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

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Willie Mays inspired a Mets rookie teammate in his final campaign

George Theodore was a rookie left fielder for the New York Mets in 1973 when he found himself sharing the outfield with one of baseball's greatest legends, Willie Mays. Mays and Theodore were on the opposite ends of their respective careers; the veteran Mays playing in the last of his 22 Hall of Fame seasons, and the young Theodore working to gain a toehold in the Mets starting lineup. Returning to Flushing during the weekend of Mays' 80th birthday for a series of New York Mets Alumni Association events, Theodore said Mays had ability to energize his teammates just by his presence on the field.

“Willie Mays had a magnetism that nobody had," Theodore said. "You could just feel it. He'd get up to hit and you kind of fed off the crowd. He was such a positive person; I was so happy to get to know him.”

George Theodore / N. Diunte
Ironically Theodore's greatest memory of playing alongside Mays was not the lessons he learned on how to patrol the outfield, or watching Mays rekindle the spirit of the Polo Grounds, but a time when he was given an error on a play he shared with Mays.

On June 11, 1973, together in outfield during a game against Mays' former team, the San Francisco Giants, a 400-foot smash was hit to left-center and both outfielders pursued it. Theodore described the events of the play as it unfolded.

Willie Mays / N. Diunte
“One game on national TV, I was in left field and he was in center," he said. "The ball was hit into left-center and I think I'll go get it because Willie couldn't throw too much at the time. He beats me there with his beautiful instincts [which were evident] even then, and he gets to the ball. He then tosses it to me for me to throw it, but I didn't know it was coming, so it dropped. I quickly picked up it and I threw it in. They gave me an error. I think they changed it subsequently, but that was the biggest honor I could have, taking that error from Willie Mays.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

George Crowe, 89, former Negro League player and major league All-Star

George Crowe, former All-Star first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds passed away Tuesday night in Rancho Cordova, Calif. He was 89. 

Crowe was signed by the Boston Braves in 1949 from the Negro Leagues, where he played with the New York Black Yankees. He tore up every classification from a Class-B to Triple-A, posting averages of .354, .353, .339 and .351 between 1949 and 1952 before being called up to the Braves in 1952. Crowe shared time with first baseman Earl Torgeson his rookie year, batting a respectable .258.


During a 2008 interview that I conducted with Crowe, he shared his theory as to why he didn't get more playing time over Torgeson, who batted a lowly .230. 

"When I was in Boston, Earl Torgeson wasn't that great of a player, but he was high on the totem pole of politics," Crowe said. "The manager was his old roommate. Torgeson and Tommy Holmes roomed together for years. Holmes became the manager. Who do you think is going to play?" 

The following season, Crowe was relegated to pinch-hitting duty, as the Braves, who had now moved to Milwaukee, brought in the powerful Joe Adcock to play Crowe's position. Nineteen fifty-four saw Crowe return to Triple-A, where as a member of the Toledo club, he feasted on the pitching of the American Association, slugging 34 home runs with a .334 average. During that winter, Crowe was a member of the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers, which many regard as the best winter league team ever. He shared a lineup that included Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Don Zimmer, Bob Thurman, Bus Clarkson and pitchers Ruben Gomez and "Sad" Sam Jones. They ran away with the Caribbean Series title that year with Crowe solidifying the lineup at first base.

Crowe's undeniable talent allowed him to wrestle the first base position from Adcock in 1955, where he hit 15 home runs and batted .281. Finally receiving a chance to play regularly, Crowe took advantage of the opportunity and figured to be in Milwaukee's plans as they started to build a World Series contender. A week before the 1956 season opener, Crowe was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for "Hurricane" Bob Hazle, who figured prominently in the Braves run to the 1957 title. 

It was with Cincinnati where Crowe, at the age of 36 would have his breakout season. An injury to Ted Kluszewski in 1957 opened the door for Crowe to play full time. Appearing in 133 games, Crowe smashed 31 home runs and drove in 92 runs. That placed him 6th and 8th in the National League respectively in both categories.

In the 2008 interview, he discussed the merits of playing full-time. 

"The regular playing time helped," he said. "Wherever I was, I played everyday. It's not the same. There's nothing like playing everyday. If you can get in there once every two weeks, you might have a good day, but it's another week or ten days before you play again. It's hard to keep a sharp edge."

