Rick Monday and the Flag-Burning Incident in 1976

Here is the start of the Los Angeles Times’ story covering this Cubs-Dodgers game in Los Angeles, on April 25, 1976:
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Further down, after noting that Dodgers third baseman Ron Cey singled in Ted Sizemore in the bottom of the 10th to win the game, the Times wrote:

Monday’s outfield “play” drew the warmest—and maybe loudest—ovation of the afternoon, however. William Errol Thomas, 37, unemployed, of Eldon, Mo., had come out of the left-field pavilion with a youngster identified by police as his son, and was attempting to set fire to a Flag when Monday, running from center field, intervened. Thomas, who had sprinkled lighter fluid on the Flag, threw the can at Monday as he fled with the Flag.

“He got down on his knees and I could tell he wasn’t throwing holy water on it,” Monday [a Cub at the time] said. “If he’s going to burn a Flag, he better do it in front of somebody who doesn’t appreciate it. I’ve visited enough veterans’ hospitals and seen enough guys with their legs blown off defending the Flag.”

Monday did not feel the standing ovation was his. “The way people reacted was fantastic,” he said, “but I felt they were cheering for what the Flag meant.”

Police said Thomas was arrested for trespassing and taken to Parker Center. So was Joe Shaver, 30, Santa Monica, who police said attempted to get into the dugout to shake Monday’s hand. The youngster with Thomas reportedly was taken to juvenile hall.

Monday sent a note to the Dodgers asking for the Flag, but was told it had to be impounded, at least temporarily, as evidence.

So Rick Monday captured one Flag and the Dodgers hit and fielded like they are going to have to hit and field if they expect to get the one they are after.

Note that the Times capitalized it as “Flag”: apparently that was the paper’s editorial policy, but I don’t know if “Flag” instead of “flag” was common practice at other papers in the mid-’70s.

A couple days later, this follow-on story from the Times gave Thomas’ reason, at least the one he gave at the time, for trying to burn the flag:
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As a little piece of context for Monday’s flag rescue, here is the Times’ box score for the 5-4 Dodgers win:
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Finally, here, in two parts, is a feature story from Ross Newhan of the Times in late April of ’76, profiling Monday and the response to the flag rescue. Monday was a Santa Monica native, which may have played some part in his action in Dodgers Stadium and the aftermath of his flag rescue, although of course this was not a parochial Southern California story. The Times mentions that the Dodgers were pursuing Monday at the time: they got him, in a trade for the Dodgers’ Bill Buckner in early ’77, and Monday spent the last eight years of his career with the Dodgers, winning three pennants and a World Series (check his stats).
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Published in: on January 8, 2014 at 9:59 am  Comments (2)  
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Nolan Ryan and His Four California Angel No-Hitters

A while ago, the Orange County Register summarized these four games as follows:

MAY 15, 1973 1 – Nolan Ryan chalks up his first no-hitter for the Angels, stopping the Royals in Kansas City, 3-0. In the first hitless game by an Angels right-hander, Ryan finishes with 12 strikeouts, one in every inning except the fifth. The only close call comes in the eighth inning when pinch-hitter Gail Hopkins’ looping liner into shallow left is caught by shortstop Rudy Meoli on a running over-the-shoulder catch. Ryan gets all the offensive support he needs from right fielder Bob Oliver,who has two RBI with a solo home run and a single.

Ryan (W 5-3) and Torborg; Dal Canton (L 2-2), Garber (6) and Taylor, Kirkpatrick.

JULY 15, 1973

2 – This is Ryan’s easiest no-hitter in terms of score as he turns in his second no-hitter of the season, a 6-0 victory in Detroit. Ryan has 17 strikeouts, 16 in the first seven innings. His arm stiffens in the top of the eighth when the Angels score five times. Ryan needs no spectacular defensive plays to preserve the no-hitter and become the fifth man in history to throw two no-hitters in a season.

Ryan (W 11-11) and Kusnyer; J.Perry (L 9-9), Scherman (8), Miller (8), Farmer (8) and Sims.

SEPT. 28, 1974

3 – Ryan makes the most of his final start of the season by chalking up his third no-hitter, beating Minnesota, 4-0, in Anaheim to raise his record to 22-16. His first seven pitches are strikes and He strikes out the side in the first and second innings. He finishes with 15 strikeouts, but also walks eight – seven in the first five innings. The Angels score two in the third and fourth to give Ryan a cushion. Center fielder Morris Nettles had three RBI.

Decker (L 16-14), Butler (3) and Borgmann; Ryan (W 22-16) and Egan.

JUNE 1, 1975

4 – Ryan moves into a tie with Sandy Koufax as he tosses his fourth no-hitter, edging the Orioles, 1-0, at Anaheim Stadium. Making his 12th start of the season, Ryan strikes out nine for his fourth no-hitter in 109 starts. The lone Angels’ run is scored when Dave Chalk singles home Mickey Rivers in the third.

Grimsley (L 1-7), Garland (4) and Hendricks; Ryan (W 9-3) and Rodriguez.

In 1999, the Houston Chronicle told the fairly interesting story of Ryan’s career in Southern California, which started in 1972:

When the trade came down, folks in Southern California figured it was the steal of the century.

Trouble was, most worried they were on the wrong end of the heist. Some kid named Nolan Ryan was coming to the Angels. Big arm, no clue where the ball was going, tepid results in parts of five seasons with the New York Mets.

And for this, the Angels had parted with Mr. Angel, the great Jim Fregosi.
Small wonder, then, that the transition from one coast to the other and from National to American Leagues had its rocky moments – all magnified by the arrival of son Reid and the specter of a strike that threatened to delay the start of the season, and a much-needed paycheck.

Years later, Ryan would describe his eight years in Anaheim as “the foundation of my career.” It began, however, with more moments in which he considered packing up and going home than ones spent pondering the text for his acceptance speech in Cooperstown.

For starters, the looming strike threatened to make Ryan a rancher. That first spring training camp, the Ryans lived in a borrowed trailer in Holtville. When the team moved on to Palm Springs, Nolan made a daily 180-mile round-trip commute in a borrowed Volkswagen Beetle.

Things were so tight that Ryan borrowed $1,500 to rent a house in Anaheim for the season to come. Had the strike lasted very long – ultimately, opening day was delayed and eight games lost – the family would have been packing up and heading back to Alvin.

Early on, some Angels fans probably wished he had done just that. Ryan had what he termed “a horrible spring,” and it continued with a 2-4 start in which he failed to last beyond the fifth inning five times, rendering hearts all the fonder about the departed Fregosi.

Pitching coach Tom Morgan, who in time would become a close friend, worked on streamlining Ryan’s delivery. In late May, they began to get results as Ryan won nine of 10 decisions, pitching five consecutive complete games in the process.
The run culminated with a one-hitter in which he struck out eight straight batters and fanned the side on the minimum nine pitches.

By the time the smoke cleared, few were lamenting Fregosi, who went on to become another in a long line of failed third-base candidates with the Mets. After going 29-38 in New York, Ryan finished that’72 season with a 19-16 record, leading the league in strikeouts (329) and walks (157) while completing 20 games and compiling a 2.28 earned-run average.

Tom Grieve, then an outfielder with the first-year Texas Rangers, says those numbers don’t begin to tell the story.

“Back then, they didn’t keep pitch counts,” Grieve said. “And he’s walking nine or 10 guys in some of those games. There were probably a lot of times when he was throwing 200 pitches a game when he was 22, 23 years old.

“You have a guy throwing 200 pitches now, you’ll be taken in front of a judge for child abuse. The agent will get into it. The league will investigate.”

In one particularly gritty performance, Ryan threw 235 pitches in a 13-inning outing against Boston and got a no-decision.

A quarter-century later, Grieve vividly recounts the “thrill” of stepping to the plate against a young Nolan Ryan.

“He was the only pitcher I faced – other than J.R. Richard in Oklahoma City, where you couldn’t see because of the lights – that fear entered into the at-bat,” he said.

“He was throwing so hard, and he was wild, and you knew he was mean. He’d knock you down, and you never knew whether it was on purpose or not.

“He had a curveball that he threw so hard, and it broke so much. It started up around your head, and if you couldn’t recognize it and it turned out to be a fastball, you were going to get hit.
“I backed off the plate a little bit. I backed up in the box a little bit. Instead of being nice and relaxed up there, every part of your body was alert.”

Those years would showcase Ryan at his most dominant. In August of’74, his fastball was clocked at 100.9 miles an hour, though Ryan believes he has thrown harder than that.

In 1975, Ryan started the season 10-3 with five shutouts, seven complete games and an ERA of 2.24. On June 1, he produced his fourth no-hitter.

Ryan’s elbow had been hurting for months. After one mid-April start, he awoke to discover that he could not fully extend his arm.

Dr. Frank Jobe, the noted orthopedist, prescribed ice and whirlpool treatments, but the pain persisted. In August, after losing nine of 13 decisions (eight straight at one point), Ryan finally told the club he could go on no longer.
Calcium deposits were removed. Once again, Ryan pondered the question of whether he would pitch again.

“If my arm wasn’t better the next spring,” he said, “I was going to retire.”

