He was asking me for a few years about doing a book and it wasn’t really my cup of tea, so I kind of put him off for a while. Finally I agreed to do it,” said Antonelli.

Click here to read the rest of the exclusive interview with the 82-year-old Antonelli discussing not only his new book, but his playing career and his life after baseball. 
 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Negro Leaguer Bill Greason returns to Oklahoma City 60 years after barrier breaking debut

Bill Greason throwing out the first pitch in Oklahoma - Facebook
Rev. Bill Greason, former pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, (where he mentored a 16-year old Willie Mays) and later the St. Louis Cardinals, spoke during a tribute in his honor in Oklahoma City with NewsOK.com about becoming the first black player for the Oklahoma City Indians of the Texas League in 1952.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Greason in 2008 about his historical 1952 season in Oklahoma City. He was sold directly from the Black Barons to Oklahoma City shortly after returning from his service in the Korean War. He spoke frankly about the hardships he faced and how he handled them.

"They gave you a hard time, even from the stands. A couple of places especially. When you know who you are and you have talent, you don’t worry about what people say. Sometimes it encourages you to do better and work harder. ... When people call you names, and you know who you are, you don’t worry about what they say. It gives you more determination to succeed."

The 87-year-old Greason was honored on August 30th by the Oklahoma City Redhawks, commemorating the 60th anniversary of his debut. Berry Tramel of NewsOK.com provides an excellent video interview with Greason about his barrier breaking entry into baseball, his military service, and career in the ministry.

His appearance was heavily covered by local media outlets, spearheaded by Tramel's coverage.
Celebrating a Deserving Pioneer in OKC - Jenni Carlson
The Reverend Returns - Brendan Hoover
Oklahoma City's Jackie Robinson returns - Berry Tramel 
Bill Greason: Owner Jimmie Humphries paved the way - Berry Tramel
Reverend Bill Greason: A memorable night at the ballpark - Berry Tramel