A Moment In Time – 7/27/58

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Rocky Colavito of the Cleveland Indians “lets out a howl” (as the Sporting News put it) as he crosses home plate after crashing a grand slam in the bottom of the 6th inning off the Yankees ace (and eventual ’58 Cy Young winner) Bob Turley, putting the Tribe up 6-0 in the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, en route to a sweep of the defending AL champs, one of the highlights of an otherwise mediocre season on the shores of Lake Erie. Congratulating him are L-R Mickey Vernon, Russ Nixon with the handshake and Minnie Miñoso, who all scored on the blast, as pinch-hitter Bill Hunter (#7) steps up to bat next. While 1958 offered little promise at this point, could something be stirring for a Tribe insurgence in the years to come?

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1958 Topps card

While the Indians were flying high through the 1950’s, finishing at or near the top of the league for most of the decade, culminating in the 1954 AL pennant, 1957 saw a return to the second division, and more of the same in 1958, resulting in new manager Bobby Bragan being fired before the All-Star break. But things were looking up for Cleveland, as the 24-year-old Colavito was emerging as a superstar, with a stellar ’58 campaign that resulted in 41 home runs (1 behind HR champ Mickey Mantle) and leading the league with a .620 slugging percentage, finishing third in AL MVP voting (ironically, just behind Bob Turley).

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Colavito on the cover of Time, August 1959

And he continued his success in 1959, clouting 42 HRs (including 4 in 4 ABs in a row in Baltimore June 10, below), good enough to tie Harmon Killebrew for the AL crown, and was voted to his first All-Star game, as the Indians returned to the higher reaches of the American League, finishing only 5 games behind the destined Go-Go (White) Sox for the pennant.

Led by their young slugger, the 1960’s looked like high times for the Indians. But Cleveland’s GM Frank Lane had other ideas.

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Indians’ GM Frank Lane

While Lane had built a reputation by bringing the moribund White Sox from pretenders in the 40’s to contenders in the ’50’s, his was also an aggressive approach, averaging over 35 trades per season while with Chicago. And no star was safe; after joining the front office of St Louis after leaving the White Sox in 1955, he attempted to trade the Cardinals’ perennial superstar Stan Musial to the Philadelphia Phillies for Robin Roberts (an interesting trade in theory to say the least), but was quickly halted by Cards’ owner August Busch once it became public.

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Colavito with Detroit

Lane always favored consistent hitters over streaky sluggers, and while Colavito had had a great year, his late season slump (.207 in September) didn’t sit well with the GM, and despite his folk hero status in Cleveland, was dealt to Detroit in April 1960 for Harvey Kuenn, who won the AL batting crown in ’59. Tribe fans were irate, some swearing never to return to the ballpark, and to make matters worse, Kuenn was nagged by injuries that year; while having a fine season, his batting average fell over 40 points, and he was traded again at season’s end as the Indians stumbled to a mediocre finish under .500, 21 games behind the Yankees.

Colavito had some All-Star seasons with Detroit but was often derided for his inconsistency, even being benched on occasion. He did have an outstanding 1961 campaign with 45 HRs and 140 RBIs, both career highs, and helped the Tigers to 101 wins, although falling short (again) to the Yankees. He was strong but streaky in 1962, and after his power numbers fell further in 1963 and the Tigers tumbled to the second division, he was dealt to the Kansas City A’s in ’64. He finally returned “home” to Cleveland in 1965, having two All-Star seasons, but now on the tail end of his career.

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1958 Topps card

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1958 rookie card

As for the rest of the receiving party at home plate in 1958, unlike the HR hitter of honor, their times with the Indians were somewhat fleeting and nondescript. Mickey Vernon, at 40 years old, was enjoying his last starting season in the majors, playing 1B and hitting at a .293 clip, good for his last All-Star appearance. By 1960 he wound up as a 1B coach for the Pirates, being activated at year’s end for a few at-bats, and earning himself a WS ring.

Russ Nixon, a young catcher up from the Indian’s farm system in 1957, had his best year in 1958, catching 101 games for Cleveland and batting .301. He would be somewhat less consistent after that, catching part-time for primarily Boston until retiring in 1968, then on to a managing career in the 1980’s.

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Minnie Minoso and Billy Martin celebrate with Colavito after he hit 4 HRs in 4 consecutive at-bats at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, June 10, 1959

And lastly, Minnie Miñoso, who needs no introduction, came up in 1949 with the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first black Cuban player in the major leagues; but with the Tribe’s crowded outfield he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in early 1951, becoming their first black player overall, and socking his first pitch with the Pale Hose for a 2-run HR at Comiskey Park off the Yankees’ Vic Raschi. After many All-Star seasons he returned to the Indians for 1958-1959, missing out on the 1959 White Sox pennant (but coming up 5 games short, above), again returning to the South Side as his career wound down, becoming a legend in Chicago, and a statue in his honor stands at the White Sox’s park (whatever it is named at this time) today. Miñoso, at age 40, also had the interesting honor of playing the final baseball game at the Polo Grounds, the first (and last) Hispanic-American All-Star Game, October 12, 1963 (the NL stars beating the AL stars 5-2, with 14,235 on hand).

But there was one person in that moment who meant a great deal to the city and its fans, and leaves one to lament for what might have been for the Cleveland ball club as they moved into the 1960’s. Could the Tribe have quelled the Yankees’ dominance of that era with their own Bronx-born warrior Colavito leading the way? Hard to say, but I’ll defer to what Indians’ fans would confidently declare back in the late 50’s –  “Don’t Knock The Rock.”

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Burns-Eye Views of Big Time Parks, #11 (and #11a) – Cleveland Municipal Stadium and League Park

In 1937, Ed Burns, a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune, penned a series of articles on every major league park at the time (15 articles in all, of 16 parks for 16 teams; the Cardinals and Browns shared Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, while the Indians played in both League Park and Cleveland Municipal Stadium that year, with one article for both), which were also published in the Sporting News that year.

A very interesting series, especially from the perspective of 1937, and the hand-drawn diagrams of interesting plays and quirks of each park are wonderful. I’ll post them in order of when they were originally published, and one at a time to make things interesting. Click the Burns-Eye Views of Big Time Parks category link to the right to see all the articles together.

Eleventh in the series, and a bonus 2 for 1 here. The Indians were in the midst of a slow transition to cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where they had been playing some games since 1932, but the large size of the park coupled with the lingering Great Depression and lower attendance, kept the Tribe playing in smaller League Park as well. The cozier park had its charms, but according to Burns boasted “the silliest dimensions in the American League” and a “joke right field wall”, also noted in the drawn diagram as well. In fact, Burns even argued that League Park put the Indians at a disadvantage, as the locals tried to perfect the “ladle” of a batted ball over the short right field wall, which also resulted in easy pop flies on the road and made the team “all mixed up”. So, it only made sense that the Indians would eventually move full-time to the “best ball park in America”, and its symmetrical layout is also highly praised here; but, while Cleveland Municipal was a fine stadium in its own right, I’d guess that Burns and his cohorts spent little time in the park during blustery April contests.

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Pastime Portraiture, #6

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Ralph Kiner, spring training, Tuscon, AZ, March 1955.

Kiner’s final spring, and final season. After nine seasons in the NL, and a bad back betraying the prolific slugger, he would spend 1955 with the Cleveland Indians as a part-time LF and pinch-hitter, with 18 HRs and 54 RBIs, but would retire after the season, at only 32 years of age. He would have a short career as a minor league executive in San Diego, until his old buddy and current GM Hank Greenberg hired him for play-by-play with the White Sox in 1961. After that, New York came calling, and Ralph became a Mets’ icon, with over 50 years of Amazin’ memories. And Ralph is still with us in 2013, at 90 years of age. So for having one of the shortest HOF careers (10 years), he’s one of the few that can say he’s been in professional baseball for over 70 years in some capacity. Long live Ralph Kiner.

Yet another great Hy Peskin shot, check out his site and buy a classic photo or two:

Hy Peskin Collection – Baseball

Veeck – as in wrecked?

I’ve already had an earlier post about the crazy genius Bill Veeck in this blog’s youth, and I expect to have a few more. This was probably one of his better promotions, which seemed to get a little crazier as he got older.

Veeck made the Cleveland Indians a quick success after becoming owner of the club in 1946 (first AL black player, Larry Doby, in 1947, and a championship in 1948), but it would be short-lived; after getting divorced in 1949, he had to sell the Tribe to fund the settlement, but wouldn’t stay on the sidelines for long.

Veeck remarried in 1951, and then promptly purchased 80% ownership in the St. Louis Browns. The Browns would be a tough test for the budding marketing whiz, as the Cardinals shared the same park, and were far more popular. His first moves were to hire legendary Cardinals Rogers Hornsby (as manager) and Dizzy Dean (as an announcer), although Veeck fired Hornsby by June.

Thinking of more ideas to get fans into the ballpark, Veeck held a “Drink On The House” Night at Sportsman’s, July 1951. In a press photo below, Veeck is seen himself passing out free brews to the surprised Browns’ faithful. Somehow, I can’t imagine Fred Wilpon coming down the aisle at Citi Field to hand me a free Brooklyn Lager any time soon.

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It was actually a good way to get the word out about one of the local beer sponsors, Falstaff, St. Louis’ own. Below, a Falstaff beer ad with ol’ Diz.

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Either way, it seems to have worked out better than future Veeck promotions, which grew increasingly unusual. Only a month later was the famous Eddie Gaedel game, in which Veeck used the services of a “little person” to go up for an at-bat for the Browns (he walked).

Unfortunately, Veeck’s grandstanding would have little effect, and he himself would be largely responsible for the demise of the St. Louis Browns. When beer giant Anheuser-Busch purchased the Cardinals in 1952, with endless resources, Veeck knew the writing was on the wall, and looked to bidders to move the franchise. Milwaukee was the first choice, but the Boston Braves beat them to it, so the next choice was Baltimore – and Veeck planned on remaining majority owner, but the other owners were not very keen on it, and voted him down, so he sold the team anyway, and the Orioles were born.

Landis ShortsVeeck would go on to bring success to the Chicago White Sox (during two tenures), but also more unusual ideas, both good and bad, including introducing the famous exploding scoreboard in Comiskey Park and putting players’ names on their uniforms for the first time, both in 1960, and later the infamous “shorts” uniform from the 1970’s, the beginning of Harry Caray (then White Sox announcer) singing Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and last but not least, Disco Demolition Night in 1979, in which disco records were blown up on the field, and resulted in a near riot and the forfeit of the second game of a doubleheader by the White Sox.

Veeck finally sold the White Sox in 1981 and retired from baseball, passing away in 1986. He is responsible for many of the craziest things that have happened on a baseball field, and I’d have to admit, baseball history would be a lot less interesting without him.

Now batting, NUMBER THREE, Babe Ruth…

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Babe Ruth in his first year wearing #3, 1929

 

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Yankee Stadium, Opening Day, April 18, 1929. And if you look close (or click the photo to see the larger version), something is unusual about the players in this photo. A sharp eye reveals that the hometown Yankees have numbers on their backs (with Gehrig’s #4 at first base most prominent), while the visiting Red Sox do not. As it turns out, this is the first year (and the first game) that the Yankees introduced numbers to their already iconic uniforms.

As the article below states, “There is never anything half measure about the way Colonel Ruppert does things. When he built the Stadium he gave baseball the biggest arena of its kind in the world. And when he decided to number his players he got them the largest numerals that money could buy and still fit on a baseball uniform. The numbers proved an unqualified success. They are clearly discernible to the naked eye.

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Actually, Ruppert wasn’t entirely original in this idea. At the beginning of the 20th century, a few minor league and traveling/barnstorming teams experimented with numbers, but on the players’ sleeves. The first major league team to try the idea was the 1916 Cleveland Indians, who did it for a few weeks in mid-season, and again for a short time in 1917, but was quickly abandoned.

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Harry McCurdy, 1923 Cardinals

Later, the 1923 St. Louis Cardinals gave it a try, but, per Wiki, as then-manager Branch Rickey recalled, the Cardinals’ players were “subjected to field criticism from the stands and especially from opposing players,” so the numbers were removed.

Also, the aforementioned Indians had also planned to introduce numbers on uniform backs for the 1929 season, and both teams were scheduled to open their seasons on the same day, April 16, but the Yankees were rained out, so the Indians have the honor of playing the first MLB game with proper uniform numbers. The Yankees couldn’t introduce their soon-to-be-legendary digits until April 18 (above). And as the only two teams wearing them, the first game featuring numbers on every player was the first meeting of the Indians and Yankees that year, on May 13 (in Cleveland, at League Park).

What would have been interesting is to see one team on the field with numbers, and one without. And one can just imagine the fans seeing the numbers for the first time and the interesting chatter in the stands that day; some undoubtedly decrying the modernization of the game (“they look like racehorses out there”) while others marveling at how easy it is to tell who’s who now. I wouldn’t doubt that the numbers allowed more casual fans to become more involved in the games.

As most fans know, interestingly, the Yankees were intially numbered according to their spot in the batting order on that first game in 1929 (except for the pitcher), as follows:

Combs cf #1
Koenig 3b #2
Ruth rf #3 (of course)
Gehrig 1b #4 (of course)
Meusel lf #5
Lazzeri 2b #6
Durocher ss #7 (yes, Leo Durocher was the Yankees SS in 1929!)
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The remainder of the roster was apparently numbered as follows: The other two catchers were assigned #9 and #10, #11 through #21 were assigned to pitchers (except unlucky #13 wasn’t used), and #22 through #28 given to the remaining position players, then #29 and up assigned to coaches (manager Miller Huggins did not wear a number, but when he died suddenly in late 1929, coach Art Fletcher, #34, took over as manager and was then the first Yankee manager to have a number – good trivia question – stump your friends! Of course, this number system was too rigid to follow through the course of a season, and with pitchers going down or being released, new position players would take numbers in the 20’s, etc.

Times article from Opening Day 1929

Turns out numbered uniforms proved to be very popular indeed, with all teams having numbers by the 1930’s, including road uniforms, and now old baseball photos of uniforms without numbers look very unusual in modern times.

The Times itself had the understatement of all time in the article above: “In the event any one needs the information, Babe Ruth is No. 3. It is now expected he will make “3” as famous as the “77” Red Grange wore at Illinois.” Dare I say, Mr. Ruth’s #3 may be even a bit more famous than Mr. Grange’s #77 by now.

Veeck – as in yecch?

When baseball maverick Bill Veeck purchased the Cleveland Indians in mid-1946, he needed to appeal favorably to the Tribe’s fans, who hadn’t won anything since 1920, and by all accounts was very successful, improving the Indians’ fortunes greatly in 1947, including immediately getting all home games on radio, signing Larry Doby to break the AL color barrier, and then winning in all in 1948, still the Tribe’s last championship.

In purchasing the club, Veeck promptly published ads in the local Plain Dealer to assure the fans that they were committed to building a winner for Cleveland, two of which are shown below. Although painfully racist now (with mention of wigwams, papooses, and most offensive, injuns), the ads were good natured for the time and well received by the faithful. Definitely a time capsule from an age long gone.

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(Click on photos for larger versions)