Sunday, September 26, 2010
Events soon overtook Castro's good intentions however. On July 26, 1959 celebratory gunfire in or around Havana's Gran Stadium injured Sugar Kings shortstop Leo Cardenas and Rochester Red Wings coach Frank Verdi. The Red Wings left Havana immediately. The 1959 Little World Series between Havana and Minneapolis was a travesty, with bearded armed rebel soldiers in the stands and on the field, and an obviously intimidated Millers team (which included a young Carl Yastrzemski) feeling lucky just to escape Cuba with their lives. On July 8, 1960 Castro nationalized all foreign-owned businesses, and the Sugar Kings were pulled out of Havana by Commissioner Ford Frick and hastily transferred to Jersey City. Then the trade embargo took hold, and for the next four decades, no professional U.S. baseball team would visit Cuba.
Fidel Castro poses with nervous members of the Minneapolis Millers during the 1959 Little World Series in Havana.
Fast forward to 1999. After extensive negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Cuban government, and with the acquiescence of the State Department, who could have quashed the event, it was announced that the Baltimore Orioles would travel to Havana to play an exhibition game against a hastily-assembled team of Cuban all-stars on March 28th. This is something I had to witness, but with the travel ban very much still on, how?
I wrote previously (August 2009) about my trip to Cuba in 1993 as part of a group of baseball-playing (if aging) Americans. That trip had been organized by a group who had obtained all necessary licenses for travel to Cuba, so all I had to do was pay and show up. Six years later was quite a different story. My efforts to attach myself to one of the baseball or media groups licensed to travel with the Orioles game came to naught. It was also a darker, tenser time in my life. Business was extremely stressful and my marriage was unraveling. Still, I just had to go.
In the end I opted to go under the radar - that is illegally - purchasing a seat on a Canadian charter flight from Vancouver bound for the beaches of Varadero, about two hours east of Havana. My inquiries had shown that it was possible to ask the Cuban immigration officials to stamp one's visa (a loose piece of paper) rather than your passport, thereby not leaving any evidence of your trip when you returned home. This was a bit more serious than it sounds. Because of the trade embargo, one cannot use U.S. credit cards or ATM machines in Cuba, nor can you depend on the U.S. Interest Section (there is no embassy) for help if you get into trouble, as you are not supposed to be there in the first place. I booked and pre-paid for my hotel with a Canadian travel agency, at least assuring (I hoped) that my lodging would be ready when I got there after a long day of travel and that I would not have to carry quite so much cash with me into the country.
My arrival into Havana could not have been more different from 1993. Getting there after dark during one of the city's regular blackouts was unnerving enough, but it was quite unexpected when the desk clerk at the Hotel Plaza (the same place I had stayed in '93) told me the hotel was full and refused to even look at the "confirmed reservation", which I had thoughtfully produced for his inspection. His advise was that I should walk around Havana and find another hotel. The total lack of streetlights makes this part of Havana seem somewhat sinister, and after trying to locate a hotel in these circumstances proved unproductive, I returned to the Plaza and in my best Spanish summoned all the indignation I could and demanded a room. One was magically found for me on the second floor (this despite the hotel being "full").
The next challenge was actually procuring a ticket to the game. All the Cubans I spoke with were aware of the game, but no one seemed to know how to get a ticket. Cuba is a closed society with only official media allowed, so (as in the old Soviet Union) rumor and speculation fill the vacuum where reliable information normally would be. Whole days were literally spent (and wasted) trying to find an elusive ticket. The Americans I encountered who were there to cover the game for the media treated me like I had the plague as soon as they found out I was there "unofficially". No help there. The Cubans were all very interested in helping me, just no one knew how. I even ran into Mets shortstop Ray Ordonez' uncle outside the ballpark and he tried and failed to get me in. I soon learned that no tickets at all were being sold, and that passes to the game were only being passed out to selected loyal citizens at their workplaces.
There was also the matter of security. This event was a very big deal for the Cuban government, and they were not taking any chances. I learned that a five-ring perimeter of security would be formed around Estadio Latinamericano (formerly Gran Stadium) on game day. Not only did I not have a ticket, it appeared unlikely I would even get within blocks of the ballpark. It was looking like I came all this way, and took all this risk, for nothing. (Well, not quite nothing. The city has certain charms, and I kept myself busy partaking of Cuban rum, tobacco and other temptations that Havana has to offer).
Eventually when game time came I decided I had to try to get in. I hitched a ride in a motorcycle sidecar (in itself a great adventure) and rode toward the stadium. The motorcyclist took me as far as he dared, for there were indeed men in military dress everywhere. I still am not sure I had a definite plan in mind at this point. Fortunately, as in many dictatorships I have traveled in, security was ample, but not necessarily very efficient. I found a gap down one of the side streets, and ambled toward the park, keeping a careful eye behind me to make sure I wasn't being followed (don't try this yourself, kids!) Not only did I remain unmolested, but I saw a young man standing by himself nonchalantly holding a piece of paper that turned out to be a coveted pass to the game. After a five dollar bill changed hands, I was in! (There would be one more scare when the security officer who examined the passes sized me up and looked momentarily confused, but he waved me in).
Once inside the stadium I could hardly contain my excitement. The atmosphere was electric, with Cuban flags being waved everywhere in an expression of nationalistic pride. Almost all of Cuba's best players were on hand to face Los Orioles. There were no rock videos or scoreboard antics. Treats seemed to be limited to bottles of Mexican Coke and ice in brown paper cones. This was pure baseball, and I was in one of the most ecstatic and knowledgeable baseball crowds in the world.
The fans around me were obviously curious about my presence (all the "official" Americans were seated in the same section near home plate), and gave me a good-natured ribbing about the Americans' chances. Suddenly there was an announcement and every single patron around me stood up immediately and became absolutely rigid with attention. Fidel Castro, in his famous olive fatigues, strode across the field and went to greet the Oriole players. After then talking with the Cuban team he took a seat behind home plate between Commissioner Bud Selig and Orioles owner Peter Angeles, as the Cuban national anthem was played.
Castro greets Oriole manager Ray Miller.
I will never forget what happened next. Over the ancient public address system I heard the scratchy sound of a needle being dropped in a groove on a very well-played phonograph record. Next came the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner. I am not normally given over to displays of patriotic emotion, but as this happened it occurred to me that this was the first time our national anthem had been played in this ballpark since July 1961, and that this was likely the exact same record that was last played then. I was literally moved to tears.
Oh, the game itself. It could not have been any better. A 3-2 Oriole win in the 11th inning in a game that featured great pitching, stellar fielding and clutch hitting. To put this result in perspective: You had the Orioles, a team in the top echelon of U.S. professional baseball and an $80 million payroll barely beating a squad of hastily-assembled players from a poor country who had just come together the week before, and whose average pay was $10 a month (Cuba would go on to rout the Orioles in their re-match later that year in Baltimore).
It was assumed at the time that this would be the beginning of the end of the freeze between the two countries (at least in the baseball sense) and that games like this would soon be routine, but it was not to be. Eleven years later, no U.S. major league team has returned to Cuba. A different Castro is now president, but the other one lingers on, still not ready to relinquish the stage he has commanded for a half-century. Cuba still produces some of the best baseball players on the planet, and maybe, just maybe, that old phonograph record of the Star Spangled Banner is in some office in Havana's ballpark, waiting for next time.
Our Flannel of The Month is Fidel Castro's (#19) jersey from Los Barbudos ("the Bearded Ones"), the Cuban leader's barnstorming team. Although Castro was not known for his baseball prowess, he managed two strikeouts in two innings of work in an exhibition game against a Cuban police team. No doubt friendly umpiring was a factor. Next month's FOTM post will come to you from Laos!
Monday, August 23, 2010
Thomson - wearing #7 - debuted with the Giants organization on April 18, 1946 in Jersey City. If we don't know much about Thomson's performance or feelings that day, it is understandable, as he was overshadowed by another young player making his debut for the visiting Montreal Royals. After all no one knew that in five years the young Thomson would be responsible for perhaps baseball's most famous home run. But no one watching Jackie Roosevelt Robinson that day had any doubt that history was being made. With the eyes of the nation on him, the first African-American player in an official game in organized baseball went 4-for-5 (including a three-run homer and two bunt singles), batted in four runs, and scored four. The fact that the Royals walloped Jersey City was 14-1 was almost incidental.
Robinson being congratulated after his first home run, at Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, April 18, 1946.
Both players were promoted to their respective big league clubs after their one season in the International League. Robinson led the league in almost everything. Although Thomson's accomplishments were more modest, he set a Little Giants home run record with 26, and the Scotsman's power was enough reason to make the move across the river to the Polo Grounds by the end of the year.
Fast forward to 1951. The trajectories of these two players lead inexorably to the October day that ended the National League season. Having now spent five full seasons with these rival teams, these two players were hardened veterans, and they knew each other well. (The Dodgers and Giants played each other 22 times a year in those days). Robinson, having been freed of the shackles imposed by Branch Rickey his first two seasons was now a defiant, confident, and controversial player, at the height of his skills. Thomson, never a great fielder, had to abdicate his center field position and move to third base to accommodate the most sensational black player since Robinson, the young Willie Mays. But both were having great seasons (Robinson and Thomson finished sixth and eighth, respectively in MVP voting that year).
The Dodgers got off to a roaring start, and by August 11th had amassed a 13 1/2 game lead. Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen had famously (if ungrammatically) declared "The Giants Is Dead". But Leo Durocher's Giant club fought back ferociously, winning 37 of their last 44 games, including their final seven. Only a Brooklyn victory against the Phillies on the last day of the season (on Jackie Robinson's dramatic 14th-inning home run, no less), salvaged a tie for first with New York. The stage was set for a special three-game playoff to decide the National League pennant and the right to face the remaining New York club - the Yankees - in the World Series. (The Yankees were having a historic year of their own. It was the last season of Joe DiMaggio and the first of Mickey Mantle).
Playoffs were only used to break ties in the days before the leagues had divisions, so there was far more drama to this series than there is for today's league playoffs. Dodgers manager Dressen won a coin toss and oddly chose to play only the first game at Ebbets Field (he could have elected to start the series in Manhattan and have the final two games in Brooklyn). What few remember today is that the Giants won the first game 3-1 on a Bobby Thomson two-run homer off (you guessed it) Ralph Branca. The Dodgers easily dominated the Giants at the Polo Grounds the next day (if the Giants were indeed stealing signs, as was learned years later, it didn't do them much good that day against rookie Clem Labine, who shut them out 10-0). This set up the deciding Game Three on October 6.
