"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: Deaths

Call Your Mother

Long time readers may recall my April 2005 post about when I took my then-67-year-old boss, Ray, to his first Yankee game. Ray Roberts passed away this morning after succumbing to a respiratory illness. Ray and I had done a poor job of staying in touch following his retirement. We had standing plans to get together which never panned out, and I failed to call him in hospice because I was afraid to face the reality of his illness.

So do me a favor. In memory of Ray, call your grandfather/grandmother/mother/father/sister/brother or old friend who you’ve been meaning to call. Better yet, take them to a ballgame.

The King Is Dead

The man was complicated and disturbed, but the talent was a clear and bright and breathtaking. Here are a few of the highlights via youtube:

And since those are all lip-synced, here’s a live clip of a great song. Sadly, you can see him descended into self-parody as the performance progresses.

The destruction of the vibrant performer in the first four clips was complete soon after.

The last two decades of his life are best forgotten, but the music and the moves from his first 15 years at the top of the pops remain unassailable and a fundamental part of my musical and physical vocabulary. I know there are at least two entire generations that feel the same way.

Observations From Cooperstown–Competition, Mr. Sheppard, and Herman Franks

There are those who believe that spring training performance is too misleading to be useful in determining who should win spots on an Opening Day roster. I would tend to agree with that theory, at least in the case of established veteran players, but the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons can be helpful in sorting out the best and worst among younger players.

The 2009 Yankees provide a classic case in point. Last Sunday, Joe Girardi announced that Brett Gardner had won the center field battle, with Melky Cabrera relegated to backup duties. Gardner hit a leadoff home run in the Yankees’ first Grapefruit League game—and continued to hit all spring, even showing surprising power. Cabrera, after a slow start, rebounded to lift his average near the .350 range, which is terrific, but still short of Gardner’s exhibition season level.

In my mind, Girardi has made a perfectly reasonable and rational decision in choosing Gardner. Both players have their strengths, Gardner his speed and range, and Cabrera his throwing arm, but neither has a huge edge in talent over the other. Both are younger players still trying to establish their levels of value in the major leaguers. Neither player hit well in 2008, leaving question marks about their staying power as regular center fielders. If Girardi can’t use spring training as a major factor in this decision, then what else can he rely on? A call to Joe Torre? Tarot cards?

I believe that the pressure of spring training performance can also tell us something about a player. If a player knows he has to hit well in the spring in order to win a job, and then he goes out and does exactly that, it may be an indication that he can handle the pressure that comes with the major leagues. Similarly, I believe that competition should bring out the best in good players. And based on the way that both Gardner and Cabrera have responded to this spring’s competition (and the way that Austin Jackson, slated for Triple-A, also hit in Grapefruit League play), the Yankees may find center field to be in far more capable hands than they originally planned…

No one seems to know for sure whether Bob Sheppard is fully retired, or might make a cameo appearance at the new Yankee Stadium this year, but what I do know is this: This incredible man has introduced Yankee players for nearly 60 years, dating back to the 1951 season. So we thought we’d compile an “all-Bob Sheppard team,” consisting of some of the best and most unusual Yankee names in history. (The more syllables, the better.) Some of the monikers are lyrical, others are clunky, but all have been delivered with a grace and precision unlike any other public address announcer in baseball history.

Catcher: Thurman Munson (the only big leaguer with the given name of Thurman)
First Base: Duke Carmel (true identity: Leon James Carmel)
Second Base: Robinson Cano (the only current Yankee to make the squad)
Shortstop: Paul Zuvella (Rizzuto loved this name)
Third Base: Celerino Sanchez (makes me think of celery stalks)
Outfield: Ross Moschitto (hit like a mosquito, too)
Outfield: Roger Repoz (if only he had played so lyrically)
Outfield: Claudell Washington (the first and only Claudell, and a personal favorite)
Pinch-Hitter: Oscar Azocar (not much of a hitter, but what a name!)
SP: Ed Figueroa (Mr. Sheppard would never call him “Figgy”)
SP: John Montefusco (did Bob ever call him “The Count?”)
SP: Eli Grba (still not sure what happened to all of the vowels)
SP: Hideki Irabu (never referred to as “The Toad”)
RP: Hipolito Pena (an obscure left-hander, but a memorable moniker)
RP: Cecilio Guante (translates to “Cecilio Glove”)
RP: Ron Klimkowski (went from pitching to selling Cadillacs)
RP: Dooley Womack (one of the stars of Ball Four)
Opponent: Jose Valdivielso (Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins)…

