Tagged: Pirates

Joe L. Brown Built the Bucs

The Pirates honored former team executive Joe L. Brown at a ceremony held a few months before his death in 2010.

The Pirates honored former team executive Joe L. Brown at a ceremony held a few months before his death in 2010. (Pennsylvania Penguin photo)

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.

Joe E. Brown, Joe L.'s dad, starred in radio and film. His most famous movie is Some Like It Hot.

Joe E. Brown, Joe L.’s dad, starred in radio and film. His most famous movie is Some Like It Hot.

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.”

Roberto Clemente: Almost a Dodger, Always a Hero

Roberto Clemente retired with exactly 3,000 career hits.

Roberto Clemente retired with exactly 3,000 career hits.

(Roberto Clemente was born on this date in 1934. This post focuses on the Hall of Famer’s would-be career with the Dodgers. I’ll write a post in December about Clemente and the tragic accident that took his life.)

By Glen Sparks

Roberto Clemente was one of the greatest Dodgers of all time. The club called him up in 1955, the year Brooklyn won its first and only World Series. The slender 20-year-old outfielder from Carolina, Puerto Rico, sprinted around the bases and gunned down plenty of baserunners who dared to test his powerful arm. Brooklyn manager Walt Alston said, “This kid’s arm makes Carl Furillo’s (the Reading Rifle) look like a pop gun.”

Young Clemente didn’t hit much at first. That came later. He went with the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958 and within a few seasons began slashing line drives all over major league parks. He’d belt 15-25 home runs a season, bat .325 and collect about 200 hits almost every year. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale loved to see Roberto Clemente batting in the middle of the Dodgers’ order.

Oh, wait. It didn’t happen that way. Clemente, born on this date in 1934, never played one game for the Dodgers. He played his entire, glorious 18-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dodger fans can only lament over what might have been.

The Dodgers first saw Clemente play at a tryout camp in 1952. Al Campanis, a Brooklyn scout, 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 Campanis’ report. Campanis wrote down that the 18-year-old “has all the tools and likes to play. A real good looking prospect!”

But, Campanis didn’t sign him. Clemente was still going to high school. So, the Dodgers waited. They finally inked him to a deal on Feb. 19, 1954, supposedly for a $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. That made Clemente a “bonus baby.”

According to the rules, the Dodgers were required to keep Clemente on the major league roster or risk losing him during an offseason draft. Most bonus babies just sat on the bench and rarely played. Brooklyn executive Buzzie Bavasi decided to chance it. He assigned his young player to the Montreal Royals of the International League. He hoped that other teams might forget about Clemente. (Some accounts insist that baseball had a quota system in place and that no team could keep more than five black players on the major league roster at any given team. This argument is still up for debate.)

The idea of the Dodgers trying to “hide” Clemente in Montreal is another point of conjecture. Certainly, other teams knew about him. The New York Giants were especially interested.

Montreal manager Max Macon didn’t play Clemente every day for one simple reason. Clemente swung at just about everything and struggled at the plate. (He continued that habit in the big leagues. He simply got better at hitting bad balls hard.) By the end of July, Clemente’s batting average stood at about .200. He finished the season at .257.

Baseball held its end-of-season draft in November. Bavazi crossed his fingers and hoped that Pittsburgh, choosing first, would pick a player other than Clemente. In fact, he went one step beyond that. He got on the telephone with Branch Rickey, the former Dodger president and now Pittsburgh executive. The two talked awhile. Bavasi thought he had a gentleman’s agreement that Rickey would select Montreal pitcher John Rutherford. Rickey, to the fury of Bavazi, chose Clemente.

“Thus, we lost Roberto,” Bavazi said years later.

Clemente went on to hit .317 during his Pirate career. He won four National League batting titles and the 1966 MVP award. One of the greatest right-fielders in baseball history collected 12 Gold Gloves and exactly 3,000 hits.

