[Editor’s note: 2007 will bring several new contributors to Bronx Banter. I want to further complement what Cliff and I already provide for you. Bruce Markusen, author and historian, is not a new name to longtime readers and I’m pleased to report that each month, Bruce will run a “Pastime Passings” post that formerly appeared in his “Cooperstown Confidential” column. And that’s not all he’s gonna do…I’ll have more on the new contributors and what they’ll be up to shortly. Cliff and I are still going to be holding it down as usual, but my hope is to give you guys even more of a good thing. I love the idea of having additional voices. The spirit of this blog to generate conversation and community, you know, banter, baby. And that’s word to Big Bird.]
By Bruce Markusen (Guest Columnist)
For many years, The Sporting News filled a vital role by providing obituaries from the sports world. For fans in the pre-internet era, it was often our first notice that someone significant had passed away. Throughout the 2007 season, I’ll try to take on the task once done so ably by The Sporting News by providing regular updates on baseball figures who have departed us. Some of the obituaries will be straight-laced and fact based; others will include some of my own personal commentaries.
Through the first two months of 2007, the baseball world has already lost several significant and influential figures. The list includes former Yankee players Steve Barber, Hank Bauer, and Lew Burdette, and former pitching coach Art Fowler.
Steve Barber (Died on February 4 in Henderson, Nevada; age 67; pneumonia): A hard-throwing but erratically wild left-hander, Barber won 121 games over a 15-year career that began with the Baltimore Orioles in 1960. During his tenure in Baltimore, Barber went 95-75 and became the first 20-game winner in the history of the franchise. He was later inducted into the Orioles’ Hall of Fame.
Commentary: Steve Barber. I always thought that was a great baseball name for a pitcher, in a Sal Maglie kind of way. When I was growing up in the early 1970s, Barber was just finishing up a long career. I remember him mostly as a middle reliever—like a lot of veteran pitchers of that era, that’s where he ended up—but it was as a fireballing starter that Barber created some lasting imagery during much of the 1960s.
Barber was considered one of the hardest throwers of his era, though his radar gun readings look relatively unimpressive by today’s standards. In 1960, Barber was clocked at 95 and a half miles per hour, which was actually the third-fastest mark on record at the time, behind only Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Bob Feller. Most hitters who faced Barber in his prime would tell you that he threw harder than the mid-nineties, just as old-timers would have said the same about Feller and “The Big Train.” I think it’s probably safe to say that the 1960s devices used to clock Barber were somewhat slow, in contrast to the ballpark readings of today, which are generally on the high side.
Not only did Barber throw hard, but he threw a sinking fastball that darted and dipped, and was very heavy on a batter’s hands. Ellie Hendricks, who caught him with the Orioles and later faced him as an opponent, said hitting Barber’s fastball was akin to swinging at a “ball of iron.” Barber could also be about as wild as Mitch Williams, at least on some days, making it very uncomfortable for opposing hitters to stand in against him.
It’s too bad that Barber came down with a bad bout of tendonitis in 1966. He was having a terrific season, appearing to have harnessed his talents after years of sporadic success, and then had to miss the second half of ’66, including the World Series. Barber did have his moments, including that famed no-hit loss in 1967 (when he walked ten batters and threw 144 pitches before giving way to Stu Miller), but any chance of greatness had gone.
In his later years, Barber bounced around as a reliever, pitching for the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots, California Angels, and Milwaukee Brewers. As a member of the 1969 Pilots, Barber became one of the most notable figures of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Unfortunately, Bouton portrayed Barber in a villainous role, suggesting that he was hiding an injury in order to maintain his presence on the roster, thereby denying a younger pitcher of a chance at pitching. I’ve always thought Bouton’s portrayal of Barber was unfair. Like Barber, Bouton had hurt his arm, and like Barber, was doing all he could to preserve a career in the major leagues. Barber may have spent more than his fair share of time in the trainer’s room, but at least he was trying to pitch, rather than just putting in time on the disabled list.
Hank Bauer (Died on February 9, 2007 in Kansas City, Missouri; age 84; cancer): The ultimate hard-nosed ballplayer, Bauer filled an important role as a secondary cog during the New York Yankees’ dynasty of the 1950s. During his 12-year tenure in New York, Bauer contributed to nine American League pennants and seven World Championships. Almost exclusively a pull hitter, Bauer saw significant time in both right and left field, earned All-Star berths in 1952, ’53 and ’54, and compiled a major league record 17-game hitting streak in World Series play. In 1961, Bauer turned to managing, hired by Charlie Finley as the skipper of the Kansas City A’s. In 1964, he became the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, leading them to a World Championship two seasons later.
