"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: 1950s

Cruel Shoes

Here’s Red Smith on Mickey Mantle’s first day in the big leagues:

Observations From Cooperstown: Memories of Moose

Moose Skowron looked like a character out of “Moon Mullins.” Or in a more contemporary sense, he had the appearance of a secondary character in “The Simpsons.” With his lantern jaw, thick jowls, and military crew cut, he possessed the look of a man who could put his fist through your chest and pull your heart out.

Appearances are often deceiving, and they were exactly that with Skowron, who died at 81 on Friday after a battle with lung cancer. Oh, he could be gruff and curt on the outside, but once you opened a conversation with him, you discovered a down-to-earth guy who enjoyed telling stories from his days with the Yankees. And when you’ve played with characters like Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford, or managed for one-of-a-kind legends like Casey Stengel, you’ve got good material to work with.

There were other deceptions with Skowron. Like many fans, I always assumed that Skowron’s nickname came from his size, his power, and his brute physical strength. He was six feet, two inches, 200 pounds, with much of frame wrapped in muscle. Well, the true origins of his nickname had nothing to do with his physical dimensions. When Skowron was a boy, his grandfather gave him an impromptu haircut, which made the youngster look like the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Skowron’s friends called him “Mussolini,” and the family adapted by changing the nickname to “Moose.” By the time he was playing major league ball, everyone was calling him Moose. One of the few exceptions was the Topps Card Company, which always listed him as “Bill Skowron” on his cards.

After signing with the Yankees in 1950, the organization tried him as an outfielder and third baseman, before realizing he lacked the athletic agility needed of those positions. He moved to first base, where he was blocked by players like Johnny Mize and Joe Collins. He finally landed in the Bronx in 1954, when he platooned with Collins, before becoming an everyday player by the late 1950s.

How good was Skowron in his prime? Well, he was very good. From 1957 to 1961, he averaged 20 home runs a season while qualifying for five consecutive American League All-Star teams. During that stretch, he twice slugged better than .500; he also received some support for American League MVP on two occasions.

As a right-handed power hitter, the old Yankee Stadium was hardly made to order for Skowron. But he adapted, developing a power stroke that targeted right-center and right fields, where the dimensions were far more favorable for hitting the long ball. Skowron’s right-handed hitting presence was importance, given that most of their power hitters hit from the left side (including Roger Maris, Berra and the switch-hitting Mantle.) If opposing teams loaded up on left-handed pitching, Skowron could make them pay.

Skowron really had only two flaws in his game. A classic free swinger and bad ball hitter, Skowron could sometimes hit pitches up his eyes, but he could also flail away at other pitches outside of the strike zone. Since he didn’t walk much, his on-base percentage suffered. Skowron’s other weakness involved his health; he simply could not avoid injuries. One time, he hurt his back while lifting an air conditioner. On another occasion, he tore a muscle in his thigh. There were broken bones, too, including a fractured arm that resulted from an on-field collision. With such injuries forcing him to miss chunks of games at a time, he often played 120 to 130 games a season, instead of the 150 to 160 that he would have preferred.

The 1961 season provided contrasts and quandaries for Skowron. On the down side, his slugging percentage and his on-base percentage fell. More favorably, he hit a personal-best 28 home runs while playing in a career-high 150 games. Batting out of the sixth and seventh hole, Skowron provided protection for the middle-of-the-order thumpers, a group that included Maris, Mantle, and Berra.

As he often did, Skowron elevated his play in the World Series. In the 1961 Classic against the Reds, Yet, it was in the 1961 World Series. In five games against the upstart Reds, Skowron slugged .529 with one home run and five RBIs, reached base 45 per cent of the time, and hit a robust .353. Then again, Moose was almost always good in the Series. In 133 at-bats stretched over eight World Series appearances, Skowron hit eight home runs and slugged .519. In Game Seven situations alone, the Moose hit three home runs. If you believe in the existence of clutch, and I do, then Skowron belongs near the top of that list.

Skowron put up another good season in 1962, but his age and the presence of a young player in the system changed his status within the organization. Believing that Joe Pepitone was headed toward superstardom, the Yankees decided to trade Skowron that winter. They sent him to the Dodgers in exchange for Stan Williams, an intimidating veteran reliever who liked to throw pitches up and in as part of his quest for strikeouts.

In some ways, Skowron could not have been traded to a less ideal situation. Newly built Dodger Stadium, which had replaced the Los Angeles Coliseum as the Dodgers’ home, had a ridiculously high mound and outfield measurements that did not favor sluggers like Skowron. He also had to face a new set of pitchers in the National League; outside of World Series competition, Moose had little familiarity with senior circuit pitching. To make matters worse, Skowron did not play first base every day, instead platooning with Ron Fairly. Moose hit a miserable .203 and ripped only three home runs in well under 300 plate appearances.

To the surprise of many, Skowron still had something left for the World Series. Playing against his former Yankee mates, he swatted a home run and batted .385 to help the Dodgers to a four-game Series sweep.

World Series heroics aside, the Dodgers questioned whether Skowron had much left. So they sold him to the Washington Senators. He hit well during a half-season in the Capital City, but when the team fell out of contention, he was sent packing to the White Sox in a mid-season trade. Skowron hit well over the next season and a half, but slumped badly in 1966 before closing out his career in ’67.

