Sunday, January 24, 2016

2015 Topps Strata Baseball Review: A Quality Experience at a Reasonable Price

Making a late-winter 2015 debut, Topps Strata Baseball is definitely an example of the famed card company saving the best for last. Another release in their line of “all-hits” products, 2015 Topps Strata Baseball has built on the previous Topps issues of the year to form a truly premium product that satisfies in both appeal and value. Click here to read the entire review of Topps' 2015 Strata Baseball Release.

The Newest Members of the Hall of Fame Headline 2015 Topps Strata Baseball / Topps

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cool Papa Bell shares the details of Satchel Paige's tryout with the Cleveland Indians in 1948

Cool Papa Bell, Negro League Hall of Fame speedster, shares in the video below the details of Satchel Paige's tryout with the Cleveland Indians in 1948. The audio of Bell's interview is part of a larger project by the Baseball Hall of Fame to digitize their vast audio library. Paige was signed by Bill Veeck and made an immediate splash with the Indians, debuting to a sellout crowd on his 42nd birthday.

Cool Papa Bell (bottom center) with Satchel Paige (middle row, far right) on the 1937 Ciudad Trujillo team

Paige finished with a 6-1 record, helping to lead the Indians to the 1948 World Series. Due to the dominant pitching performances of the Indians starting rotation, Paige was only called upon to pitch one inning during the series. Despite his limited role in the World Series, Veeck's investment paid dividends through Paige's stellar work in the regular season.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

How Luis Arroyo gave one baseball fan an experience of a lifetime

Luis Arroyo, the great Puerto Rican left-handed reliever for the 1961 New York Yankees World Series championship team, passed away at the age of 88 on Wednesday January 13, 2016 in Puerto Rico after a bout with cancer. As the closer for their team, Arroyo preserved many of their victories, but one of his greatest assists came well after his playing days ended to a complete stranger.

In 2011, while milling around the hotel where the Yankees Old Timers were stationed for the weekend, I encountered Arroyo sitting in an almost regal manner in a chair in the corner of the lobby, free from the rush of the crowds that swarmed the other alumni making their way through the hotel en route to explore New York City. While the droves of fans and collectors flocked to the younger retired Yankees, I sensed an opportunity to talk with Arroyo about his vast treasure of experiences as a ballplayer in Puerto Rico in the late 1940s with all of the legendary Negro League and Puerto Rican stars who passed through the famed winter league.

Luis Arroyo (r.) with the author in 2011 / N. Diunte
As I approached Arroyo and inquired about his desire to discuss his early baseball career, he seemed a bit surprised and guarded. As we started to talk, I told him that I was a friend of a former teammate and after putting them in touch on the phone as we sat there in the lobby, Arroyo relaxed and opened up his tremendous wealth of knowledge of baseball’s unheralded superstars. For thirty minutes, he brought up the names of such greats as Willard Brown, Bus Clarkson, Perucho Cepeda, Ruben Gomez, and Satchel Paige. The more he spoke, the more he beamed with pride sharing his recollections of being amongst all of these superstars before he hit the major leagues.

Photo of Arroyo with Ponce in Puerto Rico / N. Diunte
One fellow Puerto Rican that he made sure to emphasize was Francisco “Pancho” Coimbre. An early standout with Ponce’s team in Liga de Béisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico, as well as in the Negro Leagues with the New York Cubans, Arroyo insisted that Coimbre was the finest hitter on the island.

“I could name you the best hitter ever to come out of winter ball — Frank Coimbre,” Arroyo said in 2011. “He didn’t get a chance to play because he was colored. He was the best hitter in Puerto Rico and I could bet you anything that he could hit in the big leagues. He could run, throw, and hit. He was a hell of a ballplayer.”

As our conversation progressed, the then 84-year-old Arroyo said that he was tired from the travel and wouldn’t be attending the team’s evening festivities at a local restaurant. He then proceeded to show me his tickets and offer them to me as he didn’t want them to go to waste. I surely couldn’t turn down an opportunity to have a good meal and meet some more of the Yankees alumni.

