Saturday, April 22, 2017

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen creates a regal mystique for collectors

Aiming for aura of regal mystique as its name implies, the 2017 Topps Gypsy Queen set delivers collectors a striking design that is sure to draw the attention of many this baseball season. Immediately clear from opening the first pack of the box, is that the emphasis is on creating cards that are timeless in their display. The vivid action shots that blur the lines of photography and artwork are meant to persist in their appeal for decades.

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen / Topps
This year’s Gypsy Queen makes some amendments to the 2016 series, reducing the base set to 320 cards and removing the mini parallels from the series of inserts available to chase. Parallels include numbered colored cards (Purple, Black & White, Red, Black), as well as image variations of players in throwback uniforms or capless action shots. Some of the parallels are hard to determine due to the difficult to read codes in the fine print on the back that serves to differentiate them from the base set.

Standout inserts included the Hand Drawn Art Reproductions, which further the design motif of the set, as well as the Fortune Teller inserts that feature many of the rising stars in the league. The most tantalizing insert set however, might be the Chewing Gum Mini autographs (1:771 packs). These signatures include Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, as well as top-tier young talents Carlos Correa, Noah Syndergaard, and Yoan Moncada.

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen Inserts and Variations / Topps
In exciting fashion, the box provided for this review yielded three autographs, one more than the two that were guaranteed. There was a Jacob deGrom autographed jumbo patch, a black and white autographed parallel that was numbered out of 50, and a signed base rookie card.

Jacob deGrom Autographed Insert Patch Card / Topps
On a somber note, the Glassworks Box Topper inserted into the box, was one of the late Jose Fernandez. As of this writing, Fernandez doesn’t have a base card in any of the 2017 Topps releases; seeing him once again alive on cardboard serves as a painful reminder of his 2016 passing.

2017 Topps Gypsy Queen Jose Fernandez Glassworks Box Topper / Topps
This year’s Topps Gypsy Queen is certainly another release by Topps that is not only worth chasing, but preserving. While collectors might find it a bit frustrating and expensive to compile the 20 short prints (1:24 packs) for a complete set, the classic graphics make the 2017 Topps Gypsy Queen a tough set to pass up.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Bearing witness to Jackie Robinson Day in 1997

On April 15, 1997, the New York Mets hosted Jackie Robinson Night at Shea Stadium, where Major League Baseball forever retired Jackie Robinson's jersey number 42. Exactly fifty years prior, Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves in 1947, serving to shatter the line of segregation in the sport.

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the game, as the Mets distributed tickets to local high schools to boost attendance. I remember an announcement being made that tickets were available and as soon as the bell rang for the next period, I went to the office to claim one. Excited to have my ticket in hand, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to bear witness to this historic event.

Media Gathering Around The Field at Batting Practice for Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte
Entering Shea Stadium for the game, there was a tremendous amount of security as President Clinton was in attendance. Seemingly at every turn in the stadium there was a Secret Service agent, constantly on the lookout for any potential sign of danger. On the field during batting practice, hordes of media gathered by the newly unveiled logo commemorating the event.


Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 Shea Stadium / N. Diunte
During the fifth inning of the contest, Major League Baseball stopped the game for an unprecedented on-field ceremony that included a hobbled President Bill Clinton who was recovering from knee surgery, Rachel Robinson, commissioner Bud Selig, and a few of Robinson's former Brooklyn Dodger teammates. The President explained the significance of Robinson's legacy and why it was important that his number 42 was going to be permanently retired across Major League Baseball.

President Bill Clinton speaking during Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte

Taking in the game from the upper deck with hordes of other New York City high school students, there was a bond that evening that transcended team affiliations, knowing that we were all spectators to a historical baseball event, one worthy of the President's time and attention. Twenty years later, the annual on-going tributes to Robinson and the doors that he opened, serve to remind us just how powerful his impact was on  the game.

Special Commemorative Program From Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1997 / N. Diunte

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bob Cerv turned a late start into an All-Star baseball career

Bob Cerv was an unusual late-comer to professional baseball, signing his first minor league contract at the age of 25. His career was delayed due to his World War II service, which started in 1943 right after his high school graduation. After a three-year tour of duty, he became one of the University of Nebraska’s most decorated stars, winning back-to-back basketball championships, as well as garnering the Huskers’ first baseball All-American honors in 1950. Despite his accolades on the diamond, Cerv wasn’t sure the sport was going to be his calling.

“All at once I didn't think I was going into pro ball,” Cerv said during a phone interview with the author from his home in 2008. “I could have gone into pro basketball also. I played basketball and baseball at Nebraska. … Then they [the Yankees] offered me a deal, ‘Well we'll send you to Kansas City, and if you make it, we want to see how you do.’ I was 25 years old when I signed.”

When he arrived in Kansas City, the Yankees farm system was brimming with so much talent, that many including Cerv, eventually went on to stardom with other franchises. Cerv said that his 1951 AAA team in Kansas City was a prime example of just how rich the Yankees were with prospects.

“[Mickey] Mantle, Jackie Jensen, and I played the outfield [together] in Kansas City at the same time,” he said. “About seven years later, we were the All-Star [starting] outfield.”

Bob Cerv (r.) with Casey Stengel (c.) and Bob Wielser (l.)

He turned his delayed start into a dozen major league seasons that spanned from 1951-1962 with four different major league teams. Sadly, Cerv passed away April 6, 2017 in Blair, Nebraska. He was 91.

Cerv spent his first few seasons with the Yankees shuttling back and forth between Kansas City and the Bronx until 1954. The Yankees had used up his options and manager Casey Stengel decided to make him a permanent part of his outfield platoon.

“In those days when you were in AAA they could option you three times,” he recalled. “They had to keep or sell you. In 1951, ‘52, and ‘53, I got sent back down, and in ‘54 they had to keep me. That's the only year Stengel won 100+ games, and we lost by eight to Cleveland that year!”

