The 1962 San Francisco Giants and Willie McCovey’s Liner vs. the Yankees

During the Giants’ last summer in Candlestick Park, the San Francisco Chronicle looked back on a set of 10 “Candlestick Classics”: highlights from the 40 years of baseball at the ‘Stick. Henry Schulman wrote about the moment when the Giants came closest to winning a World Series there:

If only Willie McCovey had scorched his line drive off Ralph Terry 5 feet more to the left, or 5 feet higher, the San Francisco Giants would own a World Series championship.

Alas, after 40 years, they’re still trying, for McCovey’s line drive with runners on second and third died in the glove of New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, who took a step to his left before snaring it.

For a microsecond, a crowd of 43,948 who filled Candlestick Park for Game 7 of the 1962 World Series thought their Giants would be champs. But Richardson’s ninth-inning catch made champions of the Yankees for the second straight year. By the time the fans had come to grips with what happened, the Pinstripers were celebrating on a diamond that would not host another World Series game for 27 years.

“It was an instant thing, a bam-bam type of play,” recalled Tom Haller, who caught that game for the Giants. “A bunch of us jumped up like, ‘There it is,’ then sat down because it was over.

“It was one of those split-second things. ‘Yeah! No!’ ”

An unseasonal torrent of rain washed out the World Series for three straight days, forcing the teams to travel to Modesto for workouts. Like the earthquake that would delay the 1989 World Series by 10 days, the 1962 rain delay took some steam out of the Giants.

“We should have won the World Series,” said Mays, as recounted in Glenn Dickey’s “San Francisco Giants: 40 years.” “We had just as good a team as the Yankees. We had the pitching and we felt we had the better team, but when we had to go to Modesto to work out, it was kind of a letdown.”

But the Giants won Game 6 5-2, thanks to a 3-for-4 day by Orlando Cepeda.

The rainstorm allowed the teams to reshuffle their pitching rotations because everyone was rested. In Game 7, the Yankees went with Game 5 winner Terry, while the Giants countered with Game 2 winner Sanford.

It was one of the best pitching wars in Series history. While Terry carried a perfect game into the sixth inning and a two-hit shutout into the ninth, Sanford was almost as good. The Yankees pushed a run across in the fifth on singles by Bill Skowron and Clete Boyer, a walk to Terry and a double-play grounder by Tony Kubek.

When Terry took the mound for the bottom of the ninth, clutching that 1-0 lead, the 23-game winner first had to face pinch-hitter Matty Alou, who bunted his way aboard. Brother Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller struck out, bringing Mays to the plate as the Giants’ chance to stay alive.

Mays was not an instant hit with San Francisco when the Giants first moved west, but the city warmed to him in 1962 as he led the National League in batting, runs and homers. His late-season heroics brought more adulation, and a big hit here would plant in bedrock his place in San Francisco baseball lore.

Mays had one thought as he stepped in: “I was thinking home run.”

Mays did not hit a home run, but did line a ball down the right-field line. At that instant, three divergent factors — the recent rains, a crucial decision by third-base coach Whitey Lockman and Roger Maris’ underappreciated defensive abilities — converged to rob the Giants of at least a tie in Game 7 and very possibly a championship.

The rains had moistened the grass at Candlestick enough to let Maris reach Mays’ drive before it skittered into the corner. As Lockman saw Maris retrieve the ball and throw, he held Alou at third base, a decision that many old-timers still second-guess.

Had Mays been running, the choice would have been different.

“If it had been Willie Mays running, he’d have run over the catcher if he’d had to score,” Giants manager Alvin Dark said. “There would have been a terrific collision at home plate.”

Lockman did not want the World Series to end with the tying run thrown out at home and the great McCovey standing in the on-deck circle. McCovey would have his chance. With the fleet Mays at second, surely any base hit into the outfield would have scored two. If not, Cepeda was on deck behind McCovey.

The decisive pitch was a hard fastball, inside. McCovey did what he was supposed to do. He crushed the ball, but right at Richardson. Game, World Series and season over.

Haller said nobody on the team questioned Lockman’s decision.

“That’s what’s so great about baseball,” he said. “I’ve got a highlight film of that World Series. The way they edited that film, you would say it’s a good thing Alou didn’t get sent. But had you been given a full picture of the play looking from above, there might have been some second-guessing.

“We held our heads high after that,” Haller said. “Even though we didn’t win the World Series, we played well, and we had hopes of winning a lot more pennants.”

A picture of McCovey in the clubhouse afterward:

You can look at some of the other “Candlestick Classics” here, here, and here, as well as the story of how Will Clark brought the Giants into the 1989 World Series.

