Another Yankee great, Gil McDougald, has passed away.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.
Rest in Peace, Leslie Nielsen. You know what? This was the first movie that popped into my head when I heard the news:
He gave us many a laugh, didn’t he?
If you’re a fan from my generation, you face constant reminders that you’re approaching the unwanted status of “elder statesman.” Players that we remember watching are leaving us all too fast. Willie Davis died in the spring. So did Jim Bibby and Mike Cuellar. Earlier this month, former catcher-outfielder Ed Kirkpatrick passed away. And then came the news of the death of a former Yankee, Tom Underwood.
Tommy Underwood was hardly a household name to Yankee fans. He pitched only a season and a half in New York, back in 1980 and ‘81. But if you’re my age, 45 or older, then you likely have a distinct memory of Underwood. Whenever I hear his name, two words come immediately to mind: stylish left-hander. Underwood had one of those seamlessly smooth deliveries that I loved to imitate as a young boy growing up in Westchester County. He also liked to work fast, which made him doubly fun to watch.
I also remember Underwood for being part of an unusual starting rotation. In 1980, the Yankees featured four left-handed starters; in addition to Underwood, they had staff ace Ron Guidry, followed by Tommy John and the underrated Rudy May. (Luis Tiant was the lone right-hander.) As I recall, that’s the last time that a major league team had four fulltime lefty starters. The New York media made a huge deal of it at the time, and not for favorable reasons. Some writers said the Yankees were too left-handed–a strange complaint for a team playing at Yankee Stadium–and kept pushing for the Yankees to trade one of the left-handers for a competent righty. At the time, I bought into the theory, but in retrospect, it seems somewhat silly. If you have four good pitchers like Guidry, John, May, and Underwood, who cares if they all happen to be left-handed? In today’s game, most teams would kill to have two good lefties, not to mention a quartet of southpaws.
At one time, it appeared Underwood would blossom into stardom. Originally a top prospect in the Phillies’ system, Underwood made the Topps’ all-rookie team in 1975. He pitched even more effectively in 1976, but then fell into the pattern of inconsistency that plagued his career. After a bad start to the 1977 season, the Phillies sent him to the Cardinals as part of the package for speedy outfielder Bake McBride. The Cards soon sent him packing to the expansion Blue Jays for Pete Vuckovich. Underwood led Toronto in strikeouts two years running, but his periodic wildness frustrated the Blue Jays’ brass. That’s why they decided to include the 26-year-old southpaw in the trade that also brought Rick Cerone to the Yankees for Chris Chambliss and two prospects.
It didn’t take long for Underwood to impress Yankee fans with his fast pitching pace, his silky delivery, and his live fastball, which seemed to sneak up on hitters. He also had a nasty slider; on days that he could throw it for strikes, he became nearly unhittable. Emerging as a highly effective No. 4 starter behind Guidry, John, and May, Underwood won 13 games for Dick Howser’s 1980 Yankees. I thought that kind of performance would be a springboard to greater success–the kind of success the Phillies had once foreseen–but Underwood started the 1981 season flatly. With Dave Righetti now ready to join the rotation, the Yankees decided to make a move. Trading Underwood at the valley of his value, the Yankees foolishly included him with Jim Spencer in a package for the underachieving Dave “The Rave” Revering.
After pitching as a swingman during the second half of the 1981 season, Underwood put together his most effective season in 1982. Again splitting his time between the bullpen and the rotation, Underwood forged a career best ERA of 3.29, won ten games, and saved seven others for Billy Martin, who liked his versatility and willingness to pitch in any role.
Underwood’s performance slipped in 1983, which happened to coincide with the end of his contract. Although still only 29, the talented lefty drew little interest on the free agent market; he signed a one-year contract with the Orioles. At the end of one lackluster season in the Baltimore bullpen, Underwood drew his release. And then– nothing. Underwood, all of thirty years old, saw his major league career come to an end.
I’m not sure why Underwood’s career ended so abruptly. In retrospect, it’s shocking that a left-hander with his talent did not pitch past his 30th birthday, not when we see some lefties stick around till their early forties simply because they happen to be lefties.
Much like Underwood’s pitching career, his life ended at a young age. Underwood died on Monday at 56, the victim of a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. Like too many of his baseball brethren from the 1970s and eighties, he left us way too soon.
Yet, Tom Underwood succeeded in making an impression on this Yankee fan. He left me with some good memories, for which I am grateful. In the end, I guess that’s all we can ask from our ballplayers.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.
Sad news from the world of basketball: Maurice Lucas is dead.
Thirty-nine years ago this fall, I moved into the 11th floor of a 12-story dormitory at the corner of 16th Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a freshman at Marquette University. (The dorm, McCormick Hall, is round and shaped like a beer can, which is remarkably appropriate in more than the metaphorical sense, and the building has been rumored for almost 40 years to be sinking into middle Earth.) Not long after I moved in, I found myself intrigued by the music coming out from under the door of the room next to mine — music which I now know to have been “Eurydice,” the closing track from Weather Report’s astounding debut album. (Mmmmmm. Wayne Shorter!) As I was listening, an extremely large man came out of the room and introduced himself. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?’ he said.
And that was how I met Maurice Lucas.
For the next couple of years, we talked about music, at least as much as Luke talked to anyone, him being what you call your campus celebrity and all during the glory days of Warrior basketball and the high-sun period of Al McGuire Era. Whatever I know about any jazz recorded after the big band records to which my father listened — Mmmmmmm. Basie! — I learned from Luke, with whom I don’t believe I ever exchanged four words about basketball.
Later that same year, when I was practicing with the fencing team in the basement of the old gymnasium while the basketball team practiced upstairs, Luke came out of the shower wearing only a towel. “Hey,” he said, “show me how to do that.” I handed him a foil and we squared off, I in my full regalia with a mask and Luke in a towel. I touched him once, lightly, in the ribs. He slapped my blade out of my hand and about 20 feet back down the hallway, hitched up his towel, and went off chuckling.
Lucas was one of the memorable characters on the Blazers’ championship team in the ’70s. I remember him later in his career–he was a professional tough guy and a fine player.
If you’ve never read David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game,” you should. There’s some good stuff on Lucas in there. Did I mention that he was tough?
Before the NBA, Lucas played with the infamous Marvin “Bad News” Barnes for the St. Louis Spirits in the ABA. Spirits announcer Bob Costas told Terry Pluto in Loose Balls:
It was interesting to watch Lucas develop. Early in his rookie year, he was coming off the bench. One night the Spirits were playing Kentucky in Freedom Hall and Lucas was trading elbows with Artis Gilmore. At 7-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Gilmore just towered over Maurice. Lucas’s only chance was to beat Gilmore to a spot on the floor and then try to hold off Artis. Despite his enormous size and strength, Gilmore was never known as a ferocious player and he seldom was in a fight. But all of a sudden, Artis just got sick of Lucas’s bodying him and you could see that the big guy was really hot. Gilmore took a swipe at Lucas and missed. Lucas put up his fists, but he was backpedaling like any sane man would when confronted by Gilmore. It was almost slow motion–Gilmore would take a step, then Lucas would take a step back. It was obvious that Lucas didn’t want to fight and was trying to figure out where he could go. Finally, he was trapped in the corner; he had run out of court. He didn’t know what else to do, so he planted his feet and threw this tremendous punch at Gilmore, and it caught Artis square on the jaw. It was a frightening sight. Artis hit the deck. Lucas was going crazy. Now he really wanted a piece of Artis. Guys were holding Lucas back and Artis was still down. For whatever reason, from that point on Lucas developed into a helluva player.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Lucas.
There isn’t that much in today’s papers on Bill Shannon, the New York Press Box Legend who died yesterday at the age of 69 in a house fire. Disappointing, sure, but not a surprise–it is the eve of the World Serious, after all.
Still, there is plenty on-line, including pieces by Howie Karpin, Roger Angell, Keith Olbermann, Joel Sherman, Wallace Matthews, Pete Abraham, Joe McDonald, and most notably, Marty Noble. Noble writes:
The AP, which employed Shannon on a part-time basis for years, reported that a neighbor had placed a ladder up to the second floor to reach him, but the neighbor later said Shannon was unable to break the window and disappeared into thick smoke. Shannon had an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for years, but had moved back to live with his mother after she developed problems about five years ago.
For all he did professionally — and there was much — he become a tad anonymous and borderline invisible in recent years when his primary responsibilities had included official scoring and his tireless work with the New York Sports Hall of Fame. If he were recognized at all, it was while working when a television camera focused on him in the press box at Citi Field or Yankee Stadium after he made a scoring decision the announcers thought to be wrong. But Shannon knew the scoring rules as well as Billy Martin, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre or any umpire knew the rulebook.
Shannon took pride in the reputation that he helped create — that New York had “tough” official scorers.
“He was a hard scorer, but hard is fair,” said Jack O’Connell, the New York-based secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA. “No homers here.”
Those who disagreed with Shannon’s decision to charge a fielder with an error often heard these words from OS Shannon: “This is the big leagues, sir. That play is supposed to be made.” He was objective to the Nth degree, but he did allow his absolute disdain for the sacrifice-fly rule to show through. Shannon was certain hitters didn’t deserve “free outs” for sacrifice flies and made his opposition apparent by his tone when he properly credited one.
Here are a few more thoughts on Shannon…
I thought he was a great guy. He was always cordial to me in the booth. My one lasting story of him is not much, but here it is: when I was asked to play ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ at the end of the last home game in YS2, he was the only one that knew the song and the history of Layton playing it there (not surprising, I guess). I remember him singing it to me outside the stadium.
We should all hope that we are as good at our jobs and as respected for the jobs we do as Bill Shannon was.
I’ve covered games in nearly every ballpark around the league and in many of them reporters turn around and stare at each other after a bad call by the official scorer. “How is that a hit?” we usually say with disdain. I can tell you that never happened in Yankee Stadium when Bill Shannon was scoring, not by us and not by any of the out-of-town reporters either. Bill took his job as seriously as anyone I’ve ever known. That’s probably what made him so good at it.
Bill’s delivery of a pitching line was as unique as Bob Sheppard’s introduction of a batter. He was the voice of the press box in the same way that Sheppard was the voice of Yankee Stadium. If you cover enough games, Bill’s style of delivery is ingrained in your memory. It begins to feel as if Bill’s way is the only way to read a pitching line:
“The line on CC Sabathia…7 innings pitched. 5 hits. 2 runs. Both earned. 1 walk. 8 strikeouts. 1 home run.”
Then a pause, followed by a repeat, this time read at light speed as one long run-on sentence until a final pause before the last item.
“Sabathia, 7 innings5hits2runsbothearned1walk8strikeouts…and 1…home run.”
Unique is an overused word. It describes Bill Shannon perfectly.
Wednesday was a sad day for cinephiles — Arthur Penn, the visionary director of Bonnie and Clyde, passed away at 88. As well as being one of the great American filmmakers of the 60s and 70s, Penn also knew tremendous success directing for the stage, as well as television. Dave Kehr has a fairly comprehensive and thoughtful obituary in the New York Times. Roger Ebert also weighs in with a warm tribute. From Kehr’s piece, here’s a quote from Paul Schrader that nicely states what the fuss is all about:
“Arthur Penn brought the sensibility of ’60s European art films to American movies,” the writer-director Paul Schrader said. “He paved the way for the new generation of American directors who came out of film schools.”
Penn was not simply a stylist, but a director who got the best out of his actors: think of Gene Hackman in the brilliant, underrated neo-noir Night Moves, or Jack Nicholson, wonderfully underplaying to Marlon Brando’s outlandish dandy of a gunslinger in The Missouri Breaks. (Heck, he even got something out of Arlo Guthrie in Alice’s Restaurant.)
However, Penn will no doubt best be remembered for Bonnie and Clyde, a film usually attached to words like “seminal,” “revolutionary” and “watershed.” It not only indelibly altered Hollywood movies, but movie criticism as well. The vastly different reactions of old guard critics like the Times’ Bosley Crowther (who loathed it) to those of “young turks” like Ebert and Pauline Kael (in her first piece for The New Yorker) marked a new attitude in American film criticism to match the new films and younger audiences filling late 60s theaters. It’s also worth noting that it’s success essentially saved Warren Beatty’s career and launched Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder as movie stars. Looking back 40 plus years later, it’s easy to appreciate what a vivid and vital movie Bonnie and Clyde remains, if decades of copycats have taken away the shock that 1967 audiences felt.
It will be interesting to read more comments on Penn’s life and work as they roll in from his collaborators and directors he inspired (I’m especially curious to hear from Beatty and Martin Scorsese). Now that 3D and CGI have too often become a substitute for substance in the cinema, it’s sad to see another master go.
I once saw the actor Kevin McCarthy, Mary’s brother, walk out of my grandparent’s apartment building. I felt happy to see him, a recognizable face from so many forgettable movies. He was tall and elegant and though I didn’t say anything to him, I felt better just being near him for a minute.
I’ve been playing golf for so long I couldn’t quit the game if I tried, I don’t remember not knowing how to swing a club. It’s something my father and I share to this day. Perhaps my daughter will see me hit golf balls or watch Paula Creamer on TV and get excited about the game like I did when I was her age. Golf is an escape, a source of sanity and competition all at the same time. It’s that way for the group of guys I play with every weekend; one guy in particular, Don. On Sunday evening, July 18th, we lost him.
I got the call the following morning. We all expected the news. When we played thee weeks ago at Lido, another member of our group saw Don’s cousin who told him the end was near. Don battled cancer for about a year-and-a-half.
He was 46. Made a mint trading oil stocks. Had a history of substance abuse in his younger days but while he still maintained some vices (smoking, the occasional drunken evening), he’d kicked the drugs. His only junkie-level activity for the length of time I knew him was golf.
And he was a junky golfer. Slow as shit, three practice swings prior to every shot, with a swing that looked like a cross between Kenny Perry and Al Czervik from “Caddyshack.” I don’t know how he hit the ball, but he was effective in his own way. He was an 18 handicap that could shoot 85, kick your ass and take your money.
He was one of the guys who welcomed me into that group that regularly shows up at Lido well before dawn to get into the first few groups, regardless of the time of year. Don was that way with everyone, though.
Three years ago, he went on a golfing trip to Scotland. Unsolicited, he brought back souvenir ball markers from Gleneagles for me and several other guys in the group. Earlier that year, again unsolicited, he did the same thing following a business trip to Chicago where he played at Butler National, which used to host the Western Open, except the gift was a sleeve of golf balls with the Butler National logo emblazoned on the side.
The best gift, though, sits near the putting/chipping green adjacent to the 18th green and 1st and 10th tees at Lido: a wooden bench. Engraved on the bench are the names of the guys in our early-morning outfit. It reads “The Posse” at the top center, and then our names in a cool cursive font underneath. We all wanted to chip in and help contribute to the bench, but Don wouldn’t allow it. The same way for the last two years, for our annual two-day tournament — which will be renamed in his honor — he wouldn’t accept any of our contributions for either the trophies handed out to the Low Net, 2nd Place Net and Low Gross winners, or the buffet lunch that accompanied the ceremony. He just wanted all of us to relax, have fun and enjoy ourselves. On him.
Our tournament was the last time I saw Don. He was 40 pounds thinner due to the chemo. He’d shaved his beard. He looked good and sounded even better. On the golf course, he was the same insufferable Don we loved to rib. Somehow, he got the staff at Lido to give him a handicapped flag that he attached to his cart. Like he was going to get sympathy from us?
At that point in time — it was Labor Day weekend — Don thought he was in remission. Turned out the cancer was only hibernating. By January he was back in Florida at the treatment center, playing golf whenever breaks in his chemo and radiation would allow. In mid-February, Don was amidst what would be the last round of gold he’d ever play, at TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship. He got as far as the 4th hole when an attack debilitated him and an ambulance was rushed to the course to cart him off. Stupid sonofabitch asked for a rain check. That was Don.
For the next five months of his life was resigned to a bed, either at the treatment center in Florida, Sloan Kettering here in New York, or finally, at home with his wife and teenage daughter. He may have died Sunday, but as far as I’m concerned, he died that day in February on the 4th hole at Sawgrass. That’s when his vitality was erased. He’d tell you the same thing. At least at that moment, Don was happy in his escape, doing what he loved most.
Our group assembled at his wake last weekend to pay our respects. It was open casket. He had grown his beard again. We mourned and we celebrated his life, recounted stories; everybody had one — and chipped in for a life-size floral wreath that looked like a golf ball on a tee. The flowers bore a hexagonal shape that resembled the dimple pattern on Callaway golf balls, just like the ones Don played. It was the best way we knew how to return the favor for all he did for us.
Don’s death fell amid the recent trifecta of passings in the Yankees’ Universe — Bob Sheppard on July 11, George Steinbrenner on July 13, and Ralph Houk on the 21st. Trying to put it all in context, I thought about Don, and then Todd Drew, and then turned my thoughts to Sheppard, the Boss and Houk. I was angry that each of those men lived a long life and neither Todd nor Don got that opportunity. Then I felt guilty for thinking that.
At least Todd and Don got to enjoy their escapes, and made a point to enjoy them even more when sharing their experiences with friends. That’s a legacy.
If you have similar stories about escapes, whether they be golf, baseball, any experiences you share with “buddies,” please share them in Comments.