Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Amazing, Historic, Lowest Scoring NBA Game & the Birth of the 24-Second Clock

Dr. Harvey Frommer on Sports
To watch the high-scoring action in the National Basketball Association today, it is hard to believe the way things once were. But back in the early years of the league, games were yawning affairs or stalling contests.
The 1950-1951 season saw the NBA go from an unwieldy 17-team league to 11 teams in a two-division setup. It was also a season that included the lowest-scoring game in NBA history.
It happened November 22, 1950 - the yawner of all yawners. The game pitted the Fort Wayne Piston (who became the Deroiters) against the Minneapolis Lakers (who became the Show Time bunch), and was played on the home court of the Lakers, who enjoyed a great home advantage. Their court was shorter and narrower than normal size. Their team was big, bulky and slow - all of which were perfectly suited for a slowdown game.
In the game, the two teams combined for just 31 shots. When it was over, Ft. Wayne had creaked out a 19-18 triumph in a painful and boring example of how dull a stalling contest could be. The game started serious talk throughout the NBA about ways to prevent those kinds of contests from taking place.
Then on January 6, 1951, a very cold night in Rochester, the Royals (who one day would evolve into the Sacramento Kings) played against the Indianapolis Olympians(evolved from the 1948 basketball Gold Medal winners) in what has gone down as the longest game in the annals of the NBA.
The game lasted a grand total of 78 minutes and included six overtimes. Some of the loyal Rochester fans booed, and hundreds of others walked out of the old Edgerton Park Arena. They just couldn't abide the slow-down stalling tactics of both teams.
In the half-dozen overtimes, just 23 shots were taken. At the start of each overtime, the team that earned the tip just held on to the ball for one last shot. Players just stood around gaping and staring at each other. One player dribbled or held the ball and looked around hoping to make the smart pass for a high percentage shot. Indianapolis finally won the game, 75-73.
Red Holzman told me in the late 1980s when I was writing his autobiography, "I played 76 of the 78 minutes in that opus. And although I was in great shape, my tail was dragging when the historic marathon was over". That game and the bore that was the 19-18 contest made players and coaches see the need and the urgency to speed up the game. It was these two games, and others like them, that set the stage for the creation of the 24-second clock - and the salvation of the NBA.
The clock was first used in the 1954-1955 season, and scoring jumped an average of 15 points a game as a result. The new NBA era was underway.
As a post-script to all of this, Holzman told me that back in 1951, after the 19-18 game, he got the idea for a shot clock and told some of the owners about it. They dismissed him as "a young squirt." But someone must have been listening.

About the Author

Dr. Harvey Frommer received his Ph.D. from New York University. Professor Emeritus, Distinguished Professor nominee, Recipient of the "Salute to Scholars Award" at CUNY where he taught writing for many years, the prolific author was cited by the Congressional Record and the New York State Legislature as a sports historian and journalist.
His sports books include autobiographies of sports legends Nolan Ryan, Red Holzman and Tony Dorsett, the classics "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," "New York City Baseball: 1947-1957." The 1927 Yankees." His "Remembering Yankee Stadium" was published to acclaim in 2008. His latest book, a Boston Globe Best Seller, is "Remembering Fenway Park." Autographed and discounted copies of all Harvey Frommer books are available direct from the author. Please consult his home page: http://harveyfrommersports.com/remembering_fenway/  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Sports Book Reviews From Random House, Canada


                    All kinds of intriguing sports books are now out for all to enjoy from Random House, Canada. They range from picture tomes, to biographies, to how-to, to commemorative editions. Something for everyone.
                Stephen Brunt’s “100 Grey Cups”  (McClelland & Stewart, 256 pages $45.00) is a coffee table gem about Canada’s  largest annual single sporting event. All the legendary teams from Canada’s storied football past are showcased in words and pictures.
          “Team Canada” as told by the players with Andrew Podnieks ($45.00, 293 pages) is another coffee table gem  - - the 40th anniversary celebration of the Summit Series in words and pictures.
          Famed Barry Melrose offers “Dropping the Gloves” ( Fenn/M&S, $27.99, 256 pages). The book is a sharing of Melrose’s many years of on-ice experience. Lots of insights.
           “The Great One” offers up the Complete Wayne Gretsky as seen through Sports Illustrated writings (Fenn/M&S, $22.99, 336 pages).
            Paul Henderson weighs in with “The Goal of My Life” (Fenn/M&S, $29.99, 304 pages. The memoir covers his two decades in hockey and more.
          For those in a NASCAR frame of mind there is “The Official NASCAR Trivia Book” by John C. Farrell (Fenn/M&S, $16.99, 448 pages) and also “NASCAR Nation” by Chris Myers with Michael Levin (Fenn/M&S, $24.99, 240  pages.  The former is a mighty lode of challenging trivia while the book
by Chris Myers is all about how racing values simulate and mirror America’s.
          “Coach” by Rosie DiManno (Doubleday Canada, $27.95, 336 pages) is a page turning terrific tome about one of the great NHL coaches. All kinds of personal insights into the complex coach abound.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The First World Series (From the Vault)


     The hype, hoopla and accomplishments of the 2012 baseball season will now belong to history along with the elongated play-offs and recent World Series which joins the first one that took place in 1903. The world, baseball and the World Series were very different then.

      Back in the 1880s for a period of seven years there had been play-offs between the champs of the National League and the American Association. Once the play-offs went to 15 games - 1887 between St. Louis and Detroit. Pittsburgh won its third straight National League pennant in 1903. Boston won the brand new American League title that season by 14 l/2 games over the Philadelphia Athletics.    

       The Pirates bragged about Honus Wagner whose .355 average earned him the batting title. Their swashbuckling manager Fred Clarke was runner-up with a .351 average. Boston boasted about two 20-game winners in Deacon Phillippe and Sam Leever.

        The first modern World Series came about at the suggestion of Boston owner Henry J. Killilea and Pittsburgh's owner Barney Dreyfuss. It was called "Championship of the United States" and it was a five of nine games affair. The first game was October l, 1903 at Boston's Huntington Avenue Grounds before 16,242. Deacon Phillippe pitched Pittsburgh to a 7-3 win over Boston's Cy Young.

      Throughout the game and the series Boston's rabid fans serenaded Pittsburgh players with a popular song of the day, "Tessie," but they substituted their own vulgar words for the regular lyrics. The routine definitely had a negative impact on the Pittsburgh players. "It was that damn song that caused us problems," grumbled Buc player Tommy Leach afterwards.

    Deacon Phillippe won three of the first four games of the series for Pittsburgh but then faltered. Boston then swept the next four games. Bill Dinneen and Cy Young won all five games for Boston in the series On October 13, only 7,455 showed up - the smallest crowd of the series. Phillippe pitched his fifth complete game of the series but lost, 3-0 to Dinneen and Boston had the championship.

    Right after the game ended players from both clubs lined up for a combination team photo. It was a remarkable display of good sportsmanship considering the bitterness that had existed between the junior American League and senior National League.

     An oddity of the World Series was that the losing players received more money that than the winners. Buc Owner Dreyfuss put his club's share of the gate receipts into the players' pool. Each Pittsburgh player netted $1,316 while each Boston player netted $1,182.

      Deacon Phillippe - heroic in his efforts in the series with five decisions and 44 innings pitched, still World Series records, was given a bonus and 10 shares of stock in the Pirates.

     Oddly enough there was no World Series played in 1904. Boston was ready, willing able. But the National League pennant winning New York Giants were not. Their manager John J. McGraw snarled: "We are the champions of the only major league." In 1905, the World Series resumed, fitted itself into its best of seven format and has been with us ever since.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sports Book Reviews: Tony La Russa’s “One Last Strike” and More

          An avalanche of fall sports books are on the shelves ready for reading. The range of subjects and approaches are amazing.  All have something of interest for readers, but topping the list as he topped the baseball world in so many ways is Tony La Russa’s “One Last Strike” (William Morrow, $27.99, 420 pages). The price is right and the reading is fascinating.   

