Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Baseball's First Openly Gay Player: Glenn Burke

Yesterday, NBA player Jason Collins announced that he is a homosexual, thus becoming the first ever player from the four major sports leagues(NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL) to say it publicly during his career.  I personally commend him for his courage and openness for letting everyone know and should get support from many.
For the game of baseball, the first openly gay player was Glenn Burke.  Burke was an outfielder from 1976-79 with Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics.  He didn't declare his sexually publicly until after his playing days were over, but was open with his teammates and owners about it.  Most weren't bothered by Burke's homosexuality, but some were.  Burke wrote in his 1995 autobiography, "Out at Home", that Dodgers GM Al Campanis offered to pay for his honeymoon if Burke would get married to a woman.  Burke refused.
1978 Topps
Burke was eventually traded to Oakland which brought rumors that it was a homophobic based deal.  He later hurt his knee and was released during the 1979 season.  During a comeback attempt in 1980, Burke was introduced to his teammates by Oakland manager Billy Martin as a "faggot".  Burke never did play for Oakland or any other big league team again.  He said in autobiography that "prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner that I should have. But I wasn't changing". So his career ended at age of 27 after playing in 225 career games.  He said of his brief career, "they can't ever say now that a gay man can't play in the majors, because I am gay and made it".
Burke later died of AIDS related causes in 1995 and OF Billy Bean(1987-95) is the only other former MLB to announce he is gay.  One other sidenote on Glenn Burke, in 1977, after teammate Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run, Burke went out in the field to congratulate Baker and put his hand up. Baker slapped his open hand and the "high five" was believed to be invented.
Hopefully with the announcement of Collins, no player should be worried about being mistreated or judged anymore because of his/her sexuality and go through what Glenn Burke did.   A person should only be judged how he/she performs in the workplace including the athletic fields and not by the color of skin, age or sex of a person or the lifestyle they lead.  I know we are not there yet as a society, but I think we are moving in the right direction.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

In Memoriam: Rick Camp

This past week, former pitcher Rick Camp passed away at the age 60.  He pitched for the Atlanta Braves from 1976-1985.  For his career, Camp accumulated 57 career saves with a 56-49 record and an ERA of 3.37.  But, he is most remembered for his contribution in one of the craziest 4th of July games in baseball history in 1985.
1983 Topps
For this game, the New York Mets visited the Atlanta Braves for the beginning of a weekend series and for the fans, July 4th fireworks were scheduled after the game.  Mother nature had other plans though as it rain most of the day.  The skies did clear up after a rain delay at the start of the game.  The game was rather uneventful for the first seven innings that included another rain delay that led to a very wet playing field.  Mets held a 7-4 lead going into bottom of the eighth.  Dale Murphy led a 4 run inning with a 3 run double and Braves took the 8-7 lead into the ninth.  But future Hall of Famer, Bruce Sutter couldn't hold the lead as the Mets scrored a run to tie it up 8-8.  So, as the clock was after midnight, extra innings began.   The game remained scoreless until the 13th inning when Mets' Howard Johnson hit a two run homer, but in the bottom of the inning, Terry Harper of the Braves countered with one of his own.  After more scoreless innings, the 17th came around.  During the inning, Mets manager Davey Johnson and outfielder Darryl Strawberry were ejected for arguing balls and strikes by umpire Terry Tata.  Tata responded by saying, "At three o'clock in the morning, there are no bad calls".
In the top of the 18th, New York managed to score a run on a Rick Camp throwing error.  Braves had the bottom of order due up and needed to score a run in order to stay alive.  After two quick outs and Atlanta out of positional players for pitch hitting, Rick Camp stepped up to plate.  Camp, a career .060 hitter,  lined a ball over the left field wall.  Onto the 19th inning they went.  Camp lost his hero status and gave up 5 runs that resulted in a 16-11 Mets lead.  Braves rallied and scored two runs of their own and loaded the bases.  None other than Rick Camp came up to bat, but this time Ron Darling struck him out.
Game ended after 19 innings and six plus hours later with a 16-13 New York Mets win.   For those old enough to remember it, this contest is known as the "Rick Camp Game".  And yes, the fireworks did go on as scheduled after the game.  The citizens of Atlanta were awaken by the loud fireworks at 4 AM.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Debut of Pete Gray

I have written before that during World War II many professional baseball players took a break from playing and helped USA in the war, whether in combat or elsewhere.  Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis debated whether to keep playing baseball amid the war or not.  President Franklin Roosevelt gave his approval when he said. "I honestly feel that if would be best for the country to keep baseball going",  and so major league baseball did.  With so many players no longer available for their respectful teams, it gave opportunities for many others.  One such player is Pete Gray.

What makes Gray so unique is that due to a truck accident as a child, he lost his right arm.  He never lost his love for the game and became skillful batting lefthanded an catching the ball with one hand in the outfield.  Gray played several years in the minor leagues and became known for his speed and place hitting.
On April 17, 1945, Gray made his major league debut for the St. Louis Browns against the Detroit Tigers.  For the game, he hit a single in four at bats.  As the season progressed, it became apparent that Gray couldn't hit a breaking ball because he didn't have the second hand to help him.  Pitchers threw him more and more off speed pitches and Gray's impact suffered.  He finished the season with a .218 batting average and 13 RBIs.
With all the major leaguers returning for the 1946 season, Gray was back in the minor leagues for good.  But he was an inspiration to many injured soldiers returning from the war.  Pete Gray should always be remembered and be proof that any person could fulfill his/her dreams even after suffering a debilitating injury.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

For Boston:

My thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families from this senseless act of violence. We are all Bostonians during this time of need.  

Go Sox.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

MLB Tradition: Ceremonial First Pitch

We are at the beginning of another baseball season, which means traditions at the ballpark will be continuing.  Some traditions have been around for many decades such as the singing "Take Me Out at the Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch and while others are relatively new like the mascot races in Milwaukee and Washington.  One such traditon started today back in 1910 - the ceremonial first pitch.

Washington Senators owner, Clark Griffith, was trying to think of ways to boost attendance and excitement for his struggling team.  By being located in the nation's capital, he thought he could get the president to help him out.  Griffith felt, if he enjoyed to the game, so should the average man.   Several presidents said no because they didn't want to take the time away from their regular duties.  Griffith finally got a yes from William Howard Taft.
He arrived at the ballpark with his vice president and secretary of state.  Taft agreed to throw a ceremonial first pitch from the stands to Senators' star pitcher Walter Johnson.  Taft enjoyed the game and the following day, it made headlines in newspapers across the country.  A public relations success for Mr. Griffith.  Taft returned for opening day in 1911 and had planned for 1912 also, but the sinking of the Titanic delayed his return until later in the season.
Since Taft, the ceremonial first pitch has evolved from being thrown from stands to the pitching mound and have been thrown by many celebrities and luminaries including every US president. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Film Review: "42"

The newly released movie, "42" tells the story of Jackie Robinson, who signed with Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier in 1947.  Instead of telling the life story of Robinson from birth to grave, the movie focused on Robinson during the two years of him signing with Brooklyn, playing a year in the minor leagues with Montreal Royals and his rookie year in the majors in 1947.  I am going to give my thoughts on the movie from a cinematic and factual perspective.

"42" did a great job getting the facts correct.  From the initial conversation between Branch Rickey and Robinson had about having the guts not to fight back, to the treatment of Robinson by his teammates and opponents.  The most poignant scene showed Robinson getting verbally abused by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman.  It is lengthy and sometimes uncomfortable scene to watch, but it showed what Robinson had to endure and I am sure it occurred on more of a consistent basis.  All the on the field incidents between the players and team did actually happen such as Eddie Stanky confronting Chapman and the suspension of Leo Durocher.  The movie did "Hollywood" it up some though.  Adding lines by Leo Durocher("Nice guys finish last") and Pee Wee Reese ("Maybe we all will wear 42...") is quite unnecessary.  The scene in the clubhouse between a frustrated Robinson and Mr. Rickey in Philadelphia didn't really happen.

As a movie itself, writer and director, Brian Helgeland, did a fantastic job at putting the audience in the era.  The way the people dressed, the cars they drove and the old ballparks pictured looked very authentic.  I am  glad that they had a relative unknown, Chadwick Boseman, portraying Robinson.  If a better known actor would have played  Robinson, he would have taken away from the story and people would see more of the Hollywood star instead of Robinson.  I also thought Harrison Ford did a great job portraying Branch Rickey and John C. McGinley as announcer Red Barber.

Overall the movie is very good. While being entertaining to watch, it also tells the story of Jackie Robinson quite well. I am not sure it will be a huge success at the box office, but I am glad it was made.  The life of Jackie Robinson should not be forgotten and I hope a new generation will learn and appreciate Mr. Robinson because of this film.  Whether, you are a baseball fan or would like to learn more American History, I would recommend it.  My rating: I give it a triple (3 out of 4 bases).

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Branch Rickey: One of Baseball's Great Minds.

Jackie Robinson deserves a ton of credit for breaking the color barrier in baseball, but credit is also deserved elsewhere including the man who signed him - Branch Rickey.  Rickey's contribution to the game does not start and end with Jackie Robinson.  He was one of the great innovators of the game.

Rickey started out as a ball player for the St. Louis Browns with very little success. He decided to go back to school and get his law degree at the University of Michigan.  Upon graduation, he returned to the St. Louis Browns, this time as a manager and a role in the front office.  During his time with the Browns, he signed future hall of famer George Sisler.
After just two years, he moved on to the crosstown Cardinals in 1919 in the same role. There he made investments in several minor league teams in order sign and develop future players, thus creating the farm system.  Players he signed and became integral members of four World Series championships include: Pepper Martin, Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick, Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial and Marty Marion.  His management of players among the parent club, Cardinals, and the minor league teams is now known as a general manager's role.
In 1943, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Rickey as a general manager.  Of course here is where is best known for signing Jackie Robinson.  Helping break the color barrier was not his only contribution to the game during his stay in Brooklyn.  He created a spring training camp for his players and also invented batting cages and helmets.   Rickey was also first person to use statistical analysis to scout players.  As a result, he discovered that a player's on base percentage is more important than his batting average.  Rickey also started use the platoon role for his players to maximize his talent and team's success.
The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Rickey away from the Dodgers in 1950.   While with Pittsburgh, he signed future hall of famer Roberto Clemente from Brooklyn and layed down the foundation that led to the 1960 World Series championship.
As you can see, Branch Rickey's impact did not only affect individual teams but the game itself.  Many things we take for granted nowadays, was an idea of Branch Rickey.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Jackie Robinson: Basball Icon and Civil Rights Pioneer

The Jackie Robinson biopic, "42", will be released in theaters this Friday.  I thought it would be a good idea to give you some background on Jackie Robinson, the banishment of blacks in Major League baseball and some U.S. historical perspective.
Most people think that Jackie Robinson was the first black player in MLB history.  This is actually not true.  In 1884,  Moses Fleetwood Walker was a catcher for the Toronto Blue Stockings of the American Association(the major leagues of the time).  Walker endured racial slurs and animosity from others including his teammates and was out of a big league job the following year.  With Walker gone, the baseball owners made a "gentleman's agreement" with each other and not sign a black player again.

This agreement was honored by owners for decades even though some players and managers wanted black players in the major leagues.   Two big events occurred that aided in the integration of blacks in baseball.  One was World War II.  By this time, more and more people were asking why aren't black players in MLB and now that they were fighting in the war, it made them wonder even more.  The second was the death of baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.  Landis became the commissioner of MLB after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 to clean the game up from gambling.  He was, quite frankly, a racist and very adamant of honoring the banishment of blacks.  Happy Chandler was hired as the replacement and was part of the group who thought if a person was good enough for war, he was good enough for pro ball.

Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, one of the great innovators of the game, saw this as an opportunity to sign a black player.  Rickey went on to scout the negro leagues to find the right player to sign.  He not only was looking for a player who could physically perform in MLB, but also one who was tough enough to take the racial slurs and abuse from others. If Rickey fails, he could be years before someone else gets a chance.  Rickey decided on Jackie Robinson.
Robinson was not the best player in the negro leagues, but Rickey knew he was the right guy. Robinson was star athlete in college at UCLA in football, basketball and track and was also part of the army during WWII.  Robinson would be able to gain respect from others easier due to his background and mature enough to withstand the racism he would come across.  He was a success and many more blacks followed Robinson into MLB.

In a historical perspective, Robinson breaking of the baseball's color barrier in 1947 was before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and Brown vs Board of Education.  You are probably thinking this is baseball, a game.  But baseball at the time, was THE game in America.  The NBA was nonexistent in 1947 and pro football was only a niche sport - college football was far more popular then and all the schools in the south was still very segregated.  So, everyone who followed sports back then, most likely were baseball fans. Robinson does belong with people who were part of the civil rights movement and Dr. King once said that Robinson made his job a lot easier for him in the civil rights movement.

Today MLB honors Robinson in retiring his #42 uniform number throughout MLB and on April 15(the anniversary of Robinson's Brooklyn debut), every major leaguer wears #42 on their back each year.
I hope I gave you some background for you as you go see the movie. You might be able to understand and enjoy it more.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

MLB Players who have played in the NCAA Tournament

We are in the middle of Final Four weekend for the college basketball's tournament. I thought I would take the time and mention some former Major Leaguers who have played in the NCAA tourney.  There has been a good number of Major Leaguers who played college basketball including some hall of famers: Tony Gwynn (San Diego St), Bob Gibson (Creighton) and Robin Roberts (Michigan St) and former MVP Dick Groat (Duke). The previous players never made it to the NCAA tourney, but here is some who were fortunate enough to do so.
1982 Topps

The most famous play by a Major Leaguer was by BYU's Danny Ainge.  Ainge dribbled the length of court and shot a buzzer beater to defeat Notre Dame in 1981.  Ainge played parts of three seasons as an infielder for the Toronto Blue Jays before winning NBA championships with the Boston Celtics.

Longtime OF Kenny Lofton was a backup point guard for the University of Arizona during their Final Four run in 1988.  The Arizona team also included future NBAers Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr.  Lofton is one of only two players who played in a Final Four and a World Series.
The other was pitcher Tim Stoddard. As a member of North Carolina St team in 1974, the Wolfpack won the NCAA championship that included future basketball Hall of Famer David Thompson. He went on to be a part of two Baltimore Oriole Word Series teams(1979 and 1983-winning it all in '83). Stoddard is the only player to win championships in both.

Other MLB players who played in the "big dance" include:
-Dave DeBusschere (1962-63- White Sox pitcher) played for University of Detroit and became a NBA Hall of Famer with the New York Knicks
-Dave Winfield became a Hall of Famer in a baseball and starred for University of Minnesota's 1972 Big Ten
title team.
-Mark Hendrickson(2002-2011) played college ball at Washington St
-Cotton Nash(1967, 1969-70) played for Kentucky and later in NBA and ABA
-Ron Reed(1966-1984) played his college ball at Notre Dame and won a World Series with the Philadelpha Phillies in 1980

When you watch the NCAA tourney, you will undoubtedly watch some future NBA stars, but you may catch a future big league baseball player also.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Who's On First? : 75th Anniversary

2013 marks the 75th anniversary of Abbott and Costello's comedy routine "Who's on First?"   The routine was actually done by several comedy duos prior to Abbott and Costello.  But in the February of 1938, Bud Costello and Lou Abbott performed it on a radio show so masterfully, it became their routine. By 1944, Abbot and Costello copyrighted the routine.  Today it is considered as one of the greatest comedy sketches in history and has a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, New York.
If you have not heard it before or would like to listen to again, here it is:

Monday, April 1, 2013

Opening Day: A Celebrated "Holiday"

As Americans, we all have holidays that we look forward to and celebrate like Halloween and Easter.  And then there are a few official holidays that are a little less important to us. Do we really do anything special on Columbus or President's Day?  For sports fans, there are annual events that are treated like holidays.  Whether it is the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tourney or even the opening of firearm season for deer hunters. For each of these events, we all have our parties we attend or other ways we do to celebrate them. As for baseball, it is obviously Opening Day.
We either take the day off or leave early from work or school to watch our favorite team that we haven't seen since last fall.  In addition to the optimism and hopes we all have for our team and players,  Opening Day also symbolizes the end of winter.  The days of snuggling under some blankets on the couch while it is cold and snowy outside are replaced by ones of grilling outdoors or taking road trips to the ballpark or elsewhere.
So, lets celebrate the end of winter and beginning of spring, with the game of baseball.  I can try to put in words why baseball is such a great game and what it  is represents, but I don't think I will do it enough justice.  Former Detroit Tiger announce Ernie Harwell probably explains it the best during his 1981 Hall of Fame induction speech. Take a listen:

So, good luck to your favorite team and players and see you all at the ballpark.