Seven taut innings of baseball produced a 1-1 tie, with those 1946 rookie opponents Robinson and Thomson each responsible for batting in the lone run for their respective team. But in the top of the eighth the Dodgers broke it open, scoring three against future teammate Sal Maglie. The Bums confidently took the field in the bottom of the ninth, sitting atop a 4-1 lead, and needing just three outs for the pennant. However a tiring Don Newcombe, pitching on just two days' rest, allowed a double to Whitey Lockman, scoring Alvin Dark. (It was Robinson who had persuaded Newcombe to stay in the game). Two on, one out, Dodgers up by two. Dressen had Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca warming up in the bullpen. Thomson had hit Branca hard all year and homered off him for the game winner in Game One, so Erskine was the obvious choice. But bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth thought he saw Erskine bouncing his curve and recommended Branca instead. (Sukeforth would later pay for this decision with his job).
Thomson stepped to the plate saying to himself "If you're gonna hit one, hit one now, you S.O.B". Willie Mays was in the on-deck circle praying the game not be left up to him. As Mays admitted years later, as a 20-year old rookie he simply was not ready for the pressure of that moment - not yet anyway. Thomson took the first pitch for a strike. Branca reeled back and delievered his second pitch. We all know what happened next. Thomson drove Branca's high inside fastball over the left field wall, and into history. "The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant!". The Dodgers had lost the title on the last day of the season for the third time in six years.
At the Polo Grounds, the clubhouses were beyond center field, more than 500 feet from home plate, and the Dodger players, who had to suffer the indignity of trudging all the way across the field to escape the joyful delirium of the Giants and their fans, began their long painful exit. All the Dodgers that is, except one. Jackie Robinson stood quietly and waited until he was sure that Bobby Thomson had touched every base.
Jackie Robinson watches the Giants celebrate Bobby Thomson's home run.
Our flannel of the month is Bobby Thomson's 1946 Jersey City Giants shirt, #7.
Monday, July 26, 2010
In my line of work, I see a lot of statistics from lesser-known teams and players. The Negro leagues, for example, were notoriously poor at record keeping, so even won-and-loss records can be suspect. Many records in the lower minors were also spotty, and a few dedicated researchers have painstakingly reconstructed some of these records only in relatively recent times.
Sometimes very little real information can be gleaned. A ballplayer's entire career can be reduced to one sentence in a reference book. More questions are raised than answered. Other times just by looking at seemingly bland lines of text, a story begins to emerge, though the totality of that story remains shrouded in mystery. Such is the case of one Cosmo Como Cotelle. Born in 1904 in St. James Parish, LA, on the Cajun Coast, Cotelle played 21 seasons for 21 different clubs in minor league baseball. He had a lifetime .323 average, hit over .300 in eighteen of those seasons, and yet never played a single major league game.
Cosmo Cotelle's lifetime statistics
Despite his impressive statistics and lengthy career, little beyond the dry numbers on the page seems to be known about Cotelle. I could not locate a single photograph of Cosmo, or any mention of him besides his career stats and a brief listing on a few of the many rosters he was on. When we look at his career as a chronological table of data, the mind wants to fill in the blanks of the story. For example, it seems Cotelle started out as a left-handed pitcher, compiling a middling 7-8 record his rookie season for the Rock Island Islanders of the Mississippi Valley League. The fact that the 21-year old hit .336 that season and only pitched seven games the following year with Marshalltown probably means that his bat was more noticed than his arm, and the fledgling southpaw hurler was converted to an outfielder.
Members of the Davenport Blue Sox in a photo op with sponsor Iowana Farms Milk Co. Cosmo Cotelle hit .407 as a member of the 1933 Blue Sox (leading the Missouri Valley League), but he is strangely missing in the above team photo. Maybe he thought being photographed in uniform drinking from a milk bottle was undignified?
The fact that Cotelle spent 21 years playing for as many teams is also interesting. Starting in Class D, he quickly moved up and down the minor league levels, and through different major league organizations, with startling frequency. Up from Marshalltown to Danville, then Houston, then back to Danville (all in the Cardinals organization). Still with St. Louis, he got as far as Rochester before being acquired by Hartford, a Brooklyn affiliate, in 1932. His best season proved to be 1933, when he hit .407 for Davenport, scored 106 runs, and stole 31 bases. The majors must have seemed very close. (Cotelle was involved in a controversy while with Davenport. Because he never had his contract notarized, he was able to sign as a free agent with another team for a $500 bonus for the 1934 season. The Blue Sox' management was not happy to lose his services because of this technicality).
After lingering at the top levels of the minors through the early and mid 30s, he hit a peak at age 31 in 1936 when (by now with the New York Giants organization) he hit .309 for the Memphis Chicks and was promoted to AA Indianapolis, where he seems to have been a disappointment, as he ended up back down at A-level Albany the next two seasons, and then started a gradual decline as he aged, landing at Class C Erie in 1941 after passing through five more major league organizations in dizzying succession. His age seems to have been the reason there is not a big gap in his stats during the war, as he was probably too old by this time to serve. The vacancies created by the temporary disappearance of so many players in wartime also probably explains why Cotelle was promoted back up to the higher levels of the minors in the twilight years of his career. But his peripatetic ways continued, as he played for six different teams his last six seasons, ending with Scranton (where he hit .314 at the age of 40), and finally Louisville, in 1945.
