Field of Dreams Weaves an Intricate Thematic Web: It’s Not Just About Baseball

With 2019 marking the 100th year since the infamous Black Sox scandal, a lot of content is expected to be pushed out on the interwebs throughout the upcoming baseball season about the dark tale and bring up endless, unanswerable questions.

Hey, it’s a fantastic and fascinating debate, after all.

Inevitably, movies like Eight Men Out and of course, Field of Dreams will be discussed as well. While both are excellent in their own right, there are some inherent issues that come with book adaptations – largely the famous curse of being “Hollywooded up.” It happens. Eight Men Out is based on Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book that, while largely true, was even more largely unsubstantiated. A significant portion of that book and film in fact, is about as fictional as Field of Dreams. That film, based on W.P. Kinsella’s tremendous novel, Shoeless Joe, has been revered by millions since it’s release 30 years ago. As a diehard fan of both book and film, I’ve read and seen each countless times and neither ever tires. Obviously, many more people have seen the film than have read the book, however, and while I wish every fan of the film would read Shoeless Joe, one can still get a good enough grasp of things without – because the film is pretty amazing.

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It’s a beautiful story, blending some fact with a lot of dreamscape fiction, outstanding performances from the cast and accompanied by a score from James Horner that was so impactful it was virtually a character itself. The movie follows the book rather closely (which is often a rarity in adaptations), with baseball of course being one of the central themes. But does that make it a pure “baseball movie?”

In my (probably unpopular) opinion, no.

At least not quite.

Yes, there are baseball scenes. And baseball players. And baseball dialogue throughout most of the movie. There is talk about baseball mere seconds into the prologue. Hell, James Earl Jones’ character Terence Mann delivers a powerful speech about baseball that will never not be quoted by current and future generations. Despite the obvious and very central theme of baseball, it is not fully a baseball movie in the vein that others like Major League and it’s sequels, Bull Durham, The Natural or even Eight Men Out, were. Baseball, here, is just one of the many big themes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s really a “baseball movie.” There are a lot of other things going on with the story that are just as, if not more vital. If you’ll expand your mind a bit, I’ll throw out a few reasons why:

It’s a movie about taking a leap of faith

Ray hears a voice, and while he technically misunderstands it at first, he believes so strongly in what it means that he takes immediate action. The Kinsellas were barely making a profit from their farm as it were, and to remove crucial acres of your main crop to build a baseball field would not be very wise. But Ray believed in the power of faith, and went ahead with his endeavor nonetheless. Annie did too, for she could have tried harder to talk him out of it (in the book she doesn’t talk him out of it whatsoever), but she, too, believed because Ray did. Ray actually took the message from the voice the wrong way, but he felt strongly enough in it’s direction to risk everything else.

It’s a movie about destiny

Each character has their own path, yet something out there is orchestrating it all to where they become intertwined. Ray’s destiny is to reconcile with his father, help others find their way and create a slice of Heaven on earth for others to partake in. Terence Mann’s destiny (no, he didn’t die when he disappeared into the cornfield) is to experience something so profound it will ignite his passion to write and influence others again. Shoeless Joe and his seven teammates were granted their heavenly wish to resume playing ball. Even Mark, depicted as the bad guy, is really just being the practical anti-Ray out of love for his sister and keeping her livelihood intact.

The truest depiction of destiny at work in the film falls with Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. When Ray inexplicably finds himself in 1972 and meets the aging Dr. Graham, he is told that his biggest wish was to get an at-bat in a big league game, hopefully knocking a triple after winking at the pitcher. When Ray later picks up the ghost of a young Archie Graham hitchhiking his way through the Midwest, he believes it’s an obvious solution to Graham’s plight. Things fall right into place as Archie plays a game that very night at the Field, and hits a (metaphorical as we’ll see) sacrifice fly.

The next day, Graham is in the lineup again, but races off the field to rescue Ray’s daughter Karin who fell from the bleachers and was choking on a hot dog. After saving her, Ray realizes that Archie cannot return to the field to keep playing. He had literally and metaphorically crossed over into who he was supposed to be. The hesitation by Archie to take that last step, and later reassuring Ray that it was perfectly OK that he can’t return, implies that Archie knew his destiny all along – to be a doctor, not a ballplayer. Archie’s character theme, when applied to his own path, was sacrifice. He first sacrificed continuing pursuit of his baseball dream to become a doctor. He later sacrificed his second chance at it to save Karin by way of that profession. (Remember that SAC fly he hit? It fits now, doesn’t it?) With that final selfless act, he was able to help fulfill Karin’s immediate destiny, which was to come up with an idea to keep the Field and her family’s land.

Side note: Sadly, it is not known if Archie Graham ever got to play a full game. If his SAC fly was his only plate appearance the night he arrived at the Field (he could’ve been pinch hitting or was pulled before his next time up), and if he crossed over to save Karin before batting the next day, then he still never technically got his official big league at-bat. Though he did at least get one appearance at the dish, plus his wink at the pitcher, so perhaps that was good enough for him.

It’s a movie about second chances

The eight White Sox players, and many others, get to play ball again. Moonlight Graham gets his plate appearance and pitcher wink. Terence Mann will return to writing. Ray and John get another shot at their relationship – this is the arguably the whole point of the film. The Japanese poster (famous for spoilers) for the movie nailed the plot, describing the movie as being about a man on a quest to meet with the ghost of his father. What all storylines in the movie boil down to, is really just that. Ray hears three messages from the voice and he incorrectly assumes them to be about Shoeless Joe, Terence Mann and Moonlight Graham, in that order. While he was able to positively affect each person, and was probably supposed to, all three messages were actually intended to be about his father.

At the end of the film, we of course see the emotional reunion of Ray and John. Baseball was just the means to that end. It was the one thing the two of them had in common, and the one thing that reunited them. All other characters got their second chances with baseball being the catalyst – but not the focal point – and it’s important to know the difference.

Nitpicking to the Nth degree

OK, OK, OK, I just can’t help this. Humor me for a minute. I’m the first one to say that in most films, especially this one, you have to suspend your disbelief and just flow with it. 30 years later this movie wouldn’t be so provocative and debatable if you didn’t. But if it were a true baseball movie, some details would have been cleared up and others expanded upon. Bear with me…

The real Moonlight Graham played his half inning in 1905. In the movie it was 1922. Insignificant detail, but still. Later in the movie you see what looks like a few Philadelphia Athletics players on the field, only their uniforms have green sleeves and socks. When the A’s were in Philly their colors were white and blue; they didn’t adopt the green until they moved to Kansas City in 1954. I suppose those could’ve been minor league or other non-MLB players though.

Eddie Cicotte yells at Chick Gandil, saying if he hustled more he “would have won 20 games that year”, which Gandil retorts was 68 years ago. The season he’d be referring to then was 1920, where Cicotte actually won 21 games, and Gandil didn’t even play in because he had retired. In the same conversation, Gandil horribly mispronounces Eddie Cicotte’s name, calling him “Chi-coa-tee” instead of the correct “Sea-cott.”

If this was a movie intended to be squarely about baseball, then you might think little details like this would be smoothed out, more historical players mentioned, and more intricate scenes of the game itself shown to appease the purists of the game.

Alas, while baseball is obviously and profoundly present throughout the movie, there is a lot more involved than just that. Let’s also not forget that the movie is based on a wonderful novel, in which even more elements and themes are present. Baseball in Field of Dreams is a huge backdrop, but not the full picture.

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Admittedly, there is not really a wrong answer. It’s all how you see it.

Just like Mann’s blackboard.

 

 

 

Photo credits: http://www.fieldofdreamsmoviesite.com

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57736.Shoeless_Joe

 

 

 

 

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The 1919 World Series: Did the White Sox Lose…or Did the Reds Win?

This year’s World Series will mark the 100th anniversary of the famed Black Sox scandal, in which eight (really six) members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The ’19 Sox were considered by some to be one of the best teams of all time, at least of the deadball era, and heavy favorites to win the nine-game series over the Reds.

The rest is history.

Exceedingly gray history, that is.

The eight accused members of the Sox were officially banned from baseball in 1921, and ever since, countless investigations and unending research have been conducted to try and determine what really happened that fateful October a century ago. Eight Men Out, the famous 1963 book by Eliot Asinof (and the resulting 1988 film by John Sayles), once considered gospel, has been largely discredited as more thorough facts have been uncovered over the years. The book and film, while both entertaining and well done, paint a broad, and often unsubstantiated, stroke of the story. By comparison, and grandly accepted by historians and researchers, Gene Carney’s 2006 book, Burying the Black Sox, is a far more authoritative and factual piece than Asinof’s effort could ever claim to be.

Some believe that the entire series was fixed from the start. Others ascertain that after the players did not receive their promised money somewhere around the third or fourth game, they began to try to win. Yet others still would say that one of the chief tragedies (among many) in that series, is that proper credit has never been given to the Reds for being a great team – or for simply beating the White Sox.

The truth, as is often the case, is probably somewhere in the middle. In any event, there is much evidence to show that the Cincinnati Reds were no fluke, and very well could have been better than the mighty White Sox.

Cincinnati took the National League pennant with a sterling record of 96-44. They were a balanced team with an excellent infield and consistent, if not spectacular, starting pitching. The odds were highly in Chicago’s favor prior to the start of the series, before evening out before Game 1 due to rumors of the fix. It’s important to remember that in that era, fixing games and betting on baseball were nothing new, with rumors of such foul play surrounding virtually every big game. Several players had already been banned by 1919 for such acts as well, so some precedent was there.

While statistics don’t always tell the full story, especially in baseball, the Reds and White Sox draw some very interesting comparisons in several categories.

As a team, the Sox were better hitters than the Reds and their star power gave them the edge in terms of prestige. Despite the fact that very star power contributed to the team being divided and despising one another, they carried three Hall of Fame players on the roster in catcher Ray Schalk, second baseman Eddie Collins and pitcher Red Faber. That number could’ve been as high as eight, however, if the ban didn’t happen. Shoeless Joe Jackson was a lock, an argument could’ve been made for Eddie Cicotte, and if career trajectories stayed course, Buck Weaver, Happy Felsch and Lefty Williams may have entered the discussion too. The Reds meanwhile had just one future Hall of Famer on their club, outfielder Edd Rousch, but even without the vanity and splendor, they were a hungry, well-rounded club.

American League teams had won eight of the previous nine World Series’, including the White Sox in 1917, so that likely added to their reputation of superiority which gave folks the impression that they may have been better than they really were.

One of the biggest keys heading into the series of course was the starting pitching – advantage to the Reds here. They were able to attack the Sox with a strong five-man barrage of Dutch Ruether, Slim Sallee, Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring and Hod Eller. Having a healthy and consistent five-man rotation is pretty crucial in a best-of-nine in any era. On the season, the Reds staff cached a team ERA of 2.23, compared to the Sox’ 3.04. Furthermore, while the Reds had a full rotation, the Sox had to rely on Cicotte and Williams to carry the burden, with each man making three starts in the series. Faber was inactive with an injury, which had a significant impact on this series and isn’t often mentioned. Had he been able to go, the complexion of the whole rotation changes instantly. Instead, young Dickie Kerr, theretofore a bit of a wild card despite having a strong regular season, had to step up big time. He did just that, winning two games and keeping the Sox in it, but it wasn’t enough. The fact that Cicotte and Williams were in on the fix notwithstanding, Cincinnati had more, better, and rested arms.

Defensively, the Reds were better than the White Sox. On the season, Cincinnati had 24 fewer errors and a higher fielding percentage than their Chi-town counterparts. Additionally, the Reds compiled 23 shutouts to the White Sox’ 14. This easily can be attributed to a combination of both great pitching and defense. While the Sox certainly had both, they often relied on their ‘big inning’ offense to bail them out of many games. The Reds on the other hand made evident the time-honored belief that good pitching beats good hitting…most of the time. Advantage Reds here, too.

Heading down the pennant stretch into the series, the Reds were also the hotter and hungrier team. They went 47-16 in the second half compared to the Sox’ 40-26 mark, and were 8-2 in September vs. the other pennant chasers (Giants, Cubs, Pirates). The Sox meanwhile, were just 6-6 in that same month vs. the Yankees, Indians and Tigers, who were competing for the American League flag. Season-long against the top contending teams in their league, Cincinnati wound up 38-22, whereas the White Sox went 35-25 in their version. The Reds took the National League pennant by 9 full games over the New York Giants, while the White Sox won the American League by 3 1/2 games over the Detroit Tigers.

The snapshot of what this means is that the Reds played better against the best teams in the NL than the White Sox did against the best in the AL. They showcased better pitching and defense throughout the year, and had a full staff of capable arms at their disposal in October.

As mentioned earlier however, the stats don’t always tell the full story. This is where intangibles come in, and the White Sox clearly had much worse to deal with than the Reds. In fact, the Sox had long been destroying themselves, well before the gamblers’ influence in fixing the series became the gas thrown on the proverbial fire.

What makes deciphering the scandal such a mess (100 years later or not), was that it was a mess in itself at the time. Nobody will ever know the real truth because, as has been reported, even the players themselves didn’t fully know what was going on. It was always unclear who was really trying and who wasn’t, and who was double-crossing who. That level of uncertainty alone would presumably cast major mental anguish on a ballplayer. Not to mention the constant barrage of questions from teammates, manager Kid Gleason, owner Charles Comiskey, reporters and fans, which must have added to the clubhouse distractions.

Individually, the clean Sox players, plus guys like Jackson and Weaver, who were grouped in on the fix but their excellent play indicates they were trying to win, must have gone through hell trying to play while not knowing their teammates’ intentions. This gives rise to the belief in a case of the Sox beating themselves, though that does not discredit Cincinnati’s efforts.

The Reds had to deal with none of this internal strife, by comparison. They just had to go and play their own game, and, as heavy underdogs, really had nothing to lose. These things alone could conceivably lighten the challenge.

Questions of course will always remain. Did the Reds catch the Sox at the worst possible time as they were tearing themselves apart from within? Or were they simply the better team?

The truth, again, is probably somewhere in the middle.

No matter what, the Reds of 1919 were no slouch, and that should not be forgotten.

 

 

Photo credit: Original photographer: Unknown Jam22smith [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Sources: https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CIN/1919.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHW/1919.shtml

The 1919 Reds: Requiem for the Robbed by Jeff Kallman in SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Research Committee Newsletter vol 10 No. 2, December 2018

 

 

 

It Was a Badly Good Season (I Guess), So Now What?

If some Cubs fans considered the 2017 season to be disappointing, then, by comparison, 2018 was an unmitigated disaster.

It certainly feels that way mere hours after a disappointing 2-1, 13-inning loss to the Colorado Rockies in the NL Wild Card game, but it’s not really like that. Or is it? Yes, there were plenty of injuries to deal with. Yes, there were 42 games in 43 days to close the season. Yes, they were tired. (Newsflash: All teams are tired by the end of September.) The simple fact remains that the Milwaukee Brewers caught fire in the final weeks, and the better team won the division. With the St. Louis Cardinals also having an excellent stretch run, the Cubs played like a 3rd place team in the last month, going 17-13 in their final 30 games. Although that seems decent enough with a sizable division lead like they had entering the month, each loss proved crucial with those two teams hot on the heels. Still, 95 wins and a trip to the postseason despite major issues first with the rotation, later with the bullpen, and throughout the season with the lineup, shouldn’t necessarily be something to bemoan. And yet the eye test all year was at best mercurial and at worst, awful.

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So what went wrong?

Typically, most fans wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) gripe too much about a 95-win campaign that had their team as the best in the National League for the majority of the season and make the playoffs. Unless of course, expectations are so high that anything other than a division title and deep postseason run feels like failure. Such is now the state of the Cubs and their fans. Did the players just fail to execute? Were there poor coaching decisions made? Are some of these guys just not what they were expected to be? Did the league adjust? All the above, perhaps. But while the lack of a sustained power run had the Cubs and their fans feeling stuck like a duck in a pen, the issues that led to this quick playoff exit more or less began last year.

0 for the offseason

Winning the offseason seems kind of cool when you’re slated to dominate, but it doesn’t always translate to success. Pitching was addressed last winter by Theo Epstein & Co. in a big way but the moves as a whole failed monumentally. Closer Brandon Morrow was a risk to take on given his injury history, and overuse of him in the second half by Joe Maddon compounded the chances for a problem. Sure enough, what started as elbow pain led to a season-ending shutdown. Yu Darvish was the big splash for the Cubs, but he was awful from the get-go before, aptly, a season-ending injury. Tyler Chatwood was a flier taken by the front office and despite having promising stuff, was even worse than Darvish. Although the team seemed to win games he pitched, he had an amazing inability to throw strikes with any consistency whatsoever. If Chatwood was attempting a pre-spectacles Rick Vaughn impersonation, he nailed it something fierce. The big moves made by the front office in the offseason backfired, no question. (The acquisitions of Cole Hamels and Daniel Murphy later on however, were excellent. But that’s another story.)

40 games

That’s how many (39 in the regular season) games the Cubs scored 0 or 1 run. That’s just about every fourth game. That number put them second in MLB, just one behind the hapless Baltimore Orioles who had 40. Now for a team with a powerful, well-rounded and deep lineup, this simply shouldn’t happen. The Cubs still managed to finish 4th in runs scored in the NL, but the biggest dents came before the All-Star break when starting pitching was erratic. After the break, there was a noticeable downslide in production that didn’t level off when the starting pitching got dialed in. They were always fighting a level of disparity there. Nobody expected this hitting crisis though, and yet here it is. Injuries again played a part, as Kris Bryant missed significant time and Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward among others all spent time on the DL at different parts of the season as well. Hey, it happens. But that still doesn’t explain scoring just two runs in the final 22 innings of the season – at home – in crucial games. Not to mention very sporadic run production all throughout September, including splitting a key four-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates when they may has well have went to the plate batless during the first two games.

What now?

Changes should at least be coming somewhere in the lineup for 2019. With the exception of a major jump from Javy Baez that put him in MVP consideration, the only consistency was found in Rizzo and 37-year old Ben Zobrist who eclipsed the .300 mark for the first time in his solid career. Heyward and Albert Almora were real good in stretches, but not sustained. Willson Conteras fell off massively in the second half. Daniel Murphy was outstanding when he first joined the club in August before going largely silent in the final couple weeks. There are plenty of adjustments to be made there. Murphy is not likely to be back in ’19, and it may very well be time to move on from some others despite their upside. The twist here is figuring out how to navigate the roster with regard to the checkbook, as entering 2018 the 25-man roster was essentially locked up for the next three years.

As for the staff, that’s another issue altogether. In addition to “Panic Joe’s” (Maddon’s questionable in-game alter-ego) strange tactical style, he also added Jim Hickey and Chili Davis during the offseason to handle the pitching and hitting duties, respectively. The latter of whom is under scrutiny after an offensive season, especially on the vital stretch run, that left a lot to be desired.

“As an offense we need to mature a little more and develop a little more,” Rizzo said. “At times we did this year as a unit. And at times, not so much.”

In the end, the players must execute. But some things are open to further inspection. The offensive struggles, even if indirectly related to Davis’ tutelage, point to another debatable move by Maddon. Coupled with his celebrity manager status and occasional disagreements with Epstein and Jed Hoyer over the usage of his bullpen (which directly led to key injuries), not all may be coming up roses in the clubhouse.

Yet the Cubs wasted little time today announcing that Maddon would return in 2019, the final year of his contract. While quelling any speculation before it got out of hand, this still sets up two subtexts for next season: If the team starts out hot and wins consistently, they’re “playing for Joe.” If they struggle early on, then “Joe must’ve lost the clubhouse. Fire him.” This may or may not affect the simple desire to just play baseball, but it’s worth noting.

In some ways, even despite arguably the best managerial job of his Cubs tenure through most of the season, Joe is further under the microscope than ever before. Should Epstein have let him go, it would not have been unprecedented: The Red Sox, Yankees and Nationals all replaced their managers after making the postseason last year. All the credit in the world can – and should – be given to Maddon for transforming the clubhouse culture and being the ideal ringleader for the new Cubs regime. But it’d be fairly easy to opine that the buck stops there with him. It might be equally easy to draw comparisons to other iconic Chicago coaches who were great with personnel but less so at actual coaching, contributing to a degree of perceived underachievement (see: Mike Ditka). Maybe the $6M on his contract for his final year matters, or maybe Epstein & Co. want to play this second window out with as much common ground as possible. Maybe both.

