Thursday, 15 September 2016

THE BONUS RULE—FROM THE CRADLE TO THE BIGTIME

1949 Bowman bubble gum card of
Dick Wakefield (US Public Domain)
The infamous Bonus Rule came about after World War II because too many rich major league baseball franchises were cornering the market on talent by throwing around big dollars on highly-touted, fuzzy-cheeked kids in their late-teens coming right out of high school or first-year college then stock-piling them on their farm clubs.  
The first of the
 Bonus Babies -as they were soon called- was University of Michigan’s Dick Wakefield, who the Detroit Tigers signed in 1941 for a whopping $52,000 and a brand-new Cadillac thrown in for good measure. In his 1943 rookie season, a war year with depleted talent, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound outfielder hit .316 and led the American League with 200 hits and 38 doubles. Mid-1944, he was off to the US Navy, leaving behind a .355 batting average. But when he returned to the majors in 1946 (along with all the other players who had gone off to war), he never regained his swing and struggled along into the early Fifties before calling it quits after brief stints with the New York teams, the Giants and Yankees. 

The bidding for players stopped during World War II, 
then picked up again in late-1945. Certain rules were put in place in 1947 to curb such larcenysuch as restricting any player signing for more than $6,000 to be placed on an MLB roster before the end of the season or be declared a free agent. The top signing under these rulings was southpaw pitcher Johnny Antonelli when he inked a $65,000 bonus with the Boston Braves in 1948. Nothing seemed concrete on paper and amid squabbles around the majors, all previous rules were dropped in 1950. That same year, southpaw Paul “Wizard of Whiff” Pettit signed the first $100,000 bonus (equal to about $1 million today) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, right after graduating from high school. But, he injured his elbow pitching for New Orleans in the minors, and threw a whole 30 innings with Pittsburgh before retiring early 

Over the next two years, bonus fever 
continued stronger than everenough for major league baseball to form a committee in 1952 chaired by Pittsburgh Pirates GM Branch RickeyThe new rule they adopted was the following: Disregarding a hard cap, any player signing a bonus for at least $4,000 had to be placed on the 25-man major league roster for a term of two calendar years from the signing date. If the player was sent to the minors during that time, the team no longer had rights to the player’s contract and would subsequently be exposed to the other teams. In other words: a free agent.
1955 Bowman bubble gum card of Al Kaline (US Public Domain)

In most cases the situation did not work out well for the players. 
Some called it major league baseball’s worst blunder. One of the 1950’s Bonus Babies, Canadian Reno Bertoia, born in Italy in 1935 and raised in Windsor, Ontario, could relate to that. He signed with the local Detroit Tigers in 1953, the first year of the new stringent ruleIn an interview with sportswriter Mary Appel in 1992, Bertoia said: “It was such a poor rule for baseball, forcing bonus players to stay in the majors. I was so shy at 18, just not ready for it all. Sitting on the bench as a kid and not playing and wondering whether you belong there, then being put into situations where you’re not comfortable, that was tough on a kid.”  

To add to Bertoia’s statements, t
he young Bonus Baby players should have been working their up through the minors, learning their craft as they went. Most of them had signed for more money than the regulars were receiving in any given season. In short, the situation caused a lot of resentment.  

Bertoia 
signed for $10,000 plus $1,000 for his mother to take a trip to Italy, in addition to the Tigers promising to pay for his college education at the University of Michigan, where he eventually received his teacher’s degree. Bertoia went on to play 10 years in the majors with various clubs, mostly at third base and batted .244 lifetime. For his first five years in the majors with Detroit, he roomed with another Bonus Baby, Al Kaline, the youngest player to win a batting crown in 1955 by hitting .340 at age 20, and who is enshrined in the Hall of Fame todayMy wife’s family is from Windsor. Both her brother and sister were taught by Bertoia at Assumption High School. A super person and a very popular teacher, they both told me. 

The 
Bonus Rule stayed in effect until 1957. During those five years, every one of the 16 major league teams carried at least one Bonus Baby on their roster. Most of them barely playedif at all, due to their inexperience, of course, and when they did there wasn’t much to write home to momma aboutHigh-paid unknowns like Laurin Pepper, Jim Brady, George Thomas, Mel Roach, Ron Jackson, Paul Giel, Dave Hill, Frank Leja, Tom “Money Bags” Qualters, and twins Eddie and Johnny O’Brien, both signed together by the Pirates, to name someA few players did have decent careers, however: Joey Jay, Dick Schofield, Mike McCormick, Lindy McDaniel, Billy O’Dell, Moe Drabowsky, and Clete Boyer.  

In the Fifties, m
any teams found sneaky ways to work around the rule by putting the players on the injury list, when they were perfectly healthy, to be replaced by a minor leaguer. There were even cases of teams slipping money to bonus players “under the table,” then sending the youngsters to the minors where they should have been in the first place. Therefore, with these reasons in mind, MLB decided to kill the Bonus Rule, even making it retroactive, thus freeing up every Bonus Baby who had signed previously.  
Exhibit card of Roberto Clemente,
Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago
(US Public Domain)

In 1962, however, the rule came back, due to expansion in both leagues
 with four new teams. Now the Bonus Babies had to spend only one full season on the roster once they were signed. Future managing great Tony LaRussa was one such playerThen everything changed when a bidding war erupted for the services of slugger Rich Reichardt who eventually signed with the Los Angeles Angels in 1964 for $200,000, or about $1.5 million today. By 1965, the rule was dropped again, this time for good. The free agent amateur draft took over. Rick Monday was chosen No. 1 by the Kansas City Athletics and signed for $104,000. The Bonus Baby era had finally come to an abrupt end. Free agency would be right around the corner, a story in itself: where the big bucks came about. 

Of the dozens of Bon
us Babies signed during its more rigid time from 1953-1964, there were some true stars who made it to the Hall of Fame, besides Detroit’s Al Kaline: Harmon Killebrew, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente. Of these, only Killebrew spent any time in the minors once his so-called “probation period” was up. Koufax, in particular, would’ve rewritten the record book had he first spent a couple years in the minors with a decent pitching coach by his side. It’s unfortunate Koufax lingered half a dozen years before he turned his career around and finally starting winning.  

Clemente was
 a whole different matter altogether. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Roberto Clemente signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers on February 19, 1954 for a reported $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. Instead of keeping him on the big club, Brooklyn turned around and sent him to their AAA farm team, the International League Montreal Royals, knowing full well he’d be up for grabs in a draft the following spring. One story was that Brooklyn tried to hide Clemente’s talents from the other teams by playing him only sparingly, hoping that he wouldn’t be noticed 

But Brooklyn GM Buzzy Bavasi 
insisted that wasn’t the case. He told his close associates that the only reason they signed Clemente was to keep him away from the cross-town rival New York Giants, who had been actively seeking him, wanting him to play in the outfield alongside Willie Mays. In November 1954, the last-place Pittsburgh, run by Branch Rickey, used the first pick in the ensuing draft to grab Clemente, and you know what happened after that... 

The rest is history. 
 

Friday, 2 September 2016

PALM TREES WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT THEM

Cornish Palms in Cornwall,
County, England (UK Public Domain)
I love palm trees. Who doesn’t? They are symbols of sunshine, holidays, and the tropics, along with deep-brown suntans (and sometimes serious burns when you’re not careful). Places like California, Florida, and Arizona have countless palms. When many of us vacation in these southern states, and/or dozens of other tropical spots around the globe for that matter, we are always in awe of these creations, besides enjoying the weather that is associated with such floral beauty. By the way, the average lifespan of a palm tree is 150 years, and there’s at least 3,000 species of them. The scientific name for palms is Arecaceare: a botanical family of perennials that includes shrubs, flowering plants, as well as palms.

In case you didn’t know, the southwest coast of the British Isles--yes, the British Isles!--has palm trees. However, they are not native to the country: They were brought in from New Zealand in 1820 and have flourished ever since. Thanks to the constant mild weather brought up from the North American Gulf Stream, palms survive quite nicely in a large resort plot of land filled with sandy beaches known as the “English Riviera.” The main tourist attraction is the city of Torquay--population 65,000--which takes up one-third of the borough of Torbay tucked inside Devon County. The palms here are often referred to as Cornish Palms or Torbay Palms, thousands of them and many different species. One such specie is the Windmill Palm, a hardy palm that is making quite a name for itself in northern reaches of the globe.

According to one source, Windmill Palms were brought to Europe from Japan in 1830 and have spread worldwide after that. For example, they now grow in southern parts of Germany, Russia, Ireland, the Alaskan Panhandle, Michigan, Oregon, Washington state, Vancouver, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, and southern New Jersey believe it or not, giving all these areas a tropical feel to their cold winter climates: a dream come true for those living outside the common tropical zones.

They’re called Windmill Palms because their fronds are shaped like a windmill or a garden fan rake and they extend almost 360 degrees. They also have a layer of furry vegetation on its trunk that protects it from the harsh sun and the freezing cold in the northern climate zones. They can tolerate some snow layers and winter temperatures down to -20 Celsius for short periods of time, making them one of the best cold hardy palms in the world. They are also fast-growing and low maintenance; and pest and pollution resistant, ideal for town and city boulevards where you see constant traffic. 

Windmill Palms come in two scientific names: trachycarpus forteunei and trachycarpus wagnerianus. The former can grow as tall as 50 feet, while the latter can reach around 25 feet. A particular New Jersey-based nursery, Tucked Away Farms, specializes in selling palm trees and other tropical plants, with customers in their state and as far away as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Long Island, New York. These northern palms make a perfect addition to the ground cover surrounding the dazzling, blue waters of any pool, especially when you invite family and friends over and watch their reactions to setting their eyes on real palm trees.

Windmill Palm (US Public Domain)
But the palms don’t come cheap in bringing the tropics to Eastern Seaboard neighborhoods. Tucked Away Farms charge $150 per foot plus delivery and installation, resulting in some homeowners paying as much as $2,000 or more for their large, ready-made, cold hardy palms. The potted plants are considerably less, but need some tender loving care once they are placed in the ground. The younger trees have to be protected by leaves packed inside a wire cage for the first few winters until the roots get established and the plants mature. Once they grow a few feet in height, they can take the cold, heat, rain and dry periods. Soil with good drainage is the best and they can be planted in either part-shade to full sun.

Twenty years ago, about 60 Windmill Palms were planted on boulevards along the water at English Bay in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada despite some uppity, tight-ass locals very opposed to the undertaking: They felt that it was sacrilegious to see palm trees in Vancouver because they were never native to the region. While two of the original trees have died off, the rest are flourishing today and look absolutely gorgeous.

My sister-in-law in Jacksonville, Florida has two Windmill Palms in her back yard just a few feet from her pool. She also has other varieties spread over the property, ones that are less tolerant to the drop in temperatures to the freezing point and less. Keep in mind that Jacksonville is in northern Florida and is prone to the occasional frost in the winter months that has killed or severely burned many other palm varieties. “I wish all the palms in my yard were Windmill Palms,” she told me recently. “They can take the cold a lot better than the others and they are easy to maintain.”

And they look great, too, I have to add. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

THE 1927 NEW YORK YANKEES: THE GREATEST BASEBALL TEAM OF ALL-TIME

1926 Exhibit card of Babe Ruth.
Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago
(US Public Domain)
There’s been a story--some call it a myth--floating around baseball since 1927…

The New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates were facing each other that year in the World Series. Prior to Game 1 on October 5, the Pirate players supposedly watched in awe as “Murderers’ Row” Yankee sluggers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri and Bob Meusel put on a clinic by crushing ball after ball to the far reaches of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field during batting practice. The Yankees then swept the timid Pirates by scores of 5-4, 6-2, 8-1, and 4-3.

But were the Pirates really deflated prior to the first game? Probably not. They were an excellent team in their own right, with plenty of stars, having won the World Series in 1925. Besides, it was the Yankee pitching staff that dominated the 1927 post-season, not so much the hitting of Ruth, Gehrig, and the boys. Interestingly enough, Ruth hit two homers, the only homers in the entire four-game set.

So, what really happened?

Many historians consider the 1927 New York Yankees as the best team ever. They were first in American League attendance, attracting 1.1 million fans, a high figure for its day. Managed by Miller Huggins, they had it all. Five members are in the Hall of Fame: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Waite Hoyt, and Herb Pennock. What made them so great? First off, finishing 19 games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia Athletics in the American League race, the Yanks  won 110 games against only 44 losses for a .714 winning percentage. Hitting, they scored 975 runs, while giving up only 599, a difference of 376 runs: all lead-leading totals, along with 103 triples, 158 homers, .307 batting average, and .489 slugging average. Their 291 doubles were second in the circuit. Pitching, they led the AL in shutouts (11), fewest walks (409), and lowest ERA (3.20), almost 100 points better than the eight-team league average.

Individually, Ruth, Gehrig and Lazzeri finished 1-2-3 in the league homer title with 60 (a record that stood until 1961), 47, and 18, respectively. The outfield--the best in the majors--consisted of leadoff hitter Earl Combs in center field, who crushed a majors-best 23 triples while hitting .356 thanks to his league-best 231 hits; Ruth in right also hitting .356 along with 164 RBIs (second-best in the league); and Bob Meusel, the rocket arm in left field who batted fifth and hit .337 with 103 RBIs. Steady Tony Lazzeri at second base contributed with a .309 average and 102 RBIs, one of four Yankees to clear 100 RBIs. Cleanup hitter Lou Gehrig, the defensive rock at first base, had 218 hits, a .373 batting average, and led the majors with both 52 doubles and 175 RBIs. He also had the AL second-best mark of 18 triples, all hitting behind Babe Ruth in the third spot.

Blessed with an outstanding starting rotation, the Yankee pitchers dominated opposition hitters. Waite Hoyt won 22 games, tied for the league-best, while his 2.64 ERA was second-best. With his seven losses, he led the league with a .759 winning percentage. The others were Herb Pennock (19-8, 3.00 ERA), Urban Shocker (18-6, 2.84 ERA), Dutch Reuther (13-6, 3.38 ERA), George Pipgras (10-3, 4.11), and rookie reliever and spot starter Wilcy Moore (19-7, 13 saves, and league-best 2.28 ERA).

How did this team come about in the first place?

Known as the Highlanders upon league entrance in 1903, they changed their name to the Yankees in 1913. After some up-and-down years with no pennants, the New York franchise did not become a force until around the time that Miller Huggins became their manager in 1918. By 1919, they finished third, eight games off the pace, helped along by the purchase of some Boston Red Sox pitchers of note: Carl Mays and Ernie Shore. Boston’s owner Harry Frazee didn’t stop there. He needed cash and fast. So, in the off-season, he sold pitcher-outfielder star Babe Ruth to the Yankees in the biggest pro sports deal up to that time.

1933 Goudey Gum Co card of Lou Gehrig
(US Public Domain)
In 1920, the Yankees finished third again, with 95-59, only three games from the top of the heap. Shortly after the season ended, Red Sox manager Ed Barrow saw the writing on the wall for the sixth-place team and left, where he became the New York Yankees’ business manager, an earlier term for GM. For the next few years, he brought more Red Sox players over in the midst of Frazee’s fire sale, until the joke around the majors was that the Yankees were the transplanted Red Sox. Boston was awful for many years afterwards and didn’t win another pennant until 1946. On the other hand, the Yankees became the best team in baseball, a powerhouse for the next 40 years until 1964, spearheaded by the shrewd Ed Barrow. It all began with AL pennants flying high in 1921, 1922, 1923, 1926, and again in 1927, with two of those world championships.

How did the starting players of the 1927 team become Yankee property? Here’s the list and the deals made, everyone ratified by Barrow--except for Babe Ruth--during his stint with the team. Then again, Barrow may have approved the Ruth deal, too, knowing that he would soon be joining the Yankees after it had gone through.
The fielders…

First baseman Lou Gehrig
was signed out of Columbia University in 1923 where he played on the baseball team. There on a football scholarship, he was studying to be an engineer. Second baseman Tony Lazzeri was purchased from the Double A Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League in 1925 for two minor leaguers and $50,000 cash. Two National League teams passed on him due to his bouts of epilepsy. Third baseman Joe Dugan became a Yankee mid-season 1922 via the Red Sox in a six-player deal plus $50,000 heading to the cash-strapped Frazee. Shortstop Mark Koenig was spotted by scouts in 1925 playing for the St Paul Saints of the Double A American Association. Incidentally, Koenig’s first pro team was the Moose Jaw Millers of the Class B Western Canada League in 1921.

The January 1920 deal that brought right fielder Babe Ruth to New York consisted of the Yankees giving up $125,000 cash and a $300,000 loan to Frazee, a transaction that secured his home field as collateral. In other words, for a few years, the Yankees actually held the mortgage to Fenway Park. Left fielder Bob Meusel had been Yankee property as far back as the winter of 1920-1921, signing with them upon leaving the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. The Yankees bought center fielder Earl Combs for $50,000 in 1924, following a fierce bidding war for his rights. Catcher Pat Collins found his way to New York from the St Paul Saints of the American Association in 1925 for three players and $25,000 cash.

1933 Goudey Gum Card of Waite Hoyt (US Public Domain)

The pitchers…

Three left the floundering Red Sox: Waite Hoyt, part of a seven-player deal in December 1920; southpaw Herb Pennock in January 1923 for three players and $50,000; and George Pipgras in January 1923 for a player and an undisclosed amount of cash. In 1926, Wilcy Moore was bought for a mere $3,000 from the Greenville Spinners of the Class B South Atlantic League. Urban Shocker was traded from the St Louis Browns in December 1924 for four players. The other regular southpaw on the staff, Dutch Reuther, came to the Yankees from the Washington Senators in August 1926 for two players.

The most underrated player on the 1927 squad had to be sinkerball pitcher Wilcy Moore, an easygoing country boy from Oklahoma, who, from 1922-1925 had knocked around the minors until he caught a break, no pun intended. You see, with Greenville in 1925, his pitching arm was fractured by a hit ball. Returning to the team later in the year, he found it too painful throwing his sinker out-pitch in his usual overhand motion. So, he changed to sidearm. In 1926, he won 17 straight and finished 30-4 with a 2.86 ERA in 305 innings. His success got back to Ed Barrow in New York and he signed Moore, despite scouts saying he’d be too old at 30 by the time the season would start in 1927. Moore proved everybody--except Barrow--wrong by appearing in 50 games for 213 innings (12 starts, six complete games) and 13-3, 1.95 ERA mark while in the bullpen, where he especially excelled as one of the first relief pitchers in MLB history. He was the missing piece that anchored the pitching staff.

No matter how one looks at the 1927 Yankees, it will always be known as the team of sluggers Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, two stars as different as night and day. They did have two things in common, however: they both hit left and threw left. Ruth was loud and boisterous, always the center of attention on the field or off. His home runs were crushed high and long. He looked good even striking out. Playing in the shadow of Ruth, Gehrig was quiet and deathly shy, preferring to keep a low profile wherever he went. On the field, he hit missiles to every section of the park, whether they were singles, doubles or triples. And his line-drive homers found the seats in a flash, often scattering the startled fans.


Summing it up, the 1927 New York Yankees were worthy of the “Murderers’ Row” tag. But, they could pitch, too. They had it all.