Old Timers Day Reception Pass / N. Diunte
Before retiring to his room, Arroyo asked me to meet him in the lobby at 9AM the next morning, as he said that he would have something good for me. I thanked him for his generosity and assured him that I would be there.
David Wells (l.) and the author at Yankees alumni party / N. Diunte
After waking up from an enjoyable evening of mingling with the players at a Times Square restaurant, I sat on the train to the hotel with a child-like excitement for my morning encounter with Mr. Arroyo. When I arrived in the hotel lobby, Arroyo was sitting alone reading the newspaper while the slight bustle of the early risers passed him by. After a friendly greeting, we picked up where we left off yesterday’s conversation, as he started running off stories about his time in the National League with St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. Whether it was colorful anecdotes of seeing Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, and Sandy Koufax toil in Puerto Rico before hitting superstardom in the majors, or playing with Stan Musial and a young Frank Robinson, Arroyo had seen it all — even the time in Havana when he was playing with the Sugar Kings and shortstop Leo Cardenas was shot by wayward gunfire.

Arroyo (l.) with Fidel Castro (r.) in 1959 as a member of the Havana team / N. Diunte
As the early sunlight penetrated the glass doors of the lobby, Arroyo perked up even more, speaking with wonderful candor about his time with the Yankees. Like an assembly line, the vaunted names of the Yankees championship team rolled off his tongue: Berra, Ford, Howard, Mantle, and Maris. For each of them he had his own colorful bit, each told with a laugh and a smile. We finally got down to his stellar 1961 season, when he appeared in 65 games for the Yankees, saving 29 of them en route to a 15-5 record, an All-Star appearance, and a sixth place finish in the American League MVP voting.

“When I had that good year, [finishing] 15-5, and we won the World Series, I used to pitch all year around,” he said. “When I finished the World Series in 1961, the GM Roy Hamey said to stop pitching all year around. I told him that I pitch winter ball because I wasn’t making any money. He took care of me. He gave me $10,000.”
Photo of Arroyo pitching that is outside of the Yankees suites / N. Diunte
Arroyo’s decision to take the money from the Yankees was one that he regretted later in life. Instead of keeping in shape during the time he would have normally been playing winter baseball, he went far away from his training routine; a decision that he felt ultimately shortened his career.

“I made a mistake,” he lamented. “When I wasn’t pitching, instead of going to the ballpark and keep running and doing some throwing, I went out with all the friends, drank, and ate, and when I came to spring training, I was 20 pounds overweight; it was the biggest mistake of my life. I don’t blame him, he did me a favor. When I gained all those pounds, I couldn’t throw at all. In 1963, I hurt my arm. … I went to bed and I felt something to my elbow and that was the end of my career. I had an operation. I tried to play winter ball and I couldn’t do it.”

While his arm injury spelled the end of Arroyo’s playing career with the Yankees, he remained with them as a scout for 20 years. He was instrumental in getting them to sign Ricky Ledee, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams, the latter for which he told me how he had to work hard on George Steinbrenner to convince him to go after a skinny 16-year-old outfielder from Puerto Rico.

As he prepared to move on with the rest of his day, he called down his grandson Gustavo from his hotel room. As he emerged from the elevator, he was holding an envelope. Arroyo introduced me to his grandson and proceeded to take a ticket and special pass from the envelope. He wanted me to be their guest at Old Timers Day. He said that he thought it was something that I would enjoy as a baseball fan and instructed me to meet them at the hotel at 9AM for breakfast the next morning.

2011 Old Timers Day Suite Ticket / N. Diunte
I went home elated with my ticket and called a few friends with the news. I wasn’t sure what was in store for the next day, but I was excited about the opportunity. I met Gustavo for breakfast at the hotel in the morning and watched at the Old Timers left on the first bus to the stadium. We went on the next bus for the players’ guests, which took us directly into the private entrance to the stadium. We were escorted through the inside of the stadium up to a series of specially connected luxury suites.

A small sampling of the decor in the suites / N. Diunte
What an experience watching the ceremonies and the games from the suites. The food was top notch and as you start to mingle with the players families, you realize that the event is not only an annual highlight for the retired players, but also their families who can experience the cheers of their loved ones once again from the sold out crowd.
Arroyo's entrance on the big screen at Yankee Stadium / N. Diunte
In the sweltering heat, the elder alumni, including Arroyo made their way back up to the suites before those who played in the game. He was accompanied by the likes of Don Larsen, Hector Lopez, and Moose Skowron, as well as Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. As the aforementioned battery entered the room, they were closely guarded by security and escorted to a private area of the suites. Arroyo managed to get over to the private area to say a few words to both Berra and Ford and emerged with a photo in his hands. He handed it to me and it was signed by both Ford and himself. It was another act of generosity by the former Yankee that deepened my appreciation for his time and effort.

