Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dodgers infielder Bill Russell makes a putout on autograph seekers

Bill Russell, a veteran of 18 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, most of them as the shortstop of their legendary infield of the 1970's that included Ron Cey, Davey Lopes and Steve Garvey, is now refusing autograph requests through the mail.

The following typed note with pre-printed signature from Russell was received a few weeks ago from a reader with his card unsigned requesting that no more mail be sent to his home address.

"Please do NOT send any more items to this address. They will NOT be signed or returned. Thank you for your cooperation." - Bill Russell
According to the website SportsCollectors.net, Russell has not signed autographs sent to his home address since January 2013. Prior to the announcement, the website stated that he had signed close to 95% of requests sent to him via the mail since 2001.

Russell has not commented as to why he had this sudden change of heart fulfilling mailed autograph requests, but his actions serve as a reminder that the players, especially retired ones, are doing fans a courtesy of acknowledging requests sent to their homes. A simple show of gratitude and respect for these veterans goes a long way in keeping the doors open.

Minnie Minoso receives deserved recognition in new documentary

Minnie Minoso / Baseball-Almanac.com
Nearing his 90th birthday, Minnie Minoso is still bouncing around Chicago as an ambassador for the White Sox, displaying the vigor that allowed him to play professional baseball in seven different decades.

Tom Weinberg, director of the Mediaburn video archive, has given Minoso his just due by producing a documentary, "Baseball's Been Very, Very Good To Me: The Minnie Minoso Story."

Click here to read a review from LatinoSports.com of the documentary which is still awaiting its proper national distribution. It is a fitting tribute to one of baseball's overlooked pioneers.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Revisiting the legend of Jigger Statz as Ichiro reaches 4,000

As New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki rounded first for what was his 4,000th professional hit Wednesday evening, somewhere in the distance was the fading voice of the oft-forgotten Arnold “Jigger” Statz.

For most, the name will not be familiar, as the bulk of his playing career came in the Pacific Coast League, far away from the lights of the east coast media.

Jigger Statz / SABR
Duke Snider, the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame center fielder, grew up watching Statz impress the Los Angeles crowds. Speaking with the late Snider’s friend, New York Yankees outfielder Irv Noren in 2012, he related a story of how Snider surprised the New York media when asked who the best center fielder was among himself, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays.

“Growing up in Compton, he followed Jigger Statz and everyone else out here,” Noren said. “They interviewed him out in New York and they had the three outfielders, Snider, Mantle and Mays. They asked him who the best one he’s ever seen was. He said, ‘Jigger Statz.’ Duke said this. All the writers went, ‘Who? Who?’ like a bunch of owls.”

Statz played professionally 24 years from 1919-1942, amassing 4,093 career hits between the major and minor leagues. By the time he played his last game, his career combined hit totals placed him second all-time, only behind Ty Cobb.

I first encountered Statz’s legend in Jason Aronoff’s “Going, Going, Caught …,” a wonderful book about the greatest defensive outfield efforts largely in the era that pre-dated national television and smaller ballparks. Using multiple news sources to reconstruct his highlight reel catches, Aronoff used ten pages to paint Statz as one of the greatest outfielders of the 1920s.

Aronoff chose a telling quotation from Baseball Digest’s Al Wolf, whose 1966 article, “Statz, ‘Best’ Center Fielder, Played in Record 3,373 Tilts,” aptly rated Statz defensively above the greatest center fielders in the game.

“Jigger is regarded by old-timers as the greatest defensive center fielder of all time," Wolf wrote. "They rate him over Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio and even Willie Mays in catching the ball.”

Statz played for four teams in the major leagues from 1919-1928, with his best season coming in 1923 with the Chicago Cubs when he batted .319 with 209 hits. He finished his major league career at age 30 with 737 hits, but was far from done.

Starting fresh with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, he reeled off eight consecutive seasons of over 200 hits from 1929-1936, and at age 40 in 1938, he piled on another 200 hit season to silence his doubters.

Lennie Merullo, the 96-year-old former shortstop for the Chicago Cubs is one of the few living major leaguers that played with this unheralded outfielder. Speaking with Merullo via telephone in 2009, he said playing with Statz as a member of the Angels in 1941 was one of the most cherished memories of his career.

“He was a legend,” Merullo said. “The word 'jigger,' you associate it with Jigger Statz. He was a good hitter! He meant one thing, one of the greatest center fielders that ever lived! He must have been something to play with at the time because I never forgot him."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My Cuban Florida baseball experience - Part One - Paul Casanova's baseball academy

Last week marked my semi-annual pilgrimage to South Florida to spend one last week in the sun and soak up the rich baseball culture in the area.

A favorite destination of mine is the baseball academy of ten-year major league veteran Paul Casanova, who delivers his instruction in the backyard of his house.
T-Shirt from Paul Casanova's Baseball Academy

I previously wrote about my 2010 visit, and every time I return, I pick up something new, whether it is an adjustment on my swing, an anecdote from his playing day, or meeting the next up-and-coming prospect out of the Hialeah area.
One of the many Walls of Fame

His students praise his ability to instruct and build their confidence, using his watchful eye from his over fifty years of professional baseball experience to keep their swings on-track.

