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.

 

 

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Pete Sheehy in the clubhouse of the real Yankee Stadium

I don’t think many journalists ever interviewed Pete Sheehy, but I was among the few who did. Pete, who was the clubhouse man at Yankee Stadium for about seven decades, didn’t like to talk, and I suppose that accounts for the fact that he made only rare appearances in print. I arranged an interview through a mutual friend, and I wasn’t with Pete for very long before I realized what a challenge I had taken on. In fact, Pete was forthright about it — in his way. He told me that he figured he had kept his job for so long, being in the confidence of members of the Yankees and, for a time, the football New York Giants, because he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Whatever he knew about Babe Ruth, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle, he kept it to himself.

So I asked Pete if it were possible that a man who had had such intimate contact with the Yankees of the ‘twenties to the ‘eighties could have a favorite. This was how Pete answered: “Joe.”

He didn’t have to say any more. “Joe” meant DiMaggio, and his choice didn’t surprise me. My father had been a Yankee fan since the Ruth era, too, and although I never asked him, I am confident that he would have said “Joe” too — despite a reverence for Lou Gehrig.

DiMaggio had an outstanding career. He was among the very best hitters, baserunners, and outfielders of his time or any time. Not the very best, necessarily, but one of the best. As Kostya Kennedy mentions in his book, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a poll taken in 1969 named DiMaggio the “greatest living baseball player.” DiMaggio believed it; he was that kind of a guy. But there were skeptics who noted, for instance, that Ted Williams, DiMaggio’s contemporary, outstripped the Yankee in every major hitting category and had a longer career, despite combat duty tours in two wars.

If there is an inequity in the way DiMaggio is regarded, it may be attributed at least in part to the fact that he played for the New York Yankees while they were the preeminent team in baseball if not in sports in general. DiMaggio appeared in 10 World Series in his 13 years in the majors.

But the primary reason for the aura around Joe DiMaggio may be the record he set 60 years ago this season — the record that was the occasion for Kennedy’s book. In the 1941 campaign, DiMaggio got a base hit in 56 consecutive games.

To put that record in context, Kennedy points out that more than 17,000 men have played Major League baseball, and only DiMaggio has achieved it. The only others to come close were Willie Keeler, who hit in 44 straight games in 1897 in the dead-ball era, and Pete Rose, who hit in 44 in 1978. (Keeler’s streak began on the first day of the ’97 season, so the hit he got in the last game in ’96 puts his official record at 45.)

The subtitle of Kennedy’s book refers to the fact that while DiMaggio’s record once formed a holy trinity with Babe Ruth’s single-season and lifetime home run records, Ruth’s marks have been exceeded several times and in some cases under questionable circumstances. DiMaggio’s 56 is the only individual record of its kind still standing.

Kennedy describes in his very literate book the atmosphere in which the streak occurred. It captured the attention of the whole country — and even folks in some other countries. DiMaggio’s sizable family, people who were tight with him, baseball fans, and people who didn’t know anything else about him or the game were all caught up in his day-day-progress. Everywhere, Kennedy writes, people stopped to ask each other: “Did he get a hit today?”

And, as Kennedy artfully shows, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. In 1941, there was something far more ponderous on people’s minds — the increasing aggression of Nazi Germany. The idea that the United States could stay out of the war seemed more and more like wishful thinking as American plants turned out material to assist the European allies and as more and more American men were drafted into military service. DiMaggio’s streak was a fortuitous respite in such an atmosphere — the counterpart, in a way, to Susan Boyle’s triumph on Britain’s Got Talent in the midst of worldwide recession and seemingly pointless wars.

The streak served another purpose, too. It was something for Italian-Americans to cling with pride as they — thanks to Benito Mussolini  — came under the same kind of suspicion that was being directed at Americans of Japanese and German background. Even at that, DiMaggio’s own father, Giuseppe, who had made his living as a commercial fisherman, was placed under wartime restrictions that kept him from approaching San Francisco Bay.

In telling this story, Kennedy carefully constructs a portrait of DiMaggio that isn’t at all endearing. DiMaggio was a cold fish. He was known from his youth for his spells of  silence. Kennedy writes a lot about DiMaggio’s relationship with his first wife, movie actress Dorothy Arnold, and that isn’t a happy tale. DiMaggio — in spite of the girls he invited to his hotel rooms — missed Dorothy when he was on the road. But when he was home, he stifled her, resented her, and often subjected her to his emotional and sometimes his physical absence.

This book is peppered with the interesting characters who played large and small parts in DiMaggio’s life — his relatives, including his major league brothers, Don and Vince; his somewhat “connected” Italian-American friends in Newark; his fans — not the least of whom were the boys Mario Cuomo and Gay Talese; and, of course, his fellow ballplayers: Gehrig, Phil Rizzuto, and DiMaggio’s wacky road-trip roommate, Lefty Gomez.

On the field, DiMaggio appeared impassive as the streak progressed. If a pitcher had boasted that he would stop DiMaggio, and DiMaggio got a hit off him, there would be none of the fist pumping that cheapens the game today. Inside, however, Kennedy writes, DiMaggio’s stomach was often in knots. And, of course, if he didn’t have to talk about the streak, he didn’t:

”  ‘You nervous about the streak?’ a reporter would call out and it would be Lefty who would turn and reply, ‘Joe? Nah, he’s fine. Me? I threw up my breakfast.’ “

LOU GEHRIG

There’s a hilarious string of comments on the MSNBC web site stemming from a story about Lou Gehrig’s medical records. It’s entertaining to read these strings, because the readers who engage in them get upset and abusive – in this case, two of them sunk to assailing each other’s grammar – and then they get off on tangents and eventually go spinning off into space.

In this case, the brief story that started the row was about Phyllis Kahn, a member of the Minnesota State Legislature, who has introduced a bill that would open medical records after a person has been dead for 50 years, unless a will or a legal action by a descendant precludes it.

Kahn was inspired by a story that broke several months ago about a scientific study that speculated that the root cause of Gehrig’s death was concussions he suffered while playing baseball. Gehrig’s ailment, of course, was diagnosed as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

LOU GEHRIG

A study published last summer in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology made a connection between brain trauma and a form of ALS. Gehrig played first base, a position not usually associated with concussions, but he was hit in the head by pitches during his career, and he might have suffered head traumas in when he was the runner in a close play. He famously played for 14 years without missing a game, which means he played hurt many many times. In fact, although he is lionized for setting a record for consecutive games that stood until Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it, Gehrig was criticized in some quarters in his own time by folks who regarded his streak as a foolish stunt and worried that he would damage his health.

Researchers want to look at Gehrig’s medical records, which are housed at the Mayo Clinic, and Kahn thinks they should be allowed to do so – and that, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, the records of any person dead for 50 years should be accessible. Gehrig has no descendants

PHYLLIS KAHN

As a Lou Gehrig fan, my emotions are screaming, “Leave the big guy alone!” As a former journalist, my interest in free flow of information is muttering that such records should become available at some point — though I don’t know what that point should be. Considering the level of concern about concussion injuries in football, research in this area could be valuable, and Gehrig might have provided an almost unparalleled  opportunity to examine the impact of repeated injuries. His doctors might even have considered a link between his grueling career and the illness that killed him. The Mayo Clinic and a bioethics professor at the University of Minnesota are opposing this bill, probably concerned more about the opening of a flood gate than about Gehrig’s privacy in particular.

Incidentally, Phyllis Kahn, a Democrat-Farm-Labor legislator, once pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing campaign brochures distributed on behalf of a Republican candidate and replacing them with material for one of Kahn’s DFL compatriots. But that’s a story for another post.

On April 19, I wrote about a 22-inning baseball game in 1962 in which the Yankees beat the Tigers, 9-7, thanks to the only home run of Jack Reed’s career. I mentioned in that post that Tigers outfielder Rocky Colavito went seven-for-ten in that game. That attracted a response from Gloria, who is a member of a group that is campaigning for the Veterans Committee to elect Colavito to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this  year.

It’s well known by now that the Hall of Fame is not the Hall of Justice. I have commented here, for example, on the fact that Pete Rose — an obnoxious SOB, but one of the best hitters of all time — is ineligible because he gambled on baseball, but Adrian “Cap” Anson stares smugly from his plaque despite his critical role in keeping two or three generations of black players out of the major  leagues. So if Rocky Colavito hasn’t been elected, there is no reason to be surprised.

I have a good perspective on this question, because  I saw Colavito play at Yankee Stadium many times. I was fortunate enough to have a father who was devoted to both baseball and the Yankees, and at one  point in the 1950s and 1960s, we attended an average of three games a week when the Yankees were home. We saw Colavito through most of his career.

BOBBY LOWE

Colavito’s stats as a hitter and as a fielder speak for themselves. They are readily available on the Internet, so I won’t recite them all here. I will mention that in 116 years, only 15 men have hit four home runs in one game; Colavito was one of them. That in itself doesn’t qualify him for the Hall of Fame, but in the context of the career he had at the plate, it can’t be ignored. The feat was first accomplished by Bobby Lowe of the Boston Beaneaters in 1894. Lowe was playing in the dead-ball era, but he was also playing in Boston’s Congress Street Park, which had a short left-field line. All four of his homers were hit to left. The only other player in the 19th century to hit  four home runs in one game was Ed Delahanty of the Phillies, who did it in 1896. Records are incomplete, but it is known that at least two of Delahanty’s homers that day were inside the park.

Another thing that distinguishes Colavito’s share of this record is that he is one of only six men in major league history to hit four home runs in consecutive at-bats in a single game. The others were Lowe, Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt, Mike Cameron, and Carlos Delgado. As rare an accomplishment as that is, it was typical of Colavito in the sense that he always brought excitement to the game; he put derrières in the seats, as it were, and it’s hard to calculate the value of that. It’s unusual for the fans at a baseball stadium to jump to their feet because of an outfielder’s throw, but Colavito’s arm was a high-caliber gun, and I was often among those who bolted out of our seats when he uncorked one toward the infield.

Rocky Colavito belongs in the Hall of Fame. If you want to read more about Colavito or sign a petition to the Veterans Committee, you can do both at THIS SITE.

Rocky Colavito, right, with pitching great Herb Score in 2006, when they and five others were inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame.


Sheet music to "So Long, Oolong"

When Patricia T. O’Conner, author of popular books on English usage, visited the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC this week, the segment was introduced by a vocal of the song “Three Little Words,” which made me think of Harry Ruby. Ruby and his longtime colleague, Bert Kalmar, wrote that song in 1930 for what would now be considered an offensive movie.

The film was “Check and Double Check” — the only movie made by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in their blackface roles as Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown — characters they made famous with their long-running radio series, “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The song didn’t get small-time treatment in the film; it was performed by Bing Crosby and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The song also lent its name to the title of the 1950 film biography of  Ruby and Kalman.

HARRY RUBY

Harry Ruby first came to my attention when  I was a kid, and he made a guest appearance on the Danny Thomas television show, “Make Room for Daddy.” Ruby sang another song he had written with Kalman, one that — some might say mercifully — is not as well known as “Three Little Words.” The 1920 tune was “So Long, Oolong. How Long Ya’ Gonna be Gone,” which had racist overtones, as did so many Tin Pan Alley songs written in that era.

The song is about a Japanese girl named Ming Toy, whose boyfriend left for what was supposed to be a short spell but turned into a long spell. Hence the chorus: So long, Oolong, how long ya’ gonna be gone?”

BARBRA STREISAND

Ruby and Kalman were prolific, and some of their work was much more sophisticated than the Oolong affair. For example, they wrote “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms,” which got a signature performance many years later in “The Barbra Streisand Album.” The pair also wrote “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You),” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” and the Betty Boop theme, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” among others.

As talented and productive as Ruby was as a songwriter, though, what I like best about him is that he always  wanted to be a baseball player. He tried, unsuccessfully to make it into the pros, and he never missed a chance in later life to get close to the game. His devotion to the sport is the source of one of the great baseball anecdotes.

LOU GEHRIG

Ruby seized an opportunity to appear in “Elmer the Great,” a sports movie starring the comedian Joe E. Brown, who was also a devotee of baseball. The movie was shot at the old Wrigley Field, a minor league park in Los Angeles. One of the scenes called for an player, to be portrayed by Ruby, to drop a ball hit to him in the outfield. Ruby walked off the set, insisting that he wouldn’t drop a ball on purpose for any amount of money. Later, when Brown and Ruby happened to be in the company of Lou Gehrig, Brown told that story, figuring that Ruby would be embarrassed. Gehrig, with a straight face, said it was the greatest baseball story he had ever heard


Of men and music

December 2, 2009

PAU GASOL

So Pau Gasol likes opera, and he doesn’t care who knows it. The Lakers star was invited the first time by his boss — and what can you say? But Gasol was hooked, as a lot of people are, and his acquaintance with fellow Spaniard Placido Domingo has added a personal dimension. The LA Times story about Gasol and Domingo is at THIS link.

I was telling someone the other night about Eleanor Gehrig’s account of how her husband — Lou Gehrig — became an opera buff. She wrote in one of her biographies of Gehrig that she convinced him to go with her on condition that it be kept a secret. In the 1930s, Gehrig had good reason to fear that he would be heckled mercilessly if the other players found out that he had been to the Met.

Eleanor picked the tragic Tristan und Isolde and gave Lou a thorough prepping beforehand. During the performance, she glanced over at him and found him totally absorbed, then with tears in his eyes, and finally “an emotional wreck.”

LOU GEHRIG

What Eleanor hadn’t anticipated was that her husband, who had spoken German before he spoke English, was listening to the opera in the original language — not filtered by a half-baked translation such as we are usually subjected to.

Gehrig didn’t only became a frequent visitor at the Met, Eleanor wrote, but she would often come home and find him lying on the floor of their apartment listening to an opera on the radio while he followed along in the libretto.

“I discovered that this was no automaton, no unfeeling giant,” Eleanor wrote. “A sensitive and even soft man who wept while I read him Anna Karenina ….”

I’m guessing the Babe never knew.


Talkin’ baseball

September 3, 2009

DEREK JETER

DEREK JETER

Derek Jeter is on the verge of accumulating the most hits by any member of the New York Yankees – surpassing the record of 2,720 held since 1939 by Lou Gehrig. Gehrig would have had more, of course, had he not come down with ALS and died before he was 37 years old. That’s not Jeter’s fault; he got his hits one at a time like everybody else, and he deserves whatever recognition comes with them.

This not the kind of record that is subject to rationalization by people who don’t like the player — like those who say that Alex Rodriguez built up his records by driving in runs when his team didn’t need them. When a man gets 2,700 hits, there’s only one reason for it. He’s damn good.

LOU GEHRIG

LOU GEHRIG

Still, there will be some hint of melancholy around the hit that breaks Lou’s record. Maybe this is a generational thing. I don’t remember Gehrig, but I didn’t miss him by much, and my father — who saw him play scores of times throughout his career — kept the memory alive in our house. Younger people may not feel the regret that someone my age will feel when Lou is no longer Number One on that list.

One of the charms of baseball has always been that everyone who has ever played is still in the game. Today’s players compete against yesterday’s players in statistics and in memory. I wonder, though, if that is waning. I notice, for instance, that the frame of reference for the play-by-play and color announcers usually extends back only as far as they can remember. References to people like Gehrig are rare, and they often sound like references to fictional characters.

BILL DICKEY

BILL DICKEY

I was in the Yankee clubhouse with Ed Lucas one day about 15 years ago, and Ed was talking to a young player who had come up from the farm for a cup of coffee. In the conversation, Ed mentioned Yogi Berra. Ed is blind, but I noticed the blank look on the player’s face, and I said, “You know who Yogi Berra is, don’t you?” The guy said: “I’ve heard of the gentleman.” I guess there would have been no point in asking the young man if he knew who Bill Dickey was — the Hall of Fame catcher who preceded Berra on the Yankees.

People of my generation lived through the phenomenon of grieving a record when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 to break the mark set by Babe Ruth in 1927. I was rooting for Maris, partly, I suppose, because Ruth’s transcendent place in the game doesn’t depend on any of his individual records. But a lot of people resented Maris and said so. If anyone broke that record, it should have been Mickey Mantle, a legitimate power hitter year after year and a lifetime Yankee. That was the feeling. We were at Yankee Stadium the day Maris broke that record; the excitement was muted, to put it mildly, Phil Rizzuto notwithstanding. Henry Aaron went through something similar when he broke Ruth’s lifetime home run mark — and there was a strong racial ingredient in that — but Aaron was such a great all-around player for so many years, that only cranks were against him.

CARL HUBBELL

CARL HUBBELL

Speaking of Bill Dickey, he came to mind the other day when a friend of mine mentioned Carl Hubbell’s well-known feat in the 1933 All-Star Game, striking out in succession Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin, and Al Simmons — all future Hall of Famers. Hubbell, a Hall of Fame pitcher himself, was a screwball-throwing left-hander and one of the best of his time — many would say all time.

It doesn’t come up often, but the batter who followed Simmons was Bill Dickey, who got a hit to break Hubbell’s streak. The next batter was Lefty Gomez, a pitcher with the Yankees and one of the great humorists of the game, and a notoriously bad hitter in the days when American League pitchers were fully employed and took their turn at bat.

LEFTY GOMEZ

LEFTY GOMEZ

Gomez struck out, and when he went back to the dugout, he was ripping mad at Dickey.

“What did I do?” asked Dickey, who was flabbergasted. “It’s going to go down in history,” Gomez told him, “that Hubbell struck out five of the greatest hitters in baseball. If you had had the decency to strike out, it would have been seven, and I would have been one of them!”

The Times has a story about Jeter’s achievement in the context of the end of Gehrig’s career. It’s at this link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/04/sports/baseball/04gehrig.html?hp