Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Frank Malzone, six-time Boston Red Sox All-Star dies at 85

Frank Malzone, the legendary Boston Red Sox third baseman from the 1950s and 1960s, has passed away at the age of 85.

Frank Malzone - 1959 / Leslie Jones Collection
Malzone was a six-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner during his 11-year career with the Red Sox from 1955-1965. He finished his last season in the majors with the California Angels in 1966. He finished his career with a .274 batting average, hitting 133 home runs and driving in 728 runs. Upon the completion of his playing career, he spent over 35 years as a scout for the Red Sox.

An interview with Felipe Montemayor, the Mexican 'Clipper'

Felipe Montemayor, who was one of the first Mexicans in the major leagues, playing as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953 and 1955, gave this excellent interview in 2013 regarding his career in baseball that spanned 20 years in Cuba, Mexico, and the United States.

Felipe Montemayor
Montemayor was a teammate of Roberto Clemente during Clemente's rookie season in 1955, and shares his memories of playing alongside the budding superstar.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Havana Hardball podcast with author Cesar Brioso

A wonderful podcast discussion with author Cesar Brioso at the legendary Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Manhattan regarding his new book, "Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and the Cuban League," which is about the Brooklyn Dodgers 1947 spring training in Havana, Cuba and all of the variables surrounding the weeks leading up to Robinson breaking the Major League color barrier.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Charlie Manuel reflects on playing baseball in Japan

Charlie Manuel, former manager of the 2008 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, and major leaguer with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins, candidly discusses his time playing baseball in Japan and the adjustments he made while playing there. In this interview with the Japan Weekly Baseball Podcast, Manuel shows how his genuine character has made his one of the most respected figures in the game. Manuel is also a popular figure on Twitter and can be followed @CMBaseball41


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: 'Bob Oldis - A Life in Baseball' by Stephen Bratkovich

Spending eight decades involved in Major League Baseball, Bob Oldis has a lifetime of stories to tell, and fortunately at 87, and he is still around to share them. Oldis has teamed up with Stephen Bratkovich, a Minnesota-based author and SABR member to pen his autobiography, “Bob Oldis: A Life in Baseball.”

Click here for a complete review of the book via my National Baseball History column on Examiner.com.
 
Below is an interview with Bratkovich on how he came to work with Oldis for his autobiography.


Friday, November 13, 2015

Baseball Happenings Podcast: Stephen Bratkovich - Author of 'Bob Oldis: A Life in Baseball'

This episode of the Baseball Happenings Podcast features an interview with author Stephen Bratkovich, who penned the biography of Bob Oldis, a former major league catcher and 1960 World Series Champion with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The book is entitled, "Bob Oldis: A Life in Baseball," chronicling Oldis' eight-decade career in baseball, who at 87, is still employed as a scout with the Miami Marlins. Bratkovich discusses how a letter asking to meet one of his heroes growing up turned into a two-year journey that ended up in the form of a book.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

James Frascatore, the NYPD officer who arrested James Blake, aspired to follow brother's MLB career

James Frascatore, the NYPD cop who had his gun and badge removed after taking down retired tennis star James Blake earlier this week in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan, was a local budding baseball star before starting what has been a tumultuous career as a police officer. The younger brother of former major league pitcher John Frascatore, had a strong amateur career that he hoped take him on a similar path.

The 38-year-old Oceanside, New York native was a standout pitcher at Oceanside High School, where he earned honorable mention for New York State Player of the Year in 1995 by USA Today. A right-handed pitcher, Frascatore was attempting to follow in the footsteps of his older brother John, who excelled at Long Island University-CW Post before spending seven years in the major leagues as a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Toronto Blue Jays.

Frascatore played his collegiate ball at New York Tech and Queens College, but ultimately could not duplicate the success of his older brother. He ran the Big League Baseball Academy in Oceanside from 2002-2007 before working towards his current position with the NYPD. In 2013, three separate excessive force complaints were filed against him with the Civilian Compliant Review Board.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pete Rose’s longtime third base coach sees nothing wrong with an old-school slide into — or near — second base

Sometimes in baseball, it’s the third base coach that has one of the best perspectives of watching a play develop on the field. For over 25 years, Alex Grammas manned that position, primarily for Sparky Anderson’s Big Red Machine in the 1970s and later again with Anderson for 12 years in Detroit. A ten-year career as a shortstop in the major leagues put him up close and person with many collisions at second base, but none as famous when he watched from the coaches box as Pete Rose upended New York Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson during the 1973 NLCS.

“I can remember him sliding in there and the fight that developed after that,” said the 89-year old Grammas, speaking recently from his home in Alabama.




Grammas wearing number 2, pictured as the Cincinnati Reds third base coach along with Pete Rose and George Foster / Topps

While the details of the fight and its aftermath from 42 years ago is a little blurry for Grammas, who rushed in from third base to defray the fracas that ensued, he was clear on why Rose went in with such aggression.

“He [Rose] played as hard as a guy could play, no question about it,” he said. “He wanted for the team to win and that was his aim. In that All-Star game when he ran over that guy at home plate [Ray Fosse], I saw it on film and you just figure out a guy is doing things to win ballgames and some are a little tougher at it than others. Pete was as tough on that as you would run into.”

