(Baseball announced that Orlando Cepeda had won the N.L. Most Valuable Player award on this date in 1967.)
By Glen Sparks
Orlando Cepeda loved San Francisco. He took to the nightlife and frequented the city’s many jazz clubs. Cepeda, the son of a Puerto Rican baseball legend, kicked back and listened to Miles Davis and John Coltrane at the Black Hawk on Hyde Street. Cool music filled the air, and fog cooled the streets.
“Right from the beginning, I fell in love with that city,” Cepeda told Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite in 1960.
The Giants had promoted Cepeda to the big club in 1958. It was the team’s first year on the west coast. Cepeda, just 20 years old during his rookie season, hit major-league pitching from the start. Cepeda played nine seasons in San Francisco. He established himself as one of the game’s elite hitters.
It should have been a fun time. The Giants signed several Latin American players over the years. Shortstop Jose Pagan, like Cepeda, grew up in Puerto Rico. Brothers Felipe and Matty Alou, both outfielders, hailed from the Dominican Republic. So did pitcher Juan Marichal.
But, Manager Alvin Dark didn’t like that the Latin players spoke Spanish. Speak English only, he said. Dark, hired in 1960, also didn’t like that Cepeda and the others laughed a lot. You’re not taking the game seriously, he’d say. Cepeda broiled.
Oh, he kept hitting. He could always hit. Just like his dad could always hit. Pedro “Perucho” Anibal Cepeda began bashing baseballs around the Caribbean in the mid-1920s and kept going for more than 20 years. He had several chances to play in the Negro leagues in the United States, but he declined. U.S. segregation laws kept him on the island.
Orlando Manuel Cepeda Pennes, born on September 17, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, grew up close to the game. He began playing ball as a kid and served as batboy one season for the famous Santurce Crabbers. He, along with a handful of other Puerto Rican players, went to a big-league tryout camp in Florida in 1954. The New York Giants liked Cepeda’s line-drive swing. They signed him to a contract and paid him a $500 bonus.
Lonely at first as a minor leaguer in small-town America, Cepeda struggled. Soon enough, his bat heated up. He hit .393 for the Giants’ Kokomo, Indiana, farm club as a 17-year-old. He won a Triple Crown the following season, batting .355 with 26 home runs and 112 RBI for St. Cloud, Minnesota, of the Northern League.
The Giants promoted Cepeda to the big club out of spring training in 1958. The muscular right-handed hitter (6-feet-2 inches, 210 pounds) made a quick impression. By May 31, he had slammed 13 home runs.
Cepeda earned Rookie of the Year honors. The first baseman ended up with 25 home runs and 96 RBI to go with a .312 batting average and .512 slugging percentage. The Baby Bull, as some people called him (Baseball fans back in Puerto Rico knew Perucho as “the Bull.”), led the National League with 38 doubles.
The following year, Cepeda put up more big numbers. He hit 27 homers, drove in 105 runs and batted .317 with 35 doubles and a .522 slugging percentage. Cepeda enjoyed another good season in 1960 (24/96/.297) and really busted out in 1961. He topped the N.L. with 46 homers and 142 RBI. Cepeda hit .311 and slugged .609.
Dark continued to be a problem for Cepeda. The ballplayer complained too much about a sore right knee, Dark told the press. Cepeda, who had injured the knee during a collision at home plate in 1961, was sure that the skipper didn’t like him. The club also had another first baseman. His name was Willie McCovey. Big Mac earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1959, the year after Cepeda. The lefty hitter struggled against southpaw pitching, though. Cepeda split time between the first base and left field.
The Giants fired Dark after the 1964 season. By then, Cepeda had cracked 222 home runs and had a .309 career batting average. He was one of the game’s great stars. Unfortunately, new manager Herman Franks didn’t want to hear about Cepeda’s sore knee, either. Inevitably, Franks and Cepeda clashed.
Finally, Cepeda went under the knee in 1965. He returned late in the season and hit just .176 in 34 at-bats. In the spring of 1966, McCovey was officially the Giants’ first baseman. San Francisco shipped Cepeda to St. Louis for pitcher Ray Sadecki on May 8. He hit .308 with 17 homers and 58 RBI in 123 games the rest of the way.
Cepeda won the National League Most Valuable Player award in his first full season in St. Louis. As a first baseman. The 10-year veteran slammed 25 home runs, knocked in 111 runs and batted .325 with a .399 on-base percentage. The Cardinals finished 101-60 and won the N.L. pennant. Orlando Cepeda laughed in the St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouse. He joked around and manager Red Schoendienst smiled. He hit line drives, of course. Teammates called him “Cha Cha” after his love for jazz music. Life felt good in the summer of ’67.
