Bill Buckner was much more than a missed ground ball

With the death of baseball star Bill Buckner Monday there were many remembrances of the former All-Star’s great career – his 2,715 career hits, 1980 batting title and, of course, the ground ball that went through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

The latter event, which came with Buckner playing first base for Boston, happened with the Red Sox up 5-3 in the ninth inning and just one out away from breaking a 68-year World Series drought.

Instead, Mookie Wilson of the Mets was able to reach first base, the Mets scored twice to tie the game and then won in extra innings. New York went on to capture Game 7, and the Series, giving the Boston media another fall guy to focus on.

But labeling Buckner as one of baseball’s great goats was a major injustice.

Even beyond Buckner’s strong baseball credentials – he played for 22 seasons, had a .289 career batting average and knocked in more than 1,200 runs – he was hardly the sole reason the Sox lost the ’86 Series.

There were plenty of Boston miscues to go around in Game 6 as the team’s relief pitching faltered, errors by two other players earlier in the game led to Mets’ runs and the Sox blew a 3-0 lead in Game 7.

Buckner was released by the Red Sox midway through the following season and signed with the California Angels, but he ended his career with a final stint back in Boston in 1990. The thing that I will remember most about his career was watching him hobble around bases on bad legs at Fenway Park a few weeks before he retired, at age 40.

On April 25, 1990, during the fourth inning of a game against the California Angels, he lined a pitch from Kirk McCaskill over the head of right fielder Claudell Washington and took off. Washington turned and sprinted toward the right field corner.

The ball bounced off the fence and bounded away just before Washington got to it, but Washington was unable to slow up in time. He ran into the low fence, which was about three feet high, and flipped over it and into the grandstands.

By the time the ball had been retrieved, Buckner had circled the bases, albeit in excruciatingly slow fashion, likely the most protracted inside-the-park home run in MLB history.

The smile on Buckner’s face after the game lit up the Red Sox locker room. When asked the last time he’d hit an inside-the-park homer, Buckner said he thought it was in high school.

It was not only the lone inside-the-park home run of his professional career, it was the last round-tripper he would ever hit in the big leagues.

Buckner was released by the Red Sox a little more than a month later, ending his Major League career.

Thanks to several Red Sox titles since 1986, any grudge notoriously fickle Sox fans might have held against Buckner for the Game 6 error have been forgiven.

Still, for some that one misplayed ground ball overshadowed a fine career and, to a degree, a fine life, but Buckner never lost his composure or his faith in God. He was able come to terms with his role in baseball history.

I remember him for both the inside-the-park home run, the only one I’ve ever seen in the more than 200 Major League games I’ve attended over the past 45 years, and for his class in handling adversity.

He was a good ballplayer and a better man, and he will be missed.

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It’s been 60 years since Giants, Dodgers left New York

Sixty years ago today the Giants and Dodgers wrapped up their final seasons in New York. There are still some around who remember when the Giants called the Polo Grounds home and Brooklyn’s Dodgers toiled in Ebbets Field. For most, though, the two clubs are as much a part of California as the San Andreas Fault.

In reality, the transition to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, was anything but smooth. There were considerable machinations, particularly by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, in the year or so leading up to the move, along with no shortage of hardheadedness by New York City officials.

And while the rivalry between the two clubs continued, almost none of the stars on either club enjoyed anywhere close to the same level of success once the teams relocated.

The Dodgers’ Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine were at the end of their careers and would never realize the same levels of accomplishment they had in Brooklyn. In addition, Jackie Robinson had retired after the 1956 season, Roy Campanella had been paralyzed in an auto accident in January 1958 and others such as Sandy Koufax hadn’t yet become stars.

For the Giants, who by 1957 had a lineup with considerably fewer standouts than the Dodgers, Bobby Thomson, Hank Sauer and Johnny Antonelli were nearing the end of the line and future greats such as Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda had yet to make it to the big league club.

The only star from either club whose fame transcended the shift from East Coast to the West Coast was Willie Mays, who would go on to play for 15 seasons in San Francisco.

Today, it seems difficult to fathom major league baseball without operations on the West Coast. There are not only the Dodgers and Giants, but three other teams in California, along with a club in Seattle. Yes, expansion west was inevitable, but did it have to cost the fans of baseball’s biggest market two its most storied franchises?

Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913 through 1957.

What if, instead of the Giants and Dodgers heading west, the teams had remained in New York and Major League baseball instead had placed expansion franchises in the two cities? The National League did expand in 1962, adding the New York Mets and what was originally known as the Houston Colt .45s, now the Houston Astros. (The American League had expanded a year earlier, also adding two clubs.)

The Mets have won two World Championships and the Astros none since inception, but, at least in the Giants’ case, until recently the results between established franchise and expansion franchise were about the same. The Dodgers have won five titles since moving West, but none since 1988, while the Giants have won three, but didn’t get their first until 2010.

West Coast baseball fans would have been grateful for any big league club in 1958, although in fairness they had enjoyed high-caliber minor league ball through the Pacific Coast League for many decades. In other words, it didn’t have to play out like it did.

Sports and entertainment probably play a larger role in American society than they should. But for many, the diversion of sports can, on occasion, give families a shared interest, bring cities together and provide a common cultural bond.

It wasn’t for nothing that Japanese soldiers used the insult “To hell with Babe Ruth” when attacking US troops during World War II.

The loss of the two clubs left a void in New York, particularly Brooklyn, that has never fully been filled.

The names of O’Malley and then-Giants owner Horace Stoneham still conjure less-than fond memories among old-time New Yorkers, particularly since both seemed opportunistic and unscrupulous schemers who sold out their city and left fans, at least initially, with only the New York Yankees.

Of course, the league’s official stand at the time glossed over any pain on the part of the fans. Then-National League President Warren Giles officially commented on the move of the two clubs in 1957 thusly:

The National League again has demonstrated that it is a progressive organization. The transfer of the Giants and Dodgers means that two more great American municipalities are to have major league baseball without deny another city of the privilege. The National League, and I personally, will miss New York. But it is only human nature to want to reach new horizons.

It was, wrote Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune, “a paragraph or so of singularly rancid prose.”

Today, the Dodgers continue to play in one of baseball’s best parks, Dodger Stadium, while the Giants, after finally discarding the dismal confines of Candlestick Park, now call inviting AT&T Park home.

Except for a few retired numbers – such as those of former Giants Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell and Monte Irvin, and ex-Dodgers Reese, Campanella, Snider and Robinson – there are few reminders of New York within either organization.

(Top: Fans outside the Polo Grounds Sept. 29, 1957, during the New York Giants’ final game.)

Baseball says thanks as Vin Scully prepares to sign off

vin-scully-old-inline

As Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully winds down the last few days of his 67-year career, there are so many things to contemplate about his amazing stretch behind the microphone.

First, many people don’t even live 67 years; few work that long; and it’s safe to say almost no one else has worked for the same employer for that length of time.

Consider that Scully, now 88-years old, began his career in the spring of 1950, when the Dodgers were still playing in Brooklyn, a locale they departed nearly 60 years ago for the West Coast.

As Jayson Stark writes for ESPN, when Scully first began calling Dodgers games, Connie Mack, a man born while Abraham Lincoln was president, was still managing in the major leagues.

I first began listening to Scully in the mid-1970s, when living in Southern California. In the late 1970s, when my family moved to Northern California, I would sometimes catch Scully on far-flung stations, given that listening to baseball, any baseball, was preferable to homework.

(For many years, I thought his name was “Vince Cully,” likely because I’d never heard the name “Vin,” and because “Vin Scully rolled so smoothly off the tongue that I couldn’t discern where the break came. Also, I wasn’t a particularly astute youngster.)

The velvet harmony of Scully’s delivery and his penchant for stories laden with equal parts baseball knowledge, history and humor and left me more than willing to put up with the fact that he worked for the much-reviled Dodgers.

Even when I was 14 or 15 years old, more than 35 years ago, I was staggered by the fact that Scully had begun his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the same club highlighted in Roger Kahn’s 1972 book The Boys of Summer, featuring the likes of Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese,  Don Newcombe, Johnny Podres, etc.

By the time I started listening to Scully on the radio, the Dodgers had been gone from Brooklyn for not even 20 years, but to a 15-year old, the Brooklyn Dodgers were ancient history, not much different from the exploits of Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove or Ty Cobb.

As Stark’s article points out, Scully’s career was expansive, and because he was around so long it encompassed much of baseball’s ancient history, at least tangentially.

Stark includes a comment from Stan Kasten, president and CEO of the Dodgers, who in his current role has spent a considerable time talking baseball with Scully.

“ … we talk about a lot of things,” Kasten explained. “And at one point it comes to where he hates the way major leaguers do rundowns. They all stink at it. … The best way to do a rundown is the full arm fake. The full arm fake stops runners dead in their tracks, and you gently walk over and tag them. That’s the way to do it, you know? And so Vin and I had this thing. Vin said whenever there’s a rundown now he thinks about me, (and) whenever I see a rundown I think about him. And I was discussing this with Vin one day, and I said, ‘This is the right way to do rundowns, and the way I know that is because I read it in stuff that Branch Rickey wrote 70 years ago.’ And Vin says to me, ‘You’re right. That’s right. That’s exactly what Branch and I used to discuss.’ “

Kasten goes on to relate that Branch Rickey, who served as president and general manager of the Dodgers in the 1940s, broke into the major leagues in 1905.

“(So) Vin Scully has talked baseball with people who have played the game from [1905] through yesterday, OK?,” Kasten states. “Who on earth can make that claim? No one. One person. Vin Scully.”

Noted sportscaster Bob Costas added, “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon? It’s probably two, and no more than three, degrees of Vin Scully – to connect you in some way to everything in baseball history. Everything.

“He had to have known somebody … who knew Cy Young. He had to have known somebody who probably met Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb lived until 1961,” Costas added. “If he didn’t know Walter Johnson, he sure as hell talked to somebody who batted against Walter Johnson. … So there is no significant baseball personage that Vin Scully either didn’t know or potentially knew someone who knew them.”

Through it all, Scully has remained a class act. As players, coaches, managers and any number of others have made their way to his press box this season to say goodbye, he’s remained the same humble individual that he was when he broke in in April 1950, when major league baseball consisted of 16 teams and none farther west than St. Louis.

One story relates how a 90-year-old man wanted to meet Scully. Scully, as always, made time not just to meet the man, but chat with him for 10 minutes. The following day, Dennis Gilbert, current White Sox special assistant and a longtime friend of Scully’s heard from the gentleman’s son, “saying how his father says his life is now complete. It was one of the greatest moments of his life to meet Vin. And I called Vin to tell him. … Vin said, ‘Thank ME? I want to thank HIM because of what a great experience it was for me just to meet the gentleman.’”

For me, it’s been a great experience to have been able to listen to Scully over the years when opportunity allowed. There won’t be another like him, but the Dodgers – and baseball – have been fortunate to have had him for so long.

(Top: Vin Scully nearly 60 years ago in the broadcasting booth, back when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.)

Babe Ruth was good, but not quite that good

babe ruth

Impossible to tell which intern is in charge of ESPN’s baseball twitter feed this morning, but apparently someone’s asleep at the switch.

Note the second tweet, posted around 9:45 a.m.: “On this date in 1927, Babe Ruth hit his first HR. He would go on to set a single-season record with 60 home runs.”

Given that the 1927 baseball season finished on Oct. 1, one might be left with the impression that the Babe had one hell of a month, clouting slightly more than two dingers every day for the remainder of the regular season.

In reality, the New York Yankees’ 1927 season began April 12. Ruth, who not only broke the Major League record with 60 homers in ’27 but batted .356 and knocked in 165 runs, did manage to have a spectacular final month of the season.

On Sept. 2, 1927, he hit home run No. 44, off Rube Walberg of the Philadelphia Athletics. On the last day of the month, he connected for No. 60, off Tom Zachary of the Washington Senators, his 17th round-tripper during September, the third-most home runs hit in a month by any player in Major League history.

Not surprisingly, the Yankees were dominant in 1927, finishing 110-44, and sweeping the Pirates in the World Series.

The man who recalls, and records, the glory of old-time baseball

1929 athletics

There are few alive today who remember baseball’s first golden era, that of the 1920s and ‘30s, when greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Charlie Gehringer, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Jim Bottomley, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Lyons, Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, to name but a few, plied their trade on diamonds in a handful of major league cities.

Obviously, the length of time that has elapsed is a major reason – Babe Ruth, for one, retired more than 80 years ago – but there’s also the fact that one would had to have been not only a baseball fan, but located in fewer than a dozen cities to have regularly witnessed the slugging prowess of a Foxx or Ruth or the pitching wizardry of a Grove or Hubbell.

In an era before television, sports highlight shows and big-time commercial endorsements, the only way most Americans ever got to see professional athletes in action was through a trip to the park.

Given that there were only 16 major league teams spread among just 10 cities, ranging from Boston and New York in the east to Chicago and St. Louis in the west, many fans were lucky to see more than a game or two in person, if that.

Given the mastery with which Roger Angell has written about baseball over the decades, it’s hardly surprising that he is among the few still around who saw some of baseball’s first real superstars in person.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell

Born in 1920, he began going to games in New York in the late 1920s, and regularly attended both New York Yankees and New York Giants games. The Yankees featured not only Ruth and Gehrig, but also Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Earle Combs, Red Ruffing, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Lefty Gomez, while the Giants had, in addition to Ott and Hubbell, Bill Terry, Travis Jackson, Bob O’Farrell, Freddie Lindstrom and Freddie Fitzsimmons.

The two teams regularly won or contended for their respective pennants, which meant, in the days before baseball watered its product down with seemingly endless rounds of playoffs, that they would often go on the World Series.

Angell, who today is 95, wrote about his early-baseball memories in his 2006 work Let Me Finish:

My father began taking me and my four-years-older sister to games at some point in the latter twenties, but no first-ever view of Babe Ruth or of the grass barn of the Polo Grounds remains in mind. We must have attended with some regularity, because I’m sure I saw the Babe and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs on more than one occasion. Mel Ott’s stumpy, cow-tail swing is still before me, and so are Gehrig’s thick calves and Ruth’s debutante ankles. Baseball caps were different back then: smaller and flatter than today’s constructions – more like the workmen’s caps that one saw on every street. Some of the visiting players – the Cardinals, for instance – wore their caps cheerfully askew or tipped back on their heads, but never the Yankees. Gloves were much smaller, too, and outfielders left theirs on the grass, in the shallow parts of the field, when their side came in to bat; I wondered why a batted ball wouldn’t strike them on the fly or on the bounce someday, but it never happened.

Angell has written a number of highly regarded baseball books over the years, including Late Innings, Game Time, Season Ticket and The Summer Game, but for all the magnificence of those, it’s tough to beat the above for capturing the beauty of baseball’s early years.

“… Ott’s stumpy cow-tailed swing …” “ … Ruth’s debutante ankles …”  And anyone who recalls the history of the game and the 1930s Gashouse Gang has little trouble imagining the rollicking Cardinals of Hornsby, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Joe Medwick and Leo Durocher wearing their caps askew or pushed back, or of the Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, et al declining to do so.

His ability to recall old-time players with names seemingly gleaned from the best of Dickens is a treat in and of itself: Eppa Rixey, Goose Goslin, Firpo Marberry, Jack Rothrock, Eldon Auker, Luke Appling, Mule Haas, Adolfo Luque, Paul Derringer, Heinie Manush , Van Lingo Mungo – all of whom played six, seven or eight decades ago.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America recognized Angell in 2014 when they honored him with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest award given by the entity.

Angell became the first, and so far only, non-BBWAA member to be so honored since the award’s inception in 1962.

Angell has written on a variety of topics besides baseball with equal aplomb, but there’s something about his ability to cull out the quaint and curious, his understanding of the game and his imminently gifted writing style that makes his baseball prose sparkle.

(Top: Team photo of world champion 1929 Philadelphia Athletics.)

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.)