By Glen Sparks
Tim McCarver, the former catcher and long-time talkative baseball analyst, cleared his throat on a broadcast the other day and recited a few lines from the song “There Used to be a Ballpark.”
And the summer went so quickly this year.
Yes, there used to be a ballpark here.
Joe Raposo wrote this nostalgic ditty. (Raposo also composed the Kermit the Frog anthem “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” and “C is for Cookie” for Sesame Street. He wrote the theme song to the 1970s sitcom Three’s Company and Halloween Is Grinch Night. Raposo, who died of died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 52, was a talented guy.)
Legendary crooner Frank Sinatra recorded “There Used to be a Ballpark” for his 1973 album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. The album soared nearly to the Top 10 on the Billboard chart.
Anyway, McCarver insisted that the song laments the demolition of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, home of the Dodgers, and the loss of baseball in that proud borough following the 1957 season. From what I’ve read, that seems to be a popular opinion. It fits in with the old-fashioned feelings of baseball, Brooklyn and the Bums. Producers of The Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush used “There Used to be a Ballpark” in that HBO documentary.
Supposedly, though, Raposo told retired yackmaster Larry King that the song is about the Polo Grounds, the old home of the New York Giants, located in upper Manhattan. The article that mentions this does not offer any sources, however. (This accompanying YouTube video takes a decided pro-Ebbets stance on this issue.)
Now the children try to find it.
And they can’t believe their eyes
‘Cause the the old team just isn’t playing,
And the new one hardly tries.
Ebbets Field hosted its final Dodgers home game on Sept. 24, 1957. The Dodgers knocked off the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-0 in front of 6,702 dedicated fans. Soon after, Brooklyn’s beloved team left for the sunshine of Los Angeles and the Memorial Coliseum.
A wrecking ball finally crashed—again and again–into Ebbets Field in the late winter of 1960. This most romanticized of ballparks, christened on April 9, 1913, sat in rubble. The Ebbets Field Apartments (later renamed the Jackie Robinson Apartments) opened in 1962.
Northwest of Brooklyn, up near famous Coogan’s Bluff in Washington Heights, sat the Polo Grounds. Built in 1890 as the third park named the Polo Grounds (and, yes, designed to play the game of polo), this oval-shaped stadium hosted Giants baseball and football games for decades.
Baseball attendance at the cavernous Polo Grounds (The Grounds expanded to 55,000 seats by 1923.) rarely met the expectations of ambitious owners. In 1947, average attendance topped 20,000 fans (just barely at 20,790) for the first and only time. By 1956, yearly attendance slipped to 629,179 (8,171 fans per game). Owner Horace Stoneham decided to follow Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to California. His team also left after the 1957 campaign, bound for windy, cosmopolitan San Francisco.
So, which stadium was it? Ebbets or the Polo Grounds? The song may offer a few clues. Some lyrics remain ambiguous, though, perhaps purposely so. These words, for instance, probably describe any fun day at the ballpark of your choice:
And the people watched in wonder
How they’d laugh and how they’d cheer.
But what about these aforementioned lyrics?
‘Cause the the old team just isn’t playing,
And the new one hardly tries.
The old team just isn’t playing. Neither team was playing at its old park by time Sinatra sang Ramposo’s song. And the new one hardly tries. Well, this is interesting. The Polo Grounds sat mostly vacant for the first few years following the Giants’ flight to the west coast. (The NFL’s Giants took their football and exited for Yankee Stadium in 1956.) The expansion-club New York Mets moved in for the 1962 season and promptly became a 40-120 laughingstock. And the new one hardly tries.
In 1964, workers gathered at the Polo Grounds. They brought the same wrecking ball that pummeled Ebbets Field. Painted to look like a baseball, this instrument made a quick wreck out of the Polo Grounds.
Yes, there used to be a ballpark here.
Maybe the song really is about the Polo Grounds. Or, yes, Ebbets Field. Maybe it is simply about that sense of nostalgia that we all carry. Maybe it is about every long-ago, long-lamented field of play.
By Glen Sparks
Jazz pianist David Frishberg released a catchy little tune in 1969, “Van Lingle Mungo.”
Supposedly, Frishberg wrote the melody first. He couldn’t decide on the lyrics, though.
So, he did what any good songwriter might do. He picked up a copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia. There, he found the name Van Lingle Mungo. Well, that had some ring to it. It was certainly unusual.
Maybe, Frishberg figured, that name might just make for a song.
Now, Mungo had been out of major league baseball since 1945. The high-kicking right-hander, born on this date in 1911 in Pageland, S.C., compiled a 120-115 won-loss record over 14 seasons and an ERA of 3.47. He won 102 games as a Brooklyn Dodger (1931-41) and 18 as a New York Giant (1942-42, 45).
The 6-foot-2-inch Mungo hurled a hard fastball. He led the National League in strikeouts in 1936 with 238. Twice (1934 and ’36), he won 18 games. Twice (1933 and 1935), he won 16. The guy tossed a two-hit shutout in his debut, against the Boston Braves, and struck out 12.
Mungo was usually around the plate. Well, near it, anyway. Ok, he was very often in the general vicinity. Mungo led the N.L. in walks three times. Over his career, he gave up 868 free passes and fanned 1,242, a K/BB ratio of 1.43.
Baseball knew Mungo for his fastball and his fast temper. The pitcher once estimate that he paid out $15,000 in fines during his playing days, a princely sum if true.
Mungo hurled insults and punches. He was a tough guy in an old-school, put-up-your-dukes sort of way. The solid son of the South bickered with and bedeviled teammates, managers and opponents. He didn’t mind putting his long-suffering wife into the middle of it all, either.
Mr. Mungo took it personally one day when Brooklyn outfielder Tom “Long John” Winsett made an error. The miscue cost Mungo a victory. So, the pitcher, still sore about the loss, raced to the local telegraph office. He sent a message to Mrs. Mungo: ”Pack up your bags and come to Brooklyn, honey. If Winsett can play in the big leagues, it’s a cinch you can, too.”
Mungo peaked in 1936 and suffered an arm injury in 1937. From 1938-43, he went a combined 13-25. Following a stint in the Army in 1944 during World War II, Mungo regained some of his old form and enjoyed a 14-7 comeback season in 1945 with the Giants.
By the spring of 1946, Mungo was out. He feuded with Manager Mel Ott, got suspended and was eventually released. Later, he managed for one season (and got suspended for taking part in a melee that escalated into a riot) and operated a few business in his native South Carolina.
He probably was mostly forgotten by time Frishberg wrote his song, done with a Bossa Nova flair. Thirty-six other players get mentioned in “Van Lingle Mungo.” Part of it goes like this:
Johnny Vander Meer
Van Lingle Mungo
You get the idea. The tune continues on that way. Van Lingle Mungo is the final name in each verse.
Frishberg, who also wrote songs that Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney have recorded and who wrote the Saturday morning classic “I’m Just a Bill,” said he once met Mungo. Frishberg was appearing on The Dick Cavett Show in New York City, and the producers flew in the title character.
Mungo and Frishberg talked for a few minutes. The old ballplayer wanted to know if he might be seeing some money down the road. Nope, sorry, Frishberg said. “But, it’s my name,” Mungo said.
Frishberg told Mungo to go home and write a song titled “Dave Frishberg.” Mungo brightened up. “I’m going to do it!”
Mungo died Feb. 12, 1985, at the age of 73. If he wrote a song, he kept it to himself.
(Trivia: Eddie Basinksi, included in Verse 4, is the only one of the ballplayers mentioned in Van Lingle Mungo who is still living. The former infielder from Buffalo, N.Y., is 93.)
By Glen Sparks
Happy Say Hey Day. Willie Mays, the fabled Say Hey Kid, turned 85 years old today. The Hall of Famer remains one of the greatest players in baseball history. That will never change. Talents like Willie Mays do not come along every century.
Mays played 22 seasons in the majors (1951-52, 54-73), for the Giants (both in New York and San Francisco) and, at the end, the New York Mets. He belted 660 career home runs (fifth all-time), drove in 1,903 runs (11th all-time), batted .302 with a .384 on-base percentage and made every MLB All-Star team from 1954-1973. Mays collected 3,283 hits and still ranks 11th on the all-time hits list.