It must have occurred to Cotelle that with thousands of players due to return to organized ball in 1946, the chances for a 40-year old minor league outfielder were pretty slim, but Cotelle was not quite finished with baseball just yet. He joined the El Paso Texans of the Mexican National League in 1946, hitting .347 at the ripe old age of 41 before finally hanging up his spikes. (The Texans were managed by Andy Cohen. A teammate on the '33 Blue Sox was pitcher Irving Cohen. Hey, we Cohens notice this stuff, as there has been a serious shortage of Cohens in the baseball profession.)
So we tip our hat (our 1933 Davenport Blue Sox hat!) to Cosmo Cotelle. Maybe not one of baseball's legends, but we can think of no player who more typifies the journeyman ballplayer of the mid-20th Century. The kind of player whose legacy only exists in a few fading memories, in some correspondence in a file, or in the cold black and white of a sheet of baseball statistics.
Cosmo Como Cotelle amassed a .323 lifetime average and 2,730 hits in his long career. We do not know what kind of life he lead from 1946 when he gave up his baseball dreams, to his death in Chicago on Christmas Day in 1975.
If you know more about Cosmo Cotelle (or better yet, have a photograph of him) please let us know. We will reward you with a free 1933 Davenport Blue Sox cap.
Our Flannel of the Month is Cosmo Cotelle's 1945 Scranton Miners jersey. It has the World War II Stars & Stripes patch on the left sleeve and number on back, and is available for the special $99 Flannel of the Month price for a limited time. We also have Cosmo Cotelle's 1933 Davenport Blue Sox cap in stock. And of course, if you want any jersey from Cosmo's 21 different teams, you know who to ask).
This just in: Our readers are the best! Received three photos of Cotelle this morning. Best one is from Bud Holland. Cosmo is shown second from left in bottom row:
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
When we look back at the events of 1947 and marvel at Robinson's triumph, we sometimes have the mistaken impression that the floodgates opened in 1947, discrimination was banished, and we all lived happily ever after. But a full six years after Robinson's groundbreaking first season, only half of major league clubs had in fact integrated. In fact, baseball integration came in fits and starts, and in some places it seemed it might not come at all.
After a post-war boom in the fortunes of minor league baseball, by the early fifties televised major league games had begun to take a huge toll on the minors' coffers. The Cotton States League, with teams in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana was no exception. The owners of the Hot Springs Bathers decided to try to reverse their fortunes by signing two African-American pitching prodigies, the Florida-born brothers Jim and Leander Tugerson. Both were members of the Negro American League's Indianapolis Clowns (Jim having roomed with rookie Henry Aaron in 1952).
The move sent shock waves throughout the league, and also exposed deep regional divisions (the Arkansas and Louisiana clubs were generally tolerant, while the Mississippi teams were adamantly opposed). The Bathers were accused of "treason" by League president Al Haraway, and Mississippi's attorney general J.P. Coleman claimed that his state's constitution prohibited integrated games. The Bathers' offer to use the Turgesons only in home games was not accepted, and on April 6 the league voted to expel Hot Springs. To his credit, National Association president Trautman ruled against the league, but bowing to pressure, the Bathers reassigned both brothers to the Knoxville Smokies of the Mountain States League, with whom they had a working agreement.
Desperately needing pitching help, and doing poorly in attendance, Hot Springs recalled Jim Tugerson from Knoxville on May 20th. Haraway issued instructions to the umpires to forfeit the game if Tugerson's name appeared in the line-up. To the displeasure of a capacity crowd, the game was indeed forfeited. Although the forfeiture was later voided by Trautman, it came too late for Tugerson, who was sent back to Knoxville where he received a much warmer welcome, winning 33 games (including four playoff victories) a league record. The Smokies even had a "Jim Tugerson Night" where black fans were admitted free.
Integration was postponed in the CSL for the time being, but Jim Tugerson was not finished. He sued the Cotton States League for having his civil rights violated and denying him the opportunity to earn a living playing baseball. Circuit court judge John Miller dismissed his claim on the basis that it was a private, not federal matter, but Tugerson's contract was sold to Dallas, thereby giving him an opportunity to play professional ball at a higher level. He eventually retired in 1957, having also pitched at Amarillo and in Panama, but made a dazzling comeback back with Dallas in 1958, using a new sidearm delivery. Sadly, AAA Dallas was as close as he got to the majors, and Jim Tugerson finally retired for good in 1959. His brother Leander had worn out his arm back in Knoxville and never recovered his form. The Cotton States League finally integrated in 1954, when the same Hot Springs Bathers signed local outfielder Uvoyd Reynolds and first baseman Howard Scott. The league folded for good in 1955.
We are offering both the Jim Tugerson Hot Springs Bathers flannel and Knoxville Smokies flannel for $99 each for a limited time.
Research used in this post came from the SABR bio project and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Waddell was an imposing 6' 1" 190 pounds, and had an intimidating fastball, which he combined with a wicked curve, as well as great control. He was the most dominating strikeout pitcher of his era. He pitched for five major league clubs, but it was his colorful personality and odd behavior that prevented him from staying with any team for very long, and perhaps from having an even greater career than he did.
A few of the stories about Waddell: He would leave the dugout and wander off in the middle of games. Opposing players would hold up puppies and shiny objects, knowing Rube could be easily distracted. He was so bad with money that the A's paid him in dollar bills - doled out a few at a time. Waddell once wrestled an alligator. He was contractually prohibited from eating crackers in bed. He claimed to have lost track of how many women he had married. He would miss starts because he was fishing or playing marbles with street kids (though the stories of him running off the mound in the middle of a game to chase fire engines are probably apocryphal). Alcohol certainly exacerbated his behavioral eccentricities. Today he might be diagnosed as autistic, or a borderline personality. Thousands would no doubt be spent by his team on therapy and medical tests, or most likely, his personality quirks would prevent him from reaching the big leagues at all. But at the time the most common description of him was that of a big kid who wouldn't grow up.
George Edward Waddell was born on Friday the 13th, October 13, 1876 in Bradford, Pa. He grew up in Butler County - oil country - the son of a Scottish immigrant. News of his prowess on the mound in local semi-pro leagues was enough to be offered a contract by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1897 without ever having spent a day in the minors. However it was Rube's fate to be seated next to Bucs manager Patsy Donovan for his first team meal. After hearing Waddell speak, Donovan released him immediately, without ever having Rube throw a pitch. Waddell spent most of the next two seasons playing semi-pro and minor league ball, before finally joining Louisville (major league at the time) and winning seven of nine decisions. Waddell went back to Pittsburgh when most of the Louisville players were transferred there in 1900, and finished second in the league in strikeouts, though he was suspended by player-manager Fred Clarke, who had no use for Rube's eccentricities. Waddell found himself playing semi-pro ball in Puxsutawney, Pa. when he was spotted by Connie Mack - at the time managing Milwaukee in the new American League. However, as he was still the property of Pittsburgh and Mack had to return Waddell to the Pirates after Rube won ten games in one month with Milwaukee and the Pirates wanted him back.
After quickly wearing out his welcome again in Pittsburgh, he spent some time with the Chicago Orphans, and then went back to semi-pro and barnstorming. It was on a western barnstorming swing that Waddell was enticed to sign with the Los Angeles Looloos of the California League (the forerunner of the Pacific Coast League). The Looloos (whose nickname, incredibly, had nothing to do with Waddell) were locked in a pennant race with the Oakland Dudes, and the league (which the next season would become the legendary Pacific Coast League) was an outlaw circuit fighting for west coast legitimacy against the rival Pacific National League.
During the 1902 season Connie Mack - now in Philadelphia and desperate for pitching - learned that Rube was playing ball out on the Coast. He dispatched two Pinkerton agents to Los Angeles with instructions to return with Waddell. It was under the patient tutelage of Mack that Waddell experienced his only period of relative stability. He found an ideal battery-mate (and drinking buddy) in catcher Osee "Schrek" Schrecongost, and won 24 games and led the league in strikeouts despite playing only slightly longer than half the season. The Athletics doubled their attendance from the year before, and Waddell was such a popular draw around the league that he was credited with saving the junior circuit from bankruptcy. Numerous products, from soap to cigars, bore his name.
1903 was a rocky year for Waddell. In July league president Ban Johnson suspended him for climbing into the stands and attacking a spectator who had baited him. After missing one too many starts, Mack also had had enough, and suspended him in late July for the duration of the season. Waddell spent the off-season tending bar in Camden, NJ, and appearing in a theatre company melodrama called "The Stain Of Guilt". Waddell's thespian exploits soon came to an end, though, when he was unceremoniously dumped from the production after a dispute over pay.
In 1904 Waddell was the opposing pitcher and made the last out during Cy Young's perfect game. He struck out 349 batters that season, his second straight 300+ season, a record that would not be equalled until Sandy Koufax did it in 1965-66.
Waddell's long decline began with a strange incident late in the 1905 season. He fell and injured his shoulder while fighting over a straw hat with teammate Andy Coakley. Tensions had also developed between Waddell and Schrecongost, who had "taken the pledge" to stop drinking. Mack - who believed Rube was never the same after the straw hat incident - sold him to the St. Louis Browns in 1908 in the "interest of team harmony". At the same time, Waddell's wife sued him for divorce and Rube was accused of assault against his wife's parents, a situation which prevented him from pitching in Boston when his team traveled there. His tenure with the Browns was still a success, however, as St. Louis nearly doubled its attendance after signing him. In what must have been sweet revenge, Waddell struck out 16 of his former teammates on July 29th, tying the league record. But by 1910 his skills were fading, and the Browns released Waddell, leaving Rube to bounce around the minors for a few more seasons (including a 20-game winning campaign for the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association).
Waddell contracted pneumonia in 1912 while spending hours standing in icy water in Kentucky, helping a town trying to ward off a flood. His health declining, he moved to a sanatorioum in San Antonio, Texas, with Connie Mack paying the medical bills. He died at the age of 37 on April 1st, 1914, April Fools Day. Rube Waddell was elected to the Baseball Hall Of Fame in 1946.
Rube Wadell (kneeling, far left) with Connie Mack (center, in bowler hat) and the Philadelphia Athletics.
Our new Flannel of the Month is the 1902 Rube Waddell Los Angeles Looloos jersey, $99 for a limited time. (No jersey numerals were worn during this era).
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
The most famous of these experiments occurred 60 years ago in the Pacific Coast League - where colorful and unusual uniforms were already a proud tradition. Hollywood Stars manager Fred Haney had been thinking about the problem for some time. He had also been influenced by a column in the Los Angeles Times by Braven Dyer musing why baseball was so slow to change its fashions. Haney then saw a touring British soccer team, and the idea of the shorts was born. The manager still had to think of how to present his brainstorm to his players, however - ballplayers being a somewhat conservative bunch sartorially. I'll let Hollywood player Chuck Stevens take it from here:
"The players walked into the clubhouse and there were clothes boxes from the concrete floor to the ceiling. We knew nothing about this. There were four or five people with measuring tapes around their necks. When the whole club had arrived, Fred Haney suggested to our clubhouse man that he lock the door. Then he opened the boxes. There were shorts! Wasn't anybody escaping. Kewpie Barrett and some of those guys were thinking about it. Those people in civilian clothes were tailors, and we all had to put on the shorts and have them measured. We had the worst looking legs you could imagine, but we were a captive audience".
Sliding was potentially a problem, but Haney had thought about this too: Folding the sanitary sock over the top of the stirrup gave you and extra layer of padding, but there was still a gap between the bottom of the short and the top of the sock, and raspberries were often the result.
The shorts were a hit with PCL fans. "We filled every park in the Pacific Coast League with those things", said Stevens. "Every time we wore them the park was sold out. We only wore them on weekends, and after two years they disappeared."
Hollywood manager Fred Haney shows off some leg in this publicity photo. Above, Portland manager Bill Sweeney could not resist poking some fun at his Hollywood rivals.
The shorts were the same flannel material as the normal baseball pants, however a white cotton-rayon henley shirt went with the shorts (a blue pullover was worn on the road). This was the "durene" fabric used at the time for hockey and football jerseys. Wilson supplied the uniforms.
The fact that at least three other teams experimented with the shorts-rayon pullover combo at the same time (the Miami Beach Flamingos, Ft. Lauderdale Lions and Houston Buffs are known to have also worn this style of uniform, with the Flamingos rumored to be in pink shorts!), and the fact that Wilson seems to have developed the durene shirt already, is evidence that perhaps Haney was not the first to think of this idea. Regardless of whose idea the shorts and rayon shirt was, the experiment would soon be abandoned and it would be another two decades before professional baseball would adopt radically new fabrics and uniform styles, though alas, the shorts would not make a comeback.
The Miami Beach Flamingos of the Florida International League allegedly wore pink shorts. We have not seen a color photograph.
Chuck Stevens' quotes were excerpted from "The Grand Minor League" by Dick Dobbins. Thanks to Bob Woodling for Ft. Lauderdale info.
Ebbets Field Flannels is offering the 1950 Hollywood home durene pullover in the original fabric as our "flannel" of the month for $99. Shorts not included, but we'll make them for you if you like!
In late May we will bring you Flannel of the Month from Havana, Cuba.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Demolition of Ebbets Field in 1960, less than a mile from where I lived on Lincoln Place. In what today seems a perverse and needlessly cruel gesture, the wrecking ball was painted to look like a baseball, and Dodger players were invited to witness the desecration.
My world as a child was limited to the block of
The Congress Theater in 1958, the year I was born. I do not know the gentleman in the photograph.
Ethnically, ours was what was euphemistically called by some a "neighborhood in transition”. Our block had secular Jews and a few Hasidic Jews (though the Hasidim mostly lived farther down Eastern Parkway), African-Americans
It is amazing to me today, in the world of “play dates”, bicycle helmets, and highly supervised activities just how free a child’s world was back then. As long as you stayed within the geographic bounds of the terrain, stayed out of trouble, and were home for supper, you could pretty much do as you pleased. This was particularly true in the summer, when school was out and the nights were long. People came out on the stoops and brought cold drinks and transistor radios. They watched each others kids. This freedom allowed us to create a world in which adults mostly did not intrude. We could ride our bikes and play in the narrow alley next to our building as long as we didn't make too much noise (there was a lady on the fourth floor who would threaten to pour boiling water on us if we got too loud). I was also warned to stay out of the subterranean passage where someone called “the Super” lived. That wasn't much of a problem because it always smelled funny down there. (This smell was later explained to me as something called “whiskey”).
The Dodgers were gone, but there was baseball everywhere. Nearby Lincoln Terrace Park had a grass field where Police Athletic League games were held, and there was a blacktop softball diamond with painted baselines where local teams played. (These were serious games played for money – the blacktop did not stop players from sliding). For the older kids there was stickball, of course. And the Mets, in the early thralls of their ineptitude, and newly installed in the Polo Grounds, were being watched on black and white rabbit-eared TV sets by former Dodger fans like my father. It was in trying to fathom my father’s world while he watched these games that my education on baseball, and more importantly – baseball history – began.
Other fragmentary memories: Playing checkers and hearing the strange sounds of Yiddish at my grandparents' apartment on Park Place; Memorial Day parades on Eastern Parkway my father chasing a mugger through the alley; taking a subway car with cane seats to the Botanic Garden; the grandeur of the war memorial, library and Brooklyn Museum; the six-sided cobblestones of Prospect Park; hearing something strange on the bakelite radio in the kitchen and telling my mother that I think someone just shot the president.
The doors of P.S. 191 were formidable indeed to this six-year-old.
Brooklyn was also the beginning of the other fascination of my life: popular music. My best friend on the block, Tommy Newsome, was obsessed about a group of singers from
In April 1965, there was really exciting news. The mother of one of my friends agreed to take a group of us to one of Murray The K’s rock & roll shows at the Fox Theater in downtown
Things were changing fast. There was the Blackout. John Lindsay was elected mayor. Tommy Newsome’s family was moving to someplace called “
The sign on the marquee tried to put the best face on things by saying only "Temporarily Closed". But the Brooklyn Fox closed in 1966 and was demolished in 1971.
Our flannel special this month is the 1915 Federal League Brooklyn Tip-Tops road jersey. It is available for $99 for a limited time.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
New York from 1947 to 1957 was the center of the baseball universe. Of the city's three major league clubs, at least one appeared in the World Series ten times during this period, and in seven of those years both Series contestants hailed from New York. One cannot think of this era without thinking of the three great centerfielders of the respective teams: Mantle (who took over from another legend, Joe DiMaggio), Snider, and of course Willie Mays. With the end of Black History Month and the appearance of James S. Hirchs's excellent new biography "Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend", I thought it appropriate to take a brief look at the "Say Hey Kid". My talents are too humble, and this space too small to shed much new light on Willie Mays as a baseball player, but I offer a few observations on the man who - despite his fame - continues to be a surprisingly elusive personality.
We Americans love a simple, satisfying narrative. We are not so good with nuance and complexity. It is possible that in no other subject is this more true than in the history of race relations in this country. From the narrative that has become familiar, it seems like Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963 and we all lived happily ever after. Instead of playing the same excerpt from that speech every year on MLK Day, I wish we could hear his "Bootstraps" speech, or his speech denouncing the war in Vietnam. King may have believed in non-violence, but he was no starry-eyed dreamer. His idealistic vision of equality was accompanied by sharp critiques of the American society, which were not popular with many people at the time. It is also useful to be reminded of just how many senatorial arms had to be twisted by Lyndon Johnson to advance the legislation that made it illegal to prevent people from voting or be discriminated against in housing based on skin color. Extending the protections of our Constitution to all of our citizens was still a controversial idea in 1964.
Likewise we have been handed down a narrative that Jackie Robinson integrated the majors, and afterward all was peace and harmony on the baseball diamond. In fact it took some teams almost a decade to find a black player "qualified" enough to play on the same field with whites. When Robinson was finally allowed to speak his mind, he was resented by some of his teammates and criticized in the press as a loudmouth and troublemaker. We like our heroes to stick to the script.
I mention this because Willie Mays - as great as he was - had to endure indignities of a subtler but no less damaging kind than Robinson. Although fans and the sporting press definitely took to the enthusiastic, amazingly gifted youngster from the start, some context is useful. Mays was often described as an "instinctive" player. This was a sort of backhanded compliment that was typical of the descriptions of black players at the time. Blacks were never described as "intelligent" players, or lauded for their strategic talents. They had "natural" talent. Take "The Catch", Mays' amazing grab of Vic Wertz' drive in game one of the 1954 Series at the Polo Grounds. The catch itself was incredible, there's no denying that. But it's what Mays had to do before and after the catch that is really impressive. He had to get the ball into the infield quickly in order to prevent possibly two runs from scoring, and he had to do this from almost 500 feet away from home plate with his momentum taking him in the wrong direction. And he had to start thinking about what to do with the ball after he got to it from the crack of Wertz' bat. What bothers Mays to this day is that no one ever talked about The Throw.
A teenage Willie Mays (back row, center) celebrates winning the Negro American League pennant with his teammates in 1948.
By no means were Mays' difficulties limited to the prejudices of some of white America. At a time when blacks were struggling to change negative stereotypes, many African-Americans were uncomfortable with Mays' relationship with Giants manager Leo Durocher, which bordered on paternalistic on Durocher's part. (It could not have helped matters that Willie referred to Durocher as "Mr. Leo"). No less than Jackie Robinson criticized Mays' reluctance to speak out more forcefully on racial issues. It was not that Mays cared any less about discrimination, after all he grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, perhaps the most ruthlessly segregated city in America - it was just not his style or in his comfort zone to be outspoken or overtly political. But this in no way means that Mays accepted any less than was his due as a man, as he showed by his response to an unfortunate incident in the early days of the Giants' adopted new home.
When the Giants pulled up stakes and headed to San Francisco, Mays was at first prevented from buying the house he and his wife had chosen. He offered the purchase price (there were no competing offers) and waited. After going some time with no response it was learned that the owners, as well as the builder, did not want Mays to have the house at any price. The neighbors were against the sale as well. They did not want to live next to a black man even if he was Willie Mays. The mayor of San Francisco eventually had to get involved and extreme pressure applied to the recalcitrant parties before Mays was permitted to buy the house of his choice. This was eleven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line, and in urbane, sophisticated San Francisco. The incident was a huge publicity black eye for the city. When word of his dilemma got out, Mays was offered other homes in more "appropriate" neighborhoods, but although Mays was no activist, he politely refused these offers and quietly held his ground until the right thing was done. The publicity from this episode exposed the hidden exclusionary practices of the San Francisco housing market. Had Mays accepted the invitation to move into a "Negro" neighborhood and avoid controversy, these practices might have continued for years to come.