Yet, there was much more to Skowron than on-the-field highlights and accomplishments. He made news off the field, sometimes in frivolous ways and sometimes through embarrassing situations. Let’s consider a couple of episodes from the 1960s:

*During the 1963 season, Skowron and several other Dodgers made a guest appearance on the TV show, “Mr. Ed.” Skowron, catcher John Roseboro, center fielder Willie Davis, and Hall of Fame left-hander Sandy Koufax played themselves. In the main plotline of “Leo Durocher meets Mr. Ed,” the talking horse gives batting tips to Durocher, who was billed as the Dodgers’ manager even though he was actually a coach under Walter Alston. Durocher is supposed to relay the tips to a slumping Skowron. Moose and the other Dodgers then watch in amazement as Mr. Ed completes an inside-the-park home run against Koufax. (In a complete aside, Durocher also appeared on an episode of “The Munsters,” and was once again mentioned as the Dodgers’ skipper. Either Alston wanted nothing to do with Hollywood, or someone was trying to send him the message that Durocher was the real Dodgers manager.)

*While training with the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Florida, he decided to make a surprise trip to see his wife at their home in Hilldale, New Jersey. When he arrived at the house, Skowron found his wife in bed with another man. Infuriated by the surprise discovery, Skowron proceeded to pummel his unwanted guest. Shortly thereafter, Skowron was charged with assault, though many were sympathetic to his situation.

Skowron had better long-term success with other relationships, particularly his fellow Yankees. Beloved in the Yankee clubhouse, Moose became especially close friends with Hank Bauer, a rough-and tumble character in his own right. They often made public appearances together, including numerous visits to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame Weekend signings. I remember meeting Skowron and Bauer back in the late 1980s, while I was still working in sports talk radio. They were signing at a table outside one of the many card shops on Main Street. I wanted to interview the two of them, but I was intimidated by Bauer’s raspy voice and Skowron’s rugged appearance. Feeling like a rookie cub reporter, I settled for making a few innocuous remarks to the two ex-Bombers.

It remains one of my regrets. I never did have another chance to interview either Skowron or Bauer. That was a real mistake on my part, losing out on the opportunity to have a real chat with Skowron, one of the game’s great storytellers.

If there is any consolation, some of Skowron’s stories can be found on You Tube, and in the many books that serve as oral histories of the Yankee franchise. This was a guy who was good friends with Mantle and Berra, a guy who knew Whitey Ford, a man who played with Maris, a guy who dealt with the idiosyncrasies of Casey Stengel. Skowron was a man worth listening to, a link to an era that was long ago, but an era that we always want to re-visit.

Moose was a man that we’ll miss.

Bruce Markusen is co-author of the newly revised edition of the book, Yankee World Series memories.

(Photo Credit: Washington Post; Alex Belth.)

[Editor's Note: Bruce will be on leave for the foreseeable future while he works on a book. We'll miss his weekly posts and he will drop in occasionally with a Card Corner piece. Meanwhile, we wish him good luck with his project and thank him for being the man.]

Observations From Cooperstown: Andy Carey and the Utilityman

Andy Carey was not a star–perhaps he was no more than an average player–but he was good enough to start at third base for a pair of world championship teams during the glory years ofNew York City baseball. And if not for his presence at the hot corner, Don Larsen might not have made history in the 1956 World Series.

Carey died on December 15 at the age of 80, succumbing to a severe form of dementia, but his death was only reported publicly last week. Perhaps that’s a testament to the family’s desire for privacy. Or perhaps it’s evidence that Carey had become a forgotten figure in Yankee lore, having not played for the franchise in over 50 years. If the latter reason is the more accurate, then perhaps it’s something of a sad commentary on our society’s lack of interest in history.

Well, Carey should be remembered. First, he had a bit of quirkiness to him. For example, he was known as a voracious eater. He ate so much that he started costing the Yankees money. On road trips, the Yankees typically allowed players to sign for their meals in hotels and restaurants. Because of Carey’s insatiable appetite, the Yankees changed the policy.

On the field, Carey was the Scott Brosius of the 1950s, except for the fact that he never had the kind of breakout season that Brosius enjoyed in 1998. When Carey first came up, he was so strong defensively that the Yankees considered converting him to shortstop, with the plan to have him succeed an aging Phil Rizzuto. Ultimately, the Yankees decided that he was a better fit at third; he became the starting third sacker in 1954.

Offensively, Carey had only marginal talent. He led the league in triples one year and batted over .300 in 1954, but those achievements were the extent of his hitting highlights. Conversely, he was a solid defensive player, once turning four double plays in a single game to tie a major league record. On a team surrounded with sufficient offensive talent, like the Yankees had in the mid-1950s, you could win with a player like Carey at third base.

Larsen was certainly appreciative of Carey in Game Five of the ‘56 Series, when he took part in two remarkable plays. In the second inning, Carey knocked down a line shot off the bat of Jackie Robinson, the ball caroming to the left of the third baseman. Yankee shortstop Gil McDougald retrieved the ball and nipped Robinson at first. And then in the eighth, Carey made a diving snag of Gil Hodges’ line drive. Carey’s two-time heroics preserved both the no-hitter and the perfect game, the latter being the only one of its kind in postseason history.

Carey remained with the Yankees through the 1959 season. With the arrival of Clete Boyer via trade, the Yankees deemed Carey expendable. They traded him to theKansas CityA’s, Boyer’s former team, in exchange for power-hitting outfielder Bob Cerv.

From there, Carey bounced around with the A’s, White Sox and Dodgers before calling it quits in 1962. But it was as a Yankee that he would always be remembered. Carey became a frequent visitor toCooperstown, where he took place in baseball card shows, almost always signing with other Yankees from his era, like Larsen, McDougald, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron and Hank Bauer.

Off the field, Carey led a busy life. He was married four times, including a past marriage to Lucy Marlow, a relatively little known actress who appeared in such programs as “Gunsmoke” and “The Blue Knight,” two old shows that I actually remember. The IMDB web site describes her as a “knockout-looking minor 50s film and TV actress.”

Some might describe Andy Carey as a “minor” player of the fifties, too. And that would be unfair. When you’re good enough to start for a quartet of pennant-winning teams and a couple of world champions, you deserve more of a description than that…

***

It continues to be a quiet off-season for the Yankees, with the latest non-development being the inability to sign Japanese star Hiroyuki Nakajima by last Friday’s deadline. Nakajima wanted more than a one-year contract, which represented the Yankees’ limit, and was not thrilled with the prospect of playing a backup role inNew York.

While most observers have fluffed off the non-signing, I think there’s something deeper here. That the Yankees had such interest in Nakajima, an All-Star shortstop inJapanwhom Brian Cashman projected as a utility infielder, indicates that they are not completely satisfied with Eduardo Nunez, last year’s utility man, or totally enamored with the prospects of re-signing Eric Chavez.

The Yankees love Nunez’ raw tools–he has an appealing combination of power and speed–but they are legitimately worried about his throwing problems. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are going to need more days off in 2012, not fewer, so Nunez will have to become more accurate in making throws from the left side of the infield. Perhaps that deficiency explains why the Yankees have been willing to include Nunez’ name in trade talks with teams like the Braves and the White Sox.

With regards to Chavez, he did play well before breaking his foot, but then showed little power after his return. And then there’s the problem of his repeated trips to the disabled list, which have become an annual occurrence. If a utility infielder cannot be trusted to stay healthy and fill in when needed, he loses a lot of his value.

If the Yankees don’t re-sign Chavez, where will they turn? On the free agent market, the pickings are slim, but there are some intriguing names, including Carlos Guillen, Bill Hall, Jeff Keppinger, and Miguel Tejada. All carry asterisks, if not outright questions. Guillen was once a star, but he’s now 35 and can’t stay healthy. Hall played so poorly for a bad Astros team that he was released in mid-season, and then he flopped during a 16-game trial with the Giants. Keppinger can really play only one position, second base, and doesn’t have the ability to play shortstop for more than a game at a time. Tejada, at 37, is as cooked as the Christmas goose in Scrooge.

All in all, the choices appear so limited that the Yankees may be forgiven for having the following thought: Is Chicken Stanley still available?

[Photo Credit: Hy Peskin]

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Observations From Cooperstown: Golden Era Fab Four

On Monday, the Hall of Fame could grow by as many as four. That’s the maximum number of candidates who could be elected by the Golden Era Committee. After giving careful consideration to the ballot, I’ve decided to pass on former players Ken Boyer, Tony Oliva, ex-Yankees Allie Reynolds, Luis Tiant, and Jim Kaat (a particularly tough choice), and longtime executive Buzzie Bavasi.

That leaves exactly four men who are deserving of making the grade in Cooperstown.

Ron Santo:

Of the ten men being considered by the Golden Era committee, there is no stronger candidate for election than the late Ron Santo. Arguably one of the five greatest third basemen of all time, and conservatively one of the ten greatest to play the position, Santo has long deserved enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Let’s consider just a few of Santo’s accomplishments. A patient hitter with a keen eye at the plate throughout his career, Santo compiled a lifetime .366 on-base percentage. With 342 home runs, he managed a .464 slugging percentage, despite playing a good portion of his career during an era in which pitchers held major advantages over hitters. Santo’s defensive accomplishments were only slightly less impressive. A five-time Gold Glove winner, the defensively superior Santo led the National League in total chances nine times and led the league in assists seven times. Those numbers indicate that Santo had good range, in addition to the soft hands and ability to start double plays that characterized his long tenure with the Cubs.

With 66 WAR, Santo compares favorably to Brooks (69) and comes within striking distance of George Brett (85) and former Yankee Wade Boggs (89), two offensive-minded third basemen.

Gil Hodges:

Based solely on his accomplishments as a player, or only on his managerial tenure, Hodges likely does not have the requisite resume for the Hall of Fame. But that’s not how the Hall of Fame election process is supposed to work. According to the rules for election, voters are encouraged to consider a candidate’s entire career in assessing his worth for the Hall of Fame.

As a player, Hodges was a fine all-round performer who hit with power, drew walks, and played a Gold Glove-caliber first base, as he contributed prominently to five National League championships for Brooklyn. During his peak, he slugged .500 or better over a span of eight consecutive seasons. As a manager, Hodges oversaw one of the great franchise turnarounds in major league history. He took command of a perennially poor Mets team that had won 57 games, immediately elevated them to a 73-win level, and then engineered one of the most memorable upsets in World Series history. Hodges also maintained the Mets at a level of better than .500 in 1970 and 1971, despite the team’s glaring lack of offense at a number of positions.

In looking at Hodges properly as a combination candidate, the argument for his Hall of Fame election becomes much clearer.

Minnie Minoso:

Like Hodges, Minoso requires more than a surface look to understand his worthiness for the Hall of Fame. He did not become a fulltime major leaguer until the age of 25, through no fault of his own, but because of the Jim Crow segregation that kept black players in the Negro Leagues or the Caribbean.

Over four Negro Leagues seasons, Minoso earned two All-Star game berths and led his teams to two appearances in the Colored World Series. If the game had already been integrated, Minoso might have spent those four seasons playing in the major leagues during his age 20 to 23 seasons.

Even without major league credit for his Negro Leagues years, Minoso’s numbers are impressive. A player in the mold of Enos Slaughter and Pete Rose, Minoso compiled a lifetime on-base percentage of .389 while providing value as both a left fielder and third baseman. Minoso led the league in hits and total bases one time each, in stolen bases and triples three times apiece, and in hit-by-pitches ten times. One of the game’s premier tablesetters, Minoso scored 100-plus runs five times, while topping 90 runs on five other occasions.

Charlie Finley:

Charlie O’s bitter and tempestuous personality will keep him out of the Hall, but an objective look at his accomplishments reveals a deserving Cooperstown candidate. Under the leadership of Finley, the A’s accomplished more during the 1970s than any other major league team, winning three world championships and five division titles. As the team’s owner beginning in 1962, Charlie Finley realized that he was a relative novice at baseball. He listened intently to his scouts—people like Joe Bowman, Dan Carnevale, Tom Giordano, Clyde Kluttz, and Don Pries—who told him which amateur players to pursue as free agents and which ones to draft. As a result, the A’s developed future standouts like Sal Bando, Vida Blue, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Blue Moon Odom, and Gene Tenace.

In later years, a more confident and penurious Finley pushed out many of his veteran scouts and tended to ignore the advice of those he still employed. Yet, he still managed to exhibit a deft hand in making trades and signing bargain basement role players. In 1971, Finley made perhaps his best trade, sending an underachieving Rick Monday to the Cubs for Ken Holtzman, who would win 77 games over four seasons in Oakland. Finley also engineered the five-player deal that brought a young left-handed power hitter (Mike Epstein) and an important left-handed reliever (Darold Knowles) to the Bay Area. In 1973, the A’s might not have won the World Series without Knowles, who pitched in all seven games against the Mets.

After the 1972 season, Finley acquired a much-needed center fielder in Billy North for aging middle reliever Bob Locker. In his first four years with the A’s, North played a solid center field, stole 212 bases, and become both a capable leadoff man and No. 2 hitter. Finley also swung unheralded deals for key role players like Matty Alou, Deron Johnson, and Horacio Pina, who would fill important holes in the outfield, at designated hitter, and in middle relief, respectively, during the 1972 and ’73 seasons.

Then there is Finley’s impact as an innovator. He championed the cause for night World Series games, the use of the designated hitter, and interleague play, all before they were officially adopted. He also dressed the A’s in colorful green and gold uniforms, giving the team a unique brand and setting a trend for the game’s changing on-field appearance in the 1970s.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Color by Numbers: See You in September

For minor leaguers, September 1 is like the day after high school tryouts when you check the list on the gymnasium wall to see if you made the team. After being confined to only 25 men, the active rosters expand to 40 once the calendar turns from August, allowing for reinforcements from the minors. Dating back as far as the beginning of the last century (the concept was based upon a delicate business arrangement with what was then the independent minor leagues), this tradition of promoting serviceable journeymen and/or promising young prospects marks not only a rite of passage for the players finally getting a crack at the big leagues, but also heralds the final month of the pennant race.

This year, the Yankees announced that their lone September call-up will be Jesus Montero, a 22 year-old catcher who ranks among the best prospects in the game. Although many September promotions are regarded more as a chance to give a young player a taste of the major leagues, Montero is expected to play a significant role for the Yankees as they head down the stretch. There has even been some speculation that Montero will take over as the Yankees’ DH against left handers.

Whatever role he plays, the promotion of Montero is a bit of a departure for the Yankees, who have not had a position player make a September debut since 2008. In addition, the team has not had a raw rookie compile more than 25 plate appearances in the final month since Gerald Williams came to bat 27 times in 1992. So, if Montero does in fact see regular playing time, he will distinguish himself in that regard.

Yankees’ September Call-Ups, Since 1919

Note: Only those players making their major league debut in September are considered. Years without call-ups are omitted.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Of the 84 position players that the Yankees have promoted for the first time in September, only 17 have had more than 25 plate appearances. With a few notable exceptions like Roy White, Bobby Murcer, and Hank Bauer, not many from the list went on to make a lasting impression. In fact, only a handful made much of a first one. Included in the latter group is the aforementioned Williams, who posted an OPS of 1.000. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, is Charlie Spikes, who managed an OPS of .348 in his September call-up. However, Spikes made up for his lackluster debut during the off season when he was traded as part of package that helped the Yankees acquire Graig Nettles from the Indians.

What makes Montero’s promotion different from most in the above list is the Yankees’ place in the standings. Aside from Hank Bauer in 1948 (1.5 games behind) and Fenton Mole in 1949 (three games ahead), all of the prior September call-ups were given their shot when the team was playing out the string (i.e., seven or more games out of a playoff spot).

Yankees’ September Call-Ups with At Least 25 PAs, since 1919
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Just because the Yankees haven’t had much of a meaningful impact from their position player call-ups is no reason to despair. After all, the team has promoted several impact players who were only given a September cup of coffee. Included on that list is Yogi Berra, Don Mattingly, and Jorge Posada, so if Montero falls in line, the Yankees should be more than happy.

Notable by their exclusion from the call-up list this year are Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, the two most heralded pitching prospects in the Yankees’ farm system. Once again, that’s mostly par for the course in the Bronx as only seven Yankees’ pitchers have made their major league debut in September since 1992. However, that doesn’t mean the team hasn’t had rookies make an impact on the pennant race. Mel Stottlemyre and Joba Chamberlain are two examples to the contrary, but each was promoted before the final month. When confined to September, there haven’t been many notable additions.

Yankees’ September Call-Ups with At Least 3 GS/15 IP, since 1919

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Once again, with the exception of Walter Beall in 1924 (one game behind) and Ian Kennedy in 2007 (five games behind), if a Yankees’ pitcher was given a significant look in September, it was done at a time when the team wasn’t competing for the post season. Among those with at least three games started or 15 innings pitched in their September debut, the most notable call-ups were Vic Rashi, Al Leiter, Dave Righetti, and Kennedy. It’s also worth noting that both Righetti and Stan Bahnsen won the rookie of the year award two years after their initial September call-up.

Montero’s ascension to the major leagues has been long awaited by Yankees’ fans, so expectations are bound to exceed reason. Nonetheless, the young catcher has a chance to make a rare September contribution for a Yankees’ team in pursuit of a championship. More importantly, however, the Yankees hope their wunderkind will do much more than help out this year. After all, making it the majors is often said to be the easy part for the most talented players. Remaining there is another story. A look at the Yankees’ past September call-ups illustrates that often repeated adage. That’s why what Montero does in his first month will be nowhere near as important as the impact the Yankees hope he will have over the rest of his career.

Color By Numbers: Who Wants Pie?

Entering this week’s series against the Athletics, the Yankees had a dominating 26-5 record against Oakland since 2008. Perhaps that’s why it seemed inevitable that the Bronx Bombers would rally to win each of the first two games. At least that’s how it must have felt to the Athletics. However, in both games, the comeback fell short, which gave Oakland consecutive wins against the Yankees for the first time since July 1, 2007.

The Yankees’ lack of late game heroics against the Athletics echoes a season long trend. Despite having the American League’s second best record and compiling statistics that rank among franchise highs in several categories, one area in which the Yankees have come up short (in some cases, as on Tuesday night, literally by inches) is in games played close and late. Under those conditions, the team’s current OPS+ of 107 would rank near the bottom since 1996, and lag, in some cases significantly, every championship season during that time period.

Yankees’ OPS+ in Close & Late vs. Winning Percentage When Tied or Trailing in the 7th Inning or Later

Source: baseball-reference.com

Because of the small samples involved, it’s hard to draw a meaningful conclusion about the future from this one split. However, looking back, we can probably conclude that the Yankees failure to produce late in games has cost them a few comeback victories. In fact, the team’s current winning percentage of .204 when tied or trailing entering the seventh inning is one of the lowest since 1996. When you consider that the Yankees’ bullpen leads the league in ERA and WAR (and important factor because offense alone demonstrates only a slight correlation to winning percentage in this split), the onus seems to fall squarely on the relative lack of late-game offensive production.

Yankees’ Walk-off Victories, Since 1950

Source: baseball-reference.com

Regardless of the implications of the Yankees’ muted offensive levels in close and late situations, whether looking forward or back, the team’s inability to finish off comebacks has robbed the season of one important element: the fun and excitement of the walk-off victory. To this point, the Yankees have left the opposition on the field in only three games, which pales in comparison to the 15 walk-offs recorded just two years ago. Although dramatic victories are not a pre-requisite for winning championships, they do provide enjoyable highlights over a long 162-game schedule. After all, anything that has Yankees’ fans clamoring to see A.J. Burnett must be pretty special.

Since 1950, the Yankees have had 441 walk-off victories prompted by outcomes ranging from home runs to reaching base on an error (the following pie chart, and what better way to display walk-off data, provides a break down). Just over half have come in the bottom of the ninth, with the rest occurring in extra innings, including one walk-off as late as the 20th frame: Horace Clark’s game winning single against the Red Sox’ Jose Santiago on August 29, 1967. Speaking of the Red Sox, the Yankees have left their rival on the field 57 times, more than any other opponent.

Yankees’ Walk-offs Since 1950, by Event and Opponent (click to enlarge)

Source: baseball-reference.com

Although the terminology wasn’t around at the time, no Yankee has authored more walk-offs than Mickey Mantle, who had 16 game-ending events. Among the current crop of Bronx Bombers, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez also rank in the top-10.

Tippy Martinez remains the Yankees’ most frequent walk-off victim, having surrendered five game-ending hits to the Bronx Bombers, including, most notably, Bobby Murcer’s two run double that cinched victory in the Thurman Munson tribute game. Of particular interest to current Yankees’ fans, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon ranks among the large group of pitchers who have surrendered three Yankees’ walk-offs. Provided he remains in the American League for most of his career, Papelbon could eventually claim the victim’s mantle from Martinez.

Yankees Most Common Walk-off Heroes and Victims, Since 1950

Source: baseball-reference.com

Complaining about the lack of walk-offs from a team with a .600 winning percentage probably won’t sit too well with other teams’ fans, but those who follow the Yankees have grown accustomed to having their pie and eating it too. Besides, even though winning is fun in its own right, doing so in dramatic fashion makes it that much more memorable.

I can still vividly recall Don Mattingly’s game winning home run against Ron Davis on May 13, 1985 as if it happened yesterday. And, I am sure fans of every team can do the same. How about you?

Observations From Cooperstown: Old Timers' Day

Bar none, it’s my favorite promotion on the Yankee calendar. It is “Old-Timers’ Day” and it arrived early this year. For the 65th time in their history, the Yankees officially celebrated their past glory. It is somewhat hard to believe, but Joe Torre and Bernie Williams participated in their first Old-Timers Day, several years after completing iconic careers in the Bronx. Their presence alone made the day special, but I was just as interested in seeing old schoolers like Moose Skowron and Hector Lopez, characters like Oscar Gamble and Joe Pepitone, and even those Yankees who made only cameos in the Bronx, including Cecil Fielder, Lee Mazzilli, and Aaron Small.

More so than any other sport, baseball revels in its ability to celebrate its past. Some would call it nostalgia; I’m more tempted to call it history. No franchise has had more cause to recall its own accomplishments than the Yankees, given the team’s longstanding on-field success, which began with the arrival of Babe Ruth in 1921. So it’s no surprise that the Yankees became the first team to introduce the concept of an Old-Timers’ Day to its promotional calendar.

The Yankees initiated the promotion in the 1930s, though they didn’t actually refer to the event as Old-Timers’ Day. Rather, the tradition began more informally as solitary tributes to retired stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The salute to Gehrig became the best known of the early Old-Timers affairs. On July 4, 1939, the Yankees staged “Lou Gehrig Day” at Yankee Stadium as a way of paying homage to a legendary player whose career had been cut short by the onset of ALS.

After several former and current Yankees delivered emotional speeches lauding Gehrig as both a player and teammate, the retired first baseman stepped to the microphone. In an eloquently stirring address, Gehrig referred to himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” full knowing that he had only a short time to live because of the ravages of the disease. (Gehrig would succumb to ALS only two years later, at the age of 37.) At the conclusion of his speech, the capacity crowd responded with deafening applause, signifying its appreciation for an “old-timer” who had met with the unkindest of fates.

Seven years later, the Yankees introduced their first official Old-Timers’ Day to the franchise’s promotional slate. Rather than concentrate the honors on one retired player, the event became a celebration of teamwide accomplishments that had taken place over past years. Inviting a number of the team’s former stars to the Stadium, the Yankees introduced each one over the public address system, with each player acknowledging the applause from the 70,000-plus fans in attendance.

Ever since the 1946 event, the Yankees have held Old-Timers’ Day on an annual basis, always on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and usually sometime from mid-July to mid-August. (Other teams followed suit in the 1960s and seventies, particularly older franchises with sufficient history to draw from. Even an expansion franchise like the Mets participated in the tradition by celebrating the New York roots of the Giants and Dodgers.) In the earlier years of the event, the Old-Timers’ Game pitted former Yankees against retired stars from the rest of baseball, with the non-Yankees wearing the opposition uniforms of their most prominent teams. In more recent times, the Yankees have invited only former Yankees to the party, largely because they have so many retired stars from which to choose, some as far back as the 1940s. The retired stars now play a kind of celebrated intra-squad game, pitting the “Bombers” against the “Pinstripes.”

Other than the game itself, the format of Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium—with an on-field announcer introducing each retired player, who then jogs (or walks) from the dugout to a spot along the foul line—has remained relatively unaltered. Yet, the voices have changed. For years, famed Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen handled the emcee duties exclusively. Standing at a podium behind home plate, Allen introduced each retired player with his stately Southern drawl. Eventually felled by declining health, Allen gave way to the less acclaimed but highly professional Frank Messer, the team’s longtime play-by-play voice who was best known for his on-air partnership with Phil Rizzuto and Bill White. In recent years, radio voice John Sterling and television play-by-play man Michael Kay have shared the announcing chores—a far cry from Allen’s dignified presence at the microphone.

Over the years, Old-Timers’ Day has occasionally managed to overshadow the events of the “real” game played later in the day by the existing version of the Yankees. This has especially been the case during the franchise’s lean years. In 1973, the Yankees staged one of their most elaborate Old-Timers events as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of Yankee Stadium. The front office invited every living member from the 1923 team, the first to play at the Stadium after the relocation from the nearby Polo Grounds. With Gehrig and Ruth long since deceased, the Yankees invited their widows to participate in the ceremony from box seats located along the first base dugout. Mrs. Claire Ruth and Mrs. Eleanor Gehrig, both outfitted in oversized Easter hats, helped bid farewell to the “old” Yankee Stadium, which was slated for massive renovation after the 1973 season. The day became even memorable because of a development in the Old-Timers’ Game that followed; the fabled Mickey Mantle, retired five years earlier, blasted a home run into the left-field stands. The Mick still had some power in his game.

One of the most indelible Old-Timers’ moments occurred only five years later. After the usual introductions of retired players, the Yankees stunningly declared that Billy Martin would return as Yankee manager. Martin had been fired only five days earlier, done in by his damning declaration that “one’s a born liar, and the other’s convicted,” a reference to the duo of Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner.

In spite of the omnipresent New York media, the Yankees somehow succeeded in keeping news of Martin’s return a complete secret. There were no whispers, no rumors, no hints in the local newspapers. Having managed to keep the agreement with Martin in tow throughout the morning and early afternoon, the Yankees arranged to have all of their old timers introduced as usual by Allen, clearing out a final announcement for their deposed manager. Explaining that Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard would now deliver a special announcement, Allen turned over the microphone to his announcing counterpart. Maintaining his dignified delivery throughout, Sheppard revealed that Martin would return to the Yankee dugout two years later, in 1980, with recently hired manager Bob Lemon moving up to the front office as general manager. As a gleeful Martin trotted onto the field at a sun-splashed Yankee Stadium, a capacity crowd greeted him with a prolonged standing ovation that was motivated as much by shock as it was by joy.

In terms of dramatic theater, it was as timely and well orchestrated as any announcement I’ve seen during my lifetime as a fan. It showcased Old-Timers’ Day at its best, combining the predictable and orderly splendor of a ceremonial day with an unexpected and newsworthy development that bordered on spontaneity.

We didn’t see that kind of news making event yesterday, but that didn’t make the day any less significant. Seeing former Yankees in uniform, sometimes for the first time in years, is something that will always prompt the goose bumps. If you like and appreciate the history of this franchise, then Old-Timers’ Day remains the one day that cannot be missed.