Autographed photo of Ford and Arroyo / N. Diunte
After watching the game and returning to the hotel on the bus sitting next to Skowron, (who was telling jokes all along the way) I met with Arroyo and his grandson and once again thanked them for bringing me behind the curtain for Old Timers Day. They extended the baseball opportunity of a lifetime to a total stranger and for that I am eternally grateful.

Moose Skowron (r.) with the author in 2011 / N. Diunte
I met with both of them in subsequent years during their return trips to Old Timers Day, last seeing Arroyo in 2013. Despite being limited by weakened knees, he made his priority to attend.

“Even though I have arthritis in my knees, I can’t miss it.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Monte Irvin (1919-2016) - A true gentleman of baseball

To meet Monte Irvin was to become his friend. At least that’s how I felt back as a teenager in high school when I first met Mr. Irvin at reunion of Negro League alumni back in 1994. Those feelings compelled me to write the following memories of my encounters with Irvin upon the news of his death at the age of 96 on January 11, 2016.

Choosing to sit at a table in the room with the other thirty lesser known players instead of the main room where Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Willie Mays were signing, Irvin’s table had little fanfare compared to his Cooperstown counterparts. Despite the ability to affix “HOF 73” next to his name, Irvin relished blending in with everyone else, a theme that would repeat during future encounters.

Milling around the room talking to each player about their careers, I spotted Irvin by himself with nobody waiting at his table. Growing up I heard my uncle tell me stories of Irvin’s tremendous abilities as a member of the New York Giants from his view at the Polo Grounds. Eager to start a conversation with him, I showed him a photo from a Hall of Fame yearbook that I had recently purchased on a school trip to Cooperstown. He quickly asked me if I wanted him to sign it, and when I informed him that I had spent all of my money already at the show, he told me not to worry about it and put his autograph right on the page. I thanked him profusely; he smiled and posed for a photo.

Monte Irvin circa 1994 / N. Diunte

I went back the next year armed with money I earned from digging out cars and driveways from shoveling. This time, I made sure that I paid for Mr. Irvin’s signature. I told him of the story from last year and he kindly thanked me for coming and supporting what was going on.

Monte Irvin with the author / N. Diunte
As the end of high school approached, I shifted my focus from researching and collecting artifacts on the Negro Leagues to pursuing an opportunity to play baseball in college. I put keeping up with Monte and his aging counterparts on hold to walk a little bit in their shoes as I explored how far I could advance my skills on the diamond.

It wasn’t until well after my college playing days were done that I renewed my interest in baseball’s forgotten league. Surprisingly, Irvin outlasted almost all of his contemporaries and I looked for an opportunity to meet once again with him, hopefully to capture one last firsthand account of the Negro Leagues from arguably its last living superstar.

My chance came in 2007 when I was invited by a friend Lauren Meyer, who was working on a Negro League documentary, and had been hired by the New Jersey Historical Society to film an all day tribute to Irvin and three of his former Newark Eagles teammates in Newark, New Jersey. I accompanied her to the day’s events, and despite his limited mobility, at 9AM Irvin was bustling with an energy one would expect from someone much younger than 88 years of age.

Irvin (third from left) with fellow Newark Eagles teammates / N. Diunte
Seemingly everywhere Irvin turned that day, there was a camera taking photos, a reporter asking for an interview, or a fan handing him an item to sign. Every time, his answer was, “yes.” He even eschewed his daughter’s request to eat more during a meeting at the Historical Society, as he felt it was more important to finish the story he was telling an eager baseball fan. He gave this type of attention to just about everyone he met that day, as his genuine persona became more apparent as I shadowed him at each event just hoping to catch a mere fraction of the jewels of knowledge he was dropped along the way.

A year later, while interviewing Ernie Harwell, he eagerly recommended that I give Irvin a call, as he felt that Monte was someone who could help me with my research. The late Tigers broadcaster went out of his way to mention his warm persona.

“Monte Irvin would be a great source,” Harwell said during our conversation in 2008. “[He's] very personable, a very intelligent guy; I'm very fond of him.”

I called Irvin shortly after speaking with Harwell and after telling him of the Hall of Fame broadcaster’s recommendation, we spoke for thirty minutes. Irvin shared stories about many of the legends he played with and against in the Negro Leagues, beaming with positivity throughout the entire call. He encouraged for me to send him some correspondence, which I did, but what followed further illustrated his tremendous character.

A popular figure with baseball fans and autograph collectors, Irvin frequently received mail requesting his signature. He asked those who wrote to him to send a donation to his alma mater, Lincoln University, in exchange for his autograph. Over the years, Irvin raised tens if not, hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the HBCU. In our correspondence through the mail, I too donated to Irvin’s cause to have some of my own items signed. When my envelope came back a few weeks later, only one of the items were returned, with my harder to find personal photos missing. I called Irvin to ask if he remembered seeing them, as they were pretty unique, and he told me that he gets a substantial amount of mail, but he would look to see if he misplaced them.

A few weeks passed by, and I return home one day to find a large envelope in my mailbox addressed in Irvin’s handwriting. I open the envelope not only to find my missing items, but a note apologizing for misplacing them, and almost a dozen additional signed photos. I called to thank him again and he said he felt it was the least he could do for making me wait to get my things back.

A sampling of the items Irvin sent / N. Diunte
Irvin was a Hall of Famer, but he didn’t expect special treatment because he had a plaque in Cooperstown. His treatment of others was duly noted not only by baseball fans, but by other players as well. While Jackie Robinson is immortalized for breaking the color barrier; however, Irvin will be remembered for his status as a gentleman ambassador of the sport for his 96 years on earth. Former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Jean Pierre Roy precisely summed up the feelings of how many of his peers viewed Irvin.

“I adored this guy as a ballplayer and a human being,” Roy said during a 2011 interview. “When I started talking with Monte, I could tell he was of the right vein; you could tell why he could communicate so well with the people in general.”

Friday, January 1, 2016

Vern Rapp, former major league manager with the Cardinals and Reds dies at 87

Vern Rapp, former major league manager with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, passed away Thursday December 31, 2015 in Colorado. He was 87.

Rapp, who spent parts of two seasons at the helm of the Cardinals (1977-78) and the Reds (1984), started out as a catcher in the Cardinals minor league system in 1946. After surviving a beaning during his second season, Rapp found himself starting in the playoffs for the Cardinals AAA team in Columbus in 1948 just one step away from the big leagues.

“We had a pitcher by the name of Clarence Beers,” Rapp recalled in 2008. “He could throw all kinds of pitches; he threw knuckleballs, everything. I’ll never forget in the playoffs, we had an old-time umpire by the name of Moore. Clarence threw a knuckle ball to the right and I just stuck out my bare hand and caught it. He said, ‘Well, that’s the first time I ever seen that done.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s done!’”

Vern Rapp 1978 Topps Card / Topps
The promising start for the young catcher was derailed like many others of his era by Uncle Sam. In 1950, Rapp was drafted into the United States Army. He lost two years of his career to his military service, something that he couldn’t recover from.
“I was in the service for two years,” he said in 2008. “They either remember you or forget you. I went in 1950 into the Korean War. Someone else comes along and they forget about you. I had a good chance. You make your own way. The game got different. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I stayed in the minor leagues until I was 32 and then I went into managing. Those two years, you lose a lot of things. Even though I didn’t go over [seas], I was lucky.”
He played at the AAA level until 1960, but spent most of his remaining time in the minors as a player-manager starting in 1955 with Charleston. At only 27 years old, Rapp was offered the job halfway through the season to replace Danny Murtagh. He quickly asserted himself as the manager, ruffling the feathers of many of the veterans, including the 39-year-old legendary slugger Luke Easter.

“We were in Minneapolis one night and Monte Irvin was with Minneapolis,” he said. “Back in those days, you didn’t talk to the other team before the game, it was always a war.

“We got in to this game in the old Nicollet Park. We had it won about 10-4 and they came back and beat us. I was a tough loser. I blew up in the clubhouse and Luke had a contract with Danny if he hit 30 home runs, he got bonus money. We got into an argument. I was talking about all the fraternization, I don’t buy that. If you are going to be a winner, you think about winning, you can’t be buddy buddy [with the opposition]. You can be buddies off the field, but not when the gates opened. I wasn’t against either one of them, but Luke got all upset. … I said, ‘If you don’t like what I’m doing, I can take care of that real easy.’ He said, ‘I don’t like it.’ So I said to the trainer, ‘Get him a ticket back home, you’re suspended for insubordination.’ He was off the team for three days and we got back to Charleston and the GM said you’ve gotta straighten it out with him. … At the end of the season, they were going to choose the MVP; the writer was going to choose Woody Smith. I said, ‘You can’t do that, this guy hit 30 homers and drove in over 100 runs. If you’re gonna have a MVP on the last place team, you’ve gotta put Luke’s name.’ He did. Luke put his arm around me and said, ‘You might have been mad, [but] you the man.’”
Rapp managed in the minors until through the end of the 1976, even getting a base hit at the age of 48 during that season with Montreal’s Denver farm club. During our interview in 2008, he recalled how and why he put himself in the lineup that day.

