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Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Fight of Their Lives: A Review

Professional baseball and its players are marked by individual moments that act like bricks to build lasting legacies. They are most commonly memorable teams, heroic plays and legendary displays of skill. Unfortunately, they aren’t always positive, as John Roseboro and Juan Marichal can attest. Despite their statuses as two of the best players to ever step on a diamond, their baseball identities are indelibly linked because of a violent confrontation they had during a 1965 game. However legacies can be changed, and that happened in this instance as detailed in John Rosengren’s book, The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption (The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group; Lyon’s Press;  http://www.fightoftheirlives.net).

On August 22, 1965, The San Francisco Giants hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers, as the two teams battled for supremacy in the race for the National League pennant. Marichal, pitching for the Giants, had a throw from Roseboro, the Dodgers’ catcher, buzz by his head. Perhaps the worst brawl Major League Baseball has ever seen ensued over the next tense minutes. When it was over, punches had been thrown and Marichal had struck Roseboro over the head with his bat, creating jarring images that resonate to this day.

Although Roseboro retired as a widely-respected multiple All-Star selection, and Marichal eventually was inducted in the Hall of Fame, the incident haunted both men. Rosegren’s work (which was published last year in hard cover and has just been released in paperback) is a comprehensive examination of the incident, not only covering the clash, but exhaustively detailing how both men got to their particular boiling points that day and how their actions subsequently impacted them.

As with any fight, the proverbial saying of “it takes two to tango” aptly applied to the Marichal/Roseboro clash. Rosengren smartly gives each man their own space in his story, which makes it all the more interesting to see how they arrived at their ultimate collision point.

Once the stereotypical reasons for any baseball fight (gamesmanship, competitive spirits and testosterone) are stripped away from the incident, there are still a number of interesting factors that contributed to this moment of baseball infamy. Roseboro, an African American, had suffered through racial indignities both privately and professionally. The same applied to Marichal, a native of the Dominican Republic. In both instances, fierce pride fueled how they carried themselves on a daily basis.

Rosengren also writes of how the role of wide-spread violence and unrest from that summer can’t be ignored. The Watts riots took place where Roseboro lived and had just started to subside at the time of the fight. Additionally, The Dominican Republic was in the midst of a bloody revolution, and Marichal was constantly worried about the safety of his many family members who lived in the country. To say that both men may have possibly been on edge on the day of the fateful game could be a major understatement.

After the detailed backgrounds of both men, The Fight of Our Lives takes the reader through a minute-by-minute account of the fight and then the fall out, which was severe, especially for Marichal, who was largely defined by his role in the incident for many years.

Fortunately, like all good stories, this one has a happy ending. As the years passed, both men, fierce rivals even before their violent encounter, gradually reconciled and in the biggest of surprises became true friends. This is where Rosengren truly shines, as such reconciliations are often a trope used to tie up such stories with a neat little bow. To the contrary, this story is one of actual redemption.

It would be an oversight to not mention how well sourced this book is. The theme of baseball history, which can be so grounded in anecdotes, demands such detail to cement its authenticity. The bibliography and list of citations gives any reader interested in following up with more research on this story a fantastic road map to start that journey.

Baseball legacies really are built brick by brick but as Rosengren shows, sometimes damaged foundations can be repaired under proper circumstances. There are two sides to every story and there is always a possibility for redemption. The connection between Juan Marichal and John Roseboro had an ugly beginning but a beautiful end—and instead of being remembered for one of baseball’s ugliest incidents it can now be filed as one of its best stories.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Major League Baseball As Seen From Outer Space: The Baseball Historian’s Notes for the Week of April 12, 2015

Another baseball season has just gotten underway this week, finally releasing fans from the purgatory of the offseason. For those who truly love the game, this is truly a special time of year. In a famous monologue from the film Field of Dreams, actor James Earl Jones perfectly captures the way people are drawn to baseball. Now that the sport is in full swing again, that familiar connection is creeping back into souls across the world, and not a moment too soon.

And now, on to the notes for the week…

*Right-handed pitcher Harley Hisner had the most bittersweet of careers.  In a late-season game in 1951, he made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox, striking out the first batter he faced (Mickey Mantle), going six innings in an eventual 3-0 loss to the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately, he never made it back to the Show despite his solid performance, and wound up retiring after completing his seventh minor league season in 1953. Sadly, he recently passed away at the age of 88. Although he had the briefest taste of baseball at the highest level, he made the most of the experience and passed along his love of the game by acting as a youth coach for years after he stopped playing.

*Don Zimmer passed away last summer after spending over 60 years in baseball. It’s unfathomable to consider what he saw and experienced during all that time but his wife Soot has a pretty good idea. This touching story describes how Mrs. Zimmer spent years detailing her husband’s career through scrapbooking. It’s a fitting and unique tribute to someone who has gone down as one of the most treasured figures in the history of the game.

*Pitcher Dock Ellis was the wild child of baseball during his 12-year major league career. The right-hander was talented, heavily into drugs and alcohol and could be erratic in his demeanor. This was never truer than a 1974 game against the Cincinnati Reds when he intentionally hit the first three batters while pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Before he recorded an out, his manager removed him from the game, unsure of how far his hurler was going to go with his beanball agenda. The full story is the stuff of baseball lore.

*Courtesy of a head’s up from @RonJuckett comes this piece by J. Gordon Hylton from the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog about how the city of Milwaukee lost the Braves franchise in 1966. It’s an interesting look on how it all went down from a legal perspective. Although the city ultimately ended up with the Brewers, at the time it was quite the bitter pill for the community to swallow.

*Nolan Ryan is still the king of strikeouts, holding the major league record with 5,714 during his 27 major league seasons. He also set the single-season mark with 383 punch outs in 1973 with the California Angels, and this candid photo shows him celebrating his achievement after his final start of that season where he struck out 16 Minnesota Twins batters.

*Having just started his 66th year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, legendary announcer Vin Scully is far from tired of his gig. The velvet-throated baseball denizen of diamond doings is still a fan of the game and loving every moment, as described in this Los Angeles Daily News article.

*As baseball has aged, there have been numerous advances in equipment and apparel. However, there have also been a number of ideas that failed to catch on. The reason this old patent for a “Baseball Catcher” didn’t become the next hot item is fairly self explanatory once you take a look.

*For a brief time in 1985, the New York Mets had the best prospect in baseball history in pitcher Sidd Fitch. Growing up an orphan raised by Buddhist monks in Tibet, the right-hander had a fastball purported to clock as high as 168 MPH, but he never ended up pitching in the majors. That of course is because he wasn’t real, but actually an invention from the mind of Sports Illustrated’s George Plimpton. This ESPN 30-for-30 short film and Grantland write-up by Bryan Curtis takes a look at the 30th anniversary of the phenom.

*Women have not yet broken the Major League Baseball gender barrier but there are undoubtedly players who have big league ability. One of the first widely recognized female talents was left-handed pitcher Jackie Mitchell, who as a 17-year-old struck out New York Yankees legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a 1931 exhibition game. Over time, the feat has been heavily celebrated, scrutinized and analyzed. ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield has the story.

*Selected in the second round of the 1993 draft, left-handed pitcher Matt LaChappa was an up-and-coming prospect for the San Diego Padres. Sadly, while warming up for a game in 1996, the then 20-year-old suffered a heart attack that left him permanently confined to a wheel chair. Although his playing career ended, his connection with the franchise has continued through the years. USA Today’s Ted Berg recently reported that the former player has had his minor league contract renewed every year in the two decades since his career ended in part so he can continue receiving medical insurance. Such a heart-warming story is truly remarkable.

*Finally, you have to check out the story of astronaut Terry Virts, who has been taking pictures of Major League Baseball stadiums and posting them to his social media accounts while working on the International Space Station. It’s an entirely unique way to view baseball’s cherished venues and gives new meaning to the term “nosebleed seats.”

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Minneapolis Millers of the American Association: A Review

The big leagues may get the lion’s share of recognition but make no mistake about it; minor leagues have been the essential lifeblood of baseball since the game became a profession. Preserving the history of these leagues is just as important as the meticulous record keeping and story collecting of the majors. Fortunately, there are researchers doing fine work in this regard. Rex Hamann has produced one of the best most recent efforts, with his new book, The Minneapolis Millers of the American Association ($21.99, Arcadia Publishing. Available at local retailers, online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com or (888) 313-2665).

Today, minor league baseball primarily functions as a farm system for cultivating major league ballplayers out of young prospects who have come from high school and college. However, its purpose was much different in the past, particularly during the lifetime of the Millers (1902-1960). With the majors primarily located on the East Coast, such teams helped fulfill the demand for baseball around the country by providing top-notch play. Not only did they utilize up-and-coming young players, but they also were a popular landing spot for former major leaguers whose talents may have slipped but still had something left in the gas tank.

Hamann has assembled a tremendous collection of vintage photographs encapsulating the history of the Millers. Ranging from player action shots to team photos to candid moments, there is a little of everything here. Each picture is accompanied with a brief description, which typically includes some statistics or an intriguing tidbit or two, making it an effortless way to learn the team history and see how many fascinating people and events passed through their nearly six-decade run.

At 127 pages, this is not a lengthy read but there is a lot packed. The photos are striking and tell the first part of each story, while Hamann’s commentary ties it all together. If Major League Baseball hadn’t come to Minnesota in the form of the Twins in 1961, it is hard to imagine that the Millers wouldn’t still be plugging away as a popular and successful franchise.

It’s interesting to see the wide swath of players and personalities who were connected to the Millers over the years. For prospects, the likes of Ted Williams and Willie Mays made successful stops there before vaulting to legendary careers on the national stage. But for every once-in-a-lifetime youngster like them, there were hundreds whose careers peaked during the hot summer months they spent playing baseball in Minneapolis.

On the other end of the spectrum, numerous quality veterans played out the string on their careers. Negro League great third baseman Ray Dandridge and first baseman George “High Pockets” Kelly each played some of their final professional games in a Minneapolis uniform before their eventual retirements and enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Naturally, not everyone who passed through Minneapolis has remained part of baseball’s collective memory but that doesn’t make their stories any less interesting. Outfielder Henri Rondeau hit .295 during his career as an outfielder but his greatest feat as described by Hamann was his saving the life of a young girl whose clothing had caught fire in a fireworks accident.

Red Downs had 13 professional seasons as a heavy-hitting second baseman, including 1909 with the Millers. Unfortunately, we find out that in retirement his life took a downward turn, particularly during the Great Depression, as he was apprehended for robbing a Los Angeles jewelry store in 1932 and subsequently served a prison sentence.

There is nothing fancy with this work of Hamann, but that isn’t an insult. To the contrary, he has accumulated a team history that has more than enough detail to draw in baseball fans wanting to learn more about this former pillar of the minor leagues. Whether your interest is baseball or history, this amply covers both and I suspect anyone who picks it up will be pleased on all accounts.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Finer Points of Baseball: The Baseball Historian’s Notes for the Week of March 29, 2015

In case you haven’t noticed, racism is unfortunately alive and well in the United States. The number of higher-profile incidents only seems to be increasing recently, and no corner of society has been spared, including the realm of baseball.

It was recently reported that Curt Ford, a former backup outfielder and pinch hitter for some of the great St. Louis Cardinals teams of the 1980s, was allegedly assaulted at a St. Louis-area gas station in an incident that also included racial epitaphs and references to the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

It‘s beyond sad to see such things and consider racism’s horrible impact. Helping bring about its demise is something that will require the collective efforts of everybody. Baseball is a game embraced by so many from myriad backgrounds and origins, so it has the potential of being a powerful medium in hopefully helping to effect change.

Now, on to the notes for the week…

*Former pitcher and song writer Bill Slayback has died at the age of 67. The right-hander appeared in a total of 42 games (17 starts) with the Detroit Tigers between 1972-74, going a combined 6-9 with a 3.84 ERA. His best performance was a 5-hit shutout of the Kansas City Royals as a rookie. He later co-wrote the baseball song “Move Over Babe, Here Comes Hank” with legendary Detroit broadcaster Ernie Harwell.

*It was also recently announced that Steven Shea, another former right-handed pitcher, had passed away at the age of 72. After seven seasons in the minors, he finally debuted in the majors in 1968 with the Houston Astros, and appeared briefly the following year with the Montreal Expos. In 40 total big league relief appearances, he was a combined 4-4 with a 3.22 ERA and 6 saves. Following his playing days, he had a banking career and was a dedicated family man.

*Pete Reiser was one of the best players in baseball during his 10-year major league career between 1940-1952. Gaining his greatest success with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the left-handed hitting outfielder batted a combined .295 and led the National League in a number of categories. Unfortunately, his career was derailed by a series of injuries caused by his hardnosed play, which is detailed in this fantastic excerpt from a 1958 issue of True Magazine.

*The Seattle Mariners play their home games in swanky Safeco Field. However, before they got such fancy digs they occupied the decidedly more pedestrian Kingdome. Check out the footage from 15 years ago of the old ballpark getting demolished with explosives to make way for its shinier replacement.

*Of all the baseball movies that have ever been made, it’s hard to find many that are better than the iconic The Sandlot. Although you can’t beat the original, a number of players on the New York Yankees recently recreated one of the more memorable scenes. It’s a fun watch even if it’s unlikely there are any Oscars on the horizon for the boys in pinstripes.

*A recent spring training game between the Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies may have made baseball history. With Paul Molitor and Ryne Sandberg skippering the teams, it was believed to be the first time a game has been played with both managers being active members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

*Sandy Koufax is on the short list of the greatest left-handed pitchers in the history of baseball. Although he terrified major league hitters during his career, he was not always such a known commodity. This story tells how he walked on to the University of Cincinnati varsity team in 1955. After making the team and striking out 34 in his first two games, he was launched on the path that would lead to baseball immortality.

*Baseball fans come in all shapes, sizes and manner of backgrounds. Famed film director Alfred Hitchcock is likely someone most have not associated with the game but he had this monologue from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Although he is explaining some of the finer points, it remains unclear of his actual personal interest.

*The Boston Red Sox’s David Ortiz has been one of the most prominent players in baseball during his time in the Hub. His gaudy numbers and his reported inclusion on a 2003 list of players that failed tests for performance enhancers created an aura of suspicion that has never quite gone away. The slugger recently addressed those allegations in a piece he penned for the Player’s Tribune. Although he denies culpability, there are still some like Subway Squawkers’ Lisa Swan who don’t believe his version of events add up.

*Are you looking for a new book to read now that the weather is about to turn for the better? No worries, Esquire.com has you covered. They recently rolled out their list of the 20 best baseball books ever written. There are definitely some gems to consider, and seemingly new candidates being released by publishers every day.

*Speedy outfielder Lou Brock spent the final 16 years of his 19-year Hall-of-Fame career with the Cardinals. Upon retiring, he held the all-time record for stolen bases with 938. Even after his playing days ended, he remained connected to the team, and this 1980 commercial urging fans to attend Opening Day is a great example. It appears he read teleprompters as well as he did pitcher windups…

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew