How Did Gibby Ever Lose in ’68?


By Glen Sparks

Any discussion of Bob Gibson’s great and glorious 1968 season gets around to this one inevitable question: How did the St. Louis Cardinals ace ever lose nine games that year?

Well, as they say, it wasn’t easy. The 32-year-old right-hander pitched 304.2 innings in ’68 and gave up just 38 earned runs. That equated to a remarkable 1.12 ERA, the lowest figure in the live-ball era. He posted a WAR of 11.3, higher than Sandy Koufax (10.7 in 1963), Juan Marichal (10.3 in 1965) or Don Drysdale (8.0 in 1964) ever put up in one campaign.

Gibson compiled a 22-9 won-loss record in ‘68. How is it that he, in his 10th year in the majors, did not win 25 or 30 games? Denny McLain, after all, went 31-6 for the Detroit Tigers in 1968. He posted an ERA of 1.96, an impressive mark but one nearly double Gibson’s number.

This post offers a review of Gibson’s season in the fabled Year of the Pitcher (Drysdale set a record, since broken, with his 58 2/3-inning scoreless streak, Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with just a .301 batting average, Luis Tiant topped the A.L. with a 1.60 ERA, etc.) and takes a close look at the Redbird hurler’s nine defeats.

The 6-foot-1-inch right-hander began the season with two no-decisions, one at home and one on the road, both against the Atlanta Braves. He shut out Atlanta over seven innings in the first game and gave up three earned runs in the second.

April 20, Busch Stadium, St. Louis –

“Hoot” Gibson as some called the Cardinals pitcher, after the old movie cowboy star, started against Ferguson Jenkins. Billy Williams smacked a two-run home run in the first inning to give Chicago an early lead. Gibson gave up two more runs, both unearned, in the fifth, following an error by St. Louis second baseman Julian Javier. Chicago added a run in the eighth on a Lou Johnson RBI double.

The Cardinals finally scored when Curt Flood ripped a solo homer in the ninth inning off Jenkins. Both starting pitchers hurled complete games as Chicago won 5-1. The five runs tied for the most that Gibson gave up in any one game in 1968. His ERA stood at 2.35, the highest following any contest all season and the only time it stood above 2.00 at the end of the day. His won-loss record was 0-1.

Gibson won three straight decisions following that loss to Chicago. He beat the Pittsburgh Pirates at home, the Houston Astros on the road and the New York Mets in St. Louis. He threw a total of 32 innings in those three wins (Yes, nine innings, 12 innings and 11 innings), surrendered just 17 hits and allowed only one run in each game.

May 12, Busch Stadium, St. Louis –

Gibson faced the Houston Astros and Larry Dierker, a 21-year-old right-hander from southern California. Dierker went nine innings in this one and gave up two runs, just one of them earned. Gibson pitched eight innings and allowed three runs, two earned. Gibby struck out 10 and gave up 11 hits, one of just four times he surrendered at least 10 hits. His ERA was now 1.43. His won-loss record dipped to 3-2.

May 17, Shibe Park, Philadelphia –

Gibson battled the Phillies’ Woodie Fryman, a third-year left-hander, in this match-up. Neither pitcher gave up a run through nine innings. Fryman shut down the Cards in the 10th, while the Phillies pushed across a run in the bottom of that frame to win 1-0.

Fryman singled to open the 10th and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt Tony Gonzalez. With two outs, former Cardinal Bill White singled to centerfield; Fryman sprinted home. Gibson gave up seven hits and four walks in 9.2 innings. He lowered his ERA to 1.36, while his won-loss mark dropped to 3-3.

May 22, Busch Stadium, St. Louis –

Not surprisingly, Gibson found himself in the middle of several pitching duels in 1968. In this one, he faced the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Don Drysdale. Two hard-throwing right-handers with big fastballs and nasty reputations for throwing inside squared off. Gibson gave up just one run over his eight innings. L.A. first baseman Wes Parker drilled an RBI double to score Paul Popovich, who had walked, in the third inning. The Dodgers added a second run in the ninth, off reliever Joe Hoerner.

Drysdale, though, tossed a shutout in front of a paltry crowd of just 9,560. He gave up five hits, struck out eight and did not issue a walk. Gibson, in addition to the one run, walked two and fanned six. (Just for the record, neither pitcher hit a batter.) He gave up just the lone hit, to Parker. Gibson won-loss record was now 3-4 and his ERA was 1.34.

May 28, Busch Stadium, St. Louis –

This time, Gibson got to face the Giants’ Gaylord Perry. The Cardinals put a run across in the first inning when Lou Brock scored on a fielder’s choice with Roger Maris at bat. Perry, famous for tossing spitballs (real and imagined), shut out St. Louis the rest of the way.

Gibby gave up a solo home run to Dick Dietz in the sixth inning and a two-run homer to Willie Mays in the seventh. His ERA rose to 1.52, and his won-loss record dipped to 3-5. The great Bob Gibson was fighting a four-game losing streak. In those four games, he pitched 33.2 innings, gave up just 23 hits, struck out 34 and walked 12. His ERA over that span? 1.90.

Gibson pitched a good, not great, game against the New York Mets on June 2 at Shea Stadium. The Redbird muscled up and scored six runs; Gibson allowed three in a complete-game effort. He ended his own losing streak, upped his record to 4-5 and raised his ERA to 1.66. Hoot’s incredible run for the ages began with his next start, June 6 against the Astros in Houston. He shut out the ‘Stros on a three hitter.

Between June 6 and July 30, Gibson made 11 starts and went 11-0. He completed every game and tossed eight shutouts. In the other three games, he gave up one run to each team. No one had a chance. Opponents hit .163 against him and slugged .190. Gibby struck out 83 in 99 innings and gave up only 56 hits. He hurled five straight shutouts, from June 6 to June 26. The man with the crackling fastball and the devastating slider had caught fire. His ERA on July 30 was 0.96.

The 2016 documentary Fastball goes into details about baseball’s most fearsome pitch. Gibson merits his own section in the film. He talked about his great 1968 season.

“I was in a zone that entire year,” he said. “I had complete control over the game. I felt like I could throw it wherever I wanted.”

He also added, “I lost nine games … I would sit by myself on the bench. No one would get near me. I was (angry). Get me a run!”

Following a mild hiccup that turned into a no-decision—he gave up five runs (four earned) and 12 hits but in 11 innings on a sweltering day at Busch Stadium against the Cubs on Aug. 4 before giving way to the bullpen—Gibson continued on his epic roll. He beat the Braves, Cubs and Phillies on the road, throwing three complete games and two shutouts. His record following the Aug. 19 game in Philadelphia stood at 18-5. His ERA was exactly 1.00.

Aug. 24, Busch Stadium, St. Louis –

This one looked like it might be a fairly easy win for Gibson. Yes, the Pittsburgh line-up boasted Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Matty Alou. But Gibby was facing Bob Moose, a 20-year-old pitcher in his first full season in the big leagues. St. Louis led 4-0 after four innings.