Sadly, he was the only Cincinnati Red player not selected to the All-Star game as part of the infamous ballot stuffing scandal. He was beat out by the legendary Stan Musial. He would receive a degree of retribution the following season when he was selected as a reserve to the 1958 All-Star team after batting over .300 the first half of the season.  

Crowe would play until 1961, finishing his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, serving as a mentor to younger African-American players such as Bob Gibson and Bill White. At the time of his retirement, he held the MLB record with 14 pinch-hit home runs. 

In addition to his lengthy major league baseball career, Crowe was a standout basketball player. He was the first Indiana Mr. Basketball award winner in 1939. He played professionally for the Harlem based New York Rens and the Los Angeles Red Devils, the latter of which included Jackie Robinson. Crowe remembered Robinson as, "a good basketball player."  

Crowe lived in the Adirondacks until five years ago when he moved to California to be closer to his family. After suffering a stroke in late 2008, Crowe resided in an assisted living facility until his death earlier this week.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Willie Mays shows Harlem children greatness at Public School 46 appearance

Earlier Friday, Hall of Fame baseball player Willie Mays returned to the Polo Grounds, the site of his first major league assignment. The memories of Mays darting across the depths of the outfield in Harlem remain vivid in the minds of those who witnessed it; however, some 60 years later, the Polo Grounds have changed, with buildings marking where the historic ballpark once stood. Situated across the street from the site of the former baseball cathedral is Public School 46. The youngsters there received the treat of a lifetime, as the iconic Giants great visited the school with the 2010 World Series trophy.

Willie Mays outside PS 46 / N. Diunte
Mays addressed a full house of over 300 students, staff and parents at the Harlem school. Hanging on his every word, the crowd listened attentively as he regaled the crowd with tales of children bellowing at his window in the morning to play stickball with them in the same city streets where they currently reside. Returning to the area where he built his legend motivated him to address the children.

"[In] 1951, when I first started, I lived right on top of the hill here," Mays said. "I used to go up and down this street all the time so I'm familiar with this area. That's why I wanted to come back and let all of the youngsters know what I was doing here."

He advised the children to further their education and support their families.

"Education is the key to this lifestyle now," Mays said. "You have to get an education ... go as far as you can."

During the ceremony Mays gave out 12 autographed baseballs to "A" students. When he got to the 12th student, he was out of baseballs. Mays, being the entrepreneur that he is, reached into his pocket and gave the child a crisp $100 bill. During the assembly, he fielded questions from the students who had researched his career before his appearance. One of the things he discussed was his fondness for the "Big Apple".

"I don't think I ever left," he said. "I didn't go to San Francisco by choice, I was asked to go by the team. New York has always been part of my home."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Negro Leagues honored with new stamp

The Negro Leagues are honored once again with a commemorative stamp from the United States Postal Service. The new stamp which was issued Thursday features an artistic rendition of a close play at home plate, and Hall of Famer Andrew "Rube" Foster, who is considered by many the "father" of the Negro Leagues.

Prominent living former Negro Leaguers include Hall of Famers Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron.

Stamps and first day cachets can be ordered online from USPS.com.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Giants retire New York legend Monte Irvin's number 20

June 26, 2010 - San Francisco, CALIFORNIA, United States - epa02225845 Former New York Giants and Hall of Fame Monte Irvin (R) gets a kiss from former San Francisco Giants' and Hall of Fame Orlando Cepeda (L), after the Giants retired Irvin's number during a ceremony before the game against the Boston Red Sox at AT&T Park in San Francisco, California, USA, 26 June 2010.

A long overdue tribute to one of baseball's pioneer's, and the last living superstar of the Negro Leagues. At 91, Irvin is the last living player who was a superstar in the Negro Leagues before getting to the major leagues. He was the first black on the Giants in 1949, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973. Click here to read the article and see video regarding the wonderful, albeit late, ceremony to retire Irvin's number 20 this past weekend.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Book Review: Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend


Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend
James S. Hirsch
Scribner, 2010
640 pp.

Epic. The word describes both the career of Willie Mays and the new book penned by James Hirsch chronicling his life, "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend". Clocking in at over 600 pages, it would be trite to call it in-depth. Hirsch reveals how the legend of Mays developed from his humble beginnings in Alabama playing in the segregated Negro Leagues to becoming the grand regality of Baseball's Hall of Fame.

