Ralph Kiner, a fixture in the Mets broadcast booth since their debut in 1962, was honored on July 14 with a "night." A mix of baseball celebrities were on hand, including former Mets players (Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, Rusty Staub, Jerry Koosman, Ed Charles, and Tom Seaver, who did a fairly shaky job in his remarks, fellow media (former teammate Bob Friend and Keith Hernandez; Marty Noble penned a nice piece on MLB.Com), and stars from Kiner’s generation (Yogi Berra and Bob Feller).
It gives me a chance to rerun a review of his most recent book Baseball Forever: Reflections of 60 Years in the Game, (written with Danny Peary. Triumph Books, 2004), that originally appeared in the Spring 2005 edition of Nine.
Ralph Kiner was smart enough to realize early on that an athletic avocation is usually short-lived and uncertain. Yet he contradicts this notion in Baseball Forever as he reminisces about his sixty-five-year association with the national pastime.
Kiner was the premier slugger of his day. Over his ten-season career, curtailed by back injuries, he led the National League in home runs seven consecutive years. Not even the mighty Babe had enjoyed such a streak. Kiner finished with 369 round-trippers and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.
In many ways Kiner was ahead of his time. Considered opinion of his era (1946-55) eschewed swimming, golf, and weightlifting for players, yet Kiner employed these activities as part of his off-season regime. On a more intellectual level he became an integral part of the fledgling players’ movement, fighting for improved conditions and salaries.
Blessed with movie star looks Kiner could have been the poster boy for Nike’s old "Chicks dig the long ball" advertising campaign. When someone pointed out that he didn’t hit for much of an average (.279, a low figure for a superstar), he often quipped, "Singles hitters drive Fords; home run hitters drive Cadillacs."
After retiring as a player Kiner relearned the game from a front office perspective, serving as the general manager for the Minor League San Diego Padres before beginning his apprenticeship as a broadcaster.
Baseball Forever is not a typical autobiography. Kiner juxtaposes his own experiences with the modern game. He uses the same folksy ease in his book as he does on the air, with his chapters on such topics as the athlete-celebrity connection, the mania over home runs, and "The Future, Then and Now." His chapter on baseball’s slow progress at integration is particularly thoughtful. He is also quite candid on the subject of drugs. "People who believe that there were no drugs in baseball at all in my time are misinformed," writes Kiner. "There were. In the forties and fifties, we had Benzedrine and Dexedrine. A large percentage of players took them … because they could keep you awake and alert. I admit I took them."
Kiner was one of the New York Mets’ inaugural announcers. From 1962, when the team debuted, to 1979, he shared both television and radio chores with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson–the longest-running trio of announcers in pro sports. (Murphy retired in 2003, leaving Kiner as the only link to the Mets’ first season.)
Kiner was the prototypical ex-jock, engaged to comment on the game in relationship to his own playing days. Despite the occasional flub or malapropism, he has been one of the constants in Mets fans’ lives. In spite of his membership in the media fraternity, Kiner is empathetic to those athletes who refuse interviews. In his day the press developed relations with athletes and kept their remarks almost exclusively to what happened on the field. Nowadays there is little in the way of celebrity privacy. Everything is fair game for discussion, especially those salacious bits of off-the-field "human interest."
"I think players are less forthcoming … because it’s very hard to say anything ‘off the record’ anymore," Kiner observes. "You can tell a reporter whom you trust something very personal, and he will keep to his promise not to write anything, but he’ll give the information to another reporter who will put it in his column. That’s done a lot, which is why some players decided it’s just easier not to talk to anybody."
Baseball Forever, written in collaboration with Danny Peary, whose previous baseball titles include the brand-new 1001 Reasons to Love Baseball and Cult Baseball Players: The Greats, the Flakes, the Weird and the Wonderful, serves as a reminder that the game is not just what happens today but also the memories, history, and lore of past generations. Kiner and his contemporaries muse about the current state of baseball: "When we have one of those moments when we can’t figure out how today’s game relates to the game we once played, someone will remind us, ‘The pitcher still stands 60’6" from the batter, and there are still 27 outs and no time limit.’… The game hasn’t really changed at all. It’s just different."