“If I do all this (joking around) in San Francisco, they would give me a funny look all the time,” Cepeda said in a 1967 Sports Illustrated article.
The Cards went on to beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. It looked like Cepeda had found a comfortable home next to the Mississippi River. He only played two seasons in St. Louis, though. Cepeda slumped badly in 1968, finishing with career lows in home runs (16), RBI (73) and batting average (.248). St. Louis traded Cepeda to the Atlanta Braves in the offseason.
Cha Cha played six more seasons in the major leagues. He hit 34 home runs for the Braves in 1970, his last big year in the majors. He also played for the Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals before hanging up the uniform. The 11-time All Star retired with 379 homers and a .297 batting average.
Life after baseball was rough for Cepeda. Police busted him in Florida in late 1975 for trying to move 170 pounds of marijuana. Cepeda served 10 months of a five-year sentence.
Upon release, Cepeda worked as a coach for a while and eventually moved back to the San Francisco area. He helped at Giants fantasy camps and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. A statue of Cha Cha, the Baby Bull, stands near the 2nd Street entrance of AT&T Park in San Francisco.
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.
By Glen Sparks
Fred Snodgrass died a successful businessman on April 5, 1974, in Ventura, Calif. The New York Times really let him have it in the obit: “Fred Snodgrass, 86, dead. Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.”
Snodgrass, born on Oct. 19, 1887, played nine years in the big leagues, mostly with the New York Giants. He hit .275 over his career, with a .367 on-base percentage. Fleet afoot, Snodgrass stole 212 bases. He played in three World Series.
The center-fielder is most remembered for one play, the aforementioned “muffed” one. It all went down in the final game of the 1912 Series against the Boston Red Sox. Snodgrass, not yet 25 years old, was in his third full season in the big leagues.
Giants manager John McGraw discovered Snodgrass in the spring of 1907. McGraw’s ballclub had set up spring training in Los Angeles. Snodgrass was playing for St. Vincent’s College, the school now known as Loyola Marymount University.
Impressed with the young ballplayer’s talent and spunk, McGraw signed Snodgrass to a contract. At first a catcher, Snodgrass later settled in as an outfielder, in large part because of his blazing speed. Snodgrass played in six games for the Giants in 1908 and 28 games in ’09.
The right-handed hitter earned a regular job in 1910 and batted what would be a career high, .321. He followed that up by hitting .294 in 1911. His average went down again, to .269, in 1912. He still stole 43 bases, giving him 127 in his first three full seasons.
The 1912 Giants won their second straight National League pennant. They finished 103-48, 10 games in front of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates. They had compiled a 99-54 record in 1911 and lost the World Series in six games to the Philadelphia A’s.
These were the Giant teams of Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard, of Chief Meyers and Larry Doyle. McGraw, the great taciturn man from nearby Truxton, N.Y., known by many as “Little Napoleon,” led this group.
New York and Boston were tied 3-3-1 after seven games in 1912 World Series. (The umpires called Game 2 on account of darkness with the score tied 6-6 after 11 innings.) Fenway Park was half full for the deciding match-up. New York scored a run in the third inning, and Boston plated one in the seventh. The game was tied 1-1 after nine.
Red Murray doubled for New York in the top of the 10th. Fred Merkle (yes, that Fred Merkle) singled him home. The Giants were now up 2-1.
Clyde Engle led off the bottom of the 10th for Boston with a fairly routine fly ball to center field. Snodgrass camped underneath the ball, stood ready to catch it and … watched as it dribbled off his glove and to the ground. The Red Sox now had a runner on first.
Snodgrass made an excellent running catch on the next play, a line shot from Harry Hooper. Engle, though, tagged and sprinted to second base. Mathewson then walked Steve Yerkes.
The great Tris Speaker, batting next, lifted a pop up. Several Giants players converged onto the scene, but no one caught the ball as it bounced in foul territory. Speaker, given another chance, hit a single to score Engle and advance Yerkes to third. Mathewson waked Duffy Lewis to load the bases.
Larry Gardner ended the game and the Series with a one-out sacrifice fly to bring home Yerkes.
Afterward, Snodgrass said, “It (the ball) just dropped out of the glove.” Some baseball people began calling Snodgrass’s error, “the $30,000 muff,” in reference to the approximate difference between the total winning and losing teams in the Series.
McGraw, though, didn’t blame Snodgrass for the Series loss. In fact, he supposedly gave his maligned player a $1,000 raise in 1913. Snodgrass hit .291 in ’13, and the Giants went to the World Series for the third straight season. Once again, they lost, to the A’s for the second time in three years.
Snodgrass played for McGraw and New York until being traded mid-way through the 1915 campaign. He retired after the 1916 season.
Returning to California, the former player began a second career as a banker. He also served for a time as mayor of Oxnard, Calif. Later, he grew lemons and walnuts on his ranch in Ventura.
Snodgrass was one of the players profiled by Lawrence S. Ritter in his wonderful book, The Glory of Their Times. In it, Snodgrass mentions that even 50 years after “the play,” he’d be introduced as the guy who dropped an easy fly ball in the World Series. The cutting comments didn’t bother him. “If I had a chance, I’d gladly do it all over again,” he said, “every bit of it.”
By Glen Sparks
King Gustav of Sweden stood before the great Jim Thorpe following the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and said what everyone else was thinking. “You, sir,” his majesty declared, “are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe, born on May 28, 1887, in the Oklahoma territory, the son of a blacksmith and the grandson of a Chippewa warrior, had just won gold medals in the decathlon and the pentathlon. He finished first in eight of the 15 individual events.
Thorpe to Sweden’s monarch: “Thanks, king.”
A ticket-tape parade down Broadway in New York City followed Thorpe’s triumphal return to the United States. Martin Sheridan, a great Irish-American track star and five-time Olympic gold medalist, declared Thorpe “the greatest athlete who ever lived.”
Sports fans had found a new hero. But, nothing lasts forever. In January of 1913, a story in the Worcester Telegram spoiled the good cheer. Thorpe, the newspaper reported, had played in some professional baseball games in 1909 and 1910. Indeed, he had.
On this date in 1909, Thorpe made his pro debut, taking the mound for Rocky Mount, N.C., of the Eastern Carolina League. A pitcher, Thorpe beat Raleigh 4-2. He violated his amateur status—an Olympic requirement–with that first toss.
Officials from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) went nuts. They reported The World’s Greatest Athlete to the International Olympic Committee, which ordered Thorpe to give back his medals. Thorpe pleaded his case.
He had only made chump change playing ball, he said, as little as two bucks a game ($51 in 2015 money). He didn’t know any better, he insisted. “I was not very wise in the ways of the world,” Thorpe confessed. It didn’t matter. Thorpe, in the eyes of the IOC, would now be an ex-medal winner. And, that wasn’t all bad. Pro teams began calling.
Football called first. Thorpe had played college ball at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa., established by the U.S. Army in 1880. He began going to the school at age 16, in 1904.
The young man made quite an impression. He not only competed in baseball, football, track and lacrosse, he also won the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship. On the gridiron, Carlisle Coach Pop Warner—yes, that Pop Warner—started Thorpe at defensive back, running back, placekicker and punter.
In 1911, Thorpe led Carlisle football to an 11-1 record. He scored every Carlisle point in an 18-15 win against a stacked Harvard squad.
The following year, Carlisle won the national championship. It even beat a powerful Army team 27-6 thanks in part to a 97-yard touchdown run by Thorpe (just after his 96-yard scoring run had been called back). That season, Thorpe ran for 25 TDs and scored 198 points.
By 1913, the Pine Valley Pros of Indiana were calling. Thorpe played football for two seasons with that club before moving on to the Canton Bulldogs of the Ohio League. Thorpe led the Bulldogs to three titles (1916, 1917 and 1919). He later played in the NFL, from the league’s inaugural year of 1920 through the 1928 campaign.
Baseball was a bit trickier. Thorpe’s big-league career lasted from 1913-1919, mostly for the New York Giants. His old pitching days behind him, Thorpe settled in as an outfielder, usually in reserve. The World’s Greatest Athlete couldn’t hit a curveball. Thorpe batted just .252 in 289 games and hit only seven home runs.
Thorpe spent most of the last few decades of his life in southern California, working at times as a ditch digger for WPA projects and as an extra in the movies. During the closing days of World War II, he served on an ammunition ship with the Merchant Marines. He died March 28, 1953, in Lomita, Calif., south of Los Angeles, at age 65. His death certificate listed him as “athlete.”
In 1983, following a long campaign led by Thorpe’s daughter Grace, the IOC reversed its 1912 decision and re-issued the two gold medals won by “the greatest athlete in the world.”