          The book takes one inside the mind of the great LaRussa through the 2011 world championship season of the Cards offering insights and inside baseball that only the legendary Redbird skipper could. The book also offers much more than that  - -focusing as it does in intriguing details about personalities like Mark McGwire, Joe Torre, Sparky Anderson, Albert Pujols. Where most “memoirs” are rehashes of news stories – this book breaks new ground fort the genre. MUST HAVE

          The story of the man behind the Heisman Trophy is the subject of “Heisman” by John M. Heisman (Howard, Simon and Schuster, $25.00, 248 pages). Written by the subject’s great nephew along with author Mark Schlabach, this is a special kind of book for football fans revealing as it was the life and times of its subject - -the man behind the trophy. Archival photos and important research make the book a winner.

          “How the SEC became Goliath” by Ray Glier (Howard, Simon and Schuster, $22.99, 245 pages) is an engrossing view revealing the creation of the most dominant conference in collegiate football.

           "Baseball is Just Baseball" by David Shields (Blue Rider Press/Penguin, $14.00, 183 pages) is a slim and under-sized attempt to capitalize of the fabulous Japanese star's move from Seattle to the New York Yankees. Nevertheless, this unauthorized collection is serene reading and a provider of insights into the superstar.
          "Sandlot Stats" by Stanley Rothman (Johns Hopkins Press, 571 pages) is an over-sized tome that is truly a scholarly labor of love as its sub-title proclaims "learning statistics with baseball." For those interested in the subject - -this is your book - - one that attempts to explain the mathematical anchorage of baseball as a way to understand the universe of stats and probability.

          For fans of the Mick – “The Classic Mantle” by Buzz Bisssinger with photographs by Marvin E. Newman (Abrams, $19.95, 114 pages, 50 color and b/w photos) is the book for you. The price tag is a bit hefty for the slim volume but the tome packs a punch showcasing as it does images from Mantle’s heyday.

          “Lamar Hunt” by Michael MacCambridge (Universal Uclick, $27.99, 416 pages) is a page turning biography by one of the best football writers around. Page after page yields up anecdotes about Hunt’s impact on sports- -in fact three sports. Hunt is the only one inducted into three Halls of Fame. Hunt was a man who changed American sports, especially football. This is an important book for all those interested in sports and culture.

          From the Clerisy Press comes “Gone Pro Alabama” ($17.95, 368 pages, paper) a book that details the deeds of Crimson Tide athletes who went on to become legends.

          In a hockey frame of mind from McClelland and Stewart comes “The Life of Conn Smythe” ($19.00, 384 pages, paper). This is definitely a tome terrific for those interested in the life story of a true hockey legend.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

“Dat Day” - -Bobby Thomson's Famous Homer Lives On

Bobby Thompson

          Play-off baseball will soon be in the air; however, it is doubtful if any moment will take place to compare with what happened in Manhattan those  long years ago.
          Throughout the long history of baseball there have been poignant, exciting, dramatic moments. But nothing like what happened on October 3, 1951 at the old Polo Grounds in New York City.
          Some refer to that time as "The Miracle at Coogan's Bluff." Others, especially in Brooklyn, call it "Dat Day." But no matter what label is applied it was a time to remember.
          It was a time when the Giants played out of the Polo Grounds in Manhattan and the Dodgers entertained millions in their tiny Brooklyn ballpark, Ebbets Field. It was a time of tremendous fan devotion to each team.
          In July, Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen had bragged, "The Giants is dead." It seemed to aptly describe the plight of Leo Durocher's team. For on August 12 the Giants trailed the Dodgers by 13 l/2 games in the standings.
          Then, incredibly the Giants locked into what has been called "The Miracle Run." They won 37 of their final 44 games - 16 of them in one frenetic stretch - and closed the gap.
          "It was a once-in-a-lifetime situation," recalls Monte Irvin, who batted .312 that year for the Giants. "We kept on winning. The Dodgers kept on losing. It seemed like we beat everybody in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning.
          The Giants and Dodgers finished the season in a flat-footed tie for first-place and met on the first day of October in the first game of the first play-off in the history of the National League. The teams split the first two games setting the stage for the third and final game.
          Star hurler Don Newcombe of the Dodgers was pitted against veteran Sal Maglie of the Giants. Both hurlers had won 23 games during the regular season.
          The game began under overcast skies and a threat of rain. Radio play-by-play filtered into schoolrooms, factories, office buildings, city prisons, barbershops.
          The Wall Street teletype intermingled stock quotations with play-by-play details of the Giant-Dodger battle.
          The game was tied 1-1 after seven innings. Then Brooklyn scored three times in the top of the eighth.
          Many of the Dodger fans at the Polo Grounds and the multitude listening to the game on the radio thought that the Giants would not come back.
          Leo Durocher and the Giants never gave up. "We knew that Newcombe would make the wrong pitch," said Monte Irvin. "That was his history."
          The Giants came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning - only three outs remained in their miracle season.
          Shortstop Alvin Dark led off with a single through the right side of the infield. Outfielder Don Mueller slapped the ball past Dodger first baseman Gil Hodges. Irvin fouled out. A double by Whitey Lockman down the left field line. Dark scored.
          With runners on second and third Ralph Branca  came in to relieve Newcombe. Bobby Thomson waited to bat. Durocher said, "I did not know whether they would pitch to Thomson or not. First base was open. Willie Mays, just a rookie, was on deck."
          Veteran New York Giant announcer Russ Hodges described the moment to millions mesmerized at their radios that October afternoon:
          "Bobby Thomson up there swinging.... Bobby batting at .292. Branca pitches and Bobby takes a strike call on the inside corner. Lockman without too big of a lead at second but he'll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one.
          "Branca throws ... there's a long drive...it's gonna be, I believe. . .' The precise moment was 3:58 P.M., October 3, 1951.
          "... the Giants win the pennant!" Hodges screamed the words at the top of his voice, all semblance of journalistic objectivity gone. "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"
          Hodges bellowed it out eight times - and then overcome by the moment and voiceless, he had to yield the microphone.
          Pandemonium was on parade at the Polo Grounds for hours after the game. For almost half an hour after the epic home run, there were so many phone calls placed by people in Manhattan and Brooklyn that the New York Telephone Company reported service almost broke down.
          Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca would play out their major league careers. But the moment they shared - as hero and goat that October day at the Polo Grounds - would link them forever.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sad Days at Fenway Park in the 1960's

An Excerpt from

Remembering Fenway Park: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Boston Red Sox/Abrams 2011 - - now available in stores, on-line and direct from the author

The joy and passion and full houses (breaking the 700 straight sellout mark and counting) and winning ways now on parade at Fenway Park all are a sharp contrast to the way things once were at the little ballpark in most of the 1960s.

There are still those around who recall that time, some with mixed emotions.

SAM MELE: I came into Fenway a lot when I managed Minnesota from 1961 to 1967. My home was still in Quincy, Mass. So I slept in my own bed. It was funny. I was managing against the team that I loved.

In 1965, we beat Boston 17 out of 18 times, 8 out of the 9 at Fenway. It actually hurt me, to beat them. I felt sorry because in my heart I was a Red Sox fan. I had played for them, I had scouted for them. Tom Yawkey would come in my office. And we would talk a lot. Oh yeah, geez, he had me in his will.

The losing, the miserable attendance, the doom and gloom that pervaded Fenway was on parade big time on the 16th of September. The tiniest crowd of the season made its way into Fenway Park - - just 1,247 paid and 1,123 in on passes. Dave Morehead opposed Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians.

Fenway was a ghost town of a ball park in 1965 when the team drew but 652,201, an average of 8,052 a game . The worst came late in the season. On September 28th against California only 461 showed to watch the sad Sox. The next day was even worse against the same team – just 409 in the house. Finishing 9th in the ten-team American League, the Sox lost 100 games and won 62. The nadir had been breached.

Managers kept coming and going. Top prospects somehow never made it for one reason or another. Billy Herman was in place as the 1966 season started. Early on Dave Morehead, just 24, regarded as a brilliant future star, suffered an injury to his arm and was never the same. Posting a 1-2 record in a dozen appearances, he symbolized the Red Sox of that era - promise but pathos.

In 1966, the Sox lost 90 games and finished ninth. Attendance at Fenway Park was 811,172, an average attendance per game of 10, 095. It was pitiful.

JIM LONBORG: The 1967 season started off as a typical Red Sox season. There were 8,324 fans on a cold and dreary April 12th, Opening Day. We beat the White Sox 5-4. Petrocelli hit a three-run homer. And I got the win.

The next day there were only 3,607 at the ballpark. And then we went on a road trip. We came back having won 10 straight games. And when our plane landed there were thousands of fans waiting at the airport. That moment was the start of the great relationship between the fans and the players.

BOB SULLIVAN: I went to Dartmouth, and we used to road trip down to Fenway and get standing room without any trouble. It was eight dollars for grandstand seats. But so many seats were empty. You would flip an usher a quarter and you could move down into the seats. Then it changed. What happened was ’67.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


It’s that time of year when football is the talk of many towns and a sport publishers trot out their new wares for. What follows is a beginning sampling of some of the more interestingefforts.

“The Best American Sports Writing 2012” edited by Michael Wilbon (HMH, $14.95, 361 pages, paper) has a lot to recommend it - -and a couple of pieces that I have close connections to. As the author Tony Dorsett’s autobiography “Running Tough,” I was especially enthralled with S. I. Price’s piece on football in Aliquippa, Pa., where the young Tony learned his stuff. As the co-author along with my wife Myrna of “Basketball My Way” by Nancy Lieberman, I was especially interested in the Ben McGrath piece on Nancy as men’s basketball coach. These two and others make “The Best American Sports Writing 2012” live up to its claim in its title.

“Ten Gallon War” by John Eisenberg (HMH, $27.00, 308 pages) is an intriguing flashback to pro football history and the fight for dominance in the gridiron sports in Dallas. It was the Texans of the AFL versus the Cowboys of the NFL and the birth of the game in “Big D.” Like a street fight with an amazing cast of characters, this one is sure to entertain any sports fan.

From the University of Wisconsin comes “Alan Ameche” by Dan Manoyan (Terrace Books, University of Wisconsin Press, $26. 95, 279 pages).It was Ameche who catapulted Wisconsin into collegiate football’s big time as a Heisman Trophy winner for the Badgers. He continued with a brilliant pro career with the Baltimore Colts. A wonderful look back at football history and an insightful portrait of one of the game’s legends.

“Best of Rivals” by Adam Lazarus (DaCapo, $26.00, 304 pages) is a treat for Niner fans. It focuses via many interviews on as its sub-title proclaims “the Inside Story Behind the NFL’s Greatest Quarterback Controversy.” That might be press agent speak, but the book is worth the read – illuminating and engrossing.

From Kevin Cook comes “The Last Headbangers” (Norton, $26.95, 278 pages). The book is football history - - this time the seventies - a time of beyond head-slapping, a time of hard-hitting, rowdy and raunchy behavior. Painkillers, steroids and a sport on the ascent in more ways than one. If you want to re-live some it, this is the tome for you.

Finally, there is “Love’s Winning Plays” by Inman Majors (Norton, $25.95, 256 pages) a novel focused on the ups and downs of young Raymond Love, a coach valiantly attempting to navigate his way through his rookie year of coaching in the Southeastern Conference. Funny, appealing book.

“All In” (Abrams,$29.95, 128 pages)The New York Giants Official 2011 Season and Super Bowl Commemorative is a must for fans of the team.

Also from Abrams two more books from the “101 Reasons to Love”series – one on the Packers by David Green and the other by Ron Green, Jr.

All of these Abrams books are beautifully produced and targeted for specific fan bases, but what’s not to love here for all football fans?

My Remembering Yankee Stadium, Remembering Fenway, and New York City Baseball: The Last Golden Age have all been included in "501 Books Baseball Fans Must Read Before They Die."

