This past Christmas morning was the 25th Anniversary of receiving my first adult book on baseball. It was on Christmas morning 1988 and I remember unwrapping Remembrance of Swings Past by Ron Luciano.
I was in 2nd Grade at the time and the book was more than a few years above my reading level and I would sit with a dictionary to help me with the words I didn't know - beginning with the first word of the title. I would also look at the cover and wonder how the Luciano, the author and a former umpire, was able to stand there in color surrounded by black & white pictures of players from different decades. The book itself is a collection of funny anecdotes from the games past and present, or at least it's present up to 1988. And I wouldn't be surprised if I read it over a dozen times over the years.
Two stories this particular book left out about the author that deserve mentioning involves how in a 1973 Spring Training game, he switched jobs with Indians 3rd basemen Buddy Bell for an inning, with Luciano playing 3rd and Bell being the umpire. This got them both reprimands from the league offices. The next one is as much of testament to the speed and prowess of Nolan Ryan when he was in his California Angels prime. This excerpt comes from an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated in February of 1982:
In a game in August I had the plate with him on the mound. I was immediately impressed, but not overwhelmed, not until the fourth inning. In that inning he went into his fluid wind-up, reared back and fired. Until the pitch reached home plate it looked like a very good, but normal, rising fastball. Then, suddenly, it exploded! A million specks of shiny white cover blinded me. I closed my eyes to protect myself. I waited for the roar of the crowd.
Nobody else noticed it.
I blinked, tried to shake the flash out of my eyes, and called it a strike.
Must have been my imagination, I thought, and put it out of my mind. But a few innings later, bam! The same thing happened. The baseball actually exploded. That's when I began to worry that there was something wrong with my eyesight. So when I was in New York City I made an appointment with a noted optometrist.
The doctor examined my eyes, then explained that Ryan's exploding fastball was simply an optical illusion. Normally, when a pitcher releases the ball, it appears to be the size of a golf ball, but as it comes toward the plate it grows into a regular-sized baseball. A number of times each game Ryan threw the ball with such velocity that my eyes simply couldn't make the adjustment fast enough, so it remained golf-ball size until it got to the plate, then popped, or exploded, into a full-sized baseball. That explained my problem. "So my eyes are O.K.?" I asked him.
"For an umpire," the doctor answered noncommittally.
Luciano, one of the biggest characters in professional baseball since Casey Stengel, tragically took his own life in January of 1995 at the age of 57 in his home in a modest village in New York. He had been suffering from depression for many years and even sought treatment. His 5 books, color commentary on The Game of the Week, and legendary battles against Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver will keep him remembered much as the way his books remembered and loved the characters of baseball's past
If you still do not know what you want or need to add to your Christmas list, here are a few Christmas commercials from baseball's past (that they may wish to be forgotten in case of the first one) to give you a few endorsed suggestions.. We begin with the New York "Vets" all fawning over Oliver, the New York Mets Cabbage Patch Kids doll that a young boy brought to the game followed by Joe DiMaggio himself showing you the best thing under the Christmas tree would be a Lionel Train set. And as much as I like the enthusiasm of the Metserr..... Vets in the first commercial, the class of Joe DiMaggio and the timelessness of a train set win out for me as I now have the Lionel Train set with MAGNE-TRACTION at the top of my Christmas Expectations List.
What's in a Name is an ongoing feature where I document the stories behind some of the more unique team nicknames in baseball's history.
The Wichita Falls Spudders were a team that played in and out of the Texas League between 1920 and 1957 and at various times were affiliated with the Saint Louis Browns, Chicago Cubs, and Brooklyn Dodgers. The team was at it's peak in the 1920's and future World Series hero Don Larsen spent a summer under the North Central Texas sun there in 1950. Among the teams notable moments were Babe Ruth hitting a home run there in a 1930 exhibition game against the Spudders, winning the Dixie Series against New Orleans in 1927, and having their grandstand burn down during a game in 1922 (and again in 1924).
However, the most memorable thing about the team - at least in this writer's opinion - is the name Spudders. The name has nothing to do with potatoes and all. None. Zilch. What it is a reference to is the oil field workers that were common to the area and their referring to drilling a well as "spudding" and the workers that did that "Spudders."
Here is a link from Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley's original guitar player, website about the team and it's stadium which hosted Elvis in 1955 http://scottymoore.net/spudderpark.html. Also, anyone interested in the history of the North Central Texas area and its race relations with baseball as its focus would be wise to check out Our White Boy by Jerry Craft.
Sources: Our White Boy by Jerry Craft with Kathleen Sullivan, The Texas League by Bill O'Neal
Photo Credit: The Portal to Texas History by the University of North Texas
When I started planning this journal several months ago and then actually start last month, it was always my goal to focus on the forgotten stories and players from baseball's past, especially if there was any Texas connection. At no point did I realize that these Texas connections would include my grandmother's neighbor.
While doing some Texas League research for a SABR bio I am doing on Jake atz, manager of the Ft Worth Cats in the 1920's, I came across a reference to a player from the small town I grew up in (Springtown, Texas). I then delved further to see if any other players were from Springtown, and I found out that the man we knew as Old Man Hutcheson, who grew up a neighbor to my grandmother and owned the ranch that bordered our family land, spent 1933 patrolling Ebbets Field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He also spent 12 seasons in the Minor Leagues, mainly with Memphis and Atlanta in the Southern Association where he put up some great seasons and career BA .317 & Slugging .507. Numbers indicating that he was probably on par with many Major League players but for what ever reason stayed in the South.
For the most part he lived away from Springtown, my Dad believes in the Houston area. At some point after he passed away in 1993, they renamed the road that went by his ranch as Hutcheson Hill Road. I never knew this about him and am now curious if there was a reason my grandparents never told me (he was a foreboding man anyways to 11 year old me) or if it was just something they never thought to do.
George Brett - 3,154 Hits at the Plate from 1973 - 1993, Inspiration for 1 Billboard #1 Chart Hit in 2013
I've already reached that point where I have pretty much given up on keeping up with new music. There is just way too much of it out there, and half the time to me it just sounds like people singing on top of video game noises. I know that this makes me sound about 35 years older than I am, and do you know what, I am completely comfortable with this and I am getting by just fine listening to Bruce Springsteen, The Replacements, and a steady diet of both the country & western music genres whenever I am in the car driving.
However, once or twice a year I will hear a new pop song that I just really, really like and the most recent one to catch my year is "Royals" by New Zealand teenager Lorde. The song has sold 3.7 million copies in the United States alone and topped many of Billboards various charts (Hot 100, Top 40, Alternative) for most of the fall as well as similar success worldwide.
In September, Lorde made this statement to VH1 about the songs origin, "I'd been kind of thinking about writing that song for a while and been pulling together a couple little lines here and there, and I had this image from the National Geographic of this dude signing baseballs. He was a baseball player and his shirt said Royals. I was like, I really like that word, because I'm a big word fetishist. I'll pick a word and I'll pin an idea to that."
The picture in question is one of George Brett from the July 1976 issue of National Geographic and is shown above. George Brett is also my favorite non-Ranger player of all time, probably stemming from my Little League team in the late 80's being named the Royals but later growing in appreciation of just how good the first ballot Hall of Fame inductee was on the baseball field. I have a small library of baseball books and movies but when it comes to other collectibles I am somewhat indifferent but I own 4 baseball cards, 1 of which is the Fleer card commemorating Brett's Pine Tar Incident, and 3 autographs, 1 of which is an baseball autographed by Brett that I received for Christmas in 1990. The one moment I am most proud of having attended as a baseball fan was the Rangers vs the Royals on October 3, 1993 which ended up being the final game for both Brett and Nolan Ryan as well the last game played in Arlington Stadium (Turnpike Stadium).
So really what I am saying is, if there is any 60 year old man from Kansas City that deserves a hit song written about him by a teenage pop starlets, it's George Brett.
The East Texas Pitching Phenom Tradition - A Great Way to Throw Out Your Arm in a Spectacular Fashion.
Most players in baseball that spend parts of 5 seasons at major league level are typically forgotten about by all but a the die hard fans 35 years after their last game. This is especially true for a pitchers that manage only 18 wins with 33 losses during that time. But that W-L line has turned David Clyde into a baseball myth, the boogie man tale for teams that rush the development of their prospects. A warning of what happens when a cash-strapped owner rushes the future of the franchise in order to pay bills now. Whenever David Clyde is mentioned, no one ever faults the 18 year old sensation, legends like Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog will get misty-eyed as he talks about what went wrong and how that changed him as a manager, and teammates from that time still get angry how so much potential can spark 5 decades worth of "What ifs" and "I wonder whats."
David Clyde was never the goat, and the one chance he was needed to be a hero, he became a legend. Only 20 days after he was wearing the uniform of Houston's Westchester High School, Clyde was on the mound for the Texas Rangers in what was the first sold out crowd of the teams existence. That June evening in 1973, there was no teenager that had a better command and a more solid place in the adult sporting world. He pitched 5 innings, giving up 1 hit and striking out 8 Minnesota Twin batters and getting the win over the great Jim Kaat. His career started going downhill as soon as he left the mound that day. Everyone that was around him during those years places all blame on owner Bob Short for rushing his development which in turn taught him bad habits, never giving him the chance to turn into a good professional MLB pitcher, not just the raw talent he was when he entered the league. Even to this day when people feel that a pitching prospect is being rushed, there are cries are "Don't turn him into the next the next David Clyde."
Jon Peters of Brenham High School never even got the chance. In May of 1989, Sports Illustrated made him the first prep baseball player to appear on the magazine's cover. Bryce Harper joined him 20 years later in this exclusive club. Peters experienced the problem that plagued many great high school arms, bad mechanics and overuse by the school's manager in an attempt to win as much as they can when they have a top talent there, not worrying how that will affect their career and life once they graduate. So after going 54 - 1 with 53 straight victories for Brenham, Peters went undrafted by the pros. Arm procedures followed and his college career amounted to a 1 - 1 record for the local Blinn Junior College.
The 90's began when the Texas High School Class 5A State Championship Tournament with a tournament pool that contained Andy Petite, Todd Van Poppel, & Todd Ritchie on 3 of the 4 teams. And while Van Poppel and Ritchie did not have the pro careers that many people expected for them, they each lasted in professional baseball into there early 30's with some respectable seasons by both but Petite had a career worthy of the Hall of Fame, if the voters can get past his steroid use admission. The 90's ended with an another high school phenom, the hard-throwing Kerry Wood of Grand Prairie High School. Drafted 4th by the Chicago Cubs in 1995, Wood was taking the mound at Wrigley Field by 1998. On May 5th, while still just 20, Wood gave one of the top pitching performances of all time as he struck out 20 Houston Astros to tie the single game record held by Roger Clemens. He would finish that year as Rookie of the Year but would not have another full season as a starting pitcher again until 2001, and even missing the entire 1999 season. When healthy, Wood's was an ace with winning ways that struck out an impressive 266 batters to lead the league in 2003. But he was plagued by arm troubles, troubles he attributes to overuse by his manager in high school. He managed to last through May of 2012, becoming a relief pitcher in 2007. And even with an All Star appearance as both a starter and reliever, that early flash of brilliance and success makes one wonder, what could Kerry Wood have become. Could he have been the next Roger Clemens or Nolan Ryan, the fellow Lone Star fireballers he was most compared, or did the the Grand Prairie HS baseball team really need those extra wins in 1994 and 1995 to justify the problems that Wood (and the Cubs Nation) had to endure.
The hard-throwing Clay Buchholz is a current addition to the hard-throwing but plagued with injuries Texas phenom tradition. He had early problems while at McNeese State University, where he broke into a local middle school to steal 29 laptop computers. This got him dismissed from the baseball team and the school and he transferred to the small Angelina Community College, a small East Texas school where he put up numbers good enough for the Red Sox to draft Buchholz with the 42nd pick. When healthy, he shows consistent top of the rotation stuff, going 12 - 1 for the World Series champion Boston Red Sox in 2013. Indicative to his career though, is that he was also out for injuries from June 18 to September 10. This duality with success and being injury prone has been with Buchholz since the start of his career. On September 1, 2007, in only his second start, Buchholz pitched a no-hitter. This was followed by after 2 more starts, getting shut down for the rest of the season by the team's doctors, keeping him off the roster during the teams winning World Series run.
Grey Flannel on the Silver Screen - LBJ Movie Club Presents: The King of the Hill with Fergie Jenkins
Growing up a Rangers fan in the 80's, we didn't always have the caliber of baseball heroes that other teams did (thanks to the baseball gods for the 1989-1990 offseason for changing that). One we did have was a tall, hockey-loving Canadian that during those post-Watergate years could throw the baseball as well as anyone. And while he may be best remembered as a Cub, we all know his best seasons happened under the Arlington sun.
This hour long documentary by the Canadian Board of Film documents his 1972 and 1973 seasons in Chicago. There is great footage of him and his teammates in Spring Training, at Wrigley Field, traveling around, and just doing whatever mundane day-to-day activities a polyester suit wearing baseball superstar does. This doc is 98.8% appropriate for everyone with the other 1.2% being PG-13 due mainly to Joe Pepitone's overconfidence of his own masculinity in the locker room and as well as hid lack of confidence of an umpire's masculinity in a Spring Training game.
From the official synopsis: "This feature documentary follows the one of the greatest Canadian baseball player of all time, Ferguson Jenkins, through the 1972-1973 seasons. From the hope and innocence of spring training to the dog days of an August slump, the camera gets up close and personal at the home plate and records the intimate chatter on the mound, in the dugout and in the locker room. It provides a glimpse into the rewards and pressures of sports stardom and the easy camaraderie of the quintessential summer sport."
With populations of 49,000 and 180,000, upstate New York's Troy and birthplace of movie director Sam Fuller Worcestor, MA hardly seem like cities that would be considered for expansion by Major League Baseball. However, to get added to the schedule next year (or any year for the past 131 years for that matter) is build a stadium and field a team.
The Troy Trojans were admitted to the National League in January of 1879. They played 4 seasons with the best record being 41-42 in 1880 and had an overall record of 139-191. While they started out with strong attendance, interest in quickly waned for the Trojans and by 1881 they had a game against Chicago which drew a paltry 12 people, a woeful record that still stands. What was even more surprising about the Trojans record and attendance during this time was that they had 5 future hall of fame inductees on those teams - first basemen Dan Brouthers and Roger Connor, pitchers Tim Keefe and Mickey Welch and catcher Buck Ewing.
The Worcestor Worcestors (or sometime referred to as the Ruby Legs) entered the National League in 1880 and after going 40 - 43 in their opening season, good enough for 5th place in the 8 team league, finished in last the next 2 seasons. Their most notable accomplishments came when in December of 1879 they became the first American baseball team to play in Cuba. The trip was a failure and only 2 games were able to be played and left the team in a financial jam before they even began their inaugural season. The team's highlight was when on July 12, 1880 pitcher Lee Richmond threw the first perfect game in baseball history.
Tired of the lack of attendance and in the case of the Trojans, even having to pay for a decent-sized portion of the teams payroll, rumors circulated during much of the 1882 season that both teams would be removed from the National League. At the owner's meeting that December in Providence, RI, a vote was had on whether the 2 teams should return for 1883. The final tally was 6-2 with Chicago, Providence, Boston, Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit voting to cast out the Trojans and Worcestors with, well, I will let you guess which 2 teams voted to return for the following year. However, an interesting caveat was added to the vote that is till binding. Both Troy, New York and Worcestor, Massachusetts are both still honorary members of the National League and as such if they ether field a team and stadium of major league caliber then each current National League team would be required to schedule between 2 and 4 games each year in those locations.