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Monday, June 3, 2013

The Baseball Historian's Notes for June 3, 2013

One of baseball’s all-time heroes officially returned to the game this week. The slumping Kansas City Royals hired Hall of Famer George Brett, the greatest player in franchise history, to be the team’s new hitting coach.

The Royals, who spent big to bring in veterans like James Shields and Ervin Santana during the offseason, entered the year with playoff aspirations. However, after an 8-20 May, they are back in last place in the AL Central. Brett is being brought in to not only try and provide a spark, but to also buy the team some time. Royals’ fans admire nobody more than Brett. He may be able to create some good will while the team tries to get back on track and salvage their season.

***Speaking of Brett, he was mentioned for his kindness in a recent story about “Door George,” an aging Cleveland-area strip club bathroom attendant.

In 1987, Brett and teammate Bill Buckner went to a club that “Door George” was working. Fresh off the 1986 World Series, Buckner was taking some ribbing from other customers. “Door George” sprang into action and relocated the ballplayers to a private table, so they could better enjoy their lascivious experience. Brett appreciated the gesture so much that he set the attendant up with two tickets to the next game, a limo ride to the game and $100. Not only that, but the same package promptly appeared every time Kansas City visited Cleveland until Brett retired following the 1993 season. The story may not stand with tales of other players’ charitable exploits, but is heartwarming nonetheless.

***Although the majority of major league baseball games take place at night, enough are still played during the day to necessitate the widespread use of sunglasses. Few know that the flip-up variety were invented by Hall of Fame outfielder Fred Clarke, who played for the Louisville Colonels and Pittsburgh Pirates from 1894-1915.

Clarke only played in day games during his career, so the ability to shade his eyes was important. There may be many different models and brands now available, but the standard design remains relatively unchanged, reflecting the brilliance and utility of the invention.

***Here is a great picture showing an early version of the flip-up sunglasses. It was taken in 1915 and depicts Brooklyn Dodgers’ right fielder Casey Stengel. He may have gained more fame as a manager, but he was an excellent player who logged parts of 14 major league seasons, and was apparently very fashionable whenever he took the field.

***Some of baseball’s greatest players came from humble origins. Count New York Yankees’ legend Mickey Mantle as part of that group. The Hall of Fame outfielder grew up in Oklahoma during the Dustbowl years in the 1930’s. Although it is long uninhabited, his childhood home still remains. It’s a fascinating reminder of how far Mantle came in becoming the toast of New York City, and an icon in the most storied franchise in baseball history.

***First baseman Mark Grace crafted an outstanding 16-year major league career with the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks, collecting 2,445 hits and a .303 cumulative batting average. His success wasn’t really a surprise, as he was a highly regarded prospect.

Jim Essian wrote this pretty spot-on scouting report of Grace in 1987 when the youngster was playing for Double-A Pittsfield. The report concluded Grace was a “Team leader. Nothing but class. Rarely strikes out. Hits line to line with power.”

Interestingly, the report also included the comment, “the brothers love him.” This was a reference to his ability to get along with black players. It was not a facetious remark, but rather reflected that team race relations were an important area of concern so recently.  

***Described by Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey as an “escaped divinity school student,” Eddie Basinski and his bespectacled slim body didn’t look much like a typical baseball player. Looks can be deceiving, and Basinski proved that was the case when it came to his career.

Although the infielder played in only 203 major league games, he forged a 15-year Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame career, primarily with the Portland Beavers.

Despite never playing baseball in high school or college, and just a partial season as a semi-pro, Basinski made his major league debut in 1944. He didn’t hit much in the big leagues, but was an excellent fielder, and was nicknamed “Bazooka” by Leo Durocher because of his keen ability to turn double plays.

David Eskenazi recently profiled Basinski, which extended well beyond the baseball diamond. The former player also holds a degree in mechanical engineering and was a violin virtuoso. He was one of the most well-rounded individuals to ever play the game, and by proxy, one of the most interesting.

***As a popular television commercial once proclaimed, “Chicks dig the long ball.” As it turns out, everyone likes home runs, especially when they are of the longer variety. To close out this week’s notes, this collection of clips of the longest home runs of the past 30 years or so should give all aficionados of titanic taters more than their fill of majestic moon shots.

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