By his own description, George "Birdie" Tebbetts was a "Joe"–that is, he wasn’t the type of player who could hit 40 home runs or bat .300 or win any awards: "Joes are the guys who win you the pennant."
Tebbetts may not have won many flags in his long career as a player, manager (his picture when he was skipper of the Cincinnati Reds graced the cover of TIME magazine in 1957), and scout, but he was a member of the small fraternity of those men who devoted their entire professional lives to the game.
A compulsive diarist, Birdie, with the help of his cousin James Morrison, wrote this autobiography a short time before he passed away in 1999.
Born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1912, Tebbetts developed into a steady, if not outstanding, catcher for the Tigers (under the tutelage of the great Mickey Cochrane). He became something of a journeyman, moving on to Boston and Cleveland before calling it quits as a player.
He considers himself lucky to call such men as Ted Williams, Fred Hutchinson, and Hank Greenberg teammates and friends. The description of his relationship with Hutchinson, who died of cancer at age forty-eight, is especially touching in a generation during which men internalized their feelings.
To make it as a "lifer," one has to be especially observant. Tebbetts shares some of these insightful and amusing observations, and not just with the standard, common-sense, by-the-numbers cliches on which writers-***-ballplayers seem to rely. Breaking away from the pat descriptions of veterans returning from World War II to reclaim their jobs to appreciative fans, Tebbetts comes right out to say that some of the replacement players "had on occasion told us they were sorry the war ended as quickly as it did. They knew as soon as it was over their ride was over."
Tebbetts was proud of his accomplishments as a catcher, handling some of the greatest pitchers and staffs of all time: Spahn, Newhouser, Grove, Feller, and Lemon. His description of the responsibilities of the backstop is almost poetic. He notes with disdain the way modern catchers try to "frame" pitches, pulling in balls out of the strike zone with the hope of getting the call. He suggests, in a Casey Stengel kind of way, that
[if it’s] a ball and it doesn’t mean that much, make a ball out of it! The umpire is going to like that. And when you really need it, you get a ball that far off, and he’s expecting you to catch it in the ball zone, but instead you pull it into the strike zone, instead of saying "Ball!" he says "Strike!" but he knows that up to that time you haven’t been framing, so he thinks it’s a strike.
In other words, have respect for the umpire and bide your time. (These sentiments are eerily restated by the Mets’ Mike Piazza in the April 15 issue of ESPN The Magazine.)
Birdie elaborates on the special relationship between catchers and umpires, noting that no other player spends as much time in proximity to the men in blue. He preaches courtesy and honesty or, as he puts it, "chivalry at home plate." He tells the story of helping out an umpire who was still suffering occasional dizzy spells from the lingering effects of a gas attack in World War I and was having a difficult time seeing pitches one day. In a display of compassion that seems unbelievable today, both Birdie and the opposing catcher conspired to help out the arbiter: if the catchers raised their right hands, the call would be a strike; if they lifted the left, it was a ball. This allowed the umpire time to gather his wits and ultimately keep his job.
Tebbetts also takes partial credit for ending the practice of having photographers roaming the field during the game. Up to that point the shutterbugs were allowed to gather close to the action. An on-field argument between Tebbetts and an umpire wound up in the paper the following day, breaking the unwritten dictum of not blabbing to the press about such things. Each man thought the other guilty of violating the code when in fact it was a nearby photographer who was responsible for the breach of etiquette. Shortly thereafter National League president Warren Giles enforced the ban.
Birdie is an especially rewarding bio, coming from a regular guy who was lucky enough to spend his life doing what he loved. When asked how he would like to be remembered when he passes away, Tebbetts responded, "I’m just a baseball guy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be."