One of the most underrated managers in the history of the expansion era died this week. Herman Franks, the major leagues’ oldest living ex-manager, passed away on Monday at the age of 95. At first glance, Franks’ managerial record with the Giants and the Cubs might look pedestrian. In seven seasons, he failed to take any of his teams to the postseason. Without a measure of postseason glory, his record pales in comparison with that of contemporaries like Walter Alston, Dick Williams, Gil Hodges, and even Ralph Houk. That’s the cursory look, and as usual, it tells us little about the man’s true accomplishments. So let’s look deeper. In those seven seasons, Franks’ teams never finished worse than four games below .500. And his teams always contended, never concluding a season worse than five games behind the division or league leader.

In the late 1960s, Franks guided the Giants to three second-place finishes. Unfortunately, the National League was stacked at the time, with powerhouse clubs in place in Los Angeles and St. Louis, and the Pirates posing a threat as intermittent contenders. If only the league had been split into two divisions prior to 1969, Franks likely would have pushed one or more of his Giants teams into postseason play.

Franks, however, did his most impressive work a decade later with the Cubs, where he lacked the talent of the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants. In 1977, Franks led Chicago to a record of 81-81, remarkable for a club that featured four of five starting pitchers with ERAs of over 4.00. The Cubs’ lineup also had its share of holes, with Jose Cardenal missing a ton of games in the outfield, and mediocrities like George Mitterwald and the “original” Steve Ontiveros claiming regular playing time at catcher and third base, respectively. Two years later, Franks did similar wonders with a band of misfits, coaxing a career year out of Dave Kingman and using an innovative approach with fireman Bruce Sutter. Realizing that the Hall of Famer’s right arm had come up lame the previous two summers, Franks began to use Sutter almost exclusively in games in which the Cubs held the lead. It’s a practice that has become the norm in today’s game (to the point of being overdone), but Franks was the first to realize the benefit of reserving his relief ace for late-game leads.

For his troubles, the Cubs unfairly fired Franks with seven games remaining in the season. The following season, the Cubs finished 64-98, nearly 30 games out of first place. They should have kept Franks.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.

Observations From Cooperstown: Boone, Cabrera, and Blanchard

I don’t recall Aaron Boone’s Yankee days as warmly as I should. Perhaps it’s because Boone’s home run in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, as exhilarating a moment as any this decade, did not ultimately lead to a world championship. Or maybe it’s because Boone’s Yankee career ended so quickly, undone by a pickup basketball game and a wrecked knee that eventually led to the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez.

Six years after Boone’s brief pinstriped tenure, I find myself thinking of him more fondly. Shortly after hearing that Boone would need open heart surgery to repair an aortic valve—a procedure that took place earlier this week—I also began to think about a pretty good pitcher named John Hiller.

The Tigers’ relief ace for much of the 1970s, Hiller is the only other major leaguer that I can recall who endured severe heart problems during his playing days. In January of 1971, the 27-year-old Hiller suffered a major heart attack at his off-season home. The effects of the attack sidelined him for all of the 1971 season and most of 1972. His career given up as a lost cause by most casual observers, Hiller proceeded to stage one of the most remarkable comebacks in baseball history. In 1973, the talented and determined left-hander set a then-major league record with 38 saves and finished fourth in the American League’s MVP balloting. Hiller never quite reached such a dominant level again, but remained an effective closer for most of the decade. He did not retire until 1980, some nine years after he was struck by the heart attack that had seemingly ended his career on the spot.

Unlike Hiller, Boone’s aortic problem did not fit the description of an “emergency” condition, but it did have to be treated through an open-heart procedure, which always carries serious concerns. Because of that, Boone’s 2009 season is over before it begins. Doctors believe that he can eventually return to the playing field, but Boone does not have the benefit of age on his side, as Hiller did. Hiller was in his late twenties when struck by the heart attack; Boone just turned 36, and has already become a journeyman who has to grapple for his job on a year-to-year basis. According to the earliest timetable, Boone would be able to resume playing in 2010, by which time he will be 37 and hoping that a one-year layoff hasn’t completely eroded his skills.

Does that mean Boone’s career is over? Well, I wouldn’t give up on him just yet, considering that he has always kept himself in good shape and has a reputation as a rock-solid worker. And if he can find some inspiration from John Hiller—who has already done what many thought was impossible—perhaps his chances of a comeback will get that much better . . .

***

I’m not holding my breath for the Yankees to make any trades before Opening Day—spring training deals have become a lost art—but at least one player’s name has been swirling through the trade winds. Melky Cabrera has drawn interest from the White Sox, a scenario that speaks volumes about Chicago’s center field quagmire. Brian Anderson, Jerry Owens, and Dewayne Wise all have questionable resumes and have failed to advance their causes through slapdash spring performances. The White Sox like Cabrera’s defense and throwing skills, but I have to wonder how much they would offer for a player who was an offensive nonentity for most of 2008. If the ChiSox were willing to fork over a young catcher or a third baseman—anything but another pitching prospect!—the Yankees might have to take the bait. The power and bat speed displayed by Austin Jackson this spring, along with Brett Gardner’s rejuvenated swing, have the Yankees thinking better about their center field depth, thereby making Cabrera more expendable. By trading Cabrera, who is out of options, the Yankees could also open up a roster spot for another infielder or a third catcher . . .

***

The passing of former Yankee Johnny Blanchard brings to mind some personal memories from the early 1980s. As the Yankees struggled to find a permanent catching solution after Thurman Munson’s death, I once thought to myself: Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like Johnny Blanchard right about now? Though often a third-string catcher on those multi-layered Yankee teams that featured Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, Blanchard would have been a perfect fit as Rick Cerone’s platoon mate in the early eighties. The Yankees eventually found a Blanchard-type player in Ron Hassey, but “Babe” had his limitations with the glove and enjoyed an even shorter peak to his career than Blanchard.

As Cliff Corcoran pointed earlier this week, the Yankees could sure use someone like Blanchard today as a hedge against Jorge Posada’s shoulder and Jose Molina’s bat. Unfortunately, catching depth throughout the game is about as weak as I’ve ever seen it. It’s not just the Yankees who struggle to find backups; the problem persists throughout both leagues. A Johnny Blanchard in today’s game (at least based on his three-year peak from 1961 to 1963) would carry a lavish value—and would probably start for a number of teams, including those in Anaheim, Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland, Seattle, Toronto, Florida, Milwaukee, San Diego, and Washington.


Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.

Mr. Baseball

Arthur Richman, who died in his sleep this morning at the age of 83, was the sort of off-field utility man we don’t see very much of any more. In his long career, he was a copy boy, a columnist, a publicist, a traveling secretary, the Yankees’ Senior Vice President and Senior Advisor for media relations, and a general baseball scenester who had George Steinbrenner’s ear and whose lasting influence on Yankee history was his role in making Joe Torre the Yankee manager prior to the 1996 season.

Perry Barber wrote about Richman for Bronx Banter in her contribution to our Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory series:

Until he suffered a debilitating heart attack two years ago at age eighty, Arthur Richman was probably the oldest active man in baseball. He spent more than sixty years total as an award-winning sportswriter and columnist for the Daily Mirror and other New York newspapers, traveling secretary for the Mets, then senior advisor and vice-president of media relations for the Yankees, starting in 1990. I was introduced to him in 1983 by Dennis D’Agostino, the Mets’ assistant P.R. director at the time, now a respected author and sports statistician.

Arthur’s sixteen-year tenure with the Yankees was marked by both elation and turmoil. His showdowns with Steinbrenner were legendary, and he used to regale me with tales of how they would yell and scream at each other over some mishegos, then George would “fire” him and Arthur would just show up at work the next day, both of them acting as if nothing had happened, best friends forever.

John Blanchard, 1962 ToppsEx-Yankee Johnny Blanchard also passed away today, of a heart attack at age 76. The Minnesota native had the bad timing of joining the Yankees as a catcher in the late 1950s, when the Bombers already had Yogi Berra and Elston Howard on the roster. Still, after a one-game cup of coffee in 1955, he forced his way onto the roster in 1959 and in 1961 the Yankees moved Berra to left field. Blanchard had a tremendous season as Howard’s backup in ’61, bating .305/.382/.613 (168 OPS+) with 21 homers in a mere 243 at-bats as the Yankees set a record with six hitters surpassing 20 home runs (with Blanchard being the tough part of the trivia answer that also includes Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Berra, Howard, and Moose Skowron).

Blanchard never came close to repeating that performance, but he remained a key part of the Yankees’ pennant-winning teams of 1962-1964 and hit .345/.387/.690 in 29 at-bats across five World Series before being flipped in April 1965 at age 32 to the Kansas City A’s (for punchless backup catcher Doc Edwards) and subsequently sold to the Milwaukee Braves that September. Blanchard never returned to the majors after 1965, but he was a constant presence at Old Timers’ Day, and exactly the kind of backup catcher the Yankees could use right about now.

A Death In The Family

I can’t say I knew John Brattain, or that I’d ever read his stuff, but I join The Hardball Times in mourning his death. He was part of the fraternity of baseball writers, but far more importantly, he was a husband and a father. Brattain died from complications following surgery at the age of 43.

You can find Brattain’s writing via his page at The Hardball Times and reminisce about the man and his work over at Baseball Think Factory, where he was a frequent participant.

Observations From Cooperstown–George King, Free Agents, and Ted Uhlaender

I love the New York Post’s sports section (if not the cartoons), but George King sometimes makes strange observations in his role as a beat writer for the Yankees. In last Sunday’s Post, King warned the Yankees not to commit Joba Chamberlain to the rotation because of the age of closer Mariano Rivera. “The Yankees… pray the end isn’t here [for Rivera],” King wrote on Sunday. “Because if they use Joba Chamberlain as a starter, there isn’t a closer candidate in the organization.” Well, I’m not so sure of that. Right off the top, I can think of three. Hard-throwing right-hander Mark Melancon (who reaches 97 miles per hour with his fastball) is generally ranked among the top ten prospects in the Yankee system and is scheduled to begin the season as closer at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, assuming he doesn’t claim one of the last spots in Joe Girardi’s bullpen. Then there’s the talented Humberto Sanchez, finally recovered from Tommy John surgery two years ago and likely to begin the season a step away at Triple-A. The Yankees also have right-hander Anthony Claggett, who dominated hitters at Double-A Trenton and might start the season in Scranton, too.

Without much doubt, closers are easier to find than quality starters, especially in the current Yankee farm system, where relievers are growing like the vines at Wrigley Field. That’s not to say that the Yankees will find anyone the equal of Rivera, who might just be the best reliever in major league history. Heck, unless the Yankees can find the next Dennis Eckersley, chances are that ANYBODY they choose will fall short of the great Rivera. But the Yankees clearly have promising options outside of Chamberlain—options that aren’t light years away. And they also have several short-term possibilities at the major league level, including Jose Veras, Brian Bruney, and Jonathan “Kerfeld” Albaladejo, the latter coming off a wondrous Winter League performance. So let’s not start this Joba-must-be-in-the-bullpen chorus just yet…

***

This has been a lousy free agent market for most players, but it may provide some unexpected benefits for the Yankees later this spring. A number of serviceable players remain unsigned—the master list includes Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera, Garret Anderson, Ben Sheets, and Joe Beimel—some of whom could fill potential holes should the Yankees spring a few leaks in Tampa. For example, let’s say that something happens to Jorge Posada, that something being that his shoulder won’t allow him to catch. Brian Cashman has already missed opportunities on Henry Blanco and Gregg Zaun, but there could be an option in Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, who remains unsigned. I-Rod has a standing offer from the awful Astros, but reportedly is holding out hope that the Mets will show interest. Therein lies the problem; the Mets already have two healthy catchers in Brian Schneider and Ramon Castro. So if Rodriguez remains stubborn, he might still be available.

Then there’s the center field situation. If both Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner flop in the Grapefruit League, the Yankees could consider Jim Edmonds as a cheap alternative. Edmonds is a fragment of his former self and hits lefties about as well as Jim Spencer once did, but still plays an above-average center field. He hit well for the Cubs during the second half of 2008; the Yankees would do cartwheels over a repeat of that performance.

Finally, the Yankees could take a run at Juan Cruz if they decide their bullpen needs another veteran. A beefier version of Domingo Jean (remember him?), the razor-thin Cruz excels in the seventh and eighth inning but has a history of blowing up in save situations. As long as Rivera remains capable, Cruz wouldn’t have to worry about pitching in many of those situations in pinstripes.

***

Former major league outfielder and onetime Yankee scout Ted Uhlaender died earlier this month at the age of 68, the victim of a heart attack. Cruelly, his passing came only one day after he’d received some encouraging news in his ongoing battle against multiple myeloma. A fleet-footed outfielder who played a nifty center field in the late 1960s, Uhlaender started his career with the Twins before being included in the deal that sent future Yankee Graig Nettles to the Indians. He saw his career fall off abruptly by 1972, but not before he made a cameo appearance in the World Series for Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”

After a brief stint as a minor league manager, Uhlaender opted to go into private business. He returned to the game in 1989, joining the Yankees as a minor league coach before becoming the team’s advance scout in 1994 and ’95. He prepared in-depth reports on upcoming opponents for Buck Showalter and his staff. Those reports paid some dividends in ’95, as the Yankees claimed their first playoff berth in 14 years.

A few years ago, I met Uhlaender in spring training, where he was working as a coach with the Indians. As I asked him if he would be willing to answer some questions about the ’72 World Series, I noticed his face; he had that stern, sandpaper look of a hardened baseball veteran. Though I was intimidated at first, Uhlaender answered all of my questions, calmly and without fanfare. He was a pro, a characterization that was confirmed for me when I read Tracy Ringolsby’s touching tribute to him last week. Like the late John Vukovich and Pat Dobson, Uhlaender was a hard-working baseball lifer whose hard-edged appearance only masked a deep love of the game. As with Vuk and Dobber, we’ll miss a solid guy like Uhlaender.

Observations From Cooperstown–A Tribute to Bob Fowler

For much of the 1980s and nineties, I had the pleasure of learning baseball from Bob Fowler. Formerly a beat writer for the Twins, Fowler had become the owner of the Utica Blue Sox, a minor league team that I covered as part of my duties at WIBX Radio. Bob knew the game thoroughly—from the 1960s to the current day. Whenever I interviewed him, or just talked to him off the cuff, my knowledge of the game grew considerably.

I found it fascinating that Bob, a former sportswriter, had “graduated” to become an owner. Unlike many minor league operators, he knew the game from two vastly different perspectives. As a beat writer, he once listened to Rod Carew threaten him with a baseball bat. As a team owner in the New York-Penn League, he worked for many years out of a trailer, cramped and muggy. With those kinds of experiences, Bob Fowler became an interesting guy to know.

As a fan of baseball, I already knew the names of many players I had grown up with in the sixties and seventies. Bob helped flesh out those names for me, attaching personalities to the baseball cards. One of those characters was former Twins right-hander Jim “Mudcat” Grant. “He was really the catalyst of that [Minnesota] team,” Fowler told me years ago. “First of all, he was black. I think that was very significant to the Minnesota franchise. He wasn’t Cuban. He was [an American] black… Mudcat came in and he was a loosy-goosy guy. But the Minnesota team basically was a white team, outside of the Latins we had. It was basically a white team. And he came into that clubhouse, and he was the synergy of that ballclub. Harmon [Killebrew] was a quiet guy. Bob Allison was a quiet guy. We had a clubhouse of quiet guys. And Mudcat was sort of the spark, really.”

Bob also gave me great insights into the versatile Cesar Tovar, briefly a Yankee and one of the game’s eccentric but loveable characters. Bob told me how Tovar was a packrat. At the end of each season, he would collect as much baseball gear as he could find, from gloves to bats to catcher’s chest protectors. As Bob pointed out to me, Tovar didn’t gather the gear for himself; he collected those bats and balls and gloves for underprivileged kids in his native Venezuela.

A little over a decade ago, I set out a course of action to write my first book, a large volume on the Oakland A’s dynasty of the early seventies, I realized that Bob would provide a terrific source of information. He was more than happy to help—and provide me with a few surprising revelations. “Well, the best guy, the best guy on the A’s, the guy I really enjoyed the most—and I don’t mean that we became buddy-buddy—I liked Reggie Jackson,” Bob said. “I mean, Reggie Jackson was a real businessman. Reggie Jackson knew what you wanted. I don’t know that he had ever been schooled at Arizona State in media relations, but he could sense what was a good story, what was a good quote. And he was willing to give it. Other writers said, ‘Oh, he’s an egotist.’ I don’t feel that way at all. He knew his role; he knew your role. He was happy to give you his part of the mutual relationship, the working agreement that you had. And then that was it. He would go his way and you’d go your way.”

Any discussion of the A’s invariably included a debate about the merits and pitfalls of Charlie Finley. Much to my surprise, Bob appreciated Finley more than most sportswriters. “Oh yeah, great guy,” Bob informed me during a memorable interview. “Great, great, great guy. Charles Finley was… he was a character, obviously. I have to personally qualify this. I like different type of people. People that are of the same ilk from a media point of view weren’t interesting to me. I liked the different kind of guys. Certainly Charlie was that way. But the thing I like about Charlie—he was articulate. He was always willing to give you a quote. Now, all the people said, ‘Well, he’s an egotistical whatever.’ I always felt he was cooperative with me. He would answer your questions. He wouldn’t duck them.”

Bob didn’t duck questions either. I asked him questions on a variety of topics, whether it was running a minor league team or ripping a major leaguer in print. (Bob, by his own admission, could be very tough on Twins players.) He always gave me his opinion, whether I agreed with it or not. At times, he could be gruff, sometimes downright intimidating. On one occasion, Bob disagreed with me vehemently when I chastised local Utica fans for not coming out to watch the Blue Sox on opening night. I could tell that he was very upset with me—heck, the listeners could have told you that—but he carried on with the rest of the interview as if nothing had happened. There was no grudge. He just disagreed with me, that’s all, and was more than willing to move on to the next day.

Earlier this week, I came across an obituary on the Internet. I discovered that Bob Fowler, former sportswriter and former minor league owner, died earlier this month from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had struggled with ALS for two and a half years before finally losing the battle at the age of 69. I felt bad that I had lost touch with Bob, felt bad that I didn’t even know about the diagnosis.

But I’m awfully glad that, for nearly the last twenty years, I had the good chance to know him. Thanks, Bob.

Bruce Markusen worked for WIBX Radio in Utica from 1987 to 1995.

Card Corner–The Sad Story of Leon Wagner

wagner

This has been a miserable week for baseball. Here at Bronx Banter we lost a talented young wordsmith in Todd Drew, who passed away after a short but intense battle with cancer at the age of 42. From the ranks of major league baseball, former manager Preston Gomez never recovered from injuries suffered in a terrible car accident last spring and died at age 85. And former big league reliever Frank Williams, who had fallen into an existence as a homeless alcoholic, died from a heart attack at the age of 50.

For three years in the late 1980s, Williams was virtually unhittable as a side-arming reliever with the Giants and Reds. But then came arm problems, along with a host of personal problems after his playing career ended. Williams’ death reminds me too much of the story of another former major leaguer who had lapsed into a life of homelessness. Five years ago, this noted ex-outfielder spent his final days in the streets of Los Angeles. As with Frank Williams, few in the mainstream media seemed to take notice.

Ever colorful, Leon Wagner (seen here in his final Topps card from 1969) was an enormously popular player with both the Los Angeles Angels and the Cleveland Indians. Nicknamed “Daddy Wags,” a self-imposed nickname that tied into the clothing store he owned, he began his big league career with the Giants and Cardinals before finding a niche in Southern California. In 1962, Wagner hit 37 home runs with 107 RBIs for the Angels, earning him a fourth-place finish in the American League MVP sweepstakes. After hitting 26 home runs in 1963, the Angels traded him to the Indians for slugging first baseman Joe Adcock and pitcher Barry Latman. Wagner played four seasons for the Tribe before wrapping up his career with the Giants and White Sox in 1968. In 12 major league seasons, Wagner hit 211 home runs, batted .272, and compiled 669 RBIs. Off the field, the well-dressed Wagner concentrated his efforts on operating a clothing store that bore the colorful slogan, “Get Your Rags at Daddy Wags.”

After his playing days, Wagner found day-to-day life to be a struggle, partly because he had made little money in baseball’s pre-free agent era and partly because he lacked a college degree. With movie producers intrigued by his high cheekbones and general good looks, Wagner dabbled in acting, appearing in an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and in two feature films, including the controversial Negro Leagues picture, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Yet, he did not enjoy long-term success in Hollywood. Wagner later became severely addicted to drugs, which cost him most of his money and left him in debt to others. Stricken with poverty and left without a home, Wagner ended up living in an old car and then a small electrical shed—located next to a dumpster—where his lifeless body was found in January of 2004. Alone at the end, he was 69 years old.

I didn’t realize how good a player Wagner was until I looked at his career statistics in the days after his death. Having always heard stories about Wagner’s fielding faux pas in the outfield and his flaky personality, I had regarded him as sort of a clownish journeyman—and nothing more. Boy, was I wrong. In 1961 and ’62, he slugged .500 or better, making him one of the few bright spots on the expansion Angels. From 1961 to 1963, Wagner averaged 31 home runs and 99 RBIs, at a time when those figures still meant something. Four times in his career, he received votes for the MVP Award. Simply put, he was one of the American League’s best left-handed power hitters during the early sixties, strong enough to hit home runs in any of the league’s spacious ballparks. If only he had received a chance to play regularly before his 26th birthday, Wagner might have put up some numbers that would have made him a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame.

Off the field, Daddy Wags was much more than a clown; loved by teammates and fans alike, he sincerely enjoyed talking to people, even if he did brag a little bit too often about his batting prowess. He loved to hit, he found joy in playing the game, and he always seemed willing to give something back to his fans. It was no wonder that he was given the nickname, “The Good Humor Man,” during his tenure with the Angels.

As with Frank Williams, I only wish that good fortune had accompanied “Daddy Wags” more often during his days after baseball.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com.

Observations From Cooperstown–Pastime Passings in 2008

The New Year is a time to initiate a fresh start, to make plans to change our bad habits and develop better ones. Yet, I also find myself thinking about the past, specifically about those who left us over the recently concluded year. Baseball lost a number of important personalities and contributors, and while the game remains great, their departures leave us a little bit emptier. In tribute to them, here’s a glance at just a few of those good souls we lost during the past year:

Dock Ellis… An underrated pitcher and two-time World Champion, he gave the game many breaths of color and life before dedicating his efforts to fighting drug abuse. On a list of the game’s most unusual characters, Ellis ranks among the top ten all-time…

Dave Smith… Though forgotten in retirement, he was one of the game’s most consistent closers of the 1980s. With a killer change-up and the Astrodome at his disposal, Smith could be quietly unhittable at his best…

Sal Yvars… Though mostly a backup catcher, he played a major role in the New York Giants’ intricate sign-stealing system of 1941. He became a star of Josh Prager’s The Echoing Green, which revealed the details of the Giants’ “thievery.”…

Red Murff… He was the scout that discovered Nolan Ryan for the Mets, who benefited briefly from Murff’s wisdom before giving “The Express” away to the Angels…

Herb Score… With two All-Star Game appearances and a 20-win season early in his career, Score appeared destined for Hall of Fame glory.  Then came an errant line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald in 1957, which effectively ended Score’s career as a dominant left-hander. If not for the injury, he might have gained as much notoriety for his pitching as he eventually did as a popular Indians broadcaster…

Preacher Roe… He didn’t overpower hitters with strikeouts or fastballs, but instead used trickery (including the spitball) to earn five All-Star Game berths. He did his best work for the old Brooklyn Dodgers, doing so with equal effectiveness as a starter and reliever…

Tom Tresh… For one year, he was the 1960s equivalent of Derek Jeter, but found most of his playing time in a Yankee outfield that was searching for successors to a departed Maris and a fading Mantle…

Bruce Dal Canton… He was the “other” knuckleballer on those Braves staffs of the mid-1970s, before forging a legacy as one of the game’s great minor league instructors. It’s no wonder that he was called “The Professor.”…

George Kissell… He worked for the Cardinals’ organization for an amazing 68 years, doing everything from minor league instruction to scouting to coaching on the big league staff. He was the epitome of a baseball lifer, and forever loyal to the Cardinals…

Eddie Brinkman… With his giraffe-like neck and lanky build, he set a distinctive pose as one of the slickest shortstops of his era. Along with Tiger teammates Norm Cash, Dick McAuliffe, and Aurelio Rodriguez, he helped form one of the best defensive infields of the early 1970s…

Mickey Vernon… The consummate gentleman, he proved that nice guys could also succeed as great players. He was the Keith Hernandez of his day, a master batsman and a skilled defender whose numbers were damaged by a bad ballpark in Washington and military service in World War II…

Don Gutteridge… The oldest living former manager at the time of his death, he had the misfortune of managing the White Sox in 1969 and ‘70, one of the low points in franchise history…

Skip Caray… He brought humor and sarcasm to the broadcast booth, making the Braves bearable (and even entertaining) during the Biff Pocoroba years and later during the Rafael Ramirez era…