In any event, some things are due to change, perhaps significantly for 2019.

On a side note, the 2017 and 2018 seasons just go to show how abnormally perfect the 2016 season was for the Cubs in terms of health, production, pitching and defense. It all came together that year in a way that is rarely, if ever, seen. Perhaps that’s why the bar is raised to such a skewed level. But I digress.

Even more so than after the 2017 season, the 2018 winter should be very interesting in Cubland.

Photo credit: (Google search) https://www.thinglink.com/scene/982390609039851522

The Day I Broke Into Shibe Park

“I figure I might be able to find it on a night like this when the moon turns everything silver, and the evergreen trees look like they’re covered in tinsel.”

W.P. Kinsella, The Valley of the Schmoon

 

October 1, 1970 was a sad night.

Not sad in a truly horrible, end-of-the-world sort of way, but in the way you feel when selling a beloved car or moving out of your childhood home. The way it reminds you of a cherished memory, happy and yet tragic at the same time.

You see, that day was the final game at Connie Mack Stadium, better known as Shibe Park to those of us who grew up nearby lovingly remember it.

Boy, that final game sure was a classic. Even though for the past 15 seasons it was no longer our beloved Athletics on the field, we still cherished every inning played at the ‘ol yard. We had all secretly hoped the game would last extra innings, just to drag out the inevitable end just a bit longer – and it did! When the 10th inning began, for just a second it felt like the game, and the stadium, might last forever. Even after Oscar Gamble’s single drove in Tim McCarver to give the Phillies a 2-1 victory, the echoes didn’t dissipate for what seemed like hours. The looting afterward was not surprising, and even with all that chaos and people running out of the park with everything they could carry – seats, bricks, buckets of dirt and grass, it was still a bit funny to us to see someone running off with…a toilet.

A beat up old toilet with green paint splashed on the tank.

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When the four of us – myself and my childhood friends Charlie, Donnie and Slim – saw this shameless toilet thief, none of us said a word. We just shot a smirk at each other and then proceeded to unbolt seats of our own, the same seats we had occupied for over 40 years, since we first started going to watch the Philadelphia Athletics as kids in the late 1920’s. We were all bummed when the A’s moved to Kansas City at the end of ’54, but we continued to go to Shibe anyway. Not because we were huge fans of the hapless Phillies who’d moved in by then, but we were in love with the ballpark itself. It’s history. It’s feeling. It’s meaning. For it meant something to us, it truly did. That final night reminded me of the first time we visited, or rather broke into, Shibe.

Like most neighborhood kids, we grew up loving baseball and loyally following the A’s. If you lived just a few blocks away you were probably a Phillies fan but where we lived, it was the A’s or nobody. Connie Mack was a God and Shibe Park was his Church. No matter where we were out playing in those summers, our paths always seemed to lead us to the ballpark, like an unseen magnetic force. None of us had attended a real game there yet, but we would always be nearby anyway, soaking up the atmosphere. The iconic four-story tower behind home plate at the corner of Lehigh and 21st, where we knew Mack’s office sat at the pinnacle, was the most important landmark to every eight-year old kid in the area. Sure, we would traipse the few blocks over to the Baker Bowl to see what the Phillies were up to on rare occasion, but it didn’t compare to the vibe at Shibe whatsoever.

One of those summer days in ‘25, Slim earned his nickname, and we earned our stripes.

The A’s were on a western road trip (really the Midwest since no team existed further west of St. Louis in those days), so the neighborhood was quiet and largely empty. We were doing our usual thing, hanging around the park, when Slim, aka Mikey Donatelli, noticed that behind the wooden right field wall near where it joined to the first base grandstands, were some damaged boards. A gap. To the four of us, looking through that hole in the wall out at the empty seats and the vast sea of emerald green grass was like peering through a rip in the veil that separates the earth from heaven. As we noticed there were no security guards nearby, we desperately wanted to get inside the park. Not to mess with or take anything – of course not – but just to experience it firsthand. The problem was, the gap was just too small for us to fit through. Except of course, for Mikey.

We hatched a brilliant plan for him to wiggle through the opening and sprint, hugging the grandstands to minimize his profile, to the first base side concourse and let us in one of the locked grandstand doors. It was almost too easy, even to our youthful minds.

To our amazement, the nefarious scheme worked like a charm. As Mikey slid through the gate and made a beeline to the concourse, we decided his nickname was to be changed from “Teapot” to “Slim.” Nobody really knew where “Teapot” came from anyway, though it was suspected it was given to him by an Aunt after some sort of kitchen mishap. But that’s not important right now. When the door on the 21st street side opened to us, the feeling of euphoria was nearly too much to handle. Instead of doing what most kids would do in that situation – go on the field and run the bases, sit in the dugouts, venture down the tunnel to the clubhouse and secret passages under the stadium – we simply sat. We walked halfway up the third base line, picked four random seats and just sat. And revered. And kept quiet. We were mesmerized.

Before we knew it, nearly an hour had gone by and we didn’t feel too guilty or even apologetic when the good-natured security guard shooed us back out the very door we entered from. Nor were we surprised when our secret gap in the fence was repaired the very next day. But we had accomplished something, we felt, that not only elevated us to grand status in the neighborhood but cemented in us a pure love for a piece of architecture that wouldn’t dissipate. In fact, two years later after much begging and negotiating, all our families agreed to purchase four season tickets, in those very four specific seats. Good thing we did, then, because times got pretty tough a couple years later.

As we were being ushered toward the door, Charlie O’Toole, the quietest of our group despite being part of a boisterous Irish-Italian family was walking several paces behind the rest of us when he spied something. The door to a small storage room at the bottom of the rotunda was left open. Peeking inside, Charlie noticed among the clutter a few buckets of used baseballs in the room. Never one to miss out on a souvenir, he pocketed four of them, one for each of us, to mark the occasion. I still have mine today, and I assume the other guys do too. I often stare at it while it’s perched in its case, along with lots of other A’s memorabilia, and next to the seat I left Shibe with that night. It’s impossible to know the true story of each ball of course, but I think it’s better that way. To me, I believed my ball was once in play, right there on the majestic Shibe Park field, and used by the game’s greats. It was once, perhaps more than once, slugged by Babe Ruth. It was a would-be triple robbed by Tris Speaker. It was slung by Walter Johnson and gracefully fielded by Eddie Collins. I’ll always believe all the above are true when I look at the ball that Charlie confiscated for me. Along with the seat, holding on to pieces of Shibe allow her to exist even though she’s gone.

The storage room, Charlie said, also served as a small bathroom. As he pocketed the baseballs, the splashes of green paint he noticed all over the toilet wouldn’t seem significant to us for another 45 years.

 

The Mays Malaise

Coincidences happen, of course. But on occasion, some situations can foretell what’s to come. Baseball analysts and sabermetricians have been on the hunt for the Holy Grail metric; that figure which can predict what a player will, or at least very likely do, for years. Where Carl Mays was concerned, predictability was nearly impossible. Actually, it was scary.

The submariner had something of a tumultuous career, and a personality that wasn’t quite favorable among players and coaches in the majors. Moreover, he was a spitballer, and combined with his unique delivery and blazing fastball it made him a formidable, if not dangerous pitcher.

This stigma was strengthened in 1915 during a fiery encounter with Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers. Mays, pitching for the Red Sox, repeatedly threw at Cobb each at-bat during a game, prompting Cobb to throw his bat at Mays in the eighth inning. Once things calmed down, Mays responded by plunking Cobb on the wrist (1). For whatever malice he may or may not have pitched with, he appeared to have no fear or shame.

Still with the Red Sox in 1918, Mays and his team were enjoying a fantastic season, one that would end with a World Series Championship over the Chicago Cubs. Mays was the ace of the staff that season, going 21-13 with a 2.21 ERA, tossing 30 complete games and tacking on eight shutouts over 293 innings pitched. Earlier in the season on May 20, an incident occurred which, unbeknownst at the time, would portend an eerie and deadly second act. In the third inning of an 11-1 rout of the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park, Mays let loose a pitch that drilled the great Tris Speaker right on the head. The extreme nature of this beaning only firmed up the already deplorable M.O. that Mays garnered. Nobody could’ve seen what would happen two years later.

In keeping pace with the high-high’s and low-low’s of his career, later in the 1918 season on August 30, Mays became the only pitcher in Red Sox history to throw two complete game wins in the same day. Both wins were integral in keeping the Red Sox atop the pennant hunt.

The frightening beanball Mays laid on Speaker’s noggin was, in hindsight at least, notoriously prophetic. In 1920, Mays, then pitching for the Yankees, would be the instigator of tragedy. In one of the most infamous moments in baseball history, Mays hit Indians’ shortstop Ray Chapman on the skull, killing him. Mays always vehemently denied throwing at Chapman intentionally, and even went so far as to attempt blame on Chapman for crowding the plate. Two years, two Indians players hit on the head, and one sparkling young player killed. This incident would haunt Mays for the rest of his life.

Chapman’s death ignited a series of rules changes that are still in use today. Beginning shortly after the tragedy, umpires began to insert new baseballs into the game when the one in play became scuffed or too dirty. The spitball and other doctored-up pitches were outlawed, and although it took over thirty years to be fully integrated, batting helmets began to be used.

Mays’s career continued with success, despite a permanently damaged reputation after the Chapman beaning. In 1921, Mays had the best season of his career when he led the league with 27 wins and 336 innings pitched. He helped lead the Yankees into the World Series against the New York Giants but his sterling season was marred amid accusations that he was offered a bribe from gamblers to throw Game 4 of the World Series. As the alleged story goes, Mays’ wife Marjorie signaled her husband that she had received the bribe money and the pitcher was now in the bag. Mays, who had been dominant up until then, started crossing up his pitch signals and became lackadaisical, allowing the Giants to clobber him and take a lead they would not relinquish (2.) The Giants went on to win that game and eventually the best-of-nine-series, five games to three. Though cleared of any wrongdoing, the rumors of conspiring with gamblers felt like salt in the wound of baseball, with the Black Sox scandal of 1919 being so fresh in everyone’s minds.

Mays would pitch until 1929, ending a 15-year career and all told, his numbers were excellent. He compiled a record of 206-127, with 29 shutouts and a 2.92 ERA. He won 20-plus games five times. Still, he has been left out of the Hall of Fame, despite having career statistics that would make him worthy of the accolade. His ugly reputation, combined with suspicion of throwing a World Series game and Chapman’s death are the likely scapegoats of Mays not being enshrined.

Sources

(1) http://www.thedeadballera.com/prelude.html

(2) “1921: The Yankess, The Giants, & the Battle For Baseball Supremacy In New York:, Lyle Sptatz and Steve Steinberg

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS191805200.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BOS/1918.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1921_WS.shtml

http://nationalpastime.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Mays

Angry Attack: Cubs’ visit to Rivals Park in 1920 marred by stabbing

The following is non-edited, curated content from a story I wrote that appeared in the Joliet Herald-News on March 21, 2018. 

 

Joliet was a happening place nearly a century ago.

With burgeoning local businesses and a strong sense of civic pride, plus the bonus of being a just short train ride to Chicago, “J-Town” was the place to be in a growing suburbia.

Social pastimes were also wildly popular as the roaring twenties began, in which baseball featured prominently. As it still is today, Joliet and the surrounding areas were a hotbed of baseball talent.

The Joliet Rivals Club, founded in 1907, were no strangers to baseball, having fielded local teams dating back to their early years. Even the Chicago Cubs paid a visit in the fall of 1920 to play against the Joliet Rivals, a semi-pro team named after the very park they played at. Sources also refer to the team by their former name, the Rivneas, a combined name of the Rivals and Northeastern A.C.’s of Joliet, who’s World War I-era roster was comprised of several former major and minor leaguers.

That the Rivals-Cubs game itself was played was not surprising, as in those days most major league clubs scheduled exhibitions against local semi-pro or college teams on their days off. These unofficial games were a means for the team to have real game action instead of a practice, and to give local teams and their fans a chance to see big league stars in action up close.

One such contest took place here in Joliet, on Thursday, September 30, 1920. The circumstances that surrounded this game however, have made it a rather infamous, if forgotten, episode of Joliet folklore.

With the Cubs en route, the buildup to the game was strongly publicized, with multiple articles appearing the week of the game in the Joliet Evening Herald News. An overflow crowd of more than 5,000 paid spectators (roughly 13% of Joliet’s population at the time), turned out on game day, more than twice filling the 2,000-seat capacity of Rivals Park (formerly Theiler’s Park before the Rivals Club purchased the property in 1919), on the corner of Broadway and Russell streets. Hundreds more crowded along the streets beyond the outfield, battling for the slightest vantage point. A parade to the ballpark from the downtown Elks Club where the Cubs were staying got the festivities underway, and once at the park fans shelled out 25 cents for a grandstand ticket, while the big spenders handed over a whopping $1 for a reserved box seat. Joliet mayor William Barber added to the fanfare by tossing the ceremonial first pitch on that autumn afternoon.

IMG_1291
Rivals Park in Joliet, IL circa 1920.

Joliet native Abraham Lincoln “Sweetbreads” Bailey took the mound for the Cubs in what was one of his only six career starts. Bailey, primarily a relief pitcher in his three-year major league career, held a 4 to 1 lead in the fifth inning when the Rivneas mounted a furious comeback that the Cubs couldn’t answer. Much to the delight of the overflow crowd, the Joliet club emerged victorious by a final score of 5-4. This of course was a tremendous triumph for the hometown team to knock off the Cubs, exhibition game or not. But the excitement didn’t end there.

Immediately following the game, as the Cubs players walked to waiting cabs to be taken back to their hotel, a fan emerged from the grandstand and waylaid Cubs third baseman Buck Herzog, igniting a fierce fight. During the scuffle, a friend of the instigating Jolietan brandished a knife and slashed Herzog across the hand and leg. Seeing the brawl unfold, two Joliet players, Frank Murphy and Nick Carter stepped in to subdue the attackers, ending the melee. Herzog returned to his hotel, no worse for wear except for what was later called a “slight scratch” on his hand.

As the story goes, the fan accused Herzog of being “…one of those crooked Chicago ballplayers” before launching his assault. This is significant when considering the motive behind the attack. It’s a longshot, but there is the possibility that the fan, if only a casual one, got his Chicago teams confused and was mistakenly referring to Buck Herzog as Buck Weaver, who just that very week was suspended along with seven of his teammates by Charles Comiskey amid accusations of throwing the 1919 World Series. This misidentified burst of violence then would be doubly ignorant if so, since Weaver’s banishment was highly unjust itself (though that’s another story altogether). But in an era long before the internet or even player names and numbers on their jerseys, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the attacker assumed this third basemen nicknamed “Buck” from Chicago was in fact the other third baseman nicknamed “Buck” from Chicago.

On the contrary, it is much more likely that the attacker was in fact referring to the well-known, open accusations Buck Herzog received just a few weeks earlier for conspiring to throw a game on August 31st against the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

“I’m sorry it occurred,” Herzog said, “but I couldn’t resist punching that fellow when he called me a crook.”

Although gambling on, and even throwing games had been occurring for decades, the breaking news of the Black Sox scandal forced the game of baseball at all levels to take a long, hard look at itself as it faced an uncertain future. If an outside force such as gambling could infiltrate baseball, heralded as the cleanest of games, then anyone accused of conspiring against the game was met with a multitude of harsh reactions. We will likely never know the full truth of the reason behind the attack on Herzog at Rivals Park that day, but it is interesting to speculate on both possibilities nonetheless.

Baseball continued as usual at Rivals Park until 1934, when the ballpark was redesigned to accommodate professional softball and later Little League baseball on the site. In doing so, Joliet’s first illuminated softball diamond was conceived. In recent decades, the Rivals Club has shifted focus away from organized sports, and now shares the lot with Haunted Trails amusement park. Yet the historic club remains an important, active participant in an ever-changing, but still baseball-rich Joliet, much as it did in 1907.

And certainly as it did when the Cubs came to town.

Special thanks and photo credit to Richard Rivera, Joliet Rivals Club President.

 

 

Sources:

Joliet Rivals Club, A Centennial Celebration: 1907-2007 by Marianne Wolf

Joliet Evening Herald News, September 26-Oct 1, 1920, microfilm at the Joliet Public Library

Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 1, 1920

365 Oddball Days in Chicago Cubs History by John Snyder

https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=MT19201001.2.25

 

 

A Lucky Bounce (or Three): Washington’s Wild World Series Win.

Seven games, four decided by one run, and two going to extra innings. When all was said and done, the 1924 World Series was an absolute classic.

And maybe one of the strangest, too. Particularly Game 7.

John McGraw led his powerhouse New York Giants into Griffith Stadium on the 10th of October, hoping to steal the series from the hometown Washington Senators and secure his third world championship in four years. The Senators’ player-manager Bucky Harris, along with ace and Hall of Famer Walter Johnson – and perhaps a bit of divine intervention – had other plans, however.

To this point, the series was a seesaw battle, with each team winning alternate games, sometimes in sloppy fashion. Odder still, was that the great Walter Johnson had pitched far below his potential and had taken losses in Games 1 and 5. Running out of arms, options and luck, Harris was in need of a little help if his Washington club was going to get their rings.

Washington starter Curly Ogden took the hill but was pulled after facing just two batters and retiring one, as he gave way to George Mogridge. Apparently, Harris started the righty Ogden so that McGraw would be forced to load his lineup with left-handed hitters who would then have to face the lefty Mogridge unprepared. The ploy worked, as Mogridge would be solid over the next 4 2/3, allowing one earned run and scattering four hits. Firpo Marberry came on in relief in the sixth, but after two unearned runs swiftly crossed the plate the Senators found themselves in a 3-1 deficit entering the late innings. Marberry shut down the Giants in the seventh and eighth, all while the Giants starting pitcher Virgil Barnes was cruising, only allowing one run on a Bucky Harris homer in the fourth.

With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Harris inserted pinch hitter Nemo Liebold, who had previously appeared in both the 1917 and 1919 World Series’ with the White Sox. Liebold lashed a double, followed by a single by catcher Muddy Ruel. Bennie Tate came in to pinch hit for Marberry, his job done for the day, and walked to load the bases. Suddenly Barnes’ sterling efforts were coming to a screeching halt. Harris stepped to the plate and got the extra help he sorely needed, as a seemingly routine grounder to third basemen Freddie Lindstrom took a wild hop over his head, plating two runs and tying the game. The 31,667 at Griffith Stadium tore in to a frenzy, with new life late in the contest.

With few choices on remaining arms, Harris called upon Johnson to step to the bump in the ninth. Despite his lackluster performances earlier in the series, “The Big Train” began to completely shut the Giants down from the jump. After failing to score in the bottom frame, Game 7 was headed to extras, and Johnson continued to dismantle Giants’ batsmen in the 10th, 11th and 12th innings as well. It was then in the bottom of the 12th, where a little more assistance from the ether was made available. With one out, Giants pitcher Jack Bentley got Ruel to loop a foul pop to catcher Hank Gowdy, who unfortunately stumbled over his own discarded mask and was unable to make the play. On the next pitch, Ruel ripped a double to left, bringing up Johnson. The Big Train rapped a grounder to Lindstrom’s left, where he was unable to handle another bad hop, putting runners on first and second with one out. Center fielder Earl McNeely stepped to the box and the standing room only crowd at the ‘Griff was hoping for one more miraculous bounce. Their prayers were answered, as McNeely found a hole on the left side by way of yet another unlucky hop, plating Ruel for the series’ winning run. Sometimes, you just need the ball to bounce your way a time or two…or three. After the game, losing pitcher Bentley summed up the bizarre afternoon:

“That was one of the strangest games I ever played in. With one out, Hank Gowdy did a sun dance on Ruel’s pop foul and stepped into his mask and dropped the ball. Ruel doubled and then there was an error at short, then McNeely hit that grounder. That was a helluva way to lose a World Series.”

The championship was the first and only one for the Senators in Washington. Decades later, the franchise would move to Minnesota, where the Twins would grab World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. The Senators would win the American League pennant again the following year in 1925, but would lose to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yet for that one magical day in ’24,  Harris, Johnson, and a few wild bounces would ensure that Washington would reach baseball’s pinnacle.

‘Tis a weird game, folks.

Checkout some amazing video highlights of the game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2AN9IDDLqg

Sources: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1386103-washington-nationals-remembering-the-1924-world-series

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/WS1/WS1192410100.shtml

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curly_Ogden