Looking at Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Chase Utley’s slide on Ruben Tejada of the New York Mets during Game 2 of the NLDS, Grammas tried to put it in a perspective from when he was a player sixty years ago. He thought that every player approaching second base was going to try to make it hard for him to finish the job.

“I had to assume that whoever was coming into second base to break up a double play, I don’t care who they were they were going to try to get you out of it,” he said. “They weren’t trying to break your leg or anything; they were just trying to get your momentum slowed down and get it to a point where you didn’t have the accuracy if you weren’t touched.

“When you’re on that field and you’re thinking we’ve gotta win this game to help us get to the World Series, a lot of things go through your mind. You don’t try to hurt anybody but you go in pretty hard and just hope that they can’t turn it into a double play, which is what you’re sliding for. The slide that fellow [Utley] made the other night wasn’t that far off the bag really. Now if you would have gone out there to the right 8–10 feet, now it would be different. This thing here, he could touch the bag even though he’s knocking this guy out of it. I guess it depends on which team you want to win is how you feel about it.”

Even though Tejada had no away to avoid Utley’s slide, Grammas felt that these types of collisions are just part of the intense competition of playoff baseball. That’s not to say that he didn’t drop some old school methods of exacting revenge on the field.
“Tejada didn’t [have a chance], he was there to be nailed,” he said. “I’ve gone through situations like that and there is really not a heck of a lot you can do about it because you know what they’re attitude is and you know what yours is. They’re trying to win a ballgame and so are you. The next time he slides in there and he’s a little open and he tries to nail me, there’s no telling where I’m liable to come down on him. You just don’t forget things like that. If you really give it a deep thought, these guys are trying to make it to the World Series and you can understand why they do things like that.”

As MLB mulls over possible rule changes regarding take-out slides at second base, Grammas, who spent 48 years in the major leagues as a player, coach, and manager, feels that any adjustment will have too large of an impact on the outcome of a game.

“I don’t think there needs to be a change in the rules,” Grammas said. “If you’re going to do that, you’re just giving people a chance to turn a double play that maybe they would have stayed out of. Maybe that [slide] would help your team win the ballgame, that what that’s for. If they felt like they could help stop him from making a double play, then that’s our chance to win the ballgame. That’s how you think as a ballplayer.”

2015 Topps Heritage High Number Baseball is a treat for the World Series

Topps’ 2015 Heritage High Number baseball card set is right on time for the World Series. As the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals square off to determine this year’s World Champion, collectors can add to their excitement with this year’s update to the classic Topps series that salutes the old and the new.
Styled in the design of the 1966 Topps set, the 2015 High Number set includes rookie cards for some of the top emerging talent in this year’s postseason.

2015 Topps Heritage High Number Baseball / Topps

Collectors will appreciate the RC designation for the likes of Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Steven Matz, and Noah Snydergaard in this year’s High Number edition. In addition to the aforementioned rookies, Topps covered many of the late season moves by major league clubs, giving fans the opportunity to get cards of the newest members of their favorite franchise in uniform.


Click here to read the full review of the 2015 Topps Heritage High Number Baseball Card series.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mike Sandlock, oldest living MLB player celebrates his 100th birthday

Mike Sandlock, the oldest living Major League Baseball player, celebrated his 100th birthday on October 17, 2015. Sandlock played parts of five seasons in the majors with the Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Pittsburgh Pirates from 1942-1953.

Mike Sandlock / N. Diunte

In 2011, I caught up with Sandlock at his home in Connecticut and he shared his vivid memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers fans at Ebbets Field in the video below.


Friday, October 16, 2015

How Matt Reynolds might join Chet Trail for a dubious major league distinction

As Matt Reynolds sat on the New York Mets bench Thursday evening for Game 5 of the National League Championship series waiting to make his major league debut, one man that can relate to his angst is Chet Trail. Placed on the New York Yankees World Series roster in 1964, Trail is the only player ever on a postseason roster never to appear in a major league game.

Chet Trail / Baseball-Birthdays.com
Trail was signed by the Yankees in 1962 out of Libbey High School in Toledo, Ohio, where he was a standout multi-sport start. The Yankees gave Trail a $43,000 bonus, and in 1963 they assigned him to their Fort Lauderdale team in the Florida State League. A year later, in only his second professional season, the Yankees placed him on their World Series roster after Tony Kubek was injured; however, the acclaim wasn’t as glamorous as it seemed.

Click here to read the 71-year-old Trail's memories of his association with the 1964 Yankees team and how fifty years later he still has many unanswered questions about his playoff experience.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

2015 Topps Supreme Baseball Review

2015 Topps Supreme is being billed by the famed baseball card company as one of their premier products for the year. Each two card box retailing for $75, guarantees two autographs, making Topps Supreme a big dice roll for collectors.



Topps has made a major improvement from last year’s release, placing on-card autographs in the 2015 Supreme series, upgrading from 2014’s exclusively stickered set. The list of potential autographs in this set is impressive. With the likes of Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Reggie Jackson, and Cal Ripken Jr., as well as this generation’s stars of Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout, the possibility of snagging one of these prized signatures makes for an intriguing play.

Click here to read the full review about the mystique of 2015 Topps Supreme and why the risk might not outweigh the reward.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cal Neeman, played seven season in the majors, came up with Mantle in Yankees system

Cal Neeman, a former major league catcher with five different teams in the 1950s and 1960s, passed away Thursday at his home in Lake Saint Louis, Missouri. He was 86.

