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Observations From Cooperstown–The Trifecta

Posted By Bruce Markusen On February 23, 2008 @ 6:11 am In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled

As I impatiently wait for some sign of spring, I’m thinking about a former Yankee broadcaster, a front office man, and the need for feedback. So let’s try to address all three topics in the latest musings from the home of baseball…

Earlier this week, the Hall of Fame announced the winner of its Ford C. Frick Award, which is given annually to an outstanding baseball broadcaster. Once again, the Frick committee bypassed the man who should have been an obvious selection years ago. He’s someone that most Yankee fans are familiar with, either from his days as a player or for his more recent work for the MSG Network. While I’m not old enough to have seen Tony Kubek play, I can safely so that no one among the broadcasting set has helped me learn as much as he did.

Other than highlights and clips featured on ESPN, I’ve heard very little of the broadcasting done by this year’s Frick winner, Dave Niehaus. I know that he’s extremely popular with Mariners fans, an absolute institution in the Great Northwest. Based on most media reports I’ve read, he’s also very deserving of the award. But I just don’t see how he should receive this award before Kubek, at least based on their resumes.

Niehaus has worked almost exclusively as a play-by-play announcer. Kubek has done extensive amounts of both play-by-play and color commentary. Niehaus has worked only as a local broadcaster, first for the Angels and then for the Mariners, beginning with their birth in 1977. Kubek has worked as both a local broadcaster, for the Yankees and Blue Jays, and at the network level as the lead analyst for NBC. Niehaus has never announced a World Series or an All-Star Game. Kubek has broadcast a slew of World Series games and All-Star games throughout a career that dates back to the mid-1960s. Niehaus is best known for the catch phrase, "My, oh my." Kubek is best known for being analytical and thought provoking during his broadcasts. Again, I don’t mean to demean Niehaus. He deserves this award—just not ahead of Kubek.

As a broadcaster, Kubek has filled almost every role, beginning with those live interviews he used to conduct in the stands during World Series broadcasts. Articulate enough to describe game action and insightful enough to analyze what we were seeing, few ex-athletes or professional broadcasters have been able to match Kubek’s versatile skills in the booth. All the while, Kubek established one of the best-known work ethics in the announcing game, exhaustively researching player backgrounds and tendencies prior to each game or series and always venturing into the clubhouse to find an elusive insider angle.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Kubek is this: I learned something new about baseball almost every game that I heard him work, whether it was the importance of the bench and the bullpen or a coherent definition of a secondary lead. As much as Tony was a broadcaster of the game, he was also a teacher, and that wasn’t easy with students like myself who thought they knew everything about the National Pastime.

For many fans who read about baseball on the Internet, Bill James was their guru. For me, it was Tony Kubek.

***

A baseball genius died on Tuesday; sadly, few people seemed to take notice.

When Bob Howsam joined the front office of the Cincinnati Reds in 1967, the franchise was mired in non-contention. In fact, the Reds had won nothing tangible since 1961, the year of their last pennant, and no world championships dating back to 1940. By the time that Howsam stepped down as the Reds’ chief executive and team president in 1978, the team had won six division titles, four pennants, and two world championships within the span of a dozen seasons. As the primary architect of the "Big Red Machine," Howsam made the Reds relevant for the better part of the 1970s.

Howsam resuscitated the Reds’ franchise by using a two-tiered approach. He simultaneously rebuilt Cincinnati’s farm system while also executing a series of shrewd trades, some of the blockbuster variety and some that failed to create a ripple at the time. The restocking of the farm system laid the foundation for Reds success; the trades provided finishing touches to what would become a mini-dynasty.

Unsuccessful in his two-year stint as the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals (though he did pull off the steal that brought Orlando Cepeda to town), Howsam completely reversed the course of his career in Cincinnati. Under his leadership, the Reds drafted and developed young pitchers like Don Gullett, Gary Nolan, and Wayne Simpson, who all became major contributors to the 1970 National League championship team. Howsam then oversaw the draft selections of Dave Concepcion and Ken Griffey, Sr., who became important supplements to the Big Red Machine of the mid-seventies. With Gullett, Concepcion and Griffey all playing vital roles, the Reds advanced to the World Series in 1972, 1975, and 1976, winning world titles the latter two seasons.

Yet, it was at the trading table where Howsam displayed the height of his brilliance. In 1971, he pulled off two deals that sealed Cincinnati’s fortunes as a future world champion. The first one came in May, producing few headlines with its announcement. Knowing that Concepcion would fill the shortstop role for years to come, Howsam peddled light-hitting infielder Frank Duffy and an obscure minor league pitcher named Vern Geishert to the San Francisco Giants for spare outfielder George Foster. (Frank Duffy for George Foster? That became a running joke throughout the 1970s.) Facing a logjam of outfielders in San Francisco, Foster would eventually become the Reds’ everyday left fielder, one of the league’s top right-handed power sources, and the 1977 National League MVP.

Then came Howsam’s master stroke during the 1971 winter meetings. With his lineup leaning too heavily to the right and the Reds’ defense shaky in spots, Howsam dealt Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros for Joe Morgan, Denis Menke, Cesar Geronimo, Ed Armbrister, and Jack Billingham. In one fell swoop, Howsam improved the Reds defensively at three infield positions (with the new configuration moving Tony Perez from third base to first base), found a new center fielder in Gold Glover Geronimo, and bolstered the starting rotation with Billingham. Most critically, Howsam obtained one of the greatest players of the seventies in Morgan, who would win two MVP awards while adding speed, range, on-base percentage, and a left-handed bat to the Cincinnati equation. That trade, engineered by Howsam, remains one of the most significant in major league history.

Bob Howsam died on Tuesday at the age of 89, a victim of heart failure. Since he was overshadowed by so many great components of the Big Red Machine—a machine that he helped construct—very few people outside of Cincinnati paid much attention to his passing. Hopefully that will change one day, when Howsam takes his deserving place in the plaque gallery at Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

***

It’s been just about one year since I started writing these columns for Baseball Toaster. Given that time frame, it’s overdue for me to solicit some feedback from our regular readers. Of the features that we do regularly—"Card Corner," "Pastime Passings," "Observations from Cooperstown," "Rumor Mills"—what do you like to read the most? What could you do without? Are there any additional features that you’d like to see done here? Would you like to hear more about Cooperstown and the inner workings of the Hall of Fame? Do you prefer the content that is directly related to the Yankees, or do you want material that represents a change of pace from the usual conversation?

Feel free to post feedback here, or to send me an e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com [1]. And, as always, thanks for reading and taking the time to provide us with input.

Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com. He, his wife Sue, and their daughter Madeline live in Cooperstown, just a short drive from the Hall of Fame.


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