Although Memorial Day is generally associated with those who have died in war, it also seems like an appropriate time to honor those baseball figures who have passed away in 2005. Just last week, the baseball world learned of the death of legendary defensive shortstop Chico Carrasquel, a player to whom modern Hall of Fame shortstops like Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith have often been compared. A number of other baseball dignitaries have also been lost; the roll call includes a member of the Boston Red Sox “Impossible Dream” and a caregiver to old-time players, the creator of the modern batting helmet, a Hall of Fame broadcaster, and one of the game’s unlikeliest record-holders.
Alfonso “Chico” Carrasquel (Died on May 26 in Caracas, Venezuela; age 77; cardiac arrest): A pioneer among Latin American players, the slick-fielding Carrasquel was the first Latin-born player to appear in a major league All-Star Game. In 1950, the flashy Venezuelan made his big league debut under difficult circumstances. While trying to adjust to a culture far different from his native Venezuela, Carrasquel faced the enormous burden of having to replace Hall of Famer Luke Appling as the starting shortstop for the Chicago White Sox. Carrasquel responded with a terrific rookie season, compiling a 24-game hitting streak on his way to batting .282 and playing the middle infield at a Gold Glove level. The following season, Carrasquel started for the American League in the All-Star Game; though he never maintained the hitting success of his rookie year, he continued to play shortstop with a legendary level of smoothness and flash. Carrasquel remained with the White Sox until the middle of the decade, when he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for Larry Doby, in order to make room for another budding Venezuelan star, Luis Aparicio. Blessed with great range and smooth hands in the field, Carrasquel later spent time with the Kansas City Athletics and Baltimore Orioles. After his playing days, he became a Spanish-language broadcaster for the White Sox and also worked in the team’s community relations department.
Vic Johnson (Died on May 10 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin; age 84): Johnson went 6-8 with two saves and an ERA of 5.06 during a brief career that started in 1944 with the Boston Red Sox. He enjoyed his best season in 1945, when he won six of 10 decisions, pitched four complete games, and compiled an ERA of 4.01. After pitching for the Red Sox, Johnson was traded to the Cleveland Indians for veteran right-hander Jim Bagby. Johnson pitched in just over 13 innings for the Indians before seeing his major league career come to an end.
Walter Ward (Died on May 8; age 42; long battle with cancer): At the time of his death, Ward was the director of communications for the Atlanta Braves. He had previously served as the publicity director for TBS, the Braves’ flagship station on cable television. The Braves held a moment of silence for Ward prior to their game on May 8 against the Houston Astros.
Pete “Gabe” Gebrian (Died on May 6 in Stuart, Florida; age 81): A former pitcher and scout, Gebrian recorded five saves for the Chicago White Sox in 1947, his lone major league season. He later worked as a scout for the New York Yankees, New York Mets, and Pittsburgh Pirates, and was named Scout of the Year by the New York Pro Baseball Scouts Association in 1973. Gebrian was a veteran of World War II and a recipient of the Bronze Star.
Lee Stine (Died on May 6 in Hemet, California; age 91): A veteran of 49 games in the major leagues, Stine made his major league debut in 1934 at the age of 20. He pitched for both the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees before being set back by injuries. After playing for the minor league Los Angeles Angels in 1940, Stine joined the military and served in the Navy during World War II.
Charlie Muse (Died on May 5 in Sun City, Florida; age 87): Muse never played in the major leagues, but made an important contribution in helping to create the modern batting helmet. As a Pittsburgh Pirates executive and president of Branch Rickey’s American Cap Company, Muse was given the assignment of devising a protective batting helmet. Muse fulfilled the request of Rickey, who was the Pirates’ general manager at the time, helping to devise a helmet that Pirates players first began to use in 1952 and 53. Within 20 years, the batting helmet became a requirement for almost all major league players. Nicknamed “The Colonel” because of his businesslike approach, Muse remained a Pirates executive for 52 years, eventually retiring in 1989.
Earl Wilson (Died on April 23 in Detroit, Michigan; age 70; heart attack): Widely regarded as one of the greatest hitting pitchers of all-time, Wilson was also an effective right-hander for the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers during the 1960s. Originally the first African American signed by the Red Sox, Wilson’s route to the major leagues was temporarily derailed by a stint in the U.S. Marines, thereby allowing utility infielder Pumpsie Green to become the first black player in Red Sox history. After struggling with wildness in his early major league stints, Wilson began to establish himself in 1962, when he used his overpowering fastball to win 12 of 20 decisions and pitched a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Angels at Fenway Park. Still plagued by control problems, Wilson pitched at the level of a sub-.500 hurler until the middle of the 1966 season, when the Red Sox traded him to the Tigers. The burly right-hander went 13-6 with a 2.59 ERA for Detroit in 1966 and flourished in 1967 under the tutelage of pitching coach Johnny Sain. He won a career-high 22 games that summer, matching the total of Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg. Though he never duplicated such success, he remained an effective No. 3 starter for the Tigers in 1968 (behind Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich), helping the team win the World Championship. Wilson won 12 more games for the Tigers in 1969, but was traded to the Padres in the middle of the next season. He finished his career with a 1-6 stint for the Padres in 1970. Wilson’s hitting exploits remain almost legendary. Originally a power-hitting catcher, Wilson was moved to the mound because of his arm strength. During his major league career, he hit 35 home runs, the fourth highest total among pitchers. Only Wes Ferrell, Bob Lemon and Red Ruffing–the latter two Hall of Famers–hit more home runs as moundsmen. Yet, Wilson’s 35 homers came in only 740 at-bats, compared to the nearly 1,200 at-bats that Ferrell accrued in reaching his career total of 38 home runs. Wilson’s biggest power showing occurred on August 16, 1965, when he hit two home runs in one game. Capable of making consistent contact, Wilson also hit for a respectable average, eclipsing the .200 mark five times during his career. After his playing days, Wilson remained a key figure in baseball. From 2000 to 2004, he served as the president and CEO of the Baseball Assistance Team (commonly known as BAT), an organization dedicated to helping former players who have fallen on hard times. Wilson was working as BAT’s vice president at the time of his death.
COMMENTARY: I never met Earl Wilson; I wish very much that I had. Any man devoted to such a worthwhile organization as the Baseball Assistance Team must have been a good man. Along with similarly gold-hearted folks like Bobby Murcer and Ed Stack, Wilson worked hard to advance the organization’s cause–helping out ballplayers who needed and wanted help in their later years. Wilson was also a fascinating ballplayer. If he had remained a catcher, he very likely would have filled the position nicely for the Red Sox during the 1960s, providing a perfect bridge to the Carlton Fisk years. But his powerful arm proved more enticing than his powerful bat, convincing the Red Sox that he would be best suited to pitching every fourth day. And while we’ll never know for sure if he would have enjoyed more stardom as an everyday position player, Wilson’s feats as a pitcher are pretty impressive. He won 121 games in the major leagues–and won himself a World Series ring as part of a racially integrated and socially significant Tigers championship team in 1968.
Don Blasingame (Died on April 13 in Fountain Hills, Arizona; age 73; heart failure): Nicknamed “Blazer,” Blasingame played in 12 major league seasons as an infielder, but was best known for becoming only the third American (after Wally Yonamine and Joe Lutz) to manage in the Japanese Leagues. Beginning his playing career with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1955, the journeyman infielder later made stops with the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics. (In an intriguing footnote, Blasingame was the Reds’ regular second baseman immediately prior to the arrival of a rookie named Pete Rose.) Opting to continue his playing career in Japan, Blasingame joined the Nankai Hawks in 1967, played three more seasons, and then became a coach with the Hawks. In 1978, Blasingame became a coach for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp and then managed the Hanshin Tigers for two seasons before returning to the Carp in 1981. He also managed Nankai during his tenure in Japan.
Bob Zuk (Died on April 9 in San Bernardino, California; age 77; long illness): A professional baseball scout for over 40 years, Zuk signed three Hall of Famers during an illustrious career. His trio of notable signings included Reggie Jackson, whom Zuk tabbed for the Kansas City A’s; Willie Stargell, whom he signed for the Pittsburgh Pirates; and Gary Carter, whom Zuk stole while employed with the Montreal Expos. Zuk’s expertise also paid off with non-Hall of Famers. While working as a territorial scout, Zuk signed a total of 22 players who would eventually make their way to the major leagues. In addition to scouting for the A’s, Pirates, and Expos, the well-traveled Zuk also worked for the Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers. Beginning in 1966, Zuk worked exclusively out of Redlands, California (giving him a direct pipeline to California natives like Carter and Stargell) and remained there until his retirement in 2003, when he gave up his position as assistant to the general manager for the Reds. A 1997 inductee into the RBI Inner City Hall of Fame, Zuk received the George Genovese Lifetime Achievement Award for his scouting efforts on January 8 of this year.
COMMENTARY: Like most scouts, Zuk worked in obscurity, and his death received so little coverage that it wasn’t carried by most sports media sources until weeks after his passing. Yet, he was clearly one of the game’s best evaluators of amateur talent during the 1960s and early 1970s. His recommendations–and subsequent signings–of Jackson, Stargell, and Carter all turned into gems, giving three different major league teams cornerstone players who would contribute mightily during the 1970s. (And for those keeping score, the trio of “Mr. October,” “Pops,” and “Kid” combined to win eight World Championships during their Cooperstown careers.) Zuk also played a subtle role in aiding Jackson’s development after his signing by the then Kansas City A’s. A’s owner and general manager Charlie Finley, anxious to cash in on his draft choice, wanted Jackson to start his first pro season at Double-A, but both Zuk and fellow A’s scout Ray Swallow argued hard against such a move. Zuk begged Finley to start the high-strung Jackson at Single-A, and the often stubborn Finley listened to the wisdom of his scout on this occasion. So when Jackson debuted professionally that summer, he made two pitstops for Class-A teams in Lewiston and Modesto, where he built up his confidence against lower-level minor league pitching. Reggie then moved up to Double-A Birmingham in 1967 and so dominated Southern League pitching that he earned a promotion to the A’s midway through their final season in Kansas City.
