December 23, 2014
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.
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.
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:
July 25, 2014
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.
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.
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.
March 27, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
September 11, 2013
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 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.
September 4, 2013
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.
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.
July 9, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
September 19, 2012
Taylor Teagarden’s major league baseball career hasn’t amounted to much yet. As of yesterday, he had appeared in only 136 games in five seasons. He has shown a flair for the dramatic on a few occasions—last night being a notable example—but he hasn’t yet become the Jack Teagarden of the diamond.
Jack was another story altogether. As soon as I heard of Taylor T., I wondered if he and Jack were related. Naturally a guy would wonder that, what with the unusual last name and the fact that both of these Teagardens were from Texas.
Well, I say “naturally.” It was natural for me, because of a 78 rpm record that belonged to my parents. I loved that record when I was a kid, and I still do. It’s a rendition of a 1941 Johnny Mercer song, “The Waiter, the Porter, and the Upstairs Maid,” sung by Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and Jack Teagarden. It’s one of those witty, sophisticated lyrics that Mercer wrote best. You can hear and see that trio singing Mercer’s song at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0e1DF4TUYY. Or you can come over Saturday afternoon, and I’ll play it for you on the Victrola. If you don’t know what a Victrola is, you probably already stopped reading.
Jack Teagarden, who came from a family loaded with musical talent, was in heady company with Crosby and Martin, and he was a very good crooner himself, as well as a composer and bandleader. Among the highlights of his memorable career were his vocal turns with Mercer and Louis Armstrong. But he made his most indelible mark as an innovative jazz and blues trombonist. He is often referred to as “the father of jazz trombone.” You can learn a lot about this important figure in American cultural history at www.jackteagarden.info.
Although it’s a lot easier than it was in the pre-digital age to answer such questions as, “Is Taylor Teagarden related to Jack?”, I have had trouble finding out. Until I wrote this post, I had found only one reference, buried in an non-authoritative web site, reporting that the catcher thinks he might be the great great nephew of the musical genius. But my friend Brian VanderBeek, a sports writer with the Modesto Bee, responded to this post by reporting that he had met Taylor Teagarden in 2007 when Taylor was playing for Bakersfield in the California League and Taylor, on that occasion, confirmed that Jack Teagarden was his dad’s great uncle.
Taylor is with the Orioles now, and his season got a late start due to a back injury. It remains to be seen if he will leave in baseball a footprint like the one Jack Teagarden left in music, but Taylor has already taken advantage of baseball’s unique capacity for providing even the most obscure player with opportunities for heroics.
He came up with the Texas Rangers in 2008, and his first major league hit was a sixth-inning home run off Scott Baker of the Minnesota Twins. Baker had not given up a hit up to that point. And Teagarden’s homer produced the only run in what turned out to be a 1-0 game. When he came off the disabled list for the Orioles on July 14 of this year, he hit a two-run homer that broke up a 6-6, 13-inning tie with the Tigers.
Last night, Taylor got to play Mr. Clutch again as he pinch hit a single in the top of the 18th inning, driving in the winning run as the Orioles beat the Seattle Mariners and pulled into a virtual tie with the Yankees for first place in the American League East. No matter how the rest of his career goes, Taylor T. can always say with another lyricist, Ira Gershwin, “They can’t take that away from me.”
June 8, 2012
The authors of a new book on baseball describe the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred on Dec. 7, 1941. The writers continue: “The next day, calling it ‘a day of infamy,’ President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on the Japanese and their allies, Germany and Italy.”
The ambiguous pronoun makes it unclear which day Roosevelt was referring to — December 7 or “the next day” — but the record shows that was December 7 and that Roosevelt did not call it ‘a day of infamy’ but ‘a date that will live in infamy.’ The record also shows that Roosevelt did not mention Italy or Germany, both of which declared war on the United States about a month later.
The title of this book is “You Stink!” It is a compilation of what the authors, Eric Wittenberg and Michael Aubrecht, regard as the worst teams, players, plays, and decisions in the history of major league baseball.
In my opinion, the book is pointless and, despite the authors’ disclaimer to the contrary, mean spirited. What else but a mean spirit would prompt writers to spend their time compiling a monotonous stream of statistics to memorialize the failures and disappointments of one team and one player after another. There is nothing original about that, despite the author’s claim that their purpose was to write something original about baseball. Any baseball fan knows that there is much more failure than success in the game; reporting on the failures alone, without the context of the successes, is sophomoric.
But, then, everything about this book is childish, which is especially jarring because of the credentials the writers present: one is an “award-winning Civil War historian,” and the other “dedicated his studies to the histories of Major League Baseball, the Civil War, and the American Revolution.” These history buffs report that the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1953 World Series. It was the Yankees.
The adjectives alone are suffocating. How bad was that batting average, that ERA, that season, that decision? It was “atrocious,” “staggering,” “eye-popping,” “wretched,” “anemic,” “terrible,” “mind-boggling,” “horrible,” “pathetic,” “dismal,” “stunning,” “miserable,” “incredible,” “ghastly,” “abysmal.”
There are grammatical errors, a few misspellings, and outrages in style that affect almost every sentence. There is a quote from Roger Maris used twice in the same chapter and numerous other lapses that suggest that this book and a competent editor were never in the same county.
One of the most conspicuous signs that this book is headed for deep discount is the case of poor John Humphries, whom the authors singled out for opprobrium as the worst catcher of all time. Humphries appeared in a total of 103 games over two seasons in the 1880s. He played catcher in only 75 of those games. It is true that Humphries committed 74 errors in those 75 games, but no serious student of baseball would take into account such a short career in ranking fielders. To emphasize their point about Humphries, the writers included a photograph of him, except that any 15-year-old kid would know that that picture wasn’t taken in the 19th century.
That’s a picture of the other John Humphries, who is in the photo above left, the John Humphries who pitched in the majors in the 1930s and 1940s. The John Humphries whose humiliation was probably sufficient without any help from these writers, is in the photo above.
Wait for the movie.
November 24, 2011
When I first heard the other day that Greg Halman had been stabbed to death I was, of course, shocked, but not just because of the murder itself. Murder usually takes us by surprise, whether the victim was someone we knew, someone we only knew about, or someone we never heard of. It’s in the nature of the crime that it seems to come, as it were, out of left field.
In this case, my shock was doubled because the victim was a major league baseball player. It’s a hangover from my growing-up years when I thought those guys were special. I came to learn, as we all do, that they’re subject to all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our kind. I know that intellectually, but emotionally I’m the type who still thinks Santa Claus will show himself some day and sit in judgment over the sheep and the goats.
The fact is, though, that baseball players may be more susceptible to homicide than the general population is. Something like 17,000 men have played in the major leagues and I know of ten who have been murdered. What’s that – one in about 1700? The murder rate in the United States last year – ostensibly an all-time low – was nearly one in 10,000.
The ones I know about are Frank Bell, Frank McManus, Ed Morris, Lymon Bostock, Tony Solaita, Gus Polidor, Ivan Calderon, Dernell Stenton, and Luke Easter.
The one that most sticks in my mind is Easter, because he was one of my first “favorite” players. He came into the major leagues in 1949 when I was seven years old. He was about six-foot-four and weighed 240 pounds. I got most of my baseball on the radio then, and for a while I thought his name was Lou Keester. I didn’t know it then, but because he was black he didn’t get to play in the bigs until he was 34 – although he was inconsistent when reporting his age and place of birth. He is a prime example of the damage that racism did to major league baseball. He appeared in only six seasons in the majors and played in more than 100 games in only four. He was a good first baseman and a slugger in semi-pro ball — which was a big deal in his day — and in the Negro Leagues. He hit a total of 86 home runs in 1950, ’51, and ’52; he played only 396 games in those three seasons, and he was 37 years old in 1952. He and Mickey Mantle were the only players to hit a ball over the right-field scoreboard in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Easter’s traveled 477 feet.
After his major league stint, Easter played in the minors until he was 48 and coached for a while. Wherever he went, he added to his reputation as a genuinely nice man who liked to help other players. When he and baseball were done with each other, he went to work for the Aircraft Workers Alliance and became the chief union steward at a company in Euclid, Ohio. In 1979, he was delivering payroll money to a bank when he was accosted by armed robbers who shot him to death when he wouldn’t turn over the money.
When a fan remarked that he had witnessed one of Easter’s longest home runs, Easter said: “If it came down, it wasn’t mine.”
October 28, 2011
All the excitement about David Freese and his World Series heroics has got me thinking about George and Gene Freese, who were also major league baseball players, though no relatives of David, as far as I can tell. Gene and George were brothers, but they were not the Deans, the DiMaggios, or the Alous. I remember them because they played in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was still reasonably alert, and because I have the kind of mind that retains things such as the names of obscure baseball players.
George Freese appeared in only 61 major league games — “only” being a relative term inasmuch as most of us don’t appear in any — but he hung around the game longer than that as a coach, minor league manager, and scout. I might have remembered him anyway just because he was Gene Freese’s brother, but George has a distinction of his own: he is one of I guess a couple of hundred players who have hit inside-the-park grand slam home runs. I have never seen one, but I recall reading about George Freese’s 1955 homer in Baseball Digest. The writer described an inside-the-park grand slam as the most exciting play in baseball, and while I don’t go in much for hyperbole, I can understand why he would say that. It must seem to the fans as if the earth has stopped turning its axis while they hold their collective breath and watch that ball and the batter racing for the plate.
For many years after George Freese ran his home run home, I thought of his feat as unusual. Certainly, in decades of watching baseball, I had never seen anything like it. But I have learned since that there have been far more such homers than I would have imagined. Even Yankee pitcher Mel Stottlemyre hit one — in 1965. Some players have hit more than one, and some players have hit more than one in one season — for example, third baseman Joe Judge, who did it twice in 1925.
Many of the inside-the-park grand slams were hit during the dead-ball era, and the first one was hit by Harry Stovey of the Worcester Ruby Legs in 1881. Stovey did it again in 1886. It was appropriate in a way that he was the first to turn this trick, because he was the pre-eminent home run hitter of his day and the first player to hit 100 home runs in his career.