Stargell, though, slammed a solo homer in the top of the seventh, and Alou hit a sacrifice fly in the eighth to score Freddy Patek. Suddenly, the Cards led just 4-2. But, Gibson was pitching, right? No problem.

Stargell led off the ninth for the Bucs with a double. Donn Clendenon reached base on a Dal Maxvill error, which scored pinch-runner Gary Kolb to make the game 4-3.

Gibson struck out a season-high 15 batters. His record slipped to 18-6. His ERA was a masterful 1.07

Gibby got his revenge against the Bucs just four days later. He hurled a four hit shutout at Forbes Field to go to 19-6 with a 1.03 ERA. This time, he fanned 14.

On Sept. 2, Gibson notched his 20th victory the hard way. He went 10 innings to beat the Cincinnati Reds 1-0 at Crosley Field. He gave up four hits, walked three and struck out eight. Baseball’s top pitcher went to 20-6. His ERA on Sept. 2 dipped to 0.99.

Sept. 6, Busch Stadium, St. Louis –

Bobby Bolin, a young veteran having an excellent season (He would finish the year 10-5 with a 1.99 ERA.), matched up against Gibson in the first game of a doubleheader.

The Cards scored first, on an RBI single from Curt Flood in the bottom of the third. The Giants came back with two runs in the top of the fourth, on an RBI single from Jesus Alou (Matty’s brother) and an RBI double from Jack Hiatt. A Maxvil error led to one of the runs.

Hal Lanier added a run-scoring single for San Francisco in the sixth inning to make the score 3-1. St. Louis managed one run in the eighth, and the game ended with a score of 3-2. Gibson pitched eight innings and gave up nine hits and two earned runs. He struck out seven and didn’t walk a batter. His record was now 20-7 with an ERA of 1.03.

The Dodgers came to Busch Stadium on Sept. 11 with Mike Kekich going up against Gibson. This was not one of Hoot’s best games. He went nine innings, allowing 11 hits and four earned runs. Kekich, though, gave up three runs in just 1.2 innings, and reliever Jim “Mudcat” Grant surrendered two in 6.1 innings. The Redbirds won 5-4, and Gibson’s record was 21-7. His ERA was 1.13.

Sept. 17, Candlestick Park, San Francisco –

Once again, Gibson locked up with the Gaylord Perry. Once again, Perry won this duel. Each pitcher threw a complete game. Ron Hunt smacked a home run in the bottom of the first inning, and it held up. The Giants won 1-0. Perry hurled a no-hitter, the only one of his career. Gibson allowed the one run and four hits. He walked two and struck out 10. He lowered his record to 21-8. His ERA was still 1.13.

Sept. 22, Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles –

Talented right-hander Don Sutton hooked up with Gibson in this late-season game. Neither pitcher allowed a run through the first five innings on a Sunday afternoon. The Dodgers finally broke out on top with a Popovich RBI single in the sixth. Willie Crawford’s solo home run in the seventh inning made it 2-0 Los Angeles.

The Cardinals tied the game, 2-2, in the eighth thanks to run-scoring hits by Brock and Bobby Tolan. The Dodgers went ahead for good in the bottom of the eighth. Billy Sudakis opened the inning with a walk and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt from Wes Parker. Sudakis scored following a Popovich flyball and error by St. Louis right-fielder Joe Hague. Gibson gave up three runs, two of them earned. He walked five and struck out 11 in his eight innings of work. He was 21-9 with a 1.16 ERA.

Gibson’s season ended with one final masterpiece. He beat Dierker and the Astros 1-0 on Friday, Sept. 27, at Busch Stadium, in front of 18,658 fans. Hoot gave up six hits, no walks and struck out 11 in his 13th shutout of the season, the single-season record in the live-ball era. He raised his record to 22-9 and lowered his ERA to 1.12. It was final start of 1968.

It really was an amazing season. Gibson threw a complete game in every one of his 22 wins. In those games, he posted a microscopic 0.57 ERA. In his nine losses, his ERA went up to 2.14. (That mark alone would have been good for sixth in the National League in 1968). His ERA at night was 1.59. In the daytime, it was 0.95. He pitched five games on three days’ rest and threw four shutouts. He finished in double figures in strikeouts 11 times and with one or fewer walks 15 times. Opponents hit just .184 against him the entire season with a slugging percentage of .233.

The Cardinals finished the year 97-65, nine games in front of the second-place Giants, and faced the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Gibson’s big run continued into the postseason. The Tigers knocked off the Cardinals in seven games. Gibson won two games and lost one. He had an ERA of 1.67. In Game One, he set a World Series record with 17 strikeouts and beat McLain 1-0. He defeated McLain again in Game 4, 10-1, and lost to Mickey Lolich, 4-1, in Game 7.

Postseason, Gibson won the N.L. Cy Young award, the MVP and even the Gold Glove for his fielding excellence.

Over a 17-year career, all it spent with the Cardinals, Gibson won 251 games with a 2.91 ERA. He won at least 20 games five times and won a second Cy Young award in 1970. He struck out 3,117 batters and tossed 56 shutouts. In his nine postseason starts (all in the World Series), Gibson went 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA. He won Game 7 match-ups in 1964 and 1967. The first-ballot Hall of Famer went into Cooperstown in 1981.

Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks said this about Gibson in Fastball: “He was such a great competitor. … He wanted it more than the hitter wanted to hit him.”

Erma Bergmann Could Play Some Ball

By Glen Sparks

Sophie Bergmann wanted her young daughter to take piano lessons. Erma grabbed a bat and glove instead. The promises of a sun-filled sports world beat out any talk from mom about future concert recitals.

Erma grew up on the St. Louis sandlots, a tomboy in the 1930s and ‘40s. She starred as a teenager on a women’s fast-pitch team in the St. Louis Amateur Softball League. Scouts from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League took note. Upon signing, Bergmann said to her mom, “If this doesn’t turn out to be what he (the scout) says it is, I’ll be right back on the first bus or train.”

Phillip K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum king and Chicago Cubs owner, organized the All-American League in 1943. Wrigley hoped to keep fans interested in baseball even as more and more Major League players departed for Europe and the Pacific.

Teams included the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches, the Racine (Wisc.) Belles, the Kenosha (Wisc.) Comets and the South Bend (Ind.) Blue Sox, among others. Bergmann began playing after the fighting had ended. The Muskegon (Mich.) Sallies signed her in 1946. Converted from a third baseman into a pitcher, she compiled a 15-16 won-loss mark in her rookie campaign but with a 2.05 ERA in 35 appearances.

Erma stood 5-feet-7 inches. She threw right-handed and batted from the right side. In 1947, she finished with an 11-10 mark for Muskegon and again with an impressive ERA, 1.74. Erma even hurled a no-hitter, on May 22 against the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Chicks. “I had a strong arm, I just had to get it over the plate,” she once said. “I couldn’t get it over underhand, which was the rule in softball, but I could sidearm. It was called submarine pitching—close to your knee.”

The women played a hybrid game of baseball-softball that changed over time. The ball measured 12 inches in circumference, the same size as a softball, that first year. Pitchers threw from a mound 40 feet from home plate, not 60 feet, six inches. They also used an underhand windmill motion, like in softball. Further, the base paths did not extend as far as they did in baseball.


The ball got smaller almost every season, eventually resembling a baseball. The mound distance was lengthened and so was the distance between bases. Eventually, pitchers could throw overhand.

Uniforms looked like long, belted dresses, with a team logo sewn across the chest area. Players wore one-size-fits-all caps. Plus, all the girls attended charm school each spring. They were taught how to dress correctly and how to maintain good personal hygiene. They were told not to wear their hair too short or to smoke or drink in public. They also were told to always wear lipstick. (Some called the AAGPBL “The Lipstick League.”)

Bergmann generally played for poor teams. She finished 9-19 for the 1948 Springfield (Ill.) Sallies, for instance, but recorded a 3.05 ERA. With the Racine Belles in 1949-50, she went 11-14 both seasons, but had ERAs of 2.09 and 2.68, respectively. Erma didn’t get much run support.

Following a down year in 1951 with the Battle Creek (Mich.) Belles, Bergmann left for the rival National Girls Baseball League. She played there for three seasons and once pitched a 23-inning game.

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League folded in September of 1954. Attendance, which peaked in 1948 at a little more than 900,000 fans for 10 teams, had been spiraling downhill for years. The Peaches won the most titles, four. More than 600 women total played in the league. The great slugger Jimmie Foxx, “Double X”, even managed the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies in 1952. At its peak, the players made as much as $125 a week.

Erma said this about her time in pro ball: “I was a poor kid that got the chance to play ball and travel. … What more could you want?”

She later joined the St. Louis Police Department, often working for something called the Deployment Squad. She’d wear civilian clothes and walk around tough neighborhoods as a unit decoy. In 1961, she shot and wounded a suspect.

“It was just like on the shooting range,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after it happened. “I had a mental picture of the bull’s-eye and aimed for that.”

Erma retired from the Police Department in 1981. She is a member of the St. Louis Amateur Softball Hall of Fame and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Her picture, glove and contract are on permanent display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Erma Bergmann died Sept. 13, 2015, of infirmities at her house in south St. Louis. She was 91 years old.

Happy Birthday, Don Drysdale

(This is a post that I like to publish on or around Don Drysdale’s birthday.)

By Glen Sparks

Don Drysdale turned at-bats into nasty business. He stood nearly six-feet, six-inches and hurled 95 mph heat. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ right-hander struck out 2,486 batters in his 14-year career and hit 154.

You’ve heard of an uncomfortable 0-for-4. Drysdale was a terrifying 0-for-4. He liked to talk about his 2-for-1 policy. You hit one of my guys, he’d say, I’ll hit two of your guys. Drysdale disdained intentional walks. He’d smack the guy and save three pitches.

Big D glared at hitters the way a drill instructor glares at buck privates. He looked like a tiger in need of a steak. He squinted in for the sign like a great white shark squints to find a lonely surfer.

Batting against Drysdale was like an afternoon at the beach. On jellyfish day. He hit guys like Joe Louis hit pikers from Palookaville. Drysdale bruised 18 opponents in 1959 and 20 in 1961.

Drysdale hailed from Van Nuys, California, born July 23, 1936, a Valley boy from a different time. He probably scared off half the kids from North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1954 for a $4,000 bonus and $600 a month.

The Dodgers promoted Drysdale to the big club in 1956, a 19-year-old, all arms, legs and fastball. He promptly won five and lost five, with a 2.64 ERA (152 ERA+) in 99 innings. The kid was good. The next year, he improved to 17-9 and posted a 2.69 ERA (153 ERA+).

Going Back to Cali

In 1958, the Dodgers moved to L.A. The California guy went home. Following a down year (12-13, 4.17 ERA), he won 17 games and struck out 242 batters in  ’59, the most by a National League pitcher in 35 years. Even better, he led the Dodgers to a World Series title against the Chicago White Sox.

Over the next decade, Drysdale solidified his Hall of Fame career. He topped the N.L. in wins once and strikeouts two more times. The man never missed a start. Drysdale won 25 games in 1962 and took home the Cy Young Award. He finished fifth in the MVP voting. No. 53 fanned a career-high 251 the next year.

Drysdale and Sandy Koufax made a magnificent 1-2 combo. Koufax, left-handed and elegant. Drysdale, right-handed and fierce. They started games in the warm twilight at Dodger Stadium, hurling unhittable pitches fired into sunlight and shadow. For opposing line-ups, it was more like a California nightmare than a California dream.

The dynamic duo led the Dodgers to World Series titles in 1963 and ’65. Drysdale beat the Yankees, 1-0, in Game 3 of the ’63 Fall Classic. He gave up three hits and struck out nine. “How’d this guy ever lose 17 games?” one Yankee asked.

The answer: Don and Sandy didn’t get much help from the offense.  Drysdale went 19-17 in 1963 but boasted an admirable 2.63 ERA. (L.A. scored its lone run in Game 3 on a walk, a wild pitch and a two-out single.) The Dodgers’ attack was about as scary as your cousin Sissy’s pet beagle. The Dodgers made it home about as often as Gilligan and the Skipper.

(Supposedly, true story, probably apocryphal: On June 3, 1964, Drysdale lost an 11-inning game against the Philadelphia Phillies in which he went 10 1/3 innings and gave up just four hits. He then left the team to take care of some personal business in Washington, D.C. On June 4, unbeknownst to Drysdale, Koufax threw a no-hitter. Some guy at the hotel told the big guy. Drysdale: “Did we win?”)

Drysdale probably put up his best year in 1964. He compiled an 18-16 won-loss record, but he attached a 2.18 ERA (147 ERA+) onto that over a career-high 321 1/3 innings. He gave up an average of just 6.8 hits per nine innings, a career low.

In 1968, in his next-to-last season, Drysdale set a major-league record. He hurled 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and put up a 2.15 ERA (128 ERA+). And, if he tossed a few spitballs that year, well, so be it. He wasn’t the only one.

Big D started off 5-4 in 1969 with a 4.45 ERA. His right shoulder had thrown enough pitches. He called a press conference, shed some tears, and said he was done. Drysdale, who looked like a movie star (guest star on The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch and Experiment in Terror with Glenn Ford and Lee Remick, among other Hollywood credits), retired with a 209-166 record and a 2.95 ERA (121 ERA+). He tossed 49 shutouts and hit 29 home runs. Drysdale took the ball every fourth day and led the league in starts from 1962-65. He made eight All-Star teams.

Source/Don Drysdale won 209 games in his career and hit 154 batters.

Retired from playing, Drysdale turned to broadcasting. He called games for a few teams, including his beloved Dodgers, and did some national T.V. work. The writers finally voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1984.

On July 3, 1992, Drysdale died of a heart attack at his hotel room in Montreal, hours before a game that evening between the Dodgers and Expos. Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully announced his death over the radio. He began it this way: “Friends, we’ve known each other a long time, and I’ve had to make a lot of announcements, some more painful than others. But never have I been asked to make an announcement that hurts me as much as this one. And I say it to you as best I can with a broken heart.”

Reporters asked Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers’ manager and a long-time friend and former teammate of Drysdale’s, for a comment. There’s Tommy sitting on a stool, his uniform top partly unbuttoned, the heavy bags resting beneath his eyes. He is tearing up, the voice trying to stay strong. He looks at the camera. He says this about Drysdale, “He was a man’s man.”

Drysdale stands out today as a legendary pitcher from a tougher, by-gone era in baseball, one of high, inside baseballs and black-and-blue rib cages. Orlando Cepeda said the trick to an at-bat against Drysdale was this: “Hit him before he hits you.”

Donald Scott Drysdale was one tough pitcher.

Kershaw Advances Past Dazzy on Franchise Wins List

By Glen Sparks

Clayton Kershaw, future Hall Famer and the owner of a 2.49 lifetime ERA, won the 191st game of his great career on July 9. He pitched 7 2/3 innings against the Cincinnati Reds and gave up just one unearned run. The left-hander struck out 10 and did not walk a batter.

Kershaw passed Dodgers great Dazzy Vance on the franchise’s all-time wins list. Vance, one of the top right-handers from the 1920s, pitched 12 seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He won his final game June 23 against the St Louis Cardinals.

It was Vance’s second tour in Brooklyn, albeit a short one. Dazzy’s story is a familiar one to some baseball fans. He threw a blazing fastball and tumbling curveball for little Hardy High School in rural Nebraska and for a semi-pro team in nearby Hastings. Dazzy stood a sturdy 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and began his professional career with the York Prohibitionists of the Class D Nebraska State League.

Following a few more minor-league stops, Vance made his big-league April 16, 1915, as a Pittsburgh Pirate. He appeared in one game, lasted 2 2/3 innings and allowed three earned runs. Traded to the New York Yankees, he pitched in eight games for the Bronx-based ballclub, going 0-3 with a 3.54 ERA.

Vance complained of arm problems. He probably hurt it in 1914, while still a minor leaguer, he said. “Something went wrong with my arm. I no longer could throw hard, and it hurt like the dickens every time I threw.”

Dazzy made a series of stops at Yankee farm clubs. He made it back to New York in 1918, when he appeared in two games and gave up nine hits and four earned runs in 2 1/3 innings. His arm still hurt. He pitched for Memphis, Rochester, N.Y., and Sacramento over the next couple of years, mostly in pain.

Twenty-nine years old in the summer of 1920, Vance was pitching for the New Orleans Pelicans in the Southern Association. On one hot and humid night, his life changed. He won the pot while playing poker with teammates. No, he did not collect a million dollars. But, in the excitement of the moment, he did crash his chronically sore right arm onto the table. And that pain just got worse.  He felt so bad, he finally went to a doctor, who performed surgery, probably to remove bone chips.

Pain-free, Dazzy won 21 games for New Orleans in 1921. Following the season, Brooklyn purchased Vance’s contract. One of the team’s scouts, Larry Sutton, said, “Daz is hot. … He’s knocked around a long time, and he’s learned how to pitch.”

The Dodgers, called the Robins in those years in honor of skipper Wilbert Robinson, found an ace in Dazzy Vance. He won 187 games over the next 11 seasons for generally poor teams (This was the Daffy Dodgers era.), including 28 in 1924. He posted the lowest ERA in the National League three times and the most strikeouts seven times. He allowed the fewest hits per nine innings in four seasons and had the best strikeout/walk ratio in eight. “The best pitch,” Vance once said, “is the unexpected pitch.” After one masterful effort, a sportswriter noted in the descriptive parlance of the day, “Vance has all his vaunted speed and a dizzy curveball, which looped the loop, twisted and twirled and cut capers like a toy balloon in a Kansas cyclone.”

Vance showed some signs of slipping in 1932. He posted a 4.20 ERA, his highest mark with Brooklyn. The Robins shipped him to the St. Louis Cardinal, and he went 6-2 in limited duty. Cincinnati picked up Dazzy on waivers following the season.

By early summer, Vance had bounced back to the Cardinals, and he pitched in his only World Series that fall. He appeared in one game against the Detroit Tigers and pitched a scoreless 1 1/3 innings. Vance struck out three. St. Louis beat Detroit in seven games.

The Redbirds, presumedly, thanked Vance before releasing him the following spring. Dazzy, though, was not unemployed for long. Brooklyn welcomed back their former star, who hoped to reach 200 big-league wins before retiring. He had 194 going into 1935, with 187 of them as a Robin. Could he win six more times? Brooklyn, now with Casey Stengel at the helm, finished 71-81 and in sixth place in 1934.

Stengel mostly used their new acquisition as a reliever, much to Dazzy’s disappointment. Vance recorded his first win June 7 versus the Phillies. He pitched the final 2 1/3 innings as Brooklyn came from behind to beat Philadelphia, 11-9. A few weeks later, on June 20 against the Reds, Vance won for a second time. He hurled five innings of scoreless relief as the Robins won, 7-1.

Brooklyn was playing at home in a doubleheader June 23 against St. Louis. The Cards won the first game, 16-2, behind Dizzy Dean. Ripper Collins drove home five runs. The second game pitted Cardinals right-hander Phil Collins against Robins righty Les Munns, who gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings. Stengel called on Vance to provide some relief, and Brooklyn came from behind to win, 10-6. Dazzy got the victory, his final one. He was 3-2 when the Dodges released him August 23. Twenty years later, he said, “That Stengel didn’t give me a chance to win 200 games when I needed only three (more) is my only regret.”

The Dazzler retired to his spread in Florida, short of 200 big-league victories but with 330 wins as a professional pitcher over 26 seasons. (He won 133 games in the minors.) Vance, who died February 16, 1961, was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955, the first Brooklyn star to be enshrined.

Duty, Honor, and The Great Escape

(This one of my occasional non-sports pieces and another one that focuses on World War II.)

By Glen Sparks

Do you remember the first time that you saw Steve McQueen race across the Alpine countryside on a motorcycle pilfered from the German Army? The crackle of enemy machine-gun fire follows him as he speeds toward neutral Switzerland. Just one long, high wall of razor wire separates him from freedom.

Pass the popcorn. The 1963 hit The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges and based on a book by Paul Brickhill, still ranks as one of the all-time great World War II action movies. United Artists held the U.S. premiere of The Great Escape on July 4, 1963. (London hosted the world premiere on June 20.)

If you like to cheer for the heroes, this is the movie for you. In addition to McQueen, the cast includes Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Garner and many more familiar names. I remember seeing The Great Escape on television as a kid and right away putting it on my Top 10 list.

You probably recall at least parts of the classic story:

The German High Command, tired of the time and expense of hunting down U.S. and British escapees, unloads the craftiest ones (the “Forger,” the “Scrounger” “the Manufacturer,” “Cooler King” McQueen, etc.) at the new, supposedly escape-proof, Stalag Luft III (located in the German province of Lower Silesia, now Poland.) There, the High Command expects prisoners to sit out the war by gardening and playing sports. Of course, the prisoners decide from the start to make a break for it. They will go over the fence, under the fence and—if need be—through the fence to get back to their units.