Commentary: Bauer lived one of the most fascinating lives of any ballplayer, succeeding on three completely different levels: as a player, manager, and American soldier.
First and foremost, Bauer was an unquestionable war hero. As a member of the U.S. Marines during World War II, he overcame a severe bout of malaria to earn 11 campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. Bauer’s heroics reached their heights during the battle of Okinawa, when he served as the commander of a battalion of 64 men. Only six men survived the assault, with Bauer sustaining a shrapnel wound to his thigh. The injury sent him home, but not before Bauer had lost four of his prime seasons to wartime service.
Bauer’s military toughness extended to his physical appearance. He was once described as having a face that looked like a “clenched fist.” He accentuated that look by consistently wearing his hair in a Marine buzzcut, even years after his military tenure ended.
Though not blessed with an array of physical talents, Bauer made the most of what he possessed. He hustled at all times and prided himself on playing the game in a fundamentally sound way, especially in the field and on the basepaths. He also hated seeing younger teammates who didn’t hustle, coining the phrase that became popular with Yankee veterans in addressing a youthful lack of enthusiasm: “Don’t mess with my money.” Younger Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford heard that refrain a few times and learned some lessons from Bauer.
A good player in regular season play, Bauer became a larger-than-life force in the World Series. After struggling badly in his first four Fall Classics, Bauer emerged as a terror in the 1955 and ’58 World Series. Bauer batted .429 in the ’55 Series against Brooklyn and then clubbed four home runs in ’58 against Milwaukee.
After winning seven World Championships as a player, Bauer added a world title as the manager of the Orioles in 1966. Bauer was an underrated manager, most likely because his managing days ended rather abruptly. Emphasizing discipline and accountability, he led the 1967 Orioles and 1969 A’s to second-place finishes. Bauer’s tough-guy approach might not have worked with players in the 1970s, but he obtained good results in the sixties.
Bauer also carried on a celebrated feud with Earl Weaver, who succeeded him as Orioles manager. Bauer had refused to hire Weaver as a coach, and Weaver returned the disfavor by not keeping Bauer on the Baltimore staff. Several years ago, one of my relatives approached Bauer and Weaver at a baseball function. Not knowing of the bitterness between the two, he asked the two rivals if they would pose for a photograph. After the photo was taken, Weaver remarked to Bauer: “That might be the only picture in existence that shows us together.” Even though he couldn’t stand Weaver, Bauer still managed to laugh.
Ray Berres (Died on February 1 in Kenosha, Wisconsin; age 99; heart failure and pneumonia): After an 11-year career as a backup catcher, Berres achieved legendary status as a pitching coach with the Chicago White Sox. Berres served as the Sox’ pitching coach from 1949 to 1966, and then returned to the club at the request of manager Al Lopez in 1968 and ’69. Berres is generally credited with reviving the careers of several White Sox pitchers, including Tommy John, Don Mossi, Turk Lown, and Virgil Trucks.
Lew Burdette (Died on February 6 in Winter Garden, Florida; age 80; cancer): An outstanding No. 2 starter with the Milwaukee Braves, Burdette carved out a career record of 203-144 with an ERA of 3.66 over 18 seasons. Yet, the highlight of his career took place in the postseason. Pitching in the 1957 World Series against the New York Yankees, Burdette hurled three complete games, winning all three decisions against the team with which he started his career. Burdette’s 1957 performance came as an encore to his pitching brilliance the previous two seasons. As the Braves’ second starter behind Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, Burdette won 41 games in 1958 and ’59. Another highlight for Burdette occurred on August 18, 1960, when he pitched a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies. An above-average hitter, Burdette clubbed two of his 12 career home runs against Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. After his playing days, Burdette served the Atlanta Braves briefly as their pitching coach.
Bing Devine (Died on January 27 in St. Louis, Missouri; age 90): Devine worked as the Cardinals’ general manager over two different stints and is best remembered for engineering the one-sided trade that brought Hall of Famer Lou Brock to St. Louis. Devine essentially assembled the Cardinals’ teams that won World Championships in 1964 and 1967, and his later tenure as GM of the Mets laid the groundwork for New York’s first World Championship in 1969. His well-rounded front office resume also included stints with the Astros, Expos, Phillies, and Giants, with whom he held a variety of front office and scouting posts. In addition to making the deal for Brock, Devine swung trades for key Cardinal mainstays like Dick Groat and Bill White, who helped the team win it all in 1964, along with Julian Javier and Curt Flood, who were instrumental to both title teams during the 1960s.
Commentary: Devine was an underrated general manager, in part because he wasn’t around for either of the Cardinals’ World Championship seasons. Devine’s first tenure in St. Louis ended in the middle of the 1964 season, prior to the Cardinals actually winning the World Series. With St. Louis buried in the National League standings and looking like also-rans, owner August Busch fired Devine in August on the advice of special assistant Branch Rickey. So Devine was not on hand to enjoy the rewards of a late-season surge and an historic collapse by the Phillies, which allowed St. Louis to win the pennant before pulling off a World Series victory against the Yankees. Still, Devine received a great deal of credit from the St. Louis press for putting together the framework of the Cardinals’ championship club, which included the mid-season deal that extracted Brock from the Cubs for pitchers Ernie Broglio and Bobby Shantz and outfielder Doug Clemons.
After Bob Howsam and Stan Musial took turns as Cardinal general managers, Devine returned to his old stomping grounds in 1968, too late for the 1967 World Championship, but just in time to see St. Louis win its third National League pennant in five seasons. Devine’s Cardinals then took a three-games-to-one lead over the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, only to lose at the hands of Mickey Lolich and company. During his interim tenure away from St. Louis, Devine had bided his time well as president of the Mets. With Devine playing a large role in the front office, the Mets drafted or signed young talents like Amos Otis, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver, and executed trades for Tommie Agee, Al Weis, and Ron Taylor, laying the seeds for the “Miracle Mets” season of 1969.
Once he returned to St. Louis, Devine would remain with the Cardinals through the 1978 season. Although the team would fail to make the postseason during the 1970s, his second tenure in St. Louis produced such homegrown talents as Ted Simmons, Keith Hernandez, Garry Templeton, Bob Forsch, and Al Hrabosky.
Eddie Feigner (Died on February 9 in Huntsville, Alabama; age 80; respiratory illness): Regarded by many as the greatest pitcher in the history of softball, Feigner and the rest of his four-man softball team toured the country from 1946 until his retirement in 2000. Known as “The King and His Court,” Feigner and his three teammates (a catcher, first baseman, and shortstop) routinely beat nine-man softball teams, thanks in large part to Feigner’s fastball, which was clocked as high as 104 miles per hour. According to statistics maintained by his organization, “The King” threw 930 no-hitters and 238 perfect games while striking out over 140,000 batters in roughly 10,000 games. During a nationally-televised exhibition at Dodger Stadium in 1964, the hard-throwing Feigner struck out a succession of six major leaguers, including Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, and Roberto Clemente.
Art Fowler (Died on January 29 in Spartanburg, South Carolina; age 84): A veteran of nine major league seasons as a pitcher, Fowler became better known for his work as Billy Martin’s designated pitching coach for much of the 1970s and 1980s. During his major league career, Fowler went 54-51 record with 32 saves and a 4.03 ERA while pitching mostly in relief. And then in 1968, while pitching in relief for the Triple-A Denver Bears, Fowler was hired by Billy Martin to serve the duel roles of pitcher and pitching coach. When Martin received a promotion to the Minnesota Twins, Fowler followed suit and remained Martin’s pitching coach during stops in Detroit, Texas, New York, and Oakland.
Commentary: Art Fowler was not a household name, but he was a Hall of Fame character. He lived a life of legend and controversy, starting with his arrival in the major leagues. Fowler and his brother, Jesse, both pitched in the majors, but not at the same time. Jesse debuted in the majors in 1924, while Art did not make his first appearance until he was age 31 in 1954. That was a separation of nearly 30 years, by far a record for two brothers in the major leagues. Even though he was already in his thirties, Fowler stuck around long enough to earn a World Championship ring with the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers before pitching for the expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961.
To the surprise of no one who knew him well, Fowler hated physical conditioning, particularly running. “If running is so important, Jesse Owens would be a twenty-game winner,” Fowler told a reporter in 1957. “And the only reason I don’t like to run is that it makes me tired.”
Fowler is best remembered for filling a memorable role as Martin’s designated pitching coach/drinking buddy. (My father used to refer to Fowler as “drinking buddy” so often that I thought it should have been his actual title.) Their relationship began in 1969 with the Denver Bears of the American Association. Martin decided to make use of the 45-year-old Fowler, who was still an active pitcher on the staff, as his pitching coach. The relationship soon turned into a friendship. Fowler worked for Martin during almost every one of his managerial stops. Critics of Fowler called him nothing more than Martin’s crony, while supporters pointed out that Fowler generally developed good relationships with his pitchers. For what it’s worth, Fowler was the Yankees’ pitching coach for both of their World Championship teams in 1977 and ’78.
According to many of his former pitchers, a typical Fowler visit to the mound would involve the following words of wisdom. “I don’t know what you’re doing wrong, but whatever it is, it’s sure pissing Billy off!”
Known for his off-the-field visits to bars, Fowler developed a well-deserved reputation for enjoying cocktails of various sorts. During his years as the Tigers’ pitching coach, Fowler became good friends with first baseman Norm Cash. Sharing a similar sense of humor, the pitching coach and first baseman spent hours together away from the ballpark, especially at local taverns. They were sometimes joined by Martin, who was no stranger to the drinking scene himself.
Dick Joyce (Died on January 23 in Raleigh, North Carolina; age 63; diabetes and heart problems): A highly touted high school pitching prospect, Joyce turned down a $100,000 bonus to sign with the Boston Red Sox, instead opting to attend Holy Cross. Three years later, the tall left-hander signed a lesser contract with the Kansas City A’s. After playing with minor league teammates like Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers, Joyce earned a promotion to the A’s in 1965. He would pitch well in 13 innings over two seasons, but subsequent arm problems derailed his major league career.
Ernie Koy (Died on January 1 in Bellville, Texas; age 97): A veteran of five major league seasons, Koy came up with the old Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938 and hit a three-run homer in his first big league at-bat. He remained with Brooklyn until June of 1940, when he was sent to the St. Louis Cardinals as part of a package for Hall of Famer Joe Medwick.
Max Lanier (Died on January 30 in Dunnellon, Florida; age 91): A smallish left-handed pitcher at five-feet, 11-inches, Lanier emerged as a good wartime pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and pitched exceedingly well in World Series play. At his peak, Lanier won the National League’s ERA title with a mark of 1.90 in 1943. From 1942 to 1944, the left-hander made seven appearances in three straight Fall Classics, winning two of three decisions while posting an ERA of 1.71 and earning two World Championship rings. After the war, even with the quality of play improving with the return of star players from military service, Lanier continued to pitch well. He won his first six decisions in 1946, but then decided to jump to the Mexican League. Lanier was later suspended for two seasons by Major League Baseball, but managed to come back and pitch effectively in 1950 and ’51. Lanier finished his career with a record of 108-82 and an ERA of 3.01 over 14 seasons. Lanier’s son, Hal, eventually made the major leagues as a utility infielder with the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees before becoming a successful manager with the Houston Astros.
Jack Lang (Died on January 25 in New York City; age 86; various ailments): A beat writer for the Mets from their inaugural season in 1962 through 1988, Lang became synonymous with the National League franchise. Lang also was known for his association with the Hall of Fame. As the secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Lang became entrusted with the joyful duty of informing Hall of Fame candidates that they had been elected to Cooperstown. From 1967 to 1994, Lang placed congratulatory calls to 44 elected players, ranging from Red Ruffing in ’67 to Steve Carlton in ’94. In 1986, Lang received his own “call to the Hall,” when he earned the Hall of Fame’s Spink Award for outstanding baseball writing.
Bob Milliken (Died on January 4 in Clearwater, Florida; age 80): A veteran of 58 years in the game, Milliken pitched two seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He won 13 of 19 decisions for the Dodgers in 1952 and ’53, while posting an ERA of 3.59. He also added two scoreless innings for Brooklyn in the 1953 World Series. After his playing days, Milliken became a longtime scout with a variety of teams.
Jim Pisoni (Died on February 4 in Dallas, Texas; age 77): An outfielder who played parts of five seasons in the major leagues, Pisoni batted .212 with six home runs in 189 career at-bats. Pisoni played for the St. Louis Browns, Kansas City A’s, Milwaukee Braves, and New York Yankees over a career that spanned from 1953 to 1960. Pisoni is best remembered for being included in the deal that sent him, Ryne Duren, and Harry Simpson from the A’s to the Yankees for Billy Martin, Ralph Terry, and Woodie Held.
Vern Ruhle (Died on January 20 in Houston, Texas; age 55; multiple myeloma cancer):
A sinker-slider pitcher with the Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians, and California Angels, Ruhle had moderate success during his 13-year playing career, including an excellent 1980 season in which he won 12 of 16 decisions and posted a career-best ERA of 2.37. Ruhle also started two League Championship Series for the Astros, one in 1980 and another in 1981. Ruhle also enjoyed some prominence as a pitching coach, working for the Astros, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Cincinnati Reds in that capacity before a diagnosis of cancer forced him to take a leave of absence from Cincinnati in 2006.
Betty Trezza (Died on January 16 in Brooklyn, New York; age 81; heart attack): A player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Trezza delivered the game-winning single in the 1946 championship series. A veteran of the Minneapolis Millerettes, Ft. Wayne Daisies, South Bend Blue Sox, and Racine Belles, Trezza played as a shortstop, second baseman, and outfielder during her AAGPBL career.