Sunday, June 12, 2011

Relics of Glorious Bygone Days

Seventy-two years ago today, June 12, 1939, over 10,000 baseball fans and players descended on the peaceful town of Cooperstown, New York to celebrate the first one hundred years of the national pastime and the dedication of the Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame.

Here are some quotes about the celebration:

"The first hundred years are always the hardest and old man baseball took off on his second century today after being hailed and feted at the biggest birthday party tossed him during his 100 year rule as the No. 1 figure in American sport." - The Palm Beach Post

"There were parades, dedications, speakings, a Babe Ruth "comeback," clam bakes, ballgames and what not... The Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame, with its relics of glorious bygone days, was dedicated." -The Palm Beach Post

"Cooperstown, a quiet, lazy hamlet in upstate New York, has never seen such a day as this. Natives from miles around poured into town to see the heroes of baseball - past and present - in the flesh." - The Milwaukee Journal

"Eleven living members of the Hall of Fame renewed feuds and friendships and baseball - as it was displayed in 1839, in the 1850's and in 1939 - was reeled off by teams of schoolboys, soldiers and picked major leaguers, wearing the uniforms of the periods they represented." - The Southeast Missourian

"The professionals, who used to look at baseball with a purely commercial eye, are beginning to see the heart throbs that go with the game. It won't be long before the present day stars get the same sort of sentimentality about their jobs" - F.X. Carpenter, newspaper publisher

I recently visited the Hall of Fame for the first time and was overcome with emotion when seeing the "relics of glorious bygone days." Have you visited? What was your favorite part?  

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Quotes About Opening Day... A Century Ago

Enjoy a few quotes I found from Opening Day 1911!

"The baseball fan this morning awoke from a long Winter's sleep, stretched his arms, yawned and frightened the neighborhood trying out the rusty pipes of his vocal chords." New York Times

"It seems likely that a brilliant and prosperous season for baseball is impending." Thomas Lynch National League President The Pittsburgh Press

"The high water mark in baseball will probably be far eclipsed in the season that began today." B.B. Johnson American League President The Pittsburgh Press

"The mortality rate among grandmothers took an alarming jump if the office boy's doleful plea for an afternoon off could be accepted as a statement of fact." Newburgh (NY) Journal

Are your vocal cords warmed up and ready to cheer on your team for another season?

Monday, September 13, 2010

"The Dodgers, Are They Still in the League?"

I love September. September means my birthday, pumpkin spice lattes, apple cider, sweaters, fall foliage and of course the excitement of pennant races! To me, the drama is much like that of a good suspense novel. I have the same physical reactions of a racing heart and shallow quick breaths during particularly tense moments. I breathe a sigh of relief when "the good guys" make a narrow escape (only to get in trouble again way too soon!). I wonder if the story will end as I predicted from the start or if there will be a shocking twist. Each September as baseball fans watch the drama play out they often look back at the most dramatic surprise endings in the past, the biggest September collapses. Bill Terry's 1934 New York Giants generally make the list. The 1934 Giants' story is complete with drama, the twist ending and foreshadowing.

Terry took over as manager of the Giants in 1932 when John McGraw swallowed his pride and asked his star first baseman to replace him at the helm. This was the first conversation between the two since an argument two years prior. Terry took the struggling Giants and led them to a World Series Championship in 1933. All signs seemed to point to the team returning to the series in 1934.

In those days, just like today, fans, players and journalists sized up the teams and predicted the season's outcome long before the first cry of "Play Ball!" rang out in the spring. This January 1934 Miami News article reports on Terry's response when asked about the threat posed by the Giants' rivals the Brooklyn Dodgers. "The Dodgers, are they still in the league?" And there it is, Chekhov's gun. The comment made national news and riled the Brooklyn fans who vowed to beat the Giants. Come September, as the season was drawing to a close, Terry's comment seemed inconsequential, however. On September 5 Hugh Fullerton wrote that the Giants had a "seven game lead and handsome prospects of settling the pennant race before they leave the Polo grounds again." On that day, the Dodgers were in sixth place, 28 games out of first place and officially eliminated from the pennant race.

A week later, it still wasn't the Dodgers that Bill Terry was concerned about, but the Pirates, who handed the Giants their third straight loss at home. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, "it's big news when the Giants lose three straight games and bigger news when they lose them in their beloved Polo Grounds." For the first time the Giants' playoff chances seemed threatened, with the Saint Louis Cardinals now only four games out of first place. Or, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, "perhaps they haven't the pennant in the bag after all."