Published in: on October 19, 2010 at 6:40 am  Comments (6)  
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Ernie Banks’ Early Life and Baseball Career

In 1987, the Chicago Tribune’s Jerome Holtzman wrote a long article about Ernie Banks. It was seemingly a reminiscence of Banks’ 500th homer, hit at Wrigley Field on May 12, 1970, but Holtzman was really intent on writing a kind of profile and appreciation of Banks. Holtzman noted Banks’ ebullience at the ceremonies after his 500th homer, and wrote that

Such emotion seldom was displayed by Banks during his early years with the Cubs. Stan Hack, who was Banks’ second manager (Phil Cavarretta was the first), once made the statement, which became widely quoted, “After he hits a home run, he comes back to the bench looking as if he did something wrong.” What Hack and some of the Cubs coaches didn’t realize was that Banks was unusually shy.

The second oldest of 11 children, Banks was raised in modest circumstances in Dallas in what was then the segregated South. Eddie Banks, his father, had been a semipro ballplayer with the Dallas Black Giants, Houston Buffaloes and also played with teams in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and in his native town of Marshall, Tex.

“My father tried everything,” Banks recalled. “We didn’t have much money, but I can remember him buying me a finger-mitt. Cost two dollars and ninety-five cents. Sometimes he’d give me a nickel or dime to play catch with him.”

The elder Banks picked cotton and also worked as a laborer on a WPA construction gang-the Works Progress Administration funded by the federal government at the height of the Depression in an effort to relieve the poor. For a time, Mrs. Banks was employed as a bank janitor. Perhaps it was mostly nostalgia but Banks’ mother, in an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, described her son as an almost model boy.

She said he never “prowled” at night and was a “regular” at Sunday school and church. “He liked to stretch out on on top of his bed and read for hours,” she said. “He was an an average student in school.”

After he became a baseball star, Banks always had an ample fund of poor-boy stories, which he enjoyed telling: How he shined shoes and mowed lawns, cut wood for Dad, did the dishes for Mom and helped take care of the younger children. Eddie Banks couldn’t remember the boy shining shoes or cutting grass but did recall that Ernie had a brief fling at cotton picking. “Ernie never learned how,” said Papa Banks. “The only work he ever did”-the elder Banks didn’t consider baseball work-“was at a hotel. Ernie was to carry out garbage but the cans were too heavy. After three days, he quit and didn’t even go back to collect his money.”

Like fellow Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, Banks jumped to the big leagues from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Tom Baird, the owner of the Monarchs, sold Banks to the Cubs in tandem with a little-known pitcher, Bill Dickey, for $20,000-$15,000 for Banks, $5,000 for Dickey. The deal was made on a Monday, the day after Banks appeared in the Negro American League’s East-West All-Star game that was played at Comiskey Park. Several White Sox scouts were in attendance but were unimpressed.

The next day, Wendell Smith, a Chicago sportswriter, picked up Banks and John “Buck” O’Neil, the manager of the Monarchs, at their hotel and drove them to Wrigley Field, where Cub officials gave Banks a final look.

When the Monarchs folded three years later, O’Neil was added to the Cubs’ scouting staff and subsequently helped in the signing of dozens of black players, including Lou Brock. More than a scout, the courtly O’Neil, persuasive and with impeccable manners, was an organizational troubleshooter. When Billy Williams was in the minors and threatening to quit baseball-he was homesick-O’Neil was dispatched to Williams’ home in Whistler, Ala., and convinced him he had a bright future in baseball. Now 75, O’Neil is still on the Cub payroll as a consultant.

“We knew Ernie was a good prospect,” O’Neil said in a telephone interview from his home in Kansas City. “But we didn’t know he would develop that fast.”

Published in: on September 12, 2010 at 5:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tom Cheney’s 21-Strikeout, 16-Inning Game in 1962

Along with being the most strikeouts any major league pitcher has ever had in a game, Cheney’s performance on September 12, 1962 for the Washington Senators was one of the last ultra-endurance efforts by a starter before managers started shrinking the number of pitches they’d let a starter throw. Back in 1986, after Roger Clemens’ first 20-strikeout game, Dave Johnson of the Providence Journal caught up with the story:

Maybe you’ve never heard of Tom Cheney. He was a nondescript pitcher who spent eight seasons in the majors, from 1957 to 1966, with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators. His lifetime record was 19-29 and he never had a winning season.

But on Sept. 12, 1962, in Baltimore, he did something that never had been done. He struck out 21 Orioles and led the Senators to a 2-1 victory. It took Cheney 16 innings to do it, and that’s seven more than Clemens pitched. But Cheney’s achievement still was remarkable.

When was the last time you saw a pitcher go 16 innings?

“With the relief pitchers they have today, you probably never will,” Tom Cheney said.

“You’re talking a long time ago – almost 25 years,” he said when the 21-strikeout game is mentioned. “To tell the truth, I haven’t thought too much about it for awhile.”

Cheney didn’t realize he was doing anything special until the 11th or 12th inning.