The only disappointing aspect of the book is that it is too short. With the life Tebbetts led, and the entertaining, straight-shooting way he describes it, the book could have easily been twice as long and no fan would complain.
This review appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Nine.
1941: The Greatest Year in Sports
by Mike Vacarro (Doubleday, 2006)
While he does cover other sports in his newest offering, Mike Vaccaro, New York Post sportswriter and author of Emperors and Idiots, one of the endless stream of titles about the Red Sox-Yankees 2004 season, spends most of his prose on a quartet of baseball stars — Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams — “who made history in the shadow of the War.”
Vaccaro sheds some light — perhaps unwanted — about the circumstances surrounding the registration, enlistment, and induction of the ballplayers. Fans tend to forget that these athletes were mostly in their twenties when the war broke out, in the midst of a profession that by definition was short-lived. For some reason, perhaps because they are sports heroes, they are held to a higher standard, as if no one else facing conscription tried to work the draft system to his advantage, seeking deferment or other considerations.
Greenberg, writes Vaccaro, had the misfortune of registering in Detroit, where he lived during the season, rather than his Bronx, NY home. Because his Michigan precinct was less densely populated than New York, his number came up quickly. It was because he was a celebrity that the draft board was determined to show no favoritism. So like Feller and Williams, Greenberg lost several prime years to the service of his country (DiMaggio spent most of his time playing baseball, as a morale booster for the troops, and never saw combat). And if they weren’t ecstatic about their situations …well, who be? Even Job complained. That would seem to be the norm, not the exception.
Non-fans at the time made no bones about these physically fit specimens who even thought of seeking relief. Vaccaro includes an example of consternation:
Bobby Feller soured himself on the public when he said he wouldn’t seek deferment — but let his mother and yourselves in the newspaper field go to bat for him. Anyone would be silly to think he didn’t know what his mother was writing to the draft board seeking exemption on account of having dependents.
1941 does a credible job of conveying the excitement of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Williams’ chase for .400, but these topics have been covered in other books. Where Vaccaro excels is in balancing seemingly trivial athletic pursuits with the life-and-death issues of WW II. Of course, there’s always a problem, especially in the world of sports, of declaring anything "the greatest." But it does make for some interesting reflection and discussion.
"Casey at the Bat" has served as fodder for generations. Ernest L. Thayer’s poem (subtitled "A Ballad of the Republic") has appeared in several incarnations as a juvenile picture book, portrayed by the likes of Leroy Neiman and C.F. Payne, among others. In one of the most visually and socially dazzling versions, Joe Morse depicts the story from an urban, inner-city point of view.
"Casey" has also led to dozens of imitations and extensions of the original story ("Casey Returns," "Casey’s Daughter") Listen Garison Keeler’s version, "Casey: The Other Point of View" from A Prairie Home Companion; the poem appears at the 35-minute mark in the second part of the show. The poem has been recorded by seasoned performers such as James Earl Jones and baseball stars such as Johnny Bench and Dave Winfield, with full orchestral backup.
One of my favorites treatises is The Annotated Casey at the Bat: A Collection of Ballads About the Mighty Casey/Third, Revised Edition, released by Dover Publications in 1995, which includes many of the aforementioned versions.
The ballad has also spawned several full-length works of fictional prose, including Frank Deford’s Casey on the Loose (1989), as well as a 1986 film version starring Elliot Gould, Carol Kane, and Howard Cosell. Here’s a review of The Night Casey Was Born, a new non-fiction "biography" of the poem, written byJohn Evangelist Walsh.
Dodger photographer highlighted game off the fields
In an effort to preserve his legacy, Stein’s daughter, Bonnie Crosby, collaborated with Dennis D’Agostino to produce a collection of his
work, Through a Blue Lens: The Brooklyn Dodgers Photographs of Barney Stein,
1937-57 (Triumph Books).
Crosby and D’Agostino a former public relations employee for the NY Mets, discussed their project at a program at a June program hosted by the Yogi Berra Museum and Education Center in Little Falls, NJ.
