Tag Archives: baseball

Missing Mr. Mitchell

We’re rushing up on the 4th of July again, which means more to me than just a day off. On a high note, the fourth is my birthday, but at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, it also marks the second anniversary of the passing of our buddy, the legendary organist and choir director Bob Mitchell, who died at the age of 96 in 2009.

The term "legendary" is kicked around carelessly in Hollywood, but that’s the only way to describe Bob. He first tickled the ivories at the age of four way back in 1916, and by the time he was 12(!) he was proficient enough at the organ to accompany silent films in theaters. This gig lasted until the talkies hit the scene four years later. He then became a choir director – a position he held in one fashion or another for the next 80 years!

Along the way he founded the "Robert Mitchell Choir Boys" troupe, which appeared in 100 films, and was the subject of an Academy Award-nominated short.

After a stint in World War II, he returned to Los Angeles and worked for many years as a staff organist for classic radio shows.  In his later years, he returned to his roots to accompany silent films all around the Los Angeles area. This is how Bob came into our lives.

I had been a fan of Bob’s for years, but I had never met him until he agreed to accompany Buster Keaton’s The General for us at our film series in Newhall in 2007. Bob’s star power brought the folks out in droves, and for the rest of his life he played for us in front of packed houses. He would be driven to Newhall by his good friends Dr. Gene Toon and Dee Perkins. Sometimes it would take several minutes for him to go from the car to the organ, but once there, he would transform into a young man.

He would play for the next hour or more, with no sheet music, composing as he watched the screen. Occasionally, he would even sing along to the music, or comment about one of the stars on screen that he had worked with personally over the years. Everyone ate it up.

We got to spend some time together away from the shows. I had a special experience at the end of one year when I drove Bob back to his assisted living home in Hollywood. He was a very caring and religious man, and asked me to stay while he lead Hanukkah prayers for the two of us. Now, neither of us were Jewish, but there we were wearing yarmulkes and lighting candles because Bob wanted to honor all of his friends of the Jewish faith.

Bob had a special love for Kimi and would light up whenever she entered the room (just like me). Kimi gave him a birthday cake at one of our shows while he set at the organ, and Bob hugged her like she was a favorite granddaughter.

It’s ironic to say that the death of a 96-year-old was unexpected, but for me it was. Bob, despite a few health problems, was never in a hurry to leave this life. I asked him if he was interested in playing a show for us on his 100th birthday in 2012, and he said, "Let’s book it!"

But it was not to be. We were on our way to visit him at the hospital last year when we got word that he had passed away.

A year ago at this time, the Los Angeles Conservancy presented the 1924 silent film Peter Pan as part of their "Last Remaining Seats" series at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. The show was hosted by Leonard Maltin and the near-capacity crowd was treated to a wonderful evening of entertainment. The night was dedicated to Bob who had played for the conservancy for over 20 years.

Before the show, a documentary that we made was played in a continuous loop in a side room. It was of the night in 2008 when we took Bob to Dodger Stadium to play the organ for the 7th inning stretch. See, another item on Bob’s resume was being the very first organist at Dodger Stadium when it opened in 1962.

Do you see why the term legendary fits?


The Day Baseball Lost Me

(This post was first published a year ago under the title June 4, 2010 – The Day Baseball Lost Me. I wrote it in a fit of passion, and I wanted to check in a year later to see if it was a flitting moment, or a real shift in priorities for me. I’ll answer that question at the end of the article.)

Twenty-seven up, Twenty-seven down!

It’s a PERFECT GAME! … A PERFECT GAME!

Hold on there, not so fast.

By now, we have all heard how earlier this month a blown call at first base by umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game. Cleveland’s 27th batter, Jason Donald, was thrown out by a step at first base. Joyce later watched the replay and was quoted as saying, "I just cost that kid (Gallaraga) a perfect game."

It should have been only the 21st perfecto in history, and amazingly the third in less than a month, but it was not to be.

June 2 was the date of the game.

That wasn’t the day that baseball lost me as a fan.

Since that day, Joyce manned up and apologized to Gallaraga, and seemingly everyone, including President Obama, called for baseball to expand its use of instant replay. It was the perfect time for baseball to fix a historic mistake and put a stake in the ground to make sure this kind of thing never happens again moving forward.

But on June 4, Baseball-less Commissioner Bud Selig announced that he was refusing to reverse the call or to immediately implement changes to the instant replay policy.

That was the day that baseball lost me.

This lack of leadership at the top comes as no surprise. Earlier in his tenure as commissioner Bud Selig was more forward thinking, and was not afraid to propose inter-league play, to expand the playoffs, or create the World Baseball Classic.

