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.