I saw when Jeter when first broke in at the end of 1995, and recently made one last trip to Yankee Stadium to see the great Yankee play one last time, although he struck out so quickly in his last at bat that I barely had time to take a photograph. I want to remember Jeter for the numbers he put up year after year, the championships he helped win, and the many great moments including the flip, the diving catch against the Red Sox where he landed in the stands, the leadoff home run in the 2000 World Series and being in the middle of almost every big Yankee rally for a generation. However, I can live without being told by MLB, the Yankees and their cheerleaders in the media who deserves my respect and reverence.
Baseball lost a bit of its history last week when Don Zimmer died. Zimmer was the starting 2nd baseman the day the Dodgers won their only championship in Brooklyn. Twenty-three years later he spent Rosh Hashanah managing the Boston Red Sox to their most famous defeat ever as Bucky Dent's three run home run dashed the Red Sox pennant chances. He was the starting third baseman in the first game the New York Mets ever played; and 27 years after that spent Yom Kippur managing the Chicago Cubs as they got eliminated from the NLCS on a clutch single by Will Clark. Zimmer, however, wasn't Jewish, so probably was not aware of the connection between important defeats and Jewish holidays in his life.
Robinson played in his last game well over 50 years ago, and died over 40 years ago. Thus many baseball fans never saw Robinson play, and have only read about him or seen old footage of his playing days. Over time, not surprisingly, the story of Jackie Robinson, has surpassed the memory of Jackie Robinson as a player. Robinson was, however, a great player, and an unusual one. Looking more closely at what Jackie Robinson did on the field helps fill in the picture of who he was.
The real reason these men, including my father, became Cardinals fans is simply because of Stan Musial. Musial, who died over the weekend at the age of 92, had not uncoiled his famous swing in a meaningful baseball game in just short of half a century. During that time a legend grew around Stan Musial. Of all the great World War II era stars, Musial was the decent one who rarely sought attention but lived his life honorably, was polite, pleasant and respectful and never had any contact with even the whiff of scandal. Musial's personal story reinforced this. He was a Polish-American who grew up in a coal mining town, was a natural athlete who worked hard to make it in baseball, spent his entire career with one team and was married to the same woman for more than 70 years. Gradually, other stories leaked out. Turns out that in 1947 Musial had without fanfare made it clear that he, as the leader of the reigning World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, had no problem with African American players and expected his teammates to act the same way. Baseball history might have been very different if Musial had given in to the racist pressure coming from some corners of that team. The legend of Stan Musial helps explain why of the thousands of men who have played professional baseball, only one was known as "The Man."
Carew, Boggs and Gwynn were the three great singles hitters of the last 60+ years. Obviously, they did more than hit singles, but that is the term used for players who, like them, don’t hit a lot of home runs. The reason there are so few players who meet this criteria is that some who we may think of as great singles hitter leadoff types, like Rickey Henderson, hit for more power than is sometimes remembered. Others, such as Lou Brock, did not produce enough offensive value to be great offensive players, while others, such as Jackie Robinson, had careers that were too short to accumulate enough plate appearances.
If controversy surrounding Frank McCourt were happening to the owner of the Yankees instead of the Dodgers owner, books would already have been written and the casting for the HBO special would be well underway. Because it is happening in baseball’s second largest media market, rather than New York, ithas not gotten the attention it might have. It could be argued that given the size of the Los Angeles market and the import of the Dodgers to baseball in general, the story has gotten surprisingly little publicity.
Henry Aaron turned 77 on Saturday. Somehow it seemed appropriate that Aaron’s birthday, as might be expected, was overshadowed by the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Aaron’s birthday receiving almost no attention demonstrates how the he remains bewilderingly underrated in his retirement, just as he was during his career. Aaron retired as the all time leader in home runs and RBIs and among the top three in hits. His career numbers of .305/.374/.555 were good for a career OPS+ of 155 which, while not in the same ballpark as Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, are still very good. These numbers are even more impressive because Aaron accumulated them over 23 seasons and 13,940 plate appearances. This latter number is the third most ever, but was good enough for first at the time Aaron retired. However, Aaron, who was overshadowed by Willie Mays for most of his career, is still oddly underrated by most casual students of baseball’s past.
Thomson’s death feels like the passing of an era that actually ended decades ago. The home run occurred when baseball was played in black and white, New York had three teams, and a radio broadcast of a ballgame to a soldier in Asia was considered an impressive technological feat. The home run belongs to a time, city, and even country of the long ago past, but somehow it can still make a young father feel compelled to share the event, which occurred years before he was born, with his young son and an make an aging veteran still feel his monthly paycheck slipping away just as Thomson’s fly ball slipped over the left field fence and into history.
Wilker has written an extraordinarily honest book about growing up and forging adult lives and adult relationships which, while not really about baseball, still made me feel like I was back at an almost empty Candlestick Park watching the Giants lose, playing ball in the Presidio, reading yet another baseball magazine or book and, yes, buying a pack of baseball cards and giving the gum to my brother.
During his time in San Francisco, Mays rapidly became integrated into that city’s civic leadership becoming a fixture at fundraising events and in the media while becoming close with San Francisco’s political, financial and cultural elite. The San Francisco in which Hirsch describes Mays as living is one about which little is written. It was a San Francisco beginning to undergo substantial change, but one that was still, after a fashion, a prosperous post-war middle class American city. Hirsch’s descriptions of that world should be interesting to San Franciscans who do not even like baseball.
The questions of how the core four of the New York Yankees compare to other groups of four players who played together for ten or more years, which was discussed here last week, raises the question of what was the greatest threesome of all time to have played together for ten or more years. There are four serious contenders for the best group of three players as well as one group, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr, who are not eligible because they all missed time due to military service.
For some people, the identity forged by allegiance to a favorite sports team is a way to remember the city where they grew up, a parent or childhood in general. This is one of the great things about being a fan, but to read anything more than this into one’s choice of baseball teams, while tempting, would be a mistake.