Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Hal Naragon Interview

Hal Naragon is a baseball treasure. At age 90, the former major league catcher spun baseball yarns of catching Bob Feller, playing in the 1954 World Series, and later coaching the Detroit Tigers to 1968 World Series victory on the Baseball Happenings Podcast.


Signing with the legendary Bill Veeck

Naragon signed with the Cleveland Indians after attending an open tryout during the summer of 1946; however, there was just one problem — he was still in high school. This led to his first meeting with the legendary Bill Veeck.

“I found that when I filled out the application it said you had to be out of high school,” Naragon said during his 2019 interview. “They wanted to sign me and I got nervous then because I knew that I shouldn't have been there, but my dad said that we would go back up and talk to Mr. Veeck.

“Mr. Veeck said to my dad, ‘We'd like to sign your son.’ My dad said, ‘I have to tell you he has not graduated from high school yet ... and he thought that this would be a good time to see if he had an ability to play professional baseball.’”

Hal Naragon 1956 Topps / Topps
Veeck’s keen eye would not allow Naragon to walk away that quickly. He extended an olive branch to the elder Naragon, and the two came to a gentleman’s agreement for the Indians to have the first crack at his son when he graduated.

“Well after you graduate will you give us a chance to talk to him?" Veeck asked. "My dad said, ‘Will a handshake do?’ They shook hands and they got me out of the ballpark.”

Naragon's major league debut

Naragon kept his word and signed with the Indians in 1947. He moved quickly through their minor league system, and by the time he was 22 he was in the major leagues. He eagerly recalled the September day in 1951 when he singled off Virgil Trucks in his first major league at-bat.

“I know it was a chilly day and they called me in from the bullpen,” he said. “Naturally I was a little nervous, but usually by the time you get to the plate you get yourself together and do what you can do.”

He played a few more games during his September call-up, and then the Marines quickly grabbed him to serve in the Korean War. While many players suffered from losing their peak years to military service, Naragon returned right in time to take part in Cleveland’s record-breaking 1954 World Series run.

Catching Bob Feller

Now that he had an entire big league season in front of him, Naragon was able to learn from the best in the game. His pitching staff included Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Hal Newhouser. With that staff, it was easy to understand why the Indians won a then-record 111 games in 1954. For a rookie, catching Feller was one of the highlights of his career.

“When I saw Feller he wasn't really in his prime, but still he had he had a good movement on his ball, a good curveball, and his fastball still was moving,” he said.

Playing in the 1954 World Series

Naragon hit .238 as Jim Hegan’s backup en route to the Indians facing the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. He did not figure he would get much action, but with the Indians behind in Game Three, manager Al Lopez summoned Naragon as a late inning defensive replacement.

“You know, I was hoping that I would get in one,” he said. “When I was called up out of the bullpen to come in, I, of course, felt a little on edge at first but then I kinda settled down. I liked to be able to play in a World Series.”


Witnessing Willie Mays' Catch

While the Giants swept the Indians courtesy of Dusty Rhodes peppering the short right field porch in the Polo Grounds, I couldn’t bring up the 1954 World Series without asking Naragon about perhaps the most famous catch of all-time. We revisited Willie Mays’ devastating over the shoulder grab of Vic Wertz smash during Game One.

“You didn't think that much about it at first of the catch,” he said. “He did turn around and throw a nice ball into the infield. I don't know whether we even talked about it, but you knew Vic Wertz hit the ball and you thought, ‘Oh my goodness this is going to go out the ballpark.’ Well, then Mays catches it and you just say, 'Well, he's a good outfielder.'"

While Naragon said that he felt Larry Doby made tougher catches than Mays' World Series spectacle, years later he was able to recognize its historical greatness.

“I guess when looking back on it eventually you decide, ‘Hey that was one heck of a good catch.’”

Throughout his time with the Indians, Naragon built deep connections with many of his teammates, bonded by their train rides traversing the American League. He shared a lesser-known World Series story that involved one of his early Indians mentors, Dale Mitchell.