That wouldn’t be necessary, though Ryan was up-and-down in 1976. He pitched in 39 games and struck out 327 hitters but went 17-18 with a 3.36 ERA.

Some of the issues were mental. Some of the trouble was because of stiffness, and the elbow occasionally would catch. In trying to compensate, Ryan fell into bad habits as well.

He lost five straight in May but came back to win seven of his last eight decisions and finished with 21 complete games, seven of them shutouts. The following year, he went 19-16 with 341 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA, with 22 complete games and four shutouts.

But the good times in Anaheim were coming to an end. In 1978, Buzzie Bavasi arrived as executive vice president. A month later, GM Harry Dalton left after Bavasi accused him of running a “country club.”

Ryan didn’t like Bavasi or his ways, and physical problems added to the pitcher’s misery.

A pulled hamstring put Ryan on the disabled list from June 14 to July 5. Later, a rib separation landed him on the DL from Aug. 20 to Sept. 6.

In the end, a 10-13 season and a 3.71 ERA had Bavasi eyeing the bottom line as Ryan eyed the door.

“I wouldn’t have come back as long as he was the general manger,” Ryan said.
His contract, however, ran one more season, and it would be an eventful one.
Reid, then 7, was struck by a car, eventually losing his spleen and a kidney. As his son endured a lengthy hospital stay, Nolan was helping the Angels win the American League West for the first time.

Despite the distractions, Ryan finished 16-14 with a 3.59 ERA and 17 complete games. His contract was up, and agent Dick Moss approached the Angels with an incentive-heavy proposal that could have made Ryan the game’s first $1 million player.

Bavasi scoffed at the offer. In one particularly colorful moment, he indicated he could replace Ryan with two 8-7 pitchers.

Thirteen years later, that comment echoed when, in June 1992, the Angels retired Ryan’s number while he was still pitching in the major leagues.

In September 1993, with Ryan about to make his last start vs. the Angels, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported:

“In hindsight, if we could do it again, we’d give him more money,” said Bavasi, who, 14 years ago, was the executive vice president who let the best pitcher in Angels history walk away.

“Nolan Ryan, well, to me, he’s not quite in the category of Koufax, but he’s there with Drysdale and Gibson. His record is incredible. There’s no doubt he was better before 40 than after, but it’s just unbelievable he can walk from the dugout to the mound at his age. His courage alone puts him in the Hall of Fame.”

But it wasn’t enough to keep him in an Angels uniform.

It never should have come to this. Bavasi, Autry, everyone says Ryan should have been an Angel forever.

What they still can’t fathom is how they let themselves fall into a money pit at the most pivotal time the organization had known.

Why, of all the times, did the Angels feel compelled to take a stand against the rising tide of baseball economics when it was Ryan’s turn at free agency?

How could they let him get away? No one in the club’s past or present has had the impact of Ryan.

He probably will be remembered as a Texas Ranger, but it was during his California days he hit his peak, a no-hitter waiting to happen every time out.

“Incentives,” Bavasi said.”I think we all agreed on the salary, but his agent, Dick Moss, gave me a three-page list of incentives that any player on my club could have met. It wouldn’t have been fair. They wanted everything from insurance to bonuses for starting five games, 10 games and so on.

“We thought our figure was honest and fair. We had some other up-and-coming players, and we just felt we couldn’t commit to what Moss wanted and look our other players in the eye.”

The free-agent showdown could have been avoided. Ryan only became a free agent after the Angels, incredibly, refused his preseason proposal of $1.2 million for three years.

He ultimately signed a three-year deal with the Houston Astros worth $3.5 million, making him the game’s first $1-million-per-year player.
Bavasi was dumbfounded by the numbers.

“It was twice what we offered,” he said.”I was taken by surprise when I heard it because no one had said anything to us. But I still believe if it hadn’t been for the incentives, he would have stayed an Angel.”

Economics, then as now, ruled the Angels. They played hard ball with a soft hand and lost.

Autry could have made a difference, but he left the business to Bavasi and has lived to rue the day.

“I should have gotten more personally involved,” Autry has said again and again.”If I had, I don’t think Nolan ever would have left.”

Autry tried to correct the mistake a decade later, offering Ryan $1.5 million to pitch the 1989 season in Anaheim.

“It still wasn’t enough,” Bavasi said.

There is no way to white-out the mistake. Bavasi knows that. He knows people still see him as the villain.

Bavasi has heard the talk. Are you kidding? Of course he has. He can’t escape it.
“All we need are two 8-7 pitchers,” he said when Ryan left. The words have thundered through the years.

It was as ludicrous a notion then as it appears now. Quantity to replace quality. It never happened.

Ryan was the Angels. The foundation that has made him an American celebrity, the foundation for this incredible, enduring love affair with the public, was laid during the California years.

Ryan won 138 games for the Angels, a club record that still stands. He pitched 291 games, compiling a 3.06 earned run average that needs no defense. He pitched a record 156 complete games, a record 2,182 innings, a record 40 shutouts, a record 2,416 strikeouts.

Seven times during his eight years as an Angel he led the American League in strikeouts.

He threw four no-hitters, seven one-hitters, 13 two-hitters, 19 three-hitters.
He built numbers so grand he still holds or shares 20 team records. And this for an organization that was a collective 619-669 during his tenure, only winning during his final two seasons.

“I was only with him two years,” Bavasi said.”And he had a losing record for those two years.”

And that was all the proof the Angels needed to convince themselves Ryan was near the end.

He was approaching 33 and had managed only a 26-27 record his previous two seasons. His strikeouts were down, and he had spent three weeks on the disabled list during the’78 season.

The Angels had no way of knowing he would still be pitching 14 years later, that he would strike out 301 at 42 and win 157 more games.

Published in: on May 26, 2012 at 9:06 pm  Comments (2)  
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Marking the 10th Anniversary of Willie Stargell’s 2001 Death

A decade after Willie Stargell’s death, and 30 years after he left the playing field, it’s easy for younger fans to know nothing about him. This post remembers a player and man who was the effective N.L. counter to Reggie Jackson in the 1970s (he, not Reggie, led MLB in homers that decade: 296 to 292). I met Stargell in a baseball card shop near San Jose in either 1988 or 1989, not long after he got into the Hall of Fame. He was signing autographs, for free, for a crowd of mostly kids born around the time he retired who knew little about him.

I remember a warm, friendly man who’d added mass in his retirement (he died from a stroke), but at the time I knew nothing about Stargell being one of the great black players who’d come out of Oakland and the East Bay.

Of course, Stargell was also the Pirates leader in the ‘70s, as the team added two World Series titles to a trophy case that’s had no real additions in the time since his retirement. 10-year teammate Al Oliver said: “If (Stargell) asked us to jump off the Fort Pitt Bridge (which crosses the Monongahela River), we would ask him what kind of dive he wanted. That’s how much respect we have for the man.”

When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in summer 1988, the Sacramento Bee took the occasion to recount his journey into baseball. Some excerpts:

As a youngster growing up in Alameda County, Willie Stargell was a fan of the Giants, especially Willie McCovey. Today, he joins his hero in the pantheon of baseball as a member of the Hall of Fame.

Stargell, 47, no longer calls the Bay Area home, having settled in Pittsburgh. Yet he holds fond memories of his Alameda roots and of the inspiration he derived from McCovey, who became a Hall of Famer in 1986.

“I can remember how tough my first season was in pro baseball,” recalled Stargell, who broke in with Roswell (N.M.) in 1959. “I went home in September and visited Seals Stadium to watch the Pirates play the Giants.

“It was McCovey’s rookie year. I saw him swing the bat, and I was impressed. I wanted to bang out hits like ‘Stretch’ did. I have very good feelings about the Bay Area and those cold nights at Candlestick.”

“I was a baaad dude,” Stargell recalled. “I got into trouble just like the other kids. I stole fruit off trees, I was a Peeping Tom and I played on the railroad tracks.”

Stargell, who was born in Oklahoma in 1941, moved to Alameda 10 years later and lived in a housing project. As a gangly youngster, Wilver was a good athlete, but there always was time for mischief.

“My parents didn’t even know about this one,” he said. “You know those ice cream three-wheelers with the bells on them? I filled out an application form at the plant, then I got on the bicycle and raced to the project.

“I rounded up my buddies, and we ate ice cream until we got sick. We started in the daytime and didn’t finish till late at night. Then I took the bicycle back to the plant and left it there.

“We’d also go down to the Skippy peanut butter factory on Webster Street,” he added. “There would be all those huge boxes of peanuts, and a sharp nail suddenly would jump into my hands. I’d pierce the boxes, peanuts would pour out and we’d take them home and roast them.”

There were no brushes with the law, and he grew up close to home, where his mother, Gladys, instilled in him values that still serve him well as an adult.

“Mom taught me that it’s important how you treat people,” he said. “When you grow up in a project, there’s no reason to be thin-skinned. If you were, they stayed on you. I’ve learned you’ve got to be able to take what you dish out.”

Stargell had no reason to become swell-headed over his talent as a youngster. In fact, he was probably the fourth-best athlete at Encinal High in the late ’50s. His teammates included Tommy Harper and Curt Motton, who also played in the majors.