“I can’t believe that Babe Ruth was a better player than Willie Mays.” – Sandy Koufax
Born in Westfield, Ala., not far from Birmingham, Mays starred in basketball and football at Fairfield Industrial School. Fairfield didn’t field a baseball squad, so Mays played on a semi-pro team, alongside his talented dad, William “Cat” Mays.
Roy Campanella, the Brooklyn Dodgers catcher, saw a 17-year-old Mays play in the Negro League World Series in 1948. Campy begged the Dodgers to sign the young man. A scouting report ended any chance of that. “The kid can’t hit the curveball,” according to the report.
The New York Giants swopped in. Mays began his big-league career by going 1-for-26 (.038). He wasn’t hitting the curveball, the fastball, anything. Soon, things began to change. Mays won the National League Rookie of the Year award in ’51. He smacked 20 home runs and batted .274 in 121 games.
Mays missed much of 1952 and all of ’53 due to military service. Then, he really began to make life miserable for opposing pitchers. The right-handed batter slugged at least 30 homers in 11 seasons and topped the 40-home run mark six times. He belted 50-plus home runs twice, in 1955 (51) and 1965 (52). Mays led the league in homers four times.
Over his career, Willie Howard Mays finished in the top six in the MVP voting 12 times, including every season from 1957-66. He even stole 338 bases and led the league four times.
He did all this, and he made all those great plays in center field, most famously against the Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. Mays collected a dozen Gold Gloves, an award not given out until 1957.
Mays was, in the opinion of many, baseball’s most perfect player.
“If he could cook, I’d marry him,” – Leo Durocher
“They throw the ball, I hit it. They hit the ball, I catch it.” – Willie Mays
By Glen Sparks
The Los Angeles Dodgers did something so improbable, so outrageous and so unlikely on this date in 1975. They signed Juan Marichal.
The one-time San Francisco Giants ace, struggling to hang on in the majors, agreed to a deal with the Dodgers on March 14, 1975. Los Angeles Herald-Examiner columnist Mel Durslag, among many others, couldn’t believe it. He wrote in hyperbolic fashion that “The inmates at Dachau would have named Hitler Man of the Year before Los Angeles would hire Juan.”
L.A. had not simply asked a former rival to don Dodger blue. That would have been one thing. Assault and battery is something else.
The Dodger-Giant rivalry, always hot, boiled over once again on Aug. 22, 1965. That day, Marichal belted Dodgers catcher John Roseboro in the head with a baseball bat at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Blood poured from above Roseboro’s eye. Marichal stood on the field and wielded the bat in a rage. He held the lumber above his head, ready to take on an entire opposing team.
The benches cleared. Players grabbed at one another, cursed one another and threw one another to the ground. Roseboro, his left eye battered, charged toward Marichal. Superstars Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays appealed for calm. The chaos continued for 15 minutes.
Finally, with order restored, Giants pitching coach Larry Jansen escorted Marichal off the field and into the clubhouse. Fans, maybe not entirely aware of what had just happened, cheered their ace and booed Roseboro, according to John Rosengren’s excellent book on the famous melee, The Fight of Their Lives. (For the record, the Giants won the game 4-3.)
Roseboro needed 14 stitches to close his wound. National League President Warren Giles opened another wound when he fined Marichal $1,750 and suspended him for eight games (basically, two starts). It wasn’t enough. Maury Wills, the Dodgers shortstop, called Giles’ decision “gutless,” according to the Rosengren book. L.A. outfielder Ron Fairly said Marichal should have been kicked out of baseball. For his part, Marichal apologized. He also said that Roseboro had thrown a ball that “ticked” him in the ear just a few minutes before the brawl began.
The Dodgers ended up winning the National League pennant and the World Series in 1965. The Giants finished in second place, two games behind the Dodgers. Did the suspension make the difference? Marichal went 22-13 in ’65 with a 2.13 ERA (169 ERA+). But, he had just a 1.78 ERA on Aug. 22. The right-hander from the Dominican Republic posted a 6.45 ERA in his four post-suspension starts.