[Photo Credit: Ron Antoneli, N.Y. Daily News]

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Profile in Courage

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt

Last week, I got a copy of Neil Lanctot’s new book, “Campy,” a biography of Roy Campanella. I was duly impressed by Lanctot’s previous effort, a meticulously researched book about the Negro Leagues and so I opened his new book book with considerable anticipation. The prologue was so striking, and so fitting for this space, that I immediately contacted Simon and Schuster for an excerpt. They generously agreed, so here is the prologue to “Campy.”

Please enjoy and then go to Amazon to buy the book. Looks like a keeper.

From “Campy,”

By Neil Lanctot

FOR SOME CITIES, a World Series game is an all too rare event to be savored and debated for years afterward. But for a New Yorker in 1958, the Fall Classic was a predictable part of the October calendar, as humdrum as a Columbus Day sale at Macy’s or candy apples at a neighborhood Halloween party.

The great catcher Roy Campanella was a veteran of the October baseball wars. Between 1949 and 1956, his Brooklyn Dodgers had taken on the New York Yankees five times, coming up empty all but once. On Saturday, October 4, Campy was returning to Yankee Stadium for yet another Series game, but everything had changed since the last time he’d set foot in the House That Ruth Built. The Dodgers no longer played in their cozy ballpark in Flatbush but in a monstrosity known as the Coliseum a continent away. And Campy no longer played baseball at all because a January automobile accident had left him a quadriplegic. For the past five months, he had doggedly worked with the staff and physicians at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation on Thirty-fourth Street in Manhattan to learn how to function in a wheelchair. He had now sufficiently progressed to leave the hospital on weekends.

His doctors had encouraged him to accept Yankee co-owner Del Webb’s invitation to attend Saturday’s game at the Stadium, although Campy was initially not so sure. He had not appeared in public since his accident, nor had he sat on anything except a wheelchair. Nevertheless, he set aside any lingering anxiety to make the early-afternoon car ride to the Bronx, where box seats behind the Yankee dugout had already been set aside for Roy, his wife, two of his children, and a male attendant.

When the family station wagon arrived at Yankee Stadium, Campy could not help but think of the times he had suited up in the locker room in the past. He had never liked hitting at the Stadium, but he had enjoyed his fair share of glory there, whacking a key single in the deciding game of the Negro National League championship game as a teenager in 1939 and a more crucial double in game seven of the World Series in 1955, the year the Dodgers finally bested the Yanks. Today, he would just be another fan.

Campy soon discovered his wheelchair was too wide for the Stadium’s narrow aisles. He had no choice but to be bodily carried by his attendant, two firemen, and a policeman. “I felt like some sad freak,” he later recalled. “It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. I felt ashamed.”

But the fans whose glances he so desperately wanted to avoid soon began to shout out encouragement. “Hi, Slugger!” one greeted him. “Attaboy, Campy!” yelled another. “Stay in there, Campy, you got it licked.” Before long, virtually every one of the 71,566 present realized that the fellow with the neck brace and “tan Bebop cap” being carried to his seat was three-time MVP Roy Campanella. “By some sort of mental telepathy thousands in the great three-tiered horse-shoe were on their feet and when the applause moved, like wind through wheat from row to row, I doubt if there were many there who didn’t know what had happened,” wrote Bill Corum of the Journal-American. “It was a sad thing. Yet it was a great thing too, in the meaning of humanity. No word was spoke that anybody will know. Yet it had the same effect as that moment when a dying Lou Gehrig stood on this same Yankee diamond and said … ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.’”

Down on the field, the top half of the second inning took a backseat to the heartfelt hoopla in the stands. With the count 1-1 on Milwaukee’s Frank Torre, Yankee pitcher Don Larsen stepped off the mound as the players in both dugouts craned their necks to see what was causing the commotion and then began to join in the ovation themselves. Upon spotting Campy only a few yards away, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra flipped his mask and waved, while home plate umpire Tom Gorman offered “a clenched fist in a ‘keep-fighting’ gesture.”

Campanella, who had vowed beforehand that he “wasn’t going to cry,” struggled to keep his emotions in check. He smiled back at Yogi (who “kept looking back and hardly could resist the temptation to run over and shake Campy’s hand,” said one reporter) and winked at the mob of photographers who gathered at his seat. For the rest of that warm October afternoon, he tried to focus on the game, even trying to eat a hot dog without success, but he could not stop thinking about the outpouring of love he had just experienced. “It’s hard to explain the feeling that came over me. I don’t believe any home run I ever hit was greeted by so much cheering,” Campanella said later.

It was the first time he had received such applause in a wheelchair, but it would not be the last. For the rest of his life, his presence, whether in a major league ballpark or in front of a Manhattan deli, would evoke similar responses. He was no longer just a ballplayer but a symbol of something much more.

© 2011 Neil Lanctot

Saturday Soul

Let the professionals take you to school, won’t you?

Beat of the Day

Shake it, folks.

Beat of the Day

Hoboken!

This is how Diane’s heart stays warm on a cold day:

Treasure!

Every once in a while something comes along that is so unbearably tremendous that I can’t help but feel rejuvenated, filled with enthusiasm and faith in the world.

Like this story…

…About the guy who found a treasure and is now sharing it with the world.

Dig this piece by Nora O’Donnell for Chicago Magazine:

On an unremarkable day in late 2007, John Maloof, a young real-estate agent, spent some time at a local auction house, RPN Sales in Portage Park, combing through assortments of stuff—some of it junk—that had been abandoned or repossessed. A third-generation reseller, Maloof hoped to find some historical photographs for a small book about Portage Park that he was cowriting on the side. He came across a box that had been repossessed from a storage locker, and a hasty search revealed a wealth of black-and-white shots of the Loop from the 1950s and ’60s. There’s got to be something pertinent in there, he thought. So he plunked down about $400 for the box and headed home. A closer examination unearthed no scenes of Portage Park, though the box turned out to contain more than 30,000 negatives. Maloof shoved it all into his closet.

