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Tag: History and Tributes
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Card Corner: Horace Clarke

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For too long now, we in the media have referred to the Yankees of 1965 to 1974 as representatives of the “Horace Clarke Era.” The team’s starting second baseman for much of that period, Clarke has come to symbolize the mediocrity of those Yankee clubs. Seen here in his final Topps card (vintage 1974), Clarke was viewed as an inadequate player, symptomatic of a team that was inadequately built to win any pennants or division titles during that ten-year span.

The criticism of Clarke has run on several different levels. Too much of a free swinger, he didn’t draw enough walks. He didn’t have great range at second base, especially toward his backhand side. He also didn’t turn the double play well.

To some extent, the criticisms are all true. He never coaxed more than 64 walks in a season and usually finished below the 50-mark. Defensively, he paled in comparison to two other Yankees, predecessor Bobby Richardson and successor Willie Randolph. On double plays, Clarke bailed out early and often. Instead of pivoting at the bag, he sometimes jumped out of the way of runners while holding onto the baseball.

Those critiques provide only a partial view. The switch-hitting Clarke stole bases, bunted adeptly, and usually hit for a respectable average (at least for that era), which would have played acceptably as the eight-hole or ninth-place hitter. The Yankees made the mistake of using Clarke as a leadoff man because he looked and ran like a tablesetter. That was their mistake, not his. In the field, Clarke had his shortcomings, but for a guy who supposedly lacked range, he did lead the American League in assists six times. Part of that might have been attributable to having a sinkerballer like Mel Stottlemyre on the staff, but it’s also an indication that Clarke had pretty good range to his left.

Was Clarke a top-notch player? Of course not. But I would say that he was better than mediocre. (The Yankees of that era, like Clarke, were also better than advertised. Just look at the records of the 1970 and 1974 teams.) I think the Yankees could have won a division with a second baseman like Clarke, if only they had been better at other positions, like third base (prior to Graig Nettles’ arrival) or right field. If you want to find the real reasons why the Yankees so often struggled during those years, you need to look no further than the revolving doors at those slots. The Yankees had substantially weaker players at third base (Cox, Kenney, Sanchez) and right field (Kosco, Swoboda, Callison). It’s just that none of the third basemen or right fielders lasted long enough to become targets of the critics.

Putting aside the issue of talent evaluation for a moment, Clarke was an intriguing player to follow, especially for a young fan like me. Clarke came attached with a cool nickname. He was called “Hoss,” raising memories of Dan Blocker’s iconic character from Bonanza. (Bill White, in particular, loved that nickname. “Hosssss Clarke,” he liked to say with flourish.) Clarke also had an intriguing background. He was one of the few players I can remember who hailed from the Virgin Islands. So that made him a little bit different from your run-of-the-mill player. Then there was Clarke’s appearance. He wore very large glasses, the kind that became so horribly fashionable in the early 1970s, really round and overly noticeable. On the field, Clarke not only wore a helmet at the plate; he sported one while patrolling second base. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why he did that. It may have had something to do with his fear of being upended on double-play takeout slides. Several years ago, Darren “Repoz” Viola of Baseball Think Factory asked former Yankee broadcaster Bob Gamere why Clarke wore the helmet at second base; Gamere explained that it may have stemmed from a 1969 incident in which Clarke was hit in the head with a ball, but he wasn’t completely certain. Whatever the reason, the helmet made Clarke a distinctive landmark on the middle infield.

For all of those reasons, and for being a quiet guy who rarely complained, Hoss Clarke was a likeable guy. He was also a decent ballplayer. So let’s stop vilifying the man who was once booed during pre-game introductions on Opening Day at the old Yankee Stadium. Let’s stop raking the man that one New York writer repeatedly referred to as “Horrible Horace.” I’d prefer to call him “Helpful Horace.” Let’s go with that instead.

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

Card Corner: Bevacqua and The Bubble Gum

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We need something to laugh about, something that can deliver some amusement. The first nine days of the new season have brought us too much tragedy, beginning with the senseless death of the Angels’ Nick Adenhart and continuing with Monday’s dual losses of Harry Kalas and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. So this week’s “Card Corner” is just for fun, as we spin the time machine back to 1976, the year The Bird made baseball childlike and naïve.