Marichal, of course, enjoyed several big seasons in San Francisco. He won at least 25 games in a season three times, relying on a high leg kick that touched the sky and masterful control (1.8 BB/9 over his 16-year career) rather than a blazing fastball. His career with the Giants ended following the 1973 campaign and a disappointing 11-15 won-loss record on the heels of a 6-16 season in 1972.
The Boston Red Sox signed him in 1974. The former ace pitched in 11 games and went 5-1 but with a 4.87 ERA. With that, he retired. Until the Dodgers called. Los Angeles was coming off a pennant-winning season. Tommy John, though, had gone down with an arm injury, and the Dodgers were looking for a replacement, plain and simple. They contacted Marichal. Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis famously said: “No one hated him more than I did.” But, he needed someone to plug into the starting rotation alongside Don Sutton, Andy Messersmith, etc.
Marichal’s L.A. story didn’t last long. He hung around for just 3.2 innings and gave up five hits and five earned runs in his first start, April 12 against the Houston Astros. He took the loss in a 7-5 game. On April 16, against the Cincinnati Reds, Marichal made his second start. His club won 7-6, but he lasted only 2.1 innings and surrendered six hits and four earned runs. Juan Marichal quit for good.
The pitcher, a successful businessman, retired to his ranch in the Dominican. He left the game with a 243-142 career won-loss mark (.631 winning percentage) and a 2.89 ERA ( ERA+ 123). Marichal hurled 244 complete games (30 in 1968) and 52 shutouts (10 in 1965).
The Hall of Fame was waiting. But he garnered just 58.1 percent of the vote in 1981, his first year on the ballot, far short of the required 75 percent for induction. The next year, he got 73.5 percent, still not enough. Did voters still hold a grudge over his one bad day in San Francisco?
Marichal did what he thought he needed to do. He called John Roseboro in L.A. “Johnny, I need your help,” he said. Roseboro agreed. He would play in Marichal’s annual golf tournament in Santo Domingo. The two former ballplayers finally talked. A friendship was formed.
The Hall of Fame announced on Jan. 12, 1983, that Marichal had been inducted with 83.7 percent of the vote. Giants fans and Dominican citizens hailed their hero.
Marichal, like Roseboro, did some coaching following his playing days. Roseboro also ran a public relations firm with his wife. The former Dodger died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on Aug. 16, 2002, at the age of 69.
Koufax, Wills, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron and Tommy Davis were among the mourners at Roseboro’s service on Aug. 24 at Forest Lawn Mortuary. Marichal served as an honorary pallbearer and delivered a eulogy. The Hall of Famer said he regretted those few terrible seconds at Candlestick Park. He said Roseboro forgave him. Roseboro also had asked Dodgers fans to do the same.
“It takes special people to forgive,” Marichal said.
By Glen Sparks
He stood just 5-feet-4. No wonder they called him “Wee” Willie Keeler.
He could hit, too. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native had a plan when he stepped into the box. It was always the same plan.
“Hit ‘em where they ain’t,” Keeler advised.
The son of Irish immigrants, born on this date in 1872, did just that. He bunted for base hits, chopped balls down the line, squirted pitches past infielders and lofted offerings into the outfield. Keeler evaded fielders’ gloves like a smart cat evades the family dog.
Keeler batted .341 lifetime and hit at least .362 every season from 1894 through 1900. He led the league in 1897 (.424) and 1898 (.385) as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. (This was the Orioles team that played in the American Association from 1882-91 and in the National League from 1892 through 1899. League owners contracted the team out of the N.L. before the start of the 1900 campaign.)
Over a 19-year career, Keeler collected 2,932 hits, most of them singles. Only 15 percent of the outfielder’s hits went for extra bases. He notched 206 one-baggers in ’98 (out of his 216-hit total), a single-season record number for more than a century. Ichiro Suzuki, a “Wee” Willie of modern times (along with Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn), rapped 225 singles in 2004 for the Seattle Mariners. Ichiro also broke Keeler’s record of eight-straight 200-hit seasons in 2009.