But those changes took place many years ago, and today he comes up with a new thought about as often as area codes change in Montana. Today Selig can only be counted on to kowtow to the owners of the “Big Two” (Yankees, Red Sox) and to the baseball purists who are somehow happy that stupid mistakes on the part of umpires are part of the game. He consistently ignores the wishes of most modern fans who are accustomed to sports that use technology to get the call right. 

This breakup was a long time in coming. I have a laundry list of complaints against the game that I have gunny-sacked until they have finally split the seams.

It annoys me that pitchers still bat in the National League. I also hate that there is no salary cap, meaning that once proud franchises in smaller markets like Pittsburgh and Kansas City will never again compete for a title, and that a guy like A-Rod can get paid more than some entire teams. And I feel cheated that once-cherished power statistics became meaningless during the steroid era under Bud’s watch. But like a roommate who rarely bathes but pays his share of the rent on time, baseball hadn’t annoyed me enough to evict it from my life.

Until now.

When I heard that Selig had denied Gallaraga his place in history by refusing to do the right thing and reverse the call – a decision that would also have kept his umpire from a life of strong drink – I was done. I am now officially an ex-fan.

Sure, I will go to Anaheim to see the All-Star game if someone tosses me a ticket, just because it’s on the bucket list. And I will still try to visit a few of the new stadiums if I happen to be back East just to see what all the fuss is about. And I’m sure I will jump back on the bandwagon if the Cubs ever show a pulse again (no worries there). But after a lifetime of following box scores and keeping an eye on the standings, I no longer give a damn.

And I will continue not to care until Bud and the rest of the purists come to grips with the fact that we are now nearly two centuries away from the first game played at Elysian Fields. It’s time they realize that any game that refuses to evolve is a game that is on its way out.

At least for this former fan.

(Did I really mean it? Am I still a former fan? Well, apart from a visit to Dodger Stadium in April on a free ticket, I would have completely forgotten that there was a baseball season this year. Yep, it took.)


The Firebrand

By the time Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President, seven Southern slaveholding states had already seceded from the Union and formed a new national government.

One of the new Confederacy’s first acts was to seize most Federal arsenals that were located within their territory.

One such facility that remained in Northern hands was located at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina,  on an island in Charleston harbor.

Lincoln had barely finished taking the oath of office when he was informed that a crisis was imminent at Ft. Sumter, which was badly in need of supplies.

Lincoln chose to resupply the troops rather than to capitulate to Southern demands for surrender of the fort. After an ultimatum was rejected by U.S. Major Robert Anderson, the Union commander at Ft. Sumter, the Confederate bombardment began at 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861 – 150 years ago today.

The war was on.

Just as someone squeezed off “the shot heard ‘round the world” that kicked off the Revolutionary War, somebody also fired the first shot of the Civil War. Who was it?

History credits many people as having had the “honor” of firing the first shot. One such individual was named Edmund Ruffin, a slaveholder and poster child for state’s rights, who was hanging around South Carolina because he was angered that his native Virginia hadn’t yet left the Union. (Something the state would do a few days later.)

When he wasn’t busy preaching secessionism, Ruffian was a noted agronomist who made valuable contributions to agricultural productivity in the South.

The first return shot fired from the fort came from Union Capt. Abner Doubleday – the same guy who somehow got woven into baseball’s creation myth.

The outgunned Union forces were pummeled from artillery batteries located on shore for 34 hours before surrendering. Miraculously, not a single Union life was lost during the shelling. Two soldiers did die later when a cannon exploded firing a volley during the surrender ceremonies. (Within months, formalities like “surrender ceremonies” would be forgotten in the war as chivalry quickly gave way to carnage.)

Four years to the day after Anderson lowered the American flag over Ft. Sumter, he was back to raise it again over the recaptured fort.

The defeat of the Confederacy didn’t sit well with firebrand Ruffin. Two months after Lee’s defeat at Appomattox Court House, Ruffin wrapped himself in a Confederate flag and blew his brains out with a shotgun.

 


Baseball’s Barrier Breakers

Hank Greenberg in 1934.

I saw an interview this week with Bert Blyleven, who along with Roberto Alomar, just got voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Blyleven, who was born in the Netherlands, pointed out that he was proud to be the first Dutchman to make it into the Hall.

While it is certainly a major accomplishment to do something no one from your nation has ever done before, I was reminded of a much more significant barrier that was broken by a Hall of Famer who was born 100 years ago this month.

Hank Greenberg, America’s first Jewish sports superstar, was born on New Year’s Day, 1911. One of baseball’s most feared sluggers during the 30s and 40s, Greenberg was born to Jewish immigrant parents who settled in the Bronx. A high school sports standout, he was initially recruited by the Yankees, but turned them down to attend college. A year later, he signed with the Detroit Tigers.

The tall, handsome, and good-natured Greenberg broke into the majors at the age of 19. Four years later he made headlines by announcing he wouldn’t play on the Jewish Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah during the midst of a tight pennant race. He eventually changed his mind after counseling with a rabbi and hit two home runs that day to clinch the pennant.

While hugely respected by his community who called him “The Baseball Moses,” bigotry may have cost him an appearance on the All-Star Team the following year, and he had to endure catcalls that season from the Cubs bench during the World Series.

The slurs got louder during the 1938 season when, while Hitler was sending Jews in Europe to concentration camps, Greenberg was challenging Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60 (he fell two dingers short).

Greenberg joined the armed forces in World War II and sacrificed several seasons during the prime of his career to service in the Far East. He homered in his first game back with the Tigers in 1945, and in the final game of that season, he hit a dramatic ninth-inning grand slam that sealed the American League crown for Detroit.

In 1947, Greenberg’s contract was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates. That same season, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Greenberg, sensitive to how he had been treated by players and fans for being different, became one of the few opposing players to publicly welcome Robinson into the league, and the two men became good friends.

Greenberg retired at the end of the 1947 season. He became a baseball executive and owner who was noted for promoting minority players into the big leagues. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956 and died thirty years later. He was the subject of a great documentary entitled The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg in 1998.

It makes you wonder how long it will be before an openly gay baseball superstar appears on the scene. When he does, let’s hope his fellow major-leaguers follow Greenberg’s example with Jackie Robinson, and welcome him to the Show.


Lucky 3000

Rickey and Tony.

Yesterday, while Roy Halladay was pitching the second no-hitter in postseason history, I was reminded of one of the most historic games I ever saw.

The date was October 7, 2001, nine years ago today, and less than a month after the tragedy of 9/11.

Tony Gwynn, one of baseball’s true “good guys” was scheduled to appear in the final game of his career that day in San Diego. His teammate Rickey Henderson was sitting on 2,999 career hits that morning, with a chance at joining the 3000-hit club during the same game.

The so-called “War On Terror” began that day, when the United States and Britain launched air strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Like the rest of America, I was still getting my land-legs back after the Twin Towers disaster. I had recently been culled from the Disney herd when caught in the wake of their post-9/11 layoffs. I had a big severance check in my pocket, and no place I had to be.

The game was completely sold out. I was three hours away in Pasadena debating whether the chance at seeing history was worth the possible frustration of walking away disappointed if I couldn’t scalp a ticket. I had to try.

The 5 Freeway was forgiving that morning, and I made it to Qualcomm in record time. The game was still a good half-hour away from starting when I arrived and I lucked out when the Padres scheduled a special pre-game tribute to the troops, which gave me a few precious added minutes to land a ticket. I knew that Rickey would be the lead-off hitter at the bottom of the first, so the clock was ticking. But no one was selling.

I found myself alone in the parking lot hearing the national anthem being sung from inside and the crowd’s response to the military fly-over that started the game.

The Padres were playing the Colorado Rockies that day and I heard the PA announcer introduce their first three batters who were relieved in order. It looked like I was out of luck.

Just then a pair of Japanese tourists approached me and in broken English said, “Ticket?”

I tried to explain that I needed one myself. With a confused look they produced a ticket. I realized they were actually trying to sell me a ticket, and asked how much. They said, “No, for you,” then forced the ticket into my hand, and walked away, refusing any payment.

I sprinted into the gate as the announcer introduced Rickey Henderson to a deafening applause. My free ticket was for a seat right behind the first base dugout, and I appeared in the walkway and caught a glimpse of Rickey seconds before he swatted a double to right field. I had seen a 3000th hit.

Later in the ninth, Tony Gwynn grounded out to shortstop for his very last official at-bat, the 9,288th of his career. I later learned that it was the first time that two players with 3000 hits played in the same game for the same team.

I never found out why the friendly Japanese couple gave me a ticket that day. It might simply have been the look of desperation on my face, or just their way to help out an American during one of our country’s darkest periods.

I prefer to think of it as a simple act of kindness; one which reminded me that bullies like Osama bin Laden can terrorize, but only the kind can truly elevate and inspire.

THIS JUST IN: Tony Gwynn just reported that he is battling cancer. Read about it here.


The Final Swing

Ted Williams crossing the plate after homering on his final big league at-bat on September 28, 1960.

Performers are remembered by how they exit the stage.

In the history of major league baseball, no one left the game in grander fashion than legendary hitter Ted Williams, who blasted a home run – his 521st – on his final at-bat, in front of a sparse crowd at Fenway Park, 50 years ago today. It was a moment that was immortalized by a young John Updike in his New Yorker essay entitled Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.

Williams, who was blessed with exceptional eyesight and hand-eye coordination coupled with an obsessive approach to hitting, had one of the most amazing careers in baseball history. The skinny left-fielder made an immediate impact after joining the Red Sox in 1939, placing fourth in the MVP voting as a rookie. Two years later he had one of the greatest seasons ever when he became the last man to bat .400, while setting the record for on-base percentage at .551 (since broken by a juiced-up Barry Bonds in 2002). That same year he won the All-Star Game for the American League with a walk-off three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. (Unbelievably, Williams didn’t win the Most Valuable Player award in 1941, because his accomplishments were overshadowed by Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak that same year.)

Williams’ production remained steady throughout his entire career, and he actually led the league in hitting as a 40-year-old. He ended up playing twenty-one seasons for Boston, winning two MVP awards, despite missing most of five seasons during his prime to military service in World War II and Korea, where he was a decorated Marine Corps pilot. His absence prevented him from reaching 3,000 hits or challenging Babe Ruth for the home run title, two legitimate possibilities. As it was, he retired with a career batting average of .344, the highest for any player with over 500 home runs.

Williams had a contentious relationship with Boston’s media and fans who often found him to be tactless and high-strung. This situation undoubtedly cost him additional accolades, as he twice won baseball’s Triple Crown (highest batting average, most home runs, most runs batted in), yet was passed over for the MVP award both seasons!

After his dramatic final home run on September 28, 1960 off of Baltimore’s Jack Fisher, Williams left his playing career behind. He later managed the Washington Senators for three seasons (earning the Manager of the Year Award in 1969), along with an additional season in Texas, where the Senators relocated in 1972 to become the Texas Rangers. In retirement he became an accomplished sport fisherman and was inducted into the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, his success in these various endeavors didn’t come home with him. His family life was a shambles, with three failed marriages producing children who sullied their father’s reputation after his death in 2002 by having his body cryogenically frozen instead of cremated as he wished, making him the butt of countless late-night monologue jokes.

In my opinion, Ted Williams hit one final home run in his baseball career after his final plate appearance. It came in 1966 during his induction ceremony for the Baseball Hall of Fame, when he called on Hall of Fame voters to include former Negro Leagues players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Leigh Montville of the Boston Globe later wrote that this powerful statement from one of the greatest white players of all time was “a first crack in the door that ultimately would open and include Paige and Gibson and other Negro League stars in the shrine.” Largely because of Williams’ endorsement, Satchel Paige (who I wrote about yesterday in “Deadwrite’s Dailies”) became the first Negro Leaguer inducted into the Hall in 1971.


How Old Would You Be?

It took pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige longer to climb to the big leagues than anybody in history, and he was in no hurry to leave the Show behind.

It was on this date 45 years ago that Paige came out of retirement for one final appearance at age 59, to become the oldest man to ever play in a major league baseball game.

Paige, a “larger-than-life” personality who got his nickname from carrying satchels at the post office as a boy, had begun his playing career over four decades(!) earlier when he first took the mound in semi-pro leagues in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. He threw right-handed with a high leg kick, and had only one pitch, the fastball, which he altered, giving names to the variations like “Bat Dodger,” “Trouble Ball,” and “Midnight Creeper.” He quickly moved up the ranks to become the top pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues, becoming a five-time All-Star, posting a record of 31-4 in 1933, his best season, with 21 consecutive victories. Much of his early career was spent barnstorming around the country, often playing white teams in exhibition matches. Joe DiMaggio, called him the “best pitcher he ever faced” after one of these games.

When Kansas City Monarchs teammate Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in 1947, Paige was publicly elated, but privately disappointed not to be the one chosen for the honor. No matter, as there were many major league “firsts” in store for Paige, beginning with becoming the oldest “rookie” in history, when he was signed to his first big league contract by Cleveland on his 42nd birthday in 1948. He helped the Indians win the pennant that year and pitched in the World Series. He would later pitch in two major league all-star games for the St. Louis Browns (becoming the first black pitcher to do so) before ending his career in 1953.

Kansas City Athletics manager Charles O. Finley brought Paige back for his sole appearance in 1965 as a publicity stunt to honor several former Negro League players who were in attendance. Paige played his role perfectly, resting in a rocking chair in the dugout before the game, having liniment rubbed onto his joints by a nurse. When Satchel took the mound, he still had the juice, throwing three scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox, allowing only one hit, a double to future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.

He pitched in more games in more places than anyone in history. It is estimated that Paige appeared in 2600 games, pitching 300 shut-outs, and 55 no-hitters. He became the first Negro Leagues player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.

Paige, who was as known for his quips as for his pitching, attributed his longevity in the sport to “six maxims” on “How To Stay Young,” which were carved on his headstone at Forest Hills Cemetery in Kansas City after his passing in 1982.

  1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.
  2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
  3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
  4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
  5. Avoid running at all times.
  6. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.

Remarkably, Paige may have been much older than 59 when he last pitched. Birth records were spotty in the Paige family and some believe he was several years older than he stated. Whenever he was questioned about this, Paige would say that he wasn’t certain of his age and ask, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”