It turns out they did not have it in the bag. The Milwaukee Journal describes what happens in the final weeks of the season,
"The way the Giants and Cardinals have been paddling backward at the pennant is a scream.... Every time the Giants faltered some sucker section of the wheel waded in and beat them. The Cards over and over appeared about to expunge themselves from the contender list but each time they stepped into a series with a lot of tough mugs, they suddenly were fighting cripples. At crucial moments the Cards got the breaks by injuries in the ranks of the Phillies, the Cubs, the Braves and the Dodgers. The Giants reached the home stretch sliding on a streak of luck as wide as the Mississippi, while the Cards scrambled home over the lame, the blind and the halt, towed by Dizzy and Daffy Dean."
With just two games left in their schedule the Giants were tied with the Cardinals for the National League title. The team they had to beat to claim the pennant? Chekhov's gun. I mean, the Dodgers. The Dodgers were reportedly, "smiling sinister smiles and licking their chops in anticipation of knocking the New Yorkers off a couple of times over the weekend." Brooklyn's fan's weren't just anxious to ruthlessly prick the Giants' gonfalon bubble because of their long standing rivalry, this Reading Eagle article reports that the fans were "still peeved over Bill Terry's disparaging remark's about their club last winter." They took both games from the Giants while the Cardinals beat the Reds in each of their final two games. The Giants finished two games behind the Cards. The Reading Eagle reported Mr. Terry found out the Dodgers were, in fact, still in the league and "performed the humiliating rite of consuming a large dish of crow." The Cardinals. led by the Dean brothers, went on to beat the Tigers and win the World Series.

Reading about the 1934 Giants' demise makes me approach the final weeks of this season with even more anticipation and an "anything can happen" attitude. It also makes me think about how what I say can come back to bite me. Oh, don't worry friends, I'm not going to stop the friendly trash talking on Facebook and my personal Twitter page. My friends know that my love for the game runs far deeper than any team allegiances. We bond over that love and enjoy the lighthearted sparring. Sure sometimes I have to eat my words when it comes to baseball, but I can handle that. Terry's dish of crow does make me think of the power of words. His words stuck with Dodgers and their fans and maybe gave them an extra incentive to play their hardest in those final games. With two daughters in junior high I have seen how statements that used to get laughed off can now result in tears. The more I use Twitter and Facebook the more I see misunderstandings or disagreements because people feel free to post whatever is on their mind, without much thought of how it will be received. I'll try to remember Bill Terry's lesson and think before I speak because I'd rather spend my September enjoying pumpkin spice lattes and not crow.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Physician of the Pitching Emergency

When New York Giants' Manger John McGraw began using Otis "Doc" Crandall regularly as a relief pitcher during the Deadball Era he employed a new strategy that would eventually become the norm. The report "From Exile to Specialist: The Evolution of the Relief Pitcher" shows that at the beginning of the 1900's more than 80% of games were completed by the starting pitcher and and when averaged out, fewer than .25 relief pitchers appeared per game. By the year 2000, less than 10% of games were complete games and approximately 2.5 relief pitchers appeared per game. This transition saw relievers move from second-rate pitchers with high earned run averages to specialists with low ERAs.

Doc Crandall is generally seen as the first true specialist in relief pitching, leading the league in relief appearances from 1909-1913. Other managers had started to experiment with pitching changes, but McGraw showed the most dedication to honing the relief pitcher strategy and settled in with Doc. Although Crandall served in the starting role as well, he flourished under pressure. In his book Pitching in a Pinch, Crandall's teammate Christy Mathewson tells of a 1911 game that Crandall started after not having served as a starting pitcher for some time. Crandall got in trouble around inning 4 or 5, with three on and none out but managed to get out of it with no runs scored. Mathewson reports,
"After he came to the bench with the threatening inning behind him, he said to me: 'Matty, I didn't feel at home out there until a lot of people got on the bases. I'll be all right now' And he was. I believe Crandall is the best pitcher in a pinch in the National League"
As with many new strategies, the "relief specialist" drew some critique. This New York Times article, "'Old Doc' Crandall Jumps to Federals; Giants' Emergency Pitcher to Cast his lot with the St. Louis 'Outlaw' Team," may have been fueled by sour grapes but it likely states what many were thinking about how Crandall spent his time:
"He's the fellow who had permanent headquarters in deep right field at the Polo Grounds. On the first day of every season Otis started to 'warm up' and when taps were sounded on the season, 'Doc' was still out in his field office 'warming up.' For several seasons he has lead the league at 'warming up.'....His task was not to save the game as much as to make the defeat look less humiliating"
More common than this critical press was praise of Crandall's calm under pressure and his ability to save games in emergency situations. Damon Runyon called him the "physician of the pitching emergency." Grantland Rice wrote,
"He hasn't even an M.D.'s diploma or a license to practice and there is no graven sign above his door. But when Death stalks in, grim and cold, where weeping friends stand around your couch, don't give up hope. Take one more chance and send for Old Doc Crandall, for as this noted specialist comes in the door, Death and the undertaker dive out through the window."
These words were written nearly 1oo years ago but today we still say relievers are called in to "stop the bleeding." I recently reviewed Sarah Freligh's book Sort of Gone. In her poem, "Relief," we see death and relief pitching paired again. This time the reliever is compared to death itself and is again a welcome sight. The starting pitcher, watching his mother die, is reminded of how he feels waiting for a reliever to rescue him from humiliation on the mound:
"Seeing her, you realize there's nothing
left, nothing to do but wait for Death
to emerge from the bullpen, begin his slow
showy walk from the outfield to the mound
black satin jacket shrouding his shoulders.
The end, at last, relief."
Whether the relief pitcher is sending death and the undertaker diving out the window, acting as merciful death himself or "leading the league in warming" up depends on perspective. There are many lessons I can learn from the evolution of relief pitching but right now I'm reminded to broaden my perspective. If I think someone is making a strange decision I can ask them, in a respectful way, what led to their choice. Maybe they are like McGraw, trying out new strategies that at the time seem strange but in the future may become the norm.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mechanicsburg Nine Wins Over New Cranks

