Monday, May 18, 2015

197. Rex Barney: Trying To Find His Way Home

WDNC Radio Broadcast of the June 4, 1943 game between the Durham Bulls and Norfolk Tars: on the mound for the Bulls making his professional debut this afternoon is Rex Barney. Just weeks ago the 18 year-old was in his senior year in high school back in Omaha, Nebraska. As soon as he had that diploma in his paws he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization who sent him here to our Durham Bulls. Barney fires a few warm ups in to catcher Jack Phillips. The Dodgers scouts all praise his blazing fastball and the velocity at which this kid can throw. Before the game this afternoon Bulls manager Bruno Betzel was already comparing Rex Barney's speed to the great Bob Feller. Now folks, that's some good company to be in! Ok, Barney is finished with his warm ups and Grady Dunlap steps into the box to lead it off the 7th inning for Norfolk. Barney looks in for the sign from Phillips. Big sweeping windup and high leg kick - here's the pitch...

(Sound of a thump followed by paper shuffling and muffled yell)

Sorry about that folks - Barney's pitch sailed 5 feet over Jack Phillip's head and came right through the chicken wire of our radio and press booth. Right through it! The ball hit old Bill Parker of the Herald-Sun square in the noggin', but the rest of us are all ok, shaken but ok. Bill, are you - ok, he's ok. The umpire puts a new Spalding in play and Barney again looks in for the sign. Look out folks, this kid's pitching style is of the compass variety - he throws in the general direction of the plate...

That was Rex Barney's first pitch in organized baseball. 

Throughout the course of the summer of 1943, Barney went from the Durham Bulls to the Montreal Royals and finally on August 18th he made his big league debut at Ebbets Field. With the exception of precious few moments, Rex Barney' major league career echoed that first pitch in Durham. Try as he might, he never could get that heater of his over the plate. 

I had heard about Rex Barney many times as a kid from my Grandfather. As most of you already know, Grandpa Joe was a Brooklyn Dodgers man going back to the 1920's. When ever there was talk of a young pitcher with tremendous speed my grandfather would bring up Rex Barney. The old man loved to mention how Barney no-hit the hated New York Giants in '48. Grandpa never tired or retelling that one. But, like Karl Spooner and Pete Reiser, Rex Barney embodied the notion of unfulfilled expectation - the big "what if?"

As an 18 year-old in 1943 Barney went 2 and 2 before he was drafted into the service. He drove a tank across Belgium and into Germany and then returned to the Dodgers in 1946. Barney was wild as hell, but his speed captivated the Brooklyn management - besides he was only 21, there was plenty of time for him to learn control. Barney went 3-5 for 1946 then 5-3 in '47. Still the wildness remained. One minute he'd be burning them in over the plate and the next he'd throw a ball 20 feet over the catcher's head and into the box seats. The first thought was he simply wasn't concentrating or bearing down. It was true, Barney was a husky good-looking guy who loved the broads. He was a clothes horse and as the most heavily-touted pitcher in the Dodgers organization he held virtual movie star status throughout the borough of Brooklyn. 

Nineteen forty-eight looked like the year he figured it all out. The big Nebraskan won 15 games including a no-hitter against the Dodgers hated rivals, the New York Giants. The home plate umpire for that No-no said later that Bob Feller, at the time recognized as the fasted man to ever pitch, had nothing on Barney's fastball. The season's totals showed his ERA was the fifth best in the National League and he'd finally recorded more strike outs than walks. 

The Dodgers organization was pleased with his progress - there was only one problem. In the last week of the '48 season Barney slid hard into second base breaking his ankle. It wasn't thought to be especially worrisome - he had the entire winter to take his time and recover. 1949 was going to be Rex Barney's breakout year.

Only it wasn't.

No one, not even Rex himself could pinpoint why he lost his control again. Barney often said that his pitching motion was altered after the broken ankle. The Dodgers brought teams of specialists, both of the physical and psychological variety, in a search for answers. What ever it was, Barney began a quick and merciless decent out of the majors. 1949 ended in a 9-8 record followed by 2-3 in 1950. The minor leagues followed and then a rung lower into the semi-pros. All the while Barney sought help from any source trying to regain his control. There was a heartbreaking article in the April 1954 edition of Collier's Magazine entitled "Can't Anybody Help Me?"

Unfortunately no one could. 

Years later Barney told author Peter Golenbock that after he found himself without a job or career he contemplated suicide. Rex Barney had never thought of a life without baseball. After bouncing around for a decade Barney broke into radio. By 1965 he was in Baltimore hosting his own sports talk show. It was there in Charm City that Rex Barney made the majors again, this time at the Orioles PA announcer. For over three decades Rex called out the pitching changes and public announcements. The Baltimore fans fell in love with his rich voice intoning "Thankyoooooooou!" after every announcement. His his catch phrase of "give that fan a contract!" after a spectator made a great catch of a foul or home run ball made him a local legend as big as Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver. 

It was in this later capacity that I got to meet Rex Barney. I was 21 and had been one of the designers of the graphics at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I was having a lunch meeting with the Orioles VP who drove the whole Camden Yards project, Janet Marie Smith, when in walks Rex Barney. Now I have been fortunate in my life to have met many big name ball players and entertainment personalities. Names that would make your head spin and a paparazzi cameraman get the shakes with expectation. But very few could compare to the glee I had in meeting old Rex Barney. When Janet Marie Smith realized that I knew who the old man limping into the restaurant was, she happily introduced me to the ballplayer. Rex gave me a warm handshake and listened politely as I mumbled something about my grandfather telling me about his no-hitter against the Giants. In a game full of so many lousy characters, Rex was a class-act and I couldn't wait to call my grandfather and tell him that.

Dogged by declining health, Rex Barney passed about four years later. The city of Baltimore, which gave Rex Barney a second chance at the big leagues, mourned the passing of its adapted son. As a tribute to his tremendous speed, to this day coaches in the Dodgers organization describe a pitcher with blinding speed but no control as possessing a "Rex Barney Fastball".

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The League of Outsider Baseball on the Radio and in the Papers!

With The League of Outsider Baseball hitting the shelves on Tuesday, I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by Scott Simon on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition this morning. Here's a link to the segment.

On other media fronts, the book has been getiing really great reviews from all parts of the country from Charlotte and Chicago to Dallas and Los Angeles!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

196. Vada Corbus: Almost a Big Catch

Here's a card and story I've had on the back-burner for a while. While some women ballplayers, like Jackie Mitchell, were nothing more than publicity stunts, others like Alta Weiss or the “Bloomer Girls” teams that toured the country could really hold their own against low level semi-pro competition. But while most women played on all-girl teams or barnstormed on the fringes of outsider baseball, 19 year-old Vada Corbus is a bit different: she tried out for a minor league ball club. 

Vada came from a ball playing family - her older brother Luke was the catcher for their hometown Joplin Miners, a Class C Western League club. When Luke was moved to the outfield in the spring of 1931, that left a catchers slot open and Vada believed she had the chops for it.

Details are a bit sketchy, but apparently she made the cut, for in late April newspapers began reporting that she had been signed by the Miners. Vada suited up and took the field as a bullpen catcher during a pre-season exhibition game and was fully expected to be with the team when they played their season opener on April 30th, 1931. When the New York Times finally picked up the story, Western League officials quickly put an end to Vada’s career before it began, throwing out the stock excuse that baseball was no place for a woman. The arguement holds water, of course -  Vada Corbus was quite petite and there would be many logistical issues to deal with like travel and locker rooms, things that really impacted low-level minor league teams during the Depression. However, it would have been interesting to see if Vada really had the talent to hold her own had she been given the chance.

As you already know, The League of Outsider Baseball hits the stores next week. So far my work has received really good reviews from a wide variety of venues - from The Junior Library Guild (who named it their Sports Book of the Month) to the big-daddy of them all, Major League Baseball. I'm really proud of my book and to see that others appreciate it, well, it's the best compliment an artist like me can receive. You can read what people are saying HERE.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry?

Remember the 5-card series I did on the Brooklyn Bushwicks? Well, my pal Will Arlt of the Ideal Cap Co. took a shine one of the caps I had illustrated. The Bushwicks were the class-act of all semi-pro ball clubs back before World War II and as such they wore the sharpest duds around. For most of their heyday the Bushwicks' team colors were navy blue and orange - a loud combo for the time and a color scheme that earned them the nickname "The Kandy Kids". The cap Will liked was the one worn by catcher Walt VanGrofski - the 1940 Brooklyn Bushwicks cap. As far as caps go, it's a pretty smart looking one, navy blue crown with an orange bill and orange felt "B".

Like me, Will loves baseball obscura and the Bushwicks are right in his strike zone. Thus, it was only natural that he would be compelled to take one of the caps I illustrated and make it a reality. Now the '40 Bushwicks cap is the "Cap of the Month" for April and you can see it (and own one!) HERE

Now, over the past 4 years I've gotten quite a few lucrative offers to advertise on my site, all of which I turned down; I wanted the Infinite Baseball Card Set to be pure and good, clean fun. So I want to make it clear that this isn't some shill ad disguised as a blog post - I get nothing from Ideal Cap and simply wanted to share what I believe is the most unique and beautiful baseball caps in the world. I highly recommend picking one out (and that's a hard thing to do!) and wearing it proudly - you'll never wear one of those modern hard-hats again!

Click the logo to see Will's caps (and tell him what a great logo design it is - I designed it!)

This past summer I wrote about my friendship with Will which started as a business relationship 25 years ago. For those who haven't read it, I'll post it below...

In what seems like a thousand years ago, during the summer of 1989 I was working in a garment factory in Passaic, N.J. On a lunch break I was reading Sports Illustrated and happened on an article about a company in upstate New York called Cooperstown Ballcap Company who was recreating classic baseball caps, just like the ones made from the 1860's through World War II. I was smitten with the beautiful wool caps with felt logos, with the soft crown and leather sweatbands. I WANTED one of those caps, but they were about twice the amount one of those adjustable mesh caps cost, and being in art school, I couldn't justify spending that much bread on a cap. But I WANTED one of those caps!

In a rare moment of business acumen, I wrote a letter to the owner, Will Arlt up in Cooperstown and offered to do illustrations for his catalogue in exchange for ballcaps. Much to my surprise Will accepted and I've been proud to call him a friend ever since. I'll never forget opening the box that held my first Cooperstown Ballcap - it was a 1944 St. Louis Browns cap and I loved it. The crown molded to the shape of my head and after a few months the brim became soft and pliable. It looked just like the caps depicted in my baseball history books. It was perfect. Today I have dozens of Will's ballcaps and I never wore a modern cap again. Over the years Cooperstown Ballcap developed a following of ballcap purists and aficionados - one guy even came up with a website devoted to fans showing off their favorite Cooperstown Ballcap! 

Will closed Cooperstown Ballcap Company about 7 years ago and knew the world had lost the greatest cap manufacturer of all-time. I was distraught at the horror of resigning myself to having to wear those cheap and boxy modern jobs or substandard "retro" caps that jersey companies put out. Then one night over drinks at the Formosa Cafe in Hollywood, Will disclosed he was starting a new company: IDEAL CAP COMPANY. Not only would he produce those beautiful ballcaps again, but other interesting styles as well. I immediately signed on to design the logo and illustrate the caps on the website, and after a few years of preparation and inventory building, Will launched Ideal.

I highly recommend picking one out (and that's a hard thing to do!) and wearing it proudly - you'll never wear one of those modern hard-hats again!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

195. Bill Leinhauser: Ty Cobb for a Day

When it came down to delivering the manuscript for my book, The League of Outsider Baseball, I found I had run way past my intended target of 240 pages and had about 100 extra pages. Then began the excruciating process of having to edit out dozens and dozens of great stories and illustrations. In the end I admit the final product is much leaner and taut - it's Major League quality. Still, the cuts left a slew of ballplayers who wont get their due in this book. Today's story and illustration is from a two-page spread I had done depicting the 1912 Replacement Tigers. I decided to go with one character today to represent the group of nine guys who went from the street corner to the majors in the span of one day in 1912. If my book does well then perhaps the other eight will make it into a second volume next year!

Earlier that morning Bill Leinhauser was hanging out on his street corner in Philly with a handful of his pals. Now it was two in the afternoon and he was waiting to take the field in Shibe Park as a member of the Detroit Tigers. 

How did Bill Leinhauser go from a Philadelphia street corner to replacing Ty Cobb in the Tigers outfield?

Most casual baseball fans know about Ty Cobb's horrifying temper. The one story usually told to illustrate the point is how he once leaped into the stands and beat an armless man who dared heckle him to a bloody pulp. When someone cried "That man has no hands!" Cobb defiantly yelled between kicks of his cleats "I don't care if he has no legs!" and continued pummelling the man until cops and teammates dragged him away. The story, though told over and over so many times, is essentially true.

The incident took place at New York's Hilltop Park on May 15, 1912. Cobb, the best ballplayer in the American League, was a natural target for hecklers. One guy sitting in the third base stands was especially vocal. Claude Lucker was a former printer who lost eight of his ten fingers in a press accident. Now he pushed Ty Cobb into the red zone when he called the Georgia Peach one too many racial slurs. Cobb did indeed vault into the stands and kick and beat the defenceless Lucker, uttering the infamous line "I don't care if he has no legs!"

As would be expected, the American League suspended the slugger, but what was unexpected was that his teammates - who cared for Cobb about as much as he cared for them - fully supported him and voted to go on strike unless he was reinstated. When the Tigers rolled into Philadelphia to begin their series against the World Champion Athletics, neither the League nor the striking players were willing to budge. Tigers manager Hughie Jennings had a big problem: if Detroit didn't field a team that afternoon at Shibe Park, the American League would forfeit the game to the A's and bring forth all kinds of costly fines.

Jennings met with A's manager and owner Connie Mack. It became obvious Jennings had only one choice - find a team. Since time was tight he couldn't bring up any Tigers prospects or players under contract with Detroit. He had to find local amateurs. Both Jennings and Mack knew any pick-up team would get murdered going up against the A's juggernaut. Mack's men were the defending World Champs, some say the greatest team ever assembled. The kindly Connie Mack told the Tigers manager that he would hold back his regulars and field his scrubs that day. Reassured, Jennings only had one more thing to do - find a team!

Since he was unfamiliar with the local baseball scene, the Tigers skipper turned to a local sportswriter named Joe Nolan. He in turn tapped Allan Travers, the assistant coach of the St. Joseph's College baseball team to find the players. The 20 year-old went to his neighborhood and scooped up eight "ballplayers" and herded them to Shibe Park. Each man was instructed to sign an official American League Player's Contract for a salary of $25 and told to suit up in the unused Tigers road uniforms. Travers received a $50 contract because he claimed he could pitch.

The real Tigers wore their street clothes and sat in the stands. If Jennings felt relieved that he had a team, it was short-lived. When the line up cards were exchanged he discovered that Connie Mack had duped him - every position was manned by one of his regulars including three future Hall of Famers. 

The game was a slaughter. The A's pounded Allan Travers for 24 runs. At one point many of the 16,000 fans demanded their money back but were refused. A riot was close to breaking out but was somehow avoided. After the game Cobb begged his teammates to end the strike, which they did. Each of the striking Tigers were fined $100 - $50 more than Cobb's original fine for beating Claude Lucker back in New York! In their next game Detroit fielded their normal lineup sans Cobb who would return from his suspension on May 25th.

The guy who took Ty Cobb's place in center field and even wore his uniform was William Charles Leinhauser. He was a local sandlot player and accomplished welterweight boxer, but he wasn't Ty Cobb. Leinhauser went 0 for 4 with 3 strike outs against the World Champs. Besides his failure at the plate Leinhauser also managed to get hit on the head by a fly ball. Perhaps he could be forgiven since Travers was serving up gopher balls all afternoon and the replacement Tigers were run ragged chasing flies. Cobb's replacement never appeared in another professional ballgame, but he did go on to to become a highly decorated Philadelphia Police Captain and retired as head of the city’s narcotics squad.  

The Replacement Tigers became a footnote to baseball history, significant in that it added eight players to the Baseball Encyclopedia whose entire career lasted only a single game. Only one of those nine would ever effect baseball history a second time, and not for his play on the field but off it. The starting third baseman that day was Billy Maharg, a scrappy neighborhood corner boy. He went hitless in his only plate appearance and left the game early when a line drive slammed into his mouth, knocking out a handful of teeth. He continued to hang around the fringes of professional baseball and by 1916 was a trainer and chauffeur with the Phillies. In 1916 Maharg got one more chance to appear in a big league game. He did as well in his second major league game as he did in his first: 0 for 1. He did however play a few innings in the outfield, this time without any damage to his choppers. The next time he appeared in conjunction with the national pastime was when he and pal Sleepy Bill Burns helped cobble together the fix of the 1919 World Series.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Jackie Robinson: 69 Years Ago Today

69 years ago today, Jackie Robinson sat in the visitor's locker room of Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium. Suiting up with his Montréal Royals teammates, Robinson was about to do what no black man had done since 1899 - play in an organized baseball game. Johnny Wright, another black ballplayer was on the roster that day, too, but Wright was a pitcher and was not going to play. Once the bands stopped and Mayor Hague threw out the first ball, Robinson was on his own. Opening Day in Jersey City was a big deal back then, a city-wide holiday. The Hague Democratic political machine that ran the city since 1917 expected every single municipal employee to purchase a ticket in order to give Jersey City the largest opening day crowd every year. Although 25,000 fans streamed through the turnstiles that afternoon, twice than number was sold. Still, with 25,000, Jersey City easily led the International League in attendance that day, and they witnessed history being made.
Robinson’s fame as a college athlete, his university education, and experience as an army officer made him the perfect man for a very difficult job. Many Negro League ballplayers expressed disappointment that he was to be the first to integrate the game. His manager with Montréal silently questioned whether or not a black man was even human. Bob Feller, who pitched against Robinson in 1945, thought so little of his talent said “If he were a white man, I doubt if they would even consider him big league material, except perhaps as a bat boy.” Robinson faced it all with quiet dignity and strength. In that first game in Jersey City he went 4 for 5, including a three-run homer, scored 4 runs, drove in 3 and stole 2 bases. Overcoming immense racial pressure, Jackie won over his teammates and fans with his natural physical ability and intense drive to win. Sparked by his play, Montréal won the Little World Series of 1946 and the next year he was playing for Brooklyn. Through his sheer determination Jackie Robinson not only paved the way for the desegregation of the major leagues but also the modern civil rights movement.  

Here's to you Jackie!

Don't forget the card I posted of Happy Chandler, the Commissioner of Baseball who backed up Branch Rickey when he wanted to bring Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

It's Almost Opening Day for My Book!

I finally received a few advance copies of The Book. Now, I'm usually my own worse critic, but I have to say, it looks better than I ever imagined. Besides that, I can honestly say I have never seen a baseball book like this one. When I started out 5 years ago with this blog, I went about it with the idea of creating the baseball card set I always wanted. I had the same thing in mind when I began the book - to create the book I always wanted to find in the bookstore. 

I can honestly say I did.

The 240-page hardback book hits the stores May 5th and you can pre-order one at a whole variety of outlets HERE. If anyone is in the Cincinnati area, please know that I will be having my book launch party at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Crestview Hills, Kentucky on May 8th. I would absolutely love to meet anyone who can attend and share the greatest achievement of my artistic career with you in person!

* As a demonstration of pro-photography vs. amateur, the first three photos in this post were taken by my pal Todd Robinson, a true artist with the lens from still product shots like these to event photography. You can see more of his amazing work HERE. The last three shots are by yours truly, a testament to why I stick to ink and paper instead of a camera...

Thursday, March 12, 2015

194. Johnny Frederick: A Diamond in the Muck

I'm usually not one to blame a manager on the overall performance of his team. There's usually a combination of circumstances that lead to a stink-o season and the manager is simply a cog in the whole broken machine. There are exceptions however. Take Dusty Baker. He had no less than three great ball clubs under his care: the '02 Giants, '04 Cubs and the '12 Reds. Let's give Baker the benefit of the doubt and take the '02 Giants out of the equation because I think the it can be argued the Angels and Giants were equally matched that year. In the case of the Cubs and Reds, Baker was completely out-managered by the skippers of teams fielding less talented ballplayers. Then there is Bobby Valentine of the turn-of-the-century Mets. Bobby V had a virtual National League All-Star team right there in his club house, yet he couldn't crack down and whip those idiots into the dynasty they should have been. While those two examples are relatively recent, we can go back to the 1920's where we find the hapless Wilbert Robinson of the Brooklyn Robins.

Brooklyn had gone to the World Series in 1916 and again in 1920, and although both trips ended in defeat, fans still had vivid memories and the faint taste of past glory. However, by the late 1920's that memory and taste of glory became bitter, a feeling of insurmountable failure setting in. A combination of infighting between the owners, failure to develop young talent and a dwindling bank account led to the ball club's quick slide into the second division. 

On top of all this, the team's manager Wilbert Robinson seemed utterly defeated and out of his element by the mid 1920's. Robinson had once been a superstar catcher with the fabled Baltimore Orioles of the 1890's. He followed his pal John McGraw to the Giants and worked as his coach until a terrific rift between the two sent Robinson over the East River to manage Brooklyn in 1914. At first Robinson was successful, leading the team to the 1916 and 1920 pennant and the franchise was even renamed "The Robins" after the popular manager. But after a few losing seasons Robinson just gave up. The once formidable baseball sage was now known as "Uncle Robbie", a lovable, comical and overweight loser. The only reason he kept his job was that the majority owner felt a loyalty to the washed up manager, much to the chagrin of the other owners and fans. Though the team was stocked with has-beens, never-were's, and out-right novelty acts like Pea Ridge Day, Brooklyn actually had some solid ballplayers. Babe Herman was a real bonafide slugger whose fielding ineptitude had been much exaggerated by the press to sell papers. First baseman Del Bissonette always finished in the league's top home run leaders and third baseman Harvey Hendrick was a feared batsmen. Dazzy Vance was as solid a starting pitcher as you could get and despite a career spent with Robinson's losers he still managed to make it to Cooperstown. Because of no run support Watty Clark had a losing record but consistently finished the season with one of the lowest ERA's in the National League. So the Robins had the makings of a good team but unfortunately Uncle Robbie did nothing to turn around the culture of complacency and depression in the club house.

Into this cesspool of failure fell a few very talented ballplayers whose careers were completely wasted because they wound up wearing a Brooklyn uniform. Perhaps the most talented was a slight outfielder from out West named John Henry Frederick.

By the time he made it to Brooklyn, Johnny Frederick was 27 and had toiled away in the minor leagues for seven years. He was tall and wiry and possessed such speed that when he played center field he made the left and right fielders obsolete. Twice he came excruciatingly close to making the big leagues. The first was in 1923 when the Washington Senators tried to buy Frederick from the Salt Lake City Bees. The Bees' owner, Bill Lane, held out for $50,000 and the Senators folded, picking out a more modestly priced outfielder instead. The next season the Cardinals showed interest. Everyone from Frederick's manager on the Bees to opposing PCL players told St. Louis GM Branch Rickey that Frederick was a big league material. However, one person planted a bug in the GM's ear that Frederick had an inaccurate arm so Rickey hopped a train to Utah to see for himself. Always the savvy flesh trader, Rickey used the rumor of a bad arm to try to muscle Lane into reducing Frederick's sale price. To complicate the matter, Frederick's manager made the mistake of informing the kid that the Cardinals GM was in the stands, specifically to see how he handled throws from center field. Knowing this was his chance to make The Show, he chomped at the bit to show off his rifle-accurate arm. Neither Rickey or Frederick had long to wait. Branch Rickey sat in the press box and watched as Salt Lake's pitcher gave up a triple in the first inning. Then came Frederick's chance. With a man on third, the next batter sent a line drive rocketing towards left field. Frederick charged over from center and cut off the left fielder, making a beautiful one-handed shoe string catch. He then quickly wheeled around and threw to home plate to catch the runner from scoring. Frederick was off balance and the ball sailed completely off course - right at the press box. Sports writers said that if there hadn't been a screen Rickey would have caught the ball right between his eyes. Rickey caught the next train back to St. Louis and Frederick stayed in Utah.

Though a solid .340 hitter in the Pacific Coast League, no other big league club wanted to take a chance on him. See, Frederick was a throwback to the dead ball era, a contact hitter who turned his singles into doubles and triples with his speed. But this was the mid 1920's and every team wanted their own Babe Ruth, a guy who could wallop the horsehide, score a run with a single stroke. So even though he was hitting the ball at a .340 clip, all the big league clubs passed - all except Brooklyn.

Even before spring training started in March of 1929, the Brooklyn newspapers were heralding Frederick's arrival as a change in the team's fortunes. After a slow start he began to tear the cover off the ball and easily made the big club as their starting center fielder. Playing between Rube Bressler who hit .318 and Babe Herman who hit .389, the Robins had one of the hardest hitting outfields in the league.

For Frederick, 1929 was a rookie year for the ages. In 628 at bats he struck out just 34 times. Because of his tremendous speed, 52 of his 206 hits went for doubles, a big league record at the time and still the most in the history of the Dodgers franchise. His .328 batting average and 75 RBI made him the National League's best lead-off hitter. If there had been a Rookie of the Year Award back in '29, there's no question Frederick would have taken that home with him in the fall. The next year he was even better, batting .334 and again striking out a mere 34 times. With Frederick's bat added to the the club, Brooklyn managed to stay in the pennant race all summer, just falling short the last week of the season. But as Brooklyn's pennant hopes began to fade in September, so to did Frederick's career. First he suffered an severe bone bruise in the joint between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The joint never healed properly and gave him trouble the rest of his career. Then, with two weeks left in the season, Frederick dove for a sinking liner and landed hard on his right ankle. Though he limped off the field under his own steam, x-rays showed he'd broken it, ending his 1930 season early. 

For 1931 the Robins added Lefty O'Doul, making the Brooklyn outfield on paper look like the second coming of Murder's Row. But paper's paper and baseball's baseball. Though his team looked good on the line up card, old Uncle Robbie could do nothing right. Every time he was handed a new way to successfully manage his club, he went right back down his well traveled freeway to failure. For instance, his coaches realized every team in the National League knew and were stealing the Robins' signals. There were a few reasons for this: 1. Robbie hadn't changed them in decades. 2) Every time a player was traded from Brooklyn he informed the his new team of Robinson's signal system and 3) he made no effort to hide his signals, lazily flashing them in full view of the opposing team's dugout. After a losing streak, a coach delicately suggested they try playing a few games without using hand signals. Robinson, at wits end, agreed. Without telegraphing the opposition what was coming, Brooklyn promptly won the next two games, yet just a quickly Uncle Robbie went back to the old hand signals. The losing continued.

Frederick muscled through 1931, hitting a respectable .270 average with 17 homers, but by the time 1932 dawned, Frederick was fading fast. His legs never regained their pre-1931 speed and the multiple injuries he'd suffered necessitated a long pre-game ritual of adhesive taping and bandaging. It was a shame because the team's owners had finally dumped Uncle Robbie and replaced him with Max Carey. The team, now re-named the Dodgers, responded by finishing in third place.

Although Frederick's speed was gone, he still had his batting eye and became the best pinch hitter in Dodgers history. In the 62 times he was sent in to pinch hit, Frederick connected for 19 hits, a remarkable .309 average. 1932 was his best year hitting in the pinch, going 9 for 29. What's most remarkable is that of those nine hits, all but one was for extra bases and of those 8 extra base hits, SIX were home runs! This was a major league record that stood until Dave Hanson and Craig Wilson hit seven apiece in 2000 and 2001 respectively (all be it in a 162 game season against the 154 game season of Frederick's time). 

Relegated to part-time, Frederick posted .308 and .296 for 1933 and 1934 with a marked reduction in his power at the plate. The Dodgers replaced Max Carey with Casey Stengel for 1934 and the team quickly took on the same air of failure that existed earlier under Robinson. Stengel covered up his managerial ineptitude by cracking jokes at his players expense and pandering to beat writers so he looked like a genius surrounded by fools. As would happen later when he managed the Boston Braves and New York Mets, his players became discouraged and the ball club sank into the depths of the standings. Amid all this wreckage, Frederick failed to run out a single and was subjected to Stengel's wrath. At the end of the season he told Frederick that he "didn't fit into his plans for 1935". Apparently Stengel's plans for the season included a fifth place finish, 29 1/2 game back.

When no other team picked up his contract, he expressed a desire to be signed by a west coast minor league team so he could be close to home. Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League gladly snatched up the former Dodger where he became a star attraction. Back where he started, Frederick hit .363 and in 1936 he moved over to the Portland Beavers where his .352 average led the team to the Coast League championship. He played through 1940, retiring at age 38 and never hitting below .300. Frederick put his glove on the shelf and began a second career running a combination ranch/tourist camp outside Portland. The best pinch hitter in Dodgers history passed away in 1977 at the age of 75.

Besides his Dodgers franchise record for doubles and the MLB record for pinch hitting home runs, the rangy outfielder can also claim another spot in the record books for his part in developing a piece of equipment used today by every baseball player. Remember that thumb injury at the end of the 1930 season? Since the bone never healed properly, any contact with the ball became excruciatingly uncomfortable. Frederick remedied the situation by taping up his thumb with football padding to put a layer of cushion between the bat and bone, something he did for the remained of his career. While it might not seem that extraordinary, no one had done that before on a permanent basis. At the same time teammate Lefty O'Doul remedied a temporary hand injury by wearing an ordinary leather glove to add some cushion while he batted. The combination of the two Brooklyn outfielder's home-made remedies gave birth to what we now know as the batting glove...

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Minnie Miñoso: An Eternal Shame on Whoever Votes for the Hall of Fame

Minnie Miñoso passed away today at a well seasoned 90 years old. Though his Major League Baseball career was not very long, his style of play and raw talent made quite an impression on both ballplayers and fans who saw him play.

This post was originally written and illustrated by me in July of 2012. Apparently Minnie had a legion of very loyal fans - either guys who saw him play for the White Sox or Indians in the late 40's or 50's, or younger fellas who were interested in his early Negro League career. I remember I had gotten many requests for a post on Miñoso and I finally knuckled under and did the story you're about to read...

The strapping young man from the rural providences stood tall and straight as he approached Rene Midesten, the manager of the Ambrosia Candy baseball team. His skin was dark as night and his body was as strong as a bull from working in the cane fields. For the past 4 or 5 years the young man before him had traveled the country making a name for himself playing amateur ball for sugar plantations and mining company teams. Now 16, the time had come to make the move to the big city of Havana and become a professional ballplayer.

The Ambrosia Candy team was one of many factory and government teams that played in the Havana Semi-Pro league. Once a ballplayer got on one of those teams and did well, it was just a short time before the professional Cuban League came calling.
Midesten listened passively as the young man described how he could pitch and catch and hit - he'd heard it all before. Every niño from the sticks thought he was the next Martin Dihigo. But as the young man talked he was also watching Midesten's team work out on the field behind him. The third baseman made one bad play after another. Besides pitch, catch and hit, he told the manager, he was also a third baseman. Midesten's ears perked up and moments later for the princely salary of $2 a game and a guaranteed job in the company's garage, Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso became a professional ballplayer.

Two years later and after moving his way up the semi-pro ladder, Miñoso was signed by the Marianao Tigers, one of the Cuban Winter League's best teams. Besides featuring the best Cubans, the winter league attracted the finest Negro league players from the United States. The level of play was top draw and to say the pay was better would be an understatement. Miñoso signed for $150 a month which was quickly bumped up to $200 when the ball club realized how good he was. By the time the season ended he'd batted .301 and was the 1945-46 Rookie of the Year.

In the years before Jackie Robinson, a Cuban ballplayer had two options if he wanted to play in the United States: if he was light skinned with wavy hair, he went into organized ball. If he was a darker hue with kinky hair, it was the Negro leagues. You really couldn't get any darker than Miñoso, so it was the Negro leagues.

The Negro National League had among its clubs a team called the New York Cubans. Though not exclusively made up of Latin players, the Cubans were the main club the Latins gravitated to when they wanted to play ball in the States. The Cubans played most of their games at the Polo Grounds and though they hadn't won a pennant yet, were always among the finest in the National League. It just so happened that one of Miñoso's coaches with Marianao was Jose Fernandez who was the manager of the New York Cubans. By the time the Cuban season had ended Fernandez had convinced the owner of the Cubans, Alex Pompez, to offer Miñoso a contract.

There was a potential problem. The Pasquel brothers, Jorge and Bernardo, who ran the upstart Mexican Baseball League was offering staggering amounts of cash to professional ballplayers in order to stock their new league. Because the Pasquel's were persuading players to break their contracts with existing teams they were considered outlaws and were physically thrown out of many ballparks when they were caught talking to players. The huge salaries they were offering for the upcoming 1946 season was more than many players could imagine and they succeeded in luring a number of major leaguers in addition many of the finest black and Latin players. While the money was good, the risks were high - in short order organized baseball decreed that anyone breaking a contract to play in Mexico were banned from playing in the major or minor leagues. Latin and black ballplayers also were affected because the Cuban Winter League was under a tentative contract with organized ball as well. Even if a ballplayer was not signed by a major or minor league team, he was still ineligible to play in Cuba if he appeared in the Mexican League. It was big risk and when Miñoso was confronted with a large duffel bag of cash and a 2 year contract for $30,000, the young star turned it down flat. He wanted to play in the Unites States.

Miñoso signed his name to the contract Alex Pompez sent and for $150 a month he became the New York Cubans' rookie third baseman.

Playing their home games in the Polo Grounds, the rookie batted a respectable .309 in 33 games for the New York Cubans in 1946. Making his talent known, his salary was doubled to $300 a month to ensure he wasn't tempted by the roving Mexican League recruiters. Miñoso enjoyed playing in the United States and with his generous income he soon established himself as one of the Negro National League's best dressed ballplayers. Nap Gulley, who played against Miñoso in those years swore the Cuban had 40 or 50 immaculate suits. He went on to state that he could have been a magazine model. One other thing Miñoso prided himself on was his language skills. While some other teammates chose to speak only Spanish, Miñoso tried to communicate solely in English. He figured that he was playing in America so he should know the language. It's interesting to note that although players and sports writers always made comments about his accented English and rogue grammar, Miñoso none-the-less was proudly fluent in the tongue of his adapted homeland.

Besides his fashion sense and budding bilingualism, Miñoso impressed his teammates by eagerly learning all he could from the veterans. He watched the stars on the opposing teams and continually improved his craft. Fellow ballplayers soon learned that no matter how well he played his game, Miñoso strived to do it even better.

The next season Miñoso took off, leading the team with a .294 average and establishing himself as the best lead-off man in the league. Black fans across the nation appreciated his play and he was voted to represent the East team in that year's East-West All Star Game in Chicago. He played the whole game but went 0-3 as the West won 5-2. Along with slugger Pat Scantlebury and pitchers Dave Barnhill and Luis Tiant, the speedy Cuban led his team to the pennant. In the Negro World Series against the Negro American League champion Cleveland Buckeyes, Miñoso batted a remarkable .423 as the Cubans defeated Cleveland in 6 games.

The following season Miñoso continued to improve and by the All-Star break in July was batting about .400. Again he was recognized by the sporting public by being selected to his second East-West Game. This year he went 1 for 4 with a stolen base in another loss to the West. By now Miñoso was undeniably a star and it was tempting for him to think organized ball could be a possibility. The stakes were high in that 1948 All-Star Game as the stands were crawling with major league scouts and every player knew it was their best shot at making the big time. Due to the popularity of the game and also presumably to give the players even more of a shot at showcasing their talents to a mixed audience, a second East-West Game was played in the middle of August in New York. Before the game, Miñoso's teammate Jose Santiago was approached by the Cleveland Indians' scout. Besides Jose, the Indians were looking at Miñoso as well. Realizing this was his chance, Miñoso performed spectacularly. In his first at bat he stretched a chintzy single into a double and later knocked in the East's winning run. By the time he'd showered, Miñoso's contract had been purchased by the Cleveland Indians.

Sent to the Dayton Indians, Miñoso hit .525 in 11 games and the Indians made him a big leaguer the following year. His famed nickname "Minnie", probably a by product of too many sprained Caucasian tongues trying to pronounce his last name properly, came shortly afterwards. All-in-all, Miñoso spent almost 30 years spread over 5 decades playing baseball in Cuba, the United States and Mexico. Miñoso is one of those borderline players who always seem to come up short when the Hall of Fame voting comes around. Though I might not be as enlightened as a real live sportswriter who gets the final vote on such things, I am under the impression guys like Miñoso, Gil Hodges and Sammy T. Hughes deserve a plaque in the Hall more than say, Ron Santo, Vic Willis, or Phil Rizzuto. But hey, I'm just an artist and it's baseball and without what-ifs like this, what else would there be to talk about during those long winter months, soccer?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

193. Cesar Fernandez: Spring, 80 Years Ago

Today the pitchers and catchers of the Cincinnati Reds organization begin spring training. Although it's 12 degrees here in Kentucky and I'm getting ready to go out and shovel snow, somewhere the sun is shining. Today is a hopeful day, the dawn of another year where anything can happen. 

I love this time. 

If you are a fan of a lousy team, then today is probably the brightest it will be all year, before the statistics are tallied and standings count, before playoff dreams are shattered yet again. If you are a fan of a good team, then today is the dawn of a year you will look back and remember with a certain fondness and years from now proudly tell your pals "I knew it from Spring Training we were going all the way!"

At least for a short while we can all forget about steroid scandals, sleazy player's unions and $12 beers and just focus on the game. Over the next few weeks we'll all watch the little one paragraph baseball stories in the morning newspaper grow longer and more plentiful as the rosters are pared down. In between European Premier League soccer segments and the latest football scandal, maybe ESPN will squeeze in an interview with a new can't-miss star. Some of us will quietly close the office door at work and tune in to a radio broadcast of a split-squad game from far away Florida or Arizona.

The point is, starting today with the "thwack!" of the first ball hitting a catcher's mitt, anything is possible.

And that brings me to Cesar Fernandez.

I don't know who Cesar Fernandez was. All I can find is that he was one of the many hopefuls that turned up at the Cincinnati Reds training camp in Tampa in the spring of 1935. The press photo I stumbled upon said nothing more than his name and that he was a catcher trying to land a place on the team. I don't know where he came from - Cuba or perhaps Puerto Rico? Could be Florida or NorCal. I managed to find that a guy named "Fernandez" (no first name) appeared in 17 games the previous summer with a single A Reds team in Jeannette, Pennsylvania. He hit .295 with a homer, triple and pair of doubles in 44 trips to the plate. As a catcher he made 5 errors in 14 games behind the plate. Probably was Cesar, I'd lay odds it was, but we'll probably never know. After his photo was taken he seems to have disappeared all together.

But today, it doesn't really matter who Cesar Fernandez was. Let's just look at the hope in his face and remember that on that spring day 80 years ago, he, like us, have no idea what the upcoming season holds. 

Play Ball!