Another area of misunderstanding for some was Mays' playing style. Mays brought an exuberance to his play that some fellow players mistook for showboating. But Willie came from the Negro leagues, where the emphasis on entertaining the crowd was deemed almost as important as one's baseball skills. Mays honestly believed he owed the paying fans a good show. He simply loved to play the game, and his love of playing was reflected in his style of play. (The stories of him finishing a game at the Polo Grounds and then playing stickball with kids in Harlem are true.) He was accused of "hogging" balls in the outfield, when actually he was told to catch any ball he thought he could reach. Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller even suggested Mays wore a hat that was too big so that it would easily fly off his head and therefore make his plays look more exciting.
It is interesting that it took Bay Area fans several years to warm up to Willie. Part of it was that ironically he was competing again with the ghost of DiMaggio, in a new city. Joltin' Joe was the best centerfielder to come out of San Francisco, and some fans did not want anyone challenging the sanctity of his status. Another reason was pure provincialism. Willie Mays was "imported" from New York, and San Franciscans wanted their own home-grown hero (it's interesting that Orlando Cepeda - who had no New York connection - became a more popular player than Willie Mays in his first few seasons).
By the time I got to see Mays in the flesh, he was a fading legend, but still a powerful force on those great 1960s Giant teams that included McCovey, Marichal, and the Alou brothers. As with all great veterans, what was lost in speed and physical ability was at least partly made up for by wisdom and experience.
Mays returned to New York for his last two seasons only at the insistence of Mets owner Joan Payson, who was the only board member of the Giants who had voted against the move West back in 1957. Although resented by manager Yogi Berra and treated shabbily by the front office, Mays was used much more than initially intended due to injuries to the team and even got to finish his career by playing in one last World Series, which ironically pitted a New York team against a team from the Bay Area - the Oakland Athletics.
A brief run through of our Willie Mays flannels:
- Mays' professional career started at the tender age of fifteen with the Negro Southern League's Chattanooga Choo-Choos.
- Mays joined the Birmingham Black Barons while still in high school. The Barons of the late 1940s were one of the top black clubs of all time, and defeated the Homestead Grays in the 1948 Negro World Series with a teenage Mays in the outfield.
- After being signed by the Giants, Mays had a brief sojourn in Trenton, where he integrated the Inter-State League, then started the 1951 season with the Minneapolis Millers where he was so wildly popular, that Giants owner Horace Stoneham took out an ad in the Minneapolis newspapers apologizing to fans for taking Mays away from them. Mays was hitting .477 for the Millers when he was called up.
- Mays played winter ball for the Santurce Cangrejeros, where wore #24 and shared the outfield with Roberto Clemente.
Mays with Giant manager Herman Franks in Puerto Rico.
The Washington State Senate passed a resolution today honoring Ebbets Field Flannels for our work in preserving baseball history and for donating uniforms to the Iraq National Baseball team last year. I was in the gallery to watch the reading and vote on the resolution, and got to stand up and tip my cap when introduced (I brought a 1957 Seattle Rainiers - 7 1/4). It was a thrill to go into the ornate classical Capitol building and watch the proceedings on the Senate floor. We are truly honored to receive this recognition.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
One of my personal favorites is "Bang The Drum Slowly" from 1973. The film is based on Mark Harris' novel (a bare bones television adaptation with Paul Newman had been attempted in 1956). The film introduced many people to Robert De Niro, and his sensitive understated performance is a revelation to watch considering the roles that he would become known for later ("Mean Streets" was released shortly after "Bang The Drum Slowly" and would form the template for his characters for years to come).
In the film, De Niro's character is Bruce Pearson, a catcher of modest talent and even more modest intellect. Pearson forms an unlikely friendship with pitcher Henry "Author" Wiggen, wonderfully played by Michael Moriarity, who passes for somewhat of the intellectual on the team, having written a book and set up an insurance business on the side. (Some thought Wiggen's character was based on Tom Seaver). Henry's newfound loyalty to Bruce is based on a secret they share about the doomed catcher's health. We get to see how this friendship is played out against the dynamic of a major league ballclub during the throes of a pennant race.
A sublot of the film is Wiggen's holdout (this in the days before free agency, of course). Wiggen wouldn't report to camp unless he was paid the ungainly sum of - wait for it - $127,500 a year. How times have changed.
The film wisely steers clear of too many action sequences (footage of the 1969 and 1970 World Series was used) but instead focuses on the more meditative rhythms of the baseball life, and the tribal nature of professional baseball players: The clubhouse, spring training, etc. One of the enjoyable aspects of the film is the card game Tegwar (The Exciting Game Without Any Rules) which is a time-honored way for ballplayers to separate suckers from their money. Pearson - not being considered mentally agile enough to help in the scam - is not welcome at the Tegwar games. It is a sign of Wiggen's increasing loyalty to his teammate that he after learning his secret he refuses to play Tegwar without including the catcher.
The film was shot in 1972, and both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium were used as locations for the fictional New York Mammoths. (Mets fans would be interested to know that the Kiner's Korner set was used for the singing players scene). In an interesting side note related to our specific area of interest, the actual last Yankee flannel uniforms were used by the Mammoths (the emblem was changed on the home pinstripes, the road "NEW YORK"s were left unchanged). I would also like to take a moment to praise Vincent Gardenia, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the crusty and suspicious Mammoths skipper, Dutch Schnell.
Anyone wanting to see a more meditative film about baseball players than say, "Major League", will be well-rewarded with this nuanced and heartfelt baseball film.
About the jersey: The Mammoth home pinstripe flannel jersey is available with Robert De Niro's #15, or with the numeral of your choice. It is specially-priced at $99 for a limited time (reg. $185).