One key scene happens early on. The camp commandant, a Luftwaffe officer, admonishes the senior British officer following a series of sophomoric escape attempts.

The duty of all military officers is to attempt escape, the senior British officer reminds the commandant, Von Luger. The commandant understands this truism. He expects captured soldiers to flee their captors, or to die trying.

A second British officer, Big X, hatches the great escape plan. He arrives at Stalag Luft III in handcuffs. The forbidding SS officer orders Big X—played by Attenborough—not to attempt any more escapes.  Try one more, the SS officer hisses, and, if the Gestapo catches you, you will be shot.

Big X answers this promise of execution. He orders that the prisoners build three escape tunnels—Tom, Dick and Harry. His plan?

  • to let loose 250 men throughout Germany,
  • to tie up the S.S.
  • and to make as much trouble as possible for the enemy.

Day and night, prisoners shovel dirt in suffocating crawl spaces below the ground. The pieces of lumber that support these tunnels creak and groan underneath the weight of all this earth. The men risk being buried in darkness.

German soldiers find two of the tunnels – Tom and Dick – during a Fourth of July celebration. That leaves only Harry. Now, what? “We dig,” Big X orders.

But, why?

What makes these officers so single-minded about making their great escape? History offers us the quick and clear answer.

Hitler had put a torch to Europe. His Sherman tanks had barreled into cities and towns, while Messerschmitt airplanes had unloaded bombs onto soldiers and civilians.

Paris, and most of Western Europe, had fallen by the summer of 1941. The Blitz—carried out between Sept. 7, 1940 and May 16, 1941—left more than 43,000 civilians dead.

V-1 and V-2 rockets pummeled London. City parks smoldered. Great monuments lay in ruin. Bombs damaged both Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. British pilots, flying Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes, battled German pilots during fierce dogfights in the grey skies above London.

Citizens fled to the subway—the Underground—to wait out the German terror.  Fireman ran up and down British streets as soon as the blitzes ended for the evening, putting out the flames.

The Great Escape tells a true story about prisoners of war risking everything to break free and to bring peace back to the world.

Sure, the filmmakers mix in a bit of Hollywood. That motorcycle-aided run for the Swiss border, for example, happened only on screen. Steve McQueen, an enthusiastic cyclist and race car driver, insisted that a motorcycle action scene be added as a condition for his making the movie, and he did most of his own stunts.

No U.S. prisoners took part in the actual escape, either. By time the breakout happened, the Germans had transported all U.S. prisoners to a separate compound.

But the filmmakers did get most of the important parts right:

The prisoners, including those from the United States, really did work on three escape tunnels and they really did dub the tunnels “Tom,” “Dick” and “Harry.”

Due to miscalculations, “Harry” really did fall 20 feet short as the movie depicts, and an air raid really did light up the prison that night. Seventy-six men still made it out of the camp.

Tragically, the Gestapo really did in fact execute (against all regulations of the Geneva Convention) 50 recaptured prisoners—including Big X—although not at a rest stop en masse as the movie portrays.

Only a handful of prisoners actually broke out of the camp for good. The movie ends with several recaptured prisoners heading back by German gunpoint to Stalag Luft III.

SS officers, unhappy about the great escape, escort the commandant from the camp … to suffer a quick fate at the hot end of a Luger, or to suffer a long, cold fate on the Eastern front.

The McQueen character, Capt. Hilts, a pilot, arrives back at camp as the commandant exits. His escape attempt ended in a tangled mess after he skidded into the razor-sharp fence. (Bud Ekins, a friend of McQueen’s and expert motorcyclist, did this particular stunt.) Hilts heads to the cooler, and a friend tosses him a baseball glove and a ball. Hilts likes to bounce a baseball off the cooler wall to pass the time.

Someday, some way, some how, I imagine popping in my DVD of The Great Escape and watching Hilts evade his pursuers. I picture him soaring over that wall of wire. You see, The Great Escape is more than just a classic war movie with an all-star cast and a cool motorcycle chase.

The movie helps us better understand the important idea of freedom and about the incredible lengths that heroes will go to get back that freedom. The Great Escape is a classic.

Babe Ruth in Death Remains Bigger than Life

By Glen Sparks

Babe Ruth, dead at age 53, lay in state at Yankee Stadium, the house he built.

Fans, former teammates, dignitaries and assorted drinking buddies paid their respects to America’s greatest and grandest athlete on Aug. 17-18, 1948. About 77,000 people filed by.

The site of a forever-still Ruth probably struck many of them odd. Did the Babe ever stay still in life? One of his New York Yankee teammates, Ping Bodie, said, “I didn’t room with Babe Ruth. I roomed with his suitcase.” (This quote is attributed to most of Ruth’s roommates over the years.)

Fans knew him as the Babe, the Big Bam, the Wizard of Wham, the Colossus of Clout, the Prince of Pounders, the Rajah of Rap, the Maharajah of Mash and more. A player as great as Ruth needed many nicknames.

He did things big. “I swing big,” he said. “I like to live as big as I can.” He made headlines. “Babe Hits 60th Home Run of Season.” “Sultan of Swat Slams No. 714.” He did the improbable. In 1920, the Bambino blasted 54 home runs, more than any one team in the American League that year. He did the controversial. “He called a shot in the World Series!” some insisted… “No, he didn’t!” many cried.

Ruth suffered in 1925 from a bellyache “heard round the world.” Or, did he battle something more sinister? (“Syphilis,” some whispered.) He ate, drank, and wanted nothing more than to be merry. He punctuated the Roaring ‘20s, the Jazz Age.

Born in Baltimore, Ruth grew up rough and tumble. He learned baseball at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. The Boston Red Sox signed him as a burly left-handed pitcher in 1914. Ruth compiled a 94-46 won-loss mark but complained that he wanted to play every day. Boston sold Ruth’s contract to the Yankees in December 1919. An excellent pitcher was on his way to being a legendary hitter.

The Babe pitched in just five games as a Yankee. He led the American League in home runs 10 times. (Ruth also topped the circuit in homers twice while doing double duty with the Red Sox.) He hit 59 in 1921 for New York and outdid that by smashing 60 in 1927. He slugged his 714th homer on May 25, 1935, as a member of the Boston Braves. He also hit two other homers that day. Ruth smacked 15 World Series homers. Dizzy Dean said, “No one hits home runs the way Babe Ruth did. They were something special.” Ruth said of himself, “If I’d just tried for them dinky singles, I’d have hit .600.” Maybe.

He made his final appearance at Yankee Stadium on June 13, 1948. Now gaunt, he needed a cane to walk. He spoke to the crowd of 58,339 in a low, gravely voice and thanked all the fans for their applause through the years. The photograph that Nat Fein took of Ruth from behind won a Pulitzer Prize.

