By Glen Sparks
He was Carson “Skeeter” Bigbee of Linn County, Oregon, born on March 31, 1895. He played 11 seasons in the big leagues, all of them with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and was the younger brother of Lyle Bigbee, who also played ball and who met a tragic end.
Skeeter Bigbee, grew up in a lumber town. His dad, Claiborne Bigbee, from Missouri, played baseball and supposedly hurled the first curveball “in this section of the state,” per the July 24, 1912, edition of the Portland Oregonian. Skeeter’s mom, Callie (Morris) Bigbee, descended from a family of pioneers. Her dad and grandfather left Illinois in 1850 to go west via the Oregon Trail. Callie’s mom crossed the country in 1851, surviving an Indian attack en route to the coast.
Carson, along with Lyle and oldest brother Morris, starred at Albany, Oregon, High School. The three also played sports at the University of Oregon. At one point, the Ducks’ lineup included all three Bigbee men—Morris at second base, Lyle on the mound, and Carson at shortstop.
Carson and Lyle signed with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League in early 1916. Team manager Walt McCredle, though, didn’t like what he saw from either of them. He released both after just a short time to the Tacoma, Washington, Tigers of the Class B Northwest League. Carson’s career took off. He batted .340, good enough for the Pirates, who signed him for $5,000 and called him up to the big club.
As a rookie, Bigbee appeared in 43 games and batted .285 with a .314 on-base percentage. The following season, he set a Major League record.
The Pirates were playing the Brooklyn Robins (the forerunner of the Dodgers) on Aug. 22, 1917. Wilbur Connor started on the mound for Pittsburgh, Leon Cadore for Brooklyn. Neither lasted very long. Cooper went five innings, Cadore stayed around for seven. The game, though, took 22 innings. The Robins, though, won 6-5. Bigbee came to bat 11 times, more than anyone ever up to that point. He led all batters with six hits and drove in two runs. (Bigbee shares the record today for at-bats in an extra-inning game with 13 other players.)
Baseball people and sportswriters called him “Skeeter” because he liked to steal bases. Bigbee swiped 182 bags in his career, including a career-high of 31 in 1919 and 1920.
“Skeeter” appeared in just one World Series, in 1925, against the Washington Senators. Near the end of his career, he came to bat just three times and managed only one hit. It was a big hit, though. He knocked a game-tying double in the eighth inning of Game 7 against the great Walter Johnson. Bigbee’s two-base hit drove in Earl Smith to make the score 7-7. Pittsburgh won the game 9-7, and the Series.
The right-handed batter retired in 1926 with 17 home runs over his 11 seasons, playing much of his career during the deadball era. He hit retired .287 lifetime with an on-base percentage of .345, along with 139 doubles and 75 triples. Bigbee topped the 200-hit mark in 1921 and 1922.
Lyle Bigbee, meanwhile, played two seasons in the majors. He went 0-3 with an 8.00 ERA over 45 innings as a Philadelphia Athletic in 1920. The following year, he pitched for the Pirates as a teammate of Carson’s. Lyle got into just five game and pitched only eight innings. He gave up a lone run. The right-hander later spent time in minor-league ball, with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association and the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, among other teams.
Lyle’s pro baseball ended at the age of 30. After that, he drifted through towns all over the west, from Bend, Oregon, to Kelso, Washington, to Casper, Wyoming, and to Santa Rita, New Mexico. He found a job as a night watchman at a copper mine in Santa Rita. He committed suicide in Portland on August 4, 1942, at the age of 48.
Carson Bigbee did some managing after his playing career ended, in the All-American Girls Baseball League. Founded in 1943 by Chicago Cubs owner and chewing gum magnate Phillip K Wrigley, the AAGPBL lasted until 1955. Most teams were located in smaller Midwest cities.