A few years ago, Sports Collectors Digest held a contest to determine the funniest sports trading card of all-time. This 1976 Topps card, featuring Kurt Bevacqua, some scary-looking calipers, and one enormous piece of bubble gum, finished second in the periodical’s sweepstakes. (The first-place finisher borders on the X-rated, so I opted not to include that in this article; we need to keep it clean at The Banter.)

In baseball’s more innocent time, players took time to participate in the official Bubble Gum Blowing Championships of 1975. The championships were sponsored by the Bazooka Gum Company and overseen by “gum commissioner” Joe Garagiola, who was NBC’s lead play-by-play broadcaster at the time. Each major league team held an individual contest, with winners advancing to the championships. In fact, almost all of the then-24 major league teams submitted a representative, except for the Pirates and Tigers, whose players apparently had little skill in the field of bubble-blowing. (It’s hard to believe Fidrych didn’t qualify here.) Here’s a look at the complete list of participants, which included three Hall of Famers and a few cool nicknames:

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Card Corner: Willie Stargell

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As a young baseball fan growing up in the 1970s, I liked and admired Willie Stargell so much that I was once motivated to do something very foolish: at the age of nine, I stole his elusive 1974 baseball card from my next door neighbor’s house. (I’m not sure why I became so infatuated with the 1974 card; I actually liked the 1973 card a lot more, since it was an action shot, showing a massive Stargell stretching to receive a throw at first base ahead of the arrival of Philadelphia’s Del Unser. I also preferred the 1973 card of Bobby Bonds, which features an unexpected appearance by Stargell, who is attempting to retire Bonds in a rundown play. Two stars on one card, yes!)

Fortunately, my neighbor Hank Taylor—the older brother of one of my best friends, Alec—knew about my infatuation with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ slugger and quickly confronted me about the pilfered card. Feeling humiliated at being caught and guilty over what I had done, I returned the stolen item. As I look back at that incident today, I’m tempted to make the following conclusion: in a strange and indirect way, Willie Stargell taught me a simple but important lesson about how it was wrong to take things that didn’t belong to me.

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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.

Card Corner: Toby Harrah

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Prior to Bucky Dent’s 1978 home run against the Red Sox, I have to confess I wasn’t the man’s biggest fan. Although Dent was reliable defensively, he had ordinary range and rarely made spectacular plays. He also seemed to regress as a hitter each year, to the point that former WPIX sportscaster Jerry Girard came up with one of the best lines I’ve ever heard delivered on the nightly news. As Girard narrated Yankee highlights one night, he blurted: “There’s Bucky Dent, with another line drive to the catcher.” My father and I chuckled over that crack for days.

For most of the latter half of the 1970s, I wanted the Yankees to replace Bucky Dent with one man: Toby Harrah. I think George Steinbrenner shared that same dream, because every summer we Yankee fans in Westchester heard rumors that the Yankees were working on a deal for Harrah, the starting shortstop for the Rangers. One summer day, while we were eating lunch at Badger Camp—yes, I spent summers at a place called Badger Camp, and I’m embarrassed to admit it—we exchanged some conversation on a particularly hot Harrah rumor. I can’t remember the exact names, but I think the deal would have sent Dent and one of the lesser starting pitchers (Dick Tidrow?) to Texas for Harrah. Heck, it sounded good to me, since the pitcher wasn’t named Guidry, Figueroa, or Hunter.

I didn’t much care that some people regarded Toby Harrah as a subpar defensive shortstop. I preferred to obsess about another fact: the man could hit. He reached the 20-home run mark three times with the Rangers, usually hit .260 or better, annually achieved double figures in stole bases, and drew a ton of walks (though I didn’t know that much about on-base percentage at the time). Even though the Rangers moved Harrah from shortstop to third base in 1977, largely because of knocks against his range and reliability, I figured he could make the switch back. As long as Harrah could play shortstop reasonably well—you know, better than Bobby Murcer once did—I was going to be satisfied. So I kept dreaming that Steinbrenner and the Yankees’ GM at the time (Gabe Paul, followed by Al Rosen) would do whatever they could to get that deal done.

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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.

Card Corner–David Clyde

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In 1973, just one year before this card appeared, the Texas Rangers initiated the destruction of a young pitcher’s career in an effort to revive a languishing franchise. Team owner Bob Short devised an ill-conceived plan to rush phenom left-hander David Clyde from high school ball to the major leagues as a drawing card for the struggling Rangers franchise. Clyde’s debut season did much to help attendance at Arlington Stadium, but at considerable damage to Clyde’s career, which seemed so promising after throwing nine no-hitters in his senior season of high school.

At onetime a household name, Clyde has become a forgotten man in baseball annals. Here’s what happened. Drafted first in the country out of Texas’ Westchester High School in the spring of 1973, Clyde received a bonus of $125,000 and donned a Rangers’ major league uniform only a few days later. The immediate call-up to Texas was the brainchild of owner Bob Short, which conflicted directly against the advice of manager Whitey Herzog, who believed Clyde needed considerable schooling in the minor leagues.

Equipped with both Short’s blessings and a mechanically sound delivery that some scouts compared to that of Sandy Koufax, Clyde made his highly publicized major league debut against the Minnesota Twins on June 27, 1973. (Only 20 days earlier, Clyde had made his final appearance as a high school pitcher.) That night’s game at Arlington Stadium became such a focal point of local attention that the first pitch was delayed by 15 minutes, allowing more fans to free themselves from the massive logjam of traffic outside the stadium. Perhaps rattled by the late start and frazzled by his own nervousness, the 18-year-old Clyde walked the first two batters he faced—infielder Jerry Terrell and Hall of Famer Rod Carew—before settling down to strike out the side. Clyde went on to pitch a respectable five innings, walking a total of seven Twins, but struck out eight batters while allowing two earned runs and only one hit. Unfortunately, Clyde struggled to match his celebrated debut performance over the balance of the season, posting an ERA of 5.03 and winning only four of 12 decisions with the lowly Rangers in 1973. His pitching only worsened in 1974, leading him down a slippery slope to baseball obscurity.

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Card Corner–Billy Sample

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As I avidly followed baseball in the early 1980s, some of my favorite ballplayers did not happen to play for the Yankees. One of those players was Billy Sample. He was playing for the Rangers at the time, a team with which I’ve never had any kind of affiliation. Sample wasn’t a star. He was a pretty good ballplayer, though, a speedy defensive left fielder who stole bases, hit for a decent average, and launched an occasional longball. In other words, he was a role player, one who had to overcome the stigma that comes with being five feet, nine inches tall. I’ve always liked role players, in part because they have to struggle—just like us. Little comes easy to them, but they find a way to contribute in tangible and important ways.

One winter day in 1984, I was doing some broadcasting for WHCL, the radio station for Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. As I was preparing my afternoon sports report, I noticed a transaction on the AP wire. It involved the Yankees. They had made a wintertime trade, sending an over-the-hill Toby Harrah to the Rangers—for Billy Sample. Yes!

I immediately began to think of what role Sample might play for the Yankees in 1984. Left field looked like the logical destination, perhaps in a platoon with the elder Ken Griffey. You see, the Yankees collected outfielders in the early 1980s the way that Adrian Monk collects phobias. Only stars played every day in the Yankee outfield back then, Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson. A player like Sample, a complementary role player, appeared destined to platoon in pinstripes.

Even so, a timeshare in left field looked appealing to Sample, who was glad to be out of Texas, a team that had lost 92 games. He also looked forward to playing for a new leader in Yogi Berra, a man with a reputation for being the consummate player’s manager. Unfortunately, no one could have anticipated that Berra would manage the Yankees for a mere 16 games in 1985. An early managerial changeover brought the worst of possible successors for Sample—the fourth pinstriped tenure of Billy Martin.

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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…

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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.

Card Corner–Hank Aaron (Part Two)

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Hank Aaron has made news on several counts this month. He turned 75 years of age, attracting scores of celebrities to a birthday party held for him in his native Georgia. The Hall of Fame has announced that it will open the “Hank Aaron Records Room” this spring. Additionally, Aaron has commented publicly on Barry Bonds, taking the high road in saying that the ex-Giants slugger should be considered the all-time home run king in spite of mounting evidence that he used steroids during his days in San Francisco.

Thirty five years ago, Aaron completed his own assault on the home run mark. Steroids were not an issue at the time, but reports of death threats and some unfavorable comparisons to Babe Ruth filled the newspapers. In spite of those roadblocks, Aaron remained poised as he stood on the edge of rewriting the game’s record book.

On Monday night, April 8, Aaron and the Braves hosted the Dodgers at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Given the grand possibilities of the evening, NBC Television decided to provide a special broadcast of the game, even though the network did not feature regular Monday night telecasts at the time. Moments before Braves right-hander Ron Reed threw the game’s first pitch, National League umpire Lee Weyer took a look at the crowd of 53,755 fans, a record for the ballpark, and remarked, “I’m glad I’m here. History might be made tonight.”

Braves manager Eddie Mathews inserted Aaron, his left fielder and former teammate, into the cleanup spot, behind Darrell Evans and ahead of Dusty Baker. In the bottom of the first, veteran left-hander Al Downing, a former Yankee and a onetime 20-game winner, took to the mound for the Dodgers. He immediately produced a sense of disappointment for the capacity crowd, as he retired Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr, Mike Lum, and Evans on three consecutive groundouts. Any record-breaking theater would have to wait until the second inning, at the earliest.

After impatiently watching the Dodgers go down in the top of the second, Atlanta fans anticipated the first head-to-head matchup of the night. Leading off against Downing, Aaron drew a walk. He came home to score on a double by Baker, assisted by Bill Buckner’s error in left field. Interestingly, when Aaron touched home plate, he broke Willie Mays’ record for the most runs scored in National League history, a record almost entirely overlooked in the midst of media and fan attention surrounding Hank’s home run pursuit. (The connection between Aaron and Mays has become especially noteworthy because of the growing rivalry that has developed between the two men. Each summer, Hall of Fame officials are careful to sit Aaron and Mays apart from each other during the annual induction ceremony.)

Atlanta fans, however, had little interest in watching Aaron score a run after a walk. They wanted the run to come via the home run and were unhappy that Downing did not give Aaron a pitch to hit. After all, most fans were not only anticipating the possibility of a record being broken, but nervous as well. There was no guarantee that “The Hammer” would deliver that night; yet many fans had tickets only to that game.

In the fourth inning, Aaron came to bat again. With the Braves trailing 3-1, two men out and a runner on first, Aaron patiently watched Downing’s first pitch, a change-up in the dirt. Ball one. Now behind in the count, Downing threw Aaron a slider. The pitch was low, but down the middle, perhaps a strike if he let it go. Aaron did not. Using his classic top-hand swing and follow-through, Aaron lifted the pitch deep toward left-center field. The ball had only moderate height, typical of Aaron, who rarely hit towering fly balls. As the ball carried, left fielder Bill Buckner and center fielder Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn raced in the direction of the warning track, converging just a few feet from the outfield wall. Placing his arms on top of the wall, Buckner tried to prop himself higher, above the boundary of the fence. Young and spry at this early stage of his career, Buckner saw his valiant attempt fall well short. Both Billy Buck and The Cannon watched the ball land in the glove of relief pitcher Tom House, who was standing in Atlanta’s bullpen.

Two overly enthusiastic fans accompanied Aaron on his tour around the bases. Security forces must have cringed at the site of the intruders, but they carried neither weapons nor ill intentions. (They would, however, have to spend a memorable night in an Atlanta jail before eventually becoming friends with the new home run king.) By the time Aaron had reached home plate, his entourage of followers and well-wishers numbered nearly a dozen, mostly Braves’ teammates and coaches. Aaron’s swarm of notable teammates included Baker (who had been kneeling in the on-deck circle), future Mets manager Dave Johnson, and Frank Tepedino, a former Yankee who would gain fame in later years for his role as a New York City fireman during the tragic day of September 11.

The umpires temporarily halted the game, allowing for an understated on-field ceremony that lasted a modest 11 minutes. During the proceedings, Aaron spoke to the crowd at Fulton County Stadium. “I’m happy it’s over,” Aaron said of his grueling chase of Ruth’s record, once thought unreachable by baseball historians. “Now I can consider myself one of the best. Maybe not the best because a lot of great ones have played this game—[Joe] DiMaggio, Mays, Jackie Robinson… but I think I can fit in there somewhere.”

Even 35 years later, few fans would argue with Aaron’s humble assessment.

Bruce Markusen, who once had the privilege of interviewing Henry Aaron, writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.

Card Corner–Hank Aaron (Part 1)

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Thirty five years ago, baseball fans bided much of their time by obsessing over Hank Aaron’s pursuit of a record once deemed unbreakable—the all-time home run mark owned by Babe Ruth. Although many fans expressed support of Aaron’s continuing run at Ruth’s record, there were also those who clearly did not want him to succeed. As a black man who had started his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Aaron received numerous pieces of mail from people who resented him because of his race. Some of the letters were downright vicious; others implied or dictated threats on his life.

When people found out about the angry and hateful notes, Aaron started receiving a greater number of positive letters. In 1974, Aaron noted that he had received over 900,000 the previous year; “the overwhelming majority” of the mail supported his quest to overtake Ruth’s record. Still, the negative notes bore watching because of their menacing tone and direct threats of bodily harm.

The FBI began reading and confiscating the negative letters, which could best be characterized as “hate mail.” The bureau began investigating some of the letters, as a way of determining whether real dangers to Aaron’s life existed. The Braves, gravely concerned about Aaron’s safety, hired two off-duty Atlanta police offers to serve as personal bodyguards. Lamar Harris and Calvin Wardlaw would attend each of Aaron’s game from the stands, observing the stands and the playing field area for potential perpetrators. Wardlaw equipped himself with a .38 Smith-Wesson detective special in the event that Aaron faced an immediate threat of violence during the game.

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Card Corner–Oscar Gamble

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During his three seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Oscar Gamble’s big hair made for quite a sight at Municipal Stadium and other American League ballparks. According to former Hall of Fame senior researcher Russell Wolinsky, fans frequently serenaded Gamble with chants of “BO-ZO!” in tribute to the popular TV clown of the 1960s and 1970s who featured a similarly large tuff of hair. Clearly, political correctness was far less in fashion than it is today.) By the end of each game, Gamble was usually left with a particularly bad case of “hat hair,” with his Afro suffering severe indentations from both cap and helmet.

Gamble’s oversized hair posed another problem. He could rarely complete a turn around the bases without his helmet falling to the ground, while long chases after fly balls in the outfield would similarly result in the unintended departure of his cap from his head. Caps and helmets simply didn’t fit over his Afro, the largest of any player in the major leagues and one that rivaled the hairstyles in the American Basketball Association. (For those who remember Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, Gamble’s Afro was nearly as massive and majestic as the one grown by the former ABA standout.) The “problem” reached such extremes in 1975 that Gamble held a contest in which he asked Indians fans for recommendations on how to wear his hats. “We’re open to all suggestions, except a haircut,” Gamble informed Cleveland sportswriter Bob Sudyk.

As much notoriety as Gamble (seen in his 1976 and 1979 Topps) accrued for his “head piece,” he acquired a colorful reputation for additional reasons during his journeyman career in the major leagues. Recognized as the flashiest dresser on the Indians, Gamble once wore a pair of red, white, and blue plaid slacks, accentuated by red elevator shoes. Gamble was also one of the few major leaguers who could claim ownership of a disco. He opened up the establishment in 1976, turning over the day-to-day operations of the disco to his brothers.
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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–Bump Wills

 

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Throughout the year, we’ll be spotlighting cards from the 1974, 1979, and 1984 seasons, with an emphasis on former Yankees, but an occasional reference to non-Bombers, too. In this week’s lid lifter, we’ll examine one of the most famous error cards in the history of baseball memorabilia.

In 1979, the Topps Company produced this iconic Bump Wills card, featuring the switch-hitting second baseman as a member of the Blue Jays, even though he was clearly wearing the uniform of the Rangers. In fact, the Rangers never traded Wills to the Blue Jays, not at any time before or during the 1979 season.

So what happened here? In 2002, former Topps president and baseball card icon Sy Berger visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for a 50th anniversary celebration of Topps baseball cards, giving me the opportunity to ask him directly about the reasons behind the Wills “error.” According to Sy, he had received a call from a friend after the 1978 season, telling him that Wills was about to be traded from the Rangers to the Blue Jays as part of a major trade. Although the trade had yet to be announced, the friend assured Berger that it was a “done deal.” Convinced that he had a scoop and figuring that he could release an accurate and updated card ahead of the curve, Berger instructed his production people to attach the name “Blue Jays” to the bottom of the Wills card.

After producing the card during the winter of 1978, Topps issued it to the public in March of 1979, which was then the time that Topps typically released its cards. Unfortunately, like many trade discussions, the Bump Wills trade turned out to be nothing more than rumor. The Rangers kept their hard-hitting second baseman, who remained in Texas for three more seasons before finally being dealt—not to the Blue Jays, but to the Cubs—after the 1981 campaign.

With the trade to Toronto falling through, Topps was left mildly embarrassed. Once Opening Day rolled around and Berger realized that no trade was going to take place, Topps decided to correct the error and release a revised and corrected card, this time showing the name “Rangers” at the bottom of the card. As a result, there are two 1979 Bump Wills cards in circulation. The corrected “Rangers” version is considered the more valuable, since fewer of those cards were produced, making it scarcer than the “Blue Jays” version. The only thing scarcer might be Berger’s relationship with his friend, who had clearly given him some misguided information and had ceased becoming a source of knowledge for the Topps Company.

Although Wills never played for the Yankees, he did have a rumored connection to the team in the early 1980s. After the 1982 season, several reports circulated that the Yankees were seriously considering a blockbuster trade that would have sent Willie Randolph to the Cubs for Billy Buckner. Such a move would have filled a major need at first base (where the Yankees realized that 33-year-old John Mayberry was over-the-hill), but would have created a large void at second base. According to one hot rumor that winter, the Yankees were prepared to replace the departed Randolph with the faster Wills, a free agent who had played out the final year of his contract with the Cubs. The additions of the two former Cubbies would have given the Yankees a hyperactive offensive infield of Buckner, Wills, Roy Smalley at shortstop and Graig Nettles at third base, but the reconfiguration would have created more than a few misadventures defensively. In addition to Smalley’s shortcomings, Wills’ range had started to diminish, while Buckner’s knees were beginning to give him trouble before they would undergo a complete breakdown in Beantown.

Despite the rumors, Wills never did make his way to the Bronx. Finding no offers to his liking from any major league team, including the Blue Jays, Wills took his talents to the Japanese Leagues. That didn’t stop Topps from producing another Wills card in 1983—one that had him right back in Chicago!

Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball and writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.

Observations From Cooperstown–Fifth Starters, Backup Catchers, and Rickey At 50

The heralded off season acquisitions of Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett have answered most of the Yankees’ questions surrounding first base and starting pitching, but at least one rotation place remains available for the taking. The identity of the No. 5 starter is still unknown, pending the re-signing of Andy Pettitte or the importing of one of Milwaukee’s Best (Ben Sheets) or a Fallen Angel (Jon Garland). So what should the Yankees’ best course of action be, a proven free agent commodity, or a four-way battle of young arms Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Alfredo Aceves, and lefty Phil Coke?

When it comes to pitching, I tend to believe in the theory of excess, especially in light of the twin avalanches of injuries that have assaulted the Bronx the past two summers. I’d like to see Sheets signed to a two-year deal, or Pettitte to a one-year deal, with Garland a less expensive backup plan should those offers fall short. Signing one of those three would allow the Yankees to use Aceves as a long man in the bullpen while having Hughes and Kennedy in reserve at Scranton-Wilkes Barre. The days of getting through a season with five starters are long gone; you’d better have at least seven to eight pitchers capable of giving you a substantial number of starts and innings from April to October…

***

The YES Network’s Steven Goldman, often an astute observer of Yankeeland, was a thousand per cent correct this week in offering his assessment of the tenuous state of the Yankees’ catching situation. If the Yanks are not careful, they may end up with Jose Molina again doing the majority of the catching, an untenable prospect given Molina’s overall futility at the plate. (With Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera set to play center field, the Yankees cannot afford to give away two lineup slots to defense-first players.) In the event that Jorge Posada’s surgically repaired shoulder allows him to catch no more than 80-90 games this summer, the Yankees need another catcher to share the burden. They won’t necessarily require a No. 1 catcher to fill the void, but they would need someone who is capable of splitting the load with Molina in some kind of a platoon arrangement.

Let me advocate two possibilities, one a free agent and the other on the trade market. The free agent is switch-hitting ex-Red Javier Valentin, who is decent enough with the bat to serve as a platoon partner and “designated” pinch-hitter for Molina. It isn’t that Valentin is a great offensive player, but he happens to be a much better hitter than Molina, with a career on-base percentage that’s 35 points higher. At 33 years of age, he’d be happy with a one-year deal, making him a far cheaper alternative to Jason Varitek. (That would also spare us the inevitable Varitek-Alex Rodriguez soap opera.) The other possibility is Chris Coste, now relegated to third-string catching status with the world champion Phillies, behind Carlos Ruiz and the newly acquired Ronny Paulino. Even at the age of 35, Coste has acceptable on-base skills and enough versatility to play the infield corners in the pinch. He shouldn’t cost too much in a trade either, maybe something at the level of a Chase Wright or an Alan Horne…

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Last week’s election of ex-Yankee Rickey Henderson and Boston’s Big Jim Rice to the Hall of Fame figures to give the village of Cooperstown a much-needed boost in tourism this summer, especially when compared with the meager turnout for the 2008 induction. Fewer than 10,000 fans visited Cooperstown for the induction of Goose Gossage and Dick Williams, despite Gossage’s obvious connection to the Yankees from 1978 to 1983. (Perhaps Goose didn’t pitch long enough for the Yankees, or maybe he simply played too long ago, but his induction brought surprisingly few fans north from the Bronx.) This year’s induction attendance could double last year’s total of about 8,000 visitors—but not because of Henderson’s superstar presence. Henderson played only four and a half seasons with the Yankees, preventing him from developing the cult following of someone like Don Mattingly or Paul O’Neill or Bernie Williams. Given the distance between Cooperstown and Oakland, the team with which Rickey is most associated, it’s likely that few A’s fans will make the cross-country trek to Cooperstown.

So where will the attendance boost come from? There will be a large contingent of Red Sox faithful in town for the long-awaited induction of Rice, who played his entire career in Beantown. Boston is a mere four hours away from Cooperstown; the Hall of Fame is already a convenient destination for members of the dreaded Red Sox Nation, and that will only intensify during what figures to be the Summer of Rice…

***

Speaking of Henderson, I’d love to see the “Man of Steal” carry through with his wish of playing one final season in the major leagues. Even at 50, he’s still in prime physical condition and probably capable of filling a role as a pinch-runner and fifth outfielder. He’s also a far smarter player than most give him credit for, a student of both pitchers’ repertoires and their moves to first base. If the Yankees find themselves in a pennant race come September, why not sign Henderson as an extra body for the 40-man roster? I’d enjoy the theater of watching him enter a tie game as a pinch-runner, pawing his way off first base against a pitcher 20 years his junior. If nothing else, it would beat watching Angel Berroa under similar circumstances.

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

Card Corner–The Sad Story of Leon Wagner

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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–The Election, Rumors, and Preston Gomez

There will be a clear-cut Yankee-Red Sox flair to the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies taking place on July 26 here in Cooperstown. Veterans Committee selection Joe Gordon played a large chunk of his career with the Yankees, Jim Rice spent all of his major league days with the Red Sox, and Rickey Henderson played for both the Sox and the Bombers. I have to confess that I’d forgotten about Rickey’s tenure with Boston, but he did play there for 72 games in 2002. Like Goose Gossage, Rickey put in cameos for just about everyone.

Unlike Rice, there’s really no argument over Henderson’s worthiness as a Hall of Famer, not when you’re the all-time leader in runs scored and stolen bases, and second on the all-time walks list. The 28 writers who left Henderson’s name off the ballot really should step up and explain themselves. (Up till now, only one has, a man named Corky Simpson, who said Henderson wasn’t his kind of player.) If they left him off as a protest against Rickey’s occasional tendency to lollygag, I can somewhat understand their point; Henderson did his reputation no favors when he tanked his performance with both the Yankees (in 1989) and Mets (in 2000). If they left him off because they don’t vote for first-year eligibles, or because they don’t want to see a unanimous selection, they really need to lose those antiquated ideas. Those simply aren’t legitimate reasons to keep someone’s name off the ballot. It would be nice for the Baseball Writers to come up with a system that demands accountability. Perhaps the voting for the Hall should no longer be done with secret ballots; let’s make each writer publicly list his or her choices. Maybe that will eliminate some of the silliness.

What about Rickey as a Yankee? I’ll always have mixed feelings about Henderson’s days in the Bronx. At his worst, he pulled a Manny Ramirez-like stunt in 1989, jogging after balls hit to left field, running the bases at three-quarter speed, all because of his unhappiness over his contract and his displeasure with management. But at his best, Henderson was THE Best. From 1985 to 1988, he performed at a level never matched by any other Yankee leadoff man in history. He also had his best power seasons while playing for the Yankees, 24 home runs in 1985 and 28 in 1986. For his career, he nearly reached the 300 milestone, an amazing accomplishment given the lack of power he had displayed throughout the minor leagues. Except for one minor league season, Henderson hit with no power at all. Over his first 942 major league at-bats with Oakland, basically the equivalent of two seasons, he hit a grand total of ten home runs. But then he turned his muscular build into legitimate power, making him the ultimate three dimensional leadoff threat. His 1990 performance highlighted his power at its peak, when he slugged an amazing .577 for the A’s. If Henderson had wanted to, if he had changed his plan from slash-and-dash to a muscle approach, he could have hit 500 home runs, though it likely would have hurt his all-round game. The “Man of Steal” had that kind of talent. He was Ty Cobb with a power stroke.

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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.

Card Corner–Billy “The Halo” Cowan

cowan

Billy Cowan was once described as the “epitome of a fringe ballplayer.” That characterization was dead solid perfect in assessing the journeyman outfielder and onetime Yankee, who bounced from the Cubs to the Mets to the Milwaukee Braves to the Phillies to the Yankees to the Angels during an eight-year career that spanned from 1963 to 1972.

Cowan was never close to being the best player on any of his teams, never an All-Star, and will certainly never make the Hall of Fame. Yet, he receives more autograph requests through the mail than most journeyman outfielders of similar vintage—if only because of his comical 1972 Topps card. Opting to have some fun with Cowan, the Topps photographer lined his head up perfectly within the confines of the old halo at Anaheim Stadium, now known as Angel Stadium of Anaheim. At the time, the ballpark still featured a large halo at the top of a tower within the perimeter of the ballpark. (I may be wrong, but I believe that the halo is now featured in the stadium’s parking lot.). One thing I’ve always wondered about the Cowan card is whether the outfielder was actually aware of what the photographer was doing. It certainly looks like the photographer intentionally set up the photo so that Cowan’s head was right in the middle of the halo, but I’m not sure that Cowan realized that. Either way, Cowan has maintained his sense of humor about it—along with his willingness to sign the card when it’s sent to him in the mail.

The 1972 card, by the way, was the last one issued for Cowan, who played in only three games—all as a pinch-hitter—before drawing his release. While the Angels contended that Cowan was no longer a useful player—after all, he was 0-for-3 as a pinch-hitter and had struck out 41 times against only seven walks in 1971—Cowan felt differently. Once labeled by The Sporting News as the “Clarence Darrow of the clubhouse,” Cowan filed a grievance against the Angels through the Players Association, claiming that the release occurred for reasons other than baseball ability.

As the Angels’ top pinch-hitter in 1971, Cowan contended that California had cut him loose because of his active role as the Angels’ player representative, which was like being branded with a scarlet letter at the time of major collective bargaining friction between the players and owners. Like Cowan, three other player representatives for the Angels had also been relocated, with infielders Jim Fregosi and Bobby Knoop sent packing in trades and catcher Bob “Buck” Rodgers demoted to the minor leagues. The Angels, like the 23 other teams in existence at the time, dared to strike at the tail-end of spring training, delaying the start of the 1972 regular season—and perhaps influencing the eventual end of Cowan’s major league career.

Thankfully, the end of that career didn’t come before the manufacture of one of the quirkiest cards in Topps’ history. If for no other reason, Billy Cowan, fringe ballplayer, will be remembered for that.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com and can be reached 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