Signed by the New York Yankees in 1949 out of Illinois Wesleyan University, where he also competed in basketball, Neeman was assigned to their Class C farm team in Joplin. During his second season in Joplin, he was joined by an erratic, but powerful shortstop in Mickey Mantle.

Cal Neeman / Author's Collection

Click here to read Neeman's view of Mantle before they hit the majors, as well as his reflections on his Korean War service and major league career.


Monday, September 28, 2015

2015 Topps Triple Threads Review

Any product that features Ichiro in a Miami Marlins uniform immediately has my attention. Topps’ 2015 Triple Threads impresses before you even open it up by placing the future Hall of Famer prominently on the cover of their box. Finally able to bring the Suzuki to the Topps family after years of being under contract with Upper Deck, Panini, and Leaf, Topps brought tremendous excitement to their Triple Threads line with exclusive Ichiro autographed memorabilia.

2015 Topps Triple Threads

Upon opening the first pack, it is quickly apparent that you are holding a premium product in your hand. With their thick and heavy stock, high resolution photography, and a wide range of rookies, veterans, and retired superstars, each card feels like it is special piece of memorabilia worthy of the $150 hobby box retail price.

Click here to read the full review of the Topps 2015 Triple Threads, which includes a slideshow of the hits from the box that Topps provided for review.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How my mom was challenged to a fight to meet Yogi Berra

I caught wind in 2008 of Yogi Berra's annual appearance at the stadium named in his honor on the campus of Montclair State University. For the meager price of an $8 ticket to the New Jersey Jackals game, you had the opportunity to meet Berra for an autograph ... if you got there early enough. With show promoters charging upwards of $100 for the same signature in person, I felt it was worth the hour trip from Queens to New Jersey for a few moments with the Yankee legend.

My mother, who also was a big baseball fan, decided to take off from work early that day to come with me. She saw it as her way of supporting her son's endeavors and she was also genuinely excited about the prospect of meeting the Hall of Fame catcher. It wasn't the first ballplayer we've waited in line to meet; during a good chunk of my childhood, she would make an effort to get me to Shea Stadium early for batting practice, or to some local grand opening (and often hang out there with me to the dismay of my sister) so I could get something signed.

I met her at her job around one o'clock and she was delayed a bit from leaving as she had to finish up some last minute odds and ends. We probably left about thirty minutes later than expected and I knew that didn't bode well for our chances, as when it comes to getting to New Jersey during the middle of the day, it seems that travel time grows exponentially in relation to the how late you left after your expected departure.

We made relatively good time, arriving somewhere between two-thirty and three o'clock. With Berra scheduled to sign in the neighborhood of 5:30, I felt that we still had enough lead time to get one of the coveted 300 passes. When we got out of the car, there was a sizable line, so we hurried to the end of it and played the waiting game. While my mom held our spots, I did an informal count starting at the front of the line and after counting 200 people, I felt confident that we would be able to meet Berra.

Our ticket from Yogi Berra Autograph Night in 2008

I brought a folding chair for my then 67-year-old mother and we sat and talked baseball and collecting among the fans near us. The people a few spots behind us drove all the way from Boston to meet Berra. As we got closer to Berra's start time, representatives from the Jackals started walking up the line and giving instructions for the signing. You could feel the anticipation of everyone in the line, as some had started their wait as early as 10AM to get their moment with Yogi.

Just before the Jackals personnel started to give out the autograph vouchers, suddenly the line grew from in front of us. People made their way out of their cars and joined their friends and family members who were waiting in line. Out of the woodwork came wives and small children holding various pieces of memorabilia, each taking up one of the coveted spots in front of us. That 100 person buffer didn't feel so comfortable now four hours after our departure from Queens.

Tension began to build as you heard the people giving out the tickets counting off numbers. A line that was once straight had now become a mass of people wading towards the Jackals employees at different angles, hoping they could get their pass before three hundred. We waited as patiently as we could as we heard calls of, "Two-fifty, two-sixty, two-seventy ..." People began pointing out the line cutters and those that were waiting almost three hours were growing restless.

The count was less than 10 away from 300 when the employees were in reach. There was a lady with some kids that were next to us in line who looked pretty unprepared for the signing. Everyone in line had large photos, artwork, baseballs, and baseball cards, everything one would expect for a player of Berra's magnitude. She and her kids had loose pieces of paper; I don't even think they had one piece of memorabilia.

For some reason just the team employees approached with the last two tickets, that lady wasn't paying attention. My mother, who was closely watching the person with the tickets, walked right up to her and got the last two tickets after identifying that we were together.

Within moments, our elation became everyone else's dismay, including the people we met from Boston, and the lady who was next to us who had a very untimely lapse of concentration. The poor college students that were the Jackals employees began to incur the wrath of the 100 people behind us, while the girl who was next to us in line with the kids grew irate at my mother.

The young lady, who was at least thirty (if not more) years my mother's junior, cursed out my mother for allegedly cutting front of her for the last two tickets, and demanded that we give her one of our tickets because it was the fair thing to do. As much as I am for parity, after that trek, neither of us was going to give up our tickets. We kept our cool, as we had the tickets, but this lady would not relent. She attempted to challenge my mother to a fight, of which I dutifully made sure wasn't going to happen.