He died tragically on Dec. 31, 1972, at the age of 38, while on a mercy mission to Managua, Nicaragua, following a devastating earthquake in that capital city. Clemente was aboard a DC-7 overloaded with relief supplies. The jet crashed off the Puerto Rican coast. Clemente’s body was never recovered.

The Baseball Hall of Fame held a special election on March 30, 1973, and voted Clemente for induction that summer. Since 1973, baseball has given out the Roberto Clemente Award to one player each year for outstanding achievements both on and off the field.

“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.” – Roberto Clemente


Baseball Reference

SABR bio project

Roberto Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero

Pirates’ Rip Sewell Turned “Nothing” Eephus into Something Good

Rip Sewell shows his eephus grip.

Rip Sewell shows his eephus grip.

By Glen Sparks

On Dec. 7, 1941, on that very day in history, Rip Sewell’s right foot looked like a bloody mess.

Sewell, a decent pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, had gone deer hunting in Ocala, Fla., with a friend. The friend accidentally piled a load of shot into Sewell’s legs. His right foot fared the worst. Doctors took out as many of the pellets as they could and told Sewell to look into some other line of work. He could never drive off that foot.

Sewell, born in his date in 1907, didn’t give up. Instead, he invented the eephus pitch, a type of blooper ball. Well, it wasn’t like he was going into the Army. The draft board looked at Sewell’s feet and labeled him 4F, or “not acceptable for military service.”

The 34-year-old right-hander from Decatur, Ala., had to think fast. Not about basic training, but about spring training. How could he protect his damaged foot? What would happen to his fastball and curveball? How the heck would Truett Banks “Rip” Sewell, former baseball player and football player at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., get anyone out?

Sewell was nothing if not determined. The Detroit Tigers had cut him loose in 1932, a 25-year-old rookie with an outrageous 12.66 ERA in just 10.2 innings of work. If there ever was a time for a guy to look into some other career options, that was it.

But, he didn’t quit. He did the small-town, minor-league bus tour thing for years. He made it back to the majors in 1938, a 31-year-old playing in his sophomore season in the bigs, with the Pirates. The following year, Sewell played in his first full season with Pittsburgh. In ’41, Sewell went 14-17 with a 3.72 ERA (98 ERA+), not so hot. But, he had compiled a 16-5 mark in 1940, with a 2.80 ERA (136 ERA+), much better. Yes, Rip Sewell could find a way.

Sewell unveiled his new pitch in a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers, just a few months after his foot had just about exploded. He held the ball with three fingers, threw it at about 50 mph and made it go 25 feet into the air before diving into the hitting zone, or, preferably, just plopping into the catcher’s mitt. Sewell didn’t throw the Eephus on every pitch, but he threw it often enough.

Oh, the batters hated the Eephus. Some batters reached out and caught it—like, “What the heck is this thing.” Supposedly, some guys spit tobacco juice at it, this eephus pitch.

Sewell didn’t care. He went 17-15 in 1942 with a 3.41 ERA (99 ERA+). Then, he really got the pitch going. He put together his career year in 1943, leading the National League in wins (21) and complete games (25). Sewell lost just nine times and finished with a nifty ERA of 2.54 (137 ERA+).

The following year, Sewell did almost as well. He went 21-12 with a 3.18 ERA (117 ERA+). In both seasons, he made the N.L. All-Star team.

In 1946, Sewell, again an All-Star, squared off against the great Ted Williams at Boston’s Fenway Park. “You’re not going to throw that blankety-blank blooper pitch, are you?” Williams asked. I just might, Sewell said. And, he did. And, Williams swung and missed. And, he threw it again. And, Williams fouled it off.

“Here it comes again,” Sewell said.

This time, Williams belted the ball into the bullpen. Sewell supposedly chuckled as Teddy Ballgame rounded the bases. Yeah, you hit it good. You knew it was coming.

Rip Sewell retired after the 1949 season. He went 143-97 in his eephus-tossing career. He won 30 major-league games before the hunting accident, 113 after. Sewell died in 1989 at the age of 82.

By the way, Sewell’s teammate, the elegantly titled Maurice Van Robays, came up with the name “eephus” pitch. His logic was simple: “Eephus ain’t nothing,” Van Robays said, “and that’s what that ball is.”

Oh, but in the right hand of Rip Sewell, the eephus pitch was certainly something.

Wagner Baseball Card Went Up in Smoke

Do you have this baseball card?  You could be rich.

Do you have this baseball card? You could be rich.

By Glen Sparks

Honus Wagner led the National League in batting average eight times during his storied career. A member of baseball’s first Hall of Fame class, most experts rate him as the greatest shortstop in the game’s history. Which still doesn’t fully explain why collectors sometimes pay more than $2 million for his 1909-11 T206 baseball card, more than they do for any other card.

Tim Wiles, former research director at the Hall of Fame, writes why the Wagner card   is sometimes called the “Mona Lisa of baseball cards” or the hobby’s “Holy Grail.”

From 25 to about 200 of the cards still exist, Wiles writes, all the original products of the American Tobacco Company. ATC created a set of 500 cards, the biggest, grandest set of cards yet offered, in full color no less.

Even so, Wagner, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, asked ATC to stop the presses.The myth, a popular one, especially for parents and for Little League coaches hoping to teach little Johnny a lesson, is that The Flying Dutchman so objected to tobacco in all forms that he nearly sprinted to ATC headquarters and demanded that workers quit printing his card be halted—immediately—lest he set a poor example for the kids. Well, as Wiles explains, the truest part of that last sentence is that it’s a myth.

Wagner smoked cigars and chewed tobacco. We have pictures of him doing both. The other myth is that a penny-pinching Wagner wanted just compensation for his picture to appear on what was in effect an advertisement. That isn’t true, either, Wiles writes. Rather, it was cigarette smoking specifically that bothered Wagner. In those days, one could smoke a cigar or a pipe, and even chew, in polite company. Cigarette smoking, though, was just plain nasty to many folks.

So, what was it about the Wagner card that made it so valuable? As mentioned, it is not the rarest of cards. And, while Wagner is an all-time great, he still lacks the name recognition of Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth.

Wiles tells the story of a particular collector who put together a card catalog in 1937 and listed the Wagner card at a whopping $50. The price keeps going up.“The card is valuable because it is famous; it is famous because it is valuable,” noted Paul M. Green and Kit Kiefer in a baseball card book.

Add: A Wagner card went for $2.1 million on April 6, 2013, following some rabid bidding. Another card, one considered in very good condition, sold for $1.2 million about a year before that in St. Louis. This article by Joe Holleman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch gives a good rundown on some other baseball memorabilia that was purchased that day.

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky and then-Los Angeles Kings Owner Bruce McNall teamed up in 1991 to buy a Wagner card for $451,000. This card is considered the top Wagner out there and has been sold several times since the Gretzky-McNall purchase. Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, bought it in 2011 for $2.8 million.

In 2010, the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore sold a Wagner card in poor condition for $220,000, (Other web sites report different prices.), or $70,000 more than the expected price. The brother of one of the School Sister nuns had donated the card. The order’s treasurer, Sister Virginia Mueller, did some research and soon discovered how much Wagner cards were worth.

“I very carefully put it back into my files,” she said. “Then, quickly insured it.”

Which Pittsburgh Pirate? …

Who is this former outfielder and successful manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Who is this former outfielder and successful manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates?

(This is the second in my series of quizzes on players from a particular team. This one focuses on the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bucs joined the National League in 1887 and have won nine pennants and five World Series titles.)

By Glen Sparks

1. Which Pirate player ranks second to Cy Young on baseball’s all-time list in innings pitched and complete games?

2. Which Pirate pitcher recorded the win in Game 1 of the 1903 World Series, the first Series game ever played?

3. Which Pirate manager led the team to the only 100-win seasons in franchise history?

4. The Pirates are known more for its great hitters than its outstanding pitchers. Who is No. 1 on the team’s all-time wins list?

5. Which Pirate player batted .340 in his 15 years with the Bucs and won the N.L. MVP in 1927 when he hit .380 and drove in 131 runs?

6. Roberto Clemente is the Pirates’ all-time leader with exactly 3,000 hits. Who is No. 2 on the Bucs’ career list?

7. Which Pittsburgh Pirate led the National League in home runs seven times and as a broadcaster once said, “All the Mets’ road wins against the Dodgers this year occurred at Dodger Stadium.”

8. Which future Hall of Famer was released by the Dodgers as a youngster and quickly picked up by the Pirates?

9. Bill Mazeroski hit his historic home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. He hit the homer off the Yankees’ Ralph Terry. Which Pirate was the winning pitcher?

10. Which Pirate slugger hit home runs completely out of Dodger Stadium?

1. James “Pud” Galvin is not nearly as well-known as Cy Young, but the St. Louis native was every bit as durable. Galvin completed 646 games in his career and threw 6,003 innings. He threw 70 complete games in 1883 and 1884 and 65 in 1879. His lifetime won-loss record was 365-310.

2. Deacon Phillippe beat the great Cy Young in a 7-3 victory against the Boston Americans, the forerunner of the Boston Red Sox. Both pitchers threw complete games; Phillippe struck out 10. He went 3-2 in the Series that Boston won five games to three. Phillippe went 189-109 in his career, mostly with the Pirates.

3. Fred Clarke skipped the Pirates to a 102-36 mark in 1902 and 110-42 record in 1909. The 1902 Pirates won the National League by 27.5 games, while the 1909 team took the World Series. Clarke served as Pirates manager from 1900-15, while also playing outfield in most seasons. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1945.

4. Wilbur Cooper, a native of Bearsville, West Va., won a franchise-record 202 games for the Pirates from 1912-24. He also still owns the team records for complete games (263), innings pitched (3,203), strikeouts (1,191) and games pitched (469). Cooper was the first N.L. left-hander to win at least 200 games. He finished 216-178 in his career, which also included stints with the Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers.

5. Paul “Big Poison” Waner finished in the top five in MVP voting five times. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1952. His brother, Lloyd, or “Little Poison” hit .318 in his career, mostly with the Pirates and was selected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1967.

6. The great shortstop Honus Wagner had 2,967 as a Pirate, second to Clemente on the team’s all-time list. The Hall of Famer had 3,420 hits in his career; 453 came with the Louisville Colonels.

7. Ralph Kiner led the N.L. in homers seven times, but still only hit a relatively modest 369 home runs in a career that was cut short by a back injury. Later, as an announcer for the New York Mets, Kiner was famous for his malapropisms. He also once said “Kevin McReynolds stops at third, and he scores.”

8. Roberto Clemente. The Dodgers signed the 19-year-old Clemente on Feb. 19, 1954. Because he was a bonus player, the Dodgers were required to keep him on the major league roster or risk losing him. The Dodgers did the latter, and the Pirates burned them in the 1954 Rude 5 Draft. Pittsburgh had the first pick in the draft and chose Clemente.

9. Harvey Haddix. He went one inning and gave up one hit in relief. Haddix, who retired with a 136-113 won-loss record, is also famous for throwing 12 percent innings in a game May 26, 1959, against the Milwaukee Braves. Haddix and the Pirates lost the game in the 13th.

10. Willie Stargell cleared Dodger Stadium with a home run Aug. 5, 1969, against Alan Foster. He did it again May 8, 1973, against Andy Messersmith. Only two other players—Mark McGwire and Mike Piazza—have ever hit fair balls out of Dodger Stadium. Piazza was the only one to do it as a Dodger.