Cancer did in the Babe. The day before he died on Aug. 16, Ruth said to the great Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack, “the termites have got me.”

Family and friends filled St Patrick’s Cathedral for Ruth’s funeral mass on Aug. 19. It was hot that day in New York City. One former Yankee supposedly turned to Ruth’s old teammate Waite Hoyt. “I could sure use a beer,” the ex-ballplayer said. Hoyt replied, “So could the Babe.”

The funeral procession left St. Patrick’s Cathedral and headed north to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y., in Westchester County. About 6,000 people met the Babe’s casket.

Ruth’s second wife, Claire, who died in 1976, is buried next to her former husband (His first wife, Helen, died in a fire in 1929.) The grave site is marked by a tall, sandblasted image of Christ with his arm on a young boy. The Ruths share space at Gate of Heaven with, among others, actor Jimmy Cagney, manager Billy Martin, writer Herman Melville, and mobster Dutch Schultz.

Thousands of fans visit the Ruth site every year, according to an article written by Spencer Fordin for (Ruth’s former teammate and co-slugger Lou Gehrig is buried next door at Kensico Cemetery.) Some arrive by tour bus. In death, as in life, Babe Ruth remains an attraction. No one, not Cagney, not Martin, not Schultz, not Melville– the author of Moby Dick–gets as much attention as Ruth.

Some fans drop off a bat, a baseball or a ribbon from a youth baseball tournament, Fordin writes. Others bring a hot dog or a pizza. How many people left a beer?

Andrew Nagle, an employee of the cemetery, operated by the New York Archidiocese, confirms that the Babe tops ‘em all.“ No graves are visited like Babe Ruth’s grave,” he says.

George Herman Ruth Jr., the kid from the Baltimore waterfront, the “incorrigible” youngster dropped off at St. Mary’s by weary parents, the one-time great pitcher, the long-time preeminent hitter, remains the stuff of legend, of tales fit for the ages.

Pistol Pete Led with His Head

Pete Reiser led the National League with a .343 batting average in 1941.

By Glen Sparks

Pete Reiser crashed more times than a dusty Chevy at a Carolina smash-up derby. The outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers chased flyballs all the way to the wall. Then, he kept going. Usually, he led with his head.

Not for no reason did Reiser max out at 137 games in one season (1941). He only played in more than 100 games four times. Accident prone? Reiser made Mr. Magoo look like a safety expert.  What might have been …

Born March 17, 1919, in St. Louis, Harold Patrick (for St. Patrick’s Day) Reiser grew up with a bat in his hand. George Reiser tossed pitches to his young son, who crunched line drives at the local sandlot in between his frequent outbursts.  “What kind of kid was I?” Reiser said to author Donald Honig in the superb book Baseball When the Grass Was Real. “Ornery. Mean. Nice. I was a nice mean kid. I had a bad temper.”  (Neighbors took to calling young Reiser “Pistol Pete” after the popular movie cowboy Two-Gun Pete.  The boy prowled his neighborhood block with a pair of toy six-shooters. Later, family and friends started just calling him “Pete.”)

Reiser played sports at Beaumont High School on the city’s north side. He dreamed of getting a football scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, just like every other Catholic kid dreamed. “When I was ten, I was competing in football against fifteen-year-olds,” Reiser told Honig.

The Fighting Irish never called. The hometown Cardinals did, however, in 1937. The Redbirds signed him for $50 a month and sent him to play shortstop for New Iberia, La., of the Evangeline League.

The following season, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis broke up the Cardinals’ prolific farm system. The Redbirds were tying up too many players at minor-league parks across the country. Reiser ended up with the Dodgers.

Brooklyn’s player-manager Leo Durocher liked the lean, athletic new kid. Once, during spring training in 1939, Reiser batted 11 times over three games. The switch-hitter belted four homers, knocked four singles, and walked three times. What was not to like? “I just kept staring at him, wondering if it was all a dream,” Durocher wrote in his memoir, Nice Guys Finish Last. “‘Holy cats,’ I’m thinking, ‘This is a diamond, Leo. All you have to do is polish him.”

Reiser debuted with the Dodgers mid-way through the 1940 campaign as both a third baseman and outfielder. In 225 at-bats, he hit an admirable .293 and added three home runs and 20 RBI. The following year, now as Brooklyn’s starting centerfielder, he led the National League with a .343 batting average. Reiser hit 14 homers and had 76 RBIs.

He also topped everyone else in runs scored (117), doubles (39), triples (17), slugging percentage (.558), OPS (.964), OPS+ (164) and total bases (299). Reiser, just 22 years old, finished second in the MVP race to his teammate Dolph Camilli. He looked like a superstar-in-the-making.

Nothing really changed until the 11th inning of a game in 1942 against the Cardinals. Reiser was batting .356 at the time. But on July 18, Enos Slaughter lined a shot to centerfield at Sportsman’s Park. Pistol Pete went back, kept going, and, finally and abruptly, sprinted into an unforgiving wall.

Reiser caught the drive, held onto it for a second, and most likely never watched as the ball popped out of his glove. Slaughter rounded the bases. Reiser suffered a concussion and fractured his skull. He left Sportsman’s Park on a stretcher. The Cardinals’ team doctor, Robert Hyland, told Reiser to sit out the rest of the season. When Brooklyn GM Larry MacPhail heard about that, Reiser said, “He went through the roof. He began screaming that Hyland was saying that just to keep me out of the lineup.”

Amazingly, Reiser returned to action just one week later. He only hit .244 for the rest of the season, though. He still batted .310 on the year and led the N.L. with 20 steals. He also finished sixth in the N.L. MVP race. Then came World War II. Reiser wanted to join the Navy, but he failed the physical. Uncle Sam declared him 4-F. In time, the Army let the eager—but reckless—recruit enlist. Reiser spent most of his service time as an outfielder on the Fort Riley, Kansas, baseball team. He went all-out there, too. Once, he fell down a drainage ditch while in pursuit of a flyball and separated his shoulder.

Years later, Reiser told Honig about the time a young Black lieutenant walked up to a senior officer at Fort Riley and asked to play on the camp baseball team. The man looked at Jackie Robinson and directed him to try out for the  “colored team.” Reiser said, “That was a joke. There was no colored team.” Robinson stood in place for a few minutes, watched as Reiser and some players worked out, and then left. “That was the first time I saw Jackie Robinson,” Reiser said. “I can still remember him walking away by himself.”

Reiser reported back to the Dodgers for spring training in 1946. Management knew something was wrong. The former all-everything ballplayer couldn’t throw, no doubt due to the lingering effects from that shoulder injury.

He suffered through muscle pulls and strains and crashed into an outfield wall again, this time while sprinting after a drive hit by the Chicago Cubs’ Whitey Kurowski. His season mercifully—and ignobly—ended when he broke his leg trying to steal a base. Miraculously, he played in enough games to make the All-Star team for a third and final time. He also led the N.L. in stolen bases with 34 and swiped home seven times.

The truth was apparent, though. Reiser would never be a Hall of Famer. Brooklyn traded him to the Boston Braves after the 1948 campaign, and Reiser later spent time with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians.  He only played in 245 games during his four seasons away from Brooklyn and batted .248 with 14 homers. Pistol Pete hung up his spikes at the age of 32.

Reiser later coached for the Dodgers, Cubs, and other teams. A long-time smoker, he died of respiratory illness on Oct. 25, 1981, at the age of 62. Obits included quotes from the game’s experts. They said baseball had just lost a man who should have been one of the game’s all-time greats. Lawrence Ritter and Honig included Reiser in their 1981 book, The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All-Time.

He never fulfilled the promise of those early days when he was young and brazen enough to dive into concrete. Reiser supposedly left the field on a stretcher 11 times. He suffered four or five skull fractures and a couple of broken ankles. Pitchers beaned him at least twice for goodness’ sake.

The Pete Reiser story is sad, yes, but also exciting. Pistol Pete provided fans with thrills and suspense. He mixed joy with a young man’s contempt for mortality. He played much of his career while black-and-blue and rarely complained. “It was my style,” he told Honig. “I didn’t know any other way to play ball.” He added, “Hell, any ballplayer worth his salt has run into a way. More than once. I’m the guy who got hurt doing it, that’s all.” We can both smile and grimace.

Roberto Clemente Died on a Mission of Mercy

Roberto Clemente hit .317 lifetime with exactly 3,000 hits.

By Glen Sparks

(The recent death of retired NBA superstar Kobe Bryant made me think about Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, who perished in an airplane crash on December 31, 1972, while on a mercy mission. Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 outside Los Angeles.)

A massive earthquake struck at about 12:29 a.m. local time, Dec. 23, 1972, near Managua, Nicaragua. The temblor measured 6.2 on the Richter scale. Within one hour, strong aftershocks of 5.0 and 5.2 struck the area.

Roberto Clemente of Carolina, Puerto Rico, grew up in a family of limited means. As a boy, he worked in the fields alongside his dad, cutting down sugar cane and loading it onto pick-up trucks. On off days, he played softball and baseball. Not surprisingly, he liked to show off his strong arm.

Al Campanis, a Brooklyn Dodgers scout, first saw Clemente during a tryout camp in 1952. Campanis rated Clemente’s arm strength as A+, gave his fielding an A and his hitting also an A (“turns head but improving”). He had “+” running speed, according to the report. Campanis wrote that the 18-year-old “has all the tools and likes to play. A real good-looking prospect.”

Clemente was still in high school, though. Campanis waited to sign his superstar-to-be. The Dodgers finally inked Clemente on Feb. 19, 1954, supposedly for a $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. That made the prospect a “bonus baby.”

According to the rules, the Dodgers had to keep Clemente on the team’s major league roster or risk losing him during an offseason draft. Brooklyn assigned him to the minor league Montreal Royals and hoped for the best. The Pittsburgh Pirates swept in and drafted Clemente in November of ’54. “Thus, we lost Roberto,” Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi said many years later.

The Nicaragua earthquake killed approximately 6,000 people and injured another 20,000. More than 250,000 people were left homeless. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed, including most of the area hospitals. Several fires, fueled by dry-season winds, broke out. Police and soldiers patrolled against looting.

Clemente made his major league debut on April 17, 1955. He struggled to hit for power in his early years and did not reach double figures in home runs for a single season until 1960. That year, he also made his first All-Star team. He ended up playing in 15.

The right-handed batter topped the National League in hitting for the first time in 1961 (.351). He retired with four batting crowns and hit a career-high .357 in 1967. His run of 12 straight Gold Glove seasons also began in 1961. Fans, teammates, opposing players–everyone, really–marveled at his superhuman throwing arm from right field. Broadcaster Vin Scully once said, “He (Clemente) could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.”

Clemente won the N.L. MVP in 1966. He finished in the top 10 in voting eight times and collected at least 200 hits in a season three times. On Sept. 30, 1972, Clemente smacked a double against Jon Matlack of the New York Mets. It was his 3,000th career hit. And his final one during a regular-season game. Richie Ashburn, the Hall of Fame outfielder turned broadcaster, had asked Clemente a few months earlier when he might get his landmark hit. “Well, uh, you never know,” he responded. “I, I, uh, if I’m alive, like I said before, you never know because God tells you how long you’re going to be here. So you never know what can happen.” Vera Clemente said many times that her husband thought he would die young.

The writers and Clemente didn’t always get along. Reporters described Clemente as the “dusky Puerto Rican” and the “fiery Puerto Rican,” according to David Maraniss’ 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. Clemente hated that. He complained that reporters called him a “hot dog” and wrote that he malingered after injuries. Some reporters and broadcasters insisted on calling him “Bob” rather than “Roberto.” Clemente hated that, too. He once said “I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America.”

The relief effort in Nicaragua began right away. The people needed food, clothing, medical supplies. Everything. Red Cross volunteers flew in from Mexico, the United States, and other countries. Tactical hospital units flew in from Fort Hood, Texas, and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Teams from Doctors Without Borders, a newly formed medical assistance group based in Paris, France, arrived.

Unfortunately, according to many reports, most of the aid did not reach the scores of needy people. Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza stockpiled the supplies and kept them from victims, especially from people who did not support his political regime. Reports of this action outraged Clemente. He decided to lead his own aid mission to Nicaragua.

On New Year’s Eve, while revelers partied on, Clemente and four others took off from San Juan Airport and headed for Managua. Clemente, 38, had charted a Douglas DC-7 cargo plane, an aircraft infamous for its mechanical problems. To make matters ever riskier, the plane was overloaded with relief supplies by more than 4,000 pounds. Witnesses said the plane struggled just to get into the air.

The DC-7 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean minutes after take-off at a little after 9 p.m. Radio reports of the disaster soon followed. U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships searched for the wreckage and for any survivors. The body of Clemente, as well as the others on the plane, was never recovered. Besides his wife, Clemente left behind three children.

Clemente hit 240 career home runs and batted .317 to go with his 3,000 hits. Baseball ushered him into the Hall of Fame in 1973. In death, though, this great right-fielder became more than just one of the best baseball players of his time. He became a man to admire for all-time. Pirates General Manager Joe L. Brown said, “He’s a shining star to many, many people. He grows and grows over time. He doesn’t diminish.” Manager Bill Verdon, who played alongside Clemente in the outfield for several seasons, said, “It was like a nightmare when I heard (about Clemente’s death). … He was the greatest all-around baseball player during my era. He could do more things than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Pirates owner John W. Galbreath said, “The news (of Clemente’s death) has just jolted me. Roberto Clemente wasn’t only one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever known, he was one of the greatest persons I ever knew. … If you have to die, how better could your death be exemplified than by being on a mission of mercy.” Clemente himself said this: ”Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”

“Cool Papa” Bell Was So Fast … How Fast Was He?

James “Cool Papa” Bell hit .341 lifetime and never finished below .300 in any one season.

By Glen Sparks

James “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast …

He once scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt.

Bell was so fast …

He once ripped a line drive, legend goes, that hit him in the butt as he slid into second base.

Bell was so fast … (Drum roll, please.)

He could get out of bed, walk across the room, turn out the lights and slip underneath the covers before the room got dark. (We can thank the great catcher Josh Gibson for that one. Satchel Paige also told the tale.)

James Bell grew up in Starkville, Miss. The family lived by a local park, and young James played ball all day. At age 17,  he, along with his family, left Mississippi for St. Louis. Bigger city, better jobs. In 1922, at the age of 19, James joined the St. Louis Stars, a Negro League ballclub, as a center-fielder and a left-handed knuckleball pitcher.

They said he was “Cool” because …

He once struck out Oscar Charleston, maybe the best hitter of that time, in a tight situation to win the game. He didn’t let the pressure get to him. He was cool. (Bell also hit a home run that day.)

They called him “Papa” because …

Bill Gatewood, manager of the Stars, said “Cool” Bell wasn’t enough. His player needed something else, something to give the nickname that proper pizazz. Like “Papa.” Like “Cool Papa.”

Bell played for the Stars from 1922-31. He later enjoyed stints with the Detroit Wolves, Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and several other teams. Players liked to drink, carouse, and chase women (Times don’t change.) and smoke cigarettes as a way to relax in the dugout (maybe a little). Not Cool Papa Bell.

Teammate Ted Paige: “In fact, in all of the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him smoke, take a drink, or say even one cuss word.”

Well, Bell didn’t make a big deal out of that. What he learned, he learned from home. This is what he said in 1974 for Mississippi History Now, an online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society:

“My mother always told me that it didn’t make any difference about the color of my skin, or how much money I had. The only thing that counted was to be an honest, clean livin’ man who cared about other people. I’ve always tried to live up to those words.”

Bell liked to hit high hoppers into the infield and beat out the throw. He scored that run from first on a bunt against the Bob Lemon All-Stars, a team made up of major-league stars. In 1933, Bell stole 175 bases in 200 games.

He was fast all right, but Buck O’Neil noted this: “Baserunning isn’t only about speed. It’s about technique, cutting the corners and keeping your balance. And Cool Papa, he was a master at all of that.”

The great Cool Papa Bell retired with a splendid .341 batting average. He never hit below .300 in any season. Bill Veeck, the long-time baseball executive, said he’d put Bell up there with Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio on his personal list of all-time great center fielders.

After his playing days, Bell did some coaching and later worked as a night watchman at St. Louis City Hall. He lived in a tough neighborhood, went to church every Sunday, and occasionally attended a Cardinals game, largely unrecognized. Unrecognized, but not bitter about not getting to play in the majors.

“Funny, but I don’t have any regrets about not playing in the majors,” he said. “They say that I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened too late.”

Voters elected Bell to the Hall of Fame on this date in 1974. Bell’s Hall of Fame induction plaque reads, in part, “Contemporaries rated him fastest man on the base paths.”

Cool Papa Bell died on March 7, 1991, age 87, only a few weeks after his wife, Clarabelle, passed way. A statue of Bell stands outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Another statue stands outside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. He also has a plaque on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Rightly, a marker is in place at the Little League ballpark in Starkville where Bell learned how to play ball. In 1999, The Sporting News rated Bell as the 66th best player of time.

Bell was so right …

“They used to say, ‘If we could find a good black player, we’ll sign him.’ They was lying.”

Harmon Killebrew Hit ‘Em a Long Way

By Glen Sparks

Harmon Killebrew did not just hit baseballs. He punished them for getting into his way. Killebrew blasted 573 home runs into orbit during a 22-year career.

He mashed the first of those long, long, long balls on June 24, 1955, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Detroit Tigers starter Billy Hoeft served up the pitch. Killebrew, a 19-year-old rookie with the Washington Senators, deposited it into the bleachers, the highlight of the day for the Senators, who lost 18-7. (Sign of the times: Detroit starter Hoeft gave up 12 hits and seven runs and still went the distance.) Only 4,188 fans “filled” the stands at Griffith for this Friday tussle.

“Killer” eventually led the American League in home runs six times, topping out at 49 in 1964 and 1969. The slugger stood a few inches shy of 6-feet tall but possessed the forearms of a lumberjack.

Pitchers started getting twitchy as soon as Killebrew entered the on-deck circle. His bats served as a launch vehicle. Baltimore Orioles Manager Paul Richards said, “Killebrew can hit the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.” He once belted a pitch over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

Harmon Clayton Killebrew was born June 29, 1936, in little Payette, Idaho, near the Idaho-Oregon state line, one of five children. His dad, Harmon Clayton Sr., played football at little Milliken College in Decatur, Ill, and encouraged his sons to play hard. Here is one great story:

Harmon and his brother Robert were messing around in the yard with Dad. Katherine Killebrew took one look at the beat-up lawn and said, “You’re ruining the grass.” The game went on. Pops Killebrew said to his wife, “We’re not raising grass. We’re raising boys.”

Payette High School never had an athlete like Harmon Killebrew Jr. The youngster earned 12 varsity letters and was signed by the Washington Senators, thanks to a tip from U.S. Sen. Herman Welker, R-Idaho. (It could not have been a hard sell. Killebrew was batting .847 for a local semi-pro team.)

Four days later, Killebrew made his debut with the Senators. He pinch-ran for Clyde Vollmer. Killebrew was six days shy of turning 18. Over the next few years, the muscular prospect with a compact, but powerful, right-handed swing, sat mostly on the Washington bench as a bonus baby. Only later did he get to punish young, impressionable minor-league pitchers.

Finally, in 1959, Killer played in his first full Major League season. He promptly led the A.L. with 42 home runs. He also made the All-Star team, something he would do another 11 times.

The Senators left for Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961 and were re-christened as the Twins. Killebrew took his home-run swing with him. From 1961-64, he belted 188 balls out of the park.

He also led the league in RBI three times. And, despite a pedestrian .256 career batting average, Killebrew retired with a .376 on-base percentage, thanks to a good eye and careful pitching. He topped A.L. batters in intentional walks three times.

The baseball writers elected Killebrew to the Hall of Fame in 1984. His No. 3 is retired by the Twins, of course, and a street at the famous Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., bears his name. One rumor is that the MLB logo is modeled after Killebrew

Killer now stands at No. 11 on the all-time home run list. He is tied with Rogers Hornsby at 38th on the RBI list (1,584) and is 15th on the all-time walks list (1,559). He also is Idaho’s all-time home run champ by far, 502 ahead of Vance Law.

Known for his kind heart, Killebrew organized the Danny Thomson Memorial Golf Tournament in honor of a Twins teammate who died of leukemia. The tournament still goes on every year in Sun Valley, Idaho, and benefits cancer research efforts.

Killebrew spent time as a broadcaster for a few years after retiring, worked as a coach and nearly died from infections after suffering a collapsed lung and damaged esophagus in 1990. He passed away in hospice care of esophageal cancer on May 17, 2011, at the age of 74.

The slugger once said, “I didn’t have evil intentions, but I guess I did have power.”