Top 100 Baseball Blog

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the Legendary Alabama Pitts

The history of baseball is littered with larger than life fictional figures like Sidd Finch and Roy Hobbs. Perhaps even more than their supposed talents, their stories are what make them so memorable and a part of the fabric of America’s pastime. Every now and then a real player comes along and blurs the lines between myth and reality. One of those players was Alabama Pitts, a prisoner doing an 8-16 year stretch in Sing-Sing, who captured the attention and hearts Americans for a few months in 1935.

Edwin Collins Pitts was born in 1910 in Alabama. His father- who died when he was 5 months old- was also named Edwin, and the infant was nicknamed Alabama by his mother to give him a more unique identity. Little is known about his childhood, but given that he enlisted in the Navy when he was 15, it’s safe to assume he grew up in less than desirable circumstances. He served a total of three years before heading to New York City as an 18 year old; a move that changed his life forever.

Unfortunately, Pitts couldn’t catch a break in New York and lived hand to mouth. He turned to crime to make money, participating in a grocery store robbery, which netted a grand total of $76.25. Pitts was caught when he and his accomplice took a cab from the scene of the crime and were pulled over just down the street. Court records indicate that Pitts robbed the store with a gun, while his accomplice stood watch outside. When he was arrested, Pitts was a suspect in a handful of other robberies, but the police could never connect him to those crimes.

Prior to sentencing, Pitts was encouraged by his lawyer to write a letter to the presiding judge.  He, or at least somebody on his behest, wrote, “Your Honor, I am guilty twice over and now fully realize the seriousness of the crimes I committed punishable by long years of penal servitude… It would be tiresome to you and useless to me to go into details of why I have broken these laws. The madness and folly of youth had much to do with it, ably aided by false pride, broken illusions, and shattered ideals… Sir, if you should see fit for your court to show me mercy, I will try in every way to be worthy of your kindness and goodness.” The plea fell on deaf ears and he was sentenced to 8-16 years in Sing-Sing Prison.

In the years leading up Pitts’ arrival at the prison, reformative measures had been enacted to give inmates a better chance at rehabilitation; including athletics. Pitts became a model prisoner, heavily involved in sports. He was the star of their football team, the Black Sheep, coached by volunteer John Law, a former Notre Dame player under Knute Rockne.

In particular, Pitts excelled in baseball at Sing-Sing, playing in exhibition games against the Yankees and Giants. He starred as an outfielder, hitting .500 with 8 home runs in 21 documented prison exhibition baseball games. His exploits began garnering him national recognition and the Los Angeles Times even dubbed him “the most prominent jailbird athlete in America.”

Because of the publicity and his positive rehabilitation, the Sing-Sing warden arranged to have three years reduced from Pitts’ sentence for good behavior. Coming up for release in 1935, he worked out for a couple of professional football teams and was even offered a $200 a month contract by Johnny Evers, the manager of the Albany Senators in the International League. Needing a steady job, he accepted Evers’ offer, a move that immediately thrust him further into the public spotlight.

International League President Charles H. Knapp refused to allow Pitts’ Contract to stand, appalled at the notion of a former felon playing in his circuit. His decision was upheld by W.G. Bramham, president of the minor leagues. This began a firestorm of response, with many being in Pitts’ favor. He fueled the fire by insisting he only wanted to play baseball because he loved the game, claiming, “You don’t think I’m trying to get into baseball for the money? I love the game.” He was released from prison on June 6, 1935 to a large media crush. Even though his signing was invalidated, he plotted an appeal and began travelling and training with Albany.

An executive committee of the National Association agreed to hear Pitts’ appeal, but ultimately ruled against him. Pitts next announced he would appeal to the highest baseball authority, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. While awaiting that decision, he received an overwhelming outpouring of support, including job offers to play professional football and act in Hollywood.

Almost overnight, the Pitts case became the hottest news story in America.  Journalist Henry McLemore proclaimed, “Alabama may prove to be unfit for baseball, but in my book- and I believe there are thousands of baseball fans who have the same sort of book- a guy should be given a chance, at least.”

Both strong and strange reactions popped up all over the country. Congressman Raymond Cannon from Wisconsin offered his legal services. Evers and the Albany club considered requesting an official pardon for Pitts, which if granted would have made the objection to his signing a moot point. One man, Max Berger, from Otisville, New York, died of a heart attack in the midst of having a spirited debate with a customer at his store over the Pitts’ case. Even John Costello, the manager of the grocery store that Pitts robbed, weighed in on Pitts’ side, stating, “If the parole commissioner thinks it safe for society to send Pitts out, it ought to be safe for baseball players. My sympathies are entirely with Alabama in this controversy.”

Finally, on June 17, 1935, Landis ruled that Pitts could play for Albany, but stipulated that he could only play in regular season games to prevent Albany from taking advantage of his popularity by playing him in an abundance of exhibition games to make money. Landis explained he had made his decision because “Many reputable people approached me in Pitt’s behalf. The opinion of many of those people is one that there has been a complete reformation in Pitts’ character. This fact and the fact barring him from baseball would perhaps have a destroying effect on his entire career provide the reasons for my action.”

Pitts was ecstatic to finally be cleared to play, telling reporters, “The judge has finally earned his salary. His decision is the best boost in the world. I’m just raring to go. Judge Landis’ ruling to let me play ball makes me the happiest man in the world. I won’t do anything to make him regret it.”

When Pitts reached Albany he was ready to play, exalting, “I’m raring to go. I tell you now that I won’t make anybody regret giving me an opportunity.” Evers told the press that Pitts would “remain with the Senators the remainder of the season regardless of whether he makes good or not.” Albany knew the notoriety he brought and wanted to take advantage of that as much as possible.

Everyone was anxious to see how Pitts would do against professional competition and he was thrown into the fire almost immediately, collecting 2 hits in his debut on June 23, 1935, and lauded for stellar defense in the outfield. He continued to be a sensation, even eclipsing his future Hall of Fame teammate, Hack Wilson.

Ultimately, Pitts was very good defensively, but not a great hitter. He also suffered from a continual string of injuries that prevented him from gaining momentum. He bounced around the low minors until 1937, playing sporadically because of his inability to stay healthy.

It is difficult to know how dedicated Pitts was to becoming a professional baseball player because he definitely capitalized on his newfound fame in any way he could. In the fall of 1935 he signed $1,500 contract to play professional football as a fullback with the Philadelphia Eagles, and appeared in 3 games. He also toured with the Alabama Pitts All Stars, a New York professional travelling basketball team during the 1935 offseason, playing sparingly, but using his name as the big drawing card.

As Pitts’ professional baseball career wound down, he moved to North Carolina, got married, had a child, and worked in textile mills and coached high school baseball. He also tried to downplay his criminal past, usually claiming that the robbery he was convicted of netted only $10 and that he had played only a minor role. His last professional season came in 1940, when he played for the Hickory Rebels in the Tar Heel League. He hit .302, but was unable to play regularly because of the persistent injuries.

On June 6, 1941, Pitts played a baseball game for a Valdese, North Carolina mill team, and went to a tavern afterwards to celebrate. Around 3 a.m. on the 7th he tried to cut in on Newland LeFevers, who was dancing with his girlfriend. LeFevers pulled a knife and slashed at Pitts, severing the auxiliary artery in his right armpit. Pitts was dead within a couple of hours. LeFevers was convicted of murder, but the sentence was overturned after he had served a few months because evidence was presented showing Pitts was drunk and acting aggressively at the time of the altercation.

In his professional baseball career, Pitts played a total of 171 games, hitting .265 with 6 home runs. Such modest numbers are offset by his legend, which was already firmly in place before he ever stepped into the batter’s box for his first game. Although he is barely remembered today, for a few weeks in the summer of 1935, Alabama Pitts was one of the most talked about people in the United States; an unlikely turn of events for an ex-con from Sing Sing.


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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Aaron Kurcz: More than Just Compensation

Young professional baseball players have more than enough personal pressure trying to make the major leagues without having to face public scrutiny. However, that’s not how baseball works and that’s why pitching prospect Aaron Kurcz has gone from relative obscurity in the Chicago Cubs organization to notoriety with the Boston Red Sox.

Kurcz was a star outfielder and right-handed pitcher for Durango High School in Las Vegas. He originally enrolled at Air Force, but decided to transfer to the College of Southern Nevada, so he could pursue baseball. Kurcz was a dominant reliever and teammate of Bryce Harper with CSN. They entered the draft together in 2010, where Harper was taken as the 1st overall pick and Kurcz was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 10th round.

Despite a slight frame (5’11, 170 pounds) for a pitcher, Kurcz possesses a fastball in the low to mid 90’s and enough feel for breaking pitches to indicate he has a solid future moving forward. In his first two professional seasons he has mowed down batters in the low minors. In 58 games spanning 109.2 innings, he has a 7-5 record, 2.95 ERA, 9 saves, and an impressive 139 strikeouts. More information on his statistics is available at

Kurcz recently came to the public eye when it was announced on March 15th that he was the long awaited player to be named to complete the transaction that allowed Theo Epstein to jump from the Boston Red Sox to the Cubs. Now as Kurcz progresses through the Boston system, the eyes of Red Sox Nation will be upon him, as the team waits to see what they really got as their return.

2012 will be a pivotal year for Kurcz, as his ability to handle the pressure of being a focal point of Epstein’s departure will go a long way in testing his mettle. He will likely spend the year in A-ball and given the chance to perfect his secondary pitches. I had the opportunity to chat with Kurcz prior to the news of his trade and found out a little more about the intriguing prospect. You can also follow him on Twitter and keep up on how he fares this season.

Aaron Kurcz Interview:

Who was your favorite team and player growing up, and why?: Being from Vegas, we didn’t have a team here, so I was always a fan of the Padres since they were so close. Favorite player was Chipper Jones.

Do you believe your future lies in starting or relieving?: I like to think relieving; it’s where I’m most comfortable.

Can you run through what your draft experience was like with Chicago?: Draft day, I got a call from my agent telling me where I was going to be picked. When my name was called it was an awesome moment. It was crazy to see my name on the draft board online. The scout in my area called me later that day to talk about what was going to happen.  

How difficult was it to decide between the Air Force and professional baseball?: I went to Air Force because of the great opportunities it opens for its graduates, but during my first summer there I was given the chance to go play summer ball in Minnesota. It was there that I realized I wanted to try and chase my dream of playing professionally.

What pitches do you throw, and which one is your strongest and which one needs the most work?: I throw a four-seam and two-seam fastball, changeup, and slider. This past year I struggled with my slider.

Can you talk a little bit about any advice or experience you have had with Greg Maddux?: Got to be around him a lot in instructs in 2010, and he was with our team about a week in Daytona Beach last year. Great guy, and tons of baseball knowledge. It’s always nice to be around someone like that who has been around the game for quite a while. I just tried to soak up all the pitching knowledge he shared with us.  

What are some of the difficult off the field things about being a minor league player?: For me, being a single 21 year old. I can’t complain about too much. It can be a grind at times, but just got to work through it. It’s my job and it’s what I love to do.

What are your specific baseball goals for 2012?: First, I need to keep my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as the main priority in my life. From there, the only thing I can control is how hard I work. It would be nice to advance a few levels, but just trying to become a better pitcher is the main goal.  


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Monday, March 26, 2012

Pride Cometh Before the Fall Classic

Christopher Gasper of the Boston Globe recently wrote about a disagreement that has developed between Red Sox GM Ben Cherington and manager Bobby Valentine. It is another in a long line of failures and missteps over the past 6 months for the organization whose season ended so disappointingly last season. Even though the regular season is about to start, the differences Boston management are experiencing have the ability to turn this long winter for Red Sox fans into a nuclear winter.

The disagreement between Cherington and Valentine centers on two position battles. Cherington expects to see Daniel Bard in the starting rotation and Mike Aviles as the regular shortstop. Meanwhile, Valentine believes Bard and his power fastball and slider would be more effective in relief, and would like to install slick fielding, no hitting Jose Iglesias as his shortstop. With spring training about to come to an end, decision time is nigh but no resolution appears to be in sight. Make no mistake about it; rifts like these can contribute to the making or breaking of a season if not resolved properly.

The situation is made more awkward by Cherington having his input usurped when Valentine was hired as manager by team president Larry Lucchino over the GM’s choice of Dale Sveum. It is hard to imagine that much trust currently exists between Cherington and Valentine, but if the team is going to do anything of consequence going forward, that will have to change.

On the surface, this argument may be about differing views on talent and where it best fits on a team, but ultimately it’s really all about pride. If Cherington lets Valentine have his way, it would completely negate the bulk of the moves he made this off-season, trading both incumbent shortstops Jed Lowrie and Marco Scutaro, and acquiring Mark Melancon to assume the setup role so Bard could transition to starter. Giving in now, combined with being overruled on his managerial choice, would make Cherington the baseball GM version of a eunuch.

For Valentine’s part, he knows he has a lot to prove to a lot of people. It has been a decade since he last had an MLB managing gig, and he only got to come to Boston because Lucchino decided to pull rank. He has been castigated for his flamboyant and often unconventional ways, putting a target on him before managing his first regular season game in at Fenway. Knowing that this may well be his final opportunity to skipper a major league team, he is likely determined to do things his way as much as possible, to prove once and for all if he is a joke or a genius.

Valentine once had Rey Ordonez, a shortstop very similar to Iglesias, who despite his offensive shortcomings contributed greatly with his glove to some successful late 1990’s New York Mets’ teams. Valentine believes that Iglesias’ shortcomings with his bat could be absorbed by the rest of the potent Boston lineup. He also knows that Bard’s two pitch repertoire (no matter how much Bard’s developing changeup is discussed, it’s not yet a viable third pitch) is better suited for relief and would shore up an already weak unit. Bard is a known commodity as a set-up man, and a wild card facing an uphill battle trying to convert to starting. Of course, there is no exciting replacement for Bard if he was removed from the rotation, but is Valentine’s preferred gamble.

It will all come down to pride and who blinks first. Gasper remains hopeful that the disagreement could make the Red Sox stronger, but conventional wisdom makes that seem like a long shot. Valentine has been in professional baseball for over 40 years and the next time he backs down will be the first. Cherington is still trying to make his bones as a major league GM, but is still firmly hunkered in the shadows of the departed Theo Epstein. Given the circumstances, it would seem that the person who gives in would only be doing so if they left Boston. At this point obviously nobody is quitting or getting fired, so the Red Sox stagger on, at loggerheads. If fried chicken and beer were the downfall of the 2011 Red Sox, pride is the early frontrunner to be that cause in 2012.


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Friday, March 23, 2012

Chick Gandil's Side of the Story

The story of the 1919 Black Sox scandal has been frequently rehashed over the years but even so, there is still great interest in reviewing new information or angles. Every now and then I come across something about the group that I haven’t seen before and try to restore it to general knowledge. Last year I dusted off an interview that Shoeless Joe Jackson did shortly before his death. Now, I have found that Chick Gandil, the first baseman of the doomed group, did his own narrative, and it deserves a similarly modern audience.

“This Is My Story of the Black Sox Series!” appeared in the September 17, 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated. Gandil told his side of things to Melvin Dursag, a young writer who went on to have well over 50 years in sports journalism. Dursag made Gandil’s words the emphasis of the piece and he offered little in the way of analysis. Not surprisingly, Gandil’s recollections differ quite a bit from what is accepted as the “official version” of the story and what has appeared in popular culture. Regardless, it is an intriguing counterpoint and an interesting comparison to Jackson’s interview.

The entire Gandil narrative is available online. He also briefly described the other 7 players who were banished with him. While Gandil’s version of events differed in some key ways from Jackson’s interview, he made no bones about confirming that he was involved with gamblers in conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series. For the sake of closer inspection, I am pulling out what I believe to be the most interesting portions of Gandil’s statements, and including my own thoughts in italics.

Gandil admitted what the Black Sox did was wrong, but felt the group was unfairly demonized: “To this day I feel that we got what we had coming. But there are certain things about the Series that have never been told and which I would like to clear up right now… I have often been described as one of the ringleaders of the Black Sox scandal. There's no doubt about it. I was.”

Gandil immediately gets the issue of guilt or innocence out of the way. He believed what the group of players did was wrong, but didn’t match what the public believed took place. This contrasts Jackson’s interview, where the outfielder unequivocally insisted his innocence in the matter.

There was no love lost for White Sox owner Charles Comiskey: “There was Charles Comiskey, the White Sox owner. He was a sarcastic, belittling man who was the tightest owner in baseball. If a player objected to his miserly terms, Comiskey told him: ‘You can take it or leave it.’ Under baseball's slave laws, what could a fellow do but take it? I recall only one act of generosity on Comiskey's part. After we won the World Series in 1917, he splurged with a case of champagne.”

This is not a surprising revelation. The Hall of Famer is best remembered not for his playing/managerial days, but for the lengths he went to in order to save a dime as an owner. His miserly ways combined with a rampant gambling culture in baseball created a perfect storm for something like the Black Sox scandal to take place.

Gamblers were as much a part of baseball as the players: “Where a baseball player would run a mile these days to avoid a gambler, we mixed freely. Players often bet. After the games, they would sit in lobbies and bars with gamblers, gabbing away. Most of the gamblers we knew were honorable Joes who would never think of fixing a game. They were happy just to be booking and betting.”

The Black Sox seem much more shocking today because of how far baseball distanced itself from gambling in subsequent years. In 1919 betting on baseball was rampant and many of the spectators were either professional gamblers or those who had placed a wager on the game. Betting on baseball was the norm, not the exception, but what happened with Chicago changed that culture forever.

Gandil knew gambler Sport Sullivan, one of the primary figures in the fix, for years prior to the 1919 World Series: “I had always considered "Sport" Sullivan as one of those gamblers until he approached me in Boston in 1919, about a week before the World Series. Sullivan was a tall, strapping Irishman who looked like a cop more than he did a bookmaker. We had first met while I was playing with Washington in 1912. Our team had a couple of top pitchers, Walter Johnson and Bob Groom. Managers didn't publicly announce their starting pitchers in advance then as they do today. Sullivan, who was betting the games, had a hot idea. He wanted me to tip him off by wire when we were on the road, informing him when Johnson and Groom would start. He suggested a code—‘No. 1 goes tomorrow,’ when Johnson was to pitch; and ‘No. 2 goes tomorrow,’ when it was Groom.

It was a tempting proposition, but I was going pretty good at that time and I was afraid to get into a jam. Besides, there had been an incident the year before which made me gun shy. While I was playing for Montreal, some gambler had offered two other players and me $25 apiece to throw a game to Rochester. We reported the bribe to our club owner who, in turn, reported it to the league president. It created a big commotion.”

This sounds a little suspicious. Gandil didn’t describe Sullivan as a friend, therefore one has to wonder why they continued to have a relationship for at least 8 years. The type of tips Sullivan asked for were not uncommon at the time and it is reasonable to believe that Gandil was his regular source, pocketing some extra cash to supplement his playing salary.

Gandil implicated Eddie Cicotte as his ground level co-conspirator: “Cicotte and I told Sullivan we would think it over. The money looked awfully good. I was 31 then and couldn't last much longer in baseball. Cicotte and I tried to figure out first which players might be interested. And of those who might be, which ones would we care to cut in on this gravy. We finally decided on Jackson, Weaver, Risberg, Felsch, McMullin and Williams—not that we loved them, because there never was much love among the White Sox. Let's just say that we disliked them the least.”

What was left unsaid here is that the players chosen to be part of the group probably made the cut because it was believed they would be game for such a venture. With so much at stake if anything went wrong, it is unlikely that partners would be decided without knowing in advance what their probable response would be. If true, this puts some tarnish on the legacies of these players, who are so often portrayed as the victims of circumstance.

The players thought about double crossing the gamblers from the beginning… and Buck Weaver may not have been as innocent as is often portrayed in popular culture: We played our game that afternoon and won. That night Cicotte and I called the other six together for a meeting and told them of Sullivan's offer. They were all interested and thought we should reconnoiter to see if the dough would really be put on the line. Weaver suggested we get paid in advance; then if things got too hot, we could double-cross the gambler, keep the cash and also take the big end of the Series cut by beating the Reds. We agreed this was a hell of a brainy plan…

Cicotte and I called a meeting of the players that night and told them about Burns. Weaver piped up, ‘We might as well take his money, too, and go to hell with all of them.’”

Movies like Eight Men Out depict the Black Sox as trying to double cross the gamblers because they were not being paid, but then remorsefully throwing the Series because of threats from the gamblers. Gandil contradicted that by claiming the players discussed that as an option before any game were even played. Weaver, perhaps the second most sympathetically remembered player from the group after Jackson, is credited with suggesting the double cross.

Gandil claimed that the players had a face-to-face meeting with gangster Arnold Rothstein, the supposed facilitator of the scheme: “Later in Chicago I got word from Sullivan that he was bringing a friend from New York to sew up the deal. A meeting was arranged at the old Warner Hotel on the South Side, where many of the players lived. Sullivan introduced his friend as "Mr. Ryan," but, having met this man two years before in New York, I recognized him as Arnold Rothstein, the big shot gambler.”

In 1919 Rothstein was the most well-known gambler in the United States. Although he was never proven in a court of law to have been part of the fix, there is little doubt that he was the driving force behind it. He did whatever he could in the aftermath to distance himself from the situation, and many feel he was the one who arranged for the players’ confessions to “disappear.” It seems unlikely that somebody so cautious would have risked having an in-person meeting with such a public figure, but it’s not out of the question.

Gandil claimed that the players were so scared their plot would be found out that they actually decided to play to win: “I was called to a meeting of the eight players. Everyone was upset and there was a lot of disagreement. But it was finally decided that there was too much suspicion now to throw the games without getting caught. We weighed the risk of public disgrace and going to jail against taking our chances with the gamblers by crossing them up and keeping the $10,000. We were never remorseful enough to want to return the ten grand to Rothstein. We gambled that he wouldn't dare do anything to us since he was in no position himself to make a fuss over the cash. Our only course was to try to win, and we were certain that we could.”

The fear of being caught by the authorities would have been just as strong as that from not knowing what angry gamblers were capable of. There were a number of White Sox plays deemed as suspicious or downright disgraceful. Could the White Sox have been trying to win? Were they trying to win to double cross and take the gambler’s money and claim World Series winners’ shares at the same time? Could their miscues have been caused by excessive nerves instead of purposefully playing beneath their capabilities?

Gandil offered evidence that Chicago did not throw the Series: “If there is any doubt about our trying to win the Series, let's look at the record. Jackson was the leading hitter with .375. He didn't commit an error. Weaver was our second man with .324. He didn't boot any, either. Total hits favored Cincy only 64 to 59, and each side committed 12 errors. Though I hit only .233, it was still seven points better than our star Eddie Collins, and two of my hits knocked in winning runs.

Our losing to Cincinnati was an upset all right, but no more than Cleveland's losing to the New York Giants by four straight in 1954. Mind you, I offer no defense for the thing we conspired to do. It was inexcusable. But I maintain that our actual losing of the Series was pure baseball fortune.”

Gandil makes compelling points. The errors were excessive and the batting averages low, but the Series took place in a much different era. On the flip side, the great thing about statistics is that they can often be used to simultaneously strengthen or discredit either side of an argument, depending upon how they are used.

Gandil held a grudge against Cicotte: “For a good many years, I held a deep resentment against Cicotte for his initial confession. I felt I would never forgive the guy, but I think I have by now. Still, I don't believe we would have ever been caught if he hadn't gabbed.”

It seems obvious that when the players hatched the World Series plot- whichever version that might have been- that there was a feeling that they all trusted each other to follow through and have each other’s backs. As the oldest player of the eight, Cicotte was nearing retirement and had a family, all reasons that likely caused him to confess when pressured. His statement may have started the proceedings against the group, but there were so many people involved on the periphery that if he had said nothing, it would have been only a matter of time before something came out.

No matter what you believe, Gandil gave another fascinating perspective on the Black Sox scandal. There are so many versions of what happened that it’s difficult to keep track of the details. Like most stories with differing views, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. With so many lies, legends, and half-truths cluttering the story, it’s refreshing to get the perspective of a participant like Gandil. 


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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rick Bladt: The Insurance Policy

Rick Bladt’s major league career got off to an auspicious start on June 15, 1969, when he debuted by pinch running for future Hall of Fame player Billy Williams. It was a tough first act to live up to, and Bladt was not able to translate it into a sustained big league career. However, he did enjoy a 12 year professional career, and spent enough time in the majors for people to remember him years later.

Bladt, a slender outfielder, was signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1966. He had some solid, yet unspectacular years in the minors. He was not a major prospect and with the Cubs having a solid outfield, led by Williams, it was a tough situation for Bladt to break into. Finally, in 1969, he hit .312 for Triple-A Tacoma, and earned a call-up to Chicago.

While in Chicago, Bladt appeared in just 10 games, producing 2 hits in 13 at bats, with 1 RBI. It was not enough to earn him a place in the Cubs future plans and during that off-season he was sent to the New York Yankees as the player to be named in a deal that had occurred earlier in the year.

Although the Yankees of the early 1970’s were not powerhouse teams, Bladt still could not crack the big league roster. He played six consecutive seasons for Syracuse, the franchise’s Triple-A affiliate. He always put up solid, but unspectacular numbers, making himself a valuable insurance policy that could be called upon if a pressing need ever came in the Yankee outfield.

Bladt finally got an opportunity with the Yankees in 1976 when starting outfielder Elliott Maddox suffered a number of injuries. Bladt appeared in 52 games for New York, hitting .222 with a home run, 11 RBI, and 6 stolen bases. His home run was a two run shot of the California Angels’ Andy Hassler, and was one of the highlights of his time in the majors.

Although Maddox appeared in just 18 games in 1976, the hole in centerfield was made obsolete when the Yankees traded in the off-season for mercurial Mickey Rivers. Bladt played the entire 1976 season in Syracuse, hitting .285, but never got called up. After the season he was traded with Maddox to the Baltimore Orioles for Paul Blair.

Bladt played one final professional season in 1977, spending the entire year with Baltimore’s Triple-A team. He batted only .226 and was never part of the Orioles’ big league plans, so he called it quits after the season. He retired with a .215 career average in 62 major league games and hit .268 with 1,252 hits in 1,371 minor league games. More information about his career statistics is available at

Bladt made a career as a classic 4-A guy; possessing enough talent to play effectively at the top levels of the minors, but never being able to experience sustained success in the majors. Nonetheless, from the interview he recently did with me, it’s obvious that he enjoyed his career in professional baseball.

Rick Bladt Interview:

What is your favorite moment from your playing career?: I suppose looking at my mom’s face when she saw me with a Yankee uniform in Oakland. She was just beaming with pride, and tears, and all of those things that moms do.

What was the strangest play you ever saw as a baseball player?: The Memphis Lost Ball. (More information about this play is here:

What was that like?: That was in Memphis, Tennessee, I don’t remember exactly which year. Denny McLain was the general manager. He was the last 30 game winner in the bigs.
For some reason they didn’t mow the grass against the outfield fence, for like 18 inches out. Maybe the mowers in those days didn’t get that close. They had no warning track. So, the ball from the guy who didn’t have much power, got into one and got it over my head. It went into that tall grass in the dim light of the outfield. I was sweeping my hands through the grass, trying to find the ball, but I never found it.

Who was your favorite coach or manager?: Bobby Cox and Frank Verdi.
Did you ever get another player’s autograph when you were a player?: Just a ’69 Cubs ball.

If you could do anything differently about your playing career, what would that be?: Probably nothing-Life after the game has been fulfilling.

What have you been up to since you stopped playing?: Just like anybody else, you have to make a living. I’m in the construction trades. I stayed with what I knew before I was in the game. I still do it; I’m only semi-retired.


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Monday, March 19, 2012

Baseball's Wild Horse: Neill Sheridan

Neill “Wild Horse” Sheridan always enjoyed sports, playing a variety as a youth. He grew up believing the football was his best sport, and played collegiately at the University of San Francisco, but his future turned out to be baseball. He was just good enough to get a cup of coffee in the major leagues, registering only one big league at bat. Even so, it was the crowning moment of his 12 year career in professional baseball.

Like many young men in the 1940’s, Sheridan faced military service, but his asthma prevented his enlistment, and he went to work instead in a shipyard. While working in the shipyard, he also played for a baseball team and was signed by a representative of the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, who liked what he saw from the young player.

Sheridan appeared in his first professional game in 1943, the only contest he appeared in that year, but it was a springboard for the right-handed outfielder. He did not hit for much power, but always put up a good batting average and had an excellent arm in the outfield. His best season came in 1948, with the Seattle Rainiers, when he hit .312 with 17 home runs, 82 RBI, and 91 runs scored; a performance good enough to earn him a promotion to the Boston Red Sox for the final weeks of the season.

Boston only played Sheridan in two games during his major league stay. He pinch ran once for Bobby Doerr, and on September 26th, he pinch hit for pitcher Boo Ferris, striking out against the Yankees’ Tommy Byrne. Sheridan’s attempt to crack the Boston roster was impeded by the presence of stars like Dom Dimaggio and Ted Williams. With such firepower, young outfielders faced quite an uphill challenge to be noticed, and Sheridan failed to impress in his brief stay.

Although Sheridan continued playing professionally for six more seasons, he never made it back to the majors. He hit .283 in 1,446 career minor league games, with 118 home runs and 662 RBI. More information about his career statistics is available at

Now 90-years old, Sheridan down plays the significance of his time in the majors, but still has fond memories of his baseball career, some of which he recently shared.

Neill Sheridan Interview:

How did you first become get into professional baseball?: I was really lucky. When the Second World War broke out, I enlisted in the Marine Corps, and before I was sent to boot camp, I had an asthma attack. The Marines said that they didn’t want me. I went down to the draft board and they wouldn’t take me either because of the asthma.

So I went to work at a shipyard, and when I was there, I met a fellow who was a friend of Lefty O’Doul, who was the manager of the San Francisco Seals at the time. He asked me, this fellow that I met, if I would like to try out. I said, ‘Sure, why not.’ I had gone to the University of San Francisco and played football, and I was a good athlete. I went over and signed up, it worked out, and they signed me up, so that is how I started to play.

You knew New York Yankee player Myril Hoag when you were growing up. How did you come to know him, and did he have any influence on your baseball career?: He was a friend of my aunt and uncle. When he came home from the Yankees; I guess it was around 1935, or maybe later than that; I don’t remember the year, he brought me a ball. It was signed by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and all of the Yankees. It made quite an impression on me. Of course I always liked Babe Ruth; he was my idol when I was a kid. But outside of that, that was the only thing I knew about Myril Hoag.

What was your experience like when you were with the Red Sox?: Actually, it was more of an experience during spring training. I was playing with DiMaggio and Williams. It was quite a thrill. Of course we played against the Yankees and the Cardinals and a lot of the people who made the All-World team, you might say. It was quite an experience just being involved with these other players.

How long were you with the Red Sox?: I was with them the first month of the season and the last month of the season in 1948.

What was Red Sox skipper Joe McCarthy like as a manager?: Well, I hardly knew him. I said hello and goodbye. That was about the extent of it.

Who was your favorite coach or manager?: I am sure it was Lefty O’Doul. He was a great guy to play for, and he always tried to be supportive of you and tried to teach you. Of course I was pretty much a raw rookie, and he probably taught me everything that I came to know about baseball from him.

Do you have a favorite moment from your playing career?: One night when I was playing for Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League, I hit two home runs, and I raced a horse in between innings. It was the seventh inning, and I beat the horse in a race. That’s about the only thing I really remember. Of course we won two or three pennants when I was playing, and that was also a thrill.

If you could do anything differently about your baseball career, what would that be?: I’m sure if I had started earlier, and the war hadn’t been on, I might have gone a little bit further in baseball. Actually, between baseball seasons in 1943, I coached in football at Lincoln High School in San Francisco. I really enjoyed that and think that if I were to start all over again, that is one of the things I would rather do than anything, would be to coach kids.

What have you been up to since you stopped playing baseball?: I worked in the retail grocery business.


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Friday, March 16, 2012

Look Out For These National League Rookies in 2012

The National League looks to have even more teams than usual in the hunt for the playoffs in 2012, with each division having a cluster of possible frontrunners. These races may be impacted by the strong crop of rookies that have appeared on the horizon of the senior circuit. Some of these young players will start the season in the minors, but by the end of the year could end up being major contributors for their respective franchises. With the American League rookies having been profiled last week, here are my choices for the NL.

Arizona Diamondbacks- Starting Pitcher- Trevor Bauer: Many talent evaluators felt that Bauer could have made his major league debut last year because of how advanced the right-handed starter was coming out of college. The D-Backs wisely limited his innings after he signed and instead will likely have him get a little minor league experience before unleashing the man who allegedly possesses 19 different pitches on the rest of the NL.

Atlanta Braves- Relief Pitcher- Arodys Vizcaino: Most of the attention is on Vizcaino’s fellow Atlanta pitching prospects Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Mike Minor, but Vizcaino may prove to be the best of the bunch. He was acquired from the Yankees in the 2009 trade for Javier Vazquez, and has battled injuries while pitching brilliantly in the minors. He debuted in Atlanta last season and will start 2012 in their bullpen. With his mid 90’s fastball and devastating breaking pitches, he will earn his chops in relief before moving into the rotation.

Chicago Cubs- Outfielder- Brett Jackson: Althoguh Jackson is the most advanced Chicago prospect, he still has some issues to iron out before he can truly make an impact. The lefty hitter has yet to play 100 games in a season and is an impatient hitter with a lot of holes in his swing. He has the ability to hit 20+ home runs if he learns some plate discipline and gets healthy. He is not a Theo Epstein type of player, but the lack of talent in the Chicago system will expedite his journey to the majors.

Cincinnati Reds- Catcher- Devin Mesoraco: Mesoraco is one of the best catching prospects to come along in years. He can play defense and has an excellent bat capable of .285 and 20+ home runs. Ryan Hanigan is currently ahead of him on the Reds depth chart, but it will only be a matter of time before he is supplanted by the rookie. Mesoraco is ready, and with Cincinnati having traded fellow top catching prospect Yasmani Grandal during the off-season, he has been identified as the catcher of the future.

Colorado Rockies- Utility Player- Jordan Pacheco: Pacheco made his way through the minors as a catcher, but has branched off to become a versatile role player, capable of playing all over the infield. He will be the Rockies backup catcher in 2012 and general jack of all trades; possibly assuming a Ty Wiggington-type role. He won’t hit for a ton of power, but his .303 career average in the minors and .286 in his major league cameo last year suggest an ability to handle a bat.

Houston Astros- Infielder-Marwin Gonzalez: The switch hitter was selected during this past Rule-5 Draft, and will be given every chance to stick with the team. He is known for his defense and ability to play multiple positions, key components to a rebuilding team like the Astros. With injury prone Jed Lowrie at shortstop and inexperienced Jose Altuve and Jimmy Paredes manning second and third, there could be a lot of opportunities for Gonzalez in 2012.

Los Angeles Dodgers- Catcher- Tim Federowicz: Originally drafted by the Red Sox, Federowicz is the Dodgers top catching prospect but may be on the outside looking in to start the 2012 season. That should change shortly after the Dodgers come to their senses and realize that light hitting career backups A.J. Ellis and Matt Treanor aren’t going to cut it for a full season. Federowicz is a solid defensive catcher who can handle the bat. If given a full season, he could put up something in the neighborhood of .260 and 10-12 home runs.

Miami Marlins- Third Baseman- Matt Dominguez: Dominguez will not start the year with Miami, but could find himself with significant major league playing time before the year is over. He is a strong defender with some pop, though there is worry about his ability to consistently handle big league pitching. With new shortstop Jose Reyes a perpetual injury risk and the unhappy Hanley Ramirez a trade candidate, there are a number of scenarios that could lead to Dominguez being called up.

Milwaukee Brewers- Outfielder- Norichika Aoki: The 30 year old signed out of Japan after having won three Japanese Central League batting titles. Despite his pedigree, his hopes for regular playing time were dashed by the dismissal of Ryan Braun’s 50 game suspension. The Brewers are built to win now and Aoki will fill the 4/5th outfielder role, pinch hit, and be a late inning defensive replacement off the bench.

New York Mets- Pitcher- Matt Harvey: Harvey is the best of the Mets more advanced starting pitching prospects. With Johan Santana on the comeback trail, Harvey probably won’t make the team out of spring training. Regardless, the hard throwing righty will see some time in New York, and given their mediocre rotation, could be a pleasant surprise.

Philadelphia Phillies- Relief Pitcher- Phillippe Aumont: The enormous right-hander reliever, who can pitch in the upper 90’s, first came to the Philadelphia organization from Seattle in the Cliff Lee trade. He struck out 78 batters in just 53.2 innings last year and has the stuff to put up similar numbers in the majors. With ancient Jose Contreras doubtful to start the season on time because of injury, Aumont will be a prime candidate to fill in. His big fastball would fit in nicely with the Phillies All-Star rotation and newly acquired closer, Jonathan Papelbon.

Pittsburgh Pirates- Infielder- Yamaico Navarro: Navarro played briefly in the past for the Red Sox and Royals, but was never able to lock down consistent playing time. He may get that chance with the Pirates, as his ability to play the corner infield and outfield positions make him an ideal candidate for the team’s super utility role. The right-handed hitter has the potential to be an average hitter, but has never hit more than 11 home runs in any professional season.

San Diego Padres- First Baseman- Yonder Alonso: The Padres liked Alonso enough to make him the focal point of a trade that sent their best starting pitcher, Mat Latos, packing to the Reds. They then traded top prospect Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs to make sure there was no doubt that Alonso was the team’s first baseman of the present and future. Despite playing briefly with the Reds during the past two seasons, Alonso has barely maintained his rookie status. The big lefty hitter will be looked to as an anchor in the Padres lineup and while he has never hit more than 17 home runs in any professional season, many in baseball feel he will ultimately be capable of perhaps doubling that number. Such a prognosis will be difficult to attain in Petco Park’s spacious confines, but mark him down for 12-15 in 2012 and go from there.

San Francisco Giants- Starting Pitcher- Erik Surkamp: The lefty was inconsistent in 6 late season games with the Giants. He lacks a dominant pitch, but still has the ability to be an effective back of the rotation starter. His 470 career minor league strikeouts in 398 innings are an encouraging sign that he knows how to pitch beyond just “stuff.” If any injuries occur or Barry Zito continues to falter, Surkamp will be given the first shot.

St. Louis Cardinals- Third Baseman- Zach Cox: The Cardinals 2010 1st round draft pick will start this season in the minors, but is another young player who could experience a significant jump because of injuries. The Cardinals current starters at the corners, David Freese and Lance Berkman, each have lengthy histories of injuries. With the Cardinals lacking impact bats in the minors, Cox would be the best option for a replacement if a fill-in was needed. He needs a lot of work on his defense, but has hit .309 over his first two seasons and shown blossoming power.

Washington Nationals- Outfielder- Bryce Harper: The Nationals have already begun wavering on their stance that Harper will remain in the minors until at least the end of this season. The team is in serious need of a productive centerfielder and Harper could be just the answer for them, especially now that they are legitimate playoff contenders. They might Harper in the minors until June and muddle through until then with Roger Bernadina in center, but once the playoff push starts in earnest, expect Harper to be playing regularly and make a rookie impact similar to what Chipper and Andruw Jones did for the Braves in the 1990’s. He can hit home runs in bunches and might be a major catalyst for getting the Nats into the postseason.

There you have it; the top National League rookies to keep an eye on for 2012!


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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Risk of the Gamble in Baseball

Baseball is all about gambling; not the type that got the Black Sox and Pete Rose banned for life, but the way teams invest in their players and staff under the belief that they will provide them the best chance of winning. This gambling most often takes the form of a contract; locking up players and coaches for a finite amount of time for varying amounts of money. Sometimes teams are rewarded by such acts of faith, but in other situations they may feel that burning their money in a bonfire was a better use of resources. Today, the Kansas City Royals saw one of their most recent gambles take a major hit and have to be hoping that all turns out for the best.

Just after the start of spring training, the Royals agreed to a 5 year, $7 million contract with 21 year old catcher Salvador Perez.  Despite having previously played in only 39 major league games (where he hit .331), the team felt that he was their catcher of the future and decided to gamble on him by giving him an extension. With Perez being years away from free agency, the Royals were not obligated to give him such a contract, but they were confident that he would develop into at least a useful player and pay future dividends.

After warming up a pitcher on Tuesday, Perez left Royals’ camp with a knee injury. A later examination revealed a lateral meniscus tear in his knee. He is now slated to have surgery and will be out of action for at least 3-4 weeks, with that timeline being subject to change depending on the severity of his tear. Being a catcher and relying so much on his knees, the injury is particularly concerning, as he will need to be fully healthy in order to return and there are many variables as to the extent of the repair and rehab of his knee.

While Perez’s injury is not career ending, it still leaves the Royals with a great deal of worry. At this time they don’t know when he can return, and when he does, how much time it will take him to get back to full strength. They also don’t know how this time away may impact his development, as such a young catcher requires as much time as possible with coaches and pitchers when trying to assume the responsibility of leading a staff. Finally, extending Perez and making him the starter before he had even established himself in camp left the team perilously thin at catcher. With the position being so pivotal to a team’s success, the Royals were already pushing the envelope by entrusting turning the team over to the unproven Perez. Now absent a trade, they will need to patchwork a solution behind the plate between career backup Brayan Pena and another unproven player or two from the minors.

Hopefully, Perez will find out that he has a minor tear and can quickly return to the Royals, but until he does the team and their fans will be left to wonder. Even if Perez is out for a period of time or doesn’t pan out as the player the Royals hoped for, the team will not have lost much in the grand financial scheme of the game. However, the situation that has arisen with Perez’s injury is a perfect example of the delicate balance in baseball on whether or not a player makes good on a contract and the gamble teams take on them.


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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An Interview with Floyd Wicker

Whiffs of change started to waft through the air for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1961. Stan Musial, the franchise’s 40 year old cornerstone legend, was entering his 20th season. The need to find a replacement had started to become more urgent with each passing year. Someone the Cardinals gambled on having a shot to be that player was Floyd Wicker; a prospect so promising that he was signed at just 17 years of age.

Wicker was signed out of North Carolina and despite his youth, was immediately sent to the minor leagues to start his professional career. As might be expected, he struggled somewhat during his first few seasons, showing that he needed seasoning before being considered for the majors. Unfortunately a wrench was thrown into the works by Wicker missing the 1964 and 1965 seasons due to military service. Although he continued playing during that time, it was not against the same level of competition he would have faced otherwise.

When Wicker returned to professional baseball at the age of 22 in 1966 he quickly emerged as a top prospect, finally putting together all of his tools. The left-handed hitter did not hit for much power, but was solid in other aspects of the game. He finally made his major league debut with St. Louis in 1968, appearing in 5 games for the eventual National League champs. He had 2 singles in 4 at bats, but was hard pressed to find playing time in an outfield featuring Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Roger Maris.

The roster crunch in St. Louis led to Wicker being left unprotected in the 1968 Rule 5 Draft and he was snatched up by the Montreal Expos. Over the next several seasons he bounced between the Expos, Milwaukee Brewers, and San Francisco Giants, but was never able to find consistent playing time.  He retired following the 1971 season, having played in a total of 81 major league games, with a .159 batting average, 1 home run and 6 RBI. More information about his career statistics is available at

Floyd Wicker Interview:

How did you first become interested in baseball?: It started when I was in about the sixth grade and I wanted to be a major league baseball player. I just loved to play the game, but there’s only about one in five thousand who make it. I had a love for the game and it was all I ever wanted to do.

Who were your favorite team and player when you were growing up?: Oh yeah. Mantle. Mickey Mantle. I liked the Yankees because they were always in the World Series and winning.

You signed with the St, Louis Cardinals when you were 17; what was that experience like?: That was a dream come true. I had a chance to sign right out of high school, but waited another year and played for East Carolina and played on a National Championship team.

How did you find out that you had been called up to the major leagues in 1968?: Well, I had a heck of a spring with the big club, and hit like .500, and I was the last guy cut, trying to break into an outfield with Maris, Brock, and Flood, which was a pretty difficult task.
The Cardinals came to Tulsa to play us in an exhibition game, and I had two hits against them. Before the Cardinals left, Red Schoendienst came to the clubhouse and he told me then. He said, ‘You’re going to be in the big leagues before the year’s over.’ He used the reason that they had outfielders who would have to go into the service for two weeks and weekends, and that’s when I got called up.

Who did you pal around with after you got called up?: I was accepted pretty well. I had a couple of friends that were on the ball club that I had played with. Larry Jaster was on the club and I had played with him in Winnipeg.

Do you have a favorite moment from your playing career?: Oh yes, the first at bat in the big leagues.

What was that like?: I got called up to pinch hit in St. Louis against the Braves. The announcer said, ‘Please welcome to newest addition to the St. Louis Cardinals, Floyd Wicker from Siler High School and East Carolina College in East Spokane, North Carolina. That was on the message board out in center field.

I guess that the umpire at the time could see that I was nervous, and he came out and cleaned home plate, and he came by and he said, ‘Deep breath and take your time.’ He was trying to relax me a little bit.

Do you think that missing a couple of seasons due to military service impacted your baseball career much?: I don’t think so because I played probably three to five times a week in the service.

Who was the biggest character you ever played with or against?: That’s a hard questions. Someone in the minor leagues was probably Bill Edgerton, probably the most comical one I ever played with. He was a left-handed pitcher who always had something going.

If you could do anything differently about your baseball career, what would that be?: If I could do it over again, I would go right down the same road.


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