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Massive Fire Sale at Fenway: Sixties Swamp Time Looming


            In a spectacular and almost unheard of salary dump, the powers that be with the Red Sox have decided 2012, the 100th anniversary year, is a lost season.
       Jettisoned to the Dodgers  - -Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett and along with this talent Los Angeles takes on almost $250-million in salary.   
        It is not exactly the 1960s at Fenway, but it could be  -  -soon.
            In 1963, Johnny Pesky, on the scene as manager since the end of the ’62 season, got his “country club” group off to a hopeful  start. At the end it would be the same sad story - - a 76-85 record, a seventh place finish, 28 games off the pace.
Dick Stuart and Dick Radatz  were two “cult figures” who performed in the sixties for the Sox. Richard Lee Stuart was with the team in 1963 and 1964. Richard Raymond Radatz had a longer tenure, 1962-1966.
On June 23, 1963 first baseman Stuart, known as "Dr. Strange Glove" for his challenged ways as a fielder, established a major league fielding record, grabbing three first inning grounders and tossing them to pitcher Bob Heffner for putouts. The Yankees, unfortunately, bombed the Sox, 8-0.
 Sox fans delighted in giving Stuart the mock cheer. There was a game when wind was whipping about Fenway as was customary at times.  Stuart, known also in some circles as “Cement Glove,” without losing a step, deftly snatched up a piece of paper that had blown his way.  That effort provoked the crowd into rising up and giving him a standing ovation.
Radatz was a top relief pitcher and a powerful presence on the mound. In 1963, he entered a game against the Yankees with the bases loaded. Reaching back for a little extra, he struck out Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Elston Howard -- all American League MVPs at one time -- on a total of 10 pitches. Mantle afterwards, as the story goes, complained about what it was like to hit against that “monster." Dick Radatz became “Monster” Radatz. 
            STEVE FOLVEN:  I went with my friend Billy Brooks and his uncles by car.   We drove down Commonwealth Ave, parked on a side street across from BU (Boston University)and walked to the park.
The Yankees were winning 1-0 in the last of the ninth.  Stottlemyre was still pitching.  And Yastrzemski led off that inning with a triple.    And then the Sox filled the bases with one out.  And I said, “They’re finally going to win. “ 
Malzone hit like a line drive to third. Clete Boyer, the vacuum cleaner,  just scooped and made an incredible play, threw to second  - the ball went to first, double-play. They lost 1-0.
Leaving, you just went under the bleachers.  It was like the solemn march.  Nobody said too much.  I just remember Billy Brooks’ uncles, as we would go back from these games,  saying, “Yeah and every time we go, we lose.  Every time we go they lose.”  These guys are like 50 or 60 years old and I’m going like, “Don’t take it so seriously, will ya?”   
            Many fans took it seriously. Johnny Pesky was sacked as manager with two games left in the season.  The Sox finished 1964 in 8th place in a 10 team league and drew 883,276 to Fenway.
SAM MELE: I came into Fenway a lot when I managed Minnesota from 1961 to 1967. My home was still in Quincy, Mass. So I slept in my  own bed.  It was funny. I was managing against the team that I loved.
In 1965, we beat Boston 17 out of 18 times, 8 out of the 9 at Fenway.  It actually hurt me, to beat them.  I felt sorry because in my heart I was a Red Sox fan.  I had played for them, I had scouted for them.  Tom Yawkey would come in my office. And we would talk a lot.  Oh yeah, geez, he had me in his will. 
Tony C, (Conigliaro) also put together a “day” for himself on the 27th of  July 1965 at Fenway. He stroked three home runs, two in the opener of a doubleheader and a grand slam in the nightcap.  Boston, however, was a loser in both games to Kansas City.
            The losing, the miserable attendance, the doom and gloom that pervaded Fenway was on parade big time on the 16th of September. The tiniest crowd of the season made its way into Fenway Park  - - just 1,247 paid and 1,123 in on passes. Dave Morehead opposed Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians.  A no-hitter for Morehead!
After the game the news came out that Tom Yawkey, as was his practice, would rewrite Morehead’s contract and give the 22-year-old a $1,000 bonus. That was the good news - the bad news was for General Manager Pinky Higgins. He was let go and replaced by Dick O’Connell.
Fenway was a ghost town of a ball park in 1965 when the team drew but 652,201, an average of 8,052 a game . The worst came late in the season. On September 28th against California only 461 showed to watch the sad Sox. The next day was even worse against the same team – just 409 in the house.  Finishing 9th in the ten-team American League, the Sox lost 100 games and won 62. The nadir had been breached.
Managers kept coming and going. Top prospects somehow never made it for one reason or another. Billy Herman was in place as the 1966 season started.   Early on Dave Morehead, just 24, regarded as a brilliant future star, suffered an injury to his arm and was never the same. Posting a 1-2 record in a dozen appearances, he symbolized the Red Sox of that era - promise but pathos.  Sound familiar?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Harvey Frommer Remembers Johnny Pesky

          It was some years ago when I was at Fenway park doing research and interviewing for one of my baseball books. My son Fred was then a teenager and he accompanied me to the park dressed in a red sweater and packing his baseball glove -- just in case.
     We arrived at the legendary park quite a few hours before game time as is my practice when I am working. Fenway was empty. There was no one in the stands but my son anxious to catch a ball.
         I interviewed one player and then another and then interrupted Johnny Pesky who was hitting fungoes and interviewed him. Gracious, enthusiastic, informed, the man they call "Mr. Red Sox" gave me more than the time of day.
       So I figured I could impose.
       "See that kid in the outfield stands with the red sweater. Could you hit a ball out to him?"
     "And if I hit him on the noggin, then what! We are all in trouble."   
     "You are right," I said, and walked away to interview others.
     Minutes later through the empty ballpark I heard my son's voice and saw him running through the stands to the home plate area. He was shouting: "I got it. I got it." And he had a ball in his hand.
      Pesky was near me and yelled. "Get me that ball. The kid isn't supposed to have it."
    I  went over to my son and got the baseball and brought it to Pesky.
    "What's your son's name?"
     I told him. He autographed the ball "To Fred. Great catch. Johnny Pesky"
       That was my first meeting with Pesky and immediately I knew I had come into contact with a mensch,  good guy.
      But since I am an oral historian and know there are various remembrances of things past, equal time now for my son who today is an AP correspondent based in Washington, D.C.   
    FRED FROMMER: My first time at Fenway Park was September 6, 1981. I'd come along very early with my father who was down on the field interviewing players during batting practice for a book he was writing. I was a huge baseball fan, and I had never been in a stadium that seated fewer than 50,000. Now, I had this 34,000-seat ballpark virtually to myself; it felt like a backyard.
        From the first row behind the short right field wall by the foul pole, I could see balls careening all over the field like pinballs and my dad talking to Red Sox coach Johnny Pesky, who was hitting fungoes.
        "That's my son out there, by the foul pole," I heard him say. "Can you hit a ball to him?"
        "No way," said Pesky. "What if it hits him in the head?"
        "He’ll catch it," my dad assured him. He was confident the endless evenings he had spent hitting me fly balls would pay off.
        But Pesky shook his head. "Sorry, I can't do it."    
        A few minutes later, I heard a crack and a bunch of Red Sox players in right field yell, "Heads-up!"
        I looked up, and there in the blue New England sky was a perfect white sphere. I camped under it. With Pesky's incredible aim, I didn't have to move. The ball just landed in my mitt.
        "Hey, nice catch," one of the Red Sox shouted up at me. “We could use you out here, the way we're playing."
        Just before the game started, Pesky found my dad and told him to get the ball from me. He autographed it: "To Freddy, Nice Catch. Best Wishes, Johnny Pesky."
        I still have the ball.        
    Flash forward to the 21st century and my getting a contract to write what has been called the definitive book on Fenway Park.  My first thought was to try and get Johnny Pesky to write the foreword and to also agree to be one of the 140 oral history voices in the book. I scored on both accounts. 
   What follows in the marvelous and self effacing foreword by the Red Sox legend: 

They call me “Mr. Red Sox.” And that is a special honor considering all the great stars and personalities who have been with the franchise through all the years.
It’s been a wonderful ride for the kid out of Portland, Oregon who signed for a five hundred dollar bonus. I first showed up at Fenway Park in 1942 and never believed that when 2010 rolled around, I would still be on the scene, still be coming to the ballpark, still be putting on the Red Sox uniform, still having my own locker in the clubhouse.
                The organization has honored me by naming the right field foul pole after me, putting me in the Red Sox Hall of Fame, retiring my number.
        As author Harvey Frommer, in this book, brings the great story of Fenway Park to all of us in tremendous detail,  I think back to all the greats I have known, those I played with or saw play at Fenway Park, a kind of who’s who in Sox history - - Mr. Tom Yawkey, Joe Cronin, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Tex Hughson, Mel Parnell, Boo Ferriss, Dick Radatz , Reggie Smith, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Tony Conigliaro,  Jimmy Rice, Jim Lonborg, Carl Yastrzemski, Luis Tiant, Dwight Evans, Dennis Eckersley, Roger Clemens,  Wade Boggs, Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra, Dustin Pedroia, Curt Schilling, Jacoby Ellsbury . . .
        I think back to so many moments at Fenway, good and bad – our winning the 1946 pennant, Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at bat, the Impossible Dream season, the Carlton Fisk home run, that 1975 team that battled the Reds in the World Series, the Bucky Dent homer, the heartbreak loss of the 1986 World Series to the Mets, the great changes in the old ballpark and the exciting work done by the new ownership, the thrill of “breaking the Curse of the Bambino” and winning world championships in 2004, 2007.
I have played for, coached, managed the Sox. I have been in the front office, a television and radio announcer, even an ad salesman. I have probably seen more Red Sox games, hit more fungoes, put in more time at Fenway Park than anyone else in Red Sox history.
As I said, it has been some ride. Seven decades-worth and counting, and I have enjoyed every moment of it. Many of these moments are captured in this book through Harvey Frommer’s riveting narrative, through great photos, and most importantly though the words of those who lived it.
 And as a voice in my book and a person to interview, Pesky was honest, on target, full of BoSox pride, not full of himself. Just a few of his comments from Remembering Fenway Park  follow:
JOHNNY PESKY: Manager Joe Cronin let me play. That was how it all started in 1942 when we went up against the old Boston Braves, an exhibition  City Series,  one game at Fenway and one at Braves Field.
 I made four errors in the exhibition game and felt just terrible about it. I thought Cronin was going to send me down to either Scranton or Louisville. But he didn't say anything to me.
The first time I saw Fenway Park, it was dark and dreary. I was mainly concerned about playing as well as I could and keeping warm.
Opening Day was Tuesday April 14th  . I was 22 years old. I came up the runway, up the three steps and looked out from the dugout. It was an old park even then. But it was very well kept, clean and nice. And right in the middle of the city.    I thought it was beautiful.
 We lived on Bay State road just across from Kenmore Square and could walk across to the ballpark.  I batted leadoff ahead of Dom and Ted.
JOHNNY PESKY: Ted and I  lockered next to one another.  We always talked  baseball. When you’re talking to the greatest hitter, it was  like talking to the Holy Father. 
He said: “Johnny, you’ve got to hit strikes. Don’t’ be afraid to take a pitch. And you’ve got to keep that bat on the level.”  He’d stand up and show me his approach to hitting.  And it stayed with me. 
     JOHNNY PESKY: Coming back from the Navy in 1946, I was impressed with how beautiful the ballpark still was.  Mr. Yawkey came down and talked to us. He said he felt good about the team.  He loved Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr. He was very nice to me, too. 
     Fenway Park was my comfort zone. Very homey.  Fans  were close, liking their ball. After the war, we had great crowds.  The club now got going pretty good. There was much interest in Red Sox baseball and being in Fenway Park.
JOHNNY PESKY:  A big left handed pitcher was going against us. Piersall was going up for his first at bat.  “Goddamn this guy’s awful wild, God damn it, I’m afraid,” Jimmy said.
“If you’re afraid,” I told him, “you better get a lunch pail and go home.” 
   JOHNNY PESKY:  I think Yaz was as good as any outfielder that ever played there, and I’m not taking anything away from Ted.  Yaz was  like an infielder from the outfield.  He threw well; they couldn’t run on him.  And he knew how to play that Monster.
The bio featured in Remembering Fenway Park reads:
         JOHNNY PESKY is MR. RED SOX. A member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame whose number has been retired by the team, he has been a player, manager, coach and goodwill ambassador for the Red Sox since the 1940s.
         That bio tells just half the story. He was also beloved, respected, and honored  - -all for the right reasons.