Living in an area with a Major League team I didn't get a chance to see any form of minor league baseball for a long while. There were times we would pass by minor league parks on vacation but they were never playing games the days we were visiting. I remember being roughly 16 and one trip getting to see where the Savannah Sand Gnats and Charleston River Dogs played and being mesmerized. It was the same field size as the majors but in something smaller in scale than an average Texas high school football stadium. These minor league parks had a character that appealed to me in a way that I couldn't describe then and even know I don't quite know why I like them as much as I do (much like my love of baseball).
I didn't get to see an actual minor league game until I was 22 and it was with the independent Fort Worth Cats at the rebuilt LaGrave Field. The Cats were a franchise with a long and storied history with players such as Rogers Hornsby, Duke Snider, & Maury Wills wearing their uniform and in the 1920's the Cats had a Texas League dynasty with many people of the day proclaiming them the equivalent or better of most Major League teams (definitely expect more stories on the Cats from me in the future and a SABR Bio on Jake Atz due some point this spring). And while the team has floated in and out of various independent leagues the past decade, it's hard to beat the view of the Trinity River and Ft Worth skyline you get sitting on the 3rd Base side of LaGrave Field and I have seen dozens of good baseball games.
Over the years I saw a few players from my youth playing a few more years at a pro level before retiring, like former Ranger Jose Guzman pitching a 1-hitter in his last pro appearance ever. However, in the mid part of the decade the Cats developed a reputation of signing players that were drafted but failed to sign with the team that drafted them. I saw Luke Hochevar go from pitching on the LaGrave Field mound against teams with names like the Saltdogs, Airhogs, and Canaries to getting drafted first overall by the Kansas City Royals in the 2006 MLB draft. The following season the highly touted but still unsigned Arizona Diamondback draft pick Max Scherzer began the year in Fort Worth's north side.
I caught his first appearance and it was a spectacle like I had never before seen at a game. The bleachers were full of the sorts of people that you normally do not see at independent level games and with who knows how many dozens of scouts sitting in the area behind the plate. Even with my untrained eye, it was obvious there was something different about Scherzer. A higher level of talent that was evident, something he was doing right that few others could match. I talked to 2 scouts from the Mariners and they quit taking notes halfway through the 1st inning because they had seen enough to know that if he was available to take him no matter what. As a professional courtesy I will not tell you if they spent the remaining 8 innings drinking Rahr & Sons beers on the concourse. Scherzer pitched 3 games total for the Cats and in 16 innings he 1.5 strikeouts per inning and only allowed 1 earned run. He soon signed with the Diamondbacks for over $4 million shortly before the MLB draft. The talent Scherzer displayed on the mound only a long throw from the Trinity River Levee last year has continued dazzling scouts and fans. Last year, in his 6th Major League season, Scherzer had one of the most dominant seasons in years, going 21 -3 for the Detroit Tigers with 240 strikeouts. He ran away with the American League Cy Young votes, garnering 28 of the 30 first place votes.
An excellent NY Times article on Scherzer and the Scott Boras/Ft Worth Cats relationship.
One of my favorite books: When Panthers Roared: The Fort Worth Cats and Minor League Baseball by Jeff Guinn and Bobby Bragan
On Saturday, January 11 I attended the Central Texas Hornsby Chapter of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) Winter Meeting on the Texas State campus.* It was an all day event with speakers discussing trips to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, contemporary baseball in Cuba, Round Rock Express announcer Mike Capps offering his insiders take on the Express and Rangers in the upcoming season, former player Matt Kata discussing his playing career, among other things. A much more detailed recap (with pictures by Ryan Pollack) can be found here.
As great as all the speakers were, the highlight for me was getting to see and hear 93-year-old Eddie Robinson tell stories of his almost continuous work history in professional baseball dating back to the late 1930's. The only reason his career wasn't continuous was that he spent 3 years fighting in World War 2. He had a career that including winning the 1948 World Series on a Cleveland Indians team that featured Bob Feller, Satchel Paige, & Larry Doby, 4 All Star appearances, while a NY Yankee he took singing senation Patti Page on a Tennessee Waltz if you know what I mean, helped sign & develop the original players that made up the then Houston Colt 45's (Astros), and then worked as General Manager for both the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers. Robinson spent a hour telling stories and answering questions and each story is worth it's own post. In the end, it was a story from his time as the Rangers GM that provided not just my favorite anecdote of the day.
In 1964 Robinson was scouting a top prep catching prospect named Richard Hough. They needed someone to throw batting practice and Hough suggested his younger brother, who at the time was a sophomore pitcher on the high school baseball team. During the first half of the showcase Hough was hitting home run after home run, impressing Robinson. During the break Robinson made a comment to the younger brother about Richard hitting all his pitches hard. The younger brother snapped almost instantly, "Yeah, but not when I put any of my stuff on it." Intrigued Robinson asked him to use his "stuff" when they came back from the break. He did and shut Richard down. Robinson took note on two things, to not draft Richard because he couldn't hit breaking pitches and to keep an eye on the younger brother.
The younger brother was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966 and spent years bouncing around their minor league system before being called up and becoming an underused relief pitcher that only had 1 start prior to turning 31. In 1980 Robinson called Tommy Lasorda and inquired about the younger brother and Lasorda admitted they really didn't have a place for him on the team and traded him to the Rangers for a minor league infielder. That pitcher went on to become the Rangers all-time winning-est pitcher (the record still stands) and is my all-time favorite pitcher. He is the legendary knuckleballer Charlie Hough and as a kid I was the only guy willing to trade Nolan Ryan baseball cards for Charlie Hough ones. I would even usually be able to get all their Charlie Hough's along with a Steve Buechele in that deal. Robinson said he was always a fan of knuckleball pitchers and even help develop Tim Wakefield after he was released by the Pirates and get him signed by the Red Sox and that Hough and Wakefield were two of his proudest moments as an executive. As for Charlie Hough, his stuff that caused his brother to go undrafted by Robinson led him to a long career highlighted by 216 wins and leading the league in starts twice, at the ages 36 & 39 and being 85th on the all time games started list.
*When Texas State University was known as Southwest Texas State Teachers' College, a young Lyndon Baines Johnson graduated from there with a teaching degree while working as editor on the school's paper and being involved in the student government.
Learn more about Eddie Robinson in Lucky Me: My Sixty-five Years in Baseball
And if you have not seen Knuckleball! featuring Charlie Hough, R. A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield & more yet find a way to see it immediately.
Arthur Lee Maye played 13 years in Major League Baseball and is most often associated with his 7 seasons with the Milwaukee Braves from 1959 - 1965. He had a respectable career with stints in Houston, Chicago (AL), Cleveland, and Washington and even lead the league in doubles in the 1964 season. However, what Maye might be the most well known for is being the best singing athlete of all time (or at least that's what he said of himself).
In 1954, the same year he signed a minor league contract with the Braves, formed a doo wop group in Los Angeles named The Crowns. Maye partnered with legendary songwriter and producer Richard Berry during this time and even sang the back up bits on Berry's original recording of Louie Louie. As a singer Maye gathered regional success and his 1964 release "Halfway Out of Love" even sold over 500,000 copies. However, his baseball career limited his ability to record and tour forcing his musical career to stall and not reach the levels he potential allowed for. After baseball, Maye worked for Amtrak and worked on getting an executive job for an MLB team but this never happened. He relaunched his musical career in the mid-80's and passed away in 2002 shortly before a tour of Europe was scheduled to start.
Today is the day that the Baseball Writers of America release the names of the players set to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is also the day when every other baseball writer writes his or her article on what player isn't in the Hall of Fame but should be. I am no exception to this rule.
This year I decided to be very biased with my selection of Newt Allen of the Kansas City Monarchs. Yes he is from Austin, TX and yes he is included in my ongoing Central Texas blackball history research but I feel that his career completely justifies his inclusion and overrides any and all personal biases I have in this regard.
Newt was born in 1902 in Austin but at some point after his father's death in 1910 his family moved to Kansas City. In 1920 J.L. Wilkinson formed the Kansas City Monarchs who would become one of the top Negro League teams of all time. They began to play not far from where Allen lived and the 18 year old worked as their ice boy and even as an extra body at times during practice. He started out the 1921 season in the same capacity before he joined the Omaha Federals and had an excellent season which led him to being asked to play for the Monarchs beginning in the 1922 season. By the time his career was complete, the 5'8" Allen spent the next 23 years manning 2nd base for the team and became their manager in 1941. Sources from baseball ambassador Buck O'Neil to legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw referred to him as the best 2nd basemen in the Negro Leagues with McGraw wishing the league would let him sign Allen to his National League ballclub. In 1931 he spent the season with the St Louis Stars where he joined with fellow Austinite and future Hall of Famer Willie Wells to form one of the best double play combos in baseball history. And while accurate records are hard to come by for Allen, and many other Negro League players, the ones available have his career batting average hovering around .300 which is impressive considering the steep decline in his hitting as he entered his late 30's and 40's.
After he retired he stayed in Kansas City and became a foreman at the county courthouse and passed away in 1988. As with many deserving Negro League players, Allen was forgotten or overlooked on Hall of Fame ballots. With the Special Committee on Negro Leagues this was hoped to be remedied but of the 17 blackball players inducted by the committee, Newt Allen was not one of them.
The Center for Negro League Baseball Research has this excellent .pdf document going much more in depth on Newt Allen's career, statistics, and accomplishments with some great pictures included.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues by John Holway
The new year started yesterday and I have been wondering how and what this column should be. A year end recap for a history site seemed a little redundant and I wouldn't know which year to recap. Predictions for the future also seemed inappropriate as well, because, well this is a mainly a history site. (How ever I will make 1 prediction and it's the prediction I make every year around this time, this is the season the Rangers go 162-0). I spent several days thinking this over before I realized I should do an article about something I want to do in the future that deals with looking at baseball's past and for me that would be to visit The Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh, PA.
Roberto Clemente was a Pittsburgh Pirate from 1955 to 1972 and in his Hall of Fame career he was the 1966 National League MVP, a 15 time All Star, 2 time World Series champion, and in his last regular season at bat hit his 3,000th hit (he hit 4 more in the NLCS against Cincinnati that year as well). That 3,000th hit was the last time he would bat in a regular season game as he passed away in an aviation accident on December 31, 1972 while delivering humanitarian supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. There were reports that the corrupt local government was taking the supplies needed by the victims and Clemente boarded the plane, knowing it was already overloaded, because he knew that his presence would ensure that the aid would be distributed to those that needed it. As a result of his talent and his humanitarian nature, Major League Baseball created the Roberto Clemente Award which is annually given to the MLB player that "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team" and there has been a growing movement to have his number 21 retired across the league.
While Clemente, who would be 79 if he were still alive, may be gone, Pittsburgh and baseball fans are lucky to have The Clemente Museum located in Engine House 25 in the Lawrenceville section of the city. I have been aware of the museum for several years now and outside of the Baseball & Negro League Hall of Fames, it is the museum or historic site I would most like to visit. The museum includes golden glove and silver slugger awards, his World Series rings, and numerous other photos, artifacts, & memorabilia from Clemente and Pittsburgh baseball history. Going by the pictures and reviews, the Clemente Museum appears at first to be more of an art gallery than a typically museum. The museum is by appointment only and just from a combination of online research and scouring various reference books & magazine articles it appears to be the top museum dedicated to just one player.
For more information and to check out the pictures of the gallery and collection go here: www.clementemuseum.com
For a history detective story involving Clemente, a family friend, and the truth on the bat used for his 3,000 hit read A Drive Into the Gap by Kevin Guilfoile. This book is more of a generational bonding / historical detective work and would be of interest to even non-baseball readers. www.adriveintothegap.com
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.