Al Gettel (Died on April 8 in Norfolk, Virginia; age 87): A veteran of seven major league seasons, Gettel made his debut during the World War II era. As a rookie right-hander with the New York Yankees in 1945, he went 9-8 with a 3.90 ERA, and then lowered his ERA to 2.97 the following season. Over his career, Gettel won 38 games, lost 45, posted an ERA of 4.28, and struck out 310 batters in just over 734 innings of work.
Bob Kennedy (Died on April 7 in Mesa, Arizona; age 84): A versatile baseball man who played, managed, and worked in the front office, Kennedy was best known for serving as manager of the Chicago Cubs in the mid-1960s and later becoming the first skipper in the history of the Oakland A’s. Kennedy’s major league career began in 1939, when he debuted for the Chicago White Sox at the age of 18. Establishing himself as a serviceable utilityman, Kennedy hit .254 with 63 home runs during a 16-year career that was interrupted by World War II. Kennedy missed three seasons of major league actions while serving an extended stint in the U.S. military. In addition to playing for the White Sox, Kennedy also made appearances with the Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, and Brooklyn Dodgers. In his lone postseason experience, he picked up a hit and two RBIs for the Indians in the 1948 World Series. After his playing days, Kennedy moved on to managing. In 1963, he became a field boss for the Cubs, succeeding the team’s controversial “College of Coaches.” In 1968, Kennedy was named manager of the A’s by Charlie Finley, making him the team’s first manager after the franchise moved from Kansas City to Oakland. Under Kennedy’s leadership, the A’s posted a respectable record of 82-80 in 1968. Kennedy later moved up to the front office, returning to the Cubs as the team’s general manager in 1977. Kennedy’s survivors include his son, former major league catcher Terry Kennedy. The younger Kennedy is currently the manager of the San Diego Surf Dawgs of the independent Golden Baseball League.
Commentary: It’s not particularly well known, but Kennedy played a small but crucial role in helping former A’s outfielder Joe Rudi became one of the game’s best left fielders. During the 1968 season, Rudi shagged fly balls daily under the direction of Kennedy, who hit an assortment of line drives, bloopers, and high flies at the young outfielder. At first an awkward outfielder, Rudi evolved into an above-average flychaser on his way to becoming a three-time winner of the Gold Glove Award.
Bob Casey (Died on March 27 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; age 79; complications from liver cancer and pneumonia): Known as one of the game’s most colorful and energetic public address announcers, Casey developed a rabid following in the Twin Cities. A PA man for 44 years in the major leagues, Casey began his broadcasting career in 1951 with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. He also did PA work for the Minnesota Vikings for three seasons. In 1961, Casey became a major league PA announcer when the Washington Senators relocated to the Twin Cities and became the Minnesota Twins. Working first at Metropolitan Stadium and then at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Casey became well known for his high-pitched, exaggerated introductions of Twins players, especially stars like Kirby Puckett and Chuck Knoblauch. He also developed a reputation for mispronouncing or misstating players’ names. He once introduced Twins star Paul Molitor as “Paul Monitor,” and later referred to Twins outfielder Dustan Mohr as “Dustin Hoffman.” Prior to each game, Casey frenetically reminded fans of an important ballpark rule by crying out, “There is nooooo smoking in the Metrodome!” As the first PA announcer in the history of the Twins’ franchise, Casey worked an estimated 4,000 games during his legendary career, including more than 3,300 with the Twins. The Twins have announced plans to dedicate the 2005 season in memory of Casey.
Commentary: I generally prefer the Bob Sheppard approach to public address announcing–dignified, reserved, and well-articulated–but when done right, the more frenetic approaches of broadcasters like Bob Casey can be just as appealing. In many ways, Casey was the Dave Zinkoff of baseball, using the exaggerated pronunciations and wildly varied tempos that made the late voice of the Philadelphia 76ers one of the most beloved announcers in all of sports. The bottom line is this–when a PA announcer like Casey can provide the basic information that the patron needs while also enhancing the entertainment level of a live sporting event, he’s doing his job. And Casey did it very well, making even the Metrodome a memorable place to experience a game.
Marius Russo (Died on March 26 in Ft. Myers, Florida; age 90): Nicknamed “Lefty,” the former New York Yankees southpaw posted a career record of 45-34 record with five saves and a 3.13 ERA. After debuting with the Yankees in 1939, Russo reached his peak in 1940 and ’41. The Brooklyn native won 14 games in each of those seasons, achieving All-Star status in ’41 and also appearing in that fall’s World Series. Russo won each of his starts in the 1941 and ’43 World Series, giving him a postseason record of 2-0 and a nearly spotless ERA of 0.50 in 18 Series innings.