Hank Aaron wall
His home also serves as a mini Hall of Fame of Cuban baseball history, the walls lined with photos of his Cuban contemporaries in the major leagues, as well as the legendary winter league teams prior to Fidel Castro closing off the league to professionals in 1961.

One one wall facing the batting cage, he pays tribute two of the biggest baseball legends he was associated with during his career, Hank Aaron and Ted Williams.

Casanova spent three seasons with Aaron on the Atlanta Braves from 1972-74, and was one of the first teammates to greet Aaron as he crossed the plate for his 715th home run. He refers to Aaron as, "the best," and often references Aaron's strong wrists when instructing the young hitters. Displayed on the wall are photos and articles on the wall about his Hall of Fame teammate.

Ted Williams wall
From my 2010 visit
The other side of the wall is dedicated to his manager Ted Williams, whom he played three seasons for as a member of the Washington Senators. His face lights up when speaking about the Splendid Splinter and how enamored he was with him. He felt very fortunate to visit Williams at his home shortly before he passed away. He proudly displays the photo of him with Williams on the wall of his facility.

Everything about the facility screams baseball, from the bats outside of the house, the games playing on the television, the constant crack of balls being battered, the endless baseball chatter and the photos that line the walls everywhere you walk.

As for what keeps the 71-year-old Casanova going, he says the game is a part of him.

"Baseball is in my blood. It's what I do."




 

Casanova's career in pictures
Batting Cages




Soft Toss Stations
Another Wall of Fame
Historical Cuban Baseball Photos
Historical Cuban Baseball Photos
Historical Cuban Baseball Photos

Baseball Bobble Heads








 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Marvin Price, 81, youngest to play in the Negro Leagues

Marvin Price, a feared hitter in the Negro Leagues, who was regarded as the youngest player ever to suit up in an official Negro League game, passed away July 31, 2013 in Chicago. His niece Maria Stimpson confirmed his death on Thursday that came after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 81.

Price was born in Chicago on April 5, 1932, the second youngest child to Mary Emma Anderson Price and Porter Earl Price. As a youngster, he developed a passionate appetite for the sport.

"One day, Marvin couldn't come out to play [baseball] because he was sick,” said his sister Gloria Price Stimpson. “The other boys would look up to Marvin, who would be standing in the window, and they'd ask him to make the call – ‘out, safe, foul ball, or fair ball’. He always imagined that baseball would play a huge role in his life.”

Marvin Price - 1995 On-Field Pre-Game Ceremony - M. Stimpson
At the tender age of 14, professional baseball soon became a reality for Price when he was spotted playing baseball in Washington Park by legendary Chicago American Giants outfielder Jimmie Crutchfield. A tryout was soon arranged with owner J.B. Martin at Comiskey Park, where manager Quincy Trouppe initially thought he was the new batboy. It didn’t take long for him to show he wasn’t there to distribute the equipment.

“Dr. J.B. Martin and my family was out there before batting practice at Comiskey Park and I put on a show for ‘em,” said Price in Brent P. Kelley’s, “The Negro Leagues Revisited".

The American Giants decided to take Price on a trip down South, where he could play without jeopardizing his amateur status back in Chicago. Facing the hardened veterans of the black leagues, Price’s mettle was immediately tested after a strong display of hitting.

“I doubled and got hit in the side of the face and got right back in there and doubled again. He told me I had a lot of nerve and guts, so just keep playing,” he said.

After a week, Price returned home to Englewood High School for fear of getting caught playing in the league. He graduated high school in 1949, and caught on as a first baseman with Cleveland Buckeyes. This started a four-year run for Price in the league, playing with the New Orleans Eagles in 1950 and for his hometown Giants from 1951-52. While playing in Chicago, he batted an incredible .390 in 1951, according to the Chicago Defender.

Just as it looked like Price was on the path to major league stardom, his career was interrupted when he enlisted into the military in 1952, where he served four years for the United States Coast Guard.

With the Negro Leagues on the decline after his return, Price played in semi-pro leagues, never losing his love for the game. He used his experience in the Negro Leagues to share with the high school athletes coached by his brother-in-law.

“When my dad started coaching high school baseball, Marvin would frequently show up to teach the boys how to play shortstop -- and they loved it,” said Maria Stimpson. “Even when Marvin wasn't on the field, he was known to just jump up out of the blue and punctuate his conversations with all sorts of animated baseball moves.”

Price went on to work as a supervisor in the Chicago post office for 30 years. Still drawn to the game, he continued to work part-time with the Chicago Park District, where he drew the admiration of the local youth, teaching them the finer points of baseball at Jackson Park Field House.

“Kids have a lot of respect for me ‘cause they know I tell ‘em the truth. I’ve been a lucky man,” Price said.

He is survived by a son and daughter, two granddaughters, two sisters, four nieces, five nephews, and a host of friends throughout the United States. A memorial service will be announced at a later date.