While Mays' career has been well chronicled and documented, a few things are evident from Hirsch's work. A yeoman's job was done in researching this book. Countless interviews with teammates, friends and family as well as citations from newspapers both national and regional propel the story farther than Mays' lofty accomplishments on the baseball field.

What also becomes apparent as you get familiar with Mays, that while having no biological children of his own, he held a lifelong appreciation for the innocence of childhood. Mays was never too busy to make an appearance to speak and visit with the legions of kids that idolized his play. From playing stick ball with the Harlem locals and taking them for ice cream to making countless appearances at children's hospitals, Willie would literally give the shirt off of his back for a child in need.

While Mays has been distant and guarded in public during recent times, Hirsch allows baseball fans to get to know Mays through this insightful look into his life and career. While it might take you the entire summer to finish reading “The Life, The Legend”, it will give you enough time to digest the totality of the enigma that is Willie Mays just in time for the pennant races.


An Interview with Baseball Legend Willie Mays 


Willie Mays discusses playing in the Negro Leagues, his early days in the Majors, The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,’ his father’s influence, his fanship of Joe DiMaggio and more. 


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Willie's Boys: The Making of a Baseball Legend

Willie Mays holds a revered place in the hearts and minds of New York area baseball fans, with memories of him patrolling the depths of the Polo Grounds that evoke visions of a man walking on water. How Mays made his way to the Polo Grounds is one of the most interesting journies in all of baseball's history. Author John Klima meticulously traced the path that a teenage Willie Mays took from Birmingham to the big leagues. "Willie's Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend," puts you on a seat on the bus right next to Mays for the entire ride. For the rest of the review, click here to read it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Willie Mays and Ruben Gomez slugged it out 55 years ago in Puerto Rico

Willie Mays and Ruben Gomez were not only teammates on the New York Giants from 1954-58, but were teammates on arguably the greatest winter team ever assembled, the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers. Both were integral players on a team that would run away with the 1955 Carribbean Series championship. Mays anchored an outfield which included Roberto Clemente and Bob Thurman.

Gomez chiefed a staff which included "Sad" Sam Jones, Luis Arroyo and Bill Greason. With their infield including George Crowe, Ron Samford, Don Zimmer and Bus Clarkson, many experts have said that this team could hang with any of the great teams in baseball history.

Willie Mays and Ruben Gomez in Santurce
As wonderful as the team played, things were not harmonious between two of it's biggest stars, Gomez and Mays. Before a January exhibition game. Gomez and Mays engaged in a scuffle over a turn in batting practice. According to an Associated Press report, Santurce club president Pedrin Zorilla described the events as followed.

"Gomez started kidding Roberto Clemente, his teammates who was having  his swings," Zorillia recalled. "Gomez said he wanted to get in a couple of swings but batting practice pitcher Milton Ralat said Clemente wasn't through yet. Gomez still kidding, sat on home plate. Mays was behind the cage, watching the horseplay, and stepped out to ask Ralat to pitch to him while the other two decided their argument. ... Finally, Ralat threw some slow ones to Mays. He hit one directly at Ralat, knocking off his glove. Ralat got mad and said something like, 'What are you trying to do, kill me?'

"That led to arguing between Ralat and Mays and finally got to blows. Gomez tried to intervene to halt it. Mays apparently mistook Gomez' intentions and gave him a shove. Gomez, unexpecting it, went down."

Many other reports have Gomez going down as a result of one of Mays punches. Damage control quickly ensued and the two squashed their beef. The Associated Press reported that Gomez said, "There's nothing to it. We both consider the case closed and are good friends."

Mays went on to deny the fight.

"We want to make clear there was no fight and you can say without reservation that there is no difficulty between Gomez and myself."

Days after the incident, the Victoria Advocate reported that Mays left the Santurce team as a result of the fight. Mays told the International News Service that he was leaving Puerto Rico because, "it was just too much." He cited the 154 games he played with the Giants and the additional 62 games with Santurce as, "taking too much" and "not being fair to the Giants."

Mays left Puerto Rico and returned two weeks later for the playoffs. Mays went hitless in his first 13 at-bats in the series, until he hit a two-out, two-run walk-off homer in the 11th inning of Game Six. He then went 11-for-13 in the next three games to finish with a .462 average (12-for-26) and leading the series in RBIs.

Monday, November 23, 2009

How Johnny Kropf gave up center field for Willie Mays

“When I first got to Minneapolis in 1951 after spring training with the Giants, everyone was telling me what a great player Willie Mays was. We had a centerfielder by the name of Johnny Kropf in 1950 when we won the pennant in Minneapolis, and I thought to myself, ‘He must be pretty good if he beat out a guy who did a fine job for us last year.’”

These were the memories of the late New York Giants all-star second baseman Davey Williams in a 2008 interview about the new outfield of Willie Mays and Ridgewood native Johnny Kropf on the New York Giants AAA team in Minneapolis during the 1951 season. Kropf was pretty good, as he blasted 21 home runs during the 1950 season after making the jump from Class C St. Cloud to Minneapolis.

Johnny Kropf - 1951 New York Giants Media Guide
Kropf’s path to the majors was blocked by a heavy-hitting New York Giants outfield and a young teammate who was destined for superstardom. Kropf played in the days of the dreaded reserve clause and he couldn’t play for another club unless the Giants released or traded him.

“You were trapped. You didn’t challenge the salary. You were stuck in the middle, play or go home. You didn’t give up because you might get a shot somewhere. ... Where was I going with the Giants? When I started, you had Bobby Thomson, Don Mueller and Whitey Lockman out there. Those guys could hit!”
Johnny Kropf in 1951 and 2009 / Courtesy of Kropf family (l.) and N. Diunte (r.)

It didn’t help that Kropf was displaced from centerfield by a budding superstar: Willie Mays.

In an August 2009 interview at his home in Miami Beach, Fla., Kropf described being moved from centerfield upon Mays’ arrival.

“He came up with us in 1951. I was the centerfielder at the time. As soon as he came up, Tommy Heath, the manager, said, ‘John, go to left, Willie’s in center and Pete Milne is in right.’ We knew he [Mays] was going to be great; somehow you could see the difference right away.”

Mays hit .477 in 35 games with Minneapolis and was up to the majors by the end of May.

Kropf was with Mays the fateful day he was called up to the big leagues.

“We went to the movies in Sioux City [in Iowa]. All of a sudden there was a message in the theater, ‘Willie Mays wanted in the lobby.’ I said, ‘Oh, boy!’ I found out they sent him out that night, right to the Polo Grounds. He got off to a bad start, 0-12 or something, then he finally got a few hits off of Warren Spahn and he was on his way.”

The switch-hitting Kropf, now 82 and living in Miami Beach, with his wife, Audrey, recalled how he went from the sandlots in Queens to being one step away from the Major Leagues in the span of three seasons.

“I came up playing in the Queens-Nassau League; Jerry Monte was working for one of the auto dealers, he was a scout,” he said. “I was playing after returning from serving two years” in the military in 1945-46. “In the middle of June of 1947, he signed me. I ended up in Class D Peekskill when I first started. From there I went to Oshkosh, the year after that I was sent to Class B Trenton and St. Cloud, Minn. I hit 15 homers, batted over .300 and we ended up in second place.”

While with St. Cloud, Kropf received his big break playing against the Minneapolis team during an exhibition game.

“There was an exhibition game in Minneapolis at Nicolett Park. I had a couple of hits during that game,” he said. “Charlie Fox was the manager and after the season ended, he said, ‘You’re going to Minneapolis.’ I said, ‘Stop the baloney.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you right now, you’re going.’ And so I went, from Class C ball to AAA. I read in the paper if I would make it [to the majors in four years] it would be a record. It still would, because I didn’t do it.”

While in Minneapolis, Kropf had the good fortune of also playing alongside another future Hall of Famer, Negro League legend Ray Dandridge.

Asked what the Major Leagues missed when the Giants decided not to bring up Dandridge to play, he replied: “They missed a guy that stands out like a sore thumb. Bowlegged as could be, short and stocky, he hit like Yogi, over the head. He hit shots everywhere. He had three different throws. When he had the time, he would just flip it and you would look at the ball wondering if it would get there, which it always did! If he had to come in, he’d throw it from the side and when he had to really throw it, he had a rifle arm. He had to be in his 40s. He got screwed out of a chance. He was a real nice, colorful guy, very terrific.”

During his career in baseball, Kropf played with and against some of the best players in baseball’s history. He was a roommate of Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm (“fantastic!”), teammates with Luke Easter (“the bat looked like a corn of cob in his hand”), Roger Maris and Sam Hairston (grandfather of current Yankee Jerry Hairston Jr.). He squared off against such immortals as Satchel Paige, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Mize, Whitey Ford and Roberto Clemente in AAA and winter ball.

While Kropf never made it to the Major Leagues, he spent 11 seasons in Minor League Baseball — 1947-57 — five at the Triple-A level and two seasons in winter ball in Panama, where he made it to the highly regarded Caribbean Series.

Kropf thought he was closest to the Major Leagues while playing in AAA Charleston in 1953.

“I got knocked out of the box. I had a good year. I thought I was going to spring training next year. They used to call that a cup of coffee; I never got a shot at it.”

Kropf ultimately returned to Ridgewood and worked as a beer delivery truck driver. He moved to Florida in 2005. But even though his cup of coffee never came, Kropf said he would press the replay button if given a chance.

“When I think back down the line at it, I said, ‘I never made it to an all-star game, I’m not a base stealer, what am I? I could catch the ball and I could hit here and there,’” he said. “That’s what kept me around. I went a lot of places I never would have gone. When you were in your early 20s, it was a pleasure to travel. If I was married, I wouldn’t have lasted that long. I would do it over again — the guys you meet, you laugh yourself sick.”

This article originally ran in the Times-Ledger newspapers November 17, 2009.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Hideki Matsui's World Series Performance Evokes Memories of Dusty Rhodes 55 Years Earlier

Hideki Matsui earning the 2009 World Series MVP as a designated and pinch hitter drums up memories of another New York World Series hero. A year before the World Series MVP award was created, and over 20 years before the emergence of the designated hitter, James "Dusty" Rhodes terrorized the pitching of the American League champions, the Cleveland Indians. Rhodes hit a pinch-hit homer off of Bob Lemon in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series with two runners on in the 10th inning to win the game 5-2. In game 2, he had a pinch hit single off of Early Wynn in the 5th inning, and then followed it up with another homerun off of Wynn in the 7th. In game 3, he had a pinch-hit single that drove in two runs in a 6-2 Giants victory. In the 3 games he played, he was 4-6 with 2 homeruns and 7 RBI. The Giants swept the series in 4 games over the Cleveland Indians.

Matsui had a homerun, a single and 2 RBI as a pinch-hitter, and was 8-13 overall as a DH / PH en route to his award winning performance. While many remember the 1954 World Series for Willie Mays' catch of Vic Wertz's smash; if a World Series MVP had existed in 1954, it would have gone to Rhodes for his timely hitting off of the bench for the Giants. The parallel to Matsui, plays out similar in their roles of "professional hitter" for their respective teams in World Series victory.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Davey Williams, 81, 1927-2009 New York Giants Second Baseman

Former New York Giants second baseman Davey Williams passed away on August 17, 2009 at the age of 81 at his home in Dallas, Texas.


Williams made his debut with the Giants in 1949 and stayed for good after the 1951 season, making the All-Star team in 1953 and appearing in two World Series (1951 and 1954). He had his career ended in 1955 after he suffered a back injury from being run over by Jackie Robinson while covering a bunt.

I had the opportunity to interview Davey in December 2008 and he recounted the events of the collision with Robinson.

"Jackie was a great competitor," Williams said. "He had the right to get even with alot of guys. Jackie told Howard Cosell that I was the only guy he ever hurt intentionally. I got there late, it was my fault. [Sal] Maglie threw at him. The next pitch, Robinson turned to bunt, and instead of covering first and allowing him to go in and cover the ball on that side of the infield, I'm standing out there waiting for the fight to start. Robinson bunts the ball, and Maglie doesn't go over to field the ball, Whitey [Lockman] goes over to field the ball, and now I wake up and have to cover first base. I got there the minute he got there, and I didn't have any momentum going for me at all, and he ran right up the middle. Somehow, I held onto the ball, he didn't knock it out of my hand. I was out too, I didn't play again for 11 days."

He had fond memories of playing with Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge in Minneapolis.

"He had great hands and for the life of me, I don't know why he didn't get a chance to play in the big leagues," he said. "He was impressive."

During the same time he was there with Dandridge, Willie Mays was making his debut in Minneapolis. After briefly playing with Mays, he knew that Mays, "would be a franchise player somewhere." Definitively, Williams described Mays as, "the best player I ever saw."

With the National League up 2-0 in the 7th inning, manager Charlie Dressen inserted Williams into the 1953 All-Star game, replacing Red Schoendienst. Williams told the story of his brief appearance in the contest.

"I caught the last out in the All-Star game off of a pop-up from Yogi Berra," he said. "I always told people if I dropped the ball, we could've padded the score; heck we might still be playing! I got to bat off of Mike Garcia. I went up to hit against him in the 8th inning, and he threw the first pitch, and I thought, 'Whoa! My gosh!' He surprised the heck out of me, he threw a fastball. I hit against him a hundred times before and he really startled me when he threw that first pitch in the All-Star game. It was kinda like he threw it 110 MPH. It wasn't that way in the World Series a year later. I wasn't that surprised [regarding their meeting in the 1954 World Series]. I hit the ball out of the ballpark against him and it was foul by about a foot. I was around by second base and I come back across the mound, and Mike said, 'I must have made that a bit too good.' I said, 'You must have if I hit it that well.'"




Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Review - Black Barons of Birmingham: The South's Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players - Larry Powell

"Black Barons of Birmingham: The South's Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players "
Larry Powell
McFarland Publishing, 2009
220 pages

Hall of Fame icons Willie Mays and Satchel Paige resonate deeply with baseball fans, as both were prime examples of perfection at their respective positions. They both share a common bond, as they played for one of the Negro Leagues most storied franchises, the Birmingham Black Barons. University of Alabama professor Larry Powell provides not only a history of this Southern staple of Negro League Baseball, but first hand narratives from the players who lived to tell it.

Staring in 1920, Birmingham was home for such Negro League greats as Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Bill Foster, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Piper Davis, Artie Wilson, Charley Pride and Dan Bankhead who was the first African-American pitcher in Major League baseball. The team was a fixture in an area that had very few options for African American athletes and fans. They provided hope and entertainment for many during the Depression and Jim-Crow segregation.

Birmingham's consistent presence in black baseball allows Powell to take the reader on the roller coaster ride that was Negro League Baseball, as the league peaked and then tried to hold on as key players were scooped up by Major League Baseball. He separates the book into pre and post-era integration, as the Black Barons were one of the few Negro League teams that played from the inception of the Negro National League in 1920 and survived until the Negro Leagues complete demise in 1960. This gives Powell the opportunity to isolate the perspective on how the league changed once the door opened to Major League Baseball.

The book is dominated by the interviews of the living Black Barons, most who played after 1950 when the league was considered less than Major League caliber. Such is the function of writing a narrative on the Negro Leagues in 2009, as there are only a few surviving players from the 1930's and 1940's. Many of the teams had disbanded and Major League Baseball was raiding the top talent of the league. While the competition may not have been as strong in the heyday of players like Davis, Paige and Suttles, their stories share the same hopes of making it big, the conflicts of playing for little pay versus working in local steel mills, and persevering in spite of the strong arm of the Jim Crow laws in the segregated South.

You will be intrigued by the tales of the play of these great men, and moved by their experiences of fighting against segregation to play baseball. You will discover names of the greats that you never saw play, and by the end of the book you will wish you had been there to see them. These are the stories of the Birmingham Black Barons, and they are the ones that our future generations need to hear.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: Going, Going ... Caught! by Jason Aronoff

"Going, Going ... Caught! - Baseball's great outfield catches as described by those who saw them, 1887-1964"

Jason Aronoff
McFarland Publishing, 2009
266 pages

On the heels of Dewayne Wise's leaping catch during Mark Buehrle's perfect game, it's only appropriate that I present a book detailing the greatest outfield catches in Major League Baseball's history.

"Going, Going ... Caught!" was originally recommended to me by former Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Don Thompson as he attempted to describe Duke Snider's nearly impossible catch of Willie "Puddin Head" Jones' smash in Philadelphia on Memorial Day of 1954. Thompson should know a thing or two about Snider's climb up the wall that day; he was standing next to Snider when he did the seemingly impossible, digging his spikes into the outfield fence after sprinting into the depths of left-center only to throw his glove hand above his head and across his body for the catch as he collided with the wall. While Aronoff provides an illustration recreating the catch, there are no actual photographs of his theatrics available. This goes for about 95% of the other catches mentioned in the book. All we have left of these grabs are the accounts from the sportswriters and players who saw them. These accounts are what make this book special. You are transported back to a time when mass media didn't cover baseball and left you to create your own picture of a great center fielder chasing down a ball that seems way out of his reach.

Aronoff has done painstaking research to uncover multiple sources detailing catches that the writers at the time described as the "best ever." There is great detail given to the dimensions of old ballparks and how their cavernous reaches allowed for these players to catch up to balls that everyone in the crowd thought were going to fall in for extra-base hits.. Unlike modern stadiums, outfielders had to travel farther distances and contend with unpadded wooden and concrete walls to haul in shots hit into the far reaches of the ballpark.

While "Going, Going, Caught!" is well researched, the reader is bogged down with redundant accounts of the same catch, and multiple catches made by the same player that were "very good" but not great. Aronoff could have condensed the accounts he relayed in order to make it more digestible. It may be a bit too intense for the casual baseball reader, or those not familiar with the players of yesteryear.

However, Aronoff's book not only further enlivens the debate between Mantle, Snider and Mays, it also brings up fielding stars that time has forgotten, such as Jimmy Piersall, Terry Moore, Jigger Statz, Dode Paskert, Bill Lange, and baseball's earliest deaf player, "Dummy" Hoy. It may even make you question your beliefs of who is the greatest outfielder of all time. While their Hall of Fame contemporaries of Keeler, Cobb, Speaker, and DiMaggio are all profiled at one point, it's the exploits of the lesser known aforementioned players that make "Going, Going ... Caught" run.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Jim Dusty Rhodes, 82, 1954 World Series MVP 1927-2009

When the current generation hears the name "Dusty" Rhodes they may think of wrestling, but baseball fans recall the colorful outfielder who was the hero of the 1954 World Series. James Lamar Rhodes, affectionately known in baseball circles as "Dusty", helped lead the Giants to the 1954 World Series crown with his dramatic pinch hit homerun to win Game 1 off of future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon at the Polo Grounds. Rhodes passed away Wednesday June 17, 2009 in Las Vegas after a long battle with diabetes and emphysema.

Rhodes accepted his role as one of the "scrubbini", platooning in the outfield and serving as a feared pinch-hitter for 7 seasons with the Giants. Rhodes was never known for his defensive play, as Leo Durocher stated in his autobiography "Nice Guys Finish Last," Rhodes was, "the worst fielder who ever played in a big league game who made training rules forgotten."

In a recent interview that I conducted with Rhodes, I had asked Rhodes about his Hall of Fame teammates, Willie Mays and Monte Irvin. He said he knew Mays was, "a Hall of Famer the first time I met him." He referred to Irvin as a "buddy," and "the greatest in my book!" Irvin, when interviewed by the New York Daily News regarding Rhodes' death, called Rhodes a "good friend," and "a brother to all black players." When Mays was interviewed for the same piece, he said Rhodes was, "a fabulous hitter and a great friend." The high praise Rhodes received from two of the best players in baseball's history displays that his reach extended far beyond his heroics in the 1954 World Series.

To read an in-depth interview with "Dusty" Rhodes, check out Bill Madden's article from the December 20th, 2008 edition of the New York Daily News.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Herman Franks, 95, MLB Catcher and Manager (1914-2009)

Herman Franks, pictured left with Willie Mays in Santurce, Puerto Rico, died March 30, 2009 at the age of 95 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Franks played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, Philadelphia Athletics and New York Giants over parts of 6 seasons from 1939-1949, compiling a .199 batting average in 403 career at-bats. He lost three-and-a-half years of his career due to his Naval service in World War 2. His playing career was overshadowed by his success as a coach and a manager at the major league level.

In Joshua Prager's book, "The Echoing Green", Franks was reportedly involved in relaying stolen signals from a hole in the New York Giants scoreboard to the hitters during the 1951 "Shot Heard 'Round The World" playoff between the Giants and the Dodgers. Franks managed what is arguably known as the best Winter League team ever, the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers. The team featured an all-star Major League and ex-Negro League lineup including: Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Bob Thurman, Bus Clarkson, Don Zimmer, Ron Samford, George Crowe, Valmy Thomas, Ruben Gomez and "Toothpick" Sam Jones. Franks went on to manage the Giants to four straight second place finishes (1965-68) and the Chicago Cubs to a .497 record (1977-79).