Frank Zupo (Died on March 25 in Burlingame, California; age 65): Nicknamed “Noodles,” the colorful Zupo played briefly in the major leagues, appearing in 16 games with the Baltimore Orioles during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1957, Zupo made his major league debut at the age of 17, playing in 10 games for the O’s. The youthful catcher came to bat 12 times that season, collecting one hit. He also played in one game for Baltimore in 1958, before wrapping up his career with a five-game cameo in 1961. After his playing days, Zupo ventured into a number of different fields, working as a fishing guide and owning both a lounge and a floor-covering business.
Dick Radatz (Died on March 17 in Easton, Massachusetts; head injuries suffered during a fall; age 67): One of the most colorful characters of the 1960s, the six-foot, five-inch Radatz was a hard-throwing reliever who pitched his best years for the Boston Red Sox. In four seasons with the Sox, Radatz saved 104 games (or an average of 26 per season), often pitching two or three innings at a time, while establishing a reputation as one of the game’s most feared firemen. Nicknamed “The Monster” because of his size and the speed of his fastball, an oversized and overpowering Radatz earned All-Star Game selections in 1963 and ’64. He also pitched for the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, and Montreal Expos, finishing an abruptly shortened seven-year career with 122 saves and an ERA of 3.13. An entertaining speaker in his retirement years, Radatz often made public appearances in which he regaled listeners with stories from his days in a variety of big league clubhouses.
COMMENTARY: Radatz, who was emblematic of baseball’s colorful ways in the 1960s, experienced a fascinating career. Here are a few nuggets culled from his file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library:
*Radatz, who was six-feet, five-inches tall, weighed anywhere from 245 to 280 pounds during his major league journeys. Although his fastball was never measured officially the way that Nolan Ryan’s was in the early 1970s, Radatz threw consistently in the 95-100 mile-per-hour range, by most general observations. Sportswriter Larry Fox once described an overpowering pitch by Radatz in this way: “A Radatz fastball with something on it is like a hot pepper soaked in Tabasco sauce.” Classic.
*Although he was virtually unhittable at this peak, Radatz couldn’t sustain his dominance long enough to make himself a Hall of Fame candidate. He flamed out quickly (well short of the 10 years needed for Hall consideration), partly because he hurt his arm and in part because of extreme wildness. In 1968, Radatz tried to make a comeback with the Cubs in spring training, only to encounter symptoms of what is now referred to as “Steve Blass Disease.” In one spring training B-game, Radatz threw 24 consecutive pitches out of the strike zone. Removed from the game, Radatz was given his release by the Cubs nine days later.
*If ever a nickname suited a player, “The Monster” fit Radatz perfectly. As a freshman at Michigan State University, football coach Biggie Munn approached the hulking Radatz. “You’re Radatz, aren’t you?” asked Munn. “How come you didn’t come out for football.” Radatz had a ready reply for the question. “No thanks, Mr. Munn,” Radatz said. “I don’t like raw meat.”
Frank “Pig” House (Died on March 13 in Birmingham, Alabama; age 75): A left-handed hitting catcher, House spent four seasons as the No. 1 receiver for the Detroit Tigers in the 1950s. He also played for the Kansas City A’s and Cincinnati Reds during a 10-year major league career. House became even more well known after his playing days, as he served in the Alabama Legislature and in state government in Montgomery, Alabama. During his political career, he helped spearhead the formation of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1967.
Chuck Thompson (Died on March 6 in Baltimore Maryland; age 83; massive stroke): An iconic figure in the Baltimore area, Thompson won the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence in 1993. Known for his mellifluous voice and smooth style of play-by-play, Thompson broadcast Orioles games over the span of five decades. Thompson began his Orioles career in 1955, becoming the team’s fulltime voice, and remained a part-time announcer during the 1990s, calling about 25 games a season in his later years.
COMMENTARY: I didn’t follow Thompson’s career closely, but I’ve heard some of his calls from the 1971 World Series and they’re nothing short of magnificent, especially with regard to his voice and delivery. So smooth and rhythmically paced with his words, Thompson could read names out of a phone book and still make the text sound appealing.
Danny Gardella (Died on March 5 in Yonkers, New York; age 85): Gardella was best known for being one of the players who challenged baseball’s reserve clause and signed a contract with a team in the Mexican League for about double the salary that he was being offered by the New York Giants. The Commissioner’s office suspended Gardella and the other players, but the former Giants outfielder filed suit against Major League Baseball, earned a settlement in the case, and eventually made a brief one-game return to the National League with the St. Louis Cardinals. Primarily an outfielder, Gardella batted .267 during a 169-game career in the majors. He put up his best numbers during the wartime season of 1945, when he hit .272 with 18 home runs and 71 RBIs.
Rick Mahler (Died on March 2 in Jupiter, Florida; age 51; heart attack): Formerly a right-hander with the Atlanta Braves, Mahler won 96 games over a 13-year span in the major leagues. He played mostly on bad Atlanta teams, a partial reason for the 111 losses he incurred during his career. Mahler enjoyed one of his finest seasons in 1985, when he posted a record of 17-15 and a solid 3.48 ERA in 266 innings for a Braves team that won only 66 games. Mahler later pitched for the Cincinnati Reds and Montreal Expos before returning to Atlanta to finish his major league career. At the time of his death, Mahler was working as a minor league pitching coach in the New York Mets’ organization. He was set to work for the Mets’ Class-A affiliate in Port St. Lucie, where the club holds its spring training camp.
COMMENTARY: I watched many of Mahler’s games on SuperStation WTBS during the 1980s, at a time long before the glory days of Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine. Mahler never struck me as particularly good at the time, but a look back produces a few new conclusions. Considering that he pitched in a hitter’s bandbox (Atlanta’s “Launching Pad”) for some of the worst teams of the expansion era, Mahler actually put together a respectable career. For a good team, he would have been a nice No. 3 starter, someone a manager wouldn’t be afraid to give the ball in Game Three of a playoff series. In fact, Mahler’s ability to pile up innings would have made him a hot commodity in today’s game, where the lost art of the complete game has resulted in too many innings for too many 11th and 12th men on major league pitching staffs.
Bob Mavis (Died on March 1 in Little Rock, Ark; age 86): Mavis played in one major league game, appearing as a pinch-runner for the Detroit Tigers on September 17, 1949. Mavis soon returned to the minor leagues, playing for Toledo and Buffalo before embarking on a career as a minor league manager. The Milwaukee native also scouted for the Brewers and Braves in later years.
Nick Colosi (Died on February 25 in New York City; age uncertain): Boasting a diversified resume that featured employment in nightclubs and baseball, Colosi worked as a maitre d’ at the famed Copacabana in New York City before changing careers and becoming a professional umpire. Known for his old-school toughness, Colosi served as a National League umpire from 1968 to 1982, continuing his on-field career despite suffering a heart attack in 1979. Umpiring a number of notable games throughout the 1970s, Colosi entered the spotlight at the beginning of the 1975 World Series. In Game One, Colosi made a controversial decision when he called a balk on Boston Red Sox ace Luis Tiant for making an illegal movement with his leg. Colosi also umpired the 1981 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, and was selected to work the All-Star Game in 1971, ’74, and 1980. After retiring from field duty at the end of the 1982 season, Colosi became a supervisor of umpires for the National League.
Don “Ducky” LeJohn (Died on February 25 in California, Pennsylvania; age 70): A longtime member of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, Le John played briefly in the major leagues in 1965. He also appeared in that fall’s World Series against the Minnesota Twins, striking out in his lone postseason plate appearance. After his playing days, LeJohn remained with the Dodgers as a successful minor league manager and then worked for the club as a scout.
Bennie Huffman (Died on February 22 in Luray, Virginia; age 90): Huffman played briefly as a catcher with the St. Louis Browns, but became better known for his work as a scout with the Chicago White Sox. During his 32 years with the Sox’ organization, he signed such players as Harold Baines and Minnie Minoso.
Nelson Briles (Died on February 13, 2005 in Orlando, Florida; age 61; heart attack): The popular director of corporate projects for the Pittsburgh Pirates died while playing golf at one of the team’s alumni events. During a 14-year pitching career that included stops with the Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, and Baltimore Orioles, Briles won 129 games and posted a 3.44 ERA. He pitched for two World Championship teams: the 1967 Cardinals and the 1971 Pirates. The highlight of his major league career occurred during the World Series in ’71, when he pitched a two-hitter in Game Five to give the Pirates a one-game advantage in the Series.
COMMENTARY: I wrote earlier this year about Briles’ friendly and generous nature, but let’s not underestimate how talented this man was, too. He was an accomplished actor in college, worked professionally as a singer, performed the National Anthem at the World Series, and became an effective color commentator on Pirate broadcasts. If Briles had not devoted himself so fully to the Pirates’ alumni efforts–helping them create the best alumni organization in all of baseball–I’m convinced he would have become a broadcasting star, either at the local or national level. In so many ways, Nellie’s speaking and leadership abilities will be missed greatly by the baseball community.
Luis Sanchez (Died on February 4, in La Guaira, Venezuela; age 51; vascular brain disease): The former California Angels right-hander toiled in the minor leagues for much of the 1970s before finally making a major league roster in 1981. The hard-throwing reliever forged a career-high 11 saves in 1984 and then became one of the key set-up men for Donnie Moore in the Angels’ bullpen. Sanchez later spent time with the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Leagues.
Louis Gillis (Died on February 3; age 80): Nicknamed “Sea Boy,” Gillis played for the Atlanta Black Crackers and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. He also spent time playing for the House of David team.
Big Bill Voiselle (Died on January 31, 2005 in Greenwood, South Carolina; age 86): Nicknamed “Ninety Six” in tribute to his boyhood home in Ninety Six, South Carolina, Voiselle won a career-high 21 games for the New York Giants in 1944. The workhorse right-hander also pitched 312 innings that year, making him the last rookie to log 300 or more innings in his debut season. Over his nine-year career in the major leagues, Voiselle won 74 games during stops with the Giants, Boston Braves, Chicago Cubs, and Brooklyn Dodgers.
Cesar “Cocoa” Gutierrez (Died on January 22 in Maracaibo, Venezuela; age 61): Although mostly a light-hitting utility player during his career, Gutierrez gained a permanent piece of baseball fame when he collected seven hits in seven consecutive at-bats for the Detroit Tigers on June 21, 1970. With his six singles and one double in a 12-inning game against the Cleveland Indians, Gutierrez tied a major league record for most consecutive hits without an out, a mark that was later matched by Rennie Stennett. Gutierrez’ seven-hit game is featured in a display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Gutierrez single-game heroics highlighted his best season in the majors, as he batted .243 with seven stolen bases as the Tigers’ starting shortstop. For his career, “Cocoa” hit .235 in stints with the Tigers and the San Francisco Giants. He was later traded to the Montreal Expos, but never actually appeared in a game for the Canadian expansion franchise.
COMMENTARY: Gutierrez’ performance, which raised his batting average 31 points in one day, will always keep him separated from the dozens of other light-hitting utility infielders whose names can be found in the pages of The Baseball Encyclopedia or Total Baseball. For one day, this guy was Ted Williams.
Harold “Corky” Valentine (Died on January 21 in Canton, Georgia; age 76: Pitching in 1954 and ’55, Valentine won 14 games in two seasons for the Cincinnati Reds. During the offseason, he worked as a police officer in Atlanta, becoming a fulltime member of the department after his playing days. Eventually becoming a decorated officer, Valentine retired from the Fulton County Police Department in 1992.
Throughout the season, I’ll be featuring 30th anniversary excerpts about the Red Sox’ and Reds’ classic 1975 World Series, as selected from a yet-to-be published book about the greatest World Series in history. In the first installment, I’ll examine the Red Sox’ climb to the top of both the Eastern Division and the American League.
The pre-season consensus of scribes and sportscasters had tagged the Boston Red Sox as no better than a third-place contestant in the American League East. Boston’s star catcher, Carlton Fisk, was still recovering from a 1974 knee injury that one orthopedic surgeon had predicted would end his career. After Fisk defied that forecast, he suffered a broken right arm—courtesy of a stray pitch in an early spring training game. The Red Sox also lacked proven players at second base and throughout the outfield. And one of Boston’s most important starting pitchers, veteran Rick Wise, remained a question mark with a cranky right shoulder.
Six months later, the Red Sox had emerged as the best team in the Eastern Division. Fisk returned from both his knee injury and his fractured arm to bat .335, and continued to provide leadership to an overachieving pitching staff. Mid-season acquisition Denny Doyle, who joined the Red Sox in a June 13th trade with the California Angels, solidified the middle infield and batted .310 (a large improvement over his .067 mark with the Halos). In the meantime, Wise bounced back from arm problems to pitch 255 innings and win 19 games, giving the Sox a capable No. 2 starter behind staff ace Luis Tiant.
Yet, it was a pair of rookies who played the largest roles in leading the Red Sox to a status that far exceeded expectation. Fred Lynn, who won the center field job after initially being targeted to play left field, batted a crisp .331 and led the American League with 103 runs scored. Jim Rice, after staggering through a miserable spring, eventually settled in as the team’s left fielder, and batted .309 with 102 RBIs. The two freshmen staged an intriguing grapple for Rookie of the Year honors, with Lynn making a strong case for his own candidacy in the league’s Most Valuable Player race. In fact, he put on such a strong campaign that he became the first rookie in history to win the MVP.
Led by Lynn, Rice, Tiant, and the 36-year-old Carl Yastrzemski, the Red Sox earned a berth in the American League Championship Series against the Oakland A’s. These were the three-time defending World Champion Oakland A’s, who had grown so accustomed to winning when the pages of the calendar flipped from September to October.
This time around, the A’s had to make do without the services of staff ace Jim" Catfish" Hunter, who had become the game’s first full-fledged free agent after the 1974 season and had escaped Charlie Finley’s baseball asylum. Forced to use left-handers Ken Holtzman and Vida Blue at Fenway Park (a cemetery for some southpaw pitchers, even good ones), the undermanned A’s dropped the first two games of the playoff series. Nothing changed when the Championship Series moved to the Oakland Coliseum. Boston’s offense banged out 11 hits, Rick Wise and bullpen stalwart **** Drago pitched efficiently, and the Red Sox won the game, 5-3, sweeping the reigning champs in three games. For a team regarded so lightly at season’s beginning, the Red Sox had done quite well in deconstructing an active dynasty.
Red Letter Days
It’s a sign of just how far the Reds have fallen in 2005. Within the past five days, the Reds have essentially cut loose two of their veteran mainstays, second baseman D’Angelo Jimenez and closer Danny Graves. Both players have been designated for assignment, meaning that the Reds now have 10 days to either trade them, release them, or convince them to accept an assignment to the minor leagues (which isn’t likely to happen).
It’s possible that the Reds will end up releasing both players, thereby receiving nothing in return for two serviceable veterans. If the Reds had decided to put Jimenez and Graves on the trading block at the end of last season, or even during spring training, they very likely would have acquired something tangible in return. Now they might be lucky to pick up a low-level prospect for either player. Both Jimenez and Graves have endured terrible starts to the season—Jimenez looks overweight and out of shape and Graves has been a virtual gas can in the eighth and ninth innings—and with the Reds floundering so badly as a team, they’ve lost almost all leverage in making decent trades for their starting second baseman and No. 1 reliever.
Where will Jimenez and Graves end up? In spite of horrific starts to 2005, both players will have little trouble finding employment elsewhere. Blessed with above-average power and speed, Jimenez has the kind of the on-base skills that will make him attractive to a team like the A’s, who desperately need some offense from their second base position. If Billy Beane is willing to overlook Jimenez’ defensive problems and his attitude—the latter trait has alienated teammates in stops almost everywhere—the A’s just might be the perfect fit. As for Graves, almost every major league teams needs help in the bullpen; his ability to throw strikes (only 13 walks in 68 innings last year) will surely appeal to some contending team. It’s just a question of whether Graves will be sought to close games (for a team like the Braves or the Cubs) or be used as a set-up reliever (for someone like the Red Sox or Yankees).
While the Reds try to convince other teams to compensate them for Jimenez or Graves, the team’s management will contemplate other moves. Another bad week of baseball will probably result in the end of Dave Miley’s tenure as manager. He’s currently the game’s lowest paid skipper—and hoping not to become its latest managerial scapegoat.
Cano and Carew
Yankees manager Joe Torre took some heat over the internet earlier this week when he compared rookie second baseman Robinson Cano to Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Some of Torre’s Sabermetric critics, who are always on the lookout for axes to grind with the more traditional Torre, belittled the Yankee skipper for making the link between the two, given that Carew won seven batting titles while Cano was rated only a B-level prospect by some scouts. Well, the criticism of Torre is off base here. Torre said that Cano “reminded” him of Carew, in terms of his physical appearance and his swing, and not that he necessarily expected Cano to become as a great a player as Carew. There’s quite a difference between Torre saying that Cano “reminds” him of Carew as opposed to saying that he expected Cano to “become the next Carew.”
Torre has actually used these kinds of comparisons in the past, whereby he creates a depiction of a current player by talking about who that player reminds him of stylistically. Cano has a very smooth swing at the plate, which is probably what influenced Torre to make the Carew remark. A few years ago, Torre talked about the swing of a young Ricky Ledee and how it reminded him of the hitting style of Billy Williams. On another occasion, Torre and former Yankee coach Don Zimmer compared Alfonso Soriano to Hank Aaron, not by saying that they expected Soriano to hit as many home runs but in terms of the similarity in the strength and quickness of their wrists. (And that’s a comparison that was also sounded by several major league scouts.) I think Torre uses these comparisons as a way of conjuring up a mental image for the fans and media (and not to create an undue set of expectations) so that they might have a better idea of how a young player looks in the way that he plays the game. If anything, Torre’s method shows a respect for baseball history and for the strengths of the young player in question. That’s a good thing, and not something meant to create an unreasonable or impossible expectation… Yankee batting coach Don Mattingly also made a comparison involving Cano during spring training, but that analogy didn’t create as much of a firestorm as Torre’s comments. Mattingly said that Cano’s swing and style at the plate reminded him of Ruben Sierra during the latter’s younger days. In terms of statistical output, that’s probably a better gauge of what Cano may be able to do; he’s not likely to win the seven batting championships that Carew garnered with the Twins and Angels, but might be capable of putting up offensive numbers similar to those of Sierra… While Cano doesn’t have the hitting ability or footspeed that Carew had in his prime, he does have one advantage over the Hall of Famer. Cano is a very good defensive second baseman–he’s twice been named the best defender in his league during his minor league days–and likely won’t have to switch positions as Carew was asked to do in the midst of his career with the Minnesota Twins. In 1976, the Twins moved Carew, a subpar defensive second baseman, to the less demanding position of first base, where he played for the remainder of his career.
And Another Thing
For those who are interested, Hall of Fame web manager Dan Holmes and I will be hosting presentations on Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, respectively, in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater this Sunday (May 22) beginning at 1:00 pm. After the presentation, Dan will be signing copies of his book, Ty Cobb: A Biography, and I’ll be signing copies of my book, Ted Williams: A Biography. And then on Monday, May 23, beginning at 10:00 am, I’ll be signing copies of Tales From The Mets Dugout at Augur’s Book Store located on Main Street in Cooperstown.
A man named Charlie Muse died earlier this month. When I first saw the obituary headline, I have to confess I didn’t recognize the name. Then I read a little further and discovered that Muse had created the modern-day batting helmet. And in a sport where 90-mile-per hour fastballs have become more and more the norm, that’s a pretty vital contribution to the safety of the game.
During the 1953 season, the Pirates became the first major league team to permanently adopt batting helmets, taking the field wearing rather primitive fiberglass “miner’s caps” at the mandate of general manager Branch Rickey, who also owned stock in the company producing the helmets. Rickey gave Muse, a Pirates executive at the time, instructions to create and design a helmet that would provide players with protection above the ears. As the appointed president of Rickey’s American Cap Company, Muse helped designed a helmet that was light enough for a player to wear on his head, but strong enough to cushion the blow of an errant pitch.
Pirate players had to wear Muse’s helmets both at bat and in the field, which explains all of those old black-and-white photographs of 1950s Pirates like Toby Atwell, Bob Friend, and Nellie King wearing helmets in every pose and posture. Even manager Fred Haney joined the helmet-wearing brigade, apparently to protect himself from banging his head against the top of the dugout when making visits to the mound. The helmets became a permanent feature for Pirate hitters, but within a few weeks players began disavowing their use in the field, partly because of their awkward feel and partly because of the possibility of a batted or thrown ball striking a fielder in the head seemed so remote. Still, the players didn’t dare remove the helmets when they took their turns at bat. Shortly thereafter, players on other teams followed suit, and by the 1960s, the helmet became the preferred choice of most major league hitters. Although his death has received little attention, Muse deserves more than footnote recognition in baseball history. Given the importance of the batting helmet to safety in the modern game—both at the professional and amateur levels—one can argue that Muse merits a more lasting memorial. After all, how many players might have died from the early fifties to the present day if Muse had not satisfied Rickey’s wishes and come up with a suitable prototype? Given the increase of the average fastball’s velocity in recent years and the seemingly more tightened covers on today’s baseballs, it’s not unreasonable to think that there would have been at least one or two deaths in the major leagues, and maybe more.
Thankfully, today’s improved helmets make the game even safer. And anyone who steps into a batter’s box today wearing one of those helmets should take a moment to remember the contribution of Charlie Muse.
From Horace Clarke to Robinson Cano, author and historian Bruce Markusen provides observations on baseball history, nostalgia, and the stories of today.
An introduction is in order. I’m new to MLB.com’s world of MLBlogs, but baseball has been a part of my life since I was three, when I started watching Mickey Mantle on TV (or so I’m told). As a 10-year veteran of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where I worked from 1994 to 2004, I had the privilege of interviewing most of the living Hall of Famers during that span. With access to both research materials and newly conducted interviews, I’ve written five books on baseball, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams. And I’ve also co-hosted the “Hall of Fame Hour” and the “Heart of the Order” on MLB Radio, working alongside solid on-air professionals like Billy Sample and Marty Lurie, and guided by the assistance of hard-working producers like Mike Dillon, Vinny Micucci, Mike Siano, and Dan Gentile. Drawing on those experiences, I’ll do my best to produce a lively and diverse MLBlog that features analysis of current-day baseball, the latest trade rumors, memories of collecting baseball cards, thoughts on growing up with the game, storytelling that relates to baseball history, and tributes to those that the game has lost. I hope you enjoy it. Here goes…
Several candidates have been mentioned as possible successors to Tony Pena in Kansas City–including current ESPN broadcaster Larry Bowa, Hall of Famer George Brett, former Pirates and White Sox skipper Gene Lamont, and onetime Red Sox manager Grady Little–but the most prudent choice would be former Royals second baseman Frank White. Currently managing Kansas City’s Double-A farm team at Wichita, White would bring a variety of strengths to the table; he’s a great communicator and teacher, knows the game and the organization inside-out, and also provides a link to the Royals’ last great era of the 1980s… For what it’s worth, White is also a great interview. Of the dozens of interviews I conducted while working at the Hall of Fame, a spring training conversation with White ranks as the best. The interview, originally intended to be about five minutes in length, lasted a memorable 20 minutes, as White spoke eloquently and dramatically about his appreciation of baseball and the game’s history…
Nationals general manager Jim Bowden did excellent work over the weekend in acquiring Marlon Byrd from the Phillies for fellow outfielder Endy Chavez. While both of these 27-year-olds have been disappointments, Byrd has more power and patience at the plate, giving him the much higher ceiling of the two projects. He also fills a specific need for the Nationals, giving them some right-handed power to balance a lineup that leans heavily to the left, featuring southpaws Nick Johnson, Ryan Church, Brad Wilkerson, and the switch-hitting Jose Vidro. At one time Byrd was compared to Kirby Puckett, and while he’ll never become that kind of player–in part because of a fragile ego–he has enough talent to become a solid everyday outfielder under the tutelage of the fiery Frank Robinson…
It’s a little surprising the Yankees didn’t get something in return for Steve Karsay, rather than simply releasing the onetime hard thrower while having to pay all of his 2005 salary. Given the number of teams that are both desperate for relief pitching and had expressed interest in Karsay (including the Rangers, Cubs, Marlins, Brewers, Mets, and Giants), the Yankees should have been able to play one of those six teams against the others and extracted at least a grade-C prospect in return–or even a backup outfielder like the Cubs’ Todd Hollandsworth. If the Yankees had played up Karsay’s services under the guise of a bidding competition (either real or imagined) during his stay on the designated-for-assignment list, they might have even convinced one of those teams to soak up a small percentage of Karsay’s contract. As it stands, the Yankees received nothing for a pitcher of pedigree who was once considered one of the better set-up relievers in the game. They also did nothing to gain some financial relief from what is becoming an ever-growing luxury tax.