A career .312 hitter, Mitchell unfortunately, is best recognized for making the last out of Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game. Well after the game, the first person Mitchell reached out to was his friend, Hal Naragon.

“He called me that evening,” he said. “I asked him about it and I told him I thought the ball looked a little outside. He said he thought so too.”

Larry Doby's lighter side 

The nonagenarian reached deep into his bag of stories to share a lighthearted tale of an unintentional slip of the tongue he had with Larry Doby. Fortunately, his pioneering teammate found humor during the awkward moment.

“I remember that we were playing one game, the sky was kind of high, and the ball was kind of tough to pick up right away,” he said. “He sat down beside of me and said to me, 'Gee it is really tough to pick up that ball.’ … I said, ‘Larry, why don't you go ahead and put on some of that black stuff underneath your eye?’ Once I realized what I said, I looked at Larry and he is busting out laughing you know, because he was a dark man, but he knew what I getting to.”

Herb Score's Injury

Playing with the Indians in the second half of the 1950s decade as they started to rebuild after their Hall of Fame stars retired, Naragon was able to witness their young stars blossom. Cleveland’s prized pitching prospect was Herb Score, a flame-throwing lefty that many expected to carry on Bob Feller’s legacy. In his first two seasons, Score led the American League in strikeouts with a 36-19 won-loss record.

As 1957 started, Score looked like he was en route to another spectacular season; however, that all changed when New York Yankees infielder Gil McDougald stepped to the plate during a May 7th game. McDougald sent a line drive back through the box that smashed Score directly in the face. He watched with his teammates in horror as a bloody Score tried to hold his face together. The gruesome injury kept Score out for the rest of the season and derailed a once promising career. Naragon insisted that it was arm troubles and not the line drive that kept him from regaining his mound dominance.

“You know what, that didn't hurt his career,” he said. “Basically, he threw just as hard after it as he did before he got hit. He would tell you that [too]. I think what happened, he hurt his arm a little bit and that hurt him. As far as when he got back, he had the same velocity and a good breaking curveball. He didn't blame anyone that he couldn't pitch later just as well afterward.”

Score was not the only talent that Naragon watched bloom during his Cleveland tenure. Both Roger Maris and Rocky Colavito were rookies that Dale Mitchell told him to keep his eyes on, both impressing with their power hitting and defense.

Ted Williams' thoughtful gesture

While he had a multitude of fond memories of the superstars he played with in Cleveland, he was also excited to share a favorite Ted Williams story. It was one that had nothing to do with his on-field exploits.

“I asked Ted Williams that I would like to have a picture of him and he said to me, ‘When you get to Boston, you ask Vince the clubhouse guy and I will remember, and he will remember to get you a picture.’

“When I got to Boston, I kind of forgot that I asked Ted Williams [for the picture]. I was there leaning against the wall watching him hit and when he got through hitting, he came over and said, ‘I sent that picture over to you.’ Sure enough, when I went into the clubhouse, that picture was there. I thought, 'My goodness a big-time star like that remembers something like that!'”

In 1959, the Indians traded Naragon to the Washington Senators where he stayed with the franchise as they moved to Minnesota in 1961. After finishing his playing career in 1962, he stayed with the Twins as a coach, helping to guide them to the 1965 World Series where they lost in seven games to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

1968 Detroit Tigers World Series Victory

After his success with the Twins, he followed his good friend and pitching coach Johnny Sain to the Detroit Tigers. After two unsuccessful trips as a player and a coach, he was finally able to get a World Series ring when the Tigers won the 1968 World Series.

“That was a good team,” he said. “They would hit in the clutch … they got hits when it really counts, they were good defensive players, and they always had a lot of fun.”

Hal Naragon Tigers card courtesy of Mr. Naragon himself
In 2018, as the oldest living alumni of the 1968 championship team, the Tigers invited Naragon and his wife to Detroit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their World Series victory. He basked in the opportunity to rejoice once more with his former players.

“We had a great time,” he said. “They invited us over to that and they really did a nice job for us.”

Naragon left coaching after the 1969 season to take over a local sporting goods store in his hometown of Barberton, Ohio. He ran the store from 1974 until his 1990 retirement. The town paid a massive tribute to their native son when they named Barberton High School’s baseball field Naragon Field in his honor in 2006.

Friday, January 25, 2019

2018 Bowman Draft Baseball | Checklist, Autographs, Inserts, Box Break, and Review

As the new year rushes in, baseball fans are at the crossroads of anticipation and despair while they wait for spring training to commence. Bowman seeks to pump excitement into that space by debuting this year's draftees in 2018 Bowman Draft.

Collectors annually salivate at the opportunity to get their hands on the first official cards and certified autographs of the freshest talent in minor league baseball. Judging by the early positive responses to 2018 Bowman Draft, collectors are flocking to the product to get ahead of the curve on 2019's breakout prospects.

2018 Bowman Draft Base Set

The 200-card base set features the top 2018 draftees including the first overall pick Casey Mize, Alec Bohm, and Jarred Kelenic. Mixed in with the new draftees are the crop of 2017 Bowman Draft's featured players that just finished their first full minor league campaign.

2018 Bowman Draft Base Cards / Bowman

The jumbo box provided for this review yielded a complete set with an additional 25 doubles, giving collectors a valuable opportunity to familiarize themselves with every player in the 2018 Bowman Draft. In traditional Bowman fashion, both the base and chrome set have a variety of parallels, including serial numbered colored versions that will further provoke player collectors to corner the market on their favorite upstart. Click here for a complete 2018 Bowman Draft checklist.

2018 Bowman Draft Parallels / Bowman

2018 Bowman Draft Inserts

Bowman taps into nostalgia with the 1998 20th anniversary inserts, fashioned with the distinct black bottom border and vertical signature on the side to force the attention to the on-card action shot. The Sterling inserts also tap into familiarity, taking a horizontal highlight of the top ten draft prospects in the set. While Bowman hits the mark with these two single-player inserts, the dual-player Franchise Futures and Recommended Viewing inserts are a bit crowded and do not give these newcomers their proper space to shine.

2018 Bowman Draft Inserts / Bowman

2018 Bowman Draft Autographs

Each jumbo box guarantees three autographs, allowing collectors a dice roll to land a low serial numbered autograph of a can't-miss prospect. With 2018 Bowman Draft offering the first official certified autographs in their franchise uniforms, these signatures have quickly become coveted commodities in the market. This box landed a Chrome autograph from Los Angeles Angels first-rounder Jordyn Adams, a Class of 2018 Brady Singer autograph #/250, and a Chrome refractor autograph of St. Louis Cardinals slugging third base prospect Nolan Gorman #/499.

2018 Bowman Draft Inserts / Bowman
As baseball fans wait with great anticipation for 2019 spring training and the new baseball cards that come with it, 2018 Bowman Draft is a satisfying treat for those looking for fresh faces until pitchers and catchers report.






Tuesday, January 15, 2019

How New York Yankee Jim Coates battled both Satchel Paige and Luke Easter

The year was 1957. Jim Coates was a hard-throwing right-hander who just had his first taste of big league ball with the New York Yankees. The 25-year-old was biding his time with the Richmond Virginians in the Triple-A International League, waiting for a permanent spot to open in New York. While Coates was cutting his teeth in preparation to join Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle in Yankee Stadium, the International League had a few Negro League veterans ready to show the youngster that he still had some work to do.

Satchel Paige with the Miami Marlins / Author's Collection
Toiling with Coates in the International League was future Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige. The 50-year-old Paige was pitching for Bill Veeck’s Miami Marlins, fresh off a season where he led the league with a microscopic 1.86 ERA.

“Satch was a guy that in his prime, he could throw the ball really good,” Coates said to the author in 2013.

Once in awhile Paige would reach into his bag of tricks and pull out his famed blooper pitch. More than 50 years later, Coates recalled how Paige dared hitters to swing at his slow one.

“He came up with the blooper pitch and threw it real high,” he said. “Satch was a type of guy that was great to watch. He could do it all, believe me. He’d tell ‘em, ‘Here, hit it.’ He’d throw that ol’ big blooper.”



While Paige managed to stun hitters half his age, Coates sensed that the legend was pitching more off smarts and guile than he was with the trademark speed of his younger days.

“Satch, he knew wanted to do it, but he just couldn’t,” Coates said. “He was at an age and state where he tried but he just couldn’t do it.”

During our talk, Coates brought up how great not only Paige was in the International League, but also his Negro League counterpart Luke Easter. The slugging 6’4” first baseman was a few years removed from his time with the Cleveland Indians; however, his power still rivaled the all-time greats. Coates said that he had the perfect remedy to quell Easter’s powerful stroke.

“I didn’t have any trouble with Luke,” he said. “All I had to do was knock him down first pitch and he didn’t want any part of that plate.”

Luke Easter
Easter was no stranger to being dusted off at the plate. While Coates felt that he had Easter’s number from a few knockdowns earlier in the season, the Negro League veteran patiently waited for the perfect opportunity to let the youngster think he had the upper hand. The two squared off when Easter played for the Buffalo Bisons during the 1957 International League playoffs. This time Easter tipped the scales in his favor.

He sent one of Coates’ offerings soaring over the center-field wall, nearly clearing the scoreboard. Coates admitted that Easter had a knack for making the ball disappear, even off himself.

“He hit ‘em out of there in Richmond in the International League like a golf ball,” he said.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Cookie Rojas explains Rey Ordoñez's incredible 1999 New York Mets season

Cookie Rojas should know a thing or two about judging infielders. A five-time All-Star who led his league in fielding on three separate occasions, Rojas made a strong case for Rey Ordoñez’s 1999 season as one of the best ever for a major league shortstop.

Cookie Rojas (r.) makes a powerful statement about Rey Ordoñez / N. Diunte
Rojas was in New York City last weekend as part of the Cuban Cultural Center of New York’s “History of Cuban Baseball” program at Fordham University. Speaking as part of a player panel which included Hall of Famer Tony Perez, Minnie Miñoso, Luis Tiant, Julio Becquer, and José Cardenal, Rojas was asked about Ordoñez’s place amongst the all-time defensive shortstops. He put on his manager hat and responded swiftly and succinctly.

Rojas joined the Mets as a coach in 1997, one year after Ordoñez debuted at Shea. Coming off a season where he [Ordonez] committed 27 errors, Rojas knew things had to change.

“So, after joining the Mets I looked at his record and I called him over to talk," Rojas said during the panel. "I said, 'Rey, there is something wrong for you to make 38 (sic) errors. A guy with your ability, that's impossible. There is no way I will accept that. We have work to do, in many areas. You will see that little by little you will improve and get a positive outlook.'”

Ordoñez improved quickly, committing only nine errors the season Rojas arrived. Nineteen-ninety-seven was the first of three consecutive Gold Glove campaigns for the Cuban shortstop. Rojas explained how he helped Ordoñez to improve by getting him to forget his struggles at the plate while he was in the field.

“The cause of most errors committed by major league infielders is that they do not know how to separate the offensive aspect of the game from the defensive,” Rojas said. “They go out to the field still thinking about their last at-bat, the slider that fooled them, the fast ball blown by them. They do this instead of thinking ahead to the fielding part, to think if the next batter is a fast runner or not, or what to do according to the speed of the hit ball.”



Involved in professional baseball for over 50 years as a player, coach, manager, and his current position as the Spanish Language broadcaster for the Florida Marlins, Rojas had many opportunities to analyze the top defensive shortstops in both leagues.

After a careful pause, Rojas offered the following about how Ordoñez’s magical 1999 season where he made only four errors ranks among the cream of the crop.

“Let me say I knew a great defensive shortstop who played for Almendares [in Cuba], his name was Willy Miranda, a defensive all-time great. But what I saw Ordoñez do that year, I have never seen a shortstop do in my whole life, anywhere, not even one of the all-time greats [Ozzie] Smith, a Hall of Famer,” he said. “How Ordoñez played that year was incredible. It was ... to see a defensive shortstop do what he did, one of the best that I have seen in my whole career."

A special thank you to fellow SABR member Tito Rondón for his translation of Rojas’ interview from the player panel.

* This was originally published for Examiner.com August 27, 2011.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Thou Shalt Not Steal by Bill 'Ready' Cash and Al Hunter Jr. | Book Review

One can hear the voice of Bill “Ready” Cash guiding you as you experience his career in the Negro Leagues in his new biography Thou Shalt Not Steal (Love Eagle Books, 2012). Passing away only a few months prior to the release of his life story, Cash revels in telling the narrative of playing in the famed league.


Co-authored by Philadelphia Daily News writer Al Hunter Jr., Thou Shalt Not Steal stands out from other athlete biographies, as it feels like you are sitting on the couch next to Cash as he reels you in with the details of his life and career, while neither bragging nor complaining.

Cash was a catcher for the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro Leagues during the 1940s, earning the nod for the East-West All-Star games twice during his career. During that time, Cash played alongside some of the finest players in baseball history, including Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. He regarded both players respectively as, “the best hitter and pitcher ever.”

After Jackie Robinson broke down the color barrier, major league teams began to further inspect the Negro League rosters for talent. As the Negro Leagues met its decline around 1950, Cash, a bona fide star at the time, was itching to prove that he too belonged in the major leagues, alongside the same talent that he excelled against in the Negro Leagues.

Possessing little control over the dealings between management at the major league clubs, Cash discovered that the Philadelphia Stars’ owner Eddie Gottlieb set the market too high for his services when the clubs beckoned. Gottlieb received at least three offers from the Dodgers, Giants, and Braves for Cash’s services; however, when he doubled the asking price on his star receiver, he effectively priced him out of the market for these clubs.

Cash was eventually whisked away from the Stars, but it was not by a major league club. His route to a chance in the majors would come through Mexico, signing with Mexico City Red Devils in 1950. His time in the Negro Leagues was finished.

Like many African-American players of his time, Cash experienced greater fortunes in Latin America.

He was so well regarded in Mexico for his stellar play, that newspapers in that country ranked him ahead of Roy Campanella when they spoke of the best catchers who ever played there. Every winter, teams would feverishly bid for his services, paying top dollar salaries and offering improved racial conditions in places like Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic.

After a torrid winter season in Mexico, Cash was whisked away by Granby of the Canadian Provincial League for the princely sum of $10,000. Batting close to .300 for Granby in 1951, major league teams could simply no longer deny his talent. Cash signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1952, looking for a chance to prove his skills on baseball’s biggest stage.

Excited to have the opportunity at the major leagues, Cash reluctantly signed or far less than what he made in Canada. Lured by the promise of a fair shot at their Class-A Colorado Springs farm team, Cash went in to spring training competing with fellow Negro League alum Sam Hairston for the top catching spot on the team. Battling through phlebitis in his leg, Cash outpaced Hairston that spring, batting .375 compared to Hairston’s .214. In a cruel twist of fate, Cash painfully describes in the book how the White Sox brass already decided at the beginning of spring training that the job was Hairston’s no matter how well Cash fared.

Persisting through injuries and broken promises, Cash finished the 1952 season in the White Sox organization. He continued to play baseball in the United States and the Caribbean through 1955, hanging it up for good at the age of 36.

Facing life away from the diamond, Cash worked as a machinist at Westinghouse Electrical, while upholding the virtues of a longstanding Mason and church deacon.

As interest in the Negro Leagues increased in the early 1990s, Cash helped to spread the word, serving on the board of the Negro League Baseball Players Association and making frequent appearances across the country as he approached the age of 90.

Cash passed away in September of 2011 at the age of 91, one of the last surviving members of the glory days of the Negro Leagues prior to baseball’s integration. I have a feeling that if Cash lived to see his book published, that he would have been “ready” to take the field once again to tell as many people as possible about the wonderful players in the Negro Leagues. Fortunately, with some help from Mr. Hunter, Cash’s stories will continue to be told in grand fashion for generations to come.