Bigbee led the Springfield, Illinois, Sallies in 1948 and the Muskegon, Michigan, Lassies in 1949. A biography of Bigbee on an AAGPBL historical site reports that the former major league was skeptical at first about women’s baseball. He “later became the game’s biggest booster as he managed the Springfield Sallies. He had a fine competitive spirit and a pleasing personality made him popular with both players and managers throughout the League.”
“Skeeter” Bigbee died on Oct. 17, 1964, in Portland, Oregon. He was 69 years old. He is buried at the Willamette National Cemetery. Morris Bigbee passed away on May 29, 1978, in Portland, at the age of 88.
By Glen Sparks
You can hear the crack of the bat and cheers of the crowd at Heine Meine fields in far south St. Louis County. Pitchers grunt as they hurl fastballs toward the hitter, while umpires bark out their calls. You can catch a game here throughout the cool spring days and warm summer nights in the Gateway City.
Baseball teams, including those from Hancock High School and St. Louis Community College-Meramec, play on the nine-acre, recently renovated property, located not far from the Mississippi River. Three fields comprise Heine Meine.
The complex was named long ago for Henry William “Heine” Meine, the so-called Count of Luxembourg, a former big-league pitcher and the owner of a popular tavern that once stood nearby. Heine also helped found the Lemay Baseball Association.
Heine Meine’s story is worth telling. The ballplayer’s spitball first drew the attention of scouts. Later, he came up with different ways to make his pitches move. He was, as baseball people liked to say, a “junkball” artist. Meine compiled a 66-50 won-loss mark in a major-league career that began in 1922, went on hiatus for several years and picked up again in 1929.
Born May 1, 1896 in St. Louis, to Henry and Louisa Meine, the children of German immigrants, young Henry grew up in the city’s Carondelet neighborhood. The boy grew up with the goal of making his living as a blacksmith, his dad’s profession.
World War II broke out in 1914. The United States entered the action in 1917. Henry Meine Jr. served 22 months in the U.S. Army’s mounted cavalry. He also showed off a special talent to his fellow soldiers. Henry Meine hurled a mean spitball.
Not long after the Great War ended on Nov. 11, 1918, Meine returned to St. Louis and began operating a local tavern. He also played semi-pro baseball. A scout for the St. Louis Browns signed him to a deal in 1921.
Meine didn’t exactly light things up in the minors. He went 8-16 with a 4.68 ERA for the Beaumont, Texas, Exporters, a Class A squad. The Browns promoted him to the big club, anyway.
To make things even tougher on the 26-year-old rookie, spitballs had been outlawed in the big leagues following the 1921 season. (Some pitchers were grandfathered in and allowed to keep throwing the pitch. Burleigh Grimes was the last legal spitballer in the majors.) So, a guy with an 8-16 mark and an 4.68 ERA couldn’t—legally—throw his best pitch.
Appearing in just one game and pitching just four innings. Meine gave up five hits and three runs (two earned, a 4.50 ERA). Over the next several years, Meine toiled in the minors—for teams such as the Syracuse Stars and the Kansas City Blues—and worked on throwing good pitches…dry.
The Browns eventually traded Meine to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 5-foot-11-inch right-hander eventually made it back to the majors as a 33-year-old in 1929. He pitched in 108 innings (22 games, 13 starts), went 7-6 and posted another 4.50 ERA. The following year, Meine tossed 117 innings (20 games, 16 starts) and finished 6-8, this time with an inflated 6.14 ERA. Meine’s junkballs needed work.
His offseason leading into 1931 included a tonsillectomy. Meine’s first game that year was an unimpressive six-inning effort. He gave up eight hits and five walks. His second start was about the same. Then, something clicked. Meine used a curveball, change-up, good control and guile to put together by far his best year in the majors.
He led the National league with 19 wins (against 13 losses) and started a league-leading 35 games. Meine also topped all pitchers with 284 innings pitched, to go with a 2.98 ERA (fourth in the league). At one point, he tossed five straight complete games. If not for Meine, Pittsburgh 75-79 won-loss record (fifth place) would have been much worse. The pitcher went 4-2 against the eventual World Series winner St. Louis Cardinals, posting a 1.61 ERA in 56 innings.
Meine’s curveball had become a “sweeping, tantalizing thing,” St. Louis sportswriter Roy Stockton decided.
The irascible Meine wanted a raise for the 1932 campaign. The Pirates said “no,” leading to a holdout and suspension. Meine finally reported to the team in late May, but never got into a groove. He finished 12-9 but with a 3.86 ERA. The next year, he finished 15-8 and recorded a 3.65 ERA. Meine was 37 years old.
Influenza wiped out part of Meine’s 1934 season. He went just 7-6 and retired to St. Louis to run his tavern. The neighborhood was known as “Luxemburg.” Meine was the Count. Meine’s place was a popular joint before, during and after prohibition. A reporter for the Milwaukee Journal wrote that Meine can “juggle a stein of brew just as easily as he can throw a curve ball.”
Later, Meine opened a baseball school for teenage boys and hired former ballplayers to help out. He started the Lemay Baseball Association and ran that with his sons, Howard and Robert. Heine Meine died March 18, 1968, at age 71.
By Glen Sparks
What do you know about Joseph Floyd “Arky” Vaughn?
The story of his splendid career and tragically short life has grown foggy. That probably isn’t a great surprise. Invariably, the precise statistics and highlights of most players—even some of the very best–get forgotten over time, even by the most avid fans.
And, to be fair, Vaughn did not put up stats so glorious as “714” or “755.” He did not collect 3,630 career hits like Stan Musial did (1,850 on the road, 1,850 at home, to boot), or do anything quite so outrageous as bat .406 in one season or enjoy a 56-game hitting streak.
Still, he is enshrined—rightly so–among the immortals, finally put there decades after his untimely death. His plaque hangs at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., not far from legendary players such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Walter Johnson.
What should you know about “Arky” Vaughn? (They called him “Arky”, by the way, because he was born March 9, 1912, in little Clifty, Ark. He and his family left the state for California when young Joe was just a few months old. “Oh, you were born in Arkansas?” Arky. The name stuck.)
- Batted .318 over a 14-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Brooklyn Dodgers (1932-43, 47-48), with a .406 on-base percentage.
- Made nine straight National League All-Star teams (1934-42) and finished third in the MVP voting in 1935 and 1938.
- Led the league in bases on balls three straight years (1934-36) and in on-base percentage those same three seasons.
- Led the N.L. in triples in 1933, ’37 and 1940 and smacked 128 three-base hits over his career. He topped out at 19 in ’33.
- Led the league in runs scored three times (1936, ’40 and ’43) and came home more than 100 times in five seasons.
- Enjoyed his best season in 1935. That year, he led the senior circuit in bases on balls (97), batting average (.385), on-base percentage (.491), slugging percentage (.607), OPS (1.098) and OPS+ (190).
Vaughn grew up in Mendocino, Calif., near San Francisco, and, later, in Orange County, Calif. He graduated from Fullerton Union High School (the same high school that produced Kansas native Walter Johnson, probably the greatest pitcher in baseball history) and made his major league debut as a 20-year-old Pirates shortstop in 1932.
The 5-foot-10-inch Vaughn played shortstop (1,485 games) for most of his career. He also saw some action at third base (197) and in the outfield (120 games). He even played a lone game at second base in 1942 for Brooklyn.
Vaughn established himself as an All-Star by 1934, his third year in the league. His 1935 season looks even better today than it did at the time. Vaughn finished behind the Chicago Cubs’ Gabby Harnett and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dizzy Dean in the MVP race. He belted 19 homers and drove in 99 runs to go with that league-leading .385 batting average.
However, as mentioned earlier, Vaughn topped the league in several categories, such as on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+. Those stats didn’t mean anything in 1935. Vaughn also led the N.L. in WAR (Wins above Replacement) with a 9.2. Hartnett posted a 5.0 and Dean a 7.1.
Following a run of outstanding seasons, Vaughn was dealt to Brooklyn on Dec. 12, 1941. The Dodgers, who already had Pee Wee Reese playing shortstop, put Vaughn at third base. The new man hit a career-low .277 in his first year in Brooklyn. He rebounded the following year with a .305 batting average and even led the N.L. with 20 stolen bases.
The lefty batter retired—abruptly—after the 1943 season. He got into a beef with Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher and basically said, “the heck with this. I’m outta here.” Here’s the story: Durocher blabbed some nasty stuff to reporters about Brooklyn pitcher Bobo Newsom, a friend of Arky’s. Vaughn, a quiet guy, read the ink and saw red. He threw his uniform at the skipper and called the man a liar.
Vaughn’s retirement lasted one day. He played the next afternoon but quit at the end of the season and for the next three years. Brooklyn G.M. Branch Rickey talked Arky into a comeback in 1947.
In that most interesting of seasons, Vaughn batted .325 in 64 games, and Jackie Robinson made his debut as the first African-American major leaguer of the 20th century. Was Rickey’s timing purely coincidence? Maybe not. Vaughn was a respected player and quiet leader. Rickey probably wanted him around in case any trouble broke out during Robinson’s rookie season. Later, Robinson called Vaughn “a fine fellow.”
Vaughn, just 36 years old, retired for good following the 1948 campaign. He and his wife left for the family cattle ranch in northern California. Tragically, Vaughn and a good friend, Bill Wilmer, died while fishing at Lost Lake in Eagleville, Calif., on Aug. 30, 1952.
The boat tipped over about 60 yards out, and the two men tried swimming for shore in the cold water. According to some eyewitnesses, Vaughn and Wilmer went under only 20 yards from safety. Supposedly, Vaughn was trying to save Wilmer, who could not swim. Vaughn was just 40 years old.
Maybe due to the relative shortness of his career, Vaughn did not make it into the Hall of Fame until 1985. He slugged only 96 homers and retired with just 2,103 hits. Still, thanks in part to that impressive career on-base percentage, he had 72.9 WAR points. Bill James ranked him the second best shortstop of all-time in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract.
He is an overlooked Hall of Famer. Arky Vaughn certainly enjoyed a career worth remembering.
By Glen Sparks
A massive earthquake struck near Managua, Nicaragua, at about 12:29 a.m. local time, Dec. 23, 1972. 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, Roberto worked in the fields alongside his dad, cutting down sugar cane and loading and unloading pick-up trucks. On off days, he played softball and baseball. Not surprisingly, he liked to show off his arm.
Al Campanis, a Brooklyn Dodgers scout, first saw Clemente during a tryout camp in 1952. Campanis rated Clemente’s arm 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 down 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 were required to keep Clemente on the team’s major league roster or risk losing him during an offseason draft. Brooklyn assigned Clemente to the minor league Montreal Royals and hoped for the best. The Pittsburgh Pirates swept in and drafted him 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, 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.
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 the 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.
Especially early on, the media 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.”
Clemente, 38 years old, took off for Nicaragua at 9:20 p.m. on Dec. 31. He 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 supplied by more than 4,000 pounds. Witnesses said the plane struggled to get into the air.
The DC-7 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean minutes after take-off. 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 three others in the plane, was never recovered. He left behind a wife, Vera, and 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 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.”
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.”
Happy 80th birthday to hard-throwing Bob Veale. The left-hander intimidated plenty of batters during his 13-year career, most of it spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Veale stood 6-feet-inches. He hurled fastballs at about 95 mph. His control? Well, he led the National League in walks four times and issued at least 90 free passes in seven different seasons. Oh, and he wore glasses on the mound because he was near-sighted.
Born Oct. 28, 1935, Veale grew up one of 14 children in Birmingham, Ala. His father had pitched for the Homestead Greys of the Negro National League. A teen-aged Bob spent his summers working the concession stand at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, home to the Barons of the Southern League and the Black Barons of the Negro League.
He graduated from nearby Holy Family High School and played baseball and basketball on scholarship at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Veale signed with Pittsburgh at the age of 22 following a tryout in 1958.
The Pirates didn’t call up Veale to the big leagues until 1962. He was 26 years old. Even then, he only got into 11 games and pitched just 45.2 innings. Control problems had kept the prospect a minor leaguer. In 1960, he walked 118 batters in 172 innings for Columbus, Ohio, of the International League.
Veale split the 1963 season with Pittsburgh and Columbus. He posted a miniscule ERA of 1.04 in 77.2 innings as a Pirate, both as a starter and reliever.
Manager Danny Murtaugh put Veale into the Pittsburgh starting rotation for good in 1964. That season, the 28-year-old posted an 18-12 won-loss record with a 2.74 ERA (128 ERA+). He also led the league in strikeouts (250) and walks (124).
Veale enjoyed another big year in 1965. He went 17-12 with a 2.84 ERA (123 ERA+). He topped the league in walks again (119), but he struck out 276 batters. That figure only made him runner-up, though. Another lefty, Sandy Koufax, fanned 382 batters for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Over the next several seasons, Veale continued his fine pitching. He struck out more than 200 hitters again in 1966 (229) and 1969 (213). He made the N.L. All-Star team in 1965 and ’66 and finished with a 2.05 ERA over 245.1 innings in 1968, the fabled Year of the Pitcher.
Veale gained a reputation for being a gentle giant. Despite his control problems, “he didn’t want to hurt anybody,” teammate Gene Clines said. Even so, Veale was tough on the mound. He once pitched through two rain delays and struck out 16 Philadelphia Phillies. Another time, he tossed a 10-inning one-hitter and struck out 12. In the 10th, six stiches on his injured foot broke open.
Veale’s run of success began to fade in 1970. He still struck out 178 batters in 202 innings, but he posted just a 3.92 ERA (99 ERA+) to go with a 10-15 won-loss mark. The following year, Veale went 6-0 but with a sky-high 6.99 ERA (50 ERA+). Even so, Pittsburgh won the World Series that year, beating the Baltimore Orioles. (Veale gave up one run in .2 innings of work.)
The Pirates dealt Veale to the Boston Red Sox during the 1972 campaign. A reliever at that point, he enjoyed a few decent years in New England. He retired after the 1974 season. His final won-loss mark stood at 120-95. Veale finished with a 3.07 ERA and struck out 1,703 in 1,926 innings.
Veale did some coaching for several seasons. He also consulted on the baseball scenes in Cobb, the 1994 Ty Cobb biopic starring Tommy Lee Jones. Finally, many credit Veale, not Yogi Berra, for the great line, “Good pitching can stop good hitting every time … and vice versa.” Supposedly, a writer asked Veale about that. “Are you the guy who first said, ‘Good pitching can …’”, the writer asked. Veale interrupted him. “Yes, I am.”
“I try to hit the ball as hard as I can every time I swing.” – Ralph Kiner, Pittsburgh Pirates slugger
Home-run hitters, Kiner liked to say, drive Cadillacs. Kiner crushed big-league pitching. He didn’t drive a Chevy.
No one hit the long ball like Kiner did in the years following World War II. He led the National League in homers every season from 1946 through 1952. Twice, the right-handed hitter ripped more than 50.
“(Ralph) Kiner can wipe out your lead with one swing.” – Warren Spahn
Kiner, born Oct. 27, 1922, in Santa Rita, New Mexico, grew up in Alhambra, Calf.. He could play ball just about every day in the warm, sunny climate. Scouts began to notice this lanky, athletic prospect. Kiner signed with the Pirates after graduating from Alhambra High.
The Pirates assigned Kiner to the Class D Eastern League in 1941. Two years later, they promoted him to the organization’s Toronto farm club. By then, the U.S. Navy also wanted him. Kiner spent the war flying planes assigned to anti-submarine patrols.
Being a pilot challenged Kiner both mentally and physically, he said in a November 2009 article on ESPN.com. “You grow up fast when you are in a war,” he said. Kiner gained some maturity and 20 pounds, mostly muscle.
In 1946, Kiner reported for spring training. He blasted 13 home runs in 30 games. The left-fielder was ready. He led the N.L. in homers that season with 23. (Kiner played in 144 games in ’46. Johnny Mize, who broke a wrist and was limited to just 101 games, finished second with 22. Kiner’s tally was the lowest league-leading total since Hack Wilson hit 21 in 1926 for the Cubs.)
The next year, Kiner walloped 51 (and tied Mize). He hit 40 home runs in 1948 (again, he tied Mize) and belted a career-high 54 in 1949. Kiner was the first National Leaguer to enjoy two 50-homer seasons.
Many of Kiner’s round-trippers sailed over the left- and left-center-field fences at Forbes Field. The Pirates had shortened the distances from home plate to the fences upon Hank Greenberg’s arrival in 1947. They cut the left-field foul line from 365 feet to 335 and the left-center power alley from 406 to 376. Fans dubbed the spot “Greenberg Gardens.” Sportswriters began calling it “Kiner’s Korner.”
Big Ralph again topped the N.L. in homers in 1950 (47), 1951 (42) and 1952 (37). Fans loved Kiner’s long-ball heroics, and the Pirates paid him top dollar ($90,000 at one point). The Pirates, though, rarely contended for a pennant. During Kiner run of home-run crowns, the Pirates ended up last four times.
Branch Rickey, hired in 1950 to run the club, blamed most of the problems on Kiner. The guy can’t run, throw or play defense, Rickey complained. At one point, Rickey cut Kiner’s salary to $75,000. “We can finish last without you,” Rickey told his ballplayer.
Finally, in June of 1953, Rickey dealt Kiner to the Cubs in a 10-player deal. The trade proved Rickey right. Pittsburgh kept finishing last, in ’53, 1954 and 1955.
Kiner’s career last only a few more seasons. He played 117 games for Chicago that first year and belted 28 homers after hitting seven in Pittsburgh. He hit 22 in ’54 and was dealt to the Cleveland Indians. Kiner hit 18 homers in ’55, his last year. Back injuries forced him to retire at the age of 32. He left the game with 369 home runs over his 10 seasons. At the time, he was sixth on the all-time list.
Beyond the playing field, Kiner is famous for a few other things. For one, he dated some famous Hollywood starlets, including Elizabeth Taylor. Later, he married tennis star Nancy Chafee. The couple built a house in Palm Springs and palled around Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and the like.
Of course, Kiner also did a famous turn as a broadcaster. He called New York Mets games for decades. Fans know him for his “Kiner-isms,” humorous malapropos. Here is a sampling:
“On Father’s Day, we again wish you all a Happy Birthday.”
“All of his saves have come in relief appearances.”
“Hello, everybody, welcome to Kiner’s Korner. I’m Ralph Korner.”
“The Hall of Fame ceremonies are on the 31st and 32nd of July.”
“All of the Mets road wins against the Dodgers this year occurred at Dodger Stadium.”
You get the idea. Kiner didn’t win many awards for his broadcasting. He did, though, get voted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. He had been on the ballot since 1960, so his was not a slam-dunk case. Kiner never won an MVP, and his career batting average was just .279.
However, he did walk a lot (at least 100 times in six different seasons) and finished with an impressive .398 career on-base percentage. Kiner led the lead in slugging three times and in OPS and OPS+ three times. His short career may look more impressive in retrospect than it did decades ago.
Kiner, beloved in Pittsburgh as a player and in New York City as a broadcaster, died Feb. 6, 2014, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 91.
By Glen Sparks
Joe E. Brown, famous for his rubber face and ocean-wide smile, starred in a series of mostly successful movie comedies in the 1930s and ’40s. He is probably best known today for his supporting role as a lecherous millionaire in the 1959 classic, Some Like It Hot. Brown delivers the memorable closing line in that film—“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Besides being a movie star, Brown also followed baseball. He made baseball-themed pictures like Elmer the Great and Alibi Ike and even served as president of PONY Baseball and Softball for several years.
Joe’s son inherited dad’s enthusiasm for sports. Joe L. Brown, born Sept. 1, 1918, in New York City, grew up in Hollywood. He graduated from Beverly Hills High School and played football at UCLA. His Bruin career over, young Joe took a job in the front office of the Waco (Texas) Pirates, a farm club in the Class B Big State League. He worked his way up from there, impressing the right people with his baseball and business smarts.
The Pirates hired Brown as the team’s general manager following the 1955 season. He replaced the bushy-browed, cigar-chomping Branch Rickey, who was retiring following a remarkable career.
Now, the Pirates had not won a National League pennant since 1927, during the era of Paul Waner and “Pie” Traynor. They fell on hard times. Then, things got worse. Pittsburgh usually dropped out of the pennant chase by Tax Day. The Bucs finished a combined 145-317 from 1952-54. They improved just a little bit in ’55, going 60-94.
Rickey had put some pieces in place for Brown. Those pieces included Vern Law, Bob Friend, Elroy Face, Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski and Bob Skinner. Pittsburgh also had a good-looking outfield prospect, Roberto Clemente. He could hit, the reports said, and, man, could he throw.
Then, Brown went to work. Mid-way through the 1957 season, he hired Danny Murtaugh to manage the team. He also engineered the trades to get outfielder Bill Virdon and infielder Dick Schofield.
The club struggled in ’56 (66-88) and ’57 (62-92) but turned the corner in 1958 (84-70). In 1959, the Pirates slid to 78-76. Brown kept working. (He was good at working. He went into the U.S. Army Air Force as a private and mustered out as a captain.)
Brown added catcher “Smoky” Burgess, pitcher Harvey Haddix and third baseman Don Hoak in one deal, outfielder Gino Cimoli and pitcher Tom Cheney in another deal and “Vinegar Bend” Mizell in still another swap. Clemente, meanwhile, had become a defensive star even if he was not yet a hitting star.
On this date, the team clinched its first N.L. pennant in 33 years. Fans celebrated that night with a torchlight victory parade in the city’s Golden Triangle. The Pirates went 95-59 in 1960, finishing seven games ahead of the second-place Milwaukee Braves. Dick Stuart led the team with 23 home runs. Clemente enjoyed his first big year on offense, belting 16 homers, driving in a team-high 94 runs and hitting .314. Bob Skinner drove in 86 runs and Hoak brought home 79.
Law led a strong pitching staff (20-9, 3.08 ERA), with help from Friend (18-12, 3.00) and Mizell (13-5, 3.12). Face saved 24 games.
Pittsburgh won the World Series in 1960 against the New York Yankees, as you probably know. Mazeroski cracked that epic home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 at Forbes Field. Eleven years later, in 1971, the Pirates celebrated the second title of Joe L. Brown’s tenure.
The team contended throughout much of the ‘70s. Brown developed a strong farm system that produced Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dock Ellis, Manny Sanguillen, Dave Cash, Richie Hebner, Steve Blass and others.
“Yes, he built championship teams and made superb trades, but he also built a pipeline to supply that team,” said former pitcher and current Pirates broadcaster Blass in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He was a baseball father to me.”
Brown retired as Pirates general manager after the 1976 season and went back home to California. With much of his core still in place, the Pittsburgh “We are Family” squad of 1979 celebrated another title.
Brown returned briefly as GM again in 1985 after a cocaine scandal rocked the team. On June 19, 2010, Pirates fans gave Brown a standing ovation during a ceremony at PNC Park marking the 50th anniversary of the 1960 champions. Joe L. Brown, resident of Newport Beach, Calif., died Aug. 15, 2010, at an assisted-living facility in Albuquerque, N.M., at the age of 91.
Friend said this about his former boss: “He was one of the best baseball men of his time. Joe Brown was a winner.”