Showing posts with label Willie Mays. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Willie Mays. Show all posts

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Cholly Naranjo | A Tribute To My Best Friend 1933-2022



It was a call I knew was coming, but I didn’t want to take. A week ago, one of Cholly Naranjo’s family members called to tell me he was hospitalized with COVID and was on a ventilator. I somehow hoped he could summon his mighty curveball to foil the toughest hitter he ever faced; however, at 9PM on January 13, 2022, they came and took Cholly from the mound for the final time.

I often write these memorials for other players I’ve met in my baseball travels, but this one is different. Cholly Naranjo was my best friend. How does someone who is almost 50 years your senior become that close?

It was an innocent meeting at a 2009 Cuban baseball reunion in Philadelphia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the Cuban Winter League, but I was very familiar with Minnie Miñoso. I decided to make the two hour drive from New York to interview the Cuban Comet and meet the others as well.

Sitting quietly at a table with not much fanfare was Cholly Naranjo. I did some scant research about his lone 1956 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but didn’t know the depths of his career. While the line was quite long for Miñoso, I decided to talk with Cholly. He was so vibrant and excited to share. He told me he lived in South Florida and to visit him the next time I go to see my mother, who also lived there.

First trip to Paul Casanova's home in 2009 / N. Diunte

A few months later, I took him up on his offer, and that’s how our friendship began. At the time, I was still playing competitive baseball. Knowing that, he took me right away to Paul Casanova’s home. Waiting there was Casanova, Jackie Hernandez and Mike Cuellar. Cholly introduced me as his friend and they immediately welcomed me. We spent an hour talking baseball (actually I just mostly listened) and Casanova invited me back for hitting lessons.
 
Soon the wheels started turning. I found there was this corner of baseball I didn’t know; the Cuban Winter League's rich history. Cholly was the key. He knew everybody and had a story for seemingly everyone that played in the 1950s, as well as the decade before. He learned by watching his uncle Ramón Couto, eho was a star catcher in Cuban winter league, Negro Leagues and minor leagues in the 1930s and 1940s.
 
Ramón Couto and Luis Tiant Sr. / Couto Family

I leaned into Cholly for his encyclopedic knowledge. On almost a dime he could recall exact instances of players, games, and hilarious stories surrounding them. At the same time, he knew I was good with technology, so he would ask me to retrieve artifacts from his career. I was something I later discovered that kept him energized.

Cholly (l.) in high school with Chico Fernandez (r.)

We would talk weekly, sometimes about baseball, sometimes about life, relationships and everything else in between. As our trust increased, Cholly reached out to me to handle many of his other personal dealings, as he said I had the, “American style of communication.”

Some reading this might think with Cholly being a former major league baseball player, he was swimming in financial riches; however, this was far from the truth. Because of the fact he played in the majors when baseball players needed four full seasons to earn a pension (now it is 43 days), he didn’t receive one. He figured out how to live his best life on a small social security check with help from some baseball organizations. I was often tasked with organizing the necessary correspondence to make sure everything was running smoothly.

In 2010, I had him at my home in New York for a few days. He was invited his cousin‘s wedding, who was Daniel Boggs' son, the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. It was the first time Cholly visited New York since he returned from Cuba. We took the subway to the MLB offices to visit and personally thank the B.A.T. staff for their help. The trip to the MLB offices gave him so much validation behind his big league career.

2010 Wedding / N. Diunte

The day before the wedding, he told me he wanted to go to the park to have a catch. I thought it was going to be a short session, but he just kept telling me to move back the longer we threw. Eventually, we were throwing from at least 120 feet apart. Mind you, Cholly was 77 at the time and he made the throws with ease! He finally said his arm was loose and as he shortened the distance, he showed me how to throw his famous curveball, the one Branch Rickey courted him for.

Branch Rickey's 1956 Scouting Report

After that trip to New York, I made it a point to visit 2-3 times per year. It was easy to visit my mother and then also spend a day or two with Cholly. I would meet him in Hialeah, and he would drive. It was on these winding card rides through Miami’s back streets where we bonded. He had story after story and told them with such clarity. He would take me to different Cuban restaurants, one’s that he thought I would enjoy. Every meal was “outstanding” in his words, and he was often right.

He had this little black book filled with telephone numbers. He would ask me who I wanted to see, and we would go. Every player he called said yes. They knew Cholly was genuine and took me in as the same. Everyone was relaxed because as they all said, “it was family.” As I started to look around, I was slowly not only being accepted as part of that family, but his family as well.