Friday, August 2, 2013

Teammates ensure the legend of Drungo Hazewood lives on

Drungo Hazewood / Ripkenintheminors.com
Before Bo Jackson, there was Drungo LaRue Hazewood. A two-sport star in high school so athletically gifted that USC wanted to make him their starting tailback, and the Baltimore Orioles made him their first round pick in 1977. Possessing the ability to hit a baseball over five-hundred feet, run like a world-class sprinter, and throw a ball like it was shot out of a cannon, Hazewood tantalized his teammates, opponents and fans with his skill.

“In spring training, we’d always run for times,” teammate Willie Royster said. “I remember the last time we were all together, he was the fastest guy in the organization. Nobody could beat him in the 60. We’re talking a guy over six-feet and 200 lbs., and he could just motor. It was great just to watch him perform.”

Hazewood, at the young age of 20 set the minor leagues on fire in 1980. Playing for the Double-A Charlotte Orioles, he set a team record for home runs with 28, while also stealing 29 bases. His undeniable performance led manager Jimmy Williams to enthusiastically recommend him for a September call-up.

“He had a super year and it looked like he was going to go all the way,” said the 87-year old Williams from his home in Maryland. “At the time I knew him, he had a super chance to play in the big leagues. If I look back at any of the reports I have, I’m sure that’s what I said in there. My reports were, ‘This kid has a chance to play in the big leagues. He has all the possibilities. He’s big, he’s strong, he hits the ball well, good outfielder, runs the bases well because of his speed.’”

Joining a team in a middle of a pennant race that included veteran outfielders Al Bumbry and Ken Singleton, there was little room for Hazewood to display his talents. He sat on the bench for most of the month, earning his only start in the next-to-last game of the season when the Orioles were eliminated from contention.

Despite all of his talent, Hazewood would never return to the big leagues. He passed away Sunday July 28, 2013 due to complications from cancer. He was 53.

As quickly as he ascended to the major leagues, was almost as quickly as he was out of baseball. In 1983, only 23 years old, Hazewood found himself attempting to take care of his mother who was suffering from cancer, as well as his wife and two children. Needing to support his family, he went to work driving trucks, losing touch with the baseball community.

“He was always talking about his family; he was a big family guy,” Royster said. “When we stopped playing, he immediately started working as a truck driver, making runs across country. Every now and then I’d hear from him by phone, but everybody at that time was trying to get their life together after the game was over.”

Some years later, a chance encounter enabled Royster to rekindle his friendship with his teammate who had drifted away.

“A teammate ran into him while he was in Sacramento and they exchanged phone numbers and we made contact again. After that point, we stayed in touch for the past 8-10 years.”

Little was ever reported as to the kindred spirit that was Hazewood. His passing allowed me to get in touch with a cadre of former teammates that were able to shine light on his personality.

“I loved Drungo,” Charlotte teammate Tom Rowe said. “He was one of my favorites, always was. We had a special kind of relationship. We’d wrestle in the hotel a lot and kind of like that brawl in Charlotte, I’d be the one flying all over the place. We had this thing, if he got really frustrated if he struck out, I’d tighten up my stomach and he’d punch me in the stomach to get his frustration out. Luckily I did a lot of sit-ups back then. He’d come over to me, ‘Tommy, I need it.’”

Royster had a breakout year in 1981 with Charlotte when he hit 31 home runs and stole 53 bases. He attributed a lot of his success from the constant support from Hazewood.

“During that whole year we were roommates," he said. "We motivated each other; we pushed each other to produce because we felt the only way to get to the big leagues was to dominate where we were.”

Hazewood seldom made public appearances, attending a reunion for the Charlotte Orioles in 2010 and did a private autograph signing with Chris Potter in the fall of 2012. Many think that he held a grudge against those in the game for never getting another shot at the big leagues, but Royster disagreed.

“He never thought they gave him the opportunity to produce and to show his wares. There were other guys they pushed ahead of him, for whatever their reasoning was. He dealt with it; he didn’t walk around angry at the world, he tried to improve on his craft.”

Looking back at his playing days, Royster’s lasting memory of his friend was someone who was highly revered by everyone on the field.

“We were best friends. Back then, he was a young kid. He was a big deal. He had all the tools. He could run, throw, hit, had a great arm, and speed. He was just a good hearted person. If he was on your team, he was the kind of guy you wanted on your team. If he was on the other team, you didn’t want to face him.”

Editor's Note -
The outpouring of support in the wake of Hazewood's passing from his former teammates was unbelievable. They all jumped at the chance to share their memories of their friend. The interviews in this article were conducted after I had submitted articles to regional newspapers memorializing his passing. You can read more interviews with his teammates that I conducted in the following articles.

Former Orioles phenom Drungo Hazewood dies - Baltimore Sun 

Charlotte Orioles' Drungo Hazewood a natural, rare blend of talent - Charlotte Observer

Drungo Hazewood's 1977 Scouting Report - Kansas City Royals