“I wasn’t thinking about strikeouts,” said Cheney, who had 13 through the first nine innings. “I was more intent on staying around and trying to win the game. I really didn’t know anything about the record until I got No. 18. That’s when the public address fellow announced I’d just tied Bob Feller’s all-time record.”

Washington manager Mickey Vernon and Sid Hudson, pitching coach, were upset with the public address announcer. They were afraid the announcement would make Cheney press to get No. 19.

For a moment, he did. The next batter was Dick Hall, the opposing hurler, and Cheney’s first two pitches sailed over his head. But Hall fanned on the next three straight pitches and Feller’s record was gone.

Only 4,098 attended that game and, thanks to Cheney, most stayed to the end. Bud Zipfel, a journeyman first baseman, won it for the Senators with a home run in the top of the 16th.

“It was a good thing Zipfel hit one,” said Cheney. “There was a curfew then that said no inning could start after 12:50 a.m. We’d already been told that the 16th would be the last inning.”

Cheney entered the bottom of the 16th with 20 strikeouts. Dick Williams became his 21st victim to end the game.

Cheney had never pitched more than 10 or 11 consecutive innings. He told manager Vernon in the 12th that he felt fine and wanted to stay in and win it or lose it. He allowed 10 hits but none from the ninth to the 15th. He threw 228 pitches and said he never felt tired.

“I was really hopped up the whole game. But then, about 15 minutes after the game, I just wilted. I guess I finally realized what I did.”

After Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game, Steve Hummer of the Atlanta Constitution caught up with Cheney, who said: “I don’t know why it happened. It was just one of those odd things that happen in life. It kinda surprised me. Although, I knew I had the guts to go out and battle. I never did like to come out of a ballgame.”

And after Randy Johnson’s 20-strikeout game in 2001, Guy Curtright, again of the Atlanta Constitution, talked with Cheney:

When the Cheneys returned from a visit to Emory University Hospital on May 9, Jackie knew something must have happened. The telephone caller ID included a lot of strange numbers.

Johnson had struck out 20. Cheney, the only player to strike out 21, was in the news again, just like 1962 — when he even made a Peanuts cartoon strip.

Cheney only had 13 strikeouts in nine innings, but got stronger as the game dragged on. He pitched eight hitless innings and struck out future Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams to end the marathon after Bud Zipfel homered in the top of the 16th for the Senators.

“It was a breaking ball,” Williams recalled. “But I didn’t remember I was the last one until I heard it on TV. He had a sharp curve and a lot of motion.”

Legendary Baltimore third baseman Brooks Robinson had equal praise for Cheney’s fastball. “There were times I never saw the ball,” Robinson said.

For years, Cheney dreaded having to talk about his record night. It brought back too many memories of what might have been. Although never boastful, he now seems comfortable with it.

“The way I feel about it, records are made to be broken,” Cheney said. “But with the way they treat pitchers now, taking them out of games early, I think 21 strikeouts may stay around for a while longer.”

In contrast, Johnson left Arizona’s 11-inning victory over Cincinnati after striking out 20 and throwing 124 pitches in nine innings on May 8.

“They tell me he threw up his arms and said he’d had enough,” Cheney, 66, said. “He quit. You didn’t do that when I played.”

“They tried to take me out in the 12th inning, and I said, `No, you’re not.’ I was determined to finish,” he said. “Back then, you got paid on how many games you won. My main thing was to stay in there and try to win the game.”

However, teammate Don Lock said: “I always thought it was the beginning of the end of Tom’s career.”

About eight months after hearing how Johnson failed to reach his mark, Cheney died, at 67, of Alzheimer’s, at Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Georgia. Back in 1998, he’d said: “I was very disturbed when I left baseball. I felt like somebody had jerked the sheets out from under me. It took a while for me to adjust. I resented it.

“I was 32 when I got out and felt like I had some more years in me. But the Ol’ Master thought I had gone on long enough. Baseball’s like living. No one is guaranteed any amount of time.”

Read a long Washington Post retrospective on his life and 21-k game here.

Also, perhaps the last pitcher to throw over 200 pitches in an MLB game was Nolan Ryan, in 1974, an Angels vs. Red Sox 15-inning go-round in Anaheim. Ryan went 13 innings, striking out 19 and walking 10, and faced 58 batters. His counterpart, Luis Tiant, went all 14 1/3rd innings for Boston, getting the loss on a double by Denny Doyle. Back in 2004, Chris Dufresne of the Chicago Tribune wrote of the game:

Thirty years ago Monday night, in a cavernous, nearly empty Anaheim Stadium, Denny Doyle doubled home Mickey Rivers in the bottom of the 15th inning to lift the California Angels to a 4-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox.

Barry Raziano pitched two innings of relief to earn his only major-league victory. Raziano, who runs a construction company in Louisiana, said recently he has no recollection of the game, which puts him in the overwhelming majority.

What happened was this: Boston starter Luis Tiant pitched 14 1/3 innings and took the loss. Nolan Ryan of the Angels lasted 13 innings, struck out 19, walked 10 and–hold on to your helmets–threw 235 pitches.

Ryan said two memories stood out: striking out Cecil Cooper six times and “not wanting to come out” after heaving his final pitch, which yielded a groundout to second by Carl Yastrzemski.

The Los Angeles Times’ account acknowledged “Tiant and Ryan dueled tenaciously,” yet no mention was made of Ryan’s pitch count. Ryan knows he threw 235 only because Tom Morgan, the Angels’ pitching coach, kept track on a hand-held clicker.

Ryan took his regularly scheduled start four days later and won, pitched again five days later and won again, started five days after that and tossed a one-hit shutout against Texas.

Ryan says he averaged between 160 and 180 pitches per outing in 1974.

A quote from Cecil Cooper: “I remember in that game he drilled the very first hitter, Doug Griffin, in the head. I was the next hitter and I got as far back in the box as I could.”

Published in: on July 2, 2010 at 1:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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Santiago Rosario Hitting Merritt Ranew With a Bat in 1966

A significantly more serious sequel to the Marichal-Roseboro brawl of August 1965 happened in the Pacific Coast League in May 1966. I happened by the story by chance, and it seems significant, so I’ll present it here. Merritt Ranew was catching for the Seattle Angels (a California Angels farm team) and Jim Coates was pitching against the Vancouver Mounties (a Kansas City A’s farm team). It was May 11, in Vancouver’s Capilano Stadium. Sports Illustrated explained what happened:

Seattle Pitcher Jim Coates threw one high and tight and struck Ricardo Joseph of Vancouver on the shoulder. Joseph charged the mound, but before he could get to Coates, he was tackled from behind and had his chin bloodied by Seattle Catcher Merritt Ranew. The ensuing free-for-all finally subsided, but then Vancouver’s Tommy Reynolds bunted up the first base line, forcing Coates to field the ball and tried to run the pitcher down. Again Ranew raced to the aid of Coates. Vancouver’s Santiago Rosario dashed from the on-deck circle and hit Ranew over the head with his bat, opening up a deep three-inch gash. There is internal bleeding in the brain, and the left side of Ranew’s face is paralyzed.

This was the third attack with a bat that professional baseball has produced in nine months. For hitting Los Angeles’ John Roseboro over the head last August, San Francisco’s Juan Marichal received a nine-day suspension and a $1,750 fine. The comparative mildness of the punishment was condoned because 1) Marichal’s team was deeply involved in the pennant race and 2) it was the first such incident in major league baseball, and there was no precedent for punitive action. But a warning should have come immediately from the Commissioner that future attacks would bring drastic punishment. None was sounded. Two weeks later Cleveland’s Pedro Gonzales swung his bat at Detroit’s Larry Sherry; Gonzales was fined $500 and suspended for 13 days.

In the Vancouver case Pacific Coast League President Dewey Soriano acted with commendable vigor and proper severity. He fined the lesser culprits in the incident, fined Rosario, too, and then suspended him for the remainder of the season.

Ranew was apparently not far from dying in the hours after Rosario’s attack. In the Spokane Spokesman-Review on July 1, 1966, Ranew said: “I plan to play next year. . . The doctors said it was touch-and-go for a while. . . But now they call the operation a success.”

And this about Rosario: “Let’s just say I don’t have too much respect for him. I couldn’t understand his actions. He wasn’t involved in the fight.”

In The Seattle Pilots Story, Carson Van Lindt’s book about the Pilots, Van Lindt writes that Ranew had a blood clot form in his skull “and he lied in a hospital for three weeks, drifting near death. Surgery relieved the clot but seventy-two hours passed before he regained consciousness.”

Robert L. Burnes of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writing a commentary in the August 1966 Baseball Digest, said:

1. An epidemic of such bat-wielding episodes in organized baseball could have a bad influence on youngsters and amateur players in general. A friend in Mascoutah, Ill., Forrest Flamuth, noted to us that an Army sergeant stationed at Scott AFB was assaulted by a player carrying a bat while umpiring a game recently in that area. There may have been no connection with the organized baseball affairs but such battles do the game no good.

2. It is obvious, of course, that the real matter of concern is the player swinging the bat. This is the trend which has to be stopped. Coast President Soriano took much more drastic action than his major league counterparts. A suspension for the balance of the season should be the minimum penalty.

3. The principals who used the bats in the three organized baseball cases—Marichal, Fuentes [Tito Fuentes, who also wielded a bat in the Marichal-Roseboro brawl], Gonzales and Rosario—are Central Americans. It could be coincidental but the conclusion is almost inescapable that these excitable young men let their emotions go too far.

4. Perhaps the most curious note is that all of the cases stemmed from pitchers allegedly throwing at batters.

Burnes noted the potentially lethal danger of players swinging bats against each other and recommended that “using a bat as a weapon should mean automatic disqualification for a full season no matter the provocation.”

There are a couple postscripts to this ugly story. In his essay on the history of pro baseball in Vancouver, Jim Bennie adds that after the fight, “an ambulance came to take Ranew to Vancouver General Hospital. Lost in all this was the fact Coates was throwing a no-hitter at the time, which is the reason he denied throwing at Joseph. Santiago was banned from baseball the rest of the year. A post-script is that Joseph got his revenge [the next day], waiting for Coates at the Sylvia Hotel and pummeling him there, cutting his nose and chipping a tooth.”

And in The Seattle Pilots Story, Van Lindt writes that in 1967 Ranew named “Vancouver Mounties Holdings Inc., Mickey Vernon, manager of the club, Santiago Rosario and Thomas Reynolds and the Kansas City Athletics (who were then the mother team of the Mounties) in a lawsuit. Before the beginning of spring training he had won his case.”

Ranew, who’s just over 70 years old, wound up his MLB career with the Pilots in 1969, three and a half years after being brained by Rosario. According to this website, Rosario, a Puerto Rican who’s a year younger than Ranew, was “in the minor leagues from 1960-1971 and 1973-1976, he played on 19 teams hitting near or over .300 for 7 seasons. He had 3 years at AAA. . . . After baseball, Rosie lived in Ponce, PR. He now resides in Guayanilla, PR.”

Finally, here’s a picture of Merritt Ranew from his time with Seattle:

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 6:15 am  Comments (6)  
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Rod Carew’s Seven Steals of Home in 1969

In his autobiography, Carew, Rod Carew talks about how he came to be a stealer of home in 1969. Some excerpts:

I also added a new wrinkle to my baseball repertoire at Orlando in the spring of 1969: stealing home. Billy [Martin] and I talked about my being more aggressive on the bases. Although I stole a lot of bases in the minors, I had stolen only 5 and 12 in my first two seasons with the Twins. He thought the team should put more pressure on opponents than we had. He said I could use my speed to advantage in a game situation in which we needed a run and the guys weren’t hitting. I had stolen home once before in the minors.

Billy worked with me for hours on stealing home. He suggested I take a slow, walking lead, instead of the lead in which you come to a stop. How far I should lead depended on how far the third baseman was playing off the bag, and whether the pitcher took a stretch or a windup. That walking lead was essential: you’d have momentum already started toward home.

We had it timed to the split second. If a pitcher wound up–instead of pitching from a stretch–and took six beats from the time he began his windup to his release, we determined that I ought to make it home safely. We also had the batters practice getting in the catcher’s way, without being called for interference.

“As long as you give the hitter the sign and he flashes it back to you,” Billy said, “then he should know that on the next pitch you’re coming and he shouldn’t swing.” Ideally, the batter is right-handed, and he ought to be trying to protect the plate and obscure the catcher’s vision a little bit. Billy said, “And you can’t be afraid of being thrown out, because that’s going to happen occasionally. You have to do it recklessly.”

Roger Nelson was a lanky right-hander nicknamed “Spider” because of his long dangly arms. He was pitching for Kansas City in the second game of the 1969 season. I arrived at third in the fifth inning. We were losing 3-2, two outs, and Graig Nettles batting. I took a modest lead, watching the third baseman and watching the pitcher. Spider Nelson went into a bi-i-i-g windup. All arms and legs. I counted. Nettles took a pitch. I signaled that I wanted to go. Martin and Nettles got the message. When Spider went into his windmill act again, I took off. When Nelson saw what was happening and finally untangled himself, he threw high, and I slid home safely. It was my first steal of home in the major leagues. I couldn’t wait to try it again.

Ten days later, we’re playing California. I was on third in the seventh inning. The score was tied, and Hoyt Wilhelm, the old knuckleballer, was pitching. His knuckler takes all day to arrive at the plate. It looked appetizing. I flashed a sign to Billy that I thought I could go. He flashed back an okay.

Harmon [Killebrew] was at the plate. I flashed him the sign. It’s a tap on my belt buckle with my right hand. It appeared he answered by tapping his belt buckle with his right hand. Wilhelm started into the windup. I went. I was coming down the line, and I was amazed to see that Harmon was preparing to hit the pitch: if he swung, I’d end up a double down the left-field line. Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he saw me, and he held back in the nick of time. I came sliding in and beat the knuckleball home. It proved to be the winning run of the game.

Eleven days later, I stole home for the third time in April. Two weeks later I stole home again. It was really getting exciting now. Whenever I got on third, the fans were yelling, “Go, go!” The other team’s dugout was yelling, “Watch him!” “Hold him on!” Everybody was anticipating something.

In June I stole home two more times. I now had six steals of home this season. That tied the American League record held by Ty Cobb for steals of home in a season. Pete Reiser of the Dodgers set the major-league record in 1946 with seven.

In the second inning against Chicago, on July 16, I was on third when Jerry Nyman went into a windup. He just forgot I was in the game. His teammates were hollering, “Hold him on, hold him on!” Too late. I slid home with number seven.

But generally it was getting harder and harder to go now. Everyone was watching me when I got to third. Pitchers were taking a stretch now instead of winding up.

But about a month later against Seattle [the Pilots] I had the opportunity to go for number eight, the record. Skip Lockwood, a right-hander, was pitching. I got a great jump on him, and I slid by the plate as the ball popped into the catcher’s mitt.

But the umpire called me out. I couldn’t believe it. J. C. Martin was catching, and he couldn’t believe the call either (he didn’t tell me that until the next day). I think the umpire’s vision was blocked, so he automatically gave me the thumb.

That was my last good chance to steal home in 1969.”

You can buy Carew’s book, published in 1979, here at

Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 8:07 am  Comments (1)  
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Remembering Vada Pinson

Vada Pinson spent most of the ’60s starring for the Cincinnati Reds as one of the great center fielders in the game. He was also one of the earliest members of the class of great black players that emerged from Oakland starting in the ’50s and continuing on until today. Here’s his longtime friend Curt Flood talking about Vada: “I always remember Vada Pinson’s smile. It was always present. If not on his face, it was in his voice.”

Pinson died on October 21, 1995, not quite three weeks after suffering a stroke at 59 and being admitted to the Summit Medical Center in Oakland. He’d returned to Oakland after his baseball coaching career ended, and was scheduled to be inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame early in 1996. At the time, his agent, Ken Solomon said: “He’s showing remarkable strength and determination right now. He’s a fighter and it shows.”

After Pinson’s death, Flood, who was getting chemotheraphy for throat cancer, talked to a reporter, Gordon Edes, about being in Los Angeles and unable to make the funeral in Oakland. Flood: “I still have a message from Vada on my answering machine. Vada Pinson was lying on the floor of his home in Oakland for three days before somebody found him. Perhaps in those first few minutes or hours, if only someone had known he was there, they might have saved his life. We don’t leave messages. We don’t answer messages. Damn.” (But please read the eighth comment below, from a Pinson family member who says Flood was deeply misinformed about this.)

His former Red teammates remembered Pinson’s abilities. Pitcher Jim Brosnan: “I had a shutout going in the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs. There were two outs and Ernie Banks hit a ball to what was the deepest part of old Crosley Field, out there in right-center field where the flag pole was next to the light tower.

“I remember Vada running from left-center where he’d been playing Banks. He just seemed to glide across that terrace that ran around the outfield. He caught that ball with almost no effort and he didn’t even have to leap. That’s how fast he was.”

Jerry Lynch, who played left to Pinson’s center for the Reds in the ’60s: “What bothers me is how could a guy have over 2,700 hits and not be in the Hall of Fame? He was a fine gentleman and the neatest person I have ever known.”

Former Reds second baseman Tommy Helms: “His game and practice shoes were shined brighter than my dress shoes. Vada had speed you could not teach. Even two or three years ago, he was in super shape. He did not drink or smoke.”

Earl Lawson, a Reds reporter for the Cincinnati Post: “I always felt Vada had more talent in his little finger than most guys have in their whole body. Vada could run and he had surprising power. I don’t recall anybody getting to 1,500 hits faster than Vada did.

“I voted for Vada for the Hall of Fame. He had Mickey Mantle’s speed. He missed being named rookie of the year in 1960 because he had just a few at-bats over the limit.”

At the time of his death, Pinson ranked among the Reds’ all-time leaders in a stack of offensive categories: hits (fifth, 1,881), doubles (fourth, 342), triples (third, 96), runs (fifth, 978), stolen bases (fifth, 221) at-bats (fifth, 6,335) and games (fifth, 1,565).

As for his cleanliness, Reds pitcher Brooks Lawrence, Pinson’s first roommate in Cincinnati, said: “I never saw a man so clean. He often took five or six showers a day.”

Former Reds manager Sparky Anderson, recalling his hitting coach with the Detroit Tigers from 1985 to 1991: “He’s one of those guys who came up in the deal of the cards from the bottom of the deck. Vada never got the recognition, he never got any recognition at all. But not one time did I ever hear Vada badmouth anybody about it. He never said a bad word about it. . . . He would spit shine those shoes of his every day. And he was one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. I never heard Vada Pinson bad-mouth anyone.

“He looked like his feet never touched the ground. He was so fast, had so many doubles, all his numbers, 2,800 hits, he was such a player. And a gentleman. If there is one word I’d use to describe him, it’s that: He was a gentleman.

“Vada never got near the recognition he deserved. Whether it was from being on the same team as Robby and Big Klu (Ted Kluszewski), I don’t know.

“But when it comes to retiring numbers, you have to now look at him. It’s too bad we wait until after he’s gone to do these things. But when you talk about what a player does for a city, for a franchise, he’s a Red. He obviously didn’t have the power of a guy like Mantle, but in every other way he was like Mantle. He was idolized by a generation (of kids) in Cincinnati.”

Curt Flood, who was a year ahead of Pinson at McClymonds High School in West Oakland: “Vada was neat as a pin. He shined his shoes between innings, almost.”

Pinson’s Reds teammate, Frank Robinson, also attended McClymonds High and was almost exactly three years older than Pinson. Robby said: “The numbers don’t tell the true story. Vada was underrated and underappreciated as a player. He brought a whole lot more to the game than just cold numbers.

“He was the first guy I saw who consistently put pressure on outfielders with his speed. Not just with balls he hit into the gaps. He’d hit ground balls to straightaway center and turn them into doubles.

“Same thing with a two-hopper to the first baseman. He’d beat it out. The pitcher couldn’t get over there fast enough to cover.”

Vada Pinson’s 2,757 hits, coupled with 256 home runs and 305 stolen bases, made him, as of 1995, one of only four players to amass at least 2,500 hits, 250 home runs and 250 stolen bases. The others: Joe Morgan, who came out of West Oakland a few years after Pinson, Willie Mays, and Andre Dawson. Morgan: “You know what was great about Vada? He was content with his accomplishments, with who he was. He was happy with his niche. He knew where he fit in.”

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 8:43 am  Comments (50)  
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The Seattle Pilots’ First Game at Sicks Stadium

After a last-minute rush to install as many seats in the new right-field bleachers at Sicks Stadium as the Pilots could, opening day at the stadium happened on Friday, April 11, 1969. Lew Matlin, head of stadium operations for the Pilots: “Work here should have been started a month earlier, that’s all. But things are going well now; we are going to be ready.” The seat installation went on day and night, and so did work on the roof for the grandstand.


When opening day vs. the Chicago White Sox happened, the Seattle Times called it “a Perfect Day, for Weather and Score”: around 60 degrees, sunny, breezy. Attendance was 17, 150, and they saw Don Mincher hit the Pilots’ first Seattle homer, launching it into “concrete footings for nonexistent seats.”  The Times’ Georg N. Meyers continued: “The joy of a 7-0 shutout will make quaint and precious the memories of an Opening Day in a park whose Star-Spangled Banner, for want of a flagpole, fluttered from a light-pole yardarm–at half-staff, of course, in honor of a departed ex-President (Eisenhower had died on March 28.)”

Very Rev. John A. Fitterer gave a prayer blessing the Pilots’ undertaking, Rod Belcher sang the “Go, Go, You Pilots” song he’d written himself, Warren Magnuson threw three bad opening pitches to fellow senator Henry Jackson, Governor Dan Evans caught another opening pitch, and Bob McGrath, a teacher at Franklin High School, across the street from Sicks, sang the National Anthem.

Meyers summarized: “For Opening Day, Seattle had a domed stadium–blue and infinite, so warmly illumined that baseball fans quaffed 1,000 cases of beer, swept through the inadequate concession stands like locusts and loaded the young with blue Pilot caps, pennants and bobble-headed dolls. Traffic jammed but did not clot, and all the nearby parking lots were not filled.”

Pitcher Gary Bell and his teammates leaving the field victorious:

Here’s the Pilots’ theme song, “Go, Go You Pilots” (or listen to the song and watch images of Sicks Stadium here):


The Pilots’ pitchers:

And Jim Bouton:

Finally, the front of the Times sports section for Thursday April 10, with pictures of the right-field bleachers, Mike Hegan’s wife Nancy getting his uniform ready, and a stockpile of Pilots pennants:

(If you’re curious about Seattle MLB debuts, there’s also this post on the Mariners’ first game, in the Kingdome in April 1977 and this one on the Pilots’ first game ever. Or, check out the website celebrating the Pilots. Or, watch a promotional 17-minute video the Pilots produced about their season-including footage of opening day at Sicks.)

Jack Kralick and His No-Hitter

Back in 1990, Steve Aschburner of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote about Dean Chance’s 5-inning perfect game and also the first no-hitter in Twins history, thrown by Jack Kralick, a 27-year-old lefthander from Detroit, against the Kansas City Athletics at Met Stadium on August 26, 1962, in a 1-0 win. Aschburner wrote:

“Kralick, one of the players who moved to the Twin Cities with the Washington Senators, had a perfect game until he walked George Alusik with one out in the ninth. But he got Billy Consolo and Bobby Del Greco to foul out to first baseman Vic Power for the final outs.

“He was one of those guys who was going to win you 12 games every year,” Twins public relations director Tom Mee said. “He had good control, and in that particular game, he just had it all together.”

Said his brother Bill Kralick, who lives in St. Paul: “Jack was excited. He knew that anybody who throws a no-hitter (gets a mention) in the Hall of Fame.”

That game did not catapult Kralick into the limelight. His best season in the majors came in 1963. He started out 1-4 with the Twins, was traded to Cleveland for pitcher Jim Perry, then was 13-9 for the Indians.

In nine seasons, Kralick compiled a 67-65 record. His career ended in 1967 shortly after he crashed his car into a bridge abutment.

After baseball, Kralick served as a recreation director for a company working on the Alaskan pipeline. Now 55, he splits his time between Alaska and Mexico. Some have described him as a hermit.”

Will Young did a longer post on Kralick’s no-hitter a couple years ago here.

In Curse of Rocky Colavito, Terry Pluto’s book about cheering on some woeful Indians teams, Pluto talks at length about Kralick. The pitcher was Pluto’s favorite Indian as a kid, and obsessions being what they are, Pluto was driven to search out Kralick years later. He couldn’t find him: the closest he got was a 1971 “Whatever Happened To” article on Kralick in the Akron paper that found Kralick enjoying the outdoors life-hunting and fishing mostly-in South Dakota, and not missing baseball at all. I’ll refer you to Pluto’s book for more about the man, who ex-teammates described as a fairly abrasive loner.

But Kralick, who came within two batters of being probably the least-known pitcher with an MLB perfect game, was (and apparently is) just not sociable, someone who’s very comfortable getting along by himself. Of course at 74, that gets to be pretty hard, especially if you’re living in Alaska. There’s probably a very interesting article or essay to be written about Kralick and the broader issue of the position of the non-social athlete playing in a team sport.

Kralick died on September 19 of 2012, in a fishing village in Mexico called San Blas, at age 77. This post from the Minneapolis Star Tribune includes a few people relating their memories of his no-hitter.

Published in: on October 25, 2009 at 9:55 pm  Comments (5)  
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The Looie Curse

I haven’t found many details about this, and it certainly never became Chicago legend, but this look at Luis Aparicio says:
As he left the organization, Aparicio started ‘the Looie Curse,’ often forgotten about by baseball fans who continue to only remember billy goats and Babe Ruth. Aparicio told the Chicago media that “it took the Sox 40 years to win a pennant, it’ll take them another 40 years to win another one.” Maybe Looie really meant 50 years…or 60….or 75?

And Bob Vanderberg’s book, Sox: From Lane and Fain to Zisk and Fisk, says:
Fearing a repeat of the case of Carrasquel, who had played indifferently in his last year in Chicago and whose career had not lasted nearly as long as everyone had anticipated, the Sox unloaded Looie to Baltimore in January 1963.
Aparicio immediately proclaimed that the White Sox would not win another pennant for another 40 years.

In October 2005, the Chicago Tribune’s Ed Sherman added:
Perhaps, though, it came down to the curse. No, not the one involving Joe Jackson and the Black Sox.

This curse came from one of the team’s favorite sons. Luis Aparicio was furious when the Sox traded him to Baltimore in 1963. The angry shortstop left with this parting shot: “The Sox will need 40 years to win the pennant again.”

It was the Looie Curse, and it was fulfilled: the Sox won their next pennant in 2005, 42 years later, and 46 years after their 1959 pennant.

Published in: on October 16, 2009 at 1:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Seattle Pilots’ First Game

The Seattle Times’ coverage of the Pilots’ first game, on April 8, 1969, against the California Angels at Anaheim Stadium, was oddly quiet and short. The headline of the sports section read: It’s Up to Mike: Marshall Makes Bid to Stretch Pilots’ 4-3 Victory Into Streak. That meant the Pilots had won their first game ever, and Mike Marshall, the pitcher now famous for his rubber arm qualities as a reliever and his theories about how to train pitchers, was due to start their second game. And, the Times used the Tacoma News Tribune’s Earl Luebker to cover the game because its own Hy Zimmerman had a “mild” heart attack in Anaheim before the game.  Luebker didn’t add a great deal that can’t be seen from looking at the game box score (the Pilots’ four-run first inning, highlighted by a two-run Mike Hegan homer, led the way for a Marty Pattin victory over the Angels’ Jim McGlothlin), but he did quote manager Joe Schultz saying his strategy was “Stay close, then go to the bullpen.”  And, right fielder Mike Hegan nearly made a “spectacular catch” of a liner by Bobby Knoop, but “crashed into the fence,” letting the ball drop from his glove, and had to leave the game with “a bruised hip and wrist, and a cut lip.”

The Times’ front page of the sports section:


The Pilots’ win gave all four 1969 expansion teams–the Pilots, the Expos, the Padres, and the Royals–wins in their debuts in major league baseball. Read about the Pilots’ first game in Seattle.

Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 9:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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