Cholly with Almendares 

Cholly’s major league stats don’t tell the whole story. It was deeper than that single season in Pittsburgh. He was a star pitcher in the Cuban Winter League from 1952 until 1961, primarily with Almendares. It’s hard to sit here and write down all the legends he encountered either as teammates or opponents. He loved discussing the 1954-55 Carribbean Series where his team had to face the Puerto Rican Santurce team that had Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente in the same outfield (and the fight between Roger Bowman and Earl Rapp after Rapp misplayed a ball)! 

He lit up talking about Jim Bunning who he faced in Cuba and then later welcomed Cholly into his office in Washington D.C., or a young Brooks Robinson who played second base his one year in Cuba. Then there was Tommy Lasorda's hijinks after they won the championship in 1959. He told stories about Martin Dihigo, Satchel Paige, and his good friend Minnie Miñoso, who was also another tremendous gentleman.

He almost made the majors in 1954 with the Washington Senators. He made it through all of spring training and they took him up north for Opening Day; Cholly even made the official team photo. A few hours before the first pitch, manager Bucky Harris informed Cholly they would be sending him to the minors on a 24-hour recall. He was disappointed, but he still stayed with the team for that day.

1954 Washington Senators

President Eisenhower threw out the first pitch, and launched his throw into the crowd of ballplayers. Cholly ended up with the ball and had a historic catch with the President for a photo-op chronicled in Time magazine. The catch also earned him a spot on the TV show, “I’ve Got A Secret” the next morning.

He played with the Hollywood Stars in 1955 and 1956, when his team was the city’s main sports attraction (this was before the Dodgers and Giants moved). Famous entertainers would come to watch them play. Cholly regaled me with stories of his dinners and even dates with these luminaries. I wish I could remember them all, but the names have evaded my memory too.

He finally made the majors in 1956, coming up from Hollywood with his roommate and future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. Cholly saved his best performance for his final game, pitching 8 2/3 innings in relief for his first and only MLB victory. He told me how that win also kept Robin Roberts (whom he faced that day) from winning his 20th game of the season.

Cholly Naranjo with Roberto Clemente 1956 Pirates 

Paul Casanova called me one afternoon in 2017, as MLB wanted to honor the Cuban players at the All-Star Game in Miami. He asked me to work as a liason for a group of players to help with the paperwork, negotiations and logistics. Cholly was one of the players in the group selected to be a part of the festivities, and without hesitation, he took me along for the ride.

Cholly (r.) with Dr. Adrian Burgos (l.), Jose Tartabull (center) 2017 All-Star FanFest / N. Diunte

For three days, Cholly was in heaven. MLB rolled out first class treatment, as did his peers. On the day he appeared at the FanFest to sign autographs and speak on a panel, MLB gave us a private SUV ride back and forth from the hotel to the convention center. They provided us both (yes me!) private security detail that followed us through the FanFest. He was so excited to interact with the fans, as well as tell his stories on stage with José Tartabull and Dr. Adrian Burgos.

We spent the extended weekend with Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris and Orlando Cepeda. It didn’t matter that Cholly wasn’t an All-Star or a Hall of Famer; not only was he readily accepted into the group, I found out they all looked up to him, as he was the senior member. Cepeda remarked how tough his curveball was on the rookie in winter ball. Tiant said he was a veteran influence on him as a rookie in the Cuban Winter League, and Oliva went out of his way to talk to B.A.T. to make sure Cholly was taken care of.

Tony Oliva, Cholly Naranjo, Juan Marichal / N. Diunte

We stayed up each night until 2AM talking about the game. The brotherhood was evident. Not only were they all there in the majors, they all faced the same challenges playing through the segregation in the United States. Every night, Cholly insisted at 84, to drive us back to my apartment in Fort Lauderdale. I was amazed how easily he navigated driving that late at night.

Things slowly started to change for Cholly after that wonderful weekend, and unfortunately, not in a good way. Paul Casanova died shortly after the Fan Fest (it was his last public appearance). Cholly worked with Casanova at the batting facility at Casanova’s home. He no longer had a place to go and interact. The young baseball players kept Cholly alive and the money Casanova paid him kept a little something extra in his pocket to enjoy life.

Paul Casanova, myself, Cholly / N. Diunte

Around 2019, Cholly stopped driving. He got into three accidents in a year and as he said, it was God’s way of letting him know he needed to get away from the wheel. I started noticing Cholly's once sharp mind started to show some cracks. He would lose his phone, or start to miss details in our conversations. Despite all of that, when we sat down for a formal interview in 2019, he was amazed at how good he felt. 

“I’ve got my health at my age,” he said. “I got this far, and I’m better than when I was playing ball. Can you believe that? Sometimes I think, well, give me the ball; I’m going to get somebody out. 

