Bonehead’s Hex

In the late afternoon of September 23, 1908, Fred Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie with the New York Giants, playing in his first full game in the big leagues, stepped into the batter’s box at the Polo Grounds.  The Giants were locked in a torrid pennant race with the Chicago Cubs, who had swept a double-header against them the previous day, cutting the Giants’ lead to one game.

The score was tied 1-1 in the final inning.  With a man on first Merkle sliced a hard liner down the right field line, sending the runner to third.  Merkle held at first base.  The stage was now set for the play that would propel Merkle into everlasting infamy.  Al Bridwell entered the batter’s box.  Years later Bridwell remembered what happened next:  “The first pitch came in to me, a fast ball, waist high, right over the center of the plate.  I promptly drilled a line drive into center field.  The runner at third raced home, but Merkle didn’t go all the way to second base.  Instead, he went halfway down and cut off and started running for the clubhouse.”

Mass confusion followed.  Thousands of fans ran onto the field, thinking the Giants had won.  Which is why Merkle and the rest of the Giants raced to the clubhouse; they always did after a game—to avoid the fans.  But Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, or acquired another ball, and stepped on second base while appealing to the umpire for a force-out of Merkle, which would nullify the apparent winning run.  After a long delay the umpire called Merkle out and the game a tie.  The next day officials stated that if the two teams ended the season tied in the standings, a replay of the game would be necessary.  As fate would have it, they ended the season tied.

The replay game was set for October 8, 1908, precisely 116 years ago to the day when the Giants and Cubs take the field on Friday.  The Cubs won the replay game, 4-2.  The Giants lost the pennant.  Fred Merkle was forever haunted.  He was booed mercilessly; the press crucified him. Even in retirement he found no peace.  People would recognize him and yell, “There’s Bonehead!”  The name stuck.  A new word even found its way into the American lexicon:  To “merkle” was to not arrive, or to make a grievous error.  Merkle put in 16 years of first rate baseball but could never escape his mistake.  He died on March 1, 1956.  He was 67.

But his ghost lives on inWrigley Field.  The Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series.  But it would be their last.  The Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino.  Will the Cubs break the Curse of Fred Merkle?

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Mike and Jim Bow Out

One of the great broadcast duos in the history of baseball—Mike Rafoni and Jim Kullerman—are retiring after 40 years in the booth.  Rafoni, the eminent play-by-play man, and his analyst/lame humorist (his words), announced their retirement before tonight’s road game, the last game of the season.  It’s the top of the ninth and their team is losing, 12-0.  Let’s listen as they return from a commercial break:

MIKE:  Mike Rafoni and Jim Kullerman here, back in the Lowe’s Broadcast Booth—“Let’s Build Something Together.”  Garcia slips a fastball past a helpless Martinez, one and two the count.  That was Garcia’s fifteenth pitch since coming into the game in the eighth inning.  Fifteen minutes can save you fifteen percent on your car insurance.  Call 1-800-GOT AUTO and talk to a GEICO representative now.

JIM:  Garcia lit up the gun, Mike—a hundred and one.  He may be 23 years of age now, but he can still bring it.

MIKE:  The ninth inning is brought to you by SeeAlice, the Official Erectile Dysfunction Pill of Major League Baseball—“SeeAlice—She’ll turn your blooper into a frozen rope.”

JIM:  I don’t’ know about that, Mike.  See, Alice doesn’t live here anymore.

MIKE:  Ha, Ha, a good one, pal.  You’re still a helluva card after all these years.  I forgot you were a movie buff.  And there’s strike three on Martinez, who remains mired in a slump.  One out.  Rodriguez steps into the batter’s box.

JIM:  For some reason SeeAlice reminds me of Bush—the senior Bush.  Remember that line about his privileged upbringing—born on third base and thinks he hit a triple?

MIKE:  I sure do.  My good pal Tweeter Bobbitz came up with a follow-up line regarding junior Bush—born on third base and thinks he hit a double.

JIM:  I love that!  Jesus, poor W.

MIKE:  Garcia, like the artist he is, paints the corner with a slow curve.  Just like our listeners can paint like artists with Sherwyn-Williams Paint—“We Cover the World.”  There’s a ball inside to Rodriguez, one and one.  Any scores from other games, JIM?

JIM:  According to the Toyota out-of-town scoreboard, the double-header between Miami and Colorado is over.  In the first game, the Fish scaled the Rockies, 6-2; in the second the Rockies scaled the Fish 4-0.  “Toyota: Let’s Go Places.”

MIKE:  (Groans) Hardy friggin’har, Jim.  You should be PUNished for that.  Rodriguez singles to center.  We got a man on and one out.

JIM:  One more out of town score, Mike.  Hillary beat the crap out of Trump.  Say, how would you describe Trump’s privileged upbringing?  Born on third base and thinks he hit a homer?

MIKE:  No, that’s too obvious.  I don’t think the difference between Trump and the Bushes is one of degree.  Trump is one of a kind.  This is better, I think:  Donald Trump—born on third base and insists he’s been inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Garcia looks in for the sign.  Here’s the pitch.  Gonzales slaps a hard grounder to short, toss to second, relay to first.  Double play—6-4-3—game over!  Our Boys lose again.  Oh, well, they’re young and should be better next year.

JIM:  Don’t bet your house on it.

MIKE:  You’re right, my man.  We gotta be patient, it’s a rebuilding year.  Jim, before we bow out, I just want to express our appreciation to Major League Baseball and to our sponsors for allowing us to work in some play-by-play during the ball games  And Jim, it’s been a pleasure working with you.  Four decades, my friend.  What a ride it’s been!

JIM:  Indeed it has, Mike.  Let’s go pound some Budweiser.

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Strangers to Irony

“I support our players when they want to see change in society.  On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL.”

–Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, on quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s sitting or kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice.

“We decided to play the anthem ahead of schedule rather than subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent.”

–Spokesperson for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, on the possibility of Megan Rapinoe of the Seattle Reign sitting or kneeling during the national anthem in support of Kaepernick.  Rapinoe had done so in a previous game.

I don’t doubt Roger Goodell’s belief in patriotism.  But it seems rigid, narrow, and limited, as if it were wrapped in a protective layer of dogma, shielded from doubt. It fits with his view of the right to protest.  He supports it strongly, but only in the abstract where it lies at rest, atrophied and sterile.  If you actually exercise protest, as Kaepernick has done, it gets battered and bruised but also grows strong and muscular—strong enough to withstand the slings and arrows of paper patriots.

As for the fans and friends of the Washington Spirit, my heart goes out to them.  While their delicate sensibilities were spared the horrifying spectacle of Megan Rapinoe not standing for the anthem, they must have heard about in the news and suffered nonetheless.

Or am I wrong?  Maybe Spirit fans are tougher and more thoughtful than the spokesperson gives them credit.  After all, their team is the Washington Spirit.  The name brings to mind the spirit of ’76 and the image of George Washington; it conjures the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, Samuel Adams, and the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party.  They all have something in common:  They were protesters; they protested the injustice of the British.  Come to think about it, the United States was founded on the bedrock of protest.

That’s the funny thing about thinking—one thought leads to another.  Before long, if you’re not careful, you could be seized by this thought:  Of the four participants squaring off in the current controversy—Goodell and the spokesperson versus Kaepernick and Rapinoe—which are the patriots and which are the Tories?

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Elysian Fields Quarterly

One evening in 1993 I settled in to read the Nation.  Two words in a display ad caught my eye—“Elysian Fields.”  A baseball nut, I knew about the Elysian Fields.  They were on a bluff in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City.  It was where the Knickerbocker baseball club played the first games of baseball in the early 1840s.  A closer look at the ad revealed, “Elysian Fields Quarterly:  Writing on baseball by fans for fans.”  I immediately subscribed and fell in love with EFQ.

That little magazine, bound in color, each page designed with understated elegance, contained essays, short fiction, poetry, long historical articles, book reviews, and a host of quirky pieces—all written with the clarity of a clean river.

It began as an idea in the mind of Ken LaZebnik in 1980.  He showed a mock-up of a baseball publication to his friend, Stephen Lehman, a fellow resident of Minneapolis.  Energized by their “twin loves of baseball and writing,” they went to work on it.  In January, 1981, The Minneapolis Review of Baseball made its debut with Steve as editor.  In 1992 they gave it a new look and new name—Elysian Fields Quarterly.  By the way, the fields where the first games of baseball were played have another meaning.  In the words of EFQ (printed below the masthead of each issue):  “By the happiest and most appropriate of all baseball coincidences, the name of the site for the ‘birthplace of modern baseball’ is also the name for paradise in Greek mythology.”

Such luminaries as Roger Angel or Tom Boswell never graced the pages of EFQ—it couldn’t afford them. But the journal did publish the likes of Eugene McCarthy, a poet and former Senator from Minnesota, and John Thorn, now the Official Historian of Major League Baseball.  Mostly, one found superb writing by fans, smitten by the twin loves of baseball and writing.   Unfortunately, its financial picture was not so superb.  Losses forced suspension of publication in1995.

Enter Tom Goldstein, a St. Paul sports retailer who loved the Minneapolis Review and EFQ. He persuaded Steve to bring EFQ back to life in 1998. Tom took the helm as publisher, then editor, with Steve serving as associate editor. For the next eleven years Tom worked to increase circulation—it reached over 4,000 subscribers—and hoped that someday “all those pundits and personalities and sportswriters across the land would finally take notice of this wonderful little magazine that’s edgy, rebellious, contrarian, nostalgic—and mostly damn good writing about baseball.”

Unfortunately, it never happened. After years of sacrificing income, losing sleep, and giving the journal every spare moment, he put it on hold, hoping to revive it after a hiatus.  The hiatus continues. The last issue of EFQ came out in the fall of 2008, after nearly 30 years.  However, in a recent email, Tom said, “I’m hoping to set up a Facebook page so the EFQ “family” can communicate with one another.  I still harbor notions of finding some way to bring the journal back.  For some reason, I still haven’t got it out of my system.”

The website is still up for Elysian Fields Quarterly. Google it and you’ll find the story of EFQ in greater detail in About EFQ. Click on Back Issues and you’ll see the cover of every issue, including a synopsis of each issue.  It’s well worth the trip through EFQ-land.

I can be reached through this blog at Bobbitz@comcast.net.

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Team Loyalty

I have a friend, a Yankee-hating Red Sox fan, who sports a cool little tattoo on her ankle—a bright red pair of those Boston Sox with white toes and heels.  She’s not from Boston and she’s never been there.  So how did she latch on to the Hub Nine?  When she was a little girl, her aunt dated a fellow Portlander, Johnny Pesky, for a few years.  My friend met Pesky and fell in love with the Red Sox.  End of story.

Traditionally, a kid becomes a fan of a team because her dad or mom was a fan.  Doris Kearns Goodwin is a classic example.  Her dad loved the Brooklyn Dodgers, so she loved Dem Bums.  When they abandoned Brooklyn for LA, it broke her heart and pissed her off.  So she attached herself to the Red Sox.  Another example:  A friend of mine, who died in 1996, grew up in Brooklyn and also loved the Dodgers.  Unlike Goodwin, when the Bums flew the coop to the west coast, he simply became a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Of course not every kid follows his progenitors’ path.  Some parents aren’t even ball fans.  I knew a guy in high school who became a lifelong Dodger fan after he saw a movie in 1952—”The Jackie Robinson Story.”  One last Dodger case:  A veterinarian in Salem, Oregon cast his lot with the Dodgers when their Triple-A farm team played in Spokane, where he grew up.  The team featured the infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, and Bill Russell—which became the longest tenured infield in big league history.

A lot of Iowans in the late thirties, including my old man, liked the Cleveland Indians simply because of Bob Feller (Rapid Robert), the fire-balling hurler from Van Meter, Iowa.

Geography often plays a role.  The former publisher and editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly cheered for the Washington Senators when he grew up in the DC area.

Geography also determined my loyalty.  In the late 40s and early 50s I liked the Cubs.  But when the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee and immediately began winning, I fell in love with them and Eddie Mathews their slugging third baseman.  A former boss of mine here in Portland, grew up in Boston and loved his Braves, but ditched them when they lit out for Milwaukee.  I did the same when they pulled up stakes in 1966 for the greener pastures of Atlanta.

I’ve not had permanent loyalty since then.  I follow several old teams—franchises from the first years of the 20th Century, and if a team strikes my fancy by winning a lot, I root with the same passion I had for those Milwaukee Braves.  I loved the Cardinals of the 60s and 80s; the Dodgers of the 70s; the Red Sox in 1986 (I screamed in horror when that little ground ball found its way between Buckner’s legs); the Phillies in 1980 and the early 1990s; the Yankees of Jeter, Mariano, Jorge, Andy, and Bernie; the Cardinals when they beat the Rangers (I screamed in utter joy when David Freese deep-freesed the hated Rangers).

This year I root for the Cubs, like a lot of fans.  But if they meet the Giants in the NLCS, I’ll be torn, because the Giants are my favorite team these days.

Anyway, I guess you could call me a front-runner, and you’d be right.

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The Triumverate

On most lists of the greatest baseball players in history, Babe Ruth sits at the top.  I can’t argue with that.  As well as a superlative slugger, Ruth was a peerless pitcher.  But I can argue that he’s not alone at the top.  The Bambino shares the throne with two others.

Rating players from different eras is problematic at best.  Improvements in equipment (especially balls and gloves and playing grounds) make it nearly impossible to compare, say, Ken Griffey Jr. with Tris Speaker.  These two also bring to mind the great stain in baseball history.  Black players—from the 19th century to the late 1940s—could not compete against big leaguers.  So the lists are suspect from the start.  But who doesn’t love lists?

Before I get to my top three, I need to clarify a couple things.  I eliminate from consideration those players tainted by steroid use.  It’s sad and unfortunate, but the likes of Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, who may well have assumed the throne had they played it straight, do not qualify.  Neither do pitchers.  I have never understood including them on lists of the greatest players.  Pitchers are different.  They have their own lists.

I have three criteria that determine my triumvirate.  First, I mostly rate players only within their era.  Second, a player must dominate his era; and third, I include a player who’s the consensus choice as the greatest all-around player of any era.  Here’s my Triple Crown:

THE BAMBINO

Only one other player dominated an era as did Ruth.  No player changed the game of baseball as did Ruth.  Before him the game was played station-to-station:  hit a single, steal second base, or wait for a hit-and-run or a sacrifice bunt.  The ball was dead; home runs were scarce, even disparaged—until along came Ruth.  In the 1920s/early 30s he had no peer, with the possible exception of Lou Gehrig, his teammate

Gehrig’s 162-games averages—37 HR, 149 RBI—roughly equaled Ruth’s,–46 and 143—but his totals lag behind due to the illness that cut short his career.

Certainly Rogers Hornsby came close.  The Rajah batted .358 with 301 homers and 1,584 RBI.  He hit over .400 three times.  His 162-game averages for homers and RBI were 22 and 114.  But Ruth also had a very high batting average (.342) and blasted 714 homers and drove in 2,214 runs.  Hornsby won seven batting titles, but Ruth won 12 home run titles.

Moreover, neither Gehrig nor Hornsby took the mound and racked up a winning percentage of .671 (94-46) and an ERA of 2.28 over five years!  (If Ruth had remained on the mound, he may have topped the pitcher’s list.)

THE GEORGIA PEACH

The only other player who dominated an era was Ty Cobb—the terror of the dead-ball era.  If not for Cobb, Honus Wagner (162 game averages: .328, 37 doubles, 100 RBI) who won 8 batting titles and stole 723 bases would have dominated.  Everyone ranks below him:  Nap Lajoie (.338 BA (5 titles); Tris Speaker, who batted .346 with 436 stolen bases, and was considered a great center fielder; Sam Crawford, who hit .309, drove in 1,532 runs (3 titles), and stroked 309 triples, still the record; Shoeless Joe Jackson (.356—third highest BA lifetime); and Eddie Collins, who batted .333 and was thought to be the best second baseman of the dead-ball era.

Only Wagner can be mentioned in the same breath as Cobb.  Those two, along with Ruth are among the five charter members of the Hall of Fame (Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson, both pitchers, are the other two).  But even Wagner’s numbers pale when put next to Cobb’s.  Cobb compiled 12 batting titles and hit .366 life time, both records unbroken.  He stole 897 bases (6 titles) and hit over .400 three times.  What’s more he drove in almost 2,000 runs.  By the way, according to the rigorously researched biography by Charles Leershem (Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty), Cobb was no more a dirty player than any other of his era; nor was he particularly a racist.

THE SAY HEY KID

The greatest all-around player, according to a lot of experts, is Willie Mays, and I agree.  He did not dominate his era—the fifties and sixties—probably the greatest period in history.  Others rank with him—Henry Aaron, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey, Eddie Mathews.  I include Musial and Williams in this era because both played into the early sixties and were productive.  Joe DiMaggio played in the late thirties and early fifties, so he’s hard to fit in, but no matter; he was not great enough to be in the top three.

Because Mays played centerfield and had the five tools of all-around prowess—arm, speed, power, glove, and high BA—he stands slightly above Aaron, Williams, Musial, and Mantle (who played center, but was injured early in his career, cutting into his production.

No doubt the 1970s, 80s and 90s produced outstanding players (Bench, Morgan, Carew, Schmidt, Rose, Ripken, Sandburg, Henderson, Yount, Thomas, Piazza, Larkin), but none match Mays.  Only one player—Ken Griffey Jr.—stands with Mays, but he like Mantle suffered injuries that keep him out of the triumvirate.  Ricky Henderson is grossly underrated, by the way.

As for players of the 21st century, it’s too early to judge them.  Attaining legendary status, like good whiskey, requires the passage of time.

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The Rule of Three

The number 3 and its multiples are prevalent throughout baseball:  3 strikes and you’re out; 3 up and 3 down; 3 bases and home.  Nine innings in a game, 9 players per side, 90 feet between the bases.  Each base forms 90 degrees.  Each team gets 27 outs.  But enough already, I want to get to an altogether different set of 3s.

A consistently competitive team needs a trio of good-to-excellent players within three areas—pitching, defense, and offense.  I’m not saying the team will be a champion every year, but it will rarely be one without that combination.  With it, it will win a lot of games.  To illustrate the point and give it some flesh and blood, I will use my favorite team when I was growing up in the wonderful little town of Marion in the great state of Iowa in the 1950s—the Milwaukee Braves.

PITCHING:  A winning team needs an ace followed by two really good hurlers in its rotation.  The final two in a five-man rotation have to be good enough to eat innings—average and durable.  (Not all teams can have aces all over the place, like the Mets.)  The Braves of the ‘50s boasted one of the greatest of all time as its ace—Warren Spahn, who won 20 or more games 13 times.  Following Spahn was Lew Burdette, who compiled a 179-120 record in 13 years with Milwaukee, a winning percentage of .599.  His ERA was 3.53.  Bob Buhl manned the 3 slot with a 109-72 record over 10 years (.602 winning percentage) and an ERA of 3.27.

DEFENSE:  To augment the pitching staff, three defenders behind the pitcher must be good or above average—the shortstop, the second baseman, and the center fielder.  Most balls are hit up the middle.  Johnny Logan held down the shortstop position for the Braves.  He was an above average shortstop (.965 fielding pct.) with great range and was a five-time All Star.  Second base was a problem for the Braves.  For several years in the mid ‘50s, mediocre players filled that position. The Braves still won some games, but in 1957 they acquired Red Schoendienst and won the World Series, which emphasizes the point being made here. 
Schoendienst made 10 All Star teams and fielded brilliantly (.983 career percentage).  The center fielder was one of my favorite players.  Bill Bruton had tremendous speed, a must for that position.  He was consistently among the top five in putouts and assists among center fielders.  These three defenders do not necessarily have to be great hitters, but the Braves trio hit well enough (Logan .270, Schoendienst .289, Bruton .276).  The next trio, however, absolutely must pound the baseball.

OFFENSE:  These three make up what’s called the meat of the order—the 3-4-5 spots in the batting order.  The Braves of the ‘50s had one of the greatest in horsehide history—Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Adcock.  I will use 162-game career averages for each of them.  Aaron hit third in the batting order, a position traditionally calling for a high average hitter with power.  Aaron batted .305 with 37 homers and 113 RBI.  Mathews hit cleanup, batting .271 with 35 homers and 98 RBI.  In the fifth position—important because it protects the cleanup hitter—Adcock, one of the all-time great number five hitters, batted .277 with 28 homers and 93 RBI.  Again, these are career stats averaged over a 162-game season.

The Milwaukee Braves were very good from 1953 to the early ‘60s. Bill James, the father of Sabremetrics, thought they should have more World Series than the one in 1957, but were mismanaged by Fred Haney.  In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta, and I disowned them.

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