“We had a kid that was going to play every position so I started out as a catcher to save a spot in the lineup,” he said. “Hank Edwards was managing the other club and he kind of set me up with a good pitch and I hit a line shot up the middle. I threw a guy out that game. I stayed in shape; I threw batting practice two hours every day.”

In 1977, he replaced the easy going Red Schoendienst as manger of the St. Louis Cardinals. Tactics that he used in the minor leagues to regulate the actions of his players didn’t fare well for him at the major league level. Enforcing strict rules about how the players dressed and forcing players like Al Hrabosky to remove his trademark mustache caused tremendous dissent among the ranks. Shortly after a public spat with catcher Ted Simmons where Rapp referred to him as a “loser,” General Manager Bing Devine fired Rapp after 17 games into his second season.

“The climax could have been averted, but it did appear more or less inevitable,” Devine said in a 1978 Associated Press article. “Frankly, it was a problem, a continuing problem. When it became apparent, we decided, ‘Why wait for something you can’t solve any other way?’”

Rapp quickly got back on his feet, joining the Montreal Expos as a coach from 1979-1983. Just as he was going to retire, the Cincinnati Reds hired him as their manager to start the 1984 season. One of his prized pupils was John Franco, who currently holds the major league record for saves by a left-handed pitcher. Rapp helped encourage Franco’s transition from a starter to a reliever during his rookie season.

“I made him into a relief pitcher,” Rapp said. “I asked [Roy] Hartsfield, how come he couldn’t go past five innings. He said, ‘He’s great a pitcher for five innings.’ I got information. When I saw him in the spring, I could understand. His stature, he wasn’t a big man. He was short and about 170 lbs. I pulled him aside, ‘How about giving it a whack as a short reliever?’ Well, he became a great short reliever. He knew how to pitch inside and wasn’t afraid to.”

His work with Franco was one of his few highlights of his time with the Reds. After posting 50-71 record in which he used 101 different lineups, he was replaced in August by Pete Rose who was acquired from the Expos as a player-manager. It spelled the end of Rapp’s managerial career. He finished with a 140-160 record in parts of three seasons in the majors.

Despite his reputation as a strict manager, Rapp felt a tremendous obligation towards the fans. Well into his retirement he continued to receive autograph requests sent to his home and he proudly fulfilled every one of them.

“I was taught in the old school that you take care of the fans first,” he said.

Some sixty years later, Rapp continued to look at the game through the his managerial lens. He noted how the minor league system has experienced an upheaval in almost every regard possible.

“When I was managing in the minor leagues it was just me,” he said. “Now they have five coaches and they still can’t do it. In those days, you only had nine pitchers. What are you going to do? You can’t take them out every day. Back then, you had a four man staff. Once they gave money to the pitchers, that’s when it changed. We’ve got $2 million in this guy, what are you going to do, wreck his arm? Then there was the development thing; that’s when it changed. They were making decisions on guys 20 innings. How can you judge on 20 innings? In my day, they’d play two-to-three years and pitch over 100 innings to find out if he’s going to be a prospect.”

The million dollar salaries that Rapp felt were affecting player development were a far cry from the peanuts he made at the lowest level of minor league baseball in 1946. The struggles he had to make a dollar stretch during those years ultimately fostered a deeper love for a game that gave back to him for almost the next 40 years.

“I got $150 per month if you were lucky,” he recalled. “We used to get $1 per day in meal money. We used to go to Walgreens for $.35 for breakfast. That was about the only place you could go on the road.

“When I was in Marion, because I wasn’t old enough, a guy from the bar invited me into the kitchen. He gave me a big platter of spaghetti. I’d eat my garlic bread and spaghetti and he’d charge me $.50. You were always looking for ways to get through because you had no money. They had signs in left field and they would give you $5 if you hit it over the sign, and they [home runs] always seemed to come before payday. I had about 15 home runs, five over the signs. I’d go and take guys for breakfast. That was the love of the game. We didn’t even have showers at the ballpark so we’d go back to my home; I was about 10 blocks from the park. We’d used to just do anything to play the game.”