“It makes me feel well that I can be a normal person and do all the things necessary to live in the United States and travel. … To me, it’s like a prize that I have proven that it can happen to anybody. ... I’ve lived over there and over here, and I’m clean in both of them. I have lived long enough to show everybody what is what. I feel proud of that inside. … I say Cholly, how old are you? Well, I’ve got more miles than Pan American Airlines!"

I saw Cholly early in 2020, right before the pandemic. We met for dinner, and he told me he walked for over 18 hours in a day just to prove to himself he could do it. I was amazed, but also feared for his safety, as the area in Miami where he lived wasn’t a walking city.

Our last meeting July 2021 / N. Diunte

Last year, he moved in with his nephew to be closer to the little family he had. I visited him in July 2021, as the pandemic put a huge wedge in my ability to travel. I could see the early stages of dementia from the time we spent together. A few months ago, Cholly had to be put into a nursing home, as he just couldn’t take care of himself any longer. Physically, he was in good shape, but he needed the care that comes with a nursing facility.

We would still talk on the phone a few times a week. When I called, it was always, “Coño! Nick! I am better than expected!” even as he struggled with recall. We kept the conversations short, but he always asked when I was coming down. I was aiming for the Christmas holiday to visit for a few days, but I came down with COVID on Christmas Eve. By the time I found a possible window to travel, his family let me know he also contracted COVID and wasn’t doing well in the hospital. I thought Cholly would miraculously find a way to pull through, but when the big man comes to get you off the mound, as Cholly would say, “You have to give up the ball.”

I am going to miss my friend. Cholly said he looked at me as a son, as he never had any children. I feel honored I was able to be a part of his life for so long and learn so much about his history, his culture and life story. I hope I can continue to elevate Cholly’s memory, as it was much greater than those 17 games he pitched with Pittsburgh in 1956.

QDEP Lazaro Ramón Gonzalo Naranjo Couto - November 25, 1933 - January 13, 2022.

Books Featuring Cholly Naranjo -

Last Seasons in Havana by Cesar Brioso

Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer

Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History by Jorge Figueredo

 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Charlie Gorin, University Of Texas Star And Milwaukee Braves Pitcher, Dies At 93

Charlie Gorin, former Milwaukee Braves pitcher from 1954-55, died February 21, 2021 at 93.

Coming out of the University of Texas, Charlie Gorin had a winner’s pedigree. Pitching under the legendary Bibb Falk's guiding eye, the left-hander propelled the Longhorns to consecutive College World Series titles in 1949 and 1950. Gorin continued that streak early in his minor league career; however, he could not translate that success to the major league level.

Gorin, who pitched seven games for the Milwaukee Braves from 1954-55, died February 21, 2021. He was 93.

The Waco, Texas, native enlisted in the Navy during World War II out of high school, delaying the start of his baseball career. After his discharge he enrolled at Texas, using the GI Bill at the urging of one of his Naval mates. He made good with Falk at a spring tryout, and a local legend was born.

The Boston Braves took notice of Gorin after his second CWS championship in 1950 and signed him to a minor league contract at Omaha on the spot. After a short stint at Triple-A Milwaukee, Gorin settled in with their Double-A club in Atlanta and led them to the playoffs with a 7-1 record.

Gorin entered the 1951 season with a fresh start at Milwaukee that eventually led to two championships in the span of a year. The 1951 Milwaukee club ran away with the pennant, showing how Major League Baseball organizations could benefit from having an integrated team. Former Negro Leaguers Bus Clarkson and George Crowe led the offensive charge with respective .343 and .339 batting averages, while starters Ernie Johnson, Bert Thiel, Virgil Jester, Murray Wall and Gorin all posted double-digit victory totals. They then toppled the International League’s Montreal Royals to win the 1951 Junior World Series.

Most pitchers would be exhausted after a long playoff season, but the lure of a paid winter to pitch in Puerto Rico was too much for Gorin to pass up. At the recommendation of teammate Luis Olmo, Gorin headed to winter ball.

“That was the only way to make money,” Gorin said during a 2008 phone interview. “There wasn't big money like now. I was married with two kids; that's how I saved money. They paid our way down with the wife and kids, and they paid room and board. Puerto Rico was a good place to play.”

After faltering early with Mayagüez, Gorin latched on with San Juan after the team owner came to the airport to stop him from going back home. He was determined to make Mayagüez realize its mistake.

Gorin reeled off 12 wins, leading San Juan to the league championship. He pitched two complete-game victories in the playoffs, punching their ticket to the 1952 Caribbean Series. Unfortunately, for Gorin, he couldn’t enjoy the fruit of his labors. A full year of pitching finally caught up with him, his body giving out after epic playoff run. Instead of representing Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Series, he was sent home to recover.

“I had a chance to play in the Caribbean Series in 1952, but I had a muscle spasm in my back, and I just couldn't make the pitch,” he said. “They sent me home. I went to the doctor here. I had a chance to rest, and finally I worked out of it.”

 

Fresh off his incredible 1951 campaign, Gorin looked forward to competing for a spot on the Boston Braves. With the Korean War raging on, Uncle Sam had other plans for him that did not include the major leagues.

“I was called back to active duty in the Navy for Korea,” he said. “I went to Pensacola, because I had a degree in physical education. I was an instructor in the Naval school for gymnastics, physical education, swimming, and water survival. I had to stay two years.”

Gorin, like many of his contemporaries including Willie Mays, Don Newcombe and Ted Williams, lost prime years of his major league career to the Korean War. Unlike the aforementioned trio, Gorin could not regain the momentum he had going into his service upon his return to the pros.

The Braves honored his contract, keeping him on the roster for the 1954 and 1955 seasons. He pitched sparingly over the two years, making seven relief appearances for a 0-1 record with a 3.60 ERA.

Gorin continued to play in the minor leagues through 1962, settling into Austin towards the end of his career so he could make the move into teaching and coaching. Luckily, he found an opportunity with his former high school coach who was flexible enough to let him off to play professional baseball.

“In 1959, I was in Austin, and they wanted to send me to Atlanta,” he said. “I said, ‘Keep me in Austin, that's my hometown, they have a AA team and I could make the transition between baseball and teaching school.’ My high school coach was the athletic director here, so when I got here, he got me on as a coach and teacher. Then he let me off to go play ball. One year I went to Mobile, then back to Austin. I was married with two kids, and I needed the extra money. We made more than teachers, that's for sure.”

He wrapped up his baseball career in 1962 and went full-time into education. He coached football and baseball for over 20 years and became an assistant principal at John Reagan High School in Austin. He retired in 1990 and enjoyed playing golf with his family and friends.

Speaking with Gorin in 2008, he was proud of his baseball career; however, he was quick to note the changes he observed over the 60 years since he started.

“Things have changed,” he said. “The young players don't know how nice they have it. … It's a different game, if the ball hits the ground, it gets put out of the game. You wanted that ball that was hit on the ground, so it was rough, and you could do something with it.”


Monday, May 10, 2021

Willie Mays Turns 90: A Legend Throughout The Years

Willie Mays celebrates his 90th birthday at Oracle Park in San Francisco.

Hall of Fame legend Willie Mays turned 90 on May 6, 2021, and the entire baseball community celebrated the milestone with a variety of tributes including a grand celebration at Oracle Park.

As part of the festivities, the Giants announced the creation of the Willie Mays Scholars program, which will offer college prep and support to Black high schoolers in San Francisco. The initial class this fall will include five students who will receive $70,000 in support, including up to $20,000 in scholarships.

“I have always made kids my priority by helping them in any way I could throughout my playing career and life,” Mays said in a statement. “To have the Giants Community Fund and the Giants ownership group create this program in my name and to provide a path to college for Black children in our community means the world to me. I can’t wait to meet the first class of Willie Mays Scholars to offer my encouragement and support.”

Mays was a World Series hero for the New York Giants in 1954, his infamous catch of Vic Wertz's smash during Game 1 paved the way for the Giants to sweep the Indians. While the World Series odds seemed a longshot at +6000 for the Giants to start the 2021 season, the club's first place standing during Mays' celebration could be the inspiration needed to drive towards another championship appearance.

While honors have poured in across the landscape offering Mays his flowers, we take a look back at our coverage of Mays throughout his career, often through the words of his teammates.


Friday, February 21, 2020

How The Braves Gave One Fan The Baseball Experience Of A Lifetime

Steve Jaronik was nine years old in 1963 when the Milwaukee Braves gave a young kid the experience of a lifetime. Jaronik wrote the Braves asking if he could meet the players from his favorite team. What happened next seems like an impossibility in today's era of teams closely guarding access to their players.

Steve Jaronik with Willie Mays in 1963 at County Stadium
A few months later, Bob Allen, the team's public relations director unexpectedly wrote him a letter with an invitation to the ballpark. He traveled with his family from Illinois, and the Braves took him on a journey that any fan, old or young, would cherish forever. In the video below, Jaronik narrates the entire day's events, which includes meeting multiple Hall of Famers (Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Willie Mays) in an emotional play for one's heart.






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.


Click here to listen on Spotify

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 
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.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Has Harold Baines knocked down the doors to the Hall of Fame? | Voting Results and Commentary

In 2019 Harold Baines will have his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, right alongside immortals such as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente. For many baseball fans, his induction will be a tough pill to swallow, as he only garnered 6.1% of the vote when he was eligible with the BBWAA writers.

Well, what changed since Baines fell off the writer's ballot after a 4.8% showing in 2011? Nothing much really, as he certainly didn't add to his 2,866 career hits or his 384 home runs; however, what did turn in his favor was the Hall of Fame's recently established Eras Committee.

Harold Baines / Keith Allison - Flickr
The Baseball Hall of Fame announced in 2016 that there would be a greater emphasis on the modern eras for consideration. Last year's Modern Era committee elected Jack Morris and Alan Trammell. In December 2018, the Today's Game Era committee selected both Lee Smith and Baines for enshrinement. While Smith's selection was of little surprise to baseball fans, many were dumbfounded when they chose Baines.

As soon as Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson announced Baines' name on the MLB Network, many fans and writers immediately took to social media not to celebrate his selection, but to denounce it. Some went as far as to allege that his selection was due to cronyism, with four of the voting members having direct ties to Baines when he was an active player.



Right or wrong, Baines will be a Hall of Famer when he steps on stage during the Cooperstown induction ceremonies in 2019. While many can waste their energies hating on his selection, I think the what baseball fans should ask themselves regarding next year's Eras Committee vote is, "Who's next?"

2019 Modern Era Committee Voting Results




Thursday, August 2, 2018

Harvey Gentry, member of 1954 World Series champion New York Giants dies at 92

Harvey Gentry, a member of the New York Giants 1954 World Series championship team, died July 1st, 2018. He was 92.

Gentry made the ball club coming out of spring training and was used exclusively as a pinch hitter, playing with the Giants until the rosters were reduced at the end of April. In his short time with the New York, he batted .250 (1-4) with a walk and an RBI.

Harvey Gentry / Contributed Photo
His time in the major leagues, while short, fulfilled the continuation of a family legacy. His older brother Rufe preceded his big league sojourn, pitching for the Detroit Tigers from 1943-1948. As the elder Gentry foiled American League hitters, Harvey served in World War II.

Gentry was a member of the United States Navy from 1944-1946, earning recognition from President Roosevelt for his meritorious service. Upon his discharge from the military, Gentry signed with the Giants in 1947.

He spent 10 seasons in professional baseball, primarily with the Giants farm clubs. His best minor league season came in 1953, when he batted .294 with 15 home runs and 73 RBIs for the Class AA Nashville Volunteers. 

After retiring from baseball, Gentry worked as a supervisor for Raytheon in Bristol, Tennessee from 1958-1989. In 2004, he was recognized by the New York Giants in a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Giants World Series victory.

Gentry (left) congratulates Willie Mays at 2004 ceremony 
Gentry's passing leaves only six living members from the Giants 1954 championship team, including the legendary Willie Mays.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Why Joe Presko faces his biggest mound challenge yet

Standing 5'9" and 165 pounds in his prime, Joe Presko could have easily blended in with the great St. Louis Cardinals fans that filled Sportsman's Park; however, Presko was far from ordinary. He stood tall on the mound alongside his Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals teammates Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and Enos Slaughter in the 1950s while he went toe-to-toe against the star-studded lineups of the National League in his era. Throughout his six major league seasons with the Cardinals and Detroit Tigers, "Baby Joe" went 25-37 in 128 appearances.

During a recent trip to my local baseball card shop, the owner just received a small box of vintage 1952 Topps baseball cards. I waited until the guy next to me was done looking at them, and shortly after I started my search, Presko's iconic 1952 card jumped to the forefront. A few dollars later, his card became the first from that landmark set to enter my collection. The next day, I sent it off to Presko with the hopes of his signature and a possible interview.

Joe Presko Signed 1952 Topps Card / Author's Collection
A week later, Presko returned the card boldly signed with a note that exemplifies the connection that the men of this generation made with their fans. At 89, Presko made time to sign the card despite taking chemotherapy treatments to battle an opponent more fortuitous than the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider.

His desire to continue to reach out to his fans while battling cancer, speaks loudly to the close bond those who played during his era feel with the fans who keep their memory alive.


Note From Presko to the Author / Author's Collection

Monday, June 5, 2017

Teammates tout Jimmy Piersall's transcendental outfield abilities

“The catches Piersall makes simply defy description. They have to be seen to be believed and he keeps making them,” Lou Boudreau.
Those who watched Jimmy Piersall patrol the outfield for the Boston Red Sox in the 1950s, placed his name above lauded fly chasers such Tris Speaker, Terry Moore, Joe DiMaggio, and yes, Willie Mays. The daring depths at which he played allowed for Piersall to make miraculous catches that were deemed impossible by everyone in the ballpark, except himself.

While his legendary defensive efforts were overshadowed by his struggles with his mental health and unpredictable on field behavior, there was no denying that Piersall’s glove was where many sure hits in the expansive ballparks of his era went to rest. Sadly, on Sunday June 3rd, 2017, Piersall too met his final resting place in Wheaton, Illinois. He was 87.

Piersall was signed by the Red Sox in 1948, and immediately made an impact for their Class A team in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Usually most rookies fresh out of high school were sent to lower classifications, but one Scranton teammate saw why Boston put him on the fast track to the major leagues.

“Jim joined us about 30 days late in 1948,” teammate Harley Hisner recalled in 2008. “He was in high school and his team was in the high school finals. They signed him and sent him to Scranton. He was only 18 years old, but he was the best curve ball hitter I’d ever seen that young.”

The oddly shaped outfields of minor league parks gave Piersall the room he needed to show off his spectacular defensive abilities. After spending three seasons with Piersall in Scranton and Louisville, Hisner held him in higher esteem than his famous New York contemporaries.

“As far as I am concerned there was nobody that can go get a ball better than him, including Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays," Hisner said. "He had a sense of where that ball was going; as soon as it was hit, he was off and running. I’d take him any day.”

When the Red Sox finally brought Piersall up for good in 1952 after a quick look in 1950, manager Lou Boudreau envisioned Piersall’s athleticism serving him best at short stop. The toll that the demands of learning a new position wore heavily on Piersall, which led in part to his well publicized nervous breakdown.

Ted Lepcio was one of Boston’s fresh faced infielders in 1952 and was quickly paired with Piersall as their double play combination of the future. He found Piersall conflicted by playing a position that he had little familiarity with in order to meet management’s demands.

“He was supposed to help me out,” the 87-year-old Lepcio said via telephone from his home in Needham, Massachusetts shortly after Piersall’s passing. “Imagine that, a center fielder going to help me out! That was a joke. He told me personally that he didn’t want to do it, but what are you going to do when you are a young kid and the guy says you’re going to play a position. He knew he wasn’t in the right position.”

Piersall, Lepcio, Boudreau and Dick Brodowski / Boston Public Library
Piersall's recovery was well documented in his autobiography, "Fear Strikes Out," which later became a Hollywood movie with Anthony Perkins. Lepcio was Piersall’s roommate and the two developed a close relationship throughout Piersall’s struggles. When Piersall finally returned to the team from being hospitalized, Lepcio’s locker was the first reporters ran to.

“He didn’t go in there for a joke, he was wound tight and finally had to have some help at the time he went in,” Lepcio said. “When he came out, the first thing was the reporters came to me. I said, ‘He was the same Jimmy to me.’ It was kind of meant as a joke, but he improved. We roomed together for almost two years until we had enough of each other.”

Ike DeLock also broke in with Piersall and Lepcio in 1952, serving as a reliever on a veteran pitching staff. He said that Piersall had a fascination with besting Tris Speaker’s record for unassisted double plays by a center fielder. As a young pitcher, he was always worried that Piersall was going to get beat behind him by a fly ball.

“He always wanted to have a double play unassisted,” the 88-year-old Delock said Sunday from his home in Naples, Florida. “I told him, ‘Jimmy, when I’m pitching, you play deep in center field because I don’t want anybody to hit the ball over your head.’”

I had the opportunity to speak with Piersall in 2008 over the phone from his home in Wheaton. He explained how he learned to play such a shallow center field, one that is rarely seen anymore in the major leagues.

“It was 500 feet to centerfield in Louisville, the biggest centerfield in the world,” he said. “Most of the time, I cut it in half. Most balls are hit in front of you, not over your head. Watch how many broken bats go out into left field.”

Piersall’s made his presence known in baseball after he was moved permanently to the outfield in 1953. His knack for the spectacular led author Jason Aronoff in his book, “Going, Going … Caught,” to rate Piersall as the best defensive major league outfielder that year.

“In 1953 Jimmy Piersall had a fielding year which was brilliant from start to finish,” Aronoff said. “He had a number of catches which veteran observers called the greatest they had ever seen.”

While Piersall continued to make plays throughout his career on balls that were foregone as home runs or extra base hits, none came close to his series of thefts in 1953. Fast forward a decade later, Piersall found his way to the New York Mets via the Washington Senators in a trade for Gil Hodges.

While the lowly Mets thought that Piersall could recapture some of his Boston magic, he made noise not for his outstanding play on the field, but his outlandish response after he hit his 100th career home run against the Philadelphia Phillies in the Polo Grounds.

Tim Harkness had just arrived from the Los Angeles Dodgers and had reveled in the presence of his veteran teammates, including the newly arrived Piersall. He noted a conversation in the clubhouse between Piersall and Duke Snider that occurred shortly after Snider hit his 400th career home run.

“Duke hit his 400th home run that summer and Piersall said to him, ‘You know, I’ve got 99, when I hit my 100th, the whole world is gonna hear about it,’” the 79-year-old Harkness recalled from his Ontario home on Sunday.
Piersall goes backwards for 100th home run / Author's Collection
As luck would have it, Harkness was hitting behind Piersall when he hit his infamous home run where he rounded the bases backwards. Harkness was immortalized in the photo, waiting on deck in his number three jersey as Piersall approached the plate. He recounted the event as it unfolded in front of him in the on-deck circle.

“He hit one of those Chinese home runs in the old Polo Grounds,” he said. “He hit it about 285 feet. When he got to first base, he turned around and started running backwards. When he rounded third, I said to myself, ‘Should I kick him in the ass?’ When he came to the plate, I just stood there with the bat just like a statue and just watched him do it. As soon as he touched home plate, the umpire said, “Home run and you’re gone!” He threw him out of the ballgame for making a travesty of the game so to speak.”

Piersall was shortly thereafter released by the New York Mets. He didn’t hold back about his feelings for the organization when asked about the closing ceremonies of Shea Stadium in 2008.

“I don't give a s—t,” he replied.

He finished his 17-year major league career with the Los Angeles and California Angels in 1967. He later was in the spotlight for his controversial comments as a White Sox broadcaster that led to his firing and spawned his book, “The Truth Hurts.”

During our conversation in 2008, Piersall displayed his candor when discussing the prevalent ticket prices at major league stadiums. As both New York teams were moving towards new stadium, he felt that the outrageous prices were driven by the owners.

“Two-hundred-fifty dollar a seat in Yankee Stadium ... the only problem we have are politicians,” he said. “The message never seems to get to those guys. It was $2.50 for the bleachers and $6 for a good seat. Everyone is saying that the players are making too much money, but the owners aren't going bankrupt. ... They could get rid of those 40 guys in the offices that send out postcards. They could cut down on their expense accounts, but it won't happen.”

As we came to the close of our interview, Piersall left me with this gem that was reminiscent of the old school mentality that is long gone from today’s game, as the league has become more conscious of the protecting their on-field product.

“I got drilled one day and I said to the pitcher, ‘If you don't get that guy, I'll drop the ball with the bases loaded.’ I asked the umpires why they're so tough and the owners said they don't want their players getting hurt. Bob Watson said the owners are afraid the good players are going to get hurt. There aren't that many good players; they're decent players.”

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, he was drafted for military service before the start of the 1954 season.

Daryl Spencer / 2013 BBM
His military tour cost him an 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 spent 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 in Japan was a league far behind the caliber 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.”

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Jim Zapp, Negro League teammate of Willie Mays, dies at 92

Jim Zapp, a star outfielder for the 1948 Negro American League Champion Birmingham Black Barons, died Friday September 30, 2016 in Harker Heights, Texas. He was 92.

Born April 18, 1924 in Nashville, Tennessee, Zapp attended a Catholic school that lacked a baseball team, so ironically his first real exposure to the game wasn't until he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1943, Zapp played third base for their Black baseball team. His abilities caught the attention of Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones, a former All-American football player at the University of Pittsburgh who was coaching the white team on the base. Zapp made history when Jones selected him to integrate his team.


Jim Zapp with the Birmingham Black Barons / Author's Collection

After returning to the United States in April 1945, Zapp was stationed in Staten Island, New York. Due to the good fortune of a recommendation from a base teammate, Zapp had his first taste of the Negro Leagues when he joined the Baltimore Elite Giants to play on the weekends. His teammates included Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, whom Zapp recalled in Neil Lanctot’s “Campy,” that the catcher used to, “like to sit on the back wheel” during bus rides.

Zapp played with the Elite Giants through 1946 before returning home briefly as a member of the Nashville Cubs. After one season with the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1947, he joined the Black Barons in 1948 off the strength of a recommendation of a player in the league. It was there in Birmingham in 1948 that things came together for Zapp and his teammates. Buoyed by a squad that included an outstanding double play combination in Piper Davis and Artie Wilson, Zapp provided much needed power to a lineup that included a 17-year-old center fielder by the name of Willie Mays. Zapp was one of many mentors to the talented teenager, and the news of his passing greatly touched the now 85-year-old Hall of Famer.

“Willie took it really hard,” his son James Zapp Jr. said in during a phone call Sunday afternoon. “His secretary e-mailed me yesterday; he’s going to write a letter that he wants read at my dad’s funeral.”

Zapp saved one of his greatest performances for the 1948 playoffs. In Game Three of the Negro American League Series against the Kansas City Monarchs, Zapp hit a game-winning ninth-inning home run to lead the Barons to a 3-2 victory. Unfortunately, he could not carry that magic into the World Series, as the Barons succumbed to the Homestead Grays 4-1 in a best of seven series.

At the close of the season, members of the Barons were invited to barnstorm with the Jackie Robinson All-Stars as well as the Indianapolis Clowns. Zapp was offered a spot with the Clowns, which he declined on the basis of a reduced draw. Years later, speaking with author Brent P. Kelley in, “The Negro Leagues Revisited” Zapp lamented about his decision to leave the team.

“I told them to just give me my release,” Zapp said. “That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in my life.”

He came back to Nashville to play semi-pro ball after parting from Birmingham. Not completely done with the game, he went for another round with the Elite Giants for two years from 1950-51 until he was signed into organized ball.

Zapp with the Big Springs Broncs / Author's Collection

Zapp turned heads immediately with his prodigious power while playing for the Class D Paris Lakers, crushing 20 home runs with a .330 batting average in 1952. His continued to terrorize minor league pitching in 1954, setting a Longhorn League record by swatting 32 blasts in only 90 games for the Big Springs Broncs. He played one more season in 1955 with Port Arthur and Big Springs before hanging it up for good.

Zapp stayed involved in sports after finishing his professional baseball career, serving as an athletic director at multiple military bases until his 1982 retirement. He continued to share his knowledge of the game through coaching and umpiring for an additional 20 years. With the Negro Leagues experiencing a resurgence in popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Zapp frequently attended reunions and was honored with multiple baseball cards, including one in 2010 by Topps, as well as his own Hartland statue.

Within the last year, Zapp experienced a renaissance of sorts rarely seen by nonagenarians. In January 2015, Zapp Jr. sent correspondence indicating that due to his father’s advancing Alzheimer’s condition, that his grim prognosis could no longer allow him to accept fan mail. Amazingly, 18 months later, not only was Zapp alive, but Bill Nowlin reported in a July 2016 National Pastime Museum article, that Zapp’s condition had actually improved due to his family stepping in and altering his treatment.

“It’s been a little over a year since I took him off that medication and it worked out great,” Zapp Jr. said. “It got to the point where it was great to come see him because he was back to himself.”

Early in the morning on September 30, 2016, his son received a call from his father’s caregivers that his dad passed away. Sadly, the elder Zapp had premonitions that it was soon to be his time to go.

“He said he wanted to lay down awhile before he had breakfast,” Zapp Jr. said. “They put him back in his bed in his clothes and 20-30 minutes later, he was gone. He made a comment to them the night before that he wasn’t going to be around much longer. He was at peace.”

To be able to have that last year with his father’s improved condition and care meant the world to the Zapp family. They watched in amazement recently as Zapp reconstructed memories 70 years ago about his baseball career.

“He could remember things in the past that I was astonished that he could remember,” Zapp Jr. said. “A great era just came to an end.”

Funeral services will be held at Heritage Funeral Home in Harker Heights at 10AM on October 6, 2016.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

2016 Topps Bunt making a bridge between traditional and digital collecting

Topps has been searching for ways to connect their digital card platform with traditional physical baseball cards. Their quest for a solution has arrived in the form of 2016 Topps Bunt.

The 200-card set is the perfect format to get multiple generations excited about baseball card collecting, no matter the platform. Imagine a young child and their parents sharing the joy of opening a pack of baseball cards and both teaching each other about the nuances of preserving baseball cards while building a collection that lives at your fingertips on your phone.

Even the players included in the set warrant a bonding experience, as the likes of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Andrew McCutchen, are right alongside Cal Ripken Jr., Ted Williams, and Willie Mays. While the younger collectors will gush about the accomplishments of their current heroes, the inclusion of the sport’s legends allows for the conversation about the history of the game to continue.

The box provided for this review yielded 36 packs, allowing for a complete 200-card set to be collated with the purchase of one box. A variety of inserts in 2016 Topps Bunt trump the designs of those included with the Opening Day series earlier this year and rival those in the Topps flagship set.

Sampling of 2016 Topps Bunt Insert Card / Topps

The digital component comes in the form of Bunt Loot Packs, which are ten-card redemptions via the Topps Bunt App. Collectors have the opportunity to unlock a bevy of inserts that run in a similar limited fashion as to what one would find in a physical box.

Topps has been integral for the past 65 years in preserving the game through iconic cardboard images, and continues to do so with 2016 Topps Bunt. With a price point of under $30 a box, 2016 Topps Bunt is a fun and inexpensive way to share the joys of collecting and the narrative of the National Pastime no matter whether it is analog or digital.

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 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 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 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, as his genuine persona became more apparent as I shadowed him at each event, 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 I give Irvin a call, as he felt 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 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.”