The emperor-to-be and me

April 30, 2019

Akihito 1

Crown Prince Akihito tries on a Yankee cap for Casey Stengel and the future Empress Michiko/Associated Press

Considering the amount of time we spent at Yankee Stadium during my youth and adolescence, it was inevitable that we would see some familiar faces. These included Jimmy Powers, John Wayne, Sidney Poitier, and Faye Emerson. We also saw a face that was unfamiliar to us but not to a lot of other people who were in the ballpark that day—Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, who was sitting just to the left of the Yankee dugout with his wife, the former Michiko Shōda.

Akihito 3

Crown Prince Akihito throws out the first ball on October 2, 1960. My dad and I are clearly visible in the background./Getty Images

It was October 2, 1960, the last day of that season, and the prince got the proceedings under way by throwing out the first ball. He must have felt right at home; baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872, and it’s still one of the most popular sports for both spectators and participants. Akihito himself played some baseball, although I think he spent more time playing tennis.

Hirihito was still emperor of Japan in 1960, and his oldest son had been invited to the United States by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once had had a different kind of relationship with the royal family. We were sitting a couple of dozen rows behind Akihito and throughout the game we watched a steady stream of Japanese people slip down to pay their respects to him.

Dale Long

DALE LONG

To these spectators, the news of the day was of secondary importance: The Yankees won their 15th game in a row when Yankee first baseman Dale Long hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 8-7.

How much Akihito knew about Dale Long I am not aware, but there was a lot worth knowing. Long was in the eighth of his ten major-league seasons when he hit that home run, and the Yankees rewarded him by shipping him to the Washington Senators. He came back to the Yankees for 55 more games in his last two seasons, 1962 and 1963.

Jiggs Donahue

JIGGS DONAHUE

In 1956, Long set a major-league record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games. That record has been matched twice, but never surpassed. In 1959, he tied another record by hitting back-to-back pinch-hit home runs. Although he was a career first baseman, in two games with the Chicago Cubs in 1958, he became the first catcher to throw left-handed since Jiggs Donahue who was a catcher and first baseman for several teams between 1900 and 1909.

I was 18 years old in 1960, and I’m sure I didn’t give much thought to Akihito, who became emperor and now has abdicated in favor of his son, beyond the fact that the folks who were trying to get up close to him kept standing in front of our box and blocking our view.

Margrethe II

QUEEN MARGRETHE II

Since then, I have wondered about modern states that still have monarchies. I raised the question once while I was having lunch with a chemist in Denmark. Why does one of the more advanced societies in the world still have a monarch? Apparently no one had asked him that before. He kind of sputtered around for a while until, referring to Margrethe II, he said, “Well, she is Denmark, isn’t she?” And then, since I had got him to thinking about the issue, he said that we Americans only delude ourselves that we don’t have royalty. We simply invest the same respect and adulation in the president and first lady and in other public figures. Fair enough.

Many years ago, I watched a game from the press box at Yankee Stadium, and the reporters were informally playing baseball trivia, trying to stump each other with questions about guys like Jiggs Donahue. There was a man standing behind the press box seats, and he was kibitzing in this contest. At one point, the reporter sitting next to me asked me, “Do you know who this is? It’s Dale Long!” It wasn’t Ted Williams or Stan Musial, but it didn’t matter. It was Dale Long, and he had played major-league baseball—major-league baseball!—something a relative handful of American men could say over the previous century and a half.

Royalty comes in many forms, and Dale Long was more than good enough for me.

 

A spouse in every port

April 17, 2019

Irwin 2In the early days of television, WOR in New York had a weekday program called Million Dollar Movie—one of the first features to bring movies to TV audiences. I was reminded the other day of one of the movies I saw on that show when I was about 12 years old: The Captain’s Paradise starring Alec Guinness and Yvonne DeCarlo, the former Peggy Middleton. Guinness played a ferry captain who had two wives simultaneously, one in Gibraltar and one in Morocco.

This film came to mind when a member of a Facebook baseball group I frequent posted some 19th centuries photos and asked for help in identifying the players. I was able to name all of them, including Arthur Irwin, who was one of the more colorful characters of the 15,000-or-so men who have played major league ball.

Irwin 1Irwin—who also had his hand in about a half dozen other sports—was born in Toronto in 1858 but grew up in South Boston. He was a feisty, light-hitting shortstop and, after turns in amateur and minor league ball, he played in the bigs from 1880 to 1894. In two of those years, he was a player-manager. He was the starting shortstop for the 1884 Providence Grays of the National League; that team beat the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in what is now recognized as the first interleague national championship series.

Irwin, who was widely disliked, was frequently in the middle of baseball controversies, including an open revolt against National League owners. In 1890, Irwin was among the members of the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players—the game’s first union—who bolted from the league for one season and formed their own league—popularly known as the Players’ League.

Irwin 4.jpegTracing Irwin’s career after that is enough to make a person dizzy. He managed major and minor league teams, owned a pieces of a couple of minor league franchises for a while, umpired for a year in the National League—throwing out nine players in fifty games—coached baseball at Dartmouth College and on-and-off at Penn, and in 1907 became a a scout for the New York Highlanders—forerunners of the Yankees. By 1912, most of the Highlanders roster were players whom Irwin had scouted.

One of the players Irwin coached at Penn was the future novelist Zane Grey whose first baseball book, The Short-Stop, includes a dedication to Irwin, and whose second baseball book, The Young Pitcher, features a character, Worry Arthurs, who was based on Irwin.

In 1909, George Stallings, the New York manager, rented an apartment that overlooked Hilltop Park, which was in northern Manhattan where the New York Presbyterian/Columbia medical complex is now. From that apartment, Irwin, using binoculars, stole signs from the visiting teams and used mirrors to relay the signs to the Highlanders on the field until the practice was exposed.

Irwin - 6 - DPL Digital Collections.jpeg

FRANK CHANCE/Detroit Public Library

At the end of 1912, Frank Farrell, president of the New York club, promoted Irwin to business manager and gave him carte blanche. That led to rift between Irwin and Frank Chance, who was then managing the team, and Chance wound up resigning before his contract was done, telling The New York Times that he “did not think it was possible to assemble so many mediocre players on one club.”

After leaving the Highlanders, Irwin knocked around the minor leagues as a manager. During that period, in 1921, he was managing the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League when he noticed Lou Gehrig, then a Columbia student, playing for a semi-pro team. Irwin talked Gehrig into signing with Hartford—the first pro contract for the Iron Horse. That got Gehrig into trouble at Columbia, because he was not supposed to be playing pro ball and playing on the college team as well. He had to skip a year of play at Columbia.

Irwin 5Gehrig wasn’t the only contribution Irwin made to pro ball. In 1883, when he was playing with the Providence Grays, he broke two fingers on his left hand. So he modified a buckskin driving glove so that he could continue to play, and he wore it from then on. Prior that, only first basemen and catchers wore gloves, but Irwin’s innovation became a trend, and almost every fielder had a glove by the next season. Irwin made a deal with a manufacturer to market the glove under his name.

Irwin didn’t limit his energy to baseball. He was also president of  short-lived pro soccer league in 1884 and he was involved in one way or another in boxing, roller hockey, rugby, and marathon bike races.

He scored one of his biggest successes when he patented a mechanical football scoreboard that was adopted at fields around the country and earned him a lot of money.

In 1921, Irwin, who was ill with a serious stomach condition, left New York City for Boston aboard the steamship Calvin Austin and went overboard in what was almost certainly a suicide.

Oh, about Alec Guinness.

After Irwin died, it was revealed that he had married one woman in Boston in 1883 and another woman in Philadelphia in the 1890s. He had three children with the first wife and one with the second, and he was still married to both when he died. He almost never saw the family in Boston and provided them with almost no support.

Pitching great Waite Hoyt described Irwin as one of the most disgusting men he ever knew. But somebody liked him: He was posthumously elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, at least in part because of his leading role in turning the foundering Toronto Maple Leafs into a successful franchise.

Read Eric Frost’s profile of Irwin by clicking HERE.

Read Kevin Plummer’s article about Irwin, including his role with the Maple Leafs,  by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

A tale of two Ruths

April 5, 2019

Baby Ruth cropped

Writing in recent posts about the namesakes of peach melba and chicken tetrazinni got me to thinking about another food that was named after a celebrity, but which celebrity I cannot say for sure. I refer to Baby Ruth, the candy bar—and a particular favorite of mine.

For many years, I was under the impression that the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after Ruth Cleveland, the daughter of Grover and Frances Cleveland, Grover being the 22nd and 24th president of these United States. I may have been wrong, and I’ll probably never know, but the manufacturer made that claim in a legal action.

Baby Ruth Cleveland

RUTH CLEVELAND

Cleveland, who was a bachelor when he first took office in 1893, became the only president to marry in the White House when he exchanged vows with Frances Folsom. Cleveland was 49 and his wife was 21, but the American people couldn’t have been happier about the match. Ruth, the first of the Clevelands’ five children, was born between her father’s two terms as president, but the public still was very enthusiastic about her arrival. Her name for a time was a household word, but she was not a healthy child, and she died of diphtheria at the age of 12.

That was in 1904. In 1921, the Curtiss Candy Company reinvented its Kandy Kake candy bar as the Baby Ruth, with its chocolate, peanuts, caramel, and nougat. The five-cent treat was heavily marketed by Curtiss and was a big success. The company actually had airplanes drop thousands of Baby Ruths, each with a little parachute, over American cities.

Baby Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth

Coincidentally, some would have us believe, George Herman Ruth, who had established himself as one of the top pitchers in baseball with the Boston Red Sox between 1914 and 1919, had been sold to the New York Yankees. And in 1920, having forsaken the pitcher’s mound for the outfield, he hit the unheard-of total of 54 home runs, and became a national sensation. In 1921, he hit 59. Babe Ruth was well on his way to becoming one of the most widely recognized  and most enduring celebrities in human history. People of a suspicious nature speculated that Curtiss had named the candy Baby rather than Babe to avoid having to pay the ballplayer for the use of his name.

Baby Babe Ruth CandyPerhaps as a counter thrust, Babe Ruth, in 1926, gave the George H. Ruth Candy Company the right to use his name, and the company applied to register “Ruth’s Home Run Candy” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Curtiss sued the company on the grounds of  copyright infringement and claimed that Baby Ruth candy was named after the president’s daughter, who by that time had been dead for 22 years. In 1931, a patent court ruled in favor of Curtiss.

Baby Ruth signAfter the 1932 World Series, during which Ruth reputedly pointed to centerfield at Wrigley Field in Chicago and then hit a home run to that spot, Curtiss had an enormous illuminated Baby Ruth sign erected across from the ballpark, which was down the street from the candy firm’s plant. No doubt, the sign was a monument to “baby” Ruth Cleveland.

 

 

Van Lingle Mungooooooo

December 23, 2014

DAVE FRISHBERG

DAVE FRISHBERG

When I bought the 2008 Jetta I’m driving now, I was disappointed but not surprised to find that it did not have a cassette-tape player. Having been born in the era of 78 rpm records, I have long since accepted the fact that sound technology changes every two or three days. Still, I was nonplussed about all the music now trapped on all those cassettes. I have thought about throwing them away but, fortunately, I never did. I say “fortunately,” because I recently learned how easy it is to transfer the sound from those tapes to CDs (which, I know, are another fading medium). One of the first tapes I transferred was something called “Baseball Musak,” a collection of songs and other recordings having to do with our national game.

VAN LINGLE MUNGO

VAN LINGLE MUNGO

Among the cuts on that tape is a jazz tune called “Van Lingle Mungo,” which was written by pianist-composer David Frishberg and released in 1969. Frishberg had composed a melody but couldn’t satisfy himself with lyrics. During this same period, Frishberg leafed through a baseball reference book and came across the name of Van Lingle Mungo, a pugnacious guy who pitched in the major leagues from 1931 to 1945. Mungo’s full name fit perfectly into the cadence of the last seven beats of Frishberg’s melody. After discovering that, Frishberg scoured baseball’s calico past and composed a lyric for his song consisting almost entirely of thirty-seven players’ names, including such melodic monikers as Augie Bergamo, Frenchy Bordagaray, and Sigmund Jakucki.

FRENCHY BORDAGARAY

FRENCHY BORDAGARAY

The result of this improbable combination was described by music critic Ira Gitler as “one of the best jazz works of the 70s.” The song, which one might imagine listening too while sipping a lonely gin-and-tonic in a dark and careworn lounge, has a haunting quality that oddly has as much to do with the names as with the melody.
Van Lingle Mungo, by the way, was a pitcher of some consequence. He averaged 16 wins per season from 1932 through 1936. He struck out 238 batters in 1936, leading the National League. He was on the NL All-Star team in 1934, 1936, and 1937. He suffered an arm injury in 1937 and won only 13 major league games in the next six years. Still, he has a winning lifetime record (120-115) and a respectable lifetime earned-run average (.347) — both enviable achievements.
You can hear Dave Frishberg’s song by clicking HERE:

LOU GEHRIG, EARL COMBS, TONY LAZZERI, and BABE RUTH

LOU GEHRIG, EARL COMBS, TONY LAZZERI, and BABE RUTH

 

My brother often shares with me his irritation with the broadcasters who describe Yankee baseball games on television and radio.  We were, after all, raised in baseball by Mel Allen and Red Barber, in whose care baseball play-by-play was an art. In a way, no announcers can satisfy us with Mel and Red as a standard. This week, my brother complained that John Sterling, who does the radio broadcasts with Suzyn Waldman, has repeatedly called attention to the fact that the 1927 Yankees used only 25 players over the whole season. I guess that was an implied criticism of, or at least a contrast to, the multiple roster changes — making trades, buying contracts, and bringing kids up from the minors — the Yankees have made during this season in which, incidentally, eighty percent of the starting rotation is on the disabled list.

WAITE HOYT

WAITE HOYT

In fact, however, making comparisons between baseball in the 1920s and baseball in the 2000s is a tricky business. Sterling was right about the number of players on the Yankees’ roster in ’27, and my cursory tour through the statistics for that season suggest that 25 was a low number even then. But Sterling didn’t pick the ’27 Yankees at random. He picked that team because that team won 110 games and rolled over the Pirates in four games in the World Series. He picked that team because that team is often identified as the greatest team ever. That’s an indefensible ranking because — very much to my point here — baseball was so much different before that era and has become so much different since.

WILCY MOORE

WILCY MOORE

But certainly the 1927 Yankees were one of the greatest teams ever, and that was due in large part to the presence of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Combs, and Tony Lazzeri. The major league season in 1927 was 154 games. Because of a game that ended in a tie, the Yankees that year played 155 games, and those four players each appeared in more than 150. Gehrig played in 155. So there was a significant element of stability built into the roster. I don’t know if this has been analyzed scientifically, but I often hear it said that players then were less injury prone and less likely to sit down because of an injury. Gehrig carried this last propensity to extremes, which helped to account for his appearing in every Yankee lineup for fourteen years.

The Yankees that year also had five starting pitchers who among them won 82 games. The ace, Waite Hoyt, who won 27 games, threw a total of 256 innings. And in those days before specialization, Wilcy Moore, a reliever, pitched a total of 213 innings and won 19 games. So the rest of the pitching staff had to account for only nine wins. Moore threw 213 innings in 1927. What with the modern system of middle relievers, set-up men, and closers, the most innings a Yankee reliever threw last season was 77.

 

 

Books: “Color Blind”

March 27, 2014

Neil Churchill, at the center of the front row, with the 1935 Bismark team.

Neil Churchill, at the center of the front row, with the 1935 Bismark team.

One aspect of my father’s life that I don’t know nearly enough about is the time he spent managing a semi-pro baseball team. He mentioned it now and then, but the only detail I have retained is that his team played a couple of games against a team managed by Johnny Vander Meer. Vander Meer is the only pitcher in the history of major league baseball to pitch no-hitters in two consecutive games. That was in 1938. He also pitched a no-hitter in the Texas League 14 years later.
At the time that my father told me about opposing Vander Meer, I didn’t understand the importance of semi-pro baseball. In fact, I probably didn’t know what the expression meant. In broad terms, there have historically been three categories of baseball leagues: professional, semi-professional, and amateur.The professional leagues are what we know as the major and minor leagues, including the minor leagues whose teams are not affiliated with major league teams. Among the rest, a team is considered semi-pro if even one of its players is paid.

Local newspaper reports that the Bismark team had won the first national semi-pro championship.

Local newspaper reports that the Bismark team had won the first national semi-pro championship.

How many were paid and how they were paid varied a lot from time to time and place to place. There were teams sponsored by companies, by local businesses, by civic and social organizations, by towns, and by private individuals. On some teams, every player was paid. On some only a handful. And in circumstances in which the competition was intense, one or more of the players on a team who were paid were ringers recruited from the minor leagues or the Negro Leagues with offers of bigger salaries than the pros were paying.
There were semi-pro teams all over the United States and Canada, and many of them could draw crowds in those days when the big leagues were concentrated in the eastern part of the country where they were out of reach for most Americans. Semi-pro ball could provide an especially welcome diversion during the epoch in which the plains were beset by both economic depression and drought. One team in particular is the subject of Tom Dunkel’s book, “Color Blind.” The team Dunkel writes about was based in Bismark, North Dakota in the 1930s; it was not a member of a league, but played against teams in nearby and far-off towns and against barnstorming teams that wandered the landscape trying to make a buck. The Bismark team, so far as we know, didn’t have an official nickname although they are often referred to as the Churchills. That’s a nod to Neil Churchill, a partner in a Bismark auto dealership, an habitual if not addicted gambler, and the owner and frequently the manager of the local nine.

SATCHEL PAIGE

SATCHEL PAIGE

Churchill was devoted to the game and he was competitive. He was constantly striking deals with pro players to give the Bismarks an edge over their opponents. Winning was such a priority with him that he didn’t care what color the players were. In fact, because the pro leagues were more than a decade away from coming to their senses, Churchill was able to attract some talented black players, including Satchel Paige. Paige should have spent his career in the majors, but because of the color line and because of his wanderlust, he’d take the field wherever he got the best offer. In 1933 and in 1935, that offer — a $400 a month and a late-model car—came from Churchill , and Paige bolted from the Negro League team in Pittsburgh and made for Bismark. That was no small achievement for Churchill. Although there is no way to establish the widely held belief that Paige was the greatest pitcher of his time, and perhaps of any time, we know enough about him to know that he was extraordinary. In ’35 he started and won four games and relieved in another when Bismark took seven straight to win the inaugural National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita.

QUINCY TROUPPE

QUINCY TROUPPE

Among the other outstanding black players Churchill recruited were pitcher-catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliff, and catcher Quincy Thomas Trouppe (nee Troupe) who, by the way, was the father of prominent poet-journalist-academic Quincy Thomas Troupe Jr.

Churchill led the only integrated organized team in that rough-and-tumble era in baseball, and he got some pushback for his trouble. And Bismark’s black players, of course, had to endure the insults and isolation that the land of “all men are created equal” imposed on many of its citizens then and for more than 30 years after. In his book, Dunkel brings to light a fragment of American history in which the relationship between the people and their national game was much more intimate than it was to become, and by evoking the names of men like Paige and Radcliffe and Trouppe, he reminds us of the crime that was committed for more than six decades against many of its finest practitioners.

 

 

Brothers, all

September 11, 2013

JOHN MONGOMERY WARD

JOHN MONGOMERY WARD

When I held forth here recently on the subject of soprano Geraldine Farrar and her baseball-playing father, Sidney, I mentioned that Sid had bolted from the National League in 1890 to play in the maverick Players’ League. That put Sid in the middle of a significant but largely forgotten epoch in the history of the national game.

The Players League was the offspring of the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players, which was in effect the first union organized by professional athletes. The brains behind the Brotherhood was John Montgomery Ward, who was an outstanding player for five teams over 16 years. He was best known as a pitcher, although he also played shortstop and second base. In 1880, he pitched the second perfect game in the National League, for the Providence Grays (there wouldn’t be another one for 84 years) and in  1882 he pitched the longest complete-game shutout in history, beating the Detroit Wolverines 1-0 in 18 innings. He also accumulated 2,104 base hits. He is the only player ever to win more than 100 games as a pitcher (164-103) and get more than 2,000 hits.

Ward's plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame doesn't mention the  Brotherhood or the Players' League

Ward’s plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame doesn’t mention the Brotherhood or the Players’ League

Ward graduated from Columbia Law School in 1885 and became the leader of an effort by players to negotiate improvements in the conditions of their employment, including an increase in salaries and an end to the “reserve clause” which provided that players who were under contract to one team were prohibited from negotiating with other teams when the contract expired. Ward organized the Brotherhood in ’85 but when it became clear after several years of  negotiation that the owners were intractable, he launched the Players League.

About half of the players who had been National Leaguers in 1889 bolted to play in Ward’s league which offered profit sharing and did not have a reserve clause or a cap on player salaries. Sid Farrar, who had played for the Philadelphia Quakers in the NL bolted to play for  the Philadelphia Athletics in the Players League. In fact, the Players League attracted most of the talent from the National League, but when revenues didn’t live up to expectations, the owners of the maverick teams surreptitiously agreed to sell their teams to the NL franchises, and the Players League folded after one season.

Major League Baseball ruled in 1968 that the Players League, short-lived though it was, had been a major league. So, among other things, the Buffalo Bisons’ record stands: they recorded the greatest opening-day winning margin by beating the Cleveland Infants 23-2.

Incidentally, the reserve clause remained in effect in Major League Baseball until 1975.

Daddy’s little girl

September 4, 2013

GERALDINE FARRAR

GERALDINE FARRAR

My wife, Pat, who is reading Adriana Trigiani’s novel The Shoemaker’s Wife, has mentioned two characters in the story who are familiar to me: Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar. We like to say, even though it can’t be demonstrated, that Caruso was the nonpareil of tenors, and Farrar, his contemporary, was a popular soprano and film actress. She was a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company for 17 years, singing 29 roles in some 500 performances, frequently appearing with Caruso. She had a particular following among young women, and they were known at the time as “Gerryflappers.” I was young when I became a fan of hers, too, but that was nearly 30 years after she had retired as a singer. A kid of eclectic tastes, when I came home from the record store on most Friday nights, I could be carrying doo-wop, country-and-western, American standards, or opera. I bought many discs with cuts by Caruso, Farrar, or the two of them together.

A biographical detail about Farrar that particularly appeals to me is the fact that her father, Sidney, was a major league  baseball player from 1883 to 1890. A first baseman, he played most of his career for the Philadelphia National League franchise. In his last season, he bolted to the maverick Players League, still playing in Philadelphia. He appeared in 943 games and, in the dead-ball era, had 905 hits and a .253 batting average.

SIDNEY FARRAR

SIDNEY FARRAR

When Sid Farrar was through playing baseball, he opened a men’s clothing shop in Melrose, Massachusetts, in partnership with Frank G. Selee, a Hall of Fame major league manager. Farrar and his wife, Etta, were singers in their own right. Farrar was a baritone, and it was said of him that if he was speaking in what, for him, was a conversational tone of voice on one side of a street, he could be clearly heard from the other side.

When Geraldine went to Europe to study voice, her parents went with her and remained on the Other Side until Geraldine had made a name for herself in Berlin, Munich, Salsburg, Paris, and Stockholm and returned to the United States in 1906.

In later life, when he had been widowed, Sid Farrar was a familiar figure at Geraldine’s concerts, and she said that he was often surrounded by other old ballplayers who may have looked a little out of place in the classical concert hall. It dawned on her, she said, that those old guys weren’t there to see her; they were there to see her dad.

One of my favorite Caruso-Farrar recordings is their 1912 rendition of “O Soave Fanciulla” from La Boheme. Click HERE to hear it.

FLEETWOOD WALKER

FLEETWOOD WALKER

When Jackie Robinson’s place in baseball history is discussed, there often is a slight error in the way it is expressed. Robinson, who famously joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 to become the only black player in professional baseball, was not the first black player in the majors. That doesn’t diminish Robinson’s achievement in the least, but the fact is that the first black player in the major leagues, so far as we know, was Moses Fleetwood Walker,  a catcher, who appeared with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1889. The second black player in the majors, so far as we know, was his brother, Weldy Wilberforce Walker, a practitioner of several diamond positions, who also played a few games for Toledo that year.

It was in that same year that the baseball owners decided that they would no longer include black players on their rosters, and it would be 58 years before another black player — Robinson — would appear in the bigs. But it would be 72 years, in 1961, before Major League Baseball, which wasn’t fully integrated until the Red Sox capitulated in 1959, ordered the minor leagues to start signing black players.

LARRY COLTON

LARRY COLTON

That’s the background for Southern League, an absorbing book by former major leaguer Larry Colton that reports on the 1964 season of the Birmingham Barons, the first integrated pro sports team to play in Alabama. The team had been disbanded by its owner, millionaire businessman Albert Belcher, under pressure from segregationists, but Belcher was convinced that the team could be a financial success. His confidence was bolstered by the fact that Alabama native Charlie Finley, wackadoodle owner of the Kansas City Athletics, agreed to make his team the major-league parent of the Barons.

CHARLIE FINLEY

CHARLIE FINLEY

Neither Belcher nor Finley was a civil rights activist, but both were realists. They picked a tough environment in which to practice their pragmatism: Alabama, led by Gov. George Wallace, was digging in its heels against the federal government’s campaign to integrate schools and put an end to racial discrimination in general.

As Colton reports, Finley made a couple of commitments to the Barons. First, he said he would see to it that the Barons got the players it needed to win the Southern League pennant. That was an odd thing for an owner to promise, because the owner’s interest in a minor league franchises usually has to do only with developing players for the major-league team. Second, Finley and Belcher jointly promised the team that they would take all of the players and their significant others to Hawaii if the Barons won the title.

BLUE MOON ODOM

BLUE MOON ODOM

The Barons started their season with five minority players on the roster, including future major league standout pitcher Blue Moon Odom and future big league journeyman Bert Campaneris, a refugee from Cuba. The black players had to put up with vocal abuse from fans and discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants.

Still, while Belcher experienced a few tense moments, the season, although it fell just short of fulfilling everyone’s dreams, went off without a serious incident, so that the Barons, who didn’t see themselves as trailblazers, still demonstrated to Birmingham how an integrated enterprise could actually work in the city.

Colton tells this story largely by telling the stories of the ordinary men who made up the Barons roster and the ordinary circumstances of their lives: their often hardscrabble origins, their family lives, their loves, their ailments. Prominently included is the story of Heywood Sullivan, a former major league catcher and future Red Sox exec and owner, for whom the ’64 Barons were the first assignment as a manager, an assignment he handled with wisdom, skill, compassion, and common sense.

MARIANO RIVERA

MARIANO RIVERA

The Times, perhaps because it realizes that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing, published a story on June 30, in which Joshua Prager makes the case that by “just about every metric, simple or complex, (Mariano) Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher ever.”

I love Mariano Rivera, and baseball metrics, as much as the next fellow, but I have a problem with words like “ever” in comparisons like this one.

In the recent Times account, the marquee statistic among those used to make this case is the so-called WHIP, which is the average of walks plus hits per innings pitched. When the story was written, Rivera’s average was 1.0035, meaning that in the 1086 innings that Rivera has pitched in his career as of this moment, he has allowed about one hit or walk per inning. A WHIP average approaching this has been rare over the history of baseball. That statistic wasn’t kept until relatively recently, but it has been calculated retroactively and, as The Times points out, Rivera’s average is the third lowest among pitchers who have thrown 1000 or more innings.

ADDIE JOSS

ADDIE JOSS

The lowest WHIP average, 0.9678, belongs to Addie Joss, who pitched for the American League Cleveland franchise from 1902 to 1910 and also was a very popular sports writer in Toledo and Cleveland. Joss pitched a one-hitter in his major league debut, pitched the second perfect game in major league history, and pitched another no-hitter. He was ill throughout most of his career and died at 32 after contracting malaria. Because he pitched only nine seasons, he was not eligible for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but he was admitted under a special rule.

Second place on the WHIP list, with an average of 0.9996, is Ed Walsh,  who pitched from 1904 to 1917, virtually all of it with the Chicago White Sox. He also holds the record for lowest career earned-run average: 1.82. His finest individual season came in 1908 when he went 40–15 with 269 strikeouts, 6 saves and a 1.42 ERA.

ED WALSH

ED WALSH

Inasmuch as The Times called attention to these two players, I will cite their records in order to make my own point. As The Times story mentions, most of Rivera’s relief appearances consist of one inning. Addie Joss and Ed Walsh were starters, not relievers. But the relief specialist as we now know him — the middle reliever, the set-up man, the closer — didn’t exist in that era or for many decades afterward. Ed Rommel’s 17-inning relief appearance in 1932 was an anomaly, to be sure, but relievers for most of baseball history could not count on pitching one inning per appearance.

In compiling his WHIP average, Joss appeared in 286 games and pitched 2327 innings, an average of 8.14 innings per game. Walsh appeared in 430 games and pitched 2964 innings, an average of 6.89 innings per game. To cite a later example, Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched mostly relief for many teams from 1952 to 1972, appeared in 1070 games and pitched 2254 innings, an average of 2.10 innings per game.

At this writing, Rivera had appeared in 1086 games and pitched only 1251 innings, an average of 1.15 innings per game. His performance has been astounding. It is unheard of for a pitcher to achieve his level of success, to be virtually unhittable, while throwing only one pitch. But pitching one inning per game is a modern, one might say post-modern, phenomenon in baseball. It’s pointless to speculate about how Rivera would have fared if he had been a starter or a long reliever or the jack-of-all-trades that was common in the earlier history of the game. We can certainly appreciate him for the unique player he has been, but “the greatest relief pitcher ever”  — EVER?  In a game like baseball, that has been played by so many men and that has evolved over so many years, that kind of statement is impossible to defend.