"Two hands, two hands" the players yelled to each other from the field behind the West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. The next man came up and hit a ball soaring into the outfield. After it bounced on the dry grass, the outfielder caught the ball with his bare hands and the side was retired. This was obviously not your typical baseball game or church softball league. No, this was the first home game of the Mechanicsburg Nine Vintage Base Ball Club and they were hosting the Eurekas from Bohemia, part of the Elkton (MD) Base Ball club. Both teams are new teams in the Midatlantic Vintage Base Ball League which play by 1864 rules.

When my husband, daughter and I arrived at the field we were handed a paper, "Base Ball: 19th Century Rules & Traditions." This handout provided the fans or "cranks" with some basic information about what we could expect to see differ from a modern day game. We immediately noticed the Nine's authentic-looking uniforms and the equipment they had on their bench which set the stage so we felt as if we actually did step back into the 19th century.

My family was not exactly as excited as I was about going to the game but they were intrigued by the unique aspects of the vintage game. My daughter and I laughed as we learned that "hands" were outs. We discussed that we both had thought that the calls of "one hand" and "two hands" had referred to some rule about making one-handed or two-handed catches. Kayla said, "I thought that made sense until the first time they said "that's three hands!"

The Mechanicsburg Nine did an excellent job of explaining the rules of the game to the spectators. One time a ball came into the crowd and everyone yelled "don't touch it" and "it's still in play." Later, when asked about the play the Nine's first baseman, Justin ("Bulldog") explained that the runner could keep advancing until the ball is returned even if it goes into where we were sitting because, well, "you all wouldn't have been here!" Bulldog took time to check in with the "cranks" and answer any other questions we had about the rules. He even passed around a ball so we could all see what they call the lemon peel design.

After the game, I got a closer look at the bats and the bases, which were stuffed with hay and sawdust. I did not, however, see gloves because there were no gloves! Watching the teams catch the ball barehanded and the fact that the ball could bounce once and be caught for an out were the two aspects of the game my family commented on the most. You might be thinking that the bounce rule made it easier on the players' hands but don't forget about those line drives and even a ball caught on a bounce can sting, I'm sure. Plus, one member of the Eureka's found out what happens when you try to let a ball drop and catch it on the bounce in order to save your hands. He was booed. After the play, one of the Mechanicsburg Nine instructed us that it isn't "manly" and we should boo if anyone does that, even if it's one of their own players.
The fans cheered when the Nine ended the first game with a score of 14-8 over the Eurekas. The Nine did more than win the game, they won over the fans. I knew I would I love taking a trip back to my favorite era of baseball but the Nine made the experience educational and fun for the spectators who are NOT obsessed with baseball history like me. My daughter and husband both said they want to go back to another game!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Greatest Manager that Ever Stepped in Shoe Leather?

If your favorite team is falling behind, or worse, dead last in the division, it's not time to become depressed. It's time to rustle up hope and start believing in miracles such as the 1914 "Miracle Braves." This point in the season is when the mood started to change for George Stallings and his Boston Braves. They went from last place as late as July 15 to sweeping the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Stallings's unique management approach, while too abrasive for some, seemed to bring out the best in many of his players and played a role in the 1914 team's success.

The Georgia native wore street clothes to manage games but by all accounts his demeanor on the field was in stark contrast to the kind southern gentleman Stallings was off the field. During games Stallings would yell at his players and call them names. He could forgive mechanical errors but would attack players for dumb mistakes. He is sometimes given credit for coining the term "bonehead" in 1897 when referring to his Philadelphia Phillies team. Whether or not the Phillies are the original boneheads (sorry, this Braves fan couldn't resist), the term was one of Stallings's favorites and was used freely.

One popular Stallings story tells of him saying he'll let "bonehead" have a try at pinch hitting and five or six Braves picking up their bat, assuming they were the intended bonehead. Like many anecdotes, the details of this story vary a bit each time it's told and actually the earliest account I could find, a September 1914 newspaper article, doesn't use the term bonehead at all, but "ivory head."

Be it bonehead, ivory head, dunce, clown or simpleton, if he messed up, the player knew one of these jabs was coming his way. The 1897 Philadelphia team didn't respond to Stallings's style of management and he was soon replaced by a more mild-mannered leader. While he had his share of critics, he had as many, if not more, fans. Stallings's style was a strategy and not simply a personality. Harold Kaese explains in The Boston Braves, 1871-1953, "Stallings was a brilliant strategist and tactician, but he excelled as a handler of men. His theme song was, 'You can win, you must win, you will win.' He was a salesman who peddled determination and self-confidence."

Hub Perdue, a pitcher who played for the Braves said, "George Stallings is the greatest manager that ever stepped in shoe leather." He went on to claim,
"On the ballfield Stallings is the meanest man in the world. When he starts to 'ride' you he can tell you things about yourself that you never knew. he will make you wish the earth would open up and swallow you whole. You quit the field thinking that you are ticketed for the minors. But the next day you invariably read in the papers where Stalling says you are the best ball player on this earth or anywhere else."
Purdue claimed the only mistake the manager ever made was getting rid of him!

I can't imagine working for someone who makes me wish the earth would open up and swallow me whole. Well, that's not exactly true. I can imagine it. I've been there. What I can't imagine is wanting to work for someone who makes me feel like that! Stallings had a .495 overall winning percentage as a manager and the Miracle Braves were his only Pennant and only World Series win. Do you consider him a successful manager? Would you have found his tactics motivating?

Friday, July 9, 2010

There's No Place in America That's Not Part of a Major-League Ballfield

"There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield." I just read W.P. Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and I can't get the image out of my head. Gideon Clarke's father is explaining to him why baseball is the perfect game.
"There's no limit to how far a man might possibly hit a ball, and there's not limit to how far a fleet outfielder might run to receive it. The foul lines run on forever, forever diverging. There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield."
The realist in me wants to dissect the statement but I had to let go of the realist in order to enjoy the fantasy in the rest of the book, which I did. As I was making the twelve hour drive home from vacation I imagined a baseball soaring over the highway, hit by a slugger in a faraway ballpark. What a magical thought.

Watching a ball leave the park is magical in itself, even if it doesn't cross highways and state boarders after it crosses the wall. This was especially true in the early days of baseball when home runs were less common than they are today and outside the park home runs were almost unheard of. When Roger Connor of the New York Giants became the first batter to hit a ball over the fence of the Polo Grounds in 1886 his home run was just one of 21 for the entire team that season. It took seven years of batters trying to get one out of the park before Connor was successful against Boston Beaneater Old Hoss Radbourn. The New York Times reported that Radbourn threw Connor a solid ball and "he met it squarely and it soared upward with the speed of a carrier pigeon." The crowd cheered as they watched the ball fly over the fence, and Connor was "gazed upon in wonderment by Radbourn and the other members of the Boston team."

Connor is also credited with hitting the first grand slam home run, another feat which left the opposing team gazing in wonderment, no doubt. For 23 years after retiring Connor was the all-time home run leader. When Babe Ruth hit his 139th home run in 1921 he took over the career home run crown. At that time, however, no one was aware that the title had been passed from Connor to Ruth because statistics did not hold the allure that they do to baseball fans today.

In some respects the fans have changed. They are devouring statistics and anxiously following races. In some respects the game has changed. Outside the park home runs are more common than inside the park and no longer warrant a newspaper article. In many ways, however, we have remained the same. Baseball still captures our imagination and binds fans together, binds America together. "There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield." W.P. Kinsella wrote it in 1986, but William H. Rowe knew it in 1909 when he penned "With New York in 1884," a poem that appeared in Verse and Toast: Series 1. He writes of the 1884 Giants which included Roger Connor:

Buck took the bat and smashed it, The ball sailed like a bird;
It landed in a window At Third ave and Thirty-third.
Connor, Mighty Roger
He knocked it to Central Park.
Van Haltren and Mike Tiernan
Both hit a swimming shark
Away out near Coneys, That island dear and fair,
Coneys, sweet, sweet Coneys, Where your trouble sinks wid care;

There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield.

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