The Yankees rebounded in 1955 to capture the American League pennant and face off with the Brooklyn Dodgers during the World Series. A late season leg injury forced Mantle out of the lineup for the majority of the series, clearing the way for Cerv to start during the Fall Classic.

“I played center field and I was 2-16 and [Irv] Noren was 1-16,” he said. “I hit against the left-handers and Noren hit the right-handers. We were lousy! I remember I hit a pinch hit home run off of Roger Craig; not many have done that. Then everything went their [Brooklyn’s] way.”

Over fifty years later, Cerv recalled Sandy Amoros’ catch during Game Seven of the 1955 World Series coming as the result of a genius decision by Dodgers manager Walter Alston. At the time, the Cerv was perplexed by the change.

"[Sandy] Amoros made that catch right after they just changed. I don't know why they switched all those people for. That was the greatest move. Junior Gilliam would have never caught that ball; even Amoros barely caught it. Yogi rarely ever hit a ball that way, but Amoros could run.”

Cerv tasted World Series victory the following season when the Yankees got their revenge against the Dodgers. He had one hit in his only at-bat during the series. During that off-season, the Yankees sold Cerv to Kansas City. The opportunity to play full-time made a world of difference for Cerv. By 1958, he beat out Ted Williams for the starting spot in the All-Star Game while setting a Kansas City record for home runs. Even more impressive was that he accomplished all of this despite spending an entire month of the season playing with his jaw wired shut.

“I hit 38 homers that year, everything went well,” he said. “I finally got to play every day. That was self satisfaction. I always played against the left-handers and there were no bad left-handers in the major leagues. They didn't stay long if they weren’t pretty good. Parnell, Pierce, Score, Hoeft ... they could throw the hell out of the ball.”

Cerv had one last hurrah with the Yankees, returning in a 1960 mid-season trade to become a part of their World Series team. He hit .357 in their World Series loss against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His career ended in 1962 an ill-fated run with the Houston Colt 45s, when leg injuries had robbed him of his bat speed and power.

Upon retiring from the majors, Cerv spent many years as giving back to the game as both a professor and coach at Southwest Missouri State College and John F. Kennedy College in Nebraska. He stressed fundamentals, something that he felt the modern ballplayer lacked.

“The minor leagues went from D-AAA, but one thing they knew, was how to play baseball,” he said. “Nowadays, they learn in the majors and they make too many mistakes; they don't have enough players. If you have a halfway year in the minors now, you are in the majors. Pitchers don't even have to have good years. If they look like they have a good arm, that's all they need.”

While Cerv’s salary never reached more than $30,000 in one year, he had no qualms about coming along too soon. His multiple post-season appearances with the Yankees more than made up for it.

“I can't complain,” he said. “I had a lot of World Series checks. When I first came up, they said ‘Don't mess with our money, we'll make more money in a week than in a year.’”


Sunday, April 2, 2017

2017 Topps Opening Day is a worthy kickoff to the season

Topps is reading to ring the bell on the start of a new season with the releasing of its appropriate titled 2017 Opening Day baseball set. Emblazoned with their classic Opening Day logo, this 200-card set serves as a celebration of when baseball fans around the country can do more than stare out their windows awaiting the start of the regular season.
2017 Topps Opening Day / Topps

Condensed from the 2017 Topps Series 1 version, Opening Day provides collectors the opportunity to have a fun and focused product, without having to worry about chasing short prints or open multiple boxes to complete a set. The 36-pack box sent for this review yielded a complete set amidst an array of inserts with about 20 duplicates of the base set to spare.

This year’s Opening Day set is rather kid friendly with inserts of each MLB team’s ballpark food staple, as well as Mascot cards for each team, with some lucky fans unearthing signed ones. While traditional collectors might scoff at the idea of a signed Mascot card being one of the hits, plenty of youngsters will enjoy this niche in 2017 Opening Day.

2017 Topps Opening Day Bryce Harper / Topps
In addition to the box yielding a complete set, more difficult inserts such as a Bryce Harper National Anthem card (1:244 packs) and an Opening Day Stars Kris Bryant card (1:27 packs) were other bonuses that added to the excitement of this product. The blue foil tinged Opening Day inserts have a nice finishing touch with the April 2, 2017 or April 3, 2017 commencement specially placed on the card.

A sampling of 2017 Topps Opening Day Inserts / Topps
With a price point around $30 per box and the opportunity to pull autographs of some of the game’s top young stars, as well as a tremendous variety of enjoyable inserts, 2017 Topps Opening Day is a family orientated product designed to engage fans of all ages.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jose 'Tony' Zardon, eldest living Cuban major leaguer passes away at 94

Jose Zardon, a native Cuban who was the last living member of the 1945 Washington Senators, passed away March 21, 2017 in Tamarac, Florida. He was 94.

Affectionately nicknamed "Guineo," for his blazing speed that was akin to the local hen in Cuba, he first played in the United States in 1944 when the legendary scout Joe Cambria signed him to the Washington franchise. After playing one season in the minor leagues, the Senators minted the fleet-footed outfielder as a major leaguer in 1945, seeking to take advantage of his ability to cover the vast depths of Griffith Stadium. 

Jose Zardon at his home in 2012 / N. Diunte
With major league rosters depleted due to World War II enlistments, Zardon and his Cuban teammates with the Senators became pioneers of sorts, giving the club in the nation's capitol an integrated team a year prior to the Brooklyn Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson. While there were other Cubans who preceded Zardon in the major leagues, their solid performance further opened the pipeline for his countrymen to follow.

In his only major league season, Zardon batted .290 in 131 at-bats, while making some tremendous catches in the outfield. Throughout the remainder of the 1940s and early 1950s, Zardon spent his winters playing for the Almendares and Havana clubs in Cuba, as well as two seasons in Venezuela. He remained active in the minor leagues, spending another ten seasons as both a player and a manager before retiring in 1955.

Great detail of Zardon's career is profiled in the SABR book, "Who's on First: Replacement Players in World War II." In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Zardon at his Florida home to discuss his career, where in his jovial fashion, he shared a story about how he stole first base after a famous Cuban sportswriter doubted his hitting abilities. The video, which is linked below, is a taste of Zardon's warm character which was appreciated by all who met him. 

* Ed Note - In the above SABR interview, Zardon admitted that his birth year was 1922, not 1923 as listed in the official baseball database.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017 Topps Heritage hooks hobbyists with a simple approach

Cut in the aesthetically pleasing style of the 1968 Topps design, Topps’ 2017 Heritage is a throwback to a season that was defined by the mound dominance of Bob Gibson and his miniscule 1.18 ERA. While the feel of the set doesn’t quite have the aggressiveness of Gibson’s fastball, it is the simplicity of the overall package that will attract collectors to this year’s issue.

While some of Topps’ other releases feel like a parade of bells and whistle with all kinds of shiny inserts, the traditional aspect of Topps Heritage is what keeps collectors coming back to this product. Nuances like the puzzles of Kris Bryant and Mike Trout on the back of the All-Star cards, as well as the action and letter variations are the right amount of diversity to make you pay attention to the details without losing sight of what brought you to the product in the first place.

Buster Posey Action Variation / Topps
A certain gem of 2017 Topps Heritage is the selections for the dual and triple Real-One autographed cards. Lucky individuals will garner a signed card of the fantasy Hall of Fame battery of Nolan Ryan and Johnny Bench. Others so fortunate will pull signed cards by three franchise Hall of Famers, with the Cardinals supplying Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda, and Lou Brock on the same card, while the Baltimore Orioles put out stalwarts Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Jim Palmer on another. These multi-signed cards are highly desirable pieces that could easily serve as the cornerstones of many hobbyists collections.

Nolan Ryan / Johnny Bench Dual Signed Card / Topps
Set collectors however, will face a major challenge in completing the 500-card set. The yield from the 24-pack box is well short of the fifty percent mark, further complicated by the 100 short printed cards at the end of the set. The box provided for this review only yielded eight short prints, which will undoubtedly force collectors to the secondary market to finish things off.

A selection of 2017 Topps Heritage Short Prints / Topps
A cool touch to the box provided for this review was the addition of a 1968 Topps buyback card, further connecting the past with the present as intended by the theme of the Heritage set. While hoping for one of the aforementioned dual autographs, this box yielded a Clubhouse Collection relic card of Miami Marlins slugging outfielder, Giancarlo Stanton.

Don McMahon 1968 Topps Buyback / Topps
Giancarlo Stanton Clubhouse Collection Relic / Topps

Despite the fact that a set will be difficult to build out of one, or even two boxes, the clean and simple design combined with the possibility of pulling a monumental autograph should push collectors to explore the depths of the 2017 Topps Heritage release well into the regular season.

 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Former Met Anthony Young says brain tumor has shrunk

Former New York Mets pitcher Anthony Young, who gained notoriety in the early 1990s by setting a major league record with 27 consecutive losses, announced in late January 2017 that he had an inoperable brain tumor. Speaking with radio host Bill Donohue on New York’s WGBB 1240 AM, Young gave listeners an update on his condition.

“I was having blurred vision and my wife took me to the emergency room,” Young said. “They found out that I had a brain tumor in my brain stem, which is too dangerous to try to get a biopsy, so we treated it like it was cancer.”
Anthony Young / Mets

After two months of receiving chemotherapy and radiation, Young is now following a plan to recovery that includes a five day regimen of chemo 23 days apart. Determined not to let his diagnosis affect his life, Young continued to work the entire time since starting his treatment.

“I’m doing great,” he said. “I never got sick, I drove myself every day to chemo. I never missed a day of work. I go to work every day. … Everything is going fine. I had a MRI the other day and the tumor actually shrunk some.”

Monday, February 6, 2017

Why 2017 Topps Baseball fortifies their place as the gold standard in baseball cards

With a brazen Kris Bryant fortifying the cover of 2017 Topps Baseball, a clear signal has been made that Topps continues to set the bar high with their flagship product. Promoting this year’s theme of having fans, “rediscover Topps baseball,” the quality of this set is exhibit A as to why 2017 is a perfect time to fall in love with baseball card collecting.
2017 Topps Series 1 / Topps
The 350-card base set is book-ended by Bryant and David Ortiz and features action packed photos of the key players across the league. Sharp collectors will notice that Topps reinserted card number seven back into the checklist, placing New York Yankees phenom Gary Sanchez in the spot that they have previously skipped or reserved for Mickey Mantle since 1996.

As clear and crisp is the layout of the base set, the true gem of 2017 Topps Baseball are the 1987 Topps 30th anniversary parallels. Designed in the wood motif of the most fashioned set of the 1980s, the glossy updated look and feel of the 30th anniversary parallels are sure to attract collectors for both nostalgic and aesthetic reasons. Some collectors would go as far to argue that Topps could have made the entire base set a throwback to the 1987 design.

Keeping with tradition, Topps has a wide array of inserts and parallels to keep collectors chasing past compiling the base set. The expansive Topps Salute 100-card insert set presents a beautiful chronology of the past season, and the Five Tool subset highlights the ultra-talented superstars that excel in many facets of the game.

2017 Topps Inserts / Topps

Each box promises one autograph or relic card. The box provided for this review yielded a Jose Canseco autographed 1987 Topps 30th anniversary card. Canseco’s original 1987 Topps card was one of the iconic in the set, the card emblazoned with a Topps Rookie Cup and the young slugger pictured eagerly sitting in the dugout. The 30th anniversary autographed version featured a Canseco orbiting a trademark moon shot with a bold signature on the card.

Set builders will be happy with the collation, as a box came up only 30 cards short of a 350-card complete set; however, the cards were condition sensitive, as quite a few had dinged corners fresh out of the pack. Buoyed by the stunning 1987 retro cards, collectors will easily overlook a few soft corners as they are quickly reminded why Topps remains the industry gold standard.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Baseball Happenings Podcast: Kevin L. Mitchell - Author of Last Train to Cooperstown

Kevin L. Mitchell, author of Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, is the guest for this episode of the Baseball Happenings Podcast. In this episode, Mitchell discusses how his love for the history of Negro League Baseball motivated him to capture the careers of this most recent group of Negro Leaguers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Mitchell profiles the 17 inductees who might very likely be the last members of the Negro Leagues to ride the train to Cooperstown.

Last Train to Cooperstown / Black Rose Writing


Friday, January 20, 2017

How Red Adams turned a devastating injury into a five decade journey in baseball

Looking at Red Adams’ career Major League stats, one might assume that he was washed up at age 24, pitching only 12 innings for the Chicago Cubs in 1946 with a bloated 8.25 ERA. Lost in the translation of his  cup of coffee was a 19-year minor league career that spanned over 3,000 innings and opened the door for another three decades as a scout, pitching coach, and instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Red Adams / Author's Collection

Adams died Wednesday January 18, 2017 at the age of 95 in California. He left behind a lifetime of memories that came from a half-decade association with a game that he admits he wasn’t ready to play when he signed his first professional contract in 1939.

“I didn’t play any baseball before I went into pro baseball,” he told me during a 2009 phone interview from his home in California. “I grew up in a small town. There was a guy named Charlie Moncrief who took me to a tryout camp. He saw me play in high school. I played seven or eight games in high school. He took me to Los Angeles to a tryout camp and I was signed. I didn’t even know pitchers were supposed to cover first base.”

While Adams was learning the finer points of the game playing at the lowest rung of the minor leagues in Bisbee, Arizona, he suffered a severe injury that threatened to cut short a career that was just starting. An evening of horseplay with his roommates left him with an injury that would have stopped his career dead in its tracks if he played any other position besides pitcher.

“I had gotten into an accident in Bisbee, Arizona when I first started playing ball,” he recalled. “A bunch of damn fools we were! We were staying in a big rooming house; a bunch of players with nobody in charge. I was up there and a couple of us got into a damn water fight. I wound up getting hurt badly. I was chasing this kid down the damn hall to get even with him to throw water on him. He runs in this door and closes it behind him. It was a glass door and I was right behind him, I stick out my left arm and I cut myself real bad. If you get cut by glass like that, it was like no pain, but suddenly I was bleeding all over. I cut my left arm at the ulnar nerve just above my elbow. It’s like midnight and they take me to the hospital nearby. They just sewed it up. The main nerves were cut. It cripples my hand to where I can’t even straighten my fingers.”

His arm injury was so debilitating, that when he went to register to serve in World War II, he was declared unfit for participation. It was a label that he despised having.

“It kept me out of the Army,” he said. “I took my physical but the guy looked at my hand and said I’d be taken in for limited service. He told me I’d be called any time. I stayed out of baseball; I was married and my wife was expecting a baby. The next year, they didn’t call me. I was working on a farm not making any money, so I thought I’d go and play ball and make a little money. Eventually, they put me 4F which was ‘unfit,’ which I hated calling myself that because I was fit except for my arm. Had I been an everyday player, it would have been the end of me.”

A few years later after his devastating injury, Adams ascended his way to the major leagues, pitching with the Cubs in 1946 after posting a 9-4 record with a 2.68 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. It was in that league where Adams truly built his career, playing the next 12 seasons in the PCL while the league earned an Open classification from professional baseball.

He experienced a breakout season in 1952 with Portland after returning invigorated from an appearance in the Caribbean Series with the San Juan Senadores from Puerto Rico. At age 30, he found a new lease on his pitching life.

“I came back and was a different pitcher in the Coast League,” he said. “In the past I was struggling, I was going downhill; I started to wonder what I was going to do after baseball. In those years, I’d come on pretty good the last half of the season and keep my job. That winter, I came into spring training in shape and I led the coast league in ERA that year even though I lost more games than I won.”

Modern-era executives might now recognize his low earned run average as a sign of his effectiveness and discount his hard luck losses, but in 1952, management was quick to pin full responsibility of the ledger on their pitchers, no matter the ineptitude of their offense or defense.

“The general manager there cut my salary a couple hundred dollars per month,” he said. “I was pitched the opening game in San Francisco and lost 1-0; the other guy pitched a one-hitter. I lost my first five games and didn’t give up more than three runs per game. He [the general manager] called me in after the fifth loss and gave me the $200 cut. He said, ‘The way you’re pitching, if you don’t win a game, you deserve to have your salary cut.’ His name was Bill Mulligan. I ended up winning 15 games.”

Adams said that the scenario he described was common in the minor leagues, as players had little choice in their movement due to the reserve clause. Despite the salary cut against what he felt was effective performance, he still felt that playing in the Pacific Coast League had many benefits in the 1950s.

“Those were the struggling minor league days,” he said. "The Coast League was a good league to play in; we had good conditions, it was a very comfortable league to play in. A lot of the players came from the big leagues, fringe guys, or guys that had a couple of years left. The conditions were hard to beat. Not too many players made a lot of money in the major leagues. There were players happy to be playing there.”

After finishing up as a player in 1958, Adams was asked to become a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He worked in that position until 1969 when Walter Alston brought him as a pitching coach. He stayed with the Dodgers in that role through the transition to Tommy Lasorda's regime until his retirement as a coach in 1980. Although he stepped down from his coaching duties, he continued with the organization as an instructor through the mid 1980s. Among his many prized pupils was Hall of Famer Don Sutton, who called Adams, “the standard by which all pitching coaches should be measured.”

During our 2009 conversation, Adams reflected on how fortunate he was to work with the Dodgers for such a lengthy period a time. After considering how his career was almost truncated due to a careless injury away from the field, he marveled at the fortune that turned it into an almost 50-year journey in the sport.

“It was a damn good organization,” he said. “I lucked out; I was pretty lucky.”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Jim Bouton reflects on Ball Four as he auctions its recordings and manuscripts

Jim Bouton, the author of the revolutionary baseball book, Ball Four, has placed all of his audio recordings, notes, original manuscripts, and the subsequent letters from Major League Baseball urging him to retract his work, up for auction. The 77-year-old retired pitcher, who spent ten seasons in the major leagues with the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots, Houston Astros, and Atlanta Braves, entrusted his collection to SCP Auctions, who expects the memorabilia which also includes some of his game-used items, to fetch in the neighborhood of $300,000.

Jim Bouton - 1965 Topps / Topps
Ball Four provided a look inside the major league clubhouse, with Bouton jotting down notes about anything of interest that happened during the season, whether it was on or off the field. In addition to Major League Baseball, Bouton’s work aroused the ire of the New York Yankees, who allegedly banned him after the 1970 publication of Ball Four from attending Old-Timers’ Day for writing about Mickey Mantle’s drinking habits.

In 1998, Bouton’s son Michael wrote a passionate letter to the New York Times to make the case for his father’s return to the annual Yankees Old-Timers’ Day. Published on Father’s Day, his son’s letter tugged at the heart strings of many, including the New York Yankees, who quickly welcomed Bouton back into the fold.

“That was sort of a bittersweet thing,” Bouton said when we spoke at the 2010 BAT Dinner in New York City. “I had been uninvited for 28 years, so the circumstances of me being invited back had to do with the fact that my daughter Lauren had been killed in an automobile accident the year before.

“My son Michael wrote a letter to the New York Times to be published on Father’s Day and said, ‘The Yankees should let bygones be bygones and that Old Timers Day was always a time for families, as he remembered when we had Old Timers Day when I was a player with the Yankees. So Michael ended the letter, ‘My dad can use all the hugs he can get right now.’ It was such a sweet and beautiful letter. The Yankees read it and invited me back.”

Forty years after his landmark work was published Bouton was still excited to discuss its merits. He explained why Ball Four has persisted despite his uncertainties about how it would be received.

“I thought it would cause a little excitement because I knew I was writing some things that hadn’t been written in a sports book,” he said. “I thought after a year or so it would die down, but it hasn’t. It didn’t hurt that I wrote an update in 1980, 1990, and 2000 to keep it alive. I think the characters in the book are so interesting and so funny; I think that [is what] resonates with people.”

While Bouton didn’t set out to revolutionize the world of sports writing, he acknowledged that Ball Four opened up a new world for authors to explore. Capturing the life of an athlete away from the stories told by box scores and game recaps became of greater interest to both sportswriters and fans alike.

“I think probably after the book came out, it was no longer possible for a sportswriter to be an extension of the team’s public relations department, which is what it usually was,” Bouton said. “Now I think reporters said, ‘Ok, people want to know more about these guys and their batting averages; they want to know what kind of people they are.’ I think because the players are attractively interesting with wonderful backgrounds, the more people know about them, the more they’ll become interested in the game.”

Sunday, January 8, 2017

When will MLB finally do right by all of its retirees?

This week's guest post is from author Douglas Gladstone, who wrote the 2010 book, "A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve." Here, Gladstone continues to make the case for Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to retroactively grant pensions to the declining number of major leaguers that played prior to 1980 that would now be eligible under current guidelines.

With the passing of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the MLBPA willfully chose to ignore the plight of their elder alumni, many whom are struggling both financially and physically. As salaries rise to astronomical levels and the amounts of dues collected by the MLBPA annually continue to accrue, surely there is enough of a cushion to support these aging retirees caught in the pension gap.

The plight of the pensionless, non-vested pre-1980 retirees 
- Douglas Gladstone

THE ISSUE

Why does former Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Caleb Gindl get an MLB pension but retired Astros and Cardinals infielder Ray Busse does not?

Gindl only played parts of two seasons for the Brewers, in 2013 and 2014. He appeared in a total of 64 games and only had 151 career at bats. Why he is more deserving of a pension than Busse, who appeared in more games (68) and had more at bats (156) during the parts of three seasons (1971, 1973 and 1974) he spent in The Show?

Some 800 men do not get pensions because they didn’t accrue four years of service credit. That was what ballplayers who played between 1947-1980 needed to be eligible for the pension plan.

Former Texas Ranger and Cleveland Indian pitcher David Clyde was only 37 game days shy, former Cleveland Indian pinch hitter supreme Don Dillard was only 17 game days shy; yet instead of a pension, these non-vested men receive non-qualified life annuities based on a complicated formula that had to have been calculated by an actuary.

David Clyde / Baseball Hall of Fame

In brief, for every quarter of service a man has accrued, he gets $625. Four quarters (one year) totals $2,500. Sixteen quarters (four years) amounts to the maximum, $10,000. And that payment is before taxes are taken out.

When the player dies, the payment is not permitted to be passed on to a designated beneficiary, like a spouse or other loved one. Former Tigers first baseman Jack Pierce received two of the payments before he died in 2012. He left behind a wife, six children and six grand children.

And the non-vested player is not covered under the MLB's health care umbrella coverage plan, either. Former Expo pitcher Michael Wegener was reportedly diagnosed in 1991 with stage three non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the sixth most form of cancer among males. As of last May, his cancer was in remission for the second time. A pension would let him be covered by the same great health insurance plan men who receive pensions are covered by. Retroactively restoring Wegener into pension coverage would also allow his benefit payments to be passed on to his wife, Marcia, or daughter, Michelle, in the event that something ever happens to him.

By contrast, a player who played after 1980 is eligible for health coverage after one game day, and he's also eligible for a pension after 43 game days. These benefits can be passed on to a loved one or designated recipient.

Currently, the maximum annual pension allowable under the IRS is $210,000, but the non-vested, pre-1980 players don't even come close to making that. For instance, for his 3 1/2 years of service credit, former White Sox, Mariners, Reds and Yankees hurler Rich Hinton receives a gross check of $8,625. After taxes, it is an even smaller $6,262.

These men are all being penalized for playing in the majors at the wrong time.

THE BACKGROUND

The Major League Baseball pension fund was established on April 1, 1947. At the time it was enacted, you had to be on an active major league roster on that date to qualify for a pension, and the rules stipulated that you only needed five years to retire. Effective 1969, that total was reduced to four years to qualify.

During the 1980 Memorial Day Weekend, a threatened players’ walkout was averted when the league and the union agreed that players would be eligible for health benefits after only one day of service and a pension after 43 days — roughly one-quarter of a season.

The problem? The proposal was never made retroactive.

THE CONTROVERSY

In 1997, the MLB executive council created a payment plan for about 85 black players who didn’t play in the majors long enough to qualify for a pension, or who did not have the opportunity to play in the majors at all. To be eligible for their payments, the black players had to either play in the Negro Leagues for at least one season before 1948 or play a combined four years in the Negro Leagues and the major leagues before 1979.

The price tag associated with this magnanimous gesture? It amounted to annual payments of between $7,500 and $10,000 per player. That future got even brighter for the veterans of the Negro Leagues in 2004, when MLB agreed to make payments to more of these ballplayers on the grounds that baseball had not been totally integrated until 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to field a black player.

The terms of the agreement weren’t exactly the same as with the 1997 group of ex Negro Leaguers. Players who never played in the major leagues were given the option of electing to choose pensions totaling $375 per month ($4,500 annually) for life or $10,000 a year for four years.

A class action lawsuit on behalf of the retired pre-1980 players was later filed in October 2003 alleging that their Title VII rights had been violated. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The suit also contended that team owners conspired to fund pension benefits for a group of former Negro Leaguers knowing that the white players who had played similar lengths of time in the big leagues had not received the same benefits.

Though he found the players’ case “sympathetic,” U.S. District Judge Manuel Real in March 2004 ultimately granted MLB’s motion for a summary judgment, agreeing with the Commissioner’s Office that the payments for the former Negro players “were not tied to any MLB employment relationship, rather, they were conferred as charitable donations.”

Not surprisingly, the players appealed Real’s ruling and, on December 6, 2005, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court in California heard oral arguments from both sides. Less than six months later, on May 22, 2006, the court of appeals for the ninth circuit upheld the lower court’s decision.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Justice Stephen Reinhardt indicated that the players had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, given that the enactment of the Negro League plans did not constitute an adverse employment action and given that the two groups of players are not similarly situated.

“Even if appellants had made such a prima facie showing, we would conclude that Major League Baseball has provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-pre-textual reason for their decision to implement the Plans,” he continued. “The plans were adopted for the specific purpose of providing benefits to those who had been discriminated against by being denied the opportunity to play MLB and to qualify for MLB benefits.”

The lawyers representing the men in the class action lawsuit either didn't know that numerous African American players and persons of color -- such as Pierce, Wayne Cage, Aaron Pointer, the late Billy Harrell and, perhaps most famously, Herb Washington, were part of the pre-1980 players, or they conveniently chose to overlook that fact.

SOLUTIONS

MLB has been doing right by men who had no contractual employment relationship with the league — in 2008, the league even had a mock draft of 30 Negro Leaguers, all of whom received $5,000 in real money from their new “teams” as a way to atone for the game’s past institutional racism.

But what about the guys like Cage?

Some of the Negro Leaguers are earning more monies than the guys like Clyde, Dillard, Hinton and Cage — all of whom did have contractual relationships with MLB.

The author recommends that, short of retroactively restoring these men back into pension coverage, the league, union, and the MLBPAA at the very least agree to allow the non-qualified life annuity payment to the pre-1980 player be permitted to be passed on to their designated survivors and/or loved ones.

No less than the widow of former Senator and Tiger hurler Alan Koch, who passed away last year, told the author it would be a severe, financial hardship if the payment were taken away from her. The author also recommends that all loved ones of men who were alive on April 21, 2011 — the day the union and league agreed to the payment plan — should have those monies be retroactively disbursed if they were, in fact, discontinued.

Both Pierce's and Harrell's widows would receive five years worth of retroactive, non-qualified life annuity payments.

The author also recommends that the union and league immediately increase the payments to a minimum of $10,000 for each person who is eligible and do away with the ridiculous $625 per quarter formula, based on the amount of quarters the man played, up to 16 quarters.

There is ample precedent for this too — in 1997, the league gave the pre-1947 players — men like 1941 National League MVP Dolph Camilli — quarterly payments of $7,500-$10,000. These were men who obviously didn't pay union dues because the pension plan didn't exist when they played. There were no qualifications.

The author feels that this would be a tremendous show of faith by the league and the union, and a great way to start off the New Year.

If you have any questions, they may be directed to my email address of abittercupofcoffee@gmail.com

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Art Pennington, last Negro League All-Star, passes away at 93

Art Pennington, one of the last true All-Stars from the Negro Leagues, passed away Wednesday, January 4, 2017 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was 93.

With Pennington’s passing, so goes the last living great who made his career primarily in the Negro Leagues. The switch-hitting outfielder made his first All-Star appearance in the Negro Leagues East-West Game in 1942 at 19, surrounded by ten future Hall of Famers including Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Satchel Paige. Speaking with Pennington in 2009, he was in awe of being in the company of such tremendous talent at a young age.

“They had some great players in that game,” he said. “I was very young. … We played at Comiskey Park; it was the first time I ever played in a big park like that.”

Art Pennington Fritsch Negro League Baseball Stars Card / Author's Collection

Nicknamed "Superman," he made his entry into the Negro Leagues when he was just 17 years old in 1940 with the Chicago American Giants. His place on the club didn’t sit well with some of the veterans, especially those who were benched after he arrived.

“When I first went to that league with the American Giants, Jim Taylor was my manager,” he recalled. “Taylor [first] told me I was going to play shortstop, and then he told me I was going to play first base. One of the guys [Don] Reese didn’t like it because he had to sit. … I took another guys job. I had a strong arm and I could run.”
Pennington in 1942 with Chicago American Giants teammates / Balt. Afro-American

Pennington exuded confidence every time he stepped into the batter’s box, posting eye popping batting averages of .359 in 1945 and .370 in 1950 for the Chicago American Giants. His cockiness at the plate was even more evident when he’d taunt the opposing pitcher with what became his trademark catchphrase.

“I had a saying, ‘Throw it and duck!’” he laughed. “We barnstormed against Dizzy Dean and I didn’t know who he was. I told him to, ‘Throw it and duck!’ He threw it and ducked, and I hit a homerun off of Dizzy Dean! I was young and goofy at that time and that was my saying.”

Pennington jumped the Negro Leagues in 1946 to join Jorge Pasquel’s Mexican League in search of fairer racial treatment and a higher paying salary.

“I faced some tough guys in the Mexican League,” he said. “They had a tough outfit in Caracas. Chico Carrasquel, said, ‘You’ll be going to the majors. I said, ‘You don’t know how it is up there. You see my wife?’ That’s why I jumped to Mexico. The conditions were better down there.”

In Mexico, Pennington met his future wife Anita. He explained how he courted her despite them both speaking completely different languages.

“She was a fine looking woman, a beautiful red-headed woman,” he recalled. “We were in the same restaurant. They had a lot of fans in the restaurants in those foreign countries. Her and her girlfriend came in the restaurant, and they knew we were ballplayers. So I talked to her, and I gave her and her girlfriend a pass to the game. From then on, they knew where I was eating. They were there all the time. Finally, we got together. In Mexico, you couldn’t take a woman out by themselves. They called them SeƱoritas. You got to have some kind of brother, sister, a chaperone; that’s how I ran into her.”

Thinking about his wife brought back painful memories of not only her passing, but the struggles they had when they returned from Mexico. The harsh realities of segregation over fifty years later resonated with Pennington.

“I look at my wife’s picture since she’s dead and I think about what she went through — all that we went through,” he said. “She couldn’t speak English. We came out of Mexico and we took a train to catch a bus out of Little Rock, Arkansas. They wouldn’t let her go to the colored waiting room stay with me in the colored waiting room; they wanted her to go to the white waiting room. I said, ‘No way, because she couldn’t speak any English. How is she going to go with me?’ I had to call my mother and father to come pick us up from Hot Springs. He came to pick us up and we’re standing out on the curb; he’s putting my luggage in the car and he said, ‘Where is your wife?’ I said, ‘She’s standing right there.’ She couldn’t speak a word of English. I’m so glad she didn’t because when we got off the plane coming from Cuba, and we got on a sightseeing bus, I had to write her a note for her to get me a sandwich. I said, ‘Ain’t this a shame? I’m American born and she’s got to go and get me a sandwich.’”

Pennington was a pioneer himself as one of the first African-American players in the Pacific Coast League. He played there in 1949 with the Portland Beavers. He experienced rough treatment that affected his play due to his wife’s fair skinned color.

“In Portland, I couldn’t play out there the way they mistreated me,” he said. “Frankie Austin and Luis Marquez were out there with me. They stayed out there longer. I just left there; a fellow from Caracas, Venezuela paid me double the amount of money. Marquez was doing well in Portland; he didn’t have a white wife.”
Art Pennington Signed Ron Lewis Postcard / Author's Collection
When Pennington returned to organized baseball in 1952, he went on a tear, leading the Three-I league with a .349 batting average for Keokuk. He continued to annihilate pitching in that league hitting .345 in 1954. Despite his feats at the plate, no major league team called.

“They didn’t do me good, but I left my records in all of those minor leagues,” he said.

1952 Minor League Leaders / Sporting News

He left organized ball in 1955 to play with the highly competitive Bismarck, North Dakota semi-pro team, winning a league championship with fellow Negro Leaguers Ray Dandridge and Bill Cash. He had one last hurrah in pro ball in 1958 with St. Petersburg in the New York Yankees organization, batting .339. Sal Maglie, who pitched with the Yankees in 1958, lobbied for the Yankees to give Pennington a look.

“He was with the Yankees in spring training, and he told them, ‘There’s another Mickey Mantle down there! He can hit!’ he recalled. “They didn’t do nothing.”

Pennington retired in 1985 after working for more than 20 years for Rockwell Collins. He was a fixture at Negro League reunions and traveled the country spreading the word about the league’s history.

Art Pennington 2009 Topps Allen and Ginter Baseball Card / Topps

When we spoke in 2009, Pennington was at the crossroads of history. Barack Obama had just been elected President of the United States. As someone who faced tremendous discrimination and segregation, Pennington was optimistic about a black man holding the highest office in the country.

“I never thought we’d have a black anything,” he said. “I’m really glad they picked an educated black man, well educated; I’m proud. I’m hoping he does well.”

As excited as he was of the new President, Pennington was trying to put his life back together after his home was destroyed in a devastating flood in Cedar Rapids. We spoke only a few days after he was allowed back in his home. He was grateful for all of the help he received despite many significant baseball artifacts being destroyed by the raging waters.

“I just moved back into my house two days ago,” he said. “I lost one of my cars, I lost my dogs. FEMA put me over in Marion in one of those mobile homes until a couple days ago. They treated me great and gave me a little money. I’ve had help from different ballplayers. My biggest help was from Charley Pride. He sent me $1,000. One fellow in Kansas City, he gave me $750. I get [money] in most of the letters. I just appreciate all of the people that helped me a little bit. I lost everything; I’ll never get it back. I’m in a book, Unforgotten Heroes. Someone sent me a new one. I really appreciate all of the people that helped me.”

Monday, January 2, 2017

Daryl Spencer, hit first major league home run on the West Coast, dies at 88

Daryl Spencer, a major league veteran of ten seasons and a baseball pioneer in Japan, passed away in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas on Monday January 2, 2017. He was 88.

Spencer broke into the major leagues with the New York Giants in 1952 after swatting over 20 home runs in three of his first four minor league seasons. The 24-year-old Spencer continued his power hitting as he manned all three infield positions for the Giants in 1953 while slamming 20 home runs. Just as Spencer’s talents were progressing, Uncle Sam called him for military service before the start of the 1954 season.

Daryl Spencer / 2013 BBM
His almost two-year tour in the military cost him the opportunity to be a part of the Giants 1954 World Series Championship. His efforts the previous season didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates, as they voted him a share of the World Series earnings.

"Even thought I didn’t play, they voted me a $2,000 World Series share,” he said to SABR member Bob Rives. “That doesn’t seem like much now, but each player only got about $5,000.”

Spencer returned in 1956 and remained a fixture in the Giants lineup as they moved to San Francisco. He gained notoriety when he hit the first home run in West Coast major league history, blasting a shot off of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale in the fourth inning of the first game of the 1958 season.

He played with the Giants through the end of the 1959 season when they traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals that offseason. He played another four years in the majors, seeing action with the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds until he was released by Cincinnati on his 35th birthday in 1963.

“Some birthday present, huh?” he asked Rives.

His release opened the door for another opportunity that came from an unlikely place, Japan. The Hankyu Braves offered Spencer a contract for the 1964 season. What he encountered was a league in Japan that was far behind the caliber of baseball he was used to in the major leagues.

“I went over in 1964, it's changed a lot now,” he told me during a 2008 phone interview. “The managers didn't know what they were doing. I've seen better little league coaches than the managers over there. The pitchers would pitch nine innings and the next day they would be in the bullpen pitching relief, and they would be worn out. Five years, most of the good pitchers would be worn out because they pitched them so much.”

Spencer felt that if he was able to apply the strategies that he learned until the tutelage of the likes of teammates Alvin Dark and Bill Rigney, that he would have made a run at the championship annually in Japan.

“If I would have managed the first couple years, we would have breezed in every year,” he said. “Percentage baseball in Japan when I first went was so ridiculous and it took me about almost two-thirds of the season to get to the pitcher.

“I was getting all their signs; I knew their signs and I couldn't get them to pitch out. I knew when they were stealing, they would pitch inside and the guy would hit the ball to right field. One time I got them to pitch out, the catcher spoke a little English. One time I was playing second base and gave him a sign and we threw the guy out by ten feet. He said, 'Oh that's a good play!' They knew nothing.”

Spencer hit 74 home runs in his first two seasons in Japan in the supposed twilight of his career. He was at a point where his knowledge matched his physical abilities and the combination of the two in Japan allowed him to excel.

“I did real well over there,” he said. “I read most of the pitchers and I hit a lot of home runs. I got so frustrated. It got to the point there would be a runner on first with two outs and I might hit a home run, and the first thing I know, the guys steals and he gets thrown out and now I'm leading off the next inning. It took me about two weeks with an interpreter to tell them, 'When I am batting, I don't want anyone to steal.' They weren't smart. Playing major league baseball and going there was like playing little league, stealing their signs and everything.”

He brought an aggressive style to Japan that went against cultural customs. While major league baseball players were famous for their take out slides, those actions weren’t part of the game in Japan, that is until Spencer broke tradition.

“They never broke up a double play before I went to Japan,” he said. “I'm famous for breaking up the first double play; we won 1-0 because of it. The next night one of our guys slid in and knocked out a second baseman and that changed the whole style of play.”

Spencer took a hiatus from playing after the 1968 season after he hit 142 home runs in five years, well outpacing his production during the decade he spent in the major leagues. He returned as a coach in 1971, fifty pounds over his playing weight. As Spencer began to work out the players, his weight started to melt off and he mulled a return to the diamond.

“I was hitting a lot ground balls to players and the first thing you know I was down to playing weight,” he said. “One day I took batting practice and I hit six of seven out of the park and they signed me to a player contract. I was 43, 44 at the time, but I was so much better than they were, I didn't feel like I was 43. I was in pretty good shape and I was reading the pitchers; it was no challenge at all. I could have stayed a few more years.”

He spent two seasons as a player-coach, mostly as a first baseman. He finally called it quits in 1972, some 23 years after he broke into professional baseball. He returned home to work with the Coors Brewing Company.

“I came back to Wichita and got involved with Coors,” he said. “They have the NBC tournament here and I ran the Coors team here for a few years and we won a few state championships. It was mostly college kids and a few guys that played pro ball. I did that for five years and kind of semi-retired.”

Looking back on his career in 2008, Spencer was proud that the records he set over 50 years ago still persisted.

“I hit the first home run on the West Coast,” he said. “[Willie] Mays and I are the only two players that hit two home runs each in back to back games. For not being such a great player, I have a couple of records.”

Classic Minnie Minoso one hour interview from 1993

In this 1993 interview with Minnie Minoso, Tom Weinberg talks with the Cuban great for an hour at the site of the Old Comiskey Park about his lengthy career in baseball. A relaxed Minoso speaks with his trademark candor that made him a fan favorite during his then six-decade involvement in the game.