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Monday, July 1, 2013

The Baseball Historian's Notes for July 1, 2013: For the Love of the Game

One of the more endearing aspects of baseball is the way it can attract people and hold them in its gentle clutches for the remainder of their days. In an increasingly fast-paced world, professional players are more likely to be transitory; following the money or just the simple opportunity to stay in the game. No matter, there are baseball lifers all around who find that they are unable to do anything else but stay involved with the national pastime.

One of the most famous examples of a baseball lifer was Johnny Pesky, who was affiliated with the Boston Red Sox for an astounding 61 years. He was so closely linked to the team that he literally became synonymous with them, as evidenced by the eponymous Pesky Foul Pole in right field at Fenway Park. Such men are ambassadors and reminders of how much baseball can infiltrate the soul.

***One of the current longest-tenured baseball lifers is Doc Edwards. He is entering his 57th year in professional baseball, having served as a player, manager, coach and just about everything in between.

This New York Times piece by Dan Barry catches up with Edwards, who at the age of 76, is still going strong and managing in the independent leagues.

Edwards played parts of five major league seasons as a catcher with four teams, including the New York Yankees. He hit just .238 with 15 home runs before retiring for a new career in the dugout. He has 33 minor/independent league seasons and three major league seasons of managing under his belt. Although he has won over 2,000 collective games, his career record is below .500.

He has never been a star but always stuck with his game, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight. Edwards is a tremendous example of why baseball is magical to so many. In addition to a pastime it can also become a life, and a very good one at that.

***Hall-of-Fame pitcher Cy Young also remained involved in the game long after retiring as a player in 1911. This picture of him as an 87-year-old, which was taken at a 1954 old-timers game, shows youth knows no age when it comes to baseball. Sadly, he passed away the following year, but remained connected to his beloved sport until the end.

***Many of baseball’s legends are only described through written records and first-person narratives because of having played before the age of television. This included one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Walter Johnson, who spent his entire 21-year major league career pitching for the Washington Senators.

He won 417 games in his career, which is second all-time, behind only Cy Young. Unfortunately, fans and historians aren’t able to cue up video of his greatest starts but there are tantalizing tidbits of the right-hander in action.

This clip shows the impossibly lanky right-hander warming up and in game action. With long arms that seemingly would have allowed him to scratch his knees without bending at the waist, it’s easy to see how he was able to throw such a mighty fastball that earned him the nickname of “Big Train.”

***A little more than 29 years ago, one of the most unusual and scary moments in baseball history occurred at Cleveland Stadium during a game between the Indians and Texas Rangers. A 10-cent beer promotion turned ugly quickly, as boozy fans sparked a riot and caused the two teams to fight their way together to their respective clubhouses with bats.
The ugly incident caused the Indians to forfeit the game and ensured fans would never enjoy another discounted frosty adult beverage at a major league game again. Paying $8-10 for a beer may elicit complaints but another way to look at it is to be thankful for how it helps prevent a repeat of that one infamous night in Cleveland.

***Hall-of-Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson had a reputation of being an educated gentleman when he played during the early 1900s, which by contrast was known as a rough-and-tumble era. Despite being known as a good guy, Matty played the game as hard as anyone, including taking advantage of stealing signs if possible.

This excerpt from Mathewson’s 1912 book, “Pitching in a Pinch: Baseball from the Inside,” is a fascinating study of how to steal signs and avoid being caught. With all the outcry today when a player or team are accused of stealing signs, baseball has obviously changed a lot in this regard over the years.

***In a random note, the former house of Al Lopez, who had a Hall-of-Fame career as a catcher and manager, was recently moved in Tampa. The move was part of the Florida Department of Transportation’s Interstate Historic Mitigation Plan, and the house will eventually evolve into the Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez House. The endeavor will celebrate over a century of baseball in Tampa, stretching from Lopez’s rise, to Negro League play in the area.

***Finally, your moment of Zen. The Northeast has been slammed with heavy rainfall and flooding recently. While they wait for summer weather to show up, they can entertain themselves by watching this clip from several years ago of Florida Atlantic University and Western Kentucky University passing the time with a very creative dance-off during a rain delay.

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