The people in line near us, as well as the Jackals employees saw this all unfold, and they quickly got team security to escort this lady and her children out of the park. It was laughable to me that this lady was incensed enough to challenge my sixty-seven year old mother to a fight over an autograph.

Once Berra started signing he was like a machine. Quickly the line in front of us evaporated as we moved into the stadium. As the people in front of us got their autograph, there was a small reward for us in addition to getting Yogi to sign our things. With nobody behind us, Yogi relaxed a little bit and my mother and I each asked him a question about his baseball career. He took the time to answer us both and thank us for coming. We held that experience as close to us as the autographs we acquired on the ride home.

One of the items Yogi signed for us that day
While we were driving back to Queens, my mom turned to me and left me with this gem.

"Nick, one day you will have kids, and you will tell them how your mother waited hours in a line to meet Yogi Berra, and at the same time nearly got in a fight for doing so. Remember that when your kids ask you to do something."

My mom passed away due to lung cancer on September 20, 2014, almost a year prior to Berra's death on Tuesday. While I don't have my own kids to tell the story to now, I felt the timing was appropriate to share it. Maybe she can join the line again to greet him in Heaven and tell him her version of this story.

Hank Workman recalls the overlooked talents of Yogi Berra

Hank Workman was just a wide-eyed rookie with the New York Yankees when he was called up in September 1950. The University of Southern California star only played two games for the eventual World Series Champions, spending most of his time watching Yankees legends Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, and Phil Rizzuto lead the Yankees to the pennant. Despite being surrounded by those established veterans, the player he was most impressed with was their upstart catcher, Yogi Berra.

Hank Workman

"He was one of the best late-inning hitters," Workman told me in a phone interview from his California home in 2008. "Nobody says anything about that. ... He was a fabulous ballplayer, the best catcher I think."

Click here to read the full account of Workman's experiences playing alongside Berra in 1950.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Ken Griffey Jr. recreates 1989 Upper Deck rookie card in hip hop video

Ken Griffey Jr.'s 1989 Upper Deck rookie card remains one of the most iconic baseball cards ever. The first card in Upper Deck's inaugural release, the future Hall of Famer's rookie card skyrocketed to values of over $100 during his first season. Widely collected as the premier Griffey Jr. rookie card to own, it can be found in baseball fan's collections worldwide.
1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr.  / Author's Collection

Seattle based hip-hop artist Macklemore paid tribute to Griffey Jr.'s infamous rookie card by having him recreate the pose (at 1:43) in his new video for, "Downtown," featuring Ryan Lewis, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Jake Taylor's Major League advice for Matt Harvey

While Matt Harvey isn't out there tanking games for the New York Mets, there has been quite a buzz about the potential decision spurned on by his agent Scott Boras, and Dr. James Andrews to force the Mets shut him down for the rest of the season when he reaches his 180 inning limit. As the Mets are approaching the playoffs and a potential run at the World Series, you can only wonder if one of the veterans will be pulling him aside in the locker room and giving him a talk ala Jake Taylor did to Roger Dorn in Major League.


2015 Topps Football celebrates a rich NFL tradition spanning 60 years

Topps is celebrating the 60th anniversary of their NFL partnership with the release of their 2015 football series. With a mix of vivid graphics, a wide range of NFL rosters, and insert cards featuring retired legends, Topps’ 2015 football set is sure to please both the avid football fan and sports card collector.

The base set contains 500 cards, featuring 99 rookies alongside 240 veterans. There is a tremendous focus on the impact of fantasy football reflected in the set. Subsets include cards ranking the Top 60 players in the league, as well as one dedicated solely to Fantasy Studs.


There is a dizzying array of inserts that are sure to keep the avid collector busy. There are four base set parallels: Gold (#2015), BCA Pink (#499), STS Camo (#399), and Platinum (1/1). There are also close to 100 short printed variations that are sure to leave set collectors chasing for quite some time.


Their 60th anniversary insert set delivers a nod to the past, putting both active and retired players on cards designed in the spirit of past issues.


Staying with the theme of honoring their rich NFL tradition, other inserts include Road to Victory (Super Bowl), Past and Present Performers (current stars paired with franchise legends), and All-Time Fantasy Legends (past high-end fantasy sports performers).




The major hits in each hobby box are an autographed or memorabilia card, as well as a stamped vintage buyback card embossed with their 60th anniversary logo. This box drew a Melvin Gordon patch card, as well as a 1980 Topps buyback Jerome Barkum card.



With their 2015 football release, Topps has celebrated their rich tradition with the NFL by giving fans both old and new a product to share and get excited about.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Jack Clark's transformation from wild moundsman to slugging outfielder

Jack Clark’s 18-year major league career was defined by power. Whether he was smashing tape measure home runs or unleashing laser beam throws from right field, Clark’s feats flashed the tools that impressed his rookie league manager Art Mazmanian to pull him from the pitcher’s mound shortly after the start of his professional career in 1973 with the San Francisco Giants.

Clark with the Giants in the minor leagues

Mazmanian, a former infielder who reached the Triple-A level with the New York Yankees in the 1950s, used the keen eyes he developed from being a part of the talent rich Yankees organization to change the fortunes of Clark’s career. He only needed to see Clark pitch a few games for his rookie league team in Great Falls, Montana to know that his future was in the outfield, not on the mound.

“I managed Jack Clark as a rookie (in 1973),” Mazmanian said in a 2009 phone interview from his California home. “They started him out as a pitcher. I had him pitch four [sic] games. He went 0-2. I saw him hit it out of our ballpark and it was 350 down each line. I knew what kind of a hitter he was.”

Mazmanian had some inside intelligence on Clark’s exploits from an unlikely source, his daughter. She had seen Clark play in high school and urged her dad to come out and watch.

“He was one of the better high school hitters in our area,” he said. “He played against my daughter’s team, Walnut High for two years. She kept telling me, ‘Dad, you oughta see this guy, he could really hit.’”

Mazmanian with the New York Yankees

Almost immediately, Clark reminded his manager of one of the Yankee greats that he watched operate during his formative years in professional baseball. He told Clark that his talents were reminiscent of Joe DiMaggio, but were missing a certain intangible that was inherent in the Yankee Clipper.

“After four games, I called him out, ‘Jack, you are a better hitter than anyone we got here, this is ridiculous. Tomorrow I am going to put you in center field. You remind me of Joe DiMaggio, but you are too lazy to be a centerfielder. You are going to play right field in the big leagues someday.’”

Mazmanian’s decision wasn’t without controversy. George Genovese, the legendary scout who signed Clark vehemently disagreed with his manager's position change.

“The scout that signed him got mad at me because he was the one that got me the job at Great Falls. [Genovese] said, ‘Artie, I signed him as a pitcher.’ I said, ‘George, he’s a better hitter than any player that’s here. How many .300 hitters are in the big leagues anymore? And he’s 17 years old.’ I told [Genovese] that he could go back to pitching in instructional ball. Jack fought me on it, he wanted to pitch.”

Clark rewarded his manager’s decision with an extraordinary performance. The 17-year-old newly minted outfielder tore up a heavily collegiate pitching staff in the Pioneer League.

“I put him in center field the next day, and he hit in 17 straight games,” Mazmanian said. “They stopped him and hit in 13 additional straight games. … He [just] missed leading the league in home runs, doubles, RBIs, and total bases.”

Despite Mazmanian’s prediction that Clark would be a top-notch major league right-fielder, the Giants weren’t sold that outfield was where they wanted him to develop. For the next two minor league seasons, he played almost exclusively as a third baseman. The experiment ended after he committed a whopping 109 errors in 147 games.

“The next year, they wanted to make a third baseman out of him,” Mazmanian recalled. “I said to my wife, ‘If he plays third base, he’s going to kill someone in the front row of the bleachers in the first base area because he didn’t have a catch-throw.’ He had a strong arm, but not the footwork. And sure enough, they moved him back to the outfield.”

Clark amassed 340 home runs from 1975-1992, making the All-Star team four times. He was one of the most feared bats in the National League all throughout the 1980s, made possible by a veteran minor league manager trusting his baseball instincts. He never pitched again after Mazmanian pulled him from the mound, and ironically he played four games in the major leagues at third base and handled all of his chances without an error.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Dan Bankhead's MLB debut nearly incited a riot

The pitching mound in Ebbets Field shouldn’t have been a source of angst for Dan Bankhead when Brooklyn Dodgers manager Burt Shotton summoned him from the bullpen on August 26, 1947. The righty hurler had been playing professionally in the Negro Leagues since 1940, had four other brothers who played in the league, and served as a Montford Point Marine during World War II. Yet despite all of the formidable opponents he faced, it was the possibility of a race riot that he feared most if something went wrong on the hill that day.
Bankhead signs autographs before his 8/26/47 debut

“See, here’s what I always heard. Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch,” Buck O’Neil said in Joe Posnanski’s, ‘The Soul of Baseball.’ “He thought there might be some sort of riot if he did it. Dan was from Alabama just like your father. But Satchel became a man of the world. Dan was always from Alabama, you know what I mean? He heard all those people calling him names, making those threats, and he was scared. He’d seen black men get lynched.”

Bankhead's famous windup
Bankhead made history as the first African-American pitcher in major league history on that day in 1947, following his teammate Jackie Robinson in the record books who had broken baseball’s color barrier earlier that season. Pitching in relief of Hal Gregg who gave up six runs and only lasted one inning, Bankhead didn’t fare much better against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. He was charged with eight runs in three-and-a-third innings, ending the day with a 21.60 ERA. To his credit Bankhead homered in his only at-bat, but what was almost prophetic was an incident that occurred in the top of the fourth inning.

Bankhead's first MLB home run

With the Pirates leading 8-2 with two outs, outfielder Wally Westlake approached the plate. Like Bankhead, Westlake was a 26-year-old rookie and World War II veteran trying to find his place in the game. Westlake hit a home run earlier in the game and looked to add another to his totals. Bankhead wound up and fired off one of his patented fastballs for the first pitch of the at-bat, but as it left his hand, his worst nightmare unraveled before his eyes.

He hit Westlake squarely in the upper arm.

“It was like the fans held their breath waiting for the reaction,” the now 94-year-old Westlake wrote in a 2008 letter. “He was just another dude trying to get me out and I was trying to whack his butt.”