Keeler hit in 44 straight games to start the 1897 season, a record that stood until Joe DiMaggio broke it with his 56-game streak in 1941.
The tiny man wielded a tiny bat, just 30 inches long. Plus, he choked up on the thing. “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, a top player from the day, couldn’t believe it. “He only used half his bat,” Crawford said.
Fans today lament “the lost art of the bunt.” Keeler perfected that art. He could bunt just about any pitch. “Keeler could bunt any time he chode,” Honus Wagner once said.
Keeler tapped the ball to a vacant spot and sprinted down the line. “Wee” Willie could run despite those short legs. The left-handed batter (and thrower) not only bunted for hits, he also slammed 145 triples and stole 495 bases, including a career-high of 67 in 1898. He swiped at least 40 bags in a season five times.
Not surprisingly, Keeler didn’t hit many home runs. He retired with only 33 round-trippers. Of course, he did play in the Deadball era. Most players struggled to mash those soft, beat-up baseballs, blackened by dirt and chewing tobacco stains by game’s end.
Keeler did produce runs, though. He drove in 810 in his career and brought in 94 in 1894. More impressively, he scored 1,719 times and made it across home plate at least 100 times in eight campaigns.
This is another impressive “Wee” Willie stat: He struck out just 136 times in 8,591 at-bats. By comparison, Joc Pederson fanned 170 times in 480 at-bats in his rookie season last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers. When Keeler came to bat, he was under control.
Keeler played for a host of teams in his career. He broke in with the New York Giants in 1892 and left for his hometown Brooklyn Grooms (forerunner of the Dodgers) the following season. The Grooms sent him to the Orioles in 1894. The Brooklyn Bridegrooms (the former Grooms) picked him up in 1899, and the New York Highlanders (forerunner of the Yankees) traded for him in 1903. Keeler played seven seasons there (his longest stint with one team) and finished back with the Giants in 1910.
Heart problems plagued Keeler in the final years of his life. He died New Year’s Day in 1923 at the age of 50. “Wee” Willie, one of the most talented batsmen in the game’s history, was voted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
By Glen Sparks
On Jan. 17, 1970, The Sporting News named Willie Mays its Player of the Decade for the 1960s. That probably isn’t surprising (although Hank Aaron beat out Mays in many important categories.). The Giants great might also be the Player of the Second Half of the 20th Century, or of all-time. He could do it all. Let’s take a look at Willie’s great life and career:
- Born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Ala., to semi-pro baseball player Willie Mays Sr. and high-school sprinter Anna Satterwhite, Mays grew up in nearby Fairfield. Willie Jr. began playing for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro leagues when he was 16 years old.
- The New York Giants signed Mays in 1950. The Giants promoted their prospect to the big club in 1951 after Mays hit .477 through 35 games for the Minneapolis Milers of the American Association.
- Rookie Mays went 0-for-12 to start his big league career. He ripped a home run off the Milwaukee Braves’ Warren Spahn and promptly went 0-for-13. Mays recovered and won the 1951 N.L. Rookie of the Year award.
- The young Mays really did play stick ball on the New York City streets. He lived in a rooming house in Harlem near the Polo Grounds. Local kids waited for their new hero to get home, or they’d wake him up on a Saturday morning. Mays and the boys and girls would play stick ball by the hour. Often, Willie treated the kids to a post-game trip to the local soda shop.
- Remarkably, San Francisco fans gave Willie a cool reception after the Giants moved there following the 1957 season. San Francisco, meanwhile, gave Nikita Khrushchev a warm welcome when the Soviet leader visited that city. One columnist wrote: “San Francisco is the darnedest city I’ve ever seen in my life. They cheer Khrushchev and boo Mays.”
- Fans in northern California soon warmed up to their superstar. Mays and Willie McCovey provided a great one-two combo in the middle of the Giants’ batting order. Mays enjoyed one big year after another. He led the league in homers three times in San Francisco and drove in at least 100 runs from 1959 through 1966. The team won 902 games in the 1960s, more than any other team. They only played in one World Series, though, losing to the New York Yankees in 1962.
- The right-handed hitter belted 660 home runs over his 22-year career (1951-73, out for military service much of 1952 and all of 1953). He drove in 1,903 runs and batted .302. He slammed 52 homers in 1965, collected 141 RBI in 1962, and hit .347 in 1958, all career highs.
- Mays collected 3,283 career hits. He scored 2,062 runs. He had a career high of 208 hits in 1958 and 130 runs scored in 1962.
- The Alabama-born slugger retired with a .384 on-base percentage, a .557 slugging percentage and a .941 OPS with a 156 OPS+. He led the N.L. slugging and OPS five times each and OPS+ six times.
- Mays topped the National League in steals four times (1956-59). He stole 338 bases in his career, including 40 in ’56.
- Mays won MVP awards in 1954 and 1965. He finished in the top six in the voting 12 times.
- A defensive whiz, Mays famously ran down Vic Wertz’ fly ball in the 1954 World Series. Mays sprinted to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds and hauled in the ball, over his left shoulder. He won 12 career Gold Gloves (1957-68) in his career.
- The Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets in May of 1972, for pitcher Charlie Williams and $50,000 in cash. He played in his last game in Game 3 of the 1973 World Series. The all-time great grounded into a force play.
- Mays retired with 156.2 WAR points. He set a career high in 1965 (11.2) and finished above 10.0 six times. From 1954 through 1966, he ended every season with a WAR of at least 7.6.
- Baseball writers voted Mays into the Hall of Fame in 1979 (first ballot, of course) with 94.7 percent of the vote. “He would routinely do things you never saw anyone else do.” – former Giants owner Peter MagowenRead an excellent book about Mays: Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch.
By Glen Sparks
Jackie Robinson retired rather than play for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ arch-rival, the New York Giants.
That’s the myth, anyway. The reality is a little different.
Yes, the Dodgers traded Robinson, the first African-American player in modern baseball history, to the Giants on Dec. 12, 1956. (Exact dates differ.) Brooklyn General Manager Buzzie Bavasi engineered the deal. He got left-handed relief pitcher Dick Littlefield and $35,000 in return from the Giants.
Reporters pounced on the story. Few athletes enjoyed the popularity of Robinson. He played 10 seasons in Brooklyn following a distinguished career in the Negro leagues and at UCLA (baseball, football, basketball and tennis).
No. 42 hit .311 as a Dodger with a .409 on-base percentage. He won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and the league MVP in 1949. Robinson played on six pennant-winning teams and the world championship squad in 1955.
Bavasi’s trade news upset Robinson, according to the 1997 biography Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad. He put up a good front, though, and told Horace Stoneham, president of the Giants, that he looked forward to joining the Giants in upper Manhattan.
Robinson remarked to one reporter, according to the Rampersad book, “I’m going to do everything I can to beat them (the Dodgers) next year.”
Robinson, in truth, already had decided to retire. He had played just in 117 games in ’56 due to injuries. He still hit a respectable .275 (.382 on-base percentage); his body, though, felt much older than his 37 years.
William H. Black, the president of Chock Full o’ Nuts, offered Robinson a job. Would you be interested in working for my company as director of personnel, Black asked. Robinson mulled it over, took a tour of Chock Full o’ Nuts in New York City, met with Black a few more times and decided, yes, he’d take the job. (Chock Full is still around. It’s actually a coffee company. Black originally founded a series of shelled nut shops. Later, he began offering coffee.)
Look magazine held the exclusive rights to the Robinson retirement story. Its next issue wouldn’t be coming out until Jan. 8, 1957. That left lots of lead time for double-talk. Not surprisingly, word of the trade leaked out. Robinson wrote a letter on Jan. 14 to Stoneham (who was to pay his new ballplayer $35,000):
“I am going to devote my full time to the business opportunities that have been presented. … I assure you that my retirement has nothing to do with my trade to your organization.”
Robinson stayed at Chock Full o’ Nuts for just more than seven years. He officially resigned from the company on Feb. 28, 1964, to work as a deputy national director for Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign.