The On-Deck Circle

All articles on this page were written by Dick Mahoney, an avid sportsman, who is best known as “#46 on your scorecard”.

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Birmingham’s Rickwood “Classic” and a “Small World” Story

For a special treat for baseball fans, I recommend the “Rickwood Classic”, at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.  This year’s Classic, the 17th overall, will be played on May 30, at 12:30 P.M. between the Southern League’s AA Birmingham Barons and the Chattanooga Lookouts.  The theme of this year’s Classic is: “Celebrate Baseball During World War II”.  For background on Rickwood Field, the following is a brief profile:

Opened in 1910, Rickwood predates Boston’s Fenway Park by two years.  Chicago’s Comiskey Park also opened in 1910 but was replaced in the 1990’s by the new Comiskey Park.

Rickwood Field was constructed by industrialist Rick Woodward for the Coal Barons and was patterned after Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.  Connie Mack designed the field dimensions.  This would be the Barons’ home until 1987, when Hoover Metropolitan Stadium opened. Incidentally, the Barons will be playing in a new downtown Birmingham stadium in 2013 – Regions Field.  

Rickwood Field boasts a rich history and it is through the efforts of the “Friends of Rickwood” and the city of Birmingham that the park still exists. Interestingly, the ballpark was the location of the filming of the movie, “Cobb”. This film, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Roger Clemens, traced the life story of Ty Cobb.  The right field wall features early twentieth century advertising, a fitting backdrop for the film.

Many major league stars honed their skills in this ballpark, as the Birmingham franchise continues to be part of the minor league system for major league teams; currently, the Chicago White Sox.  Of personal interest is the story of Gordon Beckham, who participated in the Classic game three years ago.  In the fifth inning, he was taken out of the game and “whisked” onto a plane bound for the White Sox AAA club, the International League’s Charlotte Knights, for a game that night.  Obviously on the fast track to the “bigs”, he remained there two weeks, before being brought up to Chicago for his major league debut. My daughter and I were sitting a few seats away from the Barons’ dugout, when he got the announcement, and it was significant to see a promotion taking place directly in front of us.  Another significant memory of that game involved a Barons’ hitter fouling a ball into the arc lights over our heads, shattering the glass and showering us below, reminding us of the scene in the movie, “The Natural”.

So, what is the “Rickwood Classic”?  Follow me, as I trace my own fascination with this event and share a human interest story that was significant to me.

In early June of 2004, I was invited to attend that year’s Classic between the Birmingham Barons and the Huntsville Stars. I looked forward to this game, as I had come to know that Rickwood was the oldest baseball park in the country that still hosted professional baseball, albeit for only one game each season, known as the “Rickwood Classic”.

The former home of the Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons of the old Negro Leagues, it lures many former players from both leagues return there each year and are recognized for their part in Birmingham’s baseball history.

My invitation came from then Assistant General Manager of the Barons, Michael Pepper, a close friend of one of my co-workers at Omnova.  I would also have a chance to finally meet a sports columnist for the Birmingham Post-Herald, Ben Cook.  Ben had written a piece that centered on his memories of the first major league game he had attended with his dad. The feature struck so close to home for me that I felt compelled to call him and praise his writing. Thus began a “phone” relationship that culminated when I asked if he would be attending this particular game.  He indicated he would be broadcasting the game and, if I got there early, we could meet for a personalized tour of the ballpark and maybe go out to dinner after the game. When we met, on game day, he told me to sit in the section behind home plate, directly beneath the broadcast booth, to facilitate getting together, later on.

As I waited, the stands began to fill down the left and right field sections, but no one was in my section.  I began to feel as though I were quarantined with some communicable disease, as game time drew closer.  Then, as if by magic, a group of men materialized on the field around home plate, and were introduced as former Birmingham Barons and Black Barons players.  There must have been a couple of hundred honorees.

At last I had company, as these players began to fill the section around me.  When the game started, I found myself as much interested in meeting these people as I was in the game itself.  Most of the Black Barons players had team shirts, identifying them as also being members of the Kansas City Monarchs, the Newark Eagles, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and various other old teams from the Negro Leagues.  I asked several of them if they knew Monte Irvin and Larry Doby, Hall of Famers I had met, who made it up to the big leagues after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier, in 1947. One particular player, sporting a Black Barons uniform shirt, seemed a little younger.  He introduced himself as Willie Lee, and so another of my “small world stories” began to emerge.

I asked Willie when he played at Birmingham (late ‘50’s) and if he ever went on to play in any major league farm systems.  He indicated that he played in the Minnesota Twins’ and Detroit Tigers’ systems, in the early sixties.  Asking where he played, he included the Class A New York Penn League.  Part of the conversation went something like this:

“Willie, when did you play in the NYP?”  “1963.”  “For the Erie Sailors (Twins) or the Jamestown Tigers (Detroit)?”  “The Sailors, but how would you know that?”  “My best friend played in the NYP, in 1963, and I spent some time up there visiting him and the Wellsville Red Sox. Maybe you played against him?”  “Who is he?” “Bill Nagle.” “Man, I remember Nagle REAL well; what’s he doing now?”  “He lives in Plymouth, MA, and he’s a financial advisor.”  “Do you talk to him often?”  “Yeah, he and I are like brothers.”  “Well, next time you talk to him, tell him Willie Lee says ‘Hi’.”

I then tried, but couldn’t reach Bill on my cell phone, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t hook them up to talk, so I promised Willie I’d call Bill that night.  When I finally reached him, I said, “Bill, you need to come down here, next year, to the Rickwood Classic in Birmingham.  I was there today, and met a lot of former Barons’ players, one of whom remembers playing against you.”   When asked who, I dropped the name Willie Lee, to which Bill immediately responded, “Wow, Willie Lee, yeah, I remember him REAL well!”

“OK, Bill, he said the same about you, REAL well, so what’s the deeper story here?”

When Bill gave me that picture [Editor’s Note: see picture that accompanies article] years ago, I was somewhat serious about photography. While it was a good picture of him, I mentioned I would have probably cropped the light tower out of the picture as a distraction, or maybe set it up near the dugout, or nearer the outfield fence.  So, now, years later, I am happy the light tower is in the picture as it contributes to “the rest of the story”.  Bill was a left handed flame thrower in those days, often throwing in the high nineties, and also featured a major league curve ball.  (Clyde McCullough, an old catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and at the time the manager of the NYP’s Auburn Mets, told me that if “my best pitcher had Nagle’s curve ball, he’d be in the majors, right now.)  So here it is, sports fans!

Bill laughed and related that he was starting against Erie, one night at Wellsville, and the fast ball was really hopping.  Somewhere around the fifth inning, Willie Lee, who had previously struck out, comes up again, with a couple of runners on base and two out.  “I blew two quick strikes by him and told myself I wasn’t going to waste a pitch on him.  So I muscled up and threw him a heater that must have been going close to 100 mph, and when I finished my follow-through, I looked up in time to see the ball going out of the park at about 250 mph.  I was still rising, as it went OVER the light tower in left.  That ended my night. I didn’t give up many dingers in my career, but that was definitely the longest, and if Willie ever made it to the big leagues, I’m sure that I helped him a little.”

Footnote:  A couple of years ago, the committee from Columbus planning the event that honored Columbus’ Sam Hairston, the first black player to play for the Chicago White Sox, attended the Jerry Malloy Conference in Birmingham, honoring the Negro League ballplayers from the area. On the chance that Willie Lee might be there, I took a copy of Nagle’s picture with me.  He was, and so I asked Larry Lester, the head of the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City and the keynote speaker/organizer of the conference, if I might say a few words during the Q & A session.  I then told this story, and presented Lee with the picture.  Afterwards, I was able to reach Bill and allow them to reminisce for awhile, and it was obvious it meant a lot to both men.

I share this in the hope that the reader glimpses some of the richness of the “American Pastime”, and that this story is a good example of the human interest stories that frequently occur, even if they take forty years to develop. I also hope that, if your schedule permits, you will be inspired to attend the Rickwood Classic at some point.

Originally Published in the May 23, 2012 Print Edition

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Fenway Park Celebrates 100 Years – Part II

But, the saying in Boston is “the wall giveth and the wall taketh away”. Over the years, Sox teams were tailored with right-handed power, to try to take advantage of the wall. Many of these right-handed pull hitters would be seduced by the apparent closeness of the wall and try to “muscle up” and go over the “Monster”, only to be frustrated by savvy pitchers keeping the ball on the outside corner of the plate and inducing ground ball outs.  Left-handed pitchers often dreaded starting assignments at Fenway.  It has often been said that Ted Williams would have hit over .400 more than once, had he been willing to hit to left more often. But, the wall “gaveth” to Bucky “Bleepin’” Dent in the 1978 playoff game with the Yankees, as he “deposited” a home run barely over the wall, into the screen, for the Yankee win, as they punched their ticket to the World Series.  In June of 1978, the Sox were 14 games up on the Yankees, only to see another year of the so-called “Curse of the Bambino” frustrate Sox fans, again, in early October.  I personally have many memories of that year and that team, as I went to spring training and was in Boston several times during the season; at the apex in June and the collapse in September, but no memory as vivid as Carl Yastrzemski dejectedly watching, as Dent’s ball landed in the screen. It is no wonder that Sox fans continue to have empathy for Cubs fans.

 So, that is the story of the “bricks and mortar”, the grass and the dirt, and the other amenities of the “Back Bay Baseball Basilica”.  But, Fenway is more than that to generations of Sox fans, who rose up en masse when the park was threatened with demolition, in the late nineties. Where John Taylor was responsible for the building of Fenway, it would remain for John Henry and his group, who purchased the Sox in 2002, to preserve Fenway into the “indefinite future”, and spare no expense in refurbishing the park.

The park has served as the venue for a rite of passage for generations of young fans, over the last 100 years.  Fathers would bond to sons and grandsons over the years, and the tradition of the Red Sox as the “Old Towne Team” would continue.  My father took my sons to their first Fenway game. Now one of those sons, Kevin, has taken my youngest grandson Keegan to his first Sox game.  Although that was not at Fenway, I am sure that a trip there is in his future.  I have heard more than one diehard fan say, “I grew up believing that if you died and had been good, the good Lord sent you to Fenway Park.”

My own Sox pedigree involves my Grandfather, who attended the first World Series in 1903 as a member in good standing of the “Royal Rooters”.  Then, my father, as a ten-year-old in 1909, was able to get into the Huntington Avenue Grounds one day a week on the strength of his special newspaper badge, allowing him to sell papers on the street cars.  He later was able to attend the 1918 Series.  I will never forget my first game in 1948, and my first impression of Fenway as a very special place.  Up to that point in my life, I had never seen as much green grass, perfectly mowed, in one place. My dad pointed out Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack, sitting in the visitor’s dugout and telling me to “always remember you have seen that man, as he has been around since the start of the American League.”  At that time, all I wanted to do, as did all my buddies, was to, someday, play ball on that field.  Well, obviously, that never happened.

But very special good memories would be built, over the years. Back in my high school and college years, when the Sox were decidedly mediocre and cynically referred to as “Ted Williams and the Seven Dwarfs”, attendance was spotty at best, rising to respectable numbers only for Yankee games.  In the waning days of the 1960 season, a few of my Boston College friends and I had decided against going to see Williams’ last game at Fenway, due to the raw, miserable weather that day with the east wind coming off Boston Harbor.  A sparse crowd cheered, as he hit a homer in his last at bat, and John Updike chronicled the event, noting that, in future years, thousands would claim to have been eye-witnesses.  I refuse to be one of those people.

However, the sparse crowds, in those days, made the centerfield bleachers a good place to work on the tan (or burn, in the case of my red haired, fair Irish skin) and study for college final exams between innings of the traditional mid-May home-stands.  A twenty-five-cent street car ride down Commonwealth Avenue to Kenmore Square and a dollar ticket put you in Yawkey’s Yard.  Chances were good that, by the seventh inning, you could end up in a box seat.  You also knew you stood a better than even chance of seeing the bottom of the ninth inning.  Not so today, as the Red Sox started this season with a record 712 straight sell outs, and counting.  My daughter Meagan and I were able to scrounge some seats from a season bleacher seat-holder in Harvard Square, during the year she lived in Boston, for $30 per ticket. It was well worth it.

 

Then, in the mid-seventies, after having moved to Columbus, MS,  and then being aced out of the 1975 World Series games 1 and 2, on the promise of two tickets that did not materialize, I turned to sports feature writing as a way to scratch the Fenway itch.  The memory of my first step onto the field, as Dwight Evans opened the gate for me and my guaranteed-not-to-tarnish press pass, will remain etched in my mind, as long as I have a mind.  Due to a curious set of circumstances during that first series, in August of 1976, vs. the Brewers, I was asked to sign an autograph by a fan seated near the Pesky Pole.

Assuring the man I was not a ballplayer, he insisted, saying he promised his kid he would get “somebody’s” signature.  So, I signed and when he looked at my name, he said, “Yeah, sure, I’ve heard of you!”  Yeah, right!!

At that point, I was surrounded by about 30 kids wanting autographs.  Some had baseballs, one had a bat, another had a glove, and one kid had a small roll of wallpaper, asking for six autographs as he had some buddies up in the stands.  Again, insisting I was not a ballplayer, one young lad said, “That’s OK!  You can stand on the field and we can’t!”

 

In that moment, I realized that young Timothy Francis Sullivan was speaking not only for thousands of Boston kids, but for me, as well, as far back as 1948.

Happy 100th Birthday, Fenway!!

Originally Published in the April 25, 2012 Print Edition 

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A Baseball Tragedy Revisited!
What Would Shakespeare Have Written?

Prologue:

In early June of 2008, I traveled with my best friend from our days at Boston College, Bill Nagle, from his home in Plymouth, MA, back to Columbus, MS.  Bill is currently a financial advisor with clients in the Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida region, and is an occasional visitor to Columbus. I had been in Boston to help my daughter relocate there for a year, before returning to MS and starting medical school.  Along the way, Bill and I took a side trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York, and then to the area known as the “Southern Tier”, specifically, the town of Wellsville.  This trip down memory lane brought back events from our younger days nearly a half century ago, and vividly recalled a story that continues to touch each of us deeply. It is a story that the editor of this publication feels should be told.

This is a story of extraordinary baseball success and ultimate tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude.   It involves a former Red Sox player who was claimed by all of New England baseball fans as their own. A native of Revere, MA, he had starred in high school at St. Mary’s in Lynn, MA, and had gained considerable local notoriety.  But, before he was elevated to iconic status in Boston, he would start his professional baseball odyssey in New York’s picturesque southwest region of small towns and foothills of the Alleghenies. The area towns and cities of Auburn, Batavia, Binghamton, Geneva, Jamestown and Wellsville, along with Erie, PA, hosted the Class-A New York-Penn League (the NYP) in 1963. To set the perspective, in terms of minor league history, this was the year that Class B, C, and D baseball was eliminated in favor of the current Rookie, A, AA, and AAA classifications.

This is the story of Tony Conigliaro, (“Tony C” or “Conig”), including my personal perspective, due to the curious set of coincidences, which my friends and I prefer to think of as “The Grand Design”, that has often enriched my life.

The Ascendency:

Bill Nagle was at the start of his professional career, in the Red Sox and White Sox organizations, as a left-handed pitcher.  In ’63 and ’64 he was assigned to the Wellsville Red Sox, in the New York-Penn (NYP) League.  I earned a Master’s Degree from Holy Cross in early June of 1963, and was slated to begin the career with General Tire that would, by 1965, bring me to Columbus, MS.  I had three weeks after graduation to enjoy, with absolutely no responsibility, and so I decided to visit Bill, in Wellsville.  Glad for the opportunity to visit, he obliged me with directions to Mrs. Duffy’s boarding house, where he was staying.  Setting out very early on my 425-mile journey from my hometown to Wellsville, I realized I had never driven that far alone.  Hours later, after traversing miles of two lane roads in upstate New York and doing my best to keep from being bored to death, I finally arrived in Wellsville. I found the boarding house – rather obvious, as I saw Bill and another person outside washing their cars.  I drove up, greeted Bill and he introduced me to Tony Conigliaro, who had just arrived from Boston to join the team. Tony was also going to be rooming at Mrs. Duffy’s for the rest of the season.  “Conig” said he wished he had known I was coming, as we could have ridden the boring drive together. It would have been interesting if I didn’t have the need to return to Boston in a couple of weeks.

Since he had just arrived and would report to the team before the game, that night, he was not expected to suit up until the next night’s game.  It followed that he and I would be spectators at the game with the Auburn Mets, providing me with one of those obscure trivia moments of interest, maybe, only to me.  But, then again, how often does one have the opportunity to be sitting in the stands with a future star at the outset of his significant, record-setting professional career?  His excitement and anxiousness to “get going” remains the most memorable aspect of that evening’s game.  After the game, a Wellsville win, the three of us went to the Texas Hot restaurant for a feast of chili dogs, which are memorable to anyone who ever spent time in the town. Tony said he couldn’t wait to start “feasting” on Auburn pitching in the next game.

The next night, Tony began his professional career against Auburn, with a swinging strikeout in his first at bat.  His next time up, however, he hit a “gapper” for a double that accounted for his first RBI, and so began a one-season minor league career that would see him in Fenway Park to begin the1964 season.   As an 18-year-old at Wellsville, he hit 24 home runs in 83 games in the short season NYP – the most dingers hit by a teenager in baseball history.   He batted .363, on his way to winning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the NYP. In August of 1963, I was back in the Finger Lakes region, at Penn Yan, to participate in the wedding of my Holy Cross buddy, Jim Tette.  During my visit, the Red Sox were scheduled to play in nearby Geneva, NY, against the Senators.  I visited with Bill and Tony before the game in which he hit a monster home run in another Wellsville win.

I was not surprised to see Tony in the Red Sox starting lineup in the Fenway home opener in 1964, as the local papers were full of speculation of how he would do.  The answer was immediate, as he hit a home run over the left field “Green Monster”, on the first pitch he saw from Joe Horlen of the White Sox.  In a season shortened by a broken arm, he hit 24 home runs as a 19 year old.  He left me some tickets before a sold-out Yankees game in 1964, and I was able to visit briefly and congratulate him on his success.  Saying how much he enjoyed playing in Boston, he said, “You want to know what will keep me up here?…..Just the thoughts of having to play in Wellsville again will be enough!”

1964:  Aside from seeing Tony in Boston, I trekked back to Wellsville, again, to visit with Bill, who would later hook up with the Chicago White Sox, in 1965.  The Wellsville team, that year, was interesting, as a couple of members of that team would end up at Fenway as teammates of Tony C.  Pitcher Billy Rohr would join the Sox in 1967.  Rohr, in his first major league start at Yankee Stadium, would shut out the Yankees in a complete game performance, 1-0.  He would pitch a no-hitter, until 2 outs in the ninth inning, when Elston Howard would break it up with a double.  The other Wellsville player was Yazoo City, MS and former Ole Miss’ standout catcher Jerry Moses.  Because of his bonus status, Jerry appeared briefly with the Sox as an 18-year-old in 1965, but was sent to Wellsville for further seasoning at Tullar Field and nourishment at the Texas Hot restaurant.  He ultimately made it to the “show” in 1969, where he would be named to the 1970 All-Star team. 

A third 1964 Wellsville player with connections to Tony C was Bob Nash, who provided insight into Tony’s early baseball life from Little League through Legion and High School ball.  Bob went to Lynn Classical High School, where he played against Tony, but he played Legion Ball for Post 6 with both Tony and Billy Conigliaro, who would eventually play in the same outfield with his brother for the Red Sox, in 1969 and 1970. Three other members of that Legion team would ultimately sign professional contracts.  Unfortunately, Bob Nash, a promising Sox outfield prospect who hit .310 with 19 home runs for the 1964 Wellsville team, would suffer injuries that would shorten his professional career, after stints in the Phillies and Twins organizations.  It is interesting to note that other Wellsville 1963 and 1964 alumni with Major League experience were from 1963: George “Boomer” Scott from Greenville, MS; Joe Foy, and from 1964: Carmen Fanzone (.386 BA and 21 HR), Bill Schlesinger, and Ken Wright.  So, that obscure outpost, the smallest town in the country supporting a minor league team in the ‘60’s, was a proving ground for several future major leaguers.

For Tony C, the legend was growing, and icon status was just around the corner.  In 1965, at age twenty, he led the American League in homeruns with 32, the youngest home run champ in ML History.

The Turning Point:

1967 was the “Impossible Dream” year, in which the Sox would get into the World Series for the first time since 1946.

In 1967, he was named to the All Star team.  As a 22-year-old, he also hit his 100th ML home run, becoming the youngest AL player to hit that plateau, and the second youngest in ML history, behind Mel Ott.   With his good looks, he was a magnet for the young, single women of Boston.  He had also launched a singing career and was a frequent night club performer and had appeared on the Merv Griffin show.  It seemed as if a Hall of Fame career was building, and the future for both the Sox and Conig was bright.  After a poor start for the Sox, things began to turn around. Under Manager Dick Williams, the Sox were rolling and would continue to roll, right into the World Series.

But then, on the night of August 18, during a Fenway game against the California Angels, things changed dramatically.  Tony had singled off Jack Hamilton in his first at bat, the only hit the Angels’ fireballer had given up in the first three innings.  For the Sox part, Gary Bell had not given up a hit through the first three innings. In the fourth, George Scott led off with a single, and was thrown out trying to stretch it to a double.  After Reggie Smith flied to center, Tony stepped into the batters box.  Always an aggressive hitter, Conig crowded the plate.  Hamilton, who was not afraid to come inside to knock the batter off the plate, threw a fast ball in, and the pitch changed Tony’s career forever.  Not intentionally headhunting, the pitch nailed Tony in the left cheek/ eye area, just below the batting helmet, which did not have the ear flap in those days.  Later, after he had regained full consciousness in the clubhouse, Conigliaro said, “I thought I was dead…I heard a hissing sound and that was all!” Tony would not return, that year, due to the eye and retina damage.  He missed all of the 1968 season, replaced in right field by Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.

Dalton Jones, a significant player on that 1967 team, recalls the drama of the team, of being a teammate of Tony C., and the team’s feelings about the prospects for the future.  Reached at his home not far from Liberty, MS, the Red Sox utility infielder, who is recognized as one of the Sox all-time pinch hitters, related enough comments to be worthy of a separate feature.  Regarding the overall Sox experience, he said, “If anything, what happened to Tony seemed to galvanize us and motivate us to fight harder.  Picking up Ken Harrelson, down the stretch, to fill in for Tony, when the Hawk was released by Charley Finley, and then getting Elston Howard from the Yankees, had a calming influence on us. Both players contributed greatly to our successful drive to get into the World Series that year.  At that point, we were all thinking “Dynasty”.  Then, doubts began to creep in, when Jim Longborg broke his leg in an off-season ski accident, and then Tony couldn’t come back.”

Regarding Tony, Dalton related, “He had it all right from the start, particularly a total belief in himself.  He had the skills and a perfect batting style for Fenway.  He’d hit those terrific high fly shots over the left field wall and screen.  But then, on the road, he’d adjust and hit line drive homers in the other parks. It is obvious the injury affected his career and we all thought that he was a complete player who could have had a long career, and set records others might still be chasing.  How many 22-year-olds had that type of statistical start to a career? He still had not reached his full maturity and strength as a ballplayer.  I had a lot of self-confidence in 1967, and maybe the best three months of my career down the stretch, but Tony broke in that way and never let up.” (According to SABR, the “Supreme Court” of baseball statistics, only Mickey Mantle compared overall, at the same age, to Tony.  For trivia buffs, only Eddie Matthews’ 72 home runs came close to Tony’s 84 by their 22nd birthday…Mantle had 57 and Hank Aaron had 40).

Tony did return in 1969 to earn the “Comeback Player of the Year” award, with 20 home runs.  In 1970, he appeared to have fully recovered, as he hit his career-high 36 home runs.  However, the retina damage continued to erode his eyesight, and in the 1970 off-season, he was traded to the Angels, along with 1964 Wellsville alum Jerry Moses.  Struggling in 1971, he announced his retirement, but did make an attempt at another comeback in the Sox pennant winning season of 1975.  After struggling and hitting 2 home runs, he retired for good in mid-June, a career ended much too soon.

 The Real Tragedy

 After Tony’s active career ended, he became a sportscaster/ analyst at KGO TV in San Francisco.  When Hawk Harrelson, a folk hero in Boston and the Red Sox Cable TV color analyst, left for an opportunity to be GM of the White Sox, after the 1981 season, Tony saw a chance to return to Boston and he applied for the vacant position.  He interviewed for the job in January of 1982 and the smart money said the job would be his.

His brother, Billy, was driving him back to Logan Airport to return to San Francisco when Tony had a massive heart attack.  By the time Billy was able to get him to Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, Tony was in a coma.  While he did come out of the coma, he never fully recovered and spent the last eight years of his life in a Nursing Home in Salem, Mass. The Red Sox held annual fundraising drives, to help pay for his care.

He died on February 24, 1990, at the age of 45, tragically too young in life, but maybe, mercifully.  A Boston icon was gone. Like many another story of this star-crossed, storied franchise, Tony C’s story will be passed from generation to generation among Red Sox fans.

Footnote: Among his last visitors, just before he passed away, was his 1963 Wellsville Red Sox teammate, Bill Nagle.

 Originally Published in March 28, 2012 Print Edition

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A Reflection: Spring Training’s Ever Changing Atmosphere

Each year, with the approach of spring training, I reflect on the time period from 1978-2003, a 25-year span that will be forever young and vivid in my memory.  I think of the rich experiences I have derived from those visits to the various sites in Florida and Arizona, and the changes in the overall landscape during that period.  It frequently occurs to me that I have been part of an evolving drama, sandwiched in time between the Golden Age of baseball and today’s media circus atmosphere. I missed out on that earlier era, due to the year of my birth.  Actually, from a baseball as well as a national perspective, 1941 was a significant year, when one considers Joe D’s hitting streak of 56 games and Ted Williams’ .406 batting average.  Then I think “has it really been 70 years since the last hitter broke the .400 level?”  For that matter, has it really been 34 years since my breakfast invitation from Ted Williams at Winter Haven, which ended up lasting three hours? “Did I really get two doubles off Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee, touch up Luis Tiant’s fastball (prompting catcher Bob Montgomery to remark, ‘that ball was only a couple of mph slower than his best major league fastball, what does he have against you?’), or struggle against Jim Lonborg’s knuckler 26 years ago at the Sox’ Chain O’ Lakes ballpark?”

What about sitting in the bullpen with Johnny Pesky at Winter Haven, during a Red Sox-Rangers game in 1980 and meeting a number of old timers I had seen play, or who were only pictures on some vintage 1950’s era baseball cards in my collection? Mace Brown, “Broadway” Charlie Wagner, Sam Mele, Eddie Yost, Jack Kramer, Joe Dobson, and Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McClish (Cal McClish) come readily to mind. The moments and stories are seemingly endless.

But, to my point of reference in this feature, how about the chance to meet Dave “Boo” Ferriss for the first time in, 1989; the same Boo Ferriss who pitched in the first major league game I attended in 1948 at Fenway Park against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s?  Ted Williams insisted I go to meet Ferriss as early as spring training in 1979, and would ask each succeeding year if I had been to Delta State to meet him yet. “No?! Well, get your tail over there and tell him I sent you, you’ll never meet a better person!”  It would take my son Mike going to Delta State, ten years later, before I could finally tell Ted, “Yes, I finally met him, and you were right, he is the ‘class person’ you advertised”.

So, let’s concentrate for a moment on the changes that have taken place in the last 35 years, since my first press pass allowed me access to the inside story.

For the proper perspective, I felt that it would be a great idea to learn what I had missed in that earlier era, to give me a greater appreciation of what I did experience. The aforementioned “Boo’ Ferriss could provide that insight, and so a call to the retired Delta State University coach and Red Sox Hall-of-Famer seemed in order.  The half-hour conversation provided a wealth of information, some of which I had heard from others, but with the added perspective of a man who has given most of his life to the game. The first thing one can appreciate about him is that he is blessed with an extraordinary memory. It is indeed a gift that, having once met you, he will call you by name the next time he sees you, even if years have passed. The fact that he is now 90 years old has seemingly done nothing to diminish his memory, or his ability to tell a story.

Most Mississippi baseball fans know of Boo Ferriss, at least due to his legendary status at DSU.  But, he also is special to the Red Sox Nation, and a few words about that are well in order.  After serving in the Army Air Corps during WWII and being released from service in early 1945, he joined the Red Sox and proceeded to arguably become the best pitcher in the American League, for the next two years.  In 1945, he won 21 games for a rather mediocre team.  Noteworthy was the fact that he won his first 8 games, including 22 scoreless innings in his first 3 games.  He also beat every team in the league in his first appearance against them.  He pitched 26 complete games, and repeated that statistic with another 26 in 1946 when he was the AL’s best pitcher, with a 25-6 record. The Red Sox got into the World Series, where he notched an additional win, a shutout against the Cardinals. For a 2011 comparison, Ferriss’ total of 26 complete games was higher than half the AL total team records combined and greater than the combined total of 9 of the 16 NL teams. Interestingly, San Diego’s Padres failed to record a complete game pitched during the season.  In 1947, well on his way to another 20-win season, he tore his rotator cuff, which effectively ended his career, in 1950.  With today’s arthroscopic surgery and therapy, who can say how many years he would have continued to be a dominating pitcher?  As it was, he never won another game after 1948, and pitched less than 10 innings, combined, in 1949 and 1950.  After retirement, he went on to be the Sox pitching coach from 1955-1959, and subsequently to put the DSU baseball program on the map.

But, what does he remember of his spring training experiences?  From a conditioning and training standpoint, the drills remain pretty much the same. As Ferriss stated, “There was always a lot of sweat everywhere!”  The offseason kinks had to be worked out and the mind and reflexes had to be sharpened to be in “baseball” shape, ready for the daily grind to come.  Not much has changed there, regarding the basics.  In those days, Boo reflected, “The camps were rather Spartan and the exhibition games played in smaller ballparks than those today.”  The players were pretty accessible to the fans, the crowds smaller, and the overall atmosphere was laid back.  Radio was the local means of communication and the sportswriters from the print media were the prime source of news heading back north.  Compare that with today’s instant communication and TV saturation. 

Boo’s comment on the sportswriters reminded me of a Red Sox press steward of my acquaintance, Tommy McCarthy, a 50-year employee of the Sox, whom Boo remembered well.  For me, McCarthy and Public Address announcer Sherm Feller were gold mines of interesting stories of team and player history.  Both are now deceased, and I treasure the time spent with them. The teams would head south by train and reserved a car for the sportswriters, who were unofficial public relations promoters of the teams. Reporting controversial news was not standard spring training fare, being primarily reserved for the regular season.  In one conversation, Tommy related, “The train left from the South Station in Boston. I was not allowed to serve a drink in the station, but once the wheels started turning, I started pouring, and it was a happy group of writers who disembarked in the Florida sun.”  For his part, Boo drove to spring training, yearly.

Thanks to Boo Ferriss, I now had a great connecting point for my own experiences.  Press passes helped greatly, but players were, typically, readily available and accommodating to the average fan as recently as the 70’s and 80’s.  As conditions changed, due to the impact of dramatically rising salaries, the atmosphere began to change subtly.  Fortunately, the old atmosphere hasn’t totally disappeared, but it has been compromised.

I am glad Boo provided a good glimpse and memory of the past. As a kid, my dad and I would listen to radio, often ticker-tape game reports, coming from the Sox spring training site at old Payne Park, in Sarasota.  I covered several games at that venue when it had become a White Sox facility and nothing had apparently changed. After several years, a brand new facility was built for the White Sox.  Another venue, where I have had the chance to play in the Roy Hobbs World Series, is Terry Park at Fort Myers,  also the old spring training site for the Philadelphia A’s. What a special experience it has been to play on the same field as Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Hornsby, Speaker and more recent stars, to name but a few. The park, a jewel in the crown of past baseball history,  is now maintained by the city of Fort Myers as a historical site, and along with the Red Sox and Twins stadiums and facilities, hosts the Roy Hobbs games each November.

The best example of the “old days” may have been the Pittsburgh Pirates’ camp at Bradenton, Florida’s McKechnie Field, an ancient ballpark.  Even the name “Field” is an anachronism today, as “Stadiums” are built to accommodate the crowds. On March 31, 1983, I was at Bradenton’s Pirate City to see how the Red Sox would fare against the Bucs.  It was a very windy day, and as the tiny (by today’s standards) press box would sway, some of the writers inquired about the availability of Dramamine. As I look at my Press Guide today, I am struck by the fact that McKechnie Field boasted a capacity of 4,629 and ticket price bargains of:  General Admission – $2.50; Reserved Seating – $3.25 and Box Seats – $4.00.  For me, among that day’s highlights were opportunities to talk to Harvey Haddix and Bob Prince.  Haddix had gained fame as the pitcher who pitched a perfect game for 12 innings against the Milwaukee Braves in 1959, only to lose the game (1-0) on a single by Joe Adcock in the 13th inning.  For his part, Prince’s legacy among the media and Pirates fans as one of the most colorful announcers in baseball history is still memorable, with all due respect to Columbus’ Red Barber, Ernie Harwell, Curt Gowdy and many others.  I also made the acquaintance of Tim McClelland, a rookie umpire, who is still active today, and who may be significantly remembered for his decision regarding the Billy Martin-George Brett “Pine Tar Bat” incident several years later.  The biggest bonus of all was being enlisted by a rookie New England Sports Network (NESN) broadcaster to take promotional pictures, while he interviewed Red Sox players. Since the reporter had been stood up by the photographer who had been recruited for this task, I gladly pinch-hit for the authorized rate of $50 per shot.  Three cheers for private enterprise!  Yes, Virginia, it was a laid back day in that laconic outpost of the spring training world.

But much has changed and spring training might never be exactly the same again.

Today’s  player goes through the same drills to get baseball-ready, and the games still demand nine innings to determine the outcome of the game.  Today, however, the multimillionaire players do not depend on finding offseason employment as in the past and can train year-round, often under the direction of personal trainers. If dedicated, players can at least report in good physical shape.  In the past, spring training probably needed to last 6-8 weeks.  Today, the rookies who want to have every possible inning to present their case for going north once the season starts, the players on re-hab, or the aging veteran desperately trying for one more season in the sun, usually want to keep the same-length process of preparation.  The established players, sure of their spots, are more anxious for the regular season to begin.

The managers and the coaching staff still evaluate individuals on a daily basis, and the statisticians still record all the relevant details.  The photographers still capture the art of the game, and do so with equipment that provides great income for memorabilia dealers. The scribes still attempt to digest and analyze the deeper meaning of what they are witnessing, and the public address announcers still find time to mention the current low temperatures and weather conditions in Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Cleveland.

Today, however, one can forget the chance to see a game for $2.50.  The $.50 soft drink has gone the way of the 8-track tape.  A spring training site without an adjacent minor league complex and an exhibition game stadium with a 10-12,000 capacity is considered “bush league”.  At Fort Myers, the Twins play at Lee County’s Hammond Stadium, with 6 minor league playing fields adjacent to the ballpark.  The Red Sox have trained at City of Palms Stadium since 1993, in downtown Fort Myers, at the corner of Broadway and Edison, with minor league facilities about 2 miles distant.  So this year, Fort Myers has built a new stadium along the lines of Fenway Park, and with all of the necessary auxiliary facilities.  Later this year, I hope to see it.

So what has driven these changes?  I maintain the process started back with the successful challenging of the old “reserve clause” in the mid-seventies. The implications of free agency, in its infant stages on the baseball scene in 1976, were beginning to be felt.  Over the succeeding years, the fan began to witness the millionaire ballplayer, then the multi-millionaire ballplayer, the multi-year contract for even the .250 hitter, and the long-term contract with the superstar.  In short, the ballgame between the lines was becoming a very complex financial game outside the lines.  Agents, arbitration hearings and player compensation for teams losing free agents all became part and parcel of the landscape. The “luxury tax” was implemented to attempt to establish parity between the rich and poor clubs, the large market teams and the small market teams (e.g. the New York Yankees vs. the Kansas City Royals). As an example, as recently as 1992, the entire payroll of some teams was less than a number of individual players make in 2012, (e.g. the Indians total player payroll was slightly more than $8 million in 1992.)

However, once the umpire yells “Play Ball”, the money aspect takes second place to the beauty of the game on the field, at least for the real fan.

Originally Published in February 22, 2012 Print Edition

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