The first game an African-American man pitched in the majors and he hit a white batter. The crowd waited for Westlake’s next move. Was the pitch retaliation for his home run earlier in the game? A split second decision by Westlake to charge the mound or take his walk down to first base would have a significant impact the fate of African-American pitchers in the majors. Fortunately, Westlake chose the latter, with little regard to what the fans expected him to do.

“I think I disappointed the rednecks,” he said.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How one baseball card pack ignited a writer's quest to discover the afterlife of a major league career

Opening a pack of baseball cards for a child in the 1980s brought feelings of tremendous anticipation not only for the cards that were hidden beneath the sealed wax paper, but also the stale piece of gum that was pressed up against hopefully the worst one in the bunch. For many, those images on the front of each card and the stats on the back were burned into memory after spending hours poring over their contents. Well before the advent of widespread availability through cable television and the internet, these cards were often one's only visions of the players we followed in newspaper box scores. These men stood as heroes to an entire generation, frozen in time due to a picture on a baseball card; however, what happens when that fame melts and the players are left to deal with the closing of their careers at an age when most of their peers are just establishing theirs? 

Author Brad Balukjian cracked open a pack of his favorite 1986 Topps and after sorting out the players, he set out to find the next world for a ballplayer after an entire generation has passed since they ended their career. Engaging in a cross-country trek starting from his home in California, he put over 10,000 miles in seven weeks on his 2002 Honda Accord to meet with and examine the lives of the 14 players in one pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards for a book cleverly entitled “Wax Pack.”

1986 Topps Wax Pack (WaxPackBook.com)

Fast forward thirty years and every statistic that can be measured or imagined exists a mouse click away on the internet. While seemingly every bit of data exists about their effectiveness on the field, for most of the players in the 792 card set, little is written about what happened to them after they put their gloves away and hung up their spikes. The idea for breathing life to the stories of each of the men in this singular pack of baseball cards was spawned from Balukjian and a friend reminiscing about their childhood.

“One of my best friends and I were talking about growing up in that era and how we really felt like some of the best stories could be told from some of the players who were not superstars,” Balukjian said during a stop in Brooklyn in July, 2015. “These guys maybe have not been asked as often about their careers and their lives. We started to think about what would be a project that would allow us to start to explore those stories from those guys who were not the superstars. I had the idea that what was really fun about buying a pack of baseball cards as a kid was the random factor, you don’t know what you’re going to get in the pack.”

After opening a few packs to get one with a mix of players that were attainable to reach, Balukjian settled on a collection that included 14 players and one checklist. Once he had his pack laid out in front of him, he had to decide how he was going to string together this group who all shared one thing in common, their presence on the eerily familiar black bordered 1986 Topps baseball card.

“Being a random selection of players, most of the guys are not going to be the superstars,” he said. “I thought there are 15 cards in a pack, 15 chapters in a book, it sort of lends itself to that format to make a book about that single pack. Initially we talked about doing a book pack about the 1985 season told from the varying perspectives of whatever 15 players we got in the pack. As we tried to figure out how to do that, it got a little bit difficult because there might not be a cohesive narrative from 15 random guys, so we decided it would be better to focus on the journey of trying to track down the 15 guys in the pack, telling the story of the journey, and each of the individual players.”

Now that Balukjian had a plan in mind, he set out to track down the men in his pack of baseball cards. They ranged from the highly recognized (Carlton Fisk and Doc Gooden), to the controversial (Vince Coleman), to the relative unknown (Jaime Cocanower). Spread out across the country, the author filled his summer with appointments stretched out from coast to coast.

“Most guys were pretty receptive,” he said. “Garry Templeton and Steve Yeager both were guys that on the first phone call, they seemed like they would cooperative. They may not have fully understood the project, but when I said, ‘Hey I’m going to be in your town on this date,’ they said, ‘I could do that.’ With a couple of exceptions, most of the guys were pretty easy to work with.”


Garry Templeton with the Wax Pack / (WaxPackBook.com)

Of course the story wouldn’t be so interesting if all of the players fell in line. It turned out that the highest profile players in Balukjian’s pack turned out to be the most elusive. Using tactics that could serve him well as a private investigator, he turned to covert methods to try to track down the likes of Fisk and Coleman, which he kept running tabs of in his blog.

“In a way those failures makes the book better,” he said. “I think it is better that I don’t get all 14 players. The story of sneaking my way into an exclusive golf course in Sarasota, Florida to try to ambush Carlton Fisk after he plays a round of golf is going to be really fun. Tracking down Vince Coleman’s childhood home, his high school in Jacksonville, and the story of how he told me basically to ‘f-off,’ those stories would be kind of more fun — the quest aspect.” 

As close as the author would get to Fisk in Cooperstown (WaxPackBook.com)
As Balukjian continued to survey the players in his pack of baseball cards while spending endless hours on the road counting off whether Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts had a grip on each locale, he found a consistent theme with each of the retired athletes. They no longer basked in their glory days the way fans romanticize their on-field accomplishments.

“There is a disconnect between the fans’ enthusiasm for some of the stuff in baseball history and the players that were actually part of that history,” he noted. “As fans we tend to glorify and get really enthusiastic about our memories. The guys that actually lived through that stuff, even the really positive moments, I found a lot of the guys kind of had the attitude of being not too excited to talk about or relive those moments. 

“I think there are a couple of reasons why that may be. It may be painful; relieving those glory days is a reminder to them that they will never be that athlete again. You are dredging up a lot of feelings and memories about a time when their entire lives were dedicated to achieving this goal. Once you are past your prime, you know you will never win another World Series or hit another home run. It could be kind of painful to have to talk about that.”

Many of the players had difficulty replacing the highly regimented schedule of a Major League baseball player and the adulation that comes with playing in front of 30,000 fans every night. Their struggles with the transition to a regular civilian caused problems in many facets of their lives, including their relationships and what vices they sought to help them cope.

“It was hard for all of them,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that some major life changes happened in those years right after they retired. Some guys started drinking, some guys got divorced, and some tried some other professions where they didn’t catch on. I think they all had a hard time letting go of playing. Even if they were going into coaching, Randy Ready said something like, ‘Putting the player inside to bed, letting that person go is a very hard thing to do.’ They all spoke to the competitive nature they needed to have to get to the major leagues, and how hard it is to know that you’ll never be able to do that again.”

This isn’t to say that all of these men are disgruntled ex-athletes, rather Balukjian’s odyssey revealed how human these ballplayers are. While most only get to know them from their baseball cards and television highlights, he was fortunate enough to be able to engage them in some deep conversations that had nothing to do with stepping in between the lines.

“A lot of the time we haven’t talked about baseball directly,” he said. “It’s been about relationships — really candid, really powerful and emotional stuff about relationships with their fathers, relationships with their kids, with spouses, and the game itself. Some stuff that comes up has been very traumatic that they’ve talked about.” 

These deeply guarded layers are ones that he intends to reveal in his book. He hopes that by peeling back the curtain on their lives that he will appeal to a group wider than just baseball fans.

“I’m more interested in understanding these guys as people and men,” he stated. “I’m less interested in asking about their favorite memory in their baseball career was or how they felt when they won the World Series; they’ve been asked that a million times. I’m more interested in what they did the day after they retired, or how did being on the road for all those years affected their marriages — things of broader interest than baseball.”

One such player that he connected with beyond balls and strikes was former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Don Carman, who was Balukjian’s favorite player growing up. Carman is now a sports psychologist that works for super agent Scott Boras, whose clientele includes New York Mets ace Matt Harvey.

“I felt like after spending a couple of days with him, it sounds cheesy, but it almost was like I was meant to have him as a favorite player,” he said. “Getting to know him personally I really identified with who he is as a person. He told me a lot of stories about growing up in Western Oklahoma in a difficult family situation. He said his dad never spoke to him directly ever. His dad died of a heart attack when he was 15, so there’s a lot of pain there. I couldn’t relate to that because I had a good relationship with my dad, but Don described sort of being sort of an outside as a kid, always being a little bit different. That’s something I could relate to. When you make these human connections with a guy that was literally my idol as a kid, it is a really unique thing. It’s no longer, ‘I’m a fan and he’s my favorite player,’ it’s sort of a relationship between two people.”

Balukjian with Don Carman (r.) / (WaxPackBook.com)

At 34 years old, Balukjian is about the same age as when many of his subjects ended their professional baseball careers. This journey has allowed him to examine many questions about his own life, taking bits of wisdom from each of his interviews to help him gain some perspective on his own direction.

“Frankly, it’s not even about baseball,” he said. “Really it’s a story about growing up. I am now the age these guys were when these guys had to retire and stop playing the game for a living. I’m a single guy, 34, no kids, nowhere near married. I’m sort of facing my own questions in life; do I need to grow up? I always bucked against the trend of getting married, settling down, and doing the traditional thing career wise. This book is giving me an opportunity to think out loud about myself and also learn from the lives of 14 other men that had to grow up themselves when they could no longer play baseball.”

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Doc Daugherty, 87, former Detroit Tiger and World War II veteran

Harold “Doc” Daugherty went down swinging in his first major league at-bat. He waited patiently for Detroit Tigers manager Red Rolfe to give him an opportunity for redemption; however, that chance never came. He joined a handful of major leaguers whose careers lasted one fleeting day.

Daugherty passed away August 15, 2015 in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. He was 87. Speaking with Daugherty over a half-century after his debut, the memories of his lone plate appearance were still crystal clear.

“It was in Chicago, it was cold, and it was snowing,” Daugherty said in a 2008 interview. “They sent me up to pinch hit against Billy Pierce. He was quite a pitcher, a really good pitcher. I fouled a couple off and missed the third one. That was the extent of my major league career.”

Doc Daugherty

He made the club out of spring training in 1951 after an injury to third baseman and future Hall of Famer George Kell created a need for depth in the infield. An Associated Press report on March 28, 1951 gave Rolfe’s scouting report on the newest member of the Tigers.

“Manger Red Rolfe said Daugherty is okay defensively, but is weak at the plate. He is being given a thorough trial now with Kell benched on account of a spike wound in his hand.”

Kell’s injury turned out to be less severe than expected and with Johnny Lipon firmly entrenched at shortstop; there was little room for Daugherty in the lineup. Right on the day rosters were set to be trimmed, the Tigers recalled knuckleball pitcher Marlin Stewart from Toledo, sending Daugherty to the minor leagues, effectively ending his major league career.

“I stayed with them for a month,” he said. “They took some of the rookies north with them and May 15th, was the cutoff date where they had to be down to a certain number. They sent the rookies out to the farm clubs. From there I went to Toledo.”

A World War II veteran, Daugherty served in the Army after playing football at Ohio State in 1945. After serving for a year-and-a-half, he signed with the Tigers before the start of the 1948 season. They brought him to major league spring training and the 20-year-old immediately turned heads.

“Look at him pick ‘em up out there,” manager Steve O’Neill said in a 1948 Owosso Argus-Press article. “He’s got ‘class’ written all over him.”

Unfortunately, Daugherty never lived up to those lofty expectations, as Rolfe proved to be correct in his assessment of his batting skills. He finished his minor league career in 1953 with a .230 lifetime average. After hanging up his cleats, Daugherty entered the coaching ranks, managing in the Tigers organization, as well as at the high school level in three different sports for over 30 years.

“When I quit playing my professional career I did some scouting for the Tigers and managed some teams in the rookie leagues,” he said. “I taught high school for 33 years coaching football, baseball, and basketball.”

His love for athletics was passed down to his children, with his son Mike forming a husband and wife coaching tandem, serving as the associate head women’s basketball coach at Washington State University with his wife June at the helm. Mike, who was an Ohio State alum, played professional basketball overseas.

“My oldest son and his wife have been coaching for 15 years,” he said. “They coach the women's basketball team at Washington State University in the Pac-10. They both played at Ohio State and both played overseas. She's the head coach and he's the assistant. They're doing quite well.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bud Thomas went once around the bases for the St. Louis Browns in 1951

John “Bud” Thomas, a former infielder who played with the St. Louis Browns in 1951, passed away on Saturday in Sedalia, Missouri. He was 86.

First noticed by the Browns as the shortstop for the West squad in the 1945 Esquire All-American Game at the Polo Grounds that featured Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb as honorary managers, Thomas signed with the club in 1947. Within four years he made the jump from the lowest rung of the minor league ladder all the way to the majors.
Bud Thomas

Click here to continue reading how Bud Thomas made the most of his one month as a major leaguer in Bill Veeck's regime.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fritz Peterson revisits the Horace Clarke Era in his new book

Fritz Peterson spent almost nine seasons with the New York Yankees playing alongside the likes of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford. Surely playing with those legends would have guaranteed the lefty pitcher a shot of making the playoffs at least once in his career, right? Think again.

Playing with the Yankees from 1966-1974, Peterson endured one of the roughest stretches in Yankees history, as the bulk of his time included pairings with offensive juggernauts such Jerry Kenney, Gene Michael, and Horace Clarke. The latter served as the inspiration for the title of Peterson’s newest book, “When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Era.


Peterson tells the good, the bad, and often the ugly about the myriad of teammates that went through the Yankees revolving doors of the late 60s and early 70s. The book is dotted with often hilarious nuggets about his Yankee brethren ranging from the aforementioned Hall of Famers to obscurities including Alan Closter, Bill Burbach, and Cecil Perkins. These inside baseball stories that he shares gives a glimpse into the hi-jinks that ballplayers often engage in without revealing the personal clubhouse matters that his former mound mate Jim Bouton exposed in “Ball Four.

Fritz Peterson signing a copy of his new book / N. Diunte

Each chapter is set up neatly for each of the nine “innings,” that he played with the Yankees. His offseason tales of his job as an adjunct professor at his alma mater Northern Illinois University, his contract negotiations with the Yankees front office, and his foray into hockey broadcasting serve as digestible buffers in between his narratives about the hodgepodge collection of teammates that comprised the “Horace Clarke Era.”

Listen below to hear Peterson discussing his new book and the likes of teammates Thurman Munson and Mel Stottlemyre.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Jerry Blevins left with a dubious record after suffering season-ending injury

Jerry Blevins set a record this season that he would surely relinquish if he had the opportunity to do so. Blevins suffered a broken left-arm when he was struck by a line drive in an April 19 game against the Miami Marlins. At the time of his injury, he set a major league record by retiring all 15 batters he faced for the season.

The left-handed reliever, who was acquired in a trade with the Washington Nationals in exchange for outfielder Matt den Dekker, was the Mets most effective relief pitcher in April. In seven appearances, Blevins had a spotless 0.00 ERA with four strikeouts in five innings pitched, winning his only decision of the season in a 7-5 victory over the Marlins on April 16.

Blevins hoped that he would have a chance to improve upon his record by returning to the Mets late in the season to help them in their playoff run; however, those dreams were dashed earlier this week when the Mets announced on Thursday that he re-injured his left arm, breaking the same bone he initially injured after slipping on a curb Monday.

In an effort to replace Blevins in the bullpen, the Mets acquired left-handed reliever Eric O’Flaherty from the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday. An upset Blevins vented on Twitter about his injury preventing him from contributing to the Mets playoff run. He sounded like he would gladly trade giving up some base hits and the record he currently set in order to have the opportunity to pitch again with the Mets this season.

“Can't explain my disappointment & frustration about not putting on a Mets uniform again this year,” Blevins tweeted on Thursday. “I'll be back stronger. Let's Go Mets.”