Something nagged, however—perhaps a reflex picked up from working the flea market circuit as a poor kid growing up on the West Side of Chicago. Though he knew almost nothing about photography, he eventually returned to the box and started looking through the negatives, scanning some into his computer. There was a playfulness to the moments the anonymous artist had captured: a dapper preschool boy peeking from the corner of a grimy store window; an ample rump squeezing through the wooden planks of a park bench; a man in a three-piece suit napping, supine, in the front seat of his car, his right arm masking his face from the daylight. Whoa, Maloof mused. These are really cool. Who took them?

Vivian Maier, a French ex-pat, that’s who:

After a call to the Tribune left him with a faulty address and a disconnected phone number, Maloof didn’t know where to turn. In the meantime, though, he started displaying Maier’s work on a blog, vivianmaier.com. Then, in October 2009, he linked to the blog on Flickr, the photo-sharing website, and posted a question about Maier’s pictures on a discussion board devoted to street photography: “What do I do with this stuff (other than giving it to you)?”

The discussion went viral. Suggestions poured in, and websites from around the world sent traffic to his blog. (If you Google “Vivian Maier” today, you’ll get more than 18,000 results.) Maloof recognized that this was bigger than he’d thought.

He was right about that. Since his tentative online publication of a smattering of Vivian Maier’s photographs, her work has generated a fanatical following. In the past year, her photos have appeared in newspapers in Italy, Argentina, and England. There have been exhibitions in Denmark and Norway, and a showing is scheduled to open in January at the Chicago Cultural Center. Few of the pictures had ever been seen before by anyone other than Maier herself, and Maloof has only scratched the surface of what she left behind. He estimates that he’s acquired 100,000 of her negatives, and another interested collector, Jeff Goldstein, has 12,000 more (some of them displayed at vivianmaierphotography.com). Most of Maier’s photos are black and white, and many feature unposed or casual shots of people caught in action—passing moments that nonetheless possess an underlying gravity and emotion. And Maier apparently ranged far and wide with her camera—there are negatives from Los Angeles, Egypt, Bangkok, Italy, the American Southwest. The astonishing breadth and depth of Maier’s work led Maloof to pursue two questions, as alluring in their way as her captivating photographs: Who was Vivian Maier, and what explains her extraordinary vision?

Here’s David Dunlap in the New York Times:

What is known about Ms. Maier is that she was born in New York in 1926, lived in France (her mother was French) and returned to New York in 1951. Five years later, she moved to Chicago, where she worked for about 40 years as a nanny, principally for families in the North Shore suburbs. On her days off, she wandered the streets of New York and Chicago, most often with a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera. Apparently, she did not share her pictures with others. Many of them, she never saw herself. She left behind hundreds of undeveloped rolls.

Even if you don’t think Ms. Maier has the makings of a minor master from the mid-20th century whose work can now be appreciated, you’ll probably be affected by at least a few of her photos.

And if you’re nearing 60 and grew up Chicago, you’re almost bound to feel — as I do — that a precious past has been rescued that we didn’t even know existed; thousands of blinks of the civic eye, tens of thousands of beats of the public heart.

Thank you, John Maloof. You are doing a great public service.

Here’s the website:

Enjoy.

You're Outta The Sketch!

That’s what Mel Brooks yelled at a nun one day when he was walking down 57th street (get Kenneth Tynan’s book, “Show People” or “Profiles”  for his great piece on Brooks).

Here’s a 1982 Rolling Stone Interview with Brooks conducted by Michael Sragow:

How did you first react to ‘My Favorite year’ ?

Brooks: I said, “Wait a minute, you’re singing my song. What is this – the story of a little Jewish boy from Brooklyn and a guest star on Your Show of Shows? I lived this life.” I looked at Joe Bologna and I said, “That is Sid Caesar.” There’s a certain primitive energy that Joe Bologna and Sid Caesar share, a very basic animal energy . Eat. Go. Sleep. The first thing I wrote for Sid was about a jungle boy who’s been captured and taken to New York City as an experiment to see how he will survive in the big city. He’s interviewed by Carl Reiner. “What do you eat, sir?” “Pigeons. Crave pigeons, go in park, many pigeons in park. Eat pigeons.” “What do you fear?” “Buick, Big, yellow, very danferous. Wait, wait till lights, eyes go out – smash in grille, all night, with club. Kill Buick.” Joe Bologna has the same thing going int he movie.”Send the girl some steaks,” he says, “I’ll send her some steaks.” Nothing romatic, no flowers. To make up with a writer, he sends some tires’ his borther owns a tire store. But they’re very real. I love all the tlittle touches int eh movie. I love when Peter O’Toole realizes that he’s going to be working in front of a live audience. That is the essence of the movie – when he says, “I’m not an actor , I’m a movie star.” There’s a big difference.

Good Not Great Ain’t Half-Bad

It’s Wait ‘Til Next Year for the Yanks.

They were a good team in 2010, but they didn’t play well down the stretch and got hammered by the Rangers in the 2010 ALCS.

Were they too old? Did they play tight–a reflection of their manager according to Joel Sherman? Did they just not have heart or character or those championship intangibles?

Nah, they just got their asses kicked, that’s all. Happens, man, even to the best of them.

I Can See Clearly

Baseball later today. Meanwhile, the sky is clear and blue. Enjoy the day. Back later.

Meanwhile, music:

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver