Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Baseball Names - and How They Got That Way! Part VIII

The words and phrases are spoken and written day after day, year after year - generally without any wonderment as to how they became part of the language. All have a history, a story. For those of you who liked Parts I thru VII and wanted more, here is more.

WALKING MAN THE Eddie Yost played nearly two decades in the major leagues. His lifetime batting average was only .254, but that didn't keep him off the bases. Yost coaxed pitchers into yielding I,614 walks to him--almost a walk a game through his long career--which places him fifth on the all-time baseson-balls list.

"The Weatherman" Mickey Rivers had a knack for predicting weather. WEE WILLIE He was born March 3, 1872, in Brooklyn, New York. He died on January 1, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York. William Henry Keeler made his debut at the Polo Grounds as a member of the New York Giants on September 30, 1892. He singled off the Phillies' Tim Keefe for the first of his 2,926 career hits. The son of a Brooklyn trolley switchman, Keeler Two years later became a member of the famed Baltimore Orioles.

A lefty all the way, he weighed only 140 pounds and was a shade over 5'4". His tiny physical stature earned him his nickname, but pound for pound he was one of the greatest hitters baseball ever produced. Keeler played for 19 years and recorded a lifetime batting average of .345, fifth on the all-time list. He collected 2,962 hits in 2,124 games, spraying the ball to all fields. Wee Willie's greatest year was 1897, a season in which he batted .432, recorded 243 hits and 64 stolen bases, and scored 145 runs. He swung a bat that weighed only 30 ounces, but as he said, he "hit 'em where they ain't" --and that was more than good enough to gain Keeler entry into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1939. In 1897, Keeler batted an incredible .432. A reporter asked the diminutive batter, "Mr. Keeler, how can a man your size hit .432?" The reply to that question has become a rallying cry for all kinds of baseball players in all kinds of leagues: "Simple," Keeler smiled. "I keep my eyes clear and I hit 'em where they ain't." That he did. The Sporting News offered this mangled prose about Keeler as a fielder. "He swears by the teeth of his mask-carved horse chestnut, that he always carries with him as a talisman that he inevitably dreams of it in the night before when he is going to boot one - muff an easy fly ball, that is to say, in the meadow on the morrow. 'All of us fellows in the outworks have got just so many of them in a season to drop and there's no use trying to buck against fate'." William Henry Keeler played 19 years in the major leagues and finished his career with a .345 lifetime batting average. Quite justifiably the little man was one of the first to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hal of Fame in 1939. WHIP, THE A 6'6" right-hander, Ewell Blackwell had a sidearm motion and a crackling fastball that terrorized National League batters in the 1940's and 1950's. The former Cincinnati star's right arm seemed to "whip" the ball in at the batter, and that's how his nickname came to be. Winner of sixteen straight games in 1947, he struck out almost a batter an inning during his tenyear career. WHIZ KIDS There is no clear explanation as to how the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies baseball team earned its nickname. Some ascribe the name's derivation to the club's youth and newness: only one regular on that team that won the National League pennant was over 30 years of age. Some claim the nickname was a spinoff from the phrase "gee whiz," since the Phillies of that year seemingly came from nowhere to challenge and defeat the great Brooklyn Dodgers for the pennant. It was a team that because of its youth, its underdog role, and its past history of failure, attracted national attention and fused its personality to its nickname. WILD HORSE OF THE OSAGE THE Johnny Leonard Roosevelt Martin, better known as Pepper Martin, starred for 13 seasons with the National League's St. Louis Cardinals. He could hit, he could run, he could field, he could throw, he could win--and he did all of these things with wild abandon, with an elan and a verve that earned him his nickname. If he couldn't stop a hard smash down to his third-base position with his glove, he would stop the ball with his chest. If he could not get into a base feet-first, he would leap into the air and belly-flop his way there. Martin took the extra base, risked the daring chance, played with fire and fury. Three times in the mid-1930's he led the league in stolen bases, and throughout that decade he functioned as the horse that led the Cardinal "Gashouse Gang" (see GASHOUSE GANG).

"Wizard of Oz" An abbreviation of his first name and tip of the cap to Ozzie Smith for his peerless fielding skills. No other shortstop could get to the ball as fast as, and utilize the fielders around him like Ozzie. WORLD SERIES In 1903 the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League won their third consecutive pennant. Owner Barney Dreyfuss was instrumental in arranging for a set of postseason games with the American League champion Boston Somersets (later Red Sox). The teams played a nine-game series, with Boston winning five of the games (one of their pitchers was Cy Young) and the World Championship. There was a one-year interruption in the competition, because the 1904 National League pennant-winner was the New York Giants, whose owner, John T. Bush, refused to allow his team to oppose an American League entry. Part of the reason behind Bush's refusal was the existence of a rival American League team in New York City. By 1905 Bush had changed his mind and even helped shape the new format for the World Series--a best-of-seven competition--and behind Christy Mathewson, who pitched three shutouts, the Giants defeated the Philadelphia Athletics in five games. Dubbed the Fall Classic, the World Series year in and year out has become an integral, appealing part of the American sports scene.

"YA GOTTA BELIEVE" In 1973 the New York Mets bolted from last place on August 30 to win the National League Eastern Division title on the final day of the season. Pitcher Tug McGraw had coined a slogan, "Ya gotta believe," which acted as the team's battle cry and motivation. Lacking a .300 hitter, a 20-game winner, a 100-RBI man, the "believing" Mets swept by Cincinnati in the play-offs and battled Oakland to the seventh game of the World Series before finally losing (see AMAZIN' METS).

"YANKEE CLIPPER" Joseph Paul DiMaggio was one of nine children of a fisherman father who had emigrated from Sicily. It was all planned for Joe to become a fisherman like his father, but Joe could not abide the smell of fish and he often got seasick. His real passion was playing baseball. In 1934, he was playing baseball about as well as it could be played when his contract with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League was purchased by the Yankees. The deal contained the clause that the graceful outfielder be allowed to play one more season for the seals. His 1935 season gave the people of San Francisco something to remember - he batted .398, recorded 270 hits, and drove in 154 runs. Permission was granted for DiMag in 1936 to drive cross-country with fellow San Franciscans Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti to the Yankee spring training camp in St. Petersburg, Florida. Lazzeri turned to DiMaggio after the trio had concluded one day of driving and said, "You take over, Joe." "I don't drive," DiMaggio answered It was reported that these were the only words he uttered during the entire three-day automobile trek. As a Yankee he didn't do much talking either. His abilities on the playing field said it all. He would step into the batter's box and stub his right toe into the dirt in back of his left heel. It was almost a dance step. His feet were spaced approximately four feet apart, with the weight of his frame on his left leg. Erect, almost in a military position, Joe Dee would hold his bat at the end and poise it on his right shoulder - a rifle at the ready. He would look at the pitcher from deep in the batter's box and assume a stance that almost crowded the plate. He was ready. In DiMaggio's time - 13 seasons with the Yankees - they won 10 pennants. In 1951, the man they called the Yankee Clipper, retired at age 36. Management attempted to get him to perform in pinstripes for one more season. But he had too much pride, and too much pain. He knew it was over. Joseph Paul DiMaggio left behind the memory of a player who moved about in the vast centerfield of Yankee Stadium with an almost poetical grace. He had played when he was fatigued, when he was hurt, when it mattered a great deal, and when it didn't matter at all.

"Joe was the complete player in everything he did," said his former manager Joe McCarthy. "They'd hit the ball to center field and Joe would stretch out those long legs of his and run the ball down. He never made a mistake on the bases and in Yankee Stadium, a tough park for a right-hander, he was a great hitter, one of the best." DiMag had a career average of .325, 361 home runs, eight World Series home runs, and two batting championships. He also won three MVP's and hold the record of 56 straight games with a hit. "Those statistics don't even tell half the story," said DiMag's former teammate pitcher Eddie Lopat. "What he meant to the Yankees, you'll never find in the statistics. He was the real leader of our team. He was the best." Like the famed Yankee clipper ships that sailed the oceans riding the winds and the tides, DiMaggio moved across the reaches of the center-field pastureland of Yankee Stadium flawlessly playing his kind of game--steady, stoical, dependable. His nickname accentuated his role and style. DiMaggio was also known as Jolting Joe because of his power, and Joe Di, an affectionate abbreviation of his name. "The Yankee Clipper" - a slap at George Steinbrenner who always has had a longing to see his players clean-shaven.

"Yo-Yo" - for small size and hyper activity, Luis Arroyo "YOU COULD LOOK IT UP" Casey Stengel began his major league playing career in 1912, his managing career in 1934. He played for 14 years, managed for 25 years. His baseball career ended in 1965 after stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Giants, New York Yankees, New York Mets. Casey could talk for hours about baseball and life. And sometimes in the midst of animated conversation about a utility outfielder on the old Boston Braves, or a balk by a forgotten pitcher on the Pittsburgh Pirates--to emphasize that he was not relating fiction he would exclaim: "You could look it up!" YOUTH OF AMERICA Casey Stengel's beginning years as manager of the New York Mets were a time of trial and frustration for many. Afflicted with over-the-hill players and has-beens, Casey delighted in the potential of some of the younger Mets. Although not quite ready for prime-time baseball, they had promise and Stengel's feeling for them was revealed in this phrase, which he pronounced, "The yuth of America" (see "CAN'T ANYBODY HERE PLAY THIS GAME?").

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Babe Ruth & Lou Gehrig: "Great American Home Run Derby"

The New York Times had dubbed the Ruth-Gehrig race the "Great American Home Run Derby." Like two mighty boxers they slugged home runs trying to out-do each other and everyone else in 1927.

"There has never been anything like it," Paul Gallico wrote in the New York Daily News. " Even as these lines are batted out on the office typewriter, youths dash out of the AP and UP ticker room every two or three minutes shouting, 'Ruth hit one! Gehrig just hit another one!'"

Christy Walsh, born in Los Angeles in 1891, Ruth's business manager, coined the phrase: "The Babe and the Buster" for the pair. Hillerich and Bradley, manufacturer of Louisville Sluggers, supplied their dealers with posters that had places for fans to mark off the homers hit by Ruth and Gehrig and keep track of their progress.

It was the reserved, young and muscular, the dimpled and handsome college educated Gehrig versus the flamboyant older, moon faced, in and out of trouble Behemoth of Swing, Ruth "There will never be another guy like the Babe," Gehrig said.

" I get more kick from seeing him hit one than I do from hitting one myself."

In Waite Hoyt's view Gehrig was "A smooth faced Atlas, an All-American type, typical first-boy-in the seat in Sunday school."

The Babe had that wink - he'd wink at fans in the stands, people on the street, at the opposing pitcher, at fielders on the opposition as he circled the bases totting out a home run. The winking Babe said: "This is easy. This is a lot of fun."

Babe hated authority.

Lou accepted it.

Babe loved people.

Lou was a loner, shy, suspicious.

Babe left a ten-dollar tip for a five cents cup of coffee - sometimes a fifty dollar tip if he were in the mood to do so - where fifty cents would have been generous.

Lou left dimes.

The good guy and the bad guy. You paid your money and you made your choice.

Crowds like never before were everywhere the Yankees went - the home run race between Ruth and Gehrig, the powerhouse that was the 1927 team, the mystique of New York in the roaring twenties. The Yankees were New York and New York was the Yankees. It all was a package.

Richards Vidmer, a sportswriter who wrote with style and grace for The New York Times, a former minor league baseball player, he was a sophisticate and an adventurer. It was Vidmer who came up with the term for the Ruth-Gehrig battle - "The Great American Home Run Handicap."

And great it was. It was the first time Babe Ruth ever had any real competition in a home run race. And the competition was the man who batted behind him in the potent Yankee order, who watched him from up close from the on deck batting circle, who shook the Bambino's hand when he crossed home plate finishing the home run trot.

It was also Gehrig who was getting the publicity, who was becoming a fan favorite and a media darling, who was a total opposite in personality to the Big Bam.

"Holy shit, holy crap, holy moley, it was like two Babe Ruths," were the lines going around the American League. "One was bad enough but Gehrig too."

"Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig," noted Bill Werber, a Duke sophomore and a fly on the wall for a month of that season at the Stadium "were entirely different disposition-wise, but they both had an intense desire to win. And you'd better have the same disposition if you were on that ball club, or they were on your ass. Eating or drinking during the course of the game, you'd better not do that."

Monday, June 09, 2008


Books by two giants of the craft and some nifty reads from Bison Books are yours for delightful summer reading. "Everything They Had" by David Halberstram and "The Mysterious Montague" by Leigh Montville are must haves.

The Halberstram work (Hyperion, 401 pages $24.95) is a splendid collection of the late author's writings over five decades for different newspapers and magazines. It is a kind of inside look at sports - a dinner with Ted Williams, a following of Reggie Smith around Japan, a hunt for the one hotel in Patagonia with a TV broadcasting the Super Bowl. Not just homage, but hard hitting stuff, too, is on these pages. The great Halberstram, killed in an automobile accident in 2007, ironically on his way to an interview for his next book, remains for us in the pages of "Everything They Had."

HIGHLY NOTABLE: "The Mysterious Montague" by Leigh Montville (Doubleday, 258 pages, $26.00) is not the type of book one would associate with the author of "Ted Williams" and "The Big Bam." It is about as its sub-title proclaims "A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf and Armed Robbery" and much more. It is also about the 1930s, LaVerne Moore (John Montague) who with other guys held up a restaurant in New York State in the Adirondacks. Montague escaped to Hollywood where he became somebody else and a friend to the rich and talented and famous. There is so much more to the story but buy the book; enjoy life courtesy of the talent of a master story teller, Mr. Leigh Montville, stroking you all the way.

From Bison Books (full disclosure - they are releasing my reprint version of "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball" in the fall) comes three paperback worthies:
Allan Bara's "Clearing the Bases" focused on the greatest baseball debates of the last century
Recently retired Ira Berkow's "Beyond the Dream" about occasional heroes of sports - wonderful pieces selected from his 26 years at the New York Times
And James R. Walker and Robert V. Bellamy's "CenterFieldShot" an insightful history of baseball on television.

Coming Fall 2008
(The Definitive Book)