Friday, January 29, 2010

The Pride of Sledge, Mississippi

I bought a used juke box many years ago stocked with a hundred 45 rpm records. I never was a country western music fan, but one of those songs was Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone by Charley Pride. I knew a little bit about Charley Pride because he had a couple of big hits such as Kiss an Angel Good Morning, a dreadful song (sorry Charley).

Charley made it big in C&W despite that fact that he was an African-American from Sledge, Mississippi. A Black making it big in C&W was as special as a White kid being accepted into the Rap music fraternity. Charley went on to score more than thirty top-ten singles.

I replaced most of the juke box records with "my stuff" but I kept the Charley Pride disc. The song seemed familiar and it became one of those tunes that sticks in your brain and surfaces whenever it pleases. After several years I realized that it was originally sung by the Sir Douglas Quintet, a group that sounded British but came from Texas. As a youth I was quite fond of their biggest hit, She's About a Mover, written by group leader, Doug Sahm.

How does this relate to baseball? One day I was leafing through a book about the Negro Leagues. I did a double take when I came across a photo from 1953 of a Memphis Red Sox pitcher named Charley Pride. I thought it must have been a coincidence. Further reading disclosed that Charley Pride the Memphis pitcher had indeed become Charley Pride the country music superstar.

According to the photo caption, an injury derailed his baseball career and pushed him toward his other love, music. The California Angels (1961) and New York Mets (1962) granted him tryouts but he no longer had any "mustard" on his fastball. Failing to make the woeful 1962 Mets, the worst major league team of all time, was a sign that a change of direction was needed.

After the Mets tryout, he passed through Nashville before heading home to Montana. He met a producer who recorded him and managed to put two demos into the hands of Chet Atkins. Atkins helped make it happen for Pride. A single was released and his C&W career was launched.

During the 1950's, major league baseball was slowly opening its doors to the Negro League star players. Blacks athletes dreamed of making the big leagues and becoming stars, maybe even reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In one of life's sweetest ironies, Charley made the Hall in 2000, the Country Music Hall of Fame. One other accolade resonates in the baseball world. In 1967, he performed at the Grand Ole Opry, the first artist of color to appear there in its 70-year history. In 1993, he accepted an invitation to join the permanent ranks of the Opry. Charley Pride was the Jackie Robinson of country music, and the pride of Sledge, Mississippi.

Photo by Ernest C. Withers

Thursday, January 21, 2010

American League History 101

There are currently fourteen teams in the American League. Nine of these clubs are still located in their birthplace. Of those nine, the Angels, Royals, Mariners, Blue Jays and Rays are expansion clubs. The remaining four teams that have thrived (or resisted relocation) are the Detroit Tigers (1901), Chicago White Sox (1902), Cleveland Indians (1901), and the Boston Red Sox (1901).

Only the Tigers have maintained their original team nickname.

The White Sox made a minor alteration from the name White Stockings.

Cleveland began as the Blues and soon switched to the Broncos. In honor of the great Napoleon Lajoie, the team decided to be called the Naps until their star player/manager left the team in 1915. In keeping with the honorarium theme, they reached back into history and reclaimed the pre-American League name Cleveland Indians, for a player named Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian. I wonder if the descendants of Mr. Sockalexis have box seats at Jacobs Field.

The name Pilgrims has been ascribed to the early Boston players, although a theory exists that this is myth. Most vintage articles just refer to the the team as the Boston Americans. The co-nickname Somersets has been cited during the first several years, as well. Charles Somers was the president of the league at the time. In any event, the name Red Sox was adopted in 1907 and has stuck for more than a century.

Now let's discuss the teams that have migrated to greener pastures. The New York Yankees were once the New York Highlanders, it's true. But they began as the Baltimore Orioles in 1901. In 1903, the franchise moved from Baltimore to New York.

The New York Orioles sounded a bit peculiar and would have raised the ire of John James Audobon, so the name Highlanders was chosen. The team played its games at an elevated spot in Upper Manhattan, and team president Joe Gordon fancied the lore of a famous British fighting unit called the Gordon Highlanders.

In 1913, the name was changed to the Yankees, an unofficial nickname being used by a newspaperman who was tired of fitting Highlanders into his headlines.

For many years, Baltimore had no major league team, except for a brief fling with the Baltimore Terrapins of the short-lived Federal League. Following the 1953 season, the St. Louis Browns could no longer survive in the shadow of the National League Cardinals. They relocated to Baltimore and usurped the Orioles name from the existing minor league organization. The newly born Orioles needed about a decade before becoming a force in the American League.

Actually, the Baltimore story did not begin in St. Louis. In 1901, after just one year in operation, the Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis to become the Browns.

So, the Yankees were once the Orioles, and the Orioles had been briefly called the Brewers. Okay, what about the modern Brewers? The 1969 expansion Seattle Pilots in their first year could not build attendance to an acceptable level, could not get funding for the new domed stadium that was part of the franchise agreement, and could not stop the banks from calling in their loans. A group from Milwaukee led by Bud Selig put together a deal and the Brewers were born in 1970.

The Brewers moved from the American League to the National in 1998. The addition of one expansion team to each league (Diamondbacks and Devil Rays), created a scheduling nightmare for the fifteen teams in each league. The Brewers alleviated that problem by switching leagues
and returning both circuits to an even number of clubs.

The Athletics have always been the Athletics. They were the Athletics in Philadelphia from 1901-1954 before moving to Kansas City. The KC franchise was sold to Charley Finley who publicly proclaimed that he would not move the team out of Missouri. He proceeded to contact almost every city in the U.S. to make a deal before scoring a hit in Oakland in 1968. If the current ownership can survive in the Bay Area until 2022, they will eclipse the Connie Mack tenure in Philly.

The Minnesota Twins moved their franchise from Washington in 1960 after being the Washington Senators since 1901.

With the Senators gone to the Twin Cities, an expansion team assumed the mantle of the Washington Senators in 1961. Eleven years later, they followed the Twins' blueprint and bolted for Texas, becoming the Rangers in 1972.

Until one of our small-market teams is seduced into another city with a burgeoning economy and tax money to build a nice stadium, the Major Leagues should stand pat for the time being.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

National League History 101

There are now sixteen teams in the National League. Only eleven of those teams still play in the same city where they started. Of those the eleven teams, six are expansion teams that came into existence since 1962. That leaves just five organizations that have not moved. The Phillies (1883), Cubs (1876), Pirates (1882), Cardinals (1882) and Reds (1882) still reside in the city of their birth.

Of the five teams above, only the Phillies name has endured from inception to current day. Even that fact must be denoted with an asterisk. There were two periods when the Phillies carried dual-names. Initially, they answered to the Quakers and Phillies. During World War II, a contest to rename the Phillies resulted in another split personality, the Blue Jays and the Phillies. Fan and press disdain for the new moniker killed the Blue Jay name after 1945.

The Cardinals began as the Browns, a name later claimed by the American League team in St. Louis.

The Cincinnati organization was originally the Red Stockings until 1890 before being simplified to the Reds. From 1953 to 1958, the McCarthy Communist witch hunt forced the name change from the Reds to the Redlegs.

The Pirates began life as the Alleghenies. People had a hard enough time spelling Pittsburg (I mean Pittsburgh) let alone Alleghenies. After a brief run as the Innocents, the Pirates name was assumed in 1891.

Finally, the Chicago team was, at birth, the White Stockings, followed by the Colts, Orphans, and finally Cubs in 1902. When the American League was created in 1902, the Southside team in Chicago grabbed the name White Stockings for themselves.

The Atlanta Braves began in Boston in 1876 as the Boston Red Caps. This team carries the honor of having played under the most team names. They have been called the Beaneaters, Doves, Rustlers, Braves, Bees, and finally back to the Braves in 1953 when they fled Boston for greener pastures in Milwaukee. How proud it must have made a Boston player to call himself a Beaneater. In 1965, Braves ownership was lured away from Milwaukee to Atlanta.

The Los Angeles Dodgers may be the most famous city jumper even though they only moved once, in 1958. Walter O'Malley made a lucrative deal for himself in southern California after convincing Giants owner Horace Stoneham to move west with him. The Dodgers own the runner-up prize for most names. They started out in 1884, as the Grays, before morphing into the Bridegrooms, Superbas, Dodgers, Robins, and back to Dodgers in 1932. The original Dodger nickname came from Trolley Dodgers, which, if counted as an official name would tie them with the Braves for most name changes.

The San Francisco Giants began in 1883 as the New York Gothams and soon adopted the name Giants which has endured for more than a century.

Only one NL expansion team has moved. The Montreal Expos came into the league in 1969 as the first team to be based outside of the United States. The name Expos was borrowed from the World's Fair held in Montreal in 1967. After several years of rumored repatriation, the Expos came home to the U.S. in 2005 as the Washington Nationals.

Just one NL expansion team has changed its name. The Houston Colt .45s paid tribute to NASA's space command center in Houston by renaming the team the Astros and moving into the Astrodome.

American League History 101 will be presented in the next post.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

How Castro Prepared Gene Mauch to Manage in Philadelphia

Gene Mauch had just completed an interesting year as manager of the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. At the end of each season the American Association champ would play the International League winner in the Junior World Series. In 1959, the series would feature the Millers against the Havana Cuba Sugar Kings, managed by Preston Gomez.

As told by Stew Thornley, author of On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers, an early Minnesota winter forced the series to be moved to Havana after two games. Students of history will remember that 1959 was not a great time to be in Havana. Fidel Castro had just successfully overthrown the government of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who fled to Spain with a reported $300 million dollars.

Castro was in the process of forming a new provisional government, but that didnt prevent him from personally hosting the remainder of the Junior World Series. An incident in July underscored the danger of being in Cuba during 1959. The visiting Rochester Red Wings were batting when gunfire from a Rebel demonstration sent stray bullets onto the field and struck Rochester third base coach Frank Verdi and Havana shortstop Leo (Chico) Cardenas. Verdi received only a minor wound, but the Red Wings flew back to New York state thereby canceling the series.

During one of the Millers/Sugar Kings contests, 3,000 soldiers, many armed, ringed the field and the dugouts. Castro himself attended the games. Did the Millers have reason to fear for their lives? Mauch's team received several not-so-subtle threats. Thornley describes the seventh game: At this point, Castro decided to get into the act. After entering the stadium prior to Game Seven, he made his way around the warning track to get to his box seat. According to the Miller's Lefty Locklin, as Castro passed the Minneapolis bullpen, he paused, looked at the players, patted a large revolver on his hip and said, 'Tonight, we win.' "

Well, the Sugar Kings did rally to win the series in seven games. While Gene Mauch did not go home with a Junior World Series championship, he went home with his team in one piece. More importantly, he became the most qualified manager in the free world to manage in the city of Brotherly Love.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chico and the Dog

A few years ago, I was selling off some baseball memorabilia on eBay. One of the items was a photo of shortstop Chico Fernandez with the Phillies.

Chico's wife, Lynne, contacted me to inquire about any other photos that I may have had. I dug up a 1958 wire photo of Robin Roberts celebrating his 200th win with the Phillies. Standing next to Roberts was Chico and first baseman Ed Bouchee. I emailed the image to them. Chico and Lynne loved the joyous look on Chico's face in the photo.

I made high quality copy of the photo (nicer than the original) and mailed it to Chico. They asked me if they could repay me in some way. I asked them if they had any small personal item belonging to Chico during his Phillies stint (1957-1959).

A few weeks later I received an autographed photo and letter. But this was unlike any signed baseball photo I had ever seen. In the Photo, Chico was holding a small terrier named Mochito. Mochito had been rescued from the streets of Havana, Cuba and adopted by the Fernandez family. Unable to take the dog stateside when baseball season started, Chico instead carried this photo.

I will let Lynne Fernandez complete the story:

He carried the original small photo with him in his pocket and then put it up in his locker Philadelphia in the ballpark. The guys razzed him about it because they had pictures of gals! Chico didn't care. He was homesick a lot and loved coming back to the locker room after the game to find Mochito "waiting" for him just as he did at home. He also said he used to touch the dog's head in the photo just before each game and say , "Bring me luck Papa!" then he would run out and play.

When I asked for some little personal item, I had no idea what gem I would soon receive.

Notes: Mochito means "the severed one", which probably also denotes "lost" or "abandoned"

Monday, January 11, 2010

Harrisburg Woman Breaks the Glass Ceiling in Baseball, Sort Of

June 21, 1952, Harrisburg Senators baseball manager Butch Etchison discovered the he had a newly signed player on his team. The day before, a pretty 24-year-old stenographer had signed a contract and was about to become the first female player on an affiliated professional baseball team.

Etchison was furious. He had not been notified of the plans to sign the erstwhile softball star. He wanted her off the team. She showed up on game day in a Senators uniform that looked very much like the garb worn by female players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. During the pre-game warm-ups she performed adequately to an appreciative crowd. Etchison made sure that she stayed off the field during the game.

The Senators were a struggling team in the floundering Interstate League. The team was sinking in the standings and attendance was dropping precariously. Perhaps team president Dr. Jay Smith was taking a page from the Bill Veeck Jr. playbook. Just as Veeck stirred the pot with his stunt of sending 3 foot 7 inch Eddie Gaedel to the plate as an actual member of the St. Louis Browns in 1951, Dr. Jay may have looked at Engle's signing as a gimmick to promote ticket sales.

In public, however, he defended her qualifications to be a member of the Senators, by telling the press that she could hit better than some of the guys on the club.

The irate Etchinson appealed to the head of the minor leagues, George Trautman, who was likewise outraged by the sacrilege. By June 23, Engle's contract had been voided. Trautman was quoted as saying that such travesties would not be tolerated. To back up his position, he warned all minor league teams under his authority that grave sanctions would befall any team that tried to sign a woman.

Working quickly, Trautman enlisted the help of Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick. That very same day women were officially banned from all organized baseball.

Just two years earlier, Bonnie Baker was named as manager of the AAGPBL team in Kalamazoo. When the season ended, league officials banned females from managing a team in the all-female league. It takes a man to manage women players.

After Frick's edict, the travesty of a woman taking any man's job in the baseball world was forever averted. According to Brian McKenna in his book Early Exit that ban is still in effect.

Miss Engle's jarring ouster from baseball caught the media's attention locally and nationwide. Reporters and photographers dogged her everywhere she went. They waited in the hallway outside her office. They followed her to church.

Newspaper reports called her a "shapely brunette" and "the attractive rookie."

Bob Hope and Leo Durocher offered their encouragement. Her looks and compelling story could have been parlayed into a movie deal, but she chose to remain in the shadows. When she later went to work for a large corporation, her co-workers never knew of her flirtation with celebrity.

Her story became part of an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Engle refused to attend the event.

In 1991, Topps issued a baseball card as part of a 1953 reprint set (see photo in article). Engle appears sitting at one end of the bench and the male players at the other end. "The card looks like I'm a skunk at a picnic," she quipped

The power brokers of baseball could have allowed Eleanor Engle to try to prove herself. Had she failed, the world would know that women were not strong enough, skilled enough or fast enough to play with the big boys, or even the littler boys. But what if...?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Harder Than Winning Twenty

Below is a list of very accomplished pitchers who have something quite special in common:
Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Don Larson, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Denny McLain and Red Ruffing (among others). Here is a hint. The only pitcher to manage this feat in the new century is Mike Maroth of the 2003 Detroit Tigers.

What these pitchers have in common is a twenty-game losing season. Six of the above twenty-game losers have been enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame, Johnson, Young, Carlton, Roberts, Ruffing and Niekro.

Maybe this dishonor is not as shameful as it seems. There have been more twenty-game winners than losers. In many cases, a pitcher has to be intrinsically good enough to be dispatched to the mound over and over again during a long losing campaign. In fact, some twenty-loss seasons were actually winning seasons. In 1979, Phil Niekro finished the year 21-20 for the Atlanta Braves who only won 69 times as a team. Wilbur Wood went 24-20 with the 1973 White Sox.

But Niekro and Wood aren't off the hook. Each of them had a second twenty-game losing season in which they lost more than they won.

Who lost the most games in a season? Going back to the year 1900, the honor belongs to Vic Willis of the 1905 Boston Beaneaters with a record of 12-29. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, that may be due to another distinction awarded to Mr. Willis. He was voted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1995, based on his eight twenty-win campaigns.

One has to dive into the rich pool of nineteenth century hurlers to find a thirty-game loser. The last player to do so was Coldwater Jim Hughey with a sparkling record of 4-30 for the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. Thirty-plus game losers were fairly common in the late 1800's due to number of games pitched each season by individual players. During the 1870's and 1880's, many pitchers started sixty games or more.

Who was the biggest loser in baseball history? The envelope, please. The winner is John Coleman of the 1883 Philadelphia Quakers (Phillies). The Phillies managed in their first year of existence to set a record that has not been bested (or worsted?) since. Mr. Coleman pitched in 65 games and lost 48 of them. His record was 12-48. What's worse is that Coleman was Philadelphia's best pitcher, starting all but 32 of his teams contests.

A special award goes to Tricky Nichols who went 4-29 for New Haven in 1875. Try to imagine his record had he not been tricky.

Friday, January 8, 2010

DiMaggio, Mantle and Mays Not HOF Worthy?

The 2010 Baseball Hall of Fame voting is over. There were no slam dunk candidates this year. Most of the sportswriters (who weren't voting) included Andre Dawson and Roberto Alomar on their imaginary ballots. Dawson cleared the hurdle but all others fell short.

The sports writers actually casting a vote were the 539 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. The Hall requires that a candidate must appear on 75% of the submitted ballots. I used to wonder why the bar was so low. One out of four "experts" could deem a player unworthy, yet that player could ascend into the Hall based on the selection by the other three-fourths. This has ceased to be a mystery to me.

Since this is a baseball history blog, let's go back in time, way back. In 1953, Joe DiMaggio’s name appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. Only 44.3% of voters, 117 of 264 total, placed him on their ballots, leaving him in eighth place. A staggering 147 “experts” did not think Joe DiMaggio was worthy of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. Completed ballots included the names Bill Wambsgamss, Arky Vaughn, Gabby Street, Bill Sherdel, George Selkirk and many other players, now mostly forgotten. Dizzy Dean led the voting with 79.2% followed by Al Simmons at 75.4%. They were the only two players to clear the 75% hurdle and secure their admission to the Hall. Bill Terry, Bill Dickey, Rabbit Maranville, Dazzy Vance and Ted Lyons all finished ahead of DiMaggio.

In 1954, DiMaggio finished fourth in the Hall of Fame balloting, but once again failed to pass the 75% threshold. Maranville, Dickey and Terry all made the grade and entered the shrine. Finally, in 1955, he finished at the top of the class and sailed in with 88.8%. And yet, turning that number upside down, over 10% of the voters did not feel that Joe DiMaggio should enter the Hall of Fame. As Ted Williams learned during his MVP worthy seasons, there will always be a writer willing to tear a star down to size.

Many, many baseball fans and experts feel that Willie Mays is the greatest all-around player ever. Mays was elected in his first year of eligibility in 1979. He garnered 409 (94.7%) of the writers' votes. Some quick math reveals that 432 ballots were cast and 23 of them did not include Willie Mays.

But wait, it gets worse. Has anyone ever heard of Mickey Mantle? His election year was 1974. The Mick picked up 322 votes out of 365 possible (88.2%). That means 43 writers felt Mickey Mantle should not go into the Hall of Fame. That same year a total of 61 writers saw fit to include Phil Cavarretta on their ballots. No offense to Mr. Cavarretta and his family and fans, he had a long distinquished career with the Cubs and the White Sox. But I can't help but wonder if Mantle got bumped off any ballots to make room for Cavarretta. Voters have a limited number of names they can include on the ballot. Currently that limit is ten.

Another mind-boggling fact is the ramping up of a player's vote percentage as the years progress. Since Dawson's election is fresh news, let's examine his Hall of Fame vote-getting record.

2002 - 45.3 %

2003 - 50.0%

2004 - 50.0%

2005 - 52.3%

2006 - 61.0%

2007 - 56.7%

2008 - 65.9%

2009 - 67.0%

2010 - 77.9%

No player is eligible until five years after he has retired from active service. That means that Andre Dawson's credentials are locked in. Following his final 1996 season, he did not become more or less worthy as the years wore on. So why did the voting members of the BBWAA look more favorably some years, and less favorably in others? He is either Hall of Fame material or he isn't. The year 2007 mystifies me completely. His percentage of votes was actually lower than the previous year.

Are baseball statistics like the commodities market? Defensive skills dropped in value in 2007, but base stealing prowess spiked in 2010 pushing Dawson over the top?

So I now understand the wisdom of setting the threshold at 75%. The founding fathers of the Hall must have known how many writers would be blinded by city rivalries, regional bias, player position bias, and real or perceived slights and insults heaped on individual writers by the players on the ballot. Additionally, it was apparent to the founders that some writers are apparently just pinheads (feel free to substitute a ruder word).

Will baseball ever change the system? Not likely in my lifetime. But they should. I would like to see a smaller committee of baseball people (not necessarily writers) who will respect the game and the players who made it great. With today's many forms of communication, members of this committee could confer and discuss the pros and cons of the marginal candidates.

There is a precedence for the committee idea. The Hall utilizes a Veterans Committee to elect Pre-World War II and Post-World War II players who may have dropped through the cracks. Other committees exist to consider Umpires and Managers, and Executives and Pioneers.

I also think that the voting should be public. If a voter has the chutzpah to keep a Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays off his ballot, then let him (are there any hers?) stand up and defend the vote. My guess is that the petty grievances that underlie these preposterous votes would not stand the light of day. If one day in the future a writer keeps Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux off his ballot, I would like to know the reason(s).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Phillie Player Booed for Home Run in Home Park

In my previous post I talked about my project of sending out baseballs to be signed. In some cases I also asked the player what they remember most about their times with the Phillies. The most poignant reply came from Earl Averill Jr. Before revealing his note to me, here is a short bio on the man.

Earl Averill Jr. had some very big shoes to fill when he broke into the big leagues in 1956. His father, Earl Sr., was a Hall of Fame outfielder from 1929 to 1941, mostly with the Cleveland Indians. To make things even tougher for Junior, he began his career with the Indians, where his daddy was a big star.

As a second string catcher he had a mediocre year but was demoted to the minors in 1957. He resurfaced with the Indians as a third baseman in 1958 and batted under .200 in limited action. If Cleveland once thought he was the second coming of Earl Averill Sr., they gave up the notion following that season. The Indians traded him to the Cubs in January of 1959.

His ability to play infield and outfield (in addition to catching), kept him in the big leagues with the Cubs, White Sox and Angels through 1962.

That brings us to 1963, when he was traded to Philadelphia. These are Averill's exact words.

As you know, I didn't play very much or effectively while a Phillie. However, late in the season the Cardinals were in town and I was asked to play 3rd base. I threw to first on a bunt play and the wide throw allowed the Cards to rally for a couple of runs. I was leading off the next inning and Bob Sadowski was pitching. I hit a home run off the first pitch, and typical of Phillie fans, they BOOED me all the way around the bases.

After his release from the Phillies in 1963, Averill played in the minor leagues for a few more years and retired.

In retrospect, I now wish I had also asked him what it was like to play in the shadow of his father. I have resolved to contact him again and do just that.

One more interesting comment about playing for the Phillies. Billy Cowan also spent one year in the Phillies organization, 1967. He sent this brief note:

"Sorry - Philly was not a happy time for me, but I did enjoy the people & scenery."

I must assume that the people he enjoyed were not the fans. As to the scenery, I'm not sure what natural beauty he savored. As one who lived in the Philadelphia area for twenty years, I know he wasn't talking about the area around Connie Mack Stadium.

Message in a Bottle

For a period of almost two years I mailed out baseballs to former Phillies and requested an autograph. I always enclosed a stamped, self-addressed padded envelope for the return mailing. I titled this endeavor "message in a bottle" because of the doubts I had about its probability of success.

I sent out almost 200 baseballs during that time frame. About 85% of them came back autographed. Another 5% came back unsigned for various reasons (or no reason). A bad address or no forwarding address was a recurring problem. A few demanded money for their signature. Dave Philley, for example, demanded $15, an amount I would have gladly sent had I known in advance. Alvin Dark sent me a brochure on his charitable foundation and advised me that he normally asks for a minimum $10 donation. He signed the ball anyway. I sent him a check.

A few balls came back with sad notations that the addressee was too sick or had recently passed away.

The remaining 10% never came back signed or otherwise. I always wondered what these guys did with the baseballs. Using various sources to obtain the baseballs, my average cost was about $7-8 each. I sent out approximately $150 worth of baseballs that never returned. But that's the price of sending out messages in a bottle.

What I didn't bargain for was the comments sent by the former players. I received some of the friendliest notes, especially from the older players. A wonderful man named Barney Mussill sent me photos, copies of telegrams and letters. One of Mussill's telegrams from 1948 was sent by Connie Mack himself. Other players sent me unsolicited memorabilia, which I have collected in a binder.

On a index card, Barney Mussill wrote above his signature: "Baseball friends are forever."

In tomorrow's blog, I will report on some of the comments from players who did not enjoy their tenure with the Phillies. Philadelphia's tradition of tough fans apparently goes back several generations. Earl Averill's anecdote from the early 1960's highlights classic Philadelphia behavior.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The First Home Run Doris Ever Saw Me Hit

I own a lot of autographed baseballs, mostly retired Phillies. My favorite baseball, however, has nothing to do with a Phillies player, and is a not really an autographed ball at all. I bought it from eBay for a modest amount of money.

The label on the ball reads "Old 97 League." Stamped on a sign panel is a facsimile of Tom Fairweather's signature, alluding to him as the commissioner or president of the Three I League.

The opposite panel is my favorite part of this obscure piece of baseball history. It reads "First Home Run Doris Ever Saw Me Hit." Below that inscription it continues, "June 10, 1942."and lastly, "Madison, Wis."

On an adjacent panel it reads, "First six games Had 7 doubles - 5 singles - 1 H.R. For 21 Times Up." Finally, he does the math for us and reports his batting average for that span of time to be ".619" The mixed use of upper and lower case letters was the choice of the inscriber.

The seller's research indicated that the ball had belonged to Whitey Platt. Taking the baton and continuing the research I learned that outfielder Mizell "Whitey" Platt debuted with the Chicago Cubs on September 16, 1942, a mere three months after Doris witnessed her first Platt home run. The actual home run occurred when Platt played for the Madison Blues in the aforementioned Three I League (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa).

Platt's prodigious efforts for Madison earned him a promotion to the Tulsa Oilers in the Texas League and soon after a September call-up to the Cubs.

Platt played sparingly for the Cubs in 1942 and 1943 and disappeared off the baseball radar screen until 1946, due a stint in the military.

He resurfaced with the Chicago White Sox in 1946 and then spent his final two years with the St. Louis Browns in 1948 and 1949. He lingered in the minors for another five years. The St. Louis Browns in this era was quite often a career cul-de-sac.

Discovering Whitey Platt's baseball history was relatively easy compared with probing his personal life. There are volumes upon volumes of information about the big stars of that era (Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, etc.) But the Internet never ceases to amaze me. Even the obscure players leave a bread crumb trail on Google.

The biggest disappointment was learning that his wife's name was Edna. So whatever happened to Doris? Was she some hot Wisconsin babe enamored with the local baseball star? Did he leave Doris behind in his quest to reach the big leagues? Did she stay in Madison and become attached to another ballplayer? Maybe I'll find out someday.

The identity of Doris is not the only mystery. It is not clear who was intended to be the recipient of this baseball. Perhaps Platt hung onto this ball as memorabilia of his early career and his days (and nights?) with Doris.

I love this ball because it was not inscribed to impress Doris, but because it celebrated the relationship that allowed Whitey Platt to find additional meaning to his exploits. Platt allowed his personal life to spill over into the dugout. I doubt if anyone owns a ball that says "The First Home Run Madonna Ever Saw Me Hit."

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Two Tales of Two Cities

A recent story on Joel Hanrahan on reminded me of my favorite all-time trivia question. More on Hanrahan in a moment, but back to the trivia question. Who is the only player to play for two teams on the same day in two different cities and get hits for for two teams in the same day?

Joel Youngblood was a member of the New York Mets in August of 1982. In a day game at Wrigley Field he lashed a two-run single off future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins. Following the game, he was traded to the Montreal Expos. After jumping on a flight to Philadelphia, he arrived in time to pinch hit in the seventh inning. Once again, he managed to single off a future Hall of Fame pitcher, Steve Carlton.

Not a bad day's work for Mr. Youngblood. I wonder how many players got hits of two HOFers on the same day.

The Hanrahan story is actually a tale of three cities, Washington, Philadelphia and Houston. On May 5, 2009, the Nationals and Astros were tied 10-10 after ten innings. Our protagonist, Joel Hanrahan, shut down the Astros in the top of the 11th inning. With the Nationals batting in the bottom of the inning, the game was suspended due to rain.

On June 30, Hanrahan was traded to the Pirates in the Nyger Morgan/Lastings Milledge deal.

Nine days later, Hanrahan was in Philadelphia enjoying a a day-off before the Pirates began a series with the Phillies. He soon learned that he had been declared the winning pitcher in the continuation of the suspended game completed in Houston because the Astros would not play in Washington again during the 2009 season.

There are more strange twists in this story. You may want to read more: