Monday, 14 December 2015

“ORIGINAL SIX” HOCKEY

1963-64 Parkhurst card of Dave Keon
(Canadian Public Domain)
I remember the tail end of those iconic years very well. I was 15 when the National Hockey League expanded to 12 teams for the 1967-68 season.  I was a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan in the early-to-mid 1960’s, in the days that they actually won Stanley Cups: three in a row and four in six years. Little did I know that when I watched the last game of the 1967 playoffs between the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens--won by Toronto--on my friend’s blurry black-and-white TV, the Leafs would still be without a championship so many years later.

Original Six Hockey is a term depicting the six-team NHL during a 25-year period beginning in 1942-43. The teams were Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Black Hawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers.

The tag Original Six still pops up every hockey season, especially when two of these teams meet in the regular schedule or--better yet--in a playoff series. There was something mystique about the six-team hockey: a little over 100 players combined on the rosters at any given time, with only one goalie per team for most seasons, until the rules allow for two dressed in 1965-66. As a kid, I had the pleasure of collecting the era’s classic hockey cards put out by Parkhurst and Topps, as well as the Bee Hive Corn Syrup pictures that you had to mail away for. During art classes in grade school, my friends and I would bring our bent hockey cards and draw our favorite Leaf players. I liked Dave Keon and goaltender Johnny Bower, since I was a goalie myself. One of my friends absolutely worshipped Frank “The Big M” Mahovlich.

The period produced many great stars. Some had iconic nicknames. Besides the players already mentioned, we saw Detroit’s Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk and “Terrible Ted” Lindsay; Montreal’s Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, and Jacques “Jake the Snake” Plante; Chicago’s Bobby Hull; and Boston’s Bobby Orr as an 18-year-old rookie who stunned the league with his talents in the fall of 1966. Classic coaches Hector “Toe” Blake and George “Punch” Imlach battled each other for league dominance. Between them, they won 12 Stanley Cups, eight of those going to Blake.

1963-64 Parkhurst card of Gordie Howe
(Canadian Public Domain)
We also saw the introduction of the slapshot beginning with Geoffrion, followed by Toronto’s Tim Horton and New York’s Andy Bathgate before Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita took over with their banana-curved sticks in the Sixties. Jacques Plante was the first goalie to use a mask on a permanent basis in 1959, after taking a Bathgate slapshot off his noggin. However, by the last year of the six-team league, most goalies still weren’t wearing face protection, for some strange reason.

Off-ice, two incidents occurred that spotlighted the sports world…
In the spring of 1957, Detroit’s Ted Lindsay announced the formation of the first NHL Players’ Association, in which he and player reps from the five other teams had secretly signed every NHL player except one: Ted Kennedy of the Leafs. It all began the year in late-1956 with the Player Pension Fund, which the players had to contribute a whopping one-third of their salaries, being the biggest issue. The players wanted to know how much money was in the fund, and the amount they would receive upon retirement. The whole thing appeared to be a huge secret. The league eventually broke the union by not recognizing it, but did settle up (sort of) in 1958, after Lindsay (having been traded to the lowly Black Hawks out of spite) filed a $3 million anti-trust suit against the NHL. The league agreed to a $7000 minimum salary and would pay for a player’s moving expenses when traded, among other minor details. Nothing on the secretive pension fund, though. That didn’t come up again until 30 years later, a story in itself that I had mentioned in my 2013 article about Ted Lindsay and the first NHL Players’ Association. http://danielwyatt.blogspot.ca/2013/07/ted-lindsay-and-first-nhl-players.html

In 1962, during the World Series between the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants, crazy news hit the sports pages, quite possibly engineered to render baseball’s Fall Classic secondary. Chicago Black Hawk owners James Norris Jr and Arthur Wirtz--after a few rounds of stiff drinks--offered to take star Frank Mahovlich off the Toronto Maple Leafs hands for an unbelievable $1 million. We Leaf fans were in shock. My friend, in particular, wanted to jump ship and follow the Black Hawks. At his peak in 1962, the 24-year-old Mahovlich had been Rookie of the Year in the 1957-58 season and had scored 48 goals in 1960-61. Alas, cooler heads prevailed, and nothing came of the deal.

Almost all the players came from Canada’s Junior A hockey leagues across the country. American- or European-born players were rare or not at all in some years. The NHL depended on the Junior A Sponsorship system. No Entry Draft. According to the CAHA-NHL agreement, each of the six teams could sponsor two Junior A teams. I remember that because in my hometown of Regina, the Junior A Regina Pats had the Habs logo on the sleeves of their uniforms. Here’s some ex-Pats who made it to the six-team NHL: Terry Harper, Bob Turner, Red Berenson, Bill Hicke, Eddie Litzenberger, and Bill Hay.

When one looks back on it now, Original Six Hockey was a very unfair system in favor of three teams. Territorial privileges demanded that each NHL team also had the rights to every player within a 50-mile radius of its NHL home arena. That was great if you were the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs more so, and to a lesser extent the Detroit Red Wings. All three could draw off a lot of Canadian talent in their circle. But what did that do for the Chicago Black Hawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers? For many years during that 25-year stretch, the latter three teams were the doormats of the league. In fact from 1942-1967, Montreal won the Stanley Cup 10 times, Toronto nine, Detroit five, and Chicago once, while Boston and New York not at all. During the five-year period from 1955-1960, the Canadiens won five straight Stanley Cups with 12 future Hall of Famers (including coach Toe Blake and GM Frank Selke), finishing the decade in which they went to the Stanley Cup finals ten straight years.

1957-58 Parkhurst card of Jacques Plante (Canadian Public Domain)
Montreal also had the distinct advantage--thanks to NHL legislation--of getting first crack at all Quebec French-Canadian players, which is how they snapped up Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard, Bernie Geoffrion, and Jacques Plante. Another aspect that made the system unfair (which could have been partly due to the Reserve Clause, where a player was forced to stay with a team unless released or traded) was that it kept some very exceptional hockey players from developing. If there were one or two more NHL teams, minor league legends such as Guyle Fielder, Gordie Fashoway, Fred Glover, and Willie Marshall perhaps could have become NHL stars.

Also, if you didn’t tow-the-line, so to speak, during the Original Six era, you could find yourself in the minors for the rest of your career. Western Hockey League star center Guyle Fielder, for example, who had several short tryouts with NHL teams, refused to step over center ice and fire the puck in the corner, the way NHL coaches wanted him to play. Fielder preferred his own way: carry the puck in.  NHL coaches couldn’t get Fielder to change. But with Seattle Totems of the Western Hockey League, where he played a good portion of his pro hockey, he was adored by the local fans and much appreciated for his stickhandling abilities and scoring prowess.

A few years ago, I watched the third game of the 1959 Stanley Cup playoffs between the Canadiens and the Leafs, one of those classic games on cable TV. I was amazed at how slow the game was in the Fifties. And we thought it was so fast then. Back then they skated like “their skates were stuck in the mud,” as Toronto sports personality, Bob McCown, once remarked on his Fan 590 radio program. I had to agree. Equipment was heavier in the Original Six, especially the skates, and the shifts were two minutes long, forcing players to pace themselves, until the right moment came along for a burst of energy.  Not like the intense 40-second shifts we witness today.

I remember Montreal great Henri Richard saying on a TV program about ten years ago: “If I had the lighter skates in my time, I’d be flying.” This coming from a player already thought to be one of the fastest in his day.

I’m a Baby Boomer raised on Original Six Hockey. In my opinion, the hockey today is played much better, as long as they don’t trap too much. It’s faster and just as easy to follow. But if I was an NHL coach, I’d still have a Guyle Fielder on my team, just to keep the opposition honest.

Stadiums USA Radio Interview!


"We all recall the thrill of our first trip to a ballpark or stadium. That magic is rekindled in our conversation with Canadian author and writer Daniel Wyatt, who recounts his 1976 visit to Detroit's Tiger Stadium."

Visit the link below, select the December 11th program, and listen for Daniel at the 28 minute mark. You won't want to miss this trip down baseball memory lane!
http://www.stadiumsusa.com/radioshow

Then read the article mentioned in the broadcast, My First Game: An Affair With a Ballpark.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

THE REICHSTAG FIRE AND CONSEQUENCES

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, 1933
(German Federal Archives)
This article is for those left wing “bleeding heart” Canadians who think the controversial Bill C-51--the Stephen Harper Conservative government anti-terror legislation had that passed earlier this year--would turn us into a police state. They should have been living in Germany in the early 1930’s when Adolf Hitler took power and turned his own country into a real police state. And it was done lightning fast, all nice and legal in the courts beginning with the Reichstag Fire: the arson attack on Berlin’s Reichstag in 1933. Nazi propaganda at its best, it paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s total power in Germany and brought about a world war six years later that killed tens of millions.

To start, a little background on how this scoundrel Herr Hitler had even got that far in politics in the first place…

A highly decorated, trench-fighting foot soldier during World War I, the Austrian born-and-raised Adolf Hitler was deeply disappointed by Germany’s defeat in 1918 at the hands of the Allies, believing that his army had been betrayed by Marxists, Jews, and gutless politicians. It infuriated him that at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles the Allies blamed Germany for the entire war and then demanded the Germans pay the Allies the equivalent of $440 billion in today’s US dollars.

After the war, Hitler continued to be employed by the army as an intelligence officer. One of his jobs was monitoring the new German Workers’ Party (DAP) and looking into their anti-Semitic, ant-Marxist views. Lo and behold, Hitler liked what he saw, instead, and joined the group in 1919, then became its leader in 1921, when those within the party saw his talent for great speeches. He changed the name of the DAP to the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party), or simply the Nazi Party. He continued with the party’s policy:  inspiring speeches against Jews, Marxists, opposing politicians, and the degrading Treaty of Versailles payments that were killing the German economy and driving the country into bankruptcy.

One of Hitler’s followers was Ernest Rohm, head of the paramilitary organization called the Bund Reichskriegsflagge, which was nothing more than a group of thugs who supported the Nazis by breaking up opposition meetings and providing security at Hitler’s meetings. On the evening of November 23, 1923, Hitler and a few hundred of his followers, including Rohm and some of his cronies, disrupted a public assembly of 3,000 people at a beer hall in Munich--later known as the “Beer Hall Putsch”--to announce that a national revolution had begun and that Hitler would be forming a new government in the state of Bavaria. In the midst of the insurrection that continued into the morning, Hitler and his henchmen went into hiding when Munich’s military forces intervened.

Hitler was arrested three days later, tried for high treason, and sentenced to five years in prison. While behind bars, he began dictating his ideas for a future German society based on one Aryan race to his future Deputy Minister, Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler’s followers at the time. These ideas later emerged in Hitler’s best-selling book, Mein Kampf, which is German for “My Struggle.”

A few years ago, I found an English translation of Hitler’s book. It’s very interesting to note that in it, I saw that Hitler stated in no uncertain terms that the Soviet Union was Germany’s natural enemy and that England was Germany’s one true European ally. What? With a great Aryan master race army, he would leave England intact with its sea power, while he destroyed the Russians and the surrounding countries for the good of Europe and all humanity.
German Reichstag Fire, 1933 (US Public Domain)

Following his release from prison after serving only nine months, Hitler decided that in future he would use the democratic process to seize power, then legally inflict his will upon the nation and eventually Europe. So, in five federal elections called from December, 1924 to November, 1932, Hitler and his Nazi Party gradually claimed popularity from 907,300 votes (3% of the votes and 14 seats) to 11,737,000 votes (33% of the votes and 196 seats). Thanks to the panic caused by the world-wide Great Depression, which began after the 1929 New York Stock Market Crash, the Nazis now held the most number of seats, but still no majority to pull the strings. Also, in the German presidential elections in early 1932--the first round on March 13 and the second round on April 10--Hitler came in second both times to the sickly, 84-year-old incumbent, World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg.

To balance the politics of the nation, Hindenburg reluctantly announced that Hitler would be Chancellor of the coalition government on January 30, 1933. Hitler immediately asked Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and call for a new parliamentary election, to which Hindenburg agreed, although as President he had every legal right under German constitutional law to remove Hitler as Chancellor. But Hindenburg didn’t have the stones, not with how powerful Hitler and the Nazis had become. The election date was set for March 5, 1933. Hitler’s plan was to obtain the majority he so badly craved.

Which brings us to the Reichstag Fire…

At 21:25 hours, on February 27, a Berlin fire station took a call that the Reichstag was in flames. The Berlin Fire Department did all they could for the next two hours. But by the time they put the fire out, most of the building was far too damaged. A Dutch communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, was supposedly found inside, seized, and charged with the arson attack. Within 24 hours, three others were charged with him. The day after the fire, Hitler asked Hindenburg to activate Article 48 of the Weimer Constitution. Once again, the weak-willed Hindenburg complied. Overnight, the Nazis suspended nearly all civil rights and freedoms in what was called the Reichstag Fire Decree. In addition, all publications across the country deemed anti-Nazi were banned.

Hitler claimed a Communist plot to take over Germany was afoot and, as a result, the Nazi newspapers quickly spewed out this propaganda. Thousands of Communists, including all those holding Reichstag seats (the Communists held 17 percent in the previous election), were imprisoned. When the March 5 vote was taken, Nazi popularity jumped to 44 percent of the vote. Combined with their allies in the German National Party, who took eight percent of the vote, the Nazis had a 52 percent majority.

Hermann Goering, first row at far left, during Nuremberg Trials, 1946 (US Public Domain)

Next on the list, Hitler needed to get his grimy hands on the Enabling Act, but that needed a two-thirds Reichstag majority. The Enabling Act was an emergency measure that gave the Chancellor power to pass laws by decree for four years (thus ignoring any Reichstag vote), then would come up for renewal after that. To achieve Hitler’s two-thirds majority, Ernest Rohm’s thugs prevented the Social Democratic Party members (the final opposition to the Nazis in the Reichstag) from taking their seats for the Enabling Act vote on March 23.

Once the ballots were counted, the Nazis had their majority, helped along by taking over or intimidating different smaller right-wing parties such as the Centre Party and the German National People’s Party to make them disband. Four days later, Adolf Hitler became dictator of Germany. By July 14, 1933, the Nazi Party was the only legal political party in all of Germany. For the next 12 years of the Nazi Party’s existence, which Hitler foolishly believed would last a “thousand years,” the Kroll Opera House, across the street from the burned-out shell of the old Reichstag, became the new Third Reich’s Reichstag.
But Hitler didn’t stop there: He had enemies within the rank and file. One of them was Ernest Rohm (the former head of the Reichskriegsflagge from the 1920’s), who now ran the Sturmabteilung (SA), and who helped Hitler gain power just the year before. Rohm, along with others in the SA challenging Hitler’s authority, were shot to death during the Night of the Long Knives, which took place the end of June and beginning of July, 1934. With their leaders gone, the SA was disbanded. By the time Hindenburg died a month later in August, Hitler had abolished the presidency and combined the office with his own as chancellor. Hitler was now the supreme commander of the German armed forces and he began to mobilize his nation for yet another war which he was certain they could win this time around.

For years many historians have wondered who set the Reichstag Fire. Although Marinus van der Lubbe was beheaded for the crime in 1934, while the three others arrested with him were released, it’s still uncertain he committed the crime. It’s obvious the Nazis had the most to gain, however. William L Shirer in his masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, wrote that Reichmarshall Hermann Goring, according to German General Franz Halder, took the credit for the torching while at a birthday party for Hitler in 1943. However, Goring, under cross-examination at the Nuremberg trials in 1946, denied he had said anything about the fire.

Could something like another Reichstag Fire be perpetrated today? You tell me. What if a modern government deliberately creates a national crisis, then suspends freedoms and liberties across the board for the good of the nation, all under “National Security?”


Think about it.

Monday, 16 November 2015

1963: THE PIVOTAL YEAR IN RIDERLAND

Early 1970's photo of Ron Lancaster (L) and
George Reed (R) at Taylor Field, Regina
(Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Roughriders)
Born and raised in Saskatchewan, I’ve been a Saskatchewan Roughrider fan all my life, even though I’ve been living in Ontario since 1976. By the way, there’s two seasons in Saskatchewan: winter and football season. They say--whoever they are--that the prairies never leave you. Actually, it doesn’t and either does the football team you grew up with. My interest with the Riders really began in 1963, after one particular classic playoff game that resulted in one of the greatest comebacks in Canadian Football League history. How did it come about?

In 1962, the Riders had just come off a decent 8-7-1 season where they had made the post-season for the first time since 1958, only to be thumped in the first round by the Calgary Stampeders in a two-game total-point series by a combined score of 43-7. A couple years before, the Riders had been on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and without ever winning a Grey Cup. Seasons of 1-15 and 2-14 in 1959 and 1960 plus some dreary home attendance was about to do them in. Then they hired legendary NFL coach Steve Owen, in his early 60’s at the time, who took them to five wins in 1961 with a much-improved defense. But he retired in January, 1963 following a heart attack a month after the first round of the playoffs, the same season he had been awarded CFL Coach of the Year for his 8-7-1 record.

Rider management now needed a younger coach for 1963 who would take them to the next level and they found it in the unpredictable, hot-tempered Bob Shaw, a coach who reportedly didn’t take any crap from anyone. At 43, he had been a former NFL receiver and assistant coach, a CFL receiver, and had spent the three previous years as head coach of the New Mexico Military Institute.

During the off-season, Riders general manager Ken Preston had purchased a young, Ohio-born quarterback named Ron Lancaster who had played three so-so years with the Ottawa Rough Riders. The price: $500, along with a bottle of whiskey, according to one story. On a good day, the chunky Lancaster might have come in at 5-foot-9, not exactly the tallest signal-caller in the league. I say a “good day” because I stood beside Lancaster  once in 1977 outside Hamilton’s Ivor Wynn Stadium (my second year living in Ontario) and asked him for an autograph: I’m 5-foot-8 and he was shorter than me. Anyway, when Lancaster reported to Shaw at the downtown Roughrider office for the first time, the conversation went something like this:

Shaw (annoyed): “Who are you?”

Lancaster (straight-faced): “I’m your new quarterback, Lancaster.”

Shaw (in shock): “You’ve got to be kidding?”

Lancaster soon discovered he was one of several quarterbacks vying for the Number One job. It was the beginning of a stormy relationship the two would have for the next two years.

Two other future stars joined the Riders that season, both from Washington State: fullback George Reed and receiver Hugh “Gluey Hughie” Campbell; two players whom Shaw nearly got rid of before he gave either of them a proper tryout that year. He thought Reed wasn’t strong enough to be a running back and that Campbell wasn’t fast enough to be a receiver. Shaw nearly cut Lancaster too in mid-season, and it boiled down to one game being the deciding factor. At home in Taylor Field against the Edmonton Eskimos, Lancaster had started but was benched in the second quarter and replaced by veteran Frank Tripucka. Lancaster then found himself back in the game in the second half. At one point, the Riders were on their one-yard line, their backs to the end zone. Coolly, Lancaster marched his team 109 yards on 16 scrimmage plays, climaxed by an eight-yard pass to Dale West in the end zone. The Riders won 8-7, and Lancaster kept his job…for the time being.

Bolstered by a 7-7-2 record, the Riders made the Western playoffs for the second straight year and again would meet the Calgary Stampeders in the first round of a two-game total-point playoff. Unfortunately, Calgary won the first game 35-9 at home on November 9 as Lancaster tossed three interceptions. Now, in order for the Riders to take the first round, they had to win the second game by at least 27 points! Yeah, right, as if that was going to happen.

Two days later on a cold Remembrance Day at Regina’s bandbox, Taylor Field, most of the local fans who dared to show had their doubts. In front of the near-empty stands, Calgary kicked off to the Riders who brought the return to their own 34-yard line. As Lancaster took the team into a quick huddle, halfback Ray Purdin sauntered his way unnoticed to the sideline right in front of the Calgary bench, making sure he stayed in bounds by a few feet. At the snap of the ball, Purdin took off down the sidelines before the Calgary realized he was there, caught a pass thrown by Lancaster, and raced 76 yards untouched for a shocking TD. The handful of fans and the Rider bench erupted. The Riders had pulled off a classic Sleeper Play!

Everything went right for the Riders that day, while the Stampeders couldn’t get anything going. As the game went on, Rider fans made their way to Taylor Field in droves and poured into the stands until it was a full house. On four different occasions the Stampeders ventured inside the Red Zone, where their kicker Larry Robinson attempted four field goals, but missed them all, having to settle for two singles. The Rider defense smothered the Stampeders--the highest scoring offense in the CFL--all game. By the time it was over, the Riders won by 39-12 and a slim 48-47 in total points to take the first round of the playoffs.

In what has since been tagged “The  Little Miracle of Taylor Field,”  Lancaster completed 26 of 45 throws for 492 yards and five TD’s, with his tosses and yardage setting CFL playoff records. Rider halfback Ed Buchanan, released by Calgary in the previous off-season, took his revenge on his old teammates by scoring two touchdowns. To his dying day in 2008, Ron Lancaster called the game a fluke. “We should never have won by that big a score. But we won it, and that’s all that mattered,” he said. Incidentally, after this the CFL banned the Sleeper Play. From then on, wide receivers had to line up on the hash marks.

Although the Riders went on to lose the Western Final to the BC Lions two games to one, the Rider fans endured the coming cold winter weather with warm hearts thinking back to the upset win over the Stampeders. Never really comfortable with Lancaster as quarterback, Bob Shaw coached for a second season, where the Riders once again made the playoffs only to be beaten out by Calgary. At the end of 1964, the frustrated Lancaster was ready to retire from the game and get a teaching job in the States. But the new Rider head coach Eagle Keys talked him out of it by telling his quarterback that he was the number one guy and that he would have total control of the offense.

That was all that Lancaster needed to hear. From that moment on, Lancaster excelled. The Riders won their first Grey Cup in 1966, after waiting 56 frustrating years, beating the Ottawa Rough Riders 29-14. The province of Saskatchewan and especially Regina went nuts and partied for days. I remember that time well. I was in Grade 9. When the game was over, my older brother came racing home after watching the game at a friend’s house. He grabbed his trombone--he played in a community band--and drove out with his friend to Albert Street to celebrate with the thousands of revelers. He said later that his trombone sure sounded neat echoing off the downtown Regina buildings that night.

From 1963-1976 inclusive, with Lancaster at the helm, the Roughriders made the playoffs every season. When he retired in 1978, he was the all-time CFL passing leader with 50,535 yards. Then he went onto a successful coaching career in the league, his best years with Edmonton and Hamilton, winning one Grey Cup with each club. When the durable George Reed retired in 1975, he was the all-time rushing leader in North American pro football with 16,116 yards, and considered by many as the greatest running back the CFL ever produced. He rushed for 1,000 yards in 11 of his 13 CFL seasons, all with Saskatchewan. Hugh Campbell also went into coaching, guiding the Edmonton Eskimos to five straight championships from 1978-1982: this after a six-year playing career as a Rider receiver where he caught 321 passes, averaging 16.9 yards per catch, and scoring 60 TD’s, including a then-record 17 of those in the Riders 1966 Grey Cup year. He later coached briefly in the USFL and NFL, before returning to Edmonton in upper management until his retirement from the game in 2006.


And to think, Bob Shaw nearly cut all three of these American-born-and-raised CFL All-Stars who had arrived in Regina as virtual unknowns to play ball back in 1963. Today, all three are in the CFL Hall of Fame. Furthermore, on the 2006 list of TSN’s Top 50 CFL players Reed ranked second overall, Lancaster seventh, while Campbell registered on the Honour Roll. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

THE BOOK THAT STARTED A WHOLE NEW CULTURE

Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal 1955 Edition
A unique thing happened to me at an estate sale in Jacksonville, Florida in May of this year that made me write this article. Estate sales are usually filled with lots of items that nobody wants; but, at times, some treasures can be found. While rummaging through the mounds of paraphernalia up for grabs that particular day, I saw an interesting old hardcover book with the dust cover intact. It was WYATT EARP: Frontier Marshal written by Stuart N Lake.

I grabbed it and immediately went to the inside front of the book to check the publishing date: It turned out, I had in my hands a 1955 edition. Shucks! It wasn’t a first edition, but still a worthwhile keepsake, nonetheless. Having never read the book (only hearing about its controversy), I paid the $4 asking price without any haggling.  The story behind the biography is very fascinating, in addition to what has transpired since its publication over 80 years ago. Considered a biography when it first appeared, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal is now classified as a candy-coated historical fiction filled with half-truths and outright lies.

The author, Stuart Nathaniel Lake, loved writing about the Old West. In the mid-1920’s, he tracked down Wyatt Earp to write a magazine story about him. Earp, up to that time, had become a bitter, disillusioned man, disappointed at how history had forgotten him, along with the Tombstone, Arizona gun battle he had engaged in during the autumn of 1881: the infamous “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” There, the Earps, along with Doc Holliday, had taken on the notorious Ike Clanton gang.  Although he was actually a lesser historical figure with a questionable reputation as a peace officer in the Old West (some had even depicted him as a glorified bad guy), Earp told Lake he wanted a biographer, instead, to state his side of his gun-fighting career. Making peace on the spot, Earp and Lake decided to collaborate on the book version.

It was not an easy next few years for Lake. The major roadblock was Josie Sarah “Sadie” Marcus, Earp’s common-law wife. Note: Many people have referred to her as Josie or Josephine, while Wyatt called her Sadie. Sadie and Wyatt had met in Tombstone a few months before the OK Corral gunfight. At the time, Earp was married to Mattie Blaylock, a former prostitute addicted to laudanum, a common pain-relieving drug during the 1800’s. Possibly a former prostitute herself a few years prior, according to some historians but never absolutely proven, Sadie had been the common-law wife of Johnny Behan, the Cochise County Sheriff, who held office in Tombstone.  So, Sadie had a shady past, something that Lake soon discovered and pursued. Upon their very first meeting, Sadie and Earp had fallen in love. During the eventual Earp-Lake collaboration, Sadie (along with Wyatt) wanted her name and her alleged past as well as the same for Mattie not even mentioned in the book.

In total, Lake interviewed Earp eight times up to his death on January 13, 1929 at the age of 80, then finished the book on his own with lots of embellishing to fill in certain spots. Sadie wanted her husband to come out clean as a whistle and demanded this of the author in the finished manuscript. When Lake wavered on certain details, Sadie tried to stop the release of the book. As a result, Lake promised she had nothing to worry about. He would make Wyatt Earp a household name in Old West literature and a “good name” at that. He also promised she would make a decent amount of money off the book. Before Earp’s death, Lake had signed a contract with him that would provide his family with residual incomes from the book sales. This ended upon Sadie’s death in 1945.
 
Wyatt Earp, 1885 (US Public Domain)
When Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was released on October 7, 1931, there was no mention of either Sadie or Mattie. The public loved the book and bought it in droves. Wyatt Earp was depicted as the most honest of lawmen. It also brought the Gunfight at the OK Corral to the forefront. A Great Depression year was the perfect downturn in time to bring out a book on this subject matter because it created a hero in an era where heroes were very much needed. Then, after a short while, came the numerous critics who decimated the book. Many details were disputed, including Lake’s mention of the 12-inch-long-barreled revolver that Earp supposedly used to keep the peace: the notorious “Buntline Special.” There is no proof of Earp ever owning the gun, or whether the gun ever existed at all. However, it is known that he fired an eight-inch-barreled .44-calibre Smith & Wesson pistol at the OK Corral.

One particular critic, Old West author Frank Waters, said that Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was “the most assiduously concocted piece of blood-and-thunder fiction ever written.” Years after, Lake eventually admitted that he did take some poetic license in his writing of the book. Also, here’s something: Earp was never made a marshal in his gun-fighting career, only a deputy, which he was in Wichita, Kansas and later in Tombstone. His brother, Virgil had the more law enforcement experience: At the time of the OK Corral gunfight, he was deputy marshal for Cochise County as well as Tombstone.

Despite the negative reaction to Lake’s literary creation, the mystique of Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral continued on, in several movies and a television series. The first film about Earp was Frontier Marshal in 1934 by 20th Century Fox, produced by Sol M Wurtzel. Prior to the release, Sadie Earp sued the movie company for $50,000 and won, claiming that her husband’s name and character was being used inappropriately. To avoid trouble, 20th Century Fox changed the character name to “Michael Wyatt” instead. George O’Brien played the leading role.

In 1939, another version of Frontier Marshal by Wurtzel and 20th Century Fox was released. Once again, the widow Sadie sued, but this time settling for only $5,000. However, Wyatt Earp’s name was finally exploited. Randolph Scott played Earp. In 1946, My Darling Clementine appeared, based on Stuart Lake’s book of the same name, a retelling of his 1931 “novel.” Whole action scenes from the 1939 movie were used. The Wyatt Earp for this version was the legendary Henry Fonda. Let’s skip ahead to 1957 to a Paramount Pictures picture called Gunfight at OK Corral where Kirk Douglas played Doc Holliday and Burt Lancaster took on the Earp role.

From 1955 to 1961 a very successful TV series ran--229 episodes--called The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp starring the dashing Hugh O’Brian. This was a favorite in our house. My family loved Westerns when I was growing up. And my mother thought O’Brian was so gosh darn handsome!

Then there were the comic books on Wyatt Earp in the Fifties and Sixties. Being a Baby Boomer, I remember them because I bought a few. Back then comic books cost 10 cents, eventually jumping to 12 cents in the 1960’s. Dell Comics catered to the TV series: Hugh O’Brian was on the covers. Other comics were produced by Charlton, Marvel, and Atlas, several under the cover title of Frontier Marshal, Wyatt Earp. Up to this point, almost everything on TV, the silver screen, and in book and comic form about Wyatt Earp wasn’t anywhere close to the truth and were nearly all based on Lake’s original 1931 book, complete with the Buntline Special and his being a marshal, which, of course, he never was.

Wyatt Earp at age 75, 1923, photo by 
John H Flood Jr (US Public Domain)
Hour of the Gun a 1967 movie starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday finally steered in the right direction. They didn’t quite have it historically, but they were getting close. This movie was interesting because it began with the OK Corral gunfight, followed by the aftermath: the real-life murder charges against Earp, his brothers, and Holliday, and the cold-hearted killing they bestowed upon the Clanton gang associates during their vendetta ride before fleeing Arizona. Then in 1994, all hell broke loose with two movies on Earp that were the most historically correct to date, at least compared to the previous ones: Tombstone starring Kurt Russell and Wyatt Earp starring Kevin Costner. 

That’s what the book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, started. By writing his mostly fictitious biography on Earp, Lake took an almost forgotten Western figure and turned him into an overrated folk hero; and his literary creation led to the establishment of Tombstone, Arizona as a tourist center. Without the Gunfight at the OK Corral being recognized, the town of 1,300 would have become a ghost town a long time ago.


For more details on the OK Corral gunfight and my visit to Tombstone, you can catch my past blog post, The Making of Tombstone, an article posted in 2014: http://danielwyatt.blogspot.ca/2014/08/the-making-of-tombstone-legend.html

Thursday, 15 October 2015

THE FIRST BASEBALL “STATS MAN”

 Baseball statistician Allan Roth, United States Library of Congress (US Public Domain)
Since publishing his Historical Baseball Abstract in 1985, Bill James has written two dozen other books that zero in on particular baseball stats that other writers previously never considered putting together on paper. Crowned the present-day guru of baseball stats, James’ numbers are legendary: Sabermetrics, we call them today. He’s invented Runs Created, the Power-Speed Number on the offensive side of things, and Range Factor for defensive skills, to name a few. For several years now, Oakland A’s GM Billy Bean has been integrating the James-style configurations into his own operation and it’s worked. We know it as Moneyball: a book and a movie.

But who was James influenced by? By his own admission: Allan Roth.  “He was the guy who began it all,” James said.

Born to a Jewish family in Montreal, Quebec in 1917, Abraham “Allan” Roth grew up a huge sports fan: hockey and baseball, especially baseball. As a teenager, he compiled his own stats in his spare time on his hometown Montreal Royals, the top minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. For a short time, he worked for the National Hockey League as the league’s official statistician, before being drafted during World War II into the Canadian Army in early 1942. Discharged in 1944, he wrote sports articles for the Montreal Standard and plugged away part-time compiling hockey stats for the Montreal Canadiens.

 1952 Bowman card of Dodger manager
Charlie Dressen, who didn't care for
Roth's stats (US Public Domain)
During spring training that year in Bear Mountain, New York, Roth approached Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey with important data he had compiled that the Dodgers front office could use to win games, such as how hitters faired against left-handed and right-handed pitchers, batting averages on different ball counts, batting averages with runners in scoring position, where batters base hits went (called “spray charts” today), how hitters faired in day and night games and on the road and at home, and that on-base percentage was ultimately more important than batting average. Impressed, Rickey hired Roth, but it took the Canadian stats man until early 1947 to obtain his visa to work in the United States. At a $5,000 yearly salary, Roth became the first full-time statistician hired by a major league baseball team. In an age before computers, he recorded everything by hand, using only a calculator.

Roth’s first regular-season game as a Dodger employee was also Jackie Robinson’s first regular-season game as a Dodger player: Opening Day, April 15, 1947 at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn against the Boston Braves. From that day forward, until he left the Dodgers in 1964, Roth recorded every pitch of nearly every Dodgers game. While in Brooklyn and Los Angeles for those 18 years, the Dodgers finished first or second an astonishing 13 times.

Burt Shotton, who managed the Dodgers to two pennants between the years 1947-1950, gladly took to heart the information that Roth handed him. One example, Roth discovered that Jackie Robinson’s bat produced the most runs with players in scoring position and advised Shotton to shift Robinson from his second spot in the batting lineup down to the prestigious clean-up fourth spot for the 1949 season. Robinson produced: a banner year hitting .342 with 16 homers and 124 RBI’s, impressive enough to be voted National League MVP.

The next manager, Charlie Dressen, who ran the Dodgers from 1951-1953, wanted nothing to do with Roth and his careful attention to detail, numbers, and percentages. The arrogant Dressen was from the old school where a manager played on hunches: No bookworm was going to tell him how to run the ballclub. Starting in the 1951 season, Dressen told GM Buzzie Bavasi to relocate Roth from his seat near the Dodger dugout to the radio booth where Vin Scully was broadcasting. Unlike Dressen, Scully welcomed Roth’s stats and used them over the air. Had Dressen paid more attention to Roth’s valuable numbers, he probably never would have brought in Ralph Branca to pitch to New York Giants Bobby Thomson in the classic ninth inning of the third game of the 1951 National League playoff to decide the pennant.

All season long Thomson had teed off on Branca to the tune of 4-for-12 at the plate, with a triple, two homers, four RBI’s, and only one strikeout. Also, prior to facing Thomson, Branca had lost five games to the Giants, and had given up 10 homers to them, three more than all the other seven league teams he faced that year combined. On the second pitch from Branca, a fastball, Thomson smashed it over the Polo Grounds left-field wall to win the game and the pennant.  All Roth could do was sit and shake his head. We can just imagine what he was saying about the stubborn, old-fashioned Dressen under his breath.

When Dressen was dismissed following the 1953 season, virtual unknown Walter Alston took over the managerial reins. But the Dodgers finished in second place in 1954, after two straight World Series appearances. Roth had an answer. He knew that the hitting and especially the pitching were not as good as past years. But that was only part of the problem. Armed with his pages of stats, he notified owner Walter O’Malley that Alston had not incorporated the same aggressive running game that Dressen had used for three years. The Dodgers’ team doubles and stolen bases, in particular, were in the middle of the National League eight-team pack. Taking hold of Roth’s information, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers performed an about-face and led the National League in runs scored, doubles, homers, batting average, slugging average, earned run average and stolen bases. They had it all. They also won their first World Series by beating the New York Yankees in seven games, climaxed by Johnny Podres’ legendary 2-0 shutout at Yankee Stadium.

Dodger Walt Alston, who took to heart
Roth's stats (US Public Domain)
Four years later, during another significant pennant run, the Dodgers (now in Los Angeles since 1958), headed into San Francisco for a vital three-game weekend set starting Friday, September 18. The announced starters were Don Drysdale, Roger Craig, and Johnny Podres, in that order. When a Friday night rain forced a Saturday doubleheader, Alston decided to go with the same pitching order. Roth then let Alston know that Drysdale was a much better night pitcher than Craig. So, Craig started the afternoon game: Drysdale, with his flaming fastball, started the nightcap. The Dodgers won both games, as well as the Sunday afternoon game to take the National League lead by half a game over the rival Giants. The Dodgers won the pennant nine days later and eventually took the World Series their second year in Los Angeles by beating the Chicago White Sox.

Starting with the Dodgers move to Los Angeles in 1958, Roth began to make a habit of attending spring training with the purpose of meeting and talking to each player and coach and go over ways on how to improve player performances. For a number of years, he also kept track of relief pitcher “saves.” In 1964, it became an official baseball stat. Then Roth was fired by the Dodgers at season’s end.

Roth went on to join the NBC Game of the Week as head statistician, nursing Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek the usual stack-load of numbers and valuations, then ABC later on at the same position, where he helped out people like Al Michaels the same kind of valuable stats. From 1955-1972, he was the editor of the classic Who’s Who in Baseball. I have eight of those years in my sports memorabilia collection.


Roth died of a heart attack in 1992 in Los Angeles, California. The Los Angeles chapter of the Society for Baseball Research is named in his honor. Roth was also inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

LEGALIZE THE SPITBALL?

Believe it or not, legalizing the spitball was under consideration in the 1950’s, after it had been banned for over 30 years. Who suggested legalizing it? You’ll never guess.

First, what actually is a spitball?

Elmer Stricklett, the inventor of 
the spitball (US Public Domain)
Wikipedia says: “A spitball is an illegal pitch in which the ball has been altered by the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance.” Some call it a “wet one” or a “fast knuckleball” because the ball may have little or no rotation. When a pitcher’s fingers are lubricated, the ball has reduced spin and it drops like a rock. When the fingers are dry (for example after the pitcher grabs the rosin bag), the spin returns.

Apparently there are two ways to throw a spitter. One way: saliva is placed on one side of the ball and the ball is then thrown in the normal manner with the fingers on the seams and not touching the saliva. The ball will then break to the left or the right, depending on which side the saliva is on. The same movement applies to a greased or scuffed ball. Second way: the fingers cover the wet substance on a smooth side of the ball away from the seams. The slight spin on the ball forces it to drop.

Who invented the spitter?

Well…while it was raining one day in 1902, Frank Corrigan, a pitcher for the Providence Grays of the Eastern League, was throwing a ball on the sidelines to a teammate. Off to the side, George Hildebrand, the regular left fielder on the team, who later became an American League umpire, noticed that the ball was breaking more than normal. When Hildebrand joined the Sacramento Senators of the California League in mid-season, he told pitcher Elmer Stricklett what he had witnessed back east earlier in the year. Right away, Stricklett worked on throwing wet pitches in practice for the next several months.

To “load up,” Stricklett chewed an elm tree bark called slippery elm, which was colorless and left him with a constant flow of saliva. He held the ball close to his mouth, then he spit into two fingers, the same two that he would use to grip the ball away from the seams. He threw the ball the same as any fastball, only this one took a nosedive heading for the plate. After winning 20 games in two different minor league seasons, Stricklett was invited to the Chicago White Sox spring training camp where he taught his roommate, pitcher Ed Walsh, how the spitter worked. When the Sox were playing a series of exhibitions games in the south against the New York Highlanders, Jack Chesbro of the Highlanders asked Stricklett about this new pitch.

Within a few years, dozens of hurlers were throwing the spitter, but only a few really mastered it. Both Walsh and Chesbro (the first ever 40-game winner in 1904) ended up in the Hall of Fame, compliments of Stricklett’s pitch. Walsh, in particular, claimed he could make his version of the spitter break four different ways. Thrown overhand, it broke down. Thrown underhand, it flew up. When thrown as a screwball, it broke in. And when thrown sidearm, it broke out.
Burleigh Grimes, the last legal spitballer 
(US Public Domain)

In the years 1910-1919, these tricky such pitches were the hottest of topics. For one thing, they were considered too dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced. By the fall of 1919, baseball’s brass got together and banned lubricated pitches such as the spitter, along with scuffing the ball, starting in the 1920 season. Any pitcher caught doctoring a ball faced a 10-game suspension. However, 17 pitchers were recognized as legitimate spitball hurlers and were allowed to use the pitch for the rest of their careers. Burleigh Grimes lasted the longest, until 1934, finishing with the New York Yankees.

Detroit Tigers Ty Cobb believed the pitches “were outlawed when the owners greedily sold out to home runs.” That may have been true because Babe Ruth had hit a record 29 homers in 1919, his last year as a Boston Red Sox. The American League owners saw dollar signs in his popularity as a home run hitter. Some people in the game claimed the ball was even lightened (and the seams wound tighter) in the American League especially for Ruth’s power. In 1920, as a New York Yankee, he broke his own record with 54 homers, followed by an even-better 59 in 1921. By 1927, he hit his magic 60, a record that stood until Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961.

After World War II, a first-year Brooklyn Dodgers southpaw began to use the banned spitter extensively: Edwin “Preacher” Roe. A 15-game loser in 1947 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he suddenly became a force by cutting his ERA in half from 5.25 to 2.63 with the Dodgers in 1948, brought on by his new pitch. From 1951-1953, he won 44 games and lost only 8. He liked Beech-Nut gum for the saliva it created. To “load one,” he wiped his throwing hand across his brow and at the same time spit on the fat part of his thumb. By hitching his belt, he transferred the spit to his middle fingers. He gripped the ball away from the seams and threw. The ball broke down every time. Roe also threw fake spitters by pretending to load up, then coming in with an off-speed curve. He liked to keep the hitters guessing because he had an excellent assortment of pitches, not just the spitter.

A year after Roe retired, he agreed to an article written by sportswriter Dick Young for Sports Illustrated on July 4, 1955 entitled, “The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch.” In it, Roe described how he controlled the pitch without getting caught. Receiving $2000 for the article, Roe insisted he didn’t do it for the money. His main reason: he wanted the pitch legalized. He was disappointed in how the spitter had been taking such a bad rap for decades. The readers, it turned out, got the wrong idea from the article because it made it appeared that the spitter was all that Roe had. It wasn’t.

1952 Bowman card of Preacher Roe
(US Public Domain)
Only a few months earlier, baseball’s commissioner Ford Frick had his own opinion on the spitter. In an article in the March 6, 1955 edition of The Milwaukee Journal, Ford told a reporter: “If I had my way, I’d legalize the old spitter. It was a great pitch and one of the easiest to throw. There was nothing dangerous about it. Mostly, the ball dipped and did tricks, from a natural delivery. It was nothing like this screwball they have to throw today, with a twisted elbow and a tricky snapping of the wrists. No wonder today’s pitchers can’t go on as long. If they were allowed to use the spitter, there might not be so many home runs, but the game would be just as good, maybe better.”

Red Sox GM Joe Cronin added: “There have been so many accusations and rather than have pitchers live under a cloud of talk that they are cheating, I would like to bring the pitch back.”

However, there were the dissenters. Milwaukee Braves manager Fred Haney was one of them: “Today they want action, balls flying out of the park, men chasing around the bases…I’ll take a lot of action and a lot of plays.” Haney’s pitching coach, Whitlow Wyatt, had another reason. “Few pitchers today would be able to throw a spitter even if it was legalized.” Cincinnati Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts said: “A lot of pitchers would hold on in the majors until they are 45 years old if the pitch were legalized and it would retard, possibly ruin, the development of a lot of young pitchers.”

Despite the enthusiasm from men such as Frick and Cronin, the spitter wasn’t legalized in the Fifties or since. And so, as the years went on, notable hurlers were accused of throwing the controversial pitch: in particular, Lew Burdette, Don Drysdale, Joe Niekro, and Gaylord Perry, with the latter the only one of the group admitting to the dirty deed. In fact, Perry wrote a book about it: Me and the Spitter,” one of the best baseball books I have ever read. Perry used to put Vaseline on his zipper in case the umpires had the notion to frisk him for any evidence of a foreign substance. Perry knew the umpires would never check there. Like Preacher Roe, Perry threw a fake spitter, and would, at times, go through entire games not throwing any doctored pitches, but making the opposition believe he was.

Next to Preacher Roe, the alleged chief spitball culprit in the 1950’s was Milwaukee Braves standout Lew Burdette who beat the Yankees three times in the 1957 World Series, including the all-important Game Seven by a 5-0 score, his second shutout of the series. In an article in the 1958 Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook, Burdette said: “If anybody thinks I throw spitters, let them think so. To hear them talk, all a pitcher has to do is crank up and throw one. I once asked Burleigh Grimes to show me how he threw the spitter. ‘Don’t throw it,’ he said. ‘Just make them think you do and you’ll be more effective without it.’ I think that was good advice.”

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

SATCHEL AND JOSH—Part II

Josh Gibson (US Public Domain)
While Satchel Paige was the perpetual showman, Josh Gibson stuck to the basics of playing baseball. He was the most powerful slugger in the Negro Leagues, the “Black Babe Ruth.” His homers were soaring rockets that broke the sound barrier. He hit for average too and was an excellent catcher, a 12-time All-Star in Negro League East-West Games.

According to undocumented sources, Gibson could have hit a total of 800 homers (including 89 in one season and 75 in another) against Negro League, exhibition, and semi-pro competition spread over a 17-year career.  In the late-1930’s, Washington Senator pitching great, Walter Johnson, said about the 6-foot-one, 215-pound Gibson: “There is a catcher that any big-league club would like to buy for $200,000. His name is Gibson. He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. And he catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Bill Dickey isn’t as good a catcher. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.”

Not jumping contracts anywhere close to the way and amount of times that Paige did, Gibson played professionally for the Homestead Grays in 1930-1931, the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1932-1936, back to the Grays in 1937, along with his trip with Satchel Paige to the Dominican Republic to help dictator Trujillo out, the Mexican League in 1940-41, back to the Homestead Grays  (also called the Washington Grays or the Washington-Homestead Grays because they played their home games at Washington’s Griffith Stadium) from 1942-1946. In between, he played a dozen years of winter ball in the Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico.

Gibson’s homers were legendary. He once hit a speaker on the right-center field roof at Comiskey Park…a 460-foot shot to left-center field in Yankee Stadium…a 458-footer to center field at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh...another one at Yankee Stadium to the rear wall of the left-field bullpen, about 500 feet away...an upper deck rocket to center field at the Polo Grounds, New York…a 500-footer at Sportsman’s Park, St Louis…an over-the-roof blast at Shibe Park, Philadelphia…a 485-foot homer to the top of the left-centerfield bleachers at Griffith Stadium…and a 512-foot blast in an exhibition game in Monessen, Pennsylvania that was measured upon orders by the town’s mayor. There’s more. He hit dozens of homers at Griffith Stadium, Washington, over the distant left-field wall which was 407 feet down the line. In 1943, Gibson hit 11 homers to that side of the stadium in one season--more than the entire American League combined, which included the hometown Washington Senators.

In a 1967 Sporting News article, Gibson supposedly crushed a ball to the back wall of the Yankee Stadium center-field bleachers, about 580 feet from home plate, two feet from being the first fair ball hit out of the legendary park. Then, the cream of the crop, although some people debate it: Author Robert Peterson in Only the Ball Was White relates a story told by Jack Marshall of the Chicago American Giants, who claimed that in 1934, Gibson cleared the third deck of the Yankee Stadium left-field facade, a towering drive that went over and out! But did it really happen? No one else can document it. So, we can leave that one, but there were plenty of others.

Josh Gibson was born December 21, 1911, outside Atlanta, Georgia, in a village called Buena Vista. In 1923, his father, Mark, left for the steel town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where his family had relatives and better job opportunities. Securing a labor job with US Steel, Mark sent for his wife, Josh, and two siblings. They settled down in Pleasant Valley, a black neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Side. It was the best thing that happened to the Gibson family, and they never looked back.
As a teenager, Gibson took to swimming, where he won a number of medals: and baseball, where he was usually chosen first in sandlot games. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade to work as an electrician’s apprentice in a manufacturing plant. But baseball was his first love and soon to be his vocation.

At 18, Gibson became a regular with the Homestead Grays in 1930 when he was called from the stands in the middle of a game against the Kansas City Monarchs to replace an injured catcher who had split his finger when he missed a pitch. Gibson worked hard at catching over the years, and he played some outfield. Was he a great catcher? Some Negro League players felt he wasn’t, that he was in the lineup for his hitting. He had an above-average arm, but had trouble lining up high pop-ups around home plate. However, Walter Johnson and later National League All-Star catcher Roy Campanella, who played 10 years in the Negro Leagues before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, touted Gibson’s catching skills. “He was not only the greatest catcher but the greatest ballplayer I ever saw,” Campanella said.

Gibson was a hero in three countries: the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. It was in league play and the barnstorming trail with the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords that he secured his legend before heading south. He earned $6,000 a season with Vera Cruz in the Mexican League, after jumping from the Homestead Grays, where he was paid $2,000 less. In 1941, he won the batting title and was voted the MVP in the integrated Puerto Rican League. Next to Satchel Paige, Gibson was the highest paid player in Negro League ball. During the early 1940’s, where he peaked at $6,000 a season, he brought in another $3,000 or so from winter ball. Both players were making a better salary than the MLB average, but nothing close to stars like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
1953 Bowman card of Monte Irvin
(US Public Domain)

There is a story at that same time--1943--that both Gibson and his Homestead Grays slugging teammate, first baseman Buck Leonard, were asked to meet with Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith in his office at Griffith Stadium. Griffith, on many occasions, would look out his window and see Leonard and Gibson smashing the ball a country mile, while his weak-hitting Senators floundered year after year. All three talked, but nothing came of it. Leonard said later: “He talked to us about Negro baseball and about the trouble there would be if he took us into the big leagues. But he never did make us an offer.” The same type of meeting occurred on another occasion at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, in the office of the Pirates’ owner Bill Benswanger with the same two players. Nothing came of that, either. No owner wanted to hire blacks for fear of a backlash from the rest of the league. But it must have been tempting for these two lowly clubs badly in need of wins and higher attendance.

In his later years, after catching for decades, Gibson’s knees bothered him to the point where his running speed dropped significantly. He put on too much weight, and also hit the liquor hard and had, allegedly, found his way into marijuana, then hard drugs, including heroin. Over the winter of 1946-1947, he experienced headaches and blackouts. On January 20, 1947, following Jackie Robinson’s appearance with the Montreal Royals of the International League and months before his breaking the MLB color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gibson died of a stroke brought on by his apparent substance abuse. But many friends and family felt Gibson had died of a broken heart as a result of not making the majors.

How great was Josh Gibson? He could certainly hit, but his catching, as stated earlier, may be in question, according to some. In the majors, Gibson probably would’ve hit at least 500 homers, maybe 600, with a close to .300 batting average. In the same 1999 Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players that saw Paige taking the 19th slot, Gibson came in one better at 18. 

Gibson and Buck Leonard, who lived in the shadow of Gibson for many years with the Grays (somewhat the way Lou Gehrig did as Babe Ruth’s teammate with the New York Yankees), both made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame of Fame in 1972, the year after Satchel Paige. Leonard came in at Number 47 on the above 1999 Sporting News list. In his 1995 autobiography written by James A. Riley, Leonard said about his friend and teammate, Josh Gibson: “Nobody hit the ball as far as he did and as often as he did. They used to say our baseballs were more lively than major league balls but they weren’t. It was just that Josh hit the ball farther.” Leonard  also said: “He had more power than Jimmy Foxx.”


Summing it up, Monte Irvin, former Negro League and Major League star stated: “It’s too bad baseball couldn’t have integrated 15 years sooner because the fans really would have seen the cream of the crop…many of them were awesome.”

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

SATCHEL AND JOSH—Part I

Exhibit card of Satchel Paige,
Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago
(US Public Domain)
In the “Good ol’ Days” when major league baseball did not permit blacks to play alongside whites because of the color of their skin, pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige and slugger Joshua “Josh” Gibson were the two biggest drawing cards in the Negro Leagues before the breaking of the color line by Jackie Robinson in 1947.

Leroy Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama on July 7, 1906, the seventh of eleven children. Growing up in Mobile, Paige fell in with the wrong kind of crowd and played a lot of hooky from school. He also received his nickname of “Satchel” at age seven while carrying luggage bags around the local railroad station. At 12, he was caught stealing a handful of toy rings and was sent to reform school for black boys at Mt. Meigs, Alabama. There, he got regular meals, a bed to sleep in, an education, and a chance to play baseball, which he excelled at, especially pitching.

Released from the school in 1923 after five years, the 17-year-old Paige went home to Mobile a 6-foot-three, 140-pound kid with size 13 feet. The next year, the right-hander joined the semi-pro Mobile Tigers. For the next two years, he also pitched for other semi-pro teams in the area, until the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Negro Southern League offered him $50 a month in 1926. Within a year, the “all-fastball” pitcher’s pay jumped to $200 a month, an excellent salary at the time.

In between playing for Chattanooga, he jumped ship--sometimes with permission, sometimes not--a couple times by playing for other teams such as the New Orleans Pelicans, before returning to Chattanooga. By the time he was sold to the Birmingham Black Barons in 1928 and given $275 a month, Paige’s reputation in the Negro Leagues began to grow substantially.  So did his ego. By 1930, he was attracting crowds of 8,000 or more, a hefty attendance given the time and place. He also jumped again, this time to the Baltimore Black Sox for a few weeks, before heading back to Birmingham.

In 1931, the Black Barons sold Paige to the Nashville Elite Giants, who moved to Cleveland, but disbanded in mid-season. Gus Greenlee, a black Pennsylvania numbers king putting a barnstorming team together called the Pittsburgh Crawfords, offered Paige $250 a month and he took it. Over the next few years, the Crawfords became the best black team in history. Paige went one step further by saying they were: “The best team I ever saw, black or white.”

In 1932, the Crawfords won 99 games and lost 36, with Paige winning 23 and losing 7. When he wasn’t throwing for the Crawfords, Greenlee rented Paige out to semi-pro clubs where the pitcher could make a few hundred bucks dazzling crowds with such antics as striking out the occasional batter while his three outfielders sat on the bench. On the Pittsburgh roster were some of the best Negro Leaguers to ever play the game: Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who could pitch and catch, Ted Page, Jimmie Crutchfield, Herbert “Rap” Dixon, William “Judy” Johnson, Oscar Charleston, James “Cool Papa” Bell, and Josh Gibson, with the latter four all in today’s Baseball Hall of Fame.

With his showboating high kick, blazing fastball, and pin-point control, Paige hurled his way to a 31-4 record for the mighty 1934 Crawfords, who were now playing regularly in the Negro National League. Leased out by Greenlee, Paige also found time to pitch three games (he won all three) for the bearded House of David team as it took the well-publicized Denver Post tournament in August, 1934. There, he played before crowds of 10,000-plus. Under a two-year contract he had signed that spring with the Crawfords, the now-married Paige asked for more money from his parent club. Greenlee refused and Paige finished out the season for an integrated semi-pro team in Bismarck, North Dakota, owned by car dealer Neil Churchill. Paige’s contract: $400 a month and a used Chrysler off Churchill’s lot.

Greenlee, furious at Paige, used his power as league president to ban Paige for the 1935 season. So, he spent the entire year pitching for Bismarck, alongside some Negro League additions. The team went out and won the 1935 National Baseball semi-pro tournament in Wichita, Kansas. Throughout the 1930’s, Paige pitched many off-seasons in winter ball, mostly in California, as well as regular barnstorming tours against teams headed up by Dizzy Dean. In his prime, Paige pitched year round.
1949 Bowman card of Satchel Paige
(US Public Domain)

Paige returned to the Crawfords in 1936 for a $600 monthly contract, the highest in the league up to that time. In mid-season, he took time off to pitch for a Negro National League All-Star team that won the Denver Post tournament. In early 1937, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael L. Trujillo was being opposed for reelection in his country by an opponent who had imported a baseball team that was beating everybody on the island. Trujillo needed a better team to win the election and the first player he wanted was Paige. At spring training in New Orleans, Paige caved into the dictator’s agents who came to convince him to jump south. Paige took eight other Crawfords with him to the Dominican (leaving Greenlee furious again) where the team eventually won a round-robin tournament that kept Trujillo in office. Paige and the eight others came away with a reported $30,000 combined.

Returning to the Crawfords for 1938, Paige rejected a $450 monthly salary from Greenlee, who promptly sold him to the Newark Eagles. Paige refused to report and left to play for a team in Mexico City in the Mexican League. But, south of the border, he developed his first sore arm. By late summer, he could barely lift it. Back in the States, Paige was informed by a doctor that his pitching career was as good as over. He was only 32.

Due to Paige’s past habits for ignoring contracts, no one in Negro League ball wanted to hire the free wheeler for even a coaching job: that is, except Kansas City Monarchs owners J. L. Wilkinson and Tom Baird, who placed him on their B squad that toured the American Northwest and Western Canada under the name of Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, with Paige playing first base and lobbing pitches from the mound for an inning or two. Despite a shadow of his former self, Paige was still a drawing card.

Then, all of a sudden, by late-1938, Paige’s arm returned to him and the Monarchs called him up to the A squad where he was the team’s ace for the next ten years. By now, Paige was relying more on a mix of off-speed pitches and fastballs. Then, in mid-1948, the Cleveland Indians were making a run for the American League pennant and they needed some pitching insurance. The flamboyant owner Bill Veeck called on Paige, the master showman, who signed on his birthday. As a 42-year-old rookie, Paige drew 201,829 fans for his first three starts. Playing in 21 games down the stretch, he won 6 games to one loss and posted a 2.48 ERA in the Indians championship year.

His career winding down, Paige was released by Cleveland after the 1949 season, following Veeck’s selling of the club. Paige returned to barnstorming in 1950. However, Veeck, the new St. Louis Browns owner, brought Paige back in 1951, where he became an effective relief specialist incorporating a screwball and a knuckleball to his arsenal, only to be let go once again after Veeck sold the Browns in 1953. Then in 1956, Veeck did it once more. As part owner of the Miami Marlins of the AAA International League, he hired Paige to pitch, which he did until 1958 for $15,000 a year plus a percentage of the gate. After that, Paige was in and out of barnstorming and pro ball. In 1961, he made a year-ending appearance with Portland Beavers of the AAA Pacific Coast League for 25 innings (striking out 19, while posting a 2.88 ERA); then a three-inning stint in 1965 at age 59 in a regular season game with the Kansas City Athletics where he went through the Boston Red Sox batting order, giving up only one hit: a double to Carl Yastrzemski.  

His last organized professional game was June 21, 1966 for the Peninsula Grays of the Class A Carolina League, a two-inning affair. In 1967, he toured with the barnstorming Indianapolis Clowns for $1000 a month, plus bonuses for appearances in major league parks. The next year, Bill Veeck came to Paige’s rescue a fourth time, when he discovered that his old friend was a month shy of the minimum five years in the majors to receive an MLB pension. So, Veeck convinced writer Jimmy Breslin, who had connections with the Atlanta Braves, to ask a staff member on the team to do the right thing and hire Paige and place him on the active roster as a coach. They agreed and Paige received his pension.

In 1971, Satchel Paige was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame: the first of the black stars elected by the Negro League Committee. For years, some players, coaches, managers and historians had been calling Paige the best pitcher ever, black or white. In his career, according to Paige himself, he threw over 2,500 games for at least 200 teams. He died of heart failure June 8, 1982 at his home in Kansas City, Missouri.

How good was Paige? If the color line was non-existent in his prime, he probably would’ve won 300 games, mixed in with some MVP and Cy Young Awards. He was selected number 19 on the 1999 Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. The best pitcher ever? That’s debatable, considering some of the iconic pitchers over the years, including four hurlers in the above Sporting News 100 who had beat him out: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Alexander, and Cy Young.

If not the best, let’s agree that Paige put on the best show.



Two weeks from today—Josh Gibson