Mr. Hockey: He did it all with skill, aplomb and unbending toughness

howe

There’s little that can be written here about hockey legend Gordie Howe that hasn’t been stated elsewhere with more color, clarity and eloquence.

Howe, who died Friday at age 88, was the consummate all-around player: he could score, pass, defend and intimidate. He was the embodiment of what a hockey player should be: tough as a $2 steak, modest and always had time for fans, young and old.

You don’t get the nickname “Mr. Hockey” for nothing.

Howe broke into the NHL at age 18 and didn’t retire until he was 52. Over the years he suffered broken bones, concussions and had teeth knocked out. He was said to have received more than 500 stitched on his face alone during his career.

In 1950, he crashed into the boards during a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, fracturing his nose and cheekbone, and lacerating his eye. Only emergency surgery in which doctors were forced to drill a hole into Howe’s skull to relieve pressure on his brain saved the Floral, Saskatchewan, native’s life.

Howe responded the next season by leading the league with 43 goals and 86 points in 70 games. He would spend 25 years with the Detroit Red Wings and was among the league’s top-five scorers for 20 consecutive years.

When he was 50 years old – and playing with his sons in the rival World Hockey Association – he led his team in scoring with 96 points.

On top of all that, Howe, who grew up on the Canadian prairie, had a dry sense of humor, particularly on the ice, though opponents likely weren’t laughing along.

In the mid 1960s, Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins took the league by storm as a youngster with his gifted skating and playmaking ability. During a game between the Red Wings and Bruins, Howe sent the rookie hard to the ice with one of his infamous elbows when he felt Orr had been a bit too spirited.

“I’m a very religious player,” Howe explained when Orr asked him about the hit. “I think it’s much better to give than to receive.”

Stan Mikita, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame center, once told The Detroit Free Press what happened after he cut Howe under the eye early in his career.

“A couple of minutes later at the Olympia, we were both turning in the Wings’ end. The next thing I remember I was at the Chicago bench, my head is killing me. Our backup goalie, Denis DeJordy, said he was the only one in the building who saw what happened. Gordie had skated by me, slipped his right hand up under his armpit, pulled out his fist, popped me in the jaw and put his glove back on.

“A few shifts later, he ambled by and asked if I learned anything. I said, ‘Are we even?’ Gordie says, ‘I’ll think about it.’”

Tough-as-nails defenseman Gadsby dies at 88

gadsby howe

Former NHL defenseman Bill Gadsby died last week at age 88. Gadsby, who spent 20 years minding the blueline for the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings, was tough as a two-dollar steak and representative of the robust, resilient players who skated in hockey’s pre-expansion era.

Gadsby not only tallied 130 goals and 438 assists, becoming the first defensemen to score more than 500 points during his career, but also notched more than 1,500 penalty minutes, while sustaining some 640 stitches and numerous broken bones while playing in the NHL between 1946 to 1966.

To say that Gadsby was a survivor would be an understatement.

As a 12-year old, he and his mother were aboard the British liner SS Athenia in early September 1939 when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. The pair spent several hours in a lifeboat before being rescued. Some 128 passengers and crew died when the vessel sank.

When Gadsby was 25, he contracted polio at the Blackhawks training camp and narrowly averted paralysis, according to the New York Times. He quickly recovered and went on to play in 68 games that season.

Gadsby retired in 1966, the season before Bobby Orr made his debut with the Boston Bruins and revolutionized defense. While Orr would obliterate scoring records for defensemen, hockey didn’t forget about Gadsby. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970.

Gadsby played long before the era of big money, yet, as the Times recounted, he found an interesting way to earn some extra compensation.

“When a local insurance man started offering players stitch insurance, I signed up immediately,” he once told the Hockey Hall of Fame. “Under terms of the $100 policy, I would receive $5 for every stitch I received that season.”

Soon afterward he incurred a cut that required 30 stitches to his lower lip.

“I had to laugh at the poor agent,” he said. “In less than two weeks I had paid for the policy. I had gotten back all my money, plus a $50 profit. I think they stopped offering that policy not long after that.”

(Top: Bill Gadsby, left, talks with teammate Gordie Howe, prior to a Detroit Red Wings game in 1963.)

Oldest LA Ram once played the game for free – literally

ben agajanian

One of sport’s most used clichés involves professional athletes qualifying their love for the game by stating that they would have played the game for free, usually uttered by those who made millions during their career.

But sometimes it’s just a figure of speech. The Los Angeles Times recently caught up with Ben Agajanian in Cathedral City, Calif., southeast of Palm Springs. Agajanian, who played for the Rams in 1953, is the oldest living Los Angeles Ram, at age 96.

Between 1945 and 1964 Agajanian played for 10 different clubs in three leagues (the National Football League, American Football League and All-America Football Conference). Among teams the Southern California native played for were the NFL champion 1956 New York Giants and 1961 Green Bay Packers.

Agajanian was called, in the jocular manner common to athletes years ago, “the Toeless Wonder” because while in college he’d lost four toes in an industrial accident; afterwards he was fitted with a special squared-off shoe that enabled him to continue kicking.

Agajanian played because he enjoyed it, and enjoyed being part of a team. ”Once anyone wanted me, that’s it, it doesn’t matter how much they paid me, I would be there,” he told the Times.

How much did he love playing? During the middle of the 1962 season, amid contract negotiations with the Oakland Raiders, Agajanian blurted out, “Aw, hell, I’ll just play for nothing.”

So the Raiders, being the Raiders, offered him nothing. Agajanian accepted.

He would play six games, living in the Long Beach area the entire time and joining the team every week just prior to kickoff. The five field goals he kicked for the Raiders during that spell remain most inexpensive in the history of professional football.

Today, Agajanian lives in an assisted-living home in Cathedral City but is still pretty sharp. Able to remember when the Rams were heralded as big shots in a town of big shot, he was excited to hear about the team’s recent announcement that they’ll be returning to Los Angeles, after 21 seasons in St. Louis.

If the Rams have any understanding of history, they’ll make sure Agajanian is on hand when they take the field for their first home game back in Los Angeles next season. And they’ll make sure he’s recognized and honored as the living link to pro football’s past that he is.

(Top: Ben Agajanian, kicking for the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference in 1947.)

Antebellum baseball card up for sale; could fetch $50,000+

brooklyn atlantics

Pro baseball as we know it today traces its history to 1869, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings were organized as the first fully professional club.

So-called “New York-style” baseball had grown quickly in the years following the Civil War as men from both the North and the South spread the game across the East and Midwest, having taken a great interest in the sport during their time in camp amid the 1861-65 conflict.

Yet baseball itself goes back further, although there is little to document the game’s antediluvian era.

However, one of the oldest bits of baseball memorabilia as yet uncovered has recently gone on the auction block – a baseball card dating to either 1859 or 1860 featuring the Brooklyn Atlantics, baseball’s first championship team.

The card features the entire team and is the only known card to have been printed before the War Between the States. Needless to say, it’s one of a kind.

Being offered by Heritage Auctions, bids have already reached $28,000 ($33,460 with buyer’s premium). It could fetch $50,000 or more by the time bidding ends later this month.

The featured item is a carte de visite, a studio photograph affixed to card stock to be handed out as a calling card. It is mounted on a 2.5 inch by 4 inch cardboard and was taken in a Brooklyn photo studio.

“The technology to print multiple copies of photographs at comparatively cost was developed in France in the 1850s, and calling cards with photographs depicting their owners soon followed, as did collectible ones featuring celebrities, military and political figures,” according to The History Blog. “Photography studios would take the pictures and produce the cartes. The Atlantics carte de visite was produced by the Farach & Lalumia Studio at 336 Fulton Street, Brooklyn.”

The Brooklyn Atlantics were established in 1855 and in 1857 would become one of the founding members of the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first official governing body of American baseball and made up of 16 New York City clubs.

In 1859, the first year that National Association of Base Ball Players teams played a full season, the Brooklyn Atlantics won the pennant. They won the title again in 1860 and in 1861.

Players on the Atlantics included Richard “Dickey” Pearce, a pioneer at shortstop and inventor of the bunt, and outfielder Archibald McMahon.

It was McMahon who kept the carte de visite of America’s first baseball champions.

From him it passed to his brother John, a Civil War veteran, and has remained with John McMahon’s descendants since.

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Last living Cub to play in World Series dies at 98

Merullo

The Chicago Cubs are known for futility. How feeble have the Cubbies been over the decades? They’ve not only gone more than a century without winning a World Series, there is no longer anyone alive who participated in a World Series as a member of the Cubs.

Lennie Merullo, the last living individual to play for the Cubs in the World Series, died Saturday at age 98.

Merullo, a shortstop who played for Chicago from 1941 to 1947, took part in three games during the 1945 World Series against the Detroit Tigers.

Chicago, going up against a Tigers team that featured such stars as Hank Greenberg, Hal Newhouser and Virgil Trucks, lost in seven games. The Cubs haven’t been to a Fall Classic since.

Merullo recalled not too long ago that after the 1945 Series, the Cubs imagined they’d make it back soon enough.

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “We never gave up hope.”

Merullo’s career stats are hardly impressive: playing largely during World War II when many standout players had been drafted into the military, he compiled a career batting average of .240, with six homers, 152 runs batted in, and 191 runs scored.

He did manage to set at least one Major League record, however, committing four errors in one inning.

In mid-September 1942, following a game in New York, Merullo took a bus to Boston where his wife was expecting their first child. His son was born at 5 a.m. and, despite not having slept, Merullo went over to Braves Field in Boston, where the Cubs were scheduled to play a doubleheader that day.

By the second game, exhaustion caught up with Merullo, he told Ed Attanasio of the website thisgreatgame.com last year.

“I had no business being out there,” he recalled. “Almost immediately, I made an error at shortstop. I kicked the ball, and then threw it over the first baseman’s head. Then, they hit me another grounder, and I did the same thing again. If they hit me another ball, I would have booted that one, too.”

Although the record has been tied, it’s never been broken.

Despite Merullo’s limited success with the Cubs, he spent 22 years as a scout for Chicago, then another 30 with the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau before retiring in 2003 at age 85.

(Top: Lennie Merullo as a member of the Chicago Cubs.)

Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer Elmer Lach dies at 97

lach stanley cup broken nose

Elmer Lach, one of the National Hockey League’s all-time great playmakers, died Saturday at age 97.

A three-time Stanley Cup champion who for a time centered the great Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Toe Blake on the famed “Punch Line,” Lach was the oldest-living former player to have donned the blue, blanc et rouge of Les Habitants.

Lach led the league in scoring twice and was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 1945, despite the fact that Richard set a league record by scoring 50 goals in 50 games.

The Saskatchewan native retired after 14 seasons as the league’s all-time leading scorer in 1954, with 215 goals, 408 assists and 616 total points in 664 games.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966 and his No. 16 was retired in 2009 by the Canadiens.

Lach, who was easily recognized by his prominent nose, won his final Stanley Cup by scoring in overtime during the deciding game of the 1953 Cup Finals.

However, Lach’s nose was broken when he was struck by Richard’s stick during the on-ice celebration immediately afterward.

“I took the hardest check of my life when the Rocket jumped on top of me when the puck went in,” Lach later said.

(Top: Canadiens’ legend Elmer Lach, shown with Stanley Cup and the broken nose suffered after scoring winning goal in final game of 1953 Finals. Photo credit: CBC.)

Professional baseball team peddles tickets for 4 cents apiece

blue rocks

Opening Day for the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks is still two months away, but Mother Nature didn’t do the Class A minor league baseball team any favors this week.

As a promotional offer, tickets for Blue Rocks’ first home game were aligned with the temperature. Whatever the thermostat read when the box office opened at 8 a.m. Monday, that’s what fans would pay for a ticket for the club’s April 16 home opener.

With the recent cold snap that’s moved through much of the Eastern United States recently, the temperature in Wilmington Monday morning was 4 degrees.

As a result, fans could snap up groups of eight tickets, which normally range for $48 to $88 total, for 32 cents in all, a discount of more than 99 percent, according to ESPN.

“It’s really cold here, and we want to get the fans thinking about us,” said Stefani Rash, director of tickets for the Carolina League affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.

Fans could also order tickets by phone and through the Internet, although they were charged a $5 handling fee.

The Blue Rocks sold about 3,600 Opening Day seats, and more than 200 fans took advantage of the chance to buy eight tickets for a grand total of 32 cents.

This is the second year that the Blue Rocks have held the promotion. Last year the price was 20 cents a ticket, ESPN reported.

Although the team leaves money on the table in the short term, the promotion ensues that fans experience the ballpark on the first day it’s open, Rash said.

If the temperature had dropped to zero or below, the club would have given out tickets for free, according to Rash.

(Top: Wilmington Blue Rocks in action during a game in which a ticket promotion was apparently not being utilized.)