“Tommy received a $20,000 bonus to sign, and I got $1,500. I had a summer job at the Chevy plant in San Leandro. I also worked there in the off-season for $1,200 a month. They wanted to place me in a management training program.”

Stargell appreciated the offer, but his desire was to play baseball. So he went to Roswell and began a painful climb to the majors — one that included his first serious experiences with discrimination.

“I gave that (the Chevy offer) up for an opportunity to make $175 a month and face racial insults in the minors,” he recalled.

“You’ve really got to work at hating people. I can’t be that way. The Bible says we’re all God’s children, and that’s more convincing to me. I’m colorblind.”

That definitely wasn’t the case when he played in the Southwest and the South during a four-year minor-league career, one that toughened him for the majors and taught him about life.

“Dealing with life in the minors was much more devastating than getting to the majors and hitting a baseball,” Stargell said. “I hit my crossroads the first year. I had my life threatened. It doesn’t get any tougher.

“We were in Plainview, Texas, and the blacks had to stay on the other side of town. A guy put a shotgun to my head and said, ‘Nigger, if you play tonight, I’m going to blow your brains out!’

“I went to the stadium very bravely, but with weak kidneys,” he continued. “I was willing to come face to face because I wanted to play ball. I made a decision not to let anyone stop me from doing what I had to do.”

“You always talked about Stargell. He was the highlight of the city,” said Alameda resident Nick Cabral, who graduated from Encinal with Stargell in 1958. “You can talk to many, many people in the city of Alameda, especially Encinal High School students who went to school back in those times, and you will always find someone who will say something nice about him.”

In April 2001, on the day after his death on April 10, the S.F. Chronicle added:

Willie Stargell is to Pittsburgh what Willie McCovey is to San Francisco, and maybe that says it all about the humble and lovable man who spoke softly and carried an extra big (36-inch, 36-ounce) Louisville Slugger.

Like McCovey, who played with Willie Mays, Stargell played first base in the shadow of a baseball god, Roberto Clemente. He was No. 2 on the stat sheet but in a lot of ways No. 1 in the hearts of fans, especially in the Three Rivers Stadium era.

Stargell died yesterday of a stroke at age 61, and Pittsburgh mourned on a day that should have been set aside for glory, a day when the Pirates opened their new downtown ballpark featuring outside its gates a 12-foot statue of his likeness.

Stargell was born Wilver Dornell Stargell in Earlsboro, Okla., of African- American and Seminole Indian descent. Oklahoma records list the birth date as March 6, 1940, but Stargell always put it on March 7, 1941.

He grew up in Orlando, Fla., and in a government housing project in Alameda, reared by his mother and, for a time, an aunt after being abandoned by his father. He played high school baseball at Alameda’s Encinal High School on the same team with future major leagues Tommy Harper and Curt Motton.

His mother and stepfather worked two jobs each much of the time and young Willie spent after-school hours baby-sitting his sister, cooking, cleaning and running a paper route.

His first bat was a two-by-four whittled down, his first organized team was with the police activities league in the projects.

At Encinal, Stargell preferred football, but a knee injury kept him out of it. In baseball, it was teammate Tommy Harper who got all the attention, although Stargell was even then a powerful hitter.

After Encinal, he went to Santa Rosa Junior College. When he broke his pelvis during practice, doctors advised him to give up competitive sports.

Stargell was spotted by Pirates scout Bob Zuk, who offered him a $1,500 bonus to sign. That gave him the chance to fulfill his oft-expressed intent to use his already awesome baseball skills as his ticket out of the projects.

But baseball 40 years ago was still almost as tough on young black men as the housing projects were.

Fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan knew Stargell better than most, having grown up in the East Bay (Castlemont High School).

“We go back a long way, and he was a very special individual, not just a great baseball player,” Morgan said. “I used to say we were 600 major-league players — he was one, and all the other 599 liked him. No one disliked Willie Stargell. He was a player’s player and the greatest teammate ever, from what I hear from his teammates. One of the things lacking in my life is that I was never his teammate.”

Morgan was asked what he’d tell an East Bay kid who inquired about Stargell.

“I would probably say he was the greatest leader of men I ever knew,” he said. “He led the Pirates to championships and respectability.”

In the days after Stargell’s death, journalists followed Morgan in recognizing his massive power and status as one of the greatest players of the post-WWII era. The Charlotte Observer wrote:

In the three decades that baseball was played in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, six home runs reached the upper deck beyond right field.

Willie Stargell hit four of them.

That tells you more about the slugger Stargell was than his statistics.

Stargell hit 296 home runs in the decade of the 1970s, an average of fewer than 30 a season. In the `90s, Ken Griffey Jr. hit 382. So Stargell’s total doesn’t seem like many until you realize that no one in baseball hit as many over that same period; Jackson was second with 292.

Those of us who remember him at the plate do so with a sense of awe. Stargell, a fearsome presence batting from the left side, waiting for the pitch and windmilling the bat in his hands as if he were twirling a pencil. You would watch and think, how far will he hit the next one?

In 1969, Stargell hit a 506-foot shot clear out of Dodger Stadium. In 1973, he hit another out of that ballpark. 1978, he hit a 535-footer in Montreal.

Before the Pirates moved to Three Rivers Stadium, they played for 61 years in Forbes Field. Many great Pirates walked through those gates, including slugger Ralph Kiner, who led the National League in home runs seven times. Over those 61 years, the 86-foot-high right-field roof was cleared 18 times.

Seven of those home runs were hit by Willie Stargell.

Published in: on April 8, 2011 at 4:04 am  Comments (3)  
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A Look Back at the Start of ESPN, 1979-1982

ESPN of course covers much more than baseball, but it’s been a key element of the development of the baseball/sports media complex over the past 30 years. It’s worth looking back to see how it began in 1979, its immediate impact on sports fans and sports media in the early ’80s, and what its initial goals were.

First of all, ESPN founder George Bodenheimer, now the president of ESPN and and ABC Sports, recently told NPR “Sports Center, which was the very first program on ESPN back on September 7, 1979, is really the backbone of the company. It’s our responsibility to chronicle the day’s events in sports through highlight packages.”

And that “it was considered absolutely crazy to have a 24-hour network devoted solely to sports. I mean, we were literally laughed at, and nobody thought the idea was worth much or was going to make it and so you would have been hard pressed 29 years ago to think what it could’ve grown to. Having said that, when you worked here you could see signs that what we were doing was catching on — letters from people out of state, references to the company and popular culture, newspapers once in a while, people calling in for rules to Australian rules football. You could start to see that there was a market out there for sports that weren’t necessarily televised regularly.”

In September 1980, with ESPN already a year old, the Washington Post reported on its new status:

Last week, the ESPN cable TV network expanded to 24-hour-a-day sportscasting. That had to be good news for anyone who thinks there isn’t enough sports programming on television.

Of course anyone who thinks that has been standing out on too many golf courses during electrical storms.

After a month or so hooked up to cable TV in suburban Washington, this viewer can report that it’s a great little gadget, as long as you are a sports maniac. On a recent Sunday afternoon, more than half of the available programmed channels on cable were carrying some sort of sport. By contrast, there were only two stations showing old movies, which seems a case of priorities gone berserk, but then sports has never been bigger business and TV made it so.

You’d think the Constitution guaranteed a U.S. citizen the right not to have to watch a ball game. This right gets increasingly difficult to exercise as television turns more and more sports into revenue-grabbers. We’ve gotten to the point where no sport is safe from being televised; with NBC’s “Games People Play,” everything but canasta and stickball has been given video ritualization.

Of course the definition of “sport” has to be stretched to fit television’s own peculiar requirements. Recent editions of “Games People Play” included such dubious sports as falling off a log into a mud pit, and street brawling. Then there was the escape artist whose sprot was being hand-cuffed to a car filled with explosives and trying to get away before another car rammed into it and blew it up.

A long way from horseshoes in the park, that’s for sure.

ESPN is a thriving enterprise that claims a 250 percent increase in viewing households since signing on a year ago. ESPN spokesmen say they expect to reach 6 million households through 875 different cable systems around the country by the end of 1980.

Of course when you’re doling out sports round-the-clock, you have to relax your standards just a hair as to what constitutes vital and exciting competition. One wonders just how many millions of viewers were awake and kicking at 4:30 in the morning one day last week when ESPN carried the U.S. National Kayaking Championships.

Then there are such other big September attractions as Australian rugby (5:30 a.m. on Sept. 22, among other times), Canadian football, the Pacific Northwest Frisbee whirlaway, a Chinese children’s tumbling exhibition and the Great Eastern Skeetshooting Championships.

The next March, the Boston Globe reported on another ESPN expansion:

“It’s the greatest response we’ve ever had,” says ESPN official Rosa Gatti of that cable system’s all-encompassing coverage of the current NCAA basketball playoffs. Grasping the concept of ESPN , which delivers sports on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is the difficult part. Once accomplished, the annual college basketball madness can be seen as ideal programming, a pulsating way to fill out an overload of television time.

The beat continued during the last 48 hours. On Thursday night ESPN delivered four games between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., the first three live, then last night did the other four games, two live and two on tape. Among Greater Boston’s 75,000 subscribers to the system, the Boston College-St. Joseph’s and Indiana-Alabama at Birmingham games carried on Ch. 56 last night were blacked out on ESPN because the cable service does not duplicate conventional TV programming.

That is why only one NCAA playoff telecast remains on ESPN after this weekend, the consolation game on March 30 preceding the championship match that night at 9 p.m. The title game and both semifinal games on March 28 will be on Ch. 4, produced by NBC.

This flurry of basketball has drawn phone calls from across the country to ESPN in Bristol, Conn., from crazies willing to travel to the nearest ESPN setup for the chance to watch the basketball TV marathon. Usually it is not very far, now that 8.7 million homes are hooked onto ESPN, a number that is expected to top 11 million by January.

The next excitement for ESPN will occur April 28 when the National Football League begins its two-day draft. The cable system’s cameras will be live at the New York City hotel site, posting selections and conducting ongoing interviews with management, agents and athletes. For NFL draft fanatics, this is mandatory viewing as much as NCAA basketball is to its following.

By August 1981, the Globe said ESPN was covering Canadian football, the North American Soccer League, baseball’s annual Hall of Fame induction at Cooperstown, and, with the major leagues on strike, “the cable channel began carrying various minor leagues live and will continue to do so through the end of their seasons, perhaps adding playoff games.” It was also putting on SportsCenter three times a day.

By March 1982, the Washington Post was touting ESPN as the wave of the future, and noting the first divorce on account of paying too much attention to “the global sports leader”:

The strongest sign that the end of the age may be approaching is not the position of the planets against the sun, or that the sultan of Oman may someday have the bomb. Merely that civilization now has its first certifiable case of ESPN Divorce.

It came to light last week in Austin, Tex. John Kelso, a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, told the story of a friend of his, a doorman at a local music club, who was divorced by his wife because he spent too much time sitting before the television, eating Mexican food and barbecue, and watching whatever was being shown on ESPN, the 24-hour cable sports network.

“I just watched ESPN all the time,” the guy said, explaining why she snuffed him after 1 1/2 years. “I mean, all the time.”

If the end does not come by earthquake, tidal wave or mushroom cloud, it probably will arrive via Professional Rodeo (taped) at 3:30 a.m. April 10, from Mesquite, Tex., or Full Contact Karate (taped) at 4 a.m. April 13 from Topeka. Of course, it also may draw nigh during the wall-to-wall NCAA tournament basketball games ESPN now is airing, some live in prime time.

The thing is that ESPN –like the drip-drip-drip of the water faucet–is always there. As one viewer told the network, “I watch your channel so much, if World War III broke out, I wouldn’t know it unless you told me.”

With ESPN reaching only 118,000 viewers in the “Washington” market, which extends as far as Hagerstown and Baltimore, there’s a kind of cable junkie subculture now being born: Orgies of ESPN -watching at Arlington apartment houses. And in the best tradition of beer-drinking, barbecue-eating, spouse-neglecting viewing, ESPN games are picked off the satellite by a tavern named Poor Robert’s on Connecticut Avenue.

The feeling here is that anyone who has seen ESPN has seen the future.

Owned lock, stock and minicamera by Getty Oil, ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) still must answer a $64 question: Can a round-the-clock, pure-sports network survive while relying almost entirely on advertisers? Even Charles Van Doren would have trouble with this one, for the prestige sports still are controlled by the commercial networks and ESPN must eventually attract showcase events to prosper.

Nevertheless, the auguries are good.

ESPN now plays to 15 million homes nationwide–18 percent of the country’s television households. Expanding at the rate of 500,000 homes a month, the network expects to be in 32 percent of all homes by the end of this year. By 1990, two out of three American homes should be cabled, meaning that Getty Oil will be dipping its mitts in whatever sits at the end of the rainbow.

Finally, as a coda to this story, here’s part of a column by the Miami Herald’s Bob Rubin from late April, 1983, in which he looks back on ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the NFL draft. It sounds like it hasn’t changed much since 1983, and since 2007, you can also apply his comments to coverage of the baseball draft in June:

It is a tribute to the NFL’s superb publicity machine and the public’s football mania that the annual offseason beef auction called the college draft commands headlines for weeks and a full day’s live coverage (8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a review at 10:30 no less) on ESPN.

The action is riveting. Guys you never heard of sit at desks, yakking on the phone in a ballroom at the New York Sheraton before writing down their teams’ selections and having them announced. Yet this somehow has become a media event of immense magnitude in and of itself. Call it Rozelle’s Monster. The Commish even gets into the act by reading the first-round selections before handing over the mike to underlings. Pity there are no instant replays.

There’s even a live gallery to watch the guys on the phone, spectators who line up for seats in the wee hours like they were waiting for World Series tickets. Among them are “draftniks,” who predict first-round selections in competition for prizes.

There are reporters on the floor, photographers — the whole works. All this over the selection of kids who won’t don pads as pros for three months yet. Weird.

I watched ESPN for the first two rounds, all six hours plus, until my eyes glazed over and my ears rang. Anyone who stayed the course should be given a rubber football and locked up.

In my lifetime in front of the tube Tuesday, I learned the 40-yard-dash time of everyone in the Western Hemisphere. I got team needs, predictions, projections, selections, opinions, excuses, speculation, analysis, previews, reviews, heights, weights, strengths, outside speed, inside speed, inside-out speed, upside-down speed. There’s a guy who writes for a pro football periodical who was introduced as “a man who lives the draft 365 days a year.”

Don’t you want to spend a whole lot of time with him?

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 2:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Houston Astro Don Wilson and His Possible Suicide in 1975

In 1994, Todd Jones of the Cincinnati Post took a look at Wilson, his career and apparent suicide on January 5, 1975. Wilson’s one of the few major league pitchers with at least two no-hitters, and I believe the only such pitcher, aside from Addie Joss, to die in the midst of his career:

“He could throw hard – kind of like Bob Gibson,” said former Reds manager and player Tommy Helms.

Helms knows. It was 25 years ago Sunday – May 1, 1969 – that he made the final out in Wilson’s no-hitter against the Reds at Crosley Field. Wilson’s feat for the Houston Astros came 24 hours after Jim Maloney of the Reds no-hit Houston. Nothing new for Wilson. He tossed a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves in 1967. And he had a no-hitter going against the Reds Sept. 4, 1974, before he was lifted after eight innings for a pinch-hitter with the Astros trailing 2-1.

Four months later, Wilson was dead.

Wilson’s body was found in his car, a victim of poisonous carbon monoxide fumes swirling in the garage of his Houston home. Whether the death was a suicide or accident never has been determined. He was 29.

“It was a sad, sad thing,” said Helms, a Houston teammate of Wilson at the time of the pitcher’s death.

The sudden death was the final mysterious chapter in a career of an intriguing and mysterious player.

Wilson had a 104-92 record, a career ERA of 3.15, and 1,479 strikeouts for the Astros from 1966-74. He was a talented but moody player who became known as much for his idiosyncracies as for his abilities.

“He was a great teammate and competitor,” said Helms, “but sometimes he might not speak to you for three or four days and then all of sudden talk to you. He would come to the park early to do his work so no one would see what he did. You just have to call him a loner.”

Said former Reds manager Dave Bristol: “You didn’t know what he was thinking. He’d be talking to himself on the mound.”

Bristol was the cause of a feud between Wilson and the Reds. Wilson so dominated Cincinnati in 1968 – striking out 18 Reds (including eight consecutive) in one game and 16 in another – that Bristol resorted to verbal taunts from the dugout, trying to rattle the pitcher.

“He threw hard, hard,” Bristol said. “We used to get on him all the time to try to upset him and distract his attention.”

Nine days before the Reds went hitless against Wilson they pounded him 14-0. The taunts of Bristol and Wilson’s knockdown pitches that day caused bad blood to boil.

Wilson was angered that Pete Rose attempted to take an extra base with the Reds far in front. He was upset, too, because Johnny Bench called for breaking pitches against Houston in the ninth inning. After the game, Wilson telephoned Cincinnati’s clubhouse.

Wilson’s revenge came on the field nine days later. Before a Crosley crowd of 4,042, he struck out 13 Reds, including Helms to end the no-hitter.

“After he pitched the no-hitter he wanted to whip my butt,” Bristol said. “He wanted to come after me. He didn’t even want congratulations from his teammates. Lucky for me they got to him first.” Wilson was stoic afterward.

“I’ve got a few friends on the Reds, but most of them I’ve got no use for,” Wilson said. “I beat the Reds. That’s why I got more personal satisfaction out of this no-hitter than the last one.”

Wilson was just entering the prime of his career when he died. His body was found slumped over a reclining seat on the passenger side of his sports car on Jan. 5, 1975. The ignition was turned on, but the engine was not running.

Fumes from the car’s exhaust seeped into the master bedroom above the garage and killed his 9-year-old son, Alex. Wilson’s wife and daughter also were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes but survived after being hospitalized. His wife had a broken jaw that never was explained.

Wilson was buried on a gloomy, overcast day.

In reporting on the death, the AP wrote:

A Houston Fire Department spokesman, Jack MacGillis, said a woman had called the fire department, which handles ambulance service within the city, saying that she could not wake her children and that her husband was in their car. MacGillis said the call was received at 1:24 P.M. Calls for ambulances are automatically reported to the Houston Police Department, which then dispatched officers to Wilson’s fashionable home in the city’s southwest section.

A spokesman for the Houston Police Department said that when officers arrived at the Wilson home at approximately 1:30 P.M. they found the pitcher in the garage. He was unconscious seated in the right front seat of his 1972 Thunderbird. His head was tilted back resting on the seat and his arms were at his sides. His left foot was crossed over his right foot. A pack of cigarettes was on the dashboard in front of Wilson.

The left front door was closed. but the right door was open. The ignition was on and the gasoline indicator was at empty, but the car’s engine was cold. The garage doors were open.

Alexander, the son, was found in his bed, lying on his stomach with his arms raised around his head, covered to the waist by a sheet.

T.R. Trinkle, a juvenile-care officer, said he had talked to Mrs. Wilson at the hospital. He quoted her as having said she awoke after having heard a car motor running and had gone to check on the children.

She told him she had picked up the boy and taken him to the master bedroom and shut the doors to both the daughter’s bedroom and the master bedroom. She said she could not go back to sleep because the car motor was still running, so she went to check and found her husband, Trinkle reported.

She told him she had called a friend, a registered nurse, who had told her to check for a pulse. She said she did not know how she got the broken jaw, Trinkle added.

“It was a terrible shock,” said the Astros’ general manager, Spec Richardson. “The whole organization is very sorry over this tragedy.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” fellow Astro pitcher, Dave Roberts, said as he waited at the hospital to visit Mrs. Wilson. “Don had everything going for him. He had it all together.”

“We had been working at the speaker’s bureau together and everything was fine. He didn’t show up for the pitching school this morning and I guess that started them looking.”

Wilson and Roberts work in the offseason at the Astros’ speaker’s bureau, which arranges speaking engagements for the players. Wilson had been scheduled to instruct at a coaching school today with another Astros’ pitcher, Tom Griffin.

Roberts said the last time he was with Wilson was Dec. 15, when the two reported to the speaker’s bureau office at the Astrodome.

An Astro official said Wilson had visited the Astros offices several times during the offseason and was looking forward to the 1975 season.

“He really was enthused about the upcoming season,” said Boby Risinger, in charge of Astro publicity.

“I really enjoyed him and being around him,” Griffin said. “He was a nice person, a great person. I want people to know what kind of a guy he was. He was a good human being.”

And in that same year, 1994, the Austin American-Statesman’s Michael Point took a second look at Wilson and his

1967 no-hitter against the Braves, a 2-0 victory against a hard-hitting lineup that included Henry Aaron, Rico Carty, Felipe Alou and Tito Francona. In fitting fashion, Aaron was the last hitter Wilson faced, and the star-crossed rookie finished his masterpiece in fine style, making the all-time home run champ his 15th and final strikeout.

Wilson is the only Astros pitcher to twice achieve no-hit status. The brilliant, but disturbed, young right-hander probably would have added several more to his total if his personal life could have been as perfect as his pitching. The 29-year old Wilson was found slumped in his car in his garage on Jan. 5, 1975, dead from carbon monoxide fumes. It was ruled a suicide.

After having struck out 197 batters in 187 innings at Amarillo in the Texas League in 1966, Wilson was promoted to the Astros’ starting rotation. He was never taken out of it, and in his brief career led the team in wins and ERA three times. In 1971, he was named to the National League All-Star team and pitched two shoutout innings in the game. Wilson’s name is still among the Astros’ top five in shutouts, complete games, strikeouts and innings pitched. He ranks sixth in wins.

Wilson would be particularly valuable in the Astros’ new division. Cincinnati, a long-time Houston nemesis, has emerged as the Astros’ chief competitor in the NL Central race. Wilson hated the Reds and did his best to make them aware of it. His second no-hitter came in 1969 against Cincinnati, and it was meant to send a message. The Reds’ Maloney had no-hit the Astros, then limping along with a 4-20 record, the game before. Maloney and his fellow Reds had openly ridiculed the Astros during and after the game. Wilson went to the mound with a mission and left it with a no-hitter, silencing not only the mouths but the bats of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and the others.

A much more extensive review of Wilson’s life and death was written by Mike Lynch of Seamheads.com.

Published in: on January 19, 2011 at 4:27 am  Comments (3)  
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Remembering Curt Flood After His Death in 1997

A while back I gathered some remembrances of Vada Pinson following his death in October of 1995. His longtime friend, Curt Flood, died not quite a year and a half later, on January 20, 1997. Flood, of course, had a deeper impact on pro baseball, but along with that, he had a more turbulent life than Pinson. The L.A. Times’ obituary noted that Flood, who “made a lasting impact on major league baseball by opening the door to free agency with his unsuccessful challenge of the reserve system, died of throat cancer at the UCLA Medical Center on Monday. Friends said Flood had been ill for more than a year and had contracted pneumonia Friday. He was 59.” Here’s a bit of the L.A. Times coverage of his funeral:

More than 250 people crowded into First AME Church in South Central Los Angeles on Monday to hear Flood – who died of cancer at age 59 on Jan. 20 – remembered as an underappreciated American hero.

The mourners came from the worlds of politics and arts as well as sports. Political opposites, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and George Will, delivered tributes. Brock Peters, the actor, sat next to Lou Brock, the Hall of Famer. Don Fehr, the head of the major-league players’ union, was followed to the pulpit by Bill White, who used to be president of the National League.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) read a statement from President Clinton, lauding Flood as a man “whose achievements on the field were matched only by the strength of his character.”

“Because he came this way,” Jackson said in a stirring eulogy, “baseball is better, America is better and generations unborn are better.”

Mike Eisenbath of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recalled the man and his character:

Bing Devine, the man who brought Curt Flood to the Cardinals, pointed out the obvious coincidence Monday. It is indeed interesting that Flood had died on Martin Luther King Day. . . .

On Monday night, not so many hours after Flood, 59, had died in California of throat cancer, one of his many fans called him the Abraham Lincoln of players in all pro team sports. He helped pave the way for free agency. Flood is surely one of the most influential figures in American sports history.

He also was an excellent ballplayer during one of the Cardinals’ most successful periods, a proud and strong man who lends a sophistication to a franchise history that includes the Gas House Gang.

He was an artist. A Flood portrait of Martin Luther King hangs in the living room of King’s widow, Coretta.

A quiet man, he rarely displayed resentment. Friends and former teammates recall him as having a delicacy about him, an elegant way of moving about life both on the baseball field and elsewhere. He impressed with his inner toughness, his intelligence, an uncommon motivation. Flood’s gifts reached beyond the sports field. He developed his brush strokes on canvas long before he mastered his big-league batting stroke.

Among the anger he kept to himself involved his first trade. The Cards dealt three players who never would amount to much for him. The Cardinals didn’t necessarily expect great things.

As Bing Devine was mulling, nervously, making his first trade as the Cardinals’ general manager, then Cards manager Fred Hutchinson gave the endorsement: “Make the deal. We’ll fit him in somewhere. We think he can hit. We know he can run. Maybe he can play center field for us.” . . .

Despite all his deft athletic and artistic work, Flood called his suit against baseball the “central fact of my life.”

Flood made $72,500 in 1968. He rejected August Busch Jr.’s offer of a $77,500 pact for the 1969 season. Flood told the owner that if he wanted to sign a player who was the best center fielder in baseball and a .300 hitter, it would coast him $90,000, “which is not $77,500 and is not $89,999.”

Flood got the money he wanted for that season. But Busch remembered helping Flood out of financial problems earlier in his career and considered his salary demand ungrateful.

The next offseason, after a sub-par 1969 performance, Flood asked for $100,000.

Before the 1969 World Series began, the Cardinals traded Flood, Tim McCarver, Joe Hoerner and Byron Browne to the Phillies for Richie Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson. Flood was upset. There was the problem of leaving the Cardinals and friends such as Bob Gibson, his 10-year roommate on the road.

He was nearly 32, had been with the team for 12 years and had no desire to leave. Baseball’s rule said he had no choice, if he wanted to continue playing the game.

In a Christmas Eve, 1969, letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood said he was not a piece of property to be bought, sold and traded and would not be going to the Phillies. “I couldn’t stand to be treated that way,” Flood once said. “When I was traded, it drove me up a wall.”

He sued the game. He asked for changes in baseball’s reserve clause and $1.4 million in damages. His lawyers and union chief Marvin Miller warned his chances of winning were slim. “If you go ahead with this, forget any idea of ever being the first black manager,” Miller told him. “Or even a coach or a scout. Forget it!”

He responded: “I want to go out like a man instead of a bottle cap.”

When spring training began in 1970, the case was headed to court and Flood was in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was the beginning of a long, oft-difficult sojourn through the second half of his life.

None of his baseball contemporaries came to his defense. But former big-leaguer and Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg testified for Flood’s side. So did Bill Veeck. And Jackie Robinson.

A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the case. The Supreme Court decision came June 19, 1972, and, by 5-3 majority, upheld baseball’s antitrust exemption. But Flood’s courage challenging baseball told the game’s players and leaders that changes would come.

Pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became free agents when, in 1975, a federal arbitrator upheld the individual bargaining rights of players and granted them free agency. . . .

[In retirement] Flood painted. He wrote. He got away from America’s game and America itself for a while.

“I tried to refresh myself and tried to overcome a lot of the hurt I felt,” Flood once recalled. “I tried to deal with the misunderstanding many people had of what I was attempting to do with my court case, why I was bringing all of it to light. (1970) was a difficult year for several reasons. But as much as anything, I’m a baseball person, and to take that away from me cold turkey like that was not easy for me.”

Flood returned from Copenhagen in 1971, when he signed a $110,000 contract with the Washington Senators. His heart wasn’t in it, and he left after 13 forgettable games. After the Supreme Court decision, Flood moved to Barcelona and then to the Mediterranean island of Majorca.

Drinking was one of Flood’s more haunting problems for a while after his return to the States in the late 1970s. Then, it was making a living in a world where he seemed to be blackballed from working at the one thing at which he had excelled, pro baseball.

Eventually, he owned and operated a public relations firm. He worked as a commercial painter and taught guitar. He worked for a year as color man on the Oakland broadcasts. He worked with kids, notably as an American Legion and Connie Mack coach in Oakland, then as little league commissioner for the Oakland Recreation Department.

A remembrance from Lou Brock: “It’s sad. Most of the pioneers wind up with an arrow in their backs. And he certainly was one of those who had an arrow in his back. As a pioneer, he never got his just due.

“God will amend that.”

Shortstop Dal Maxvill from those ’60s Cardinals teams said “besides his being a good ballplayer, [Flood] was a real professional all the way. He did what had to be done. If Brock led off with a single and stole second and if you needed a ground ball to get him to third, Curt would do that, so Roger Maris could hit a 320-foot fly ball and we’d be ahead 1-0.

“He didn’t have the greatest arm in the world but he was feared because he played so shallow and guys didn’t want to take any chances. He’s going to be missed by a lot of people. I don’t know of any enemies he had. I don’t know that Curt Flood had anybody who didn’t like him.

“He was one of the first (players) to rock the boat. But the players playing today ought to owe him a great deal of gratitude for his courage. He changed the system and the system changed forever.”

Bing Devine, the Cardinals’ former general manager, who traded pitchers Marty Kutyna, Willard Schmidt and Ted Wieand to Cincinnati for Flood and outfielder Joe Taylor in December of 1957, remembered: “I made that trade with a great deal of fear and trepidation.

“A lot people refer to the fact that undoubtedly the best trade I ever made was for Lou Brock because he’s in the Hall of Fame and that’s certainly true. But in my mind, the Curt Flood trade was probably equal to that because of it being my first deal. If that hadn’t worked out, I probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as I did. It’s interesting he died on Martin Luther King Day. In their own way, they probably had the same goal in mind.”

Maury Wills added: “He was a man who dared to live by the strength of his conviction. Most of us were not courageous enough to take that stand. I know I wasn’t.”

In contrast to the general acclaim of Flood, Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a somewhat acidic item gathering his thoughts on the man. Broeg also provided some interesting details on Flood’s career:

Curt Flood as a player was good, very good, but he could have been great. And if he had won that lawsuit, challenging baseball’s reserve clause, he would have been rich. But back then, he didn’t want money. He only wanted to stay in St. Louis.

As a player, that is, not a resident, because he still preferred warmer winter climates. But here, he had a vest-pocket painting agency, truly a love affair with the Cardinals and – until near the end – with the Big Eagle, Gussie Busch.

If you want to assign blame for the problems of the wiry little defensive wonder, blame Curt himself. But also, inferentially, Busch and me, too.

When I left the road with the Cardinals in midseason, 1958, my last word was to josh Flood privately. The little man just had won a 2-1 game at Pittsburgh with a home run, but his trouble was that he swung too often for the fences.

So he was in and out of the lineup too often the next two seasons, when he was roughly a .250 hitter. Meanwhile, with defensive wizardry close to Terry Moore’s in center field, he had impressed Busch.

For one thing, quietly borrowing a passport-sized photo of Gussie in a yachting captain’s getup, Flood displayed his other gift. He was amazing in his ability to copy in oil the likeness of anyone.

Busch, overwhelmed, directed Curt to paint for modest pay all members of the brewery baron’s large family. And then when Johnny Keane relieved Solly Hemus as manager at the Fourth of July in 1961, he gave both Busch and Flood the greatest gift. That is, the chance for the boss’ pet to play every day.

Flood had learned to cut down that big swing. Immediately, he hit .322. Six times he hit over .300 in the next eight years. Hitting behind Lou Brock, he was even better than when leading off. Afield, he made incredible catches. He ran the bases with speed and daring.

By the time the Cardinals won a second world championship in 1967, Flood hit a club-leading .335. Busch lavished his players with the big league’s first $1 million payroll. Flood’s share was a handsome $72,000.

When the Redbirds repeated with a pennant in ’68, yet lost the Series in which Flood made a rare defensive gaffe behind close friend Bob Gibson, Busch had begun to grumble about relations with players, including salaries.

Even though Flood’s average dropped 34 points to .301 in ’68, the Year of the Pitcher, Curt told the Globe-Democrat in an eight-column banner that he “insisted” on $100,000. “And,” he snipped, “I don’t mean $99,999.99.”

For one, I winced. The “Dutchman” Busch wouldn’t like that. He didn’t. Flood settled finally for a handsome hike to $92,000, but he had just become one of the boys in the eyes of the big boss, no longer a favorite son.

In 1969, a subpar season for the Cardinals, Flood nosedived to .285. Harry Walker, a thinking man’s manager at Houston, had bunched his defense up the middle, where Curt often singled past the pitcher. Other clubs followed suit. In addition, the player was living as fast as he ran.

Divorced and away from his family, he spent considerable time in other arms, including Bacchus’ and not Morpheus’. In addition, he put in many of the diminishing waking hours oil-painting photos for a price.

At the batting cage late that season, I scolded him as a friendly Dutch uncle, but I offered a consolation, relative to the tighter up- the-middle defense.

Next year, 1970, Busch Stadium would have artificial turf, quickening ground balls. Many of those balls now being caught would go through as they had in those 200-hit seasons.

Curt shrugged off my criticism of his life style, but smiled over the batting prospects.

They weren’t achieved. Flood was traded to the Phillies at a time when they were futile, part of a multiple-player deal in which another popular player, Tim McCarver, was lost.

When the Cardinals notified Flood of the deal, his first words were, “Oh, no, not Philadelphia.”

The second thought of resistance brought the Flood lawsuit, which he didn’t win, unfortunately. The Phillies had offered to make Flood the first “$100,000 singles’ hitter,” a designation Pete Rose later claimed.

After a fast-track year abroad, he was dealt to Washington in 1971. Flood lasted only several games with the Senators. He quit.
Said a Washington doctor gravely, “The oldest 33-year-old athlete I ever examined.”

As a carrot back there in ’69, I’d suggested to Flood that with a couple more .300 seasons he would be a Hall of Famer in fact as well as in potential. Curtis Charles Flood didn’t make it. He was only 59 when he died.

I’d heard the stories about Flood refusing to go to Philadelphia because of its Southern feelings about black people, so I found a Philadelphia Daily News retrospective on Flood’s life by Mark Kram, from 2002. Kram said of the owners:

By the sheer arrogance with which they conducted their affairs, you get the feeling in retrospect that it was as if they were daring someone like Flood to step forward and take them on. How else could you explain the way that the Cardinals informed him he had been shipped to the Phillies : by form letter, with a box checked that explained that he was no longer their property. He had played for them since 1958 for 12 years and helped them to world championships in 1964 and 1967, and yet no one from the Cardinals even had the courtesy to phone him. While it was assumed then that Flood did not want to come to Philadelphia because the city and organization were racially backward, [Judy] Pace- Flood says he simply rejected the deal because it “violated his dignity as a man.”

So Flood had no special animus toward Philadelphia?

“None whatsoever that I was aware of,” says [Judy] Pace-Flood , a former actress who appeared in the TV series “Peyton Place” and had movie parts in “The Fortune Cookie” (1966) and “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), among others. “What it came down to was that he objected to be treated as chattel.”

Pace-Flood married Curt in 1986. Here are two more quotes. Flood told San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Joan Ryan before he died: “I lost money, coaching jobs, a shot at the Hall of Fame. But when you weigh that against all the things that are really and truly important, things that are deep inside you, then I think I’ve succeeded.”

Frank Robinson said of the stance baseball ownership took toward players: “What they were counting on was the fact that you were probably in a position where you had to take it [their contract offer]. You probably had a wife and children to support, and you needed that check every 2 weeks. They would say, ‘Now, do you want to play or not?’ They held every card.”

Finally, here is the story of Flood’s situation when Vada Pinson died: he was already getting treatment for the cancer that would kill him:

So far, he has tolerated the chemotherapy; the second cycle began Monday. But now Curt Flood is to undergo radiation for throat cancer Thursday morning, and the doctors say he cannot skip the treatment.

So Curt Flood hopes his friend of 50 years, Vada Pinson, will understand if he is unable to make it to Oakland for Pinson’s funeral that day.

“Vada would say, `You did what? Get out of here,'” Flood said Tuesday from his home in Los Angeles, where he looks up from the phone and every day sees the same picture on the wall: Vada Pinson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock on a framed cover of the Sporting News.

“I’ve seen that handsome face for many years,” Flood said. “Vada was neat as a pin. He shined his shoes between innings, almost.”

The picture was taken in 1969, when the three were together in the outfield of the St. Louis Cardinals. “The doctors say they caught it in time,” Flood said of the cancer. “The prognosis is good. They say it’s 90 to 95 percent curable. I haven’t been sick. I haven’t lost my hair … or my testiness.

“Yes, it’s scary. It’s something God puts on your shoulders: `Here, handle this.”‘ Last winter, when Flood was inducted into the Bay Area Hall of Fame, his presenter was Vada Pinson, who drove all the way from South Florida. The scheduled inductee this winter: Pinson. Of course, you know who Pinson asked to present him.

“I’m going to ask them to honor his last wish,” Flood said Tuesday.
“My lasting image of Vada: I always remember Vada Pinson’s smile. It was always present. If not on his face, it was in his voice.”

Published in: on January 9, 2011 at 4:56 am  Comments (1)  
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A Short History of the Quadruple Play

Back in 1978, Thomas Boswell checked up on Cuba’s baseball culture in an article that I believe eventually wound up in his book, How Life Imitates the World Series. Here, from the story he wrote about the visit, is the tale of how

the greatest batter in Cuban history, Wilfredo Sanchez . . . once came within inches of starting the only quadruple play in history (four outs) with a great outfield catch.

“Yes, we almost got four legal outs on one play,” Sanchez says, laughing. “But as it turned out, I became the only man to start a triple play which drove home the opposing team’s winning run.”

That near-quadruple play , certainly the most spectacular unknown play ever, captures the central threads of current Cuban baseball – recklessness, speed, superb defense and fascination with rules and strategy.

The four-out play, explained, become stunningly simple to baseball aficionados and stays forever unintelligible to the rest of humanity. Any Cuban school child, for instance, could explain it.

With the bases loaded, none out, tie game, Sanchez made a remarkable catch in right-center field. The runners on first and second bases ran on the line drive up the gap, and were trapped far off their bases as Sanchez pegged to second and the relay was fired to first.

Triple play: one fly ball caught, two runners doubled up.

Meanwhile, however, the alert runner on third base had tagged up and crossed home plate before the final (third) out at first base. Since the final out was not a force play, the run counted.

Here, the play takes on what might be called The Cuban Dimension. The manager of Sanchez’ team appealed the runner’s tagging up at third, claiming that he had left the base a split second before the catch.

Few managers would know that such an appeal play could result in a legitimate fourth out, thus nullifying a vital run. Except, that is, in Cuba where even the hounds lying in the road would know.

In the confusion, one umpire signaled that fourth out, while the others upheld the run. Finally, the run was upheld, and it cost Sanchez’ team (Matanzas) the game, 3-2.

24 years later, in a Washington Post article in 2002, Boswell described either the same play with a different ending or an entirely different play that just happened to take place in Cuba as well:

Once, in Cuba, a quadruple play decided the island championship. Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, home team one run behind. Liner to right in the gap. On instinct, the runners go. Diving catch. Throws back to second, then first for a triple play. But the runner on third has tagged in the meantime to score and tie the game. Defensive team appeals that the runner at third left too soon. Appeal upheld. “Fourth” out. Run denied. Game over.

Published in: on December 12, 2010 at 12:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Dave Winfield and Other George Steinbrenner Controversies, 1973-1990

Since George Steinbrenner, after having a large monument to his memory put up in the new Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, is now a candidate for the Hall of Fame, it’s a good time to look back on some of his transgressions, controversies, and tumults from 1973 through 1990. First, here’s the core of a timeline USA Today put together in August 1990, chronicling his time as Yankees owner:

Jan. 3, 1973: As managing general partner, buys the Yankees from CBS.

April 18, 1974: Receives 15-count federal indictment for violation of election laws.

April 19, 1974: Pleads not guilty to all 15 counts.

Aug. 23, 1974: Pleads guilty to one count of conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions.

Aug. 30, 1974: Fined $15,000 by federal court in Cleveland.

Nov. 27, 1974: Suspended from baseball two years by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn because of guilty plea.

March 1, 1976: Suspension lifted after 15 months for good behavior.

Nov. 11, 1979: Fined $5,000 by Kuhn for tampering with Brian Downing of the California Angels.

June 26, 1980: Reprimanded by Kuhn for tampering with free-agent amateur player Billy Cannon Jr.

Dec. 15, 1980: Signs Dave Winfield to a 10-year contract that eventually is worth $18 million.

April 21, 1981: Orders 50,000 copies of the team yearbook taken off Yankee Stadium concession stands because he dislikes his picture.

Oct. 25, 1981: Breaks hand in Los Angeles elevator, saying he was attacked by fans after Yankees lost fifth game of the World Series to the Dodgers.

Oct. 28, 1981: Apologizes to fans for team’s play in six-game loss to Los Angeles in World Series.

Jan. 3, 1983: Fined $5,000 by Kuhn for remarks made about Chicago White Sox co-owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

April 19, 1983: Fined $50,000 by Kuhn for remarks made during a March 25 spring training game questioning the integrity of National League umpire Lee Weyer.

May 31, 1983: Suspended for one week (June 3-9) by American League President Lee MacPhail for statements made May 27, questioning integrity of American League umpires Darryl Cousins and John Shulock.

Oct. 4, 1983: Winfield Foundation files suit charging Steinbrenner with reneging on agreement to pay $3 million to the charity.

Dec. 23, 1983: Fined $250,000 by Kuhn for involvement in pine-tar game with Kansas City.

Aug. 17, 1984: Settles dispute with Winfield.

Sept. 1, 1986: Attacks Winfield’s integrity and Winfield book, A Player’s Life.

Jan. 10, 1989: Countersues Winfield charging him with misusing money from his foundation.

Feb. 1989: Elected a vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Sept. 6, 1989: Settles with Winfield out of court.

March 24, 1990: Commissioner Fay Vincent announces he is examining Steinbrenner’s relationship with admitted gambler Howard Spira and a $40,000 payment that Spira alleges Steinbrenner gave him for information to discredit Winfield. Denies charge.

May 11, 1990: Trades Winfield to the Angels.

May 14, 1990: Tells Winfield he never wanted to trade him but was urged by Bucky Dent.

July 5, 1990: Fined $225,000 for tampering with the Winfield trade.

July 5-6, 1990: Appears in hearings before Vincent.

July 30, 1990: Agrees to resign as general partner for his dealings with Spira.

Aug. 15, 1990: Names Robert Nederlander successor as general partner after son Hank declines and executive vice president Leonard Kleinman is blocked by Vincent.

At the same time, Joe Klein wrote a column speculating that Steinbrenner’s downfall was an emblem of the broader decay of New York City after the ’80s-that it combined with the downfall “of Donald Trump and Ed Koch – and a thousand other slivers of news, like the bankruptcy of his good buddy William Fugazy, the travel-and- limousine-king – to become part of this year’s unavoidable theme in New York, the end of an era: the frantic years between New York’s fiscal crisis and the 1987 stock-market Crash, the time of the yuppies, the loudmouths and insiders.”

I don’t know if Klein was accurate in this diagnosis, but in the column, Steinbrenner had an interesting response to the stories of the demise of New York City 20 years ago: “The city better hope it’s not over. David Dinkins is a fine man, with an awful task ahead of him. . . . But this is no time for quiet contemplation – we need action: hands-on, one-on-one leadership. You can’t sit back and just take these kind of economic problems. Boy, I don’t see that era being over. The Yankees will be back. The city will be back. Because if it’s over, we’re in deep, deep trouble.”

Also in August 1990, George Vecsey made, I think, a more interesting analogy between Steinbrenner and Richard Nixon:

George Steinbrenner has been kicked out of Yankee Stadium, but he does not seem to know it. The question is: Does everybody else?

The elevator doors were clattering Monday night, but Steinbrenner could not resist the paparazzi swarm. He extended his hands and held the elevator doors, answering more questions, loving the attention.

He had already told a packed news conference that he was not remorseful and that he was not in shock. Nobody had asked him if he was.

It was time to move on, he volunteered, omitting the minor detail that he had been ordered to move on by the commissioner of baseball, backed up by every major-league owner in North America.

This was quite a scene, a powerful man leaving a building he had dominated for 17 1/2 years. Certainly the sight was not as important or dramatic as a president of the United States trudging onto a service helicopter and being whisked off the White House lawn, but some of the same elements were there: abuse of power, lack of candor, eventual downfall.

Now we will find out if the U.S. Olympic Committee has paid attention to this affair. The USOC board, which meets today in Colorado Springs, is said to be mesmerized by the money Steinbrenner has donated and raised.

Steinbrenner has always been a blowhard and a bully, and that is not a crime, but he was found guilty of illegal political contributions in 1972, and 17 years later he gave money to a seedy little gambler in a vendetta against Dave Winfield. The board members should, of course, ask Steinbrenner to resign.

On Monday night, Steinbrenner made the Nixonian feint of confessing “”mistakes,” which turned out to be Checkers-type slip-ups like dismissing Dick Howser as manager after 1980 and not retaining Reggie Jackson after 1981.

Finally, here are some comments, again made in August 1990, by Dave Winfield on his return to New York for the first time as an ex-Yankee.

Of Commissioner Fay Vincent’s ruling against Steinbrenner, Winfield said: “Finally, they uncovered the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole lot of ice underneath the water. Good, I finally didn’t have to say anything myself. Someone else said it for me. Someone else was looking for the truth.

“They only took what (Steinbrenner) did within baseball that broke the rules. Really, they didn’t get into all the other things. They said, ‘We’re going to take Spira, and that’s enough. You’re gone.’

“All I remember is Howard Spira for a week going on TV and newspapers and creating, trying to create situations about me, saying everything demeaning and disparaging about me … They’ve looked into everything on everything. There’s nothing on Winfield. They answered that.

“Whether you understand it, they damaged me for a long time…. Here I am, and I have to listen to them making claims across the country. I never did appreciate it. I still did my job, and no one else did it better in the ’80s.

“But with all the stuff kicked up, only one person (Steinbrenner) was muddied. I’m not going to wallow in the mud.

“You think about some of the things that happened over the nine-plus years, and people ask me why I didn’t scream or fight. You fight it, but what are you going to do, spend every waking hour discussing the garbage?”

Published in: on November 19, 2010 at 4:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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The (Forfeited) Last Game of the Washington Senators in 1971

I had not known the last game of the second version of the Senators’ franchise was a forfeit, but the Washington, D.C. newspapers have taken a few looks back at it over the decades. Timothy Dwyer of the Post wrote in 2004:

Thursday, Sept. 30, 1971, began as a dismal, rainy day in Washington. Good weather for a funeral, not much good for baseball. Ron Menchine, the radio voice of the Washington Senators, remembers waking up that morning, seeing the rain and then making a wish about that night’s game, the final home game of the final season for the Senators.

“I hope it keeps raining,” he thought, “and they rain the damn thing out and I won’t have to broadcast it.”

His wish did not come true. The rain cleared out by the afternoon, and by evening about 14,000 people showed up at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Owner Bob Short was home in Minnesota, sitting next to a squawk box, listening to the game on the radio. He had not come for the funeral because it was decided that it might be too dangerous for him.

It was a good decision.

Word of Short’s plan to move the Senators to Texas, which began to surface in the dog days of the summer, was not viewed as a good decision by baseball fans in Washington. They had lost their team once before, in 1960, gotten it back, and now their beloved Nats were leaving again, not for Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, but for Arlington, a dinky, nowhere town between Dallas and Fort Worth with all the big-league stature of an anthill.

On Sept. 21, the first day of autumn, owners met in Boston and approved the move to Texas. The announcement came late at night, just in time for the 11 o’clock news.

Dick Bosman was watching with his wife, Pam, at their Fairfax home. “I turned to my wife and said, ‘That’s it, we’re going.’ “

The mood in the clubhouse the next day was grim. “It was like the whole team had been traded,” he said.

The last game finally came, and Bosman was again the starting pitcher. He had a difficult time focusing on the Yankees.

“I was angry,” he said. “I was resentful and I was angry. This was a place where it was my first major league club, my first major league ballpark. I met my wife and got married there. I was angry we were leaving.”

As he warmed up, he could tell right away that the fans — who were chanting and hanging obscene signs — shared his emotions.

“I think all of us felt that way,” he said. “I really had a hard time in that game. I had a hard time separating the emotions, and there was chaos in the stands, there was chaos in the field. I’ll never forget it.”

The Senators fell behind to the Yankees, staring up at a 5-1 score in the sixth inning. Bosman had given up home runs to Bobby Murcer, Roy White and Rusty Torres. But the Senators had one more comeback left in them. Frank Howard hit his 26th homer of the year, and the Senators grabbed a 7-5 lead in the eighth inning.

Del Unser was in right field, having moved over from center late in the game. He noticed the fans gathering along the right field line. A few had run onto the field before the inning began and were cleared off when an announcement was made warning that the game would be forfeited if they didn’t leave.

In the ninth inning, Murcer bounced back to the mound for the second out. And fans poured onto the field. They grabbed the bases, including home plate. They started digging up the mound and even ripped off pieces of the scoreboard.

Unser ran for the dugout. “I saw them going crazy, and I just hoped I could get to the dugout. It was basically you just grab your hat and run for it. It was a little broken-field running through the crowd, but nobody was after us, they were after souvenirs from the stadium.”

Joe Grzenda, a 34-year-old left-handed relief pitcher, threw the Senators’ last pitch. The Post, again in 2004, wrote about Grzenda:

That evening, as the moment he dreaded approached when the franchise in Washington would die, fate — and the managerial hand wave of Ted Williams — thrust him from the bullpen’s dark corner to the spotlight of the mound. He was called in to pitch the ninth inning and hold the Senators ‘ 7-5 lead over the New York Yankees. Jogging in across the field, he felt buoyed not by his chance for a save but simply the opportunity to salvage a small satisfaction from the most heart-rending day of an itinerant professional career in which he played for 18 teams in 20 years.

He got Felipe Alou to ground out. Bobby Murcer hit a sharp one-hopper to the mound, and Grzenda threw him out. A fast worker, he shouted to Horace Clarke to step into the batter’s box. “I hollered, ‘C’mon, let’s go, get in there.’ ” With that, hundreds from the stands rushed crazily onto the field. Grzenda turned and saw them coming. He had thrown the last pitch in Senators history.

As a big, bearded man barreled toward him, Grzenda grabbed his red cap and wondered what was going to happen to him. “Was he going to tackle me? I didn’t know.” But all the man did was run up to him and touch him on the shoulder, “touched me, just like that.” In what looked from above like a kaleidoscope of chaos, players scurried to safety as people pulled up the bases and grass, and at least three jumped on big Frank Howard’s back, and others ran aimlessly. The game was forfeited. The Senators ‘ last season was over.

An hour or so later, Grzenda found his wife Ruth and two children, Joe Jr. and Donna Marie, and together they made their way to their car in the stadium parking lot. The 11-year-old boy, his favorite team taken from him, wept in the back seat. The father still felt his heart beating fast from a ninth inning he could never have imagined. Then, like leaving home for the last time, he pulled out of the lot and, sadly, silently, drove into the night in his Pontiac Bonneville.

Fast forward 33 years. Joe Grzenda’s home now is where it was then, a modest split-level at the edge of the woods in the northern foothills of the Pocono Mountains.

Yes, he still had the ball, the last ball used in a Washington Senators game.

“Sure,” he said, “I’ve got it in a drawer.”

And in 1991, the Washington Times wrote:

The umpires asked the Senators to warn the crowd over the public address system of a possible forfeit. And they did – to no avail.

With two outs in the ninth, a fan raced out to shake hands with the players. After rounding second, he dived into the dirt, scrambled up and headed toward the outfielders before security guards caught him. The Senators called time to allow the players in both bullpens to return safely to the dugout.

“That final strategic move ignited an already hostile crowd and started the rampage,” said Senators second baseman Tim Cullen.

Undaunted by the forfeiture threat, thousands of fans ran onto the field from all directions, taking control of the infield and rendering the police, security guards and umpires helpless.

Senators pitcher Jackie Brown was halfway to the dugout when the fans ran onto the field. “It got a little shaky,” he said.

Grzenda watched the mayhem unfold from his perch on the mound. When the fans began to run toward him, he immediately fled for the dugout. “I never saw anything like that before,” Grzenda said. “I grabbed my cap and ran.”

Not knowing what the fans might do, John Welaj, head of the Senators ‘ public relations department, immediately called the club’s administrative offices and suggested that all the doors be locked.

“I didn’t know what the fans were going to do next,” Welaj said. “So I told the girls in the office to lock up just to be safe.”

Ted Williams said he was neither surprised or dismayed by the ending. adding, “One more loss didn’t affect our overall performance that year.” Their 63-96 record was the Senators ‘ worst in seven years.

Menchine said: “Oh, man, it was a disaster. I did that game, and I am a pretty effervescent guy, but when I did that game I was pretty devastated because here I had waited all my life for this opportunity, and I was watching it slip away. I did the game in a monotone.”

Brian Short argued that his dad “really had no choice but to move the team. You look back at sports owners in that era with the benefit of looking through the lens of today, and you see that the club had to support itself. . . . My dad ran a very successful trucking business, millions of dollars of which went to running that team.”

Published in: on October 6, 2010 at 8:17 am  Comments (8)  
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