Jerome Holtzman… “The Dean” did much more than invent the save rule, bringing a sense of history and style to baseball writing in the Windy City. He also served the game as one of the leading historians on the scandal of the Black Sox and one of the most outspoken members of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee…

Red Foley… Simply put, this New York sportswriter set the standard by which all official scorers should be measured. For years, his “Ask Red” column because a must-read for fans who wanted to learn more about the rules of the game…

Bobby Murcer… A personal favorite, he brought joy to two different generations of Yankee fans, first as an All-Star player, second as an affable broadcaster, and always as a gentleman. Along with the passing of Dock Ellis and John Marzano, Murcer’s death hit this writer the hardest in 2008…

Steve Mingori… The owner of the one of the funkiest sidearm deliveries in existence, he was so brilliant at playing the role of lefty bullpen specialist that one wonders how he might have fared if given the closer’s role in Kansas City…

Jules Tygiel… He proved that academics could also be great baseball writers, all the while educating thousands about the historic roles of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey…

Buzzie Bavasi… The architect of eight pennant winners and four World Champions, Bavasi oversaw the development of a flurry of young Dodgers during the fifties and sixties. Along with fellow Dodger patriarchs Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley, Bavasi belongs in the Hall of Fame…

John Marzano…A former backup catcher who once famously sparred with Paul O’Neill, he became an energetic talks show host and beloved member of the MLB.com staff. …

Tommy Holmes… In 1945, he hit 28 home runs while striking out nine times, one of the most singularly phenomenal accomplishment in the game’s history…

Walt Masterson… A close friend of Ted Williams, he made two All-Star teams and scores of friends during a long life in baseball. The consummate gentleman, he also played a vital role in establishing the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association…

Bob Howsam… Like Bavasi, he belongs in Cooperstown, which would be a fitting tribute to his legacy as the underrated architect of the “Big Red Machine.” He pulled off one of the great heists in major league history when he secured Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, and Denis Menke from the Astros for Lee May, Tommy Helms, and the other Jimmy Stewart…

Johnny Podres… Brooklyn Dodgers fans will always revere him for his two-hit shutout in Game Seven of the 1955 World Series, an achievement that cemented his reputation as a big game pitcher. Pitchers of recent generations will thank him for his wisdom as a pitching coach, specifically his ability to teach the change-up.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com and welcomes e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

Observations From Cooperstown–Lineups, Ellis, and Dave Smith

We now know that Mark Teixeira will play first base and bat third (or possibly fourth) in the Yankees’ revamped lineup, but what effect will his addition have on the rest of the lineup’s configuration? The Yankees need to find a new role for Nick “Son of Steve” Swisher, who was originally targeted to play first after being acquired for Wilson Betemit. They also need to figure out roles for Xavier Nady and Hideki Matsui, while deciding who will play center field on a regular basis.

In the aftermath of the Teixeira signing, I’ve heard a number of observers suggest that the Yankees will put Swisher in center field, sandwiched between Johnny Damon in left and Nady in right. That alignment would maximize the Yankees’ offensive potential, but would also leave them with a below-average defensive center fielder, continuing an unsavory tradition that first began with Bernie Williams’ declining years.

Another potential solution would be to trade one of the following: Swisher, Nady, or Matsui, thereby alleviating the logjam in right field and DH. I’m not necessarily against that possibility, but only if the Yankees can acquire something of value for one of those players, specifically a center fielder or a backup catcher, or a useful pitcher. There should be no giveaways here; if the offers for Nady, Swisher, and Godzilla are subpar, keep them all. There’s nothing wrong with having one of these veterans on the bench each day. The Yankees have operated without a competent bench for far too long.

Here’s the alignment I’d prefer, one that would make defense and flexibility higher priorities. I’d put Swisher in right field, where he would platoon with Nady. I’d tell Nady to bring his infielder’s glove to spring training and be ready to put in work as a backup at both the hot corner and first base. Matsui would remain in the DH role, where he would give way to Jorge Posada on days in which the Yankees faced left-handers. And then I’d hand the center field reins over to Brett Gardner, who gives the Yankees the most range and speed of any of their outfielders. If Gardner, batting ninth, ends up a failure against major league pitching, then the Yankees can always try Melky Cabrera or Swisher later in the season.

Defense, flexibility, and the bench. Those should be the Yankees’ points of emphasis. Either directly or indirectly, Teixeira will help all three areas…

(more…)

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