This day in baseball: Piniella traded

On March 10, 1966, the Baltimore Orioles traded minor league outfielder Lou Piniella to the Cleveland Indians for reserve catcher Camilo Carreon. Carreon would only play in four games for the Orioles, then retired at the end of the season. Piniella only played in six games for the Indians, but then went on to appear in more than 1,700 major league games.

lou piniella

Deadball, by David B. Stinson

This weekend I finished reading Deadball: A Metaphysical Baseball Novel by David B. Stinson.  I stumbled upon this book accidentally, actually while looking for another book (I can no longer recall which) about the Dead Ball Era.  Stinson’s novel is not about the era — not really, anyways.  Rather, this novel is somewhat Field of Dreams-esque in that the book’s main character finds himself seeing the ghosts of long gone ballplayers and sometimes even the old ballparks they used to play in, but which have long since been abandoned or torn down.

The protagonist of this novel is one Byron deadballBennett, a.k.a. “Bitty,” though he despises the nickname.  Byron is a former minor league ballplayer who never made it past the AAA level, but continues to stay obsessed with baseball and with baseball history.  As a kid, Byron once saw the deceased Babe Ruth hit a home run at a local ballpark.  Upon crossing home plate, Ruth winked at Byron, then disappeared.  Byron’s parents and friends dismissed the experience as Byron’s imagination.  Years later, Byron now finds himself having additional, similar experiences.

The year is now 1999, and Byron works for the minor league Bowie Baysox, an affiliate of his favorite MLB team, the Baltimore Orioles.  In his spare time, Byron not only goes to Orioles games, he also steeps himself in baseball history.  1999 represents the final year for baseball in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, and with that in mind, Byron decides to travel to Detroit for the Orioles’ final series in that stadium.  He meets an older gentleman who calls himself Mac, though Byron suspects there is more to Mac than meets the eye.  For one thing, the bar where Byron meets Mac has been shut down and boarded up for years, as confirmed by the locals, though it certainly didn’t appear that way when Byron first came across it.

Byron’s road trip brings him not only to Detroit, but he also stops at the former site of Forbes Field, and he stops in Cleveland on his return trip.  Byron comes across a number of other characters, all who, like Mac, don’t seem like your normal, everyday humans-on-the-street.  Byron goes on various road trips throughout the season, visiting old ballpark sites in New York and Boston, and even stopping in graveyards to pay his respects to old ballplayers.  On his travels, Byron carries with him a copy of Lawrence Ritter’s Lost Ballparks, which he references whenever he finds himself in the presence of one of the old time baseball fields.  On occasion, the ballparks seem to come alive in his presence, and he starts to look forward to the occurrence.  Byron also has an encyclopedic familiarity with old ballplayers, and he is stunned to realize that the strange gentlemen he is meeting in his travels are all former, and now-deceased, ballplayers.

Byron’s friends, boss, and ex-wife are all concerned about him, of course.  They tell him it is time to stop living in the past and to let go of baseball so he can move on with his life.  The word “crazy” is thrown around liberally, and Byron sometimes even wonders himself.  He doesn’t understand how it is he is seeing these things, nor why.  In addition to the ghosts he comes across, Byron also meets a man named Peter, who is President of the Cleveland Spiders Historical Society and is very much alive.  Peter recognizes Byron’s ability to see old players and old ballparks, because he sees them as well.  However, Peter warns that he has known others like them, and those others no longer have any memory of ever having these visions.  Byron, in spite of his concerns about his own sanity, worries that he, too, will lose the ability to see the old ballparks.

Much of the novel is spent in the details of Byron’s exploration: descriptions of the ballparks, of the cities in which they are located, down to street-by-street directions at times.  These details sometimes border on tedious, but all the same, I had to admire their inclusion, as it makes it clear that the author, Stinson, has experienced these locations himself and is now gracious enough to share them with us.  The reader also doesn’t learn about the purpose behind Byron’s odyssey literally until the very, very end of the novel, which concerned me as I started to run out of pages and the resolution seemed nowhere in sight.  But a resolution does come, and it is a fascinating one.

I suppose I shouldn’t speak to the experience as just any casual reader, but as a baseball fan I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  The pages go by quickly, and I found myself immersed in the details, the characters, and in Byron’s knowledge of baseball.  The descriptions of the ballparks Byron was able to see even made me jealous, wishing that I could be in Byron’s shoes, seeing these ballparks myself, rather than just reading about them.  If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend this one.

Quote of the day

I hate the cursed Oriole fundamentals… I’ve been doing them since 1964. I do them in my sleep. I hate spring training.

~Jim Palmer


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Ninth Inning

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After a long hiatus, due to having to return the series to the library and wait for others to finish their turns with it before having my chance at checking it out again, I have finally made it back around to watching the Ninth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns.  This installment in the series covers the time period from 1970 to 1993, the ending representing present day at the time, as the series was originally released in 1994.

The Ninth Inning opens with a baseball game being played between a pair of Dominican teams.  A couple players from one of the teams give interviews expressing the importance of baseball to the Dominican culture.  “It’s like a religion,” one player says.  “There’s never been a revolution or war during baseball season.”  Historian Manuel Marquez-Sterling compares baseball to the opera, insisting the two are essentially the same kind of thing.

On this disc we learn about Brooks Robinson leading the Orioles to the 1970 World Series championship against Pete Rose and the Cincinnati Reds.  In 1971, the Orioles found themselves on the losing side of the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Roberto Clemente of the Pirates made a name for himself during this period.  He was an icon for both the black community and for the Puerto Rican community, and he gave back to society as much as he could.  On New Years Eve of 1971, however, Clemente’s plane crashed in an effort to bring relief supplies to Nicaragua following an earthquake.

Baseball’s reserve clause met its end during this time period.  Curt Flood’s battle in the courts against the clause at the start of the decade came away largely fruitless, though it did serve to bring the issue into the public spotlight.  In 1975, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, with the help of Marvin Miller, took on the reserve clause by claiming free agency.  In the end, the reserve clause was abolished and players were now eligible for free agency after six years.  This, as we see through today, resulted in an explosion of baseball salaries.  The collusion of baseball owners in the late-1980s threatened this newfound free agent market, in much the same way owners once had observed the “gentleman’s agreement” to never sign a black player.  This collusion, however, would soon get exposed and would cost the owners a considerable sum.

The treatment of both Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood highlighted the points made by Jackie Robinson shortly before his death.  Certainly, as Buck O’Neil mentions, a lot changed in baseball, and in American society, as a result of Robinson’s role in breaking the color barrier.  Nevertheless, baseball still had a long way to go in terms of racial equality.  Henry Aaron knew all about this reality, playing for the Braves and chasing Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record.  The hate mail sent to Aaron, some of which gets read in this episode, sends chills down my spine.  In 1974, Hank Aaron did break Ruth’s record, and deservedly so.  The 1987 interview of Al Campanis regarding the reasons behind a lack of blacks in baseball management drove home the existence of the persisting prejudice.

The Oakland A’s of the 1970s drew attention, not only due to their excellent performance, but also due to the appearance of their players.  Players were given bonuses to grow their hair out, and many went on to sport some quite interesting facial hair.  Catfish Hunter’s pitching for Oakland was stellar, almost unfair in the eyes of some hitters, who noticed the strike zone seemed to grow larger whenever Hunter took the mound.

The Cincinnati Reds returned to the World Series in 1975, this time against the Boston Red Sox.  Not only did the Reds have Pete Rose on their roster, but also boasted of names like Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey, and Joe Morgan.  Game 6 of this Series proved one for the history books, featuring Carlton Fisk’s dramatic walk-off home run for Boston in the twelfth inning to tie the Series at three.  Cincinnati would win the Series, however, in Game 7.  As a side note, I particularly enjoyed the various stories told by pitcher Bill Lee on this disc.  The man was certainly a character.  He speaks candidly and hilariously about his own experiences, blunders, and shortcomings, and his wild gesturing made it just as fun to watch him speak as it was to listen.

The 1970s saw the rise of George Steinbrenner as owner of the New York Yankees.  Free agency worked in Steinbrenner’s favor, and he spent freely to build a winning organization.  Though they lost the 1976 World Series, they won it in 1977 and 1978, led by Reggie Jackson.  Steinbrenner became notorious for running through managers like a child runs through fads, bolstering his reputation for trying to buy his way to championships.

The 1979 Series featured Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then in 1980, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals, led by Pete Rose, who had signed with them after becoming a free agent.  Rose would return to the Reds later in his career.  Nolan Ryan also took advantage of free agency, dominating from the pitcher’s mound with multiple teams.  After the collusion among the owners was busted up, baseball contracts exploded, and player after player made headlines as the newest highest paid player.

After this point, the documentary ceased to cover every single World Series championship, but rather focused on the ones that would be deemed “most popular” in baseball history.  The 1986 World Series saw a continuation of the Curse of the Bambino.  The Boston Red Sox lost the Series in a stunning fashion to the New York Mets.  After giving up what seemed like a sure victory in Game 6, the Red Sox also lost Game 7.  The 1988 World Series went to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a championship victory that included the unbelievable tale of Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 in spite of his injuries.

In August 1989, Pete Rose was banished from baseball.  Bart Giamatti gave the announcement in a press conference, stating that Rose’s involvement in gambling had hurt the game, and that the game must be held to the highest standards.  In spite of a depressing end to the 1980s, and in spite of all the scandals and other struggles in baseball, John Thorn and Buck O’Neil exalt the continuing survivalist spirit of baseball.  Admittedly, the timing of these statement is a bit ironic, considering that the next World Series after this documentary was released, the 1994 Series, did not get played due to the players’ strike.  In spite of that, baseball did come back, and I’d say the fact that so many baseball blogs, such as this one, exist is a testament to the continuing love and wonder that baseball brings.

Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Eighth Inning

8th inning

The Eighth Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us into the 1960s.  In this decade of the American Pastime, we find that it is being recognized less and less as such.  Football has risen to prominence, and a lot of folks come to argue that football, not baseball, has now become the true national game.  Additionally, the sixties were quite a stormy and unstable period in American history, filled with race riots, activism, anti-war protests, hippies, and Woodstock.

The game of baseball also finds itself experiencing some changes.  In 1961, Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is threatened, then broken, by a man who is far from being a fan favorite.  Roger Maris is described as moody and sullen, avoids talking to the press, and starts losing his hair as a result of the pressure he is under as he inadvertently finds himself chasing Ruth’s record.

Pitching sees a rise in dominance as the decade progresses, thanks to commissioner Ford Frick’s commandment that the strike zone be expanded to counter the explosion of home runs.  Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson are among those who rise to preeminence from their positions on the mound.  As pitching becomes the ruling force in the game, there comes a decline in home runs being hit.  This, in turn, contributes to the decline in fan interest in the game.

This time period also sees changes as far as the growth of the league.  The success and profitability of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the west brings the league to consider other ways in which to spread the game throughout the country.  Four new teams were added to Major League Baseball.  We see the birth of the California Angels, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins, then a newer Senators team moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers.  The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) also joined the National League.  The Braves would move from Milwaukee to Atlanta and the Athletics moved to Oakland.  After just one season, the Seattle Pilots left for Milwaukee and became the Brewers, and towards the end of the decade the Royals were established in Kansas City and the Expos in Montreal.  (I’m sure I must be missing one or more others here, and for that, I apologize.)

At the beginning of the decade, Ebbets Field met its fate with a wrecking ball painted to resemble a baseball.  Jackie Robinson, who had once played at Ebbets, now worked and fought for civil rights, and Branch Rickey, who was the force behind integration in Major League Baseball, passed away in 1965.  The Polo Grounds became the home of the New York Metropolitans, led by the one and only Casey Stengel, now getting along in years.  Suffices to say, the Mets weren’t very good in those early years.  Eventually, Stengel would retire from baseball.  After that, the same wrecking ball that took out Ebbets Field would also bring down the Polo Grounds.  The Mets moved into Shea Stadium, and by the end of the decade transformed into the “Miracle Mets,” winning the 1969 World Series.

In this inning, we meet Pete Rose and see bits about Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Whitey Ford, Roberto Clemente, and many, many others.  Sandy Koufax seemingly retires almost as quickly as he broke into the league and became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame.  In Baltimore, Earl Weaver became manager of the Orioles.  One of the greatest managers of all time, the Orioles became the dynasty of the decade under Weaver.

In this decade, we also meet Marvin Miller.  Miller became the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966.  The players loved having Miller speaking on their behalf, but baseball owners, unsurprisingly, hated having Miller around.  He was a man who Red Barber would call “one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”

By the end of the disc, we learn about Curt Flood’s battle against the reserve clause, which at this point is only just beginning.  Flood learned that he was to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and in the face of the racism he knew he would face in Philadelphia, he decided to oppose the trade.  This flew in the face of the entire history of baseball business.

I think my favorite feature of this disc comes in all the arguments defending baseball.  In spite of George Carlin’s comedy routine that makes baseball seem like a slow, sissy sport, baseball continues to be referred to as America’s National Pastime for good reason.  Sure, football is faster and perhaps more suitable to the 30-second attention span that now dominates our culture (though, more recently, football also seems to be declining in popularity).  But baseball’s place in the American psyche runs deep, and in a lot of ways, it is the very nature of its leisurely pace that makes it so appealing.

Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Seventh Inning

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The Seventh Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns takes us into the 1950s in America.  Subtitled “The Capital of Baseball,” this installment of the documentary revolves primarily around New York City and the three teams who dominated the baseball world during this decade: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  For ten straight years (1947-1956) a local team always played in the World Series, and a local team won nearly all of them as well.

It was certainly a great decade for the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel.  With Mickey Mantle in the outfield and Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees were as dominant as ever.  The way Roger Angell describes the atmosphere in New York during this period, where everything seemed to revolve around baseball, makes me wish this type of world would come back into existence.  “Stengelese” became a thing, though I like how the discussion also revolves around Stengel’s baseball intelligence.  Similarly, while Yogi Berra remains most commonly known for “Yogi-isms,” he was also a phenomenal ballplayer.  After all, you don’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame just for speaking amusing phrases.

Jackie Robinson, released from his three-year vow of silence with Branch Rickey, began lashing out against those who slighted him.  It’s an understandable reaction, especially considering how long he had to go without answering the racism he faced.  His play just grew better with his anger, leading the Dodgers to some great seasons, including a World Series championship in 1955.

We get to watch the Giants’ Bobby Thomson’s ever-popular “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” during the 1951 playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers.  It was an event that ignited a tremendous amount of excitement not only at the Polo Grounds, but also in fans’ homes as the game was televised across the country.  I always get a kick out of hearing Russ Hodges’s excited screaming, “The Giants win the pennant!   The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!”  

A good portion of the disc was devoted to Mickey Mantle, who essentially took Joe DiMaggio’s place with the Yankees.  The attention he receives is well-deserved, as is the attention to his struggles with injury and his tendency to stay up all night partying.  Given how well he was able to play in spite of being hurt much of the time, one can’t help but wonder what Mantle would have accomplished had he been healthy.  Sadly, we’ll never know.  Mantle himself doesn’t even touch on the subject in his own discussions of his playing days on the documentary.

While the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947 was undeniably a great thing for baseball, it did have an unfortunate downside.  Attendance at Negro Leagues games fell as black fans flocked to watch Robinson and those who followed him play in the major leagues.  On the positive side, players including Willie Mays, Curt Flood, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron became stars in Robinson’s wake.  We get to watch Willie Mays make “The Catch,” a play that seemed impossible until he pulled it off.

The other unfortunate events, besides the end of the Negro Leagues, that we see during this decade involved the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to the west coast.  In the case of the Dodgers, the move took place in 1957, not long after the team finally managed to win a World Series, which made the move all the more heartbreaking for its fans.  The Dodgers’ last ever World Series in 1956 saw them lose to the Yankees in a Series that involved Don Larsen’s perfect game.  These moves were great news for Californians, of course, but Dodgers and Giants fans left behind in New York found themselves at a loss.  Brooklyn and the Giants weren’t the only teams that moved during this period.  The Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City, and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles.

The subtitle for this Inning, “The Capital of Baseball,” proved itself undeniably fitting.  We love to think of baseball as a game and a pastime, but in the case of professional leagues especially, it is first and foremost a business.  Bill Veeck’s promotional stunt of sending Eddie Gaedel to the plate is one of many displays of the importance of commercialism in baseball.  It makes for a hard reality check when your league is forced to fold or your favorite team moves to an entirely new city, and in the present day, we experience a number of miniature heartbreaks any time an impactful player becomes a free agent and moves on to other teams.

Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Fourth Inning

ken burns
Continuing on our journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns, we have now reached the Fourth Inning of this documentary series.  Subtitled “A National Heirloom,” this part of the series focuses primarily on Babe Ruth.  Bob Costas opens this disc with an anecdote about an argument between an American and a British man that comes to a head when the American man retorts childishly, “Screw the king!”  The Brit’s reply to this: “Yeah, well screw Babe Ruth!”  It’s a revealing anecdote, not only in terms of the greatness of the Great Bambino to the minds of American citizens, but also when thinking about the influence of baseball on American culture as a whole, even in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Prior to 1920, baseballs used in games weren’t changed out with the frequency that we see today.  At times, entire games could be played with a single baseball, if that ball never left the park.  Pitchers took it upon themselves to scuff, dirty, and otherwise sabotage the ball any way they could, thus ensuring it would fly erratically, making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving pitchers a distinct advantage.  However, the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the victim of being hit in the head by a pitch, changed all that.  Umpires were now under orders to throw out a clean baseball the moment one showed any signs of dirt.  This, combined with a now more tightly-wound baseball, marked the dawn of new era in the game, in which home runs ruled the day.

Burns launches into a biographical segment of George Herman Ruth’s early life.  I was astonished to see that Ruth’s sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, had survived long enough to contribute to the commentary of the documentary (she died in 1992).  Ruth’s introduction to baseball came in reform school, having been sent there by his parents, who declared him “incorrigible.”  His talent for the game, both as a hitter and as a pitcher, became quickly apparent, and he went on to be signed by the Baltimore Orioles.

From the Orioles, Ruth was soon sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he shined as a pitcher.  From 1919 to 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, and a number of other Red Sox players to the Yankees.  The sale of Ruth initiated what would become known as the Curse of the Bambino.

Ty Cobb, we learn, despised Babe Ruth and the change in baseball’s style of play that came as a result of Ruth’s performance.  However, Ruth so dominated the game and the record books that Cobb’s disapproval fell on deaf ears.  But Ruth’s dominance didn’t end on the field.  Off the field, he proved a fan favorite as his rambunctious personality and eagerness to please made him a lovable individual.  His excesses, e.g. blowing his pay on luxuries and frequenting whorehouses, were kept out of the papers, as the press knew he was simply too popular with the fans.

After he set that famous record of sixty home runs in a single season in 1927, Babe Ruth’s fame exploded.  He became a mainstay in advertising, as companies sought to capitalize by attaching his image to their products.  Everyone wanted a piece of the Great Bambino.

Burns breaks from his coverage of Ruth to discuss racism further.  The Harlem Renaissance saw a flourishing of black culture, and Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues.  The style of baseball encouraged by Foster sounds exciting enough to make me wish I had been around to watch some Negro Leagues games.  Indeed, between Ruth in the MLB and style of the Negro Leagues, the 1920s must have a been a fun time to be a baseball fan.

During this time period, coverage of baseball underwent some changes.  The sports pages became a daily feature of urban newspapers, and the personalities of baseball writers varied widely.  Fans could also track games via animated scoreboards, displayed in the cities.  The development of radio broadcasts of baseball games allowed fans to follow along with the action as it happened.

Burns makes a passing mention of some of the other big hitters of the era, such as Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler.  Of those sluggers mentioned, Hornsby got the most attention, but not nearly the amount of attention that Babe Ruth received.  Walter Johnson received a nod for his continuing domination as a pitcher in what had become a hitter’s game, and in 1924, he helped lead the Senators to a World Series victory over the Giants.  Lou Gehrig, a rookie during the 1925 season, received a nod as well, his consecutive games streak already underway.

During this time also, Buck O’Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the best team in the Negro Leagues.  Branch Rickey, meanwhile, developed baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals.  Teams around the majors quickly followed suit and minor league baseball was thus born.

It was a booming decade for the sport.  However, the disc concludes in the year 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the onset of the Great Depression was upon the nation.