Stein said her father taught her not only about photography “but about the emotions of the game.” He presented more than the action on the field, she said; he showed the Dodgers and their extended community of employees, families, and fans.
D’Agostino described Stein as “one of the greatest news photographers New York has ever seen. He photographed everything from heads of state, entertainers, tragedies, gangsters, etc.,” he said. “And then when the whistle blew every day
at five o’clock at the Post [where Stein had a full-time position], off he’d go to Ebbets Field to have his second job.” Flipping through the book, the reader sees the artist himself joining in the fun and managing to capture his subjects with their guards down.
Perhaps his most famous shot is one of unmitigated agony for old-time Dodgers fans: pitcher Ralph Branca, head bowed in grief after yielding baseball’s most famous home run, ‘the shot heard ‘round the world,” hit by the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson to win the 1951 National League pennant.
On the lighter side, one of Stein’s favorite photos features Marilyn Monroe at Ebbets Field in 1957 demonstrating her “athletic skills” for Israel’s Hapoel soccer team during an exhibition with a team of American all-stars.
“The Israelis were asked what they wanted to see during their visit,” D’Agostino said. Their response: “‘As athletes, we’d like to meet the Brooklyn Dodgers; as men we’d like to meet Marilyn Monroe
Photos courtesy Barney Stein Photo Collection, LLC. A version of this article appears in the June 21 issue of the New Jersey Jewish News
My review of Tom Stanton’s new book appeared on Bookreporter.com. Kudos to Stanton for finding a heretofore un- (or under-) reported event in the backstory of baseball. And further credit for bucking the conventional wisdom that Cobb was just a nasty S.O.B.
Stanton also discussed his book on NPR’s Only a Game.
The SABR Baseball List and Record Book, edited by Lyle Spatz (Scribner)
The ambitious Record Book contains almost 750 categories. The cover heralds the volume as "Baseball’s most fascinating and unusual statistics" with an asterisk that draws the eye to a tiny footnote claiming that the information is "not available online or in any other book." (It’s a commentary on the book industry that it has to play second fiddle to the Internet.)
Strictly speaking, of course, this statement is not true. There are other sources where one can find the most consecutive games played or most wins by a right handed relief pitcher. And although there are several interesting lists, for the most part I daresay they would be classified as neither "fascinating" nor "unusual." While the fact that Sammy Sosa holds "the record" for the longest time between home runs in a park (5,824 days at Fenway) is interesting, I would hesitate to classify it as fascinating, save in the characterizing of those people who would take the time to keep track of such ephemera.
Having said that, this book is quite entertaining. One could easily see broadcasters utilizing the book to supplement the teams’ media guides (longest gap between 100 RBI seasons: Harold Baines, 14 years).
But it could have been better, more user friendly. For some categories, it might have been useful to provide the players’ teams, especially for certain seasonal citations. It might also have been helpful to have some typographic device to indicate active players to put them in context with the all-time leaders.
Infrequent notes are helpful. For example, Ted Williams’ only pinch-hit home run in a 1-0 game clinched the pennant for the Red Sox in 1946. Such nuggets, however, are few and far between, which could be attributed to space issues.
Among the highlights of the SABR Baseball List:
- In 1996, Brady Anderson led off four consecutive games for the Orioles with home runs; the Birds lost all four games.
- A table of Triple Crown losers (i.e., batters who finished last in HR, RBI and BA).
- Barry Bonds had more walks than games played in four straight seasons.
- Of Leon Wagner’s 26 home runs for the Angels in 1963, only two came at his home field.
- Walter Johnson won 110 shutouts; 38 of them were 1-0.
- Since 1957, no one has made more game-ending outs than Pete Rose’s 150.
- Umpire Bill Klem ejected 239 players and managers over his career.
- Tommy Davis hit home runs that gave Sandy Koufax a 1-0 victory on three occasions.
Despite some flaws in design and scope, the SABR book is a labor of love that will undoubtedly be useful to researchers and just plain fans.