Top 100 Baseball Blog

Sunday, March 30, 2014

1967 Red Sox: The Impossible Dream Season: A Review

The Boston Red Sox are reigning World Series champions and have won three titles in just the past decade. In the more than 100 years of their existence, they have won eight World Series and been one of the best-known and popular teams in all of baseball. However, their 1967 squad, whose improbable success was known as the “impossible dream” but fell short of winning it all, has arguably endured as the most memorable of all their teams for fans.

1967 Boston Red Sox: The Impossible Dream Season by Raymond Sinibaldi (Arcadia Publishing) details the rise and run of the ’67 team through an impressive collection of 200 black and white photographs. Although Sinibaldi largely lets the pictures do the talking, his captioning provides valuable context, and his introduction to each chapter frames the importance of the season against his own experiences as a young fan dealing with dealing with his brother’s deployment in the Vietnam War.

Red Sox fans had become accustomed to failure leading up to the 1967 season. Boston had last won a World Series in 1918 and endured numerous challenging seasons, occasionally interrupted by great teams that were never able to find themselves as the last one standing at the end.

After going 72-90 in 1966, the Red Sox won 92 games and the American League pennant in 1967 before losing to the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the World Series. The team may have come up just short but their out-of-nowhere success and the often thrilling ways they won games with a cast of likable and talented characters firmly stamped their place in the history books and the hearts of Boston fans forever.

Sinibaldi’s work obviously has strong personal overtones. However, many fans can claim a similar affinity to a particular sports team and season because of how they were able to emotionally invest and connect; in many cases helping fill whatever voids existed in their lives at the time. That doesn’t make the importance of the 1967 Red Sox any less important. To the contrary, the timeless sentiment and warm regard is indicative of the special place the team occupies for so many.

The collection of photographs that comprises 1967 Red Sox is impressive and comprehensive. Cumulatively, they form a cohesive and entertaining pictorial essay that tells the story of the historic team. Instead of simply being action shots of important moments during the season, careful attention is paid to include pictures explaining how the ’67 team came to be and its composition, right down to the players who had the briefest cups of coffee and sat at the furthest ends of the bench.

With all the detail comes an ample spotlight on the most important figures from the impossible dream team; with outfielder Carl Yastrzemski, outfielder Tony Conigliaro, pitcher Jim Lonborg and manager Dick Williams being among the most prominent.

The beauty of 1967 Red Sox is the way it puts the magical season in the context of the topsy turvy world that was swirling around at the same time. The war, the Civil Rights movement and the particularly contentious racial issues happening in Boston made for a difficult and uncertain existence. Calling a baseball team a respite could be cliché, but it was never truer than in the case of this one season.

Boston was a hotbed of racial strife in the ‘60s and the Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate (in 1959- 12 years after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers). Sinibaldi does cover this but doesn’t make it a focal point of the book. Providing a bit more detail on this issue could have taken the narrative into even more interesting places. However, he does a nice job of spotlighting the African American players who may have been small in number but not in impact on the 1967 team, including Elston Howard, George Scott and Reggie Smith.

1967 Red Sox isn’t just a baseball book. It is also a book about community and finding ways to cope in difficult times through the redemptive qualities of sport. It’s an excellent look back at one of the more memorable times in Boston and baseball, and well worth a look by fans and non-fans alike.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Throwing Hard Easy: A Review of Robin Roberts' Memoires

Baseball fans often get lost in the recollections of former players retelling their life journey through the game. A great example of this hardball trip down memory lane is Throwing Hard Easy: Reflections on a Life in Baseball by Robin Roberts with C. Paul Rogers III (University of Nebraska Press).

First published in 2003, the memoires of Roberts, a National Baseball Hall of Fame right-handed pitcher who had a 19-year major league career with four teams (most notably the Philadelphia Phillies), is now available in paperback.

Roberts, who passed away in 2010, was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball during his career, which spanned from 1948 through 1966. He posted a career record of 286-245 with a 3.41 ERA. Needless to say, this book is not short on stories and analysis of some of his more memorable experiences.

Throwing Hard Easy is in Roberts’ voice and he does an excellent job of describing his rise from humble origins to a professional pitcher who once won 20 or more games in a season for six consecutive years (1950-1955). Attributing his success to hard work, passion for the game and good fortune, he displayed a modesty not often associated with athletes who attained the kind of success he did. However, the last few words of the book are a wink and a nod to the fact that he recognized his physical talents, as he asked, “Surely it wasn’t all luck, was it?”

A highlight of Roberts’ recollections is the description of his relationships he made throughout his career. In particular, his closeness with former teammates like Richie Ashburn and Curt Simmons, and coach Cy Perkins, display the kind of deep connections that can be forged in team sports.

Interestingly, on the other side is the revelation that Roberts had a decided lack of connection with managers throughout his career, claiming he rarely had anything other than simple “Hello” conversations with his skippers. He doesn’t go into great detail explaining why, but there is the general sense he always believed his job was to take the ball when asked and get out batters. To him, something so simple didn’t require elaborate discussion

Even though Roberts professes he barely acknowledged statistics like ERA until late in his career, numbers are an important part of this book. Not only are his own stats recounted in close detail, but so are those of teammates, opponents and important games. This is both good and bad, as the numbers provide important context but are so plentiful they sometime slow down the narrative.

Roberts’ tenure in baseball coincided with the early days of integration in the game. Although he touches on the topic throughout Throwing Hard Easy, he doesn’t goes into the type of detail that would have been intriguing to see from a former player of his caliber.

Perhaps the most compelling revelations from Roberts are regarding former Baseball Players Association head Marvin Miller. Roberts was active as a player representative during his career and then became an integral part of strengthening the union after he retired. One of his biggest contributions was supporting the candidacy of Miller as union chief even though he was not the consensus first choice, or even a necessarily popular choice initially with the players.

Although Miller went on to revolutionize the union and set salary and benefits in a whole new stratosphere, Roberts was very open in stating he didn’t always agree with the methods. As a baseball man through and through, he wanted players to be compensated fairly while also maintaining the integrity of the game. He described Miller in one passage by saying, “He often acted like he was just a hired union gun who had a very narrow view of his job and was not at all concerned about the welfare of the game of baseball.”

Roberts also talks about the 1994 MLB strike and how he got involved in contacting many throughout the game in an effort to aid negotiations to bring about its end. He believed the work stoppage was a black eye for the game and while the advances made by the players over the years were good, they also diminished the game in some ways. A realist, he acknowledged, “Of course, baseball will continue on its current path because of the way it is structured… The owners and players will continue to slug it out through collective bargaining every time the labor agreement is up for renegotiation, each side seeking only its own selfish interests and ignoring the fans.”

Throwing Hard Easy is an excellent baseball narrative. This paperback edition has additional features from the original version, including new photos, a foreword by Roberts’ son James, and a new introduction by Rogers.

Roberts wasn’t as flashy and well known a star as some of his contemporaries like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, but he became one of the all-time greats and had the incredible insight and stories one might expect from a player of his status and longevity. Any baseball fan interested in finding out more about them would benefit from reading Throwing Hard Easy.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bryan Johns: The Young Glue Guy of the Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox have one of the most impressive farm systems in all of baseball, placing a ridiculous nine players on’s 2014 top-100 prospect list. Naturally, the team has many high draft picks and big bonus players that have helped boost the youngster development. But not all of the minor leaguers can claim such a distinction, including infielder Bryan Johns, who has based his professional career on hard work and doing the little things that create a winning environment.

The 25-year-old Johns signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011 after a college career with Howard Junior College and Vanderbilt University. Although he got into 43 games with the Commodores as a senior, he received just 57 at-bats and hit .211 with a home run and five RBIs. His ability to latch on with a professional team was a testament to his versatility and ability as team super glue.

A right-handed batter, the 5’9” native of Plano Texas can play third base, short stop and second base. In three seasons in Boston’s system, he has played at four different levels, reaching as high as Double-A with a two-game stint in 2012.

All told, Johns has combined to hit .205 in 137 professional games with two home runs and 41 RBIs. In 2013, he played in 40 games between Single-A and High Single-A, hitting .183 with two home runs and 19 RBIs. More information about his career statistics is available here.

Although Johns may not profile as a star, he is the type of player that every successful baseball team needs. He may not post flashy numbers but much of what he brings is not something that shows up in a box score. The historical baseball landscape is littered with such players, and as such, he should never be discounted as he continues to work on his goal of one day playing in the majors.

This past offseason, I had an opportunity to ask Johns some questions about his career. Keep reading for more on the Red Sox’s young infielder.

Bryan Johns Interview:

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: Derek Jeter. I love the way he carries himself on and off the field. Also, he's a winner.

What was your back-up plan if you hadn't received an opportunity to have a professional baseball career?: I hadn't really thought about what else I would want to do besides play baseball. When that time comes, I’ll figure it out. My focus is only on baseball and getting ready for the next season.

What was your experience at Vanderbilt like? As a baseball-centric school, what kind of coaching and mentorship did you have at your disposal?: Playing baseball at Vandy was such a great experience. My biggest takeaway was the lifelong friendships that I made. We all were each other’s coaches and always tried to make each other better. Now, a lot of us live in Nashville and train for the offseason.

How did you first find out that the Red Sox were interested in you?: I developed a good relationship with a Boston scout during the season, and that's when I knew I would have a chance to play for them.

Can you describe the thought process/emotions you and friends/family went through once it became clear you were going to have a professional baseball career?: We were all very excited when I found out I was going to get to play in the Red Sox organization. It's always been a dream of mine to play in the big leagues, so when I got the chance, we were all excited. My family has always been very supportive of my baseball career

What is one part of your game that you hope to improve on the most?: There's always something I can improve on. There's not one aspect of my game that I focus on more than the other. It's all equally important.

You personify the definition of scrappy when it comes to baseball. Does that make it easier or more difficult for you to get noticed?: I don't worry too much about getting "noticed." All my focus is on becoming the best baseball player I can be and how I can help my team win. It's all about winning. I'm not worried about what kind of player I'm labeled as. That doesn't matter. If the team I'm on continues to win, that's all that matters.

What are the best things about getting to play professional ball?: The best thing about playing professional baseball is the friends that I make. Playing baseball will only be a certain part of my life, but the friends I make will last forever.

Traveling all over the U.S. is also one of my favorite things about pro ball. I get to experience all different kinds of cities and atmospheres that most people don't.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Charlie Vaughan: Two Games of Baseball Glory

Many children grow up dreaming of one day playing Major League Baseball. Few make it, but those that do undoubtedly savor their opportunity no matter how short it may be.

Pitcher Charlie Vaughan was one of the lucky ones. He crested baseball’s summit. However, it lasted only two games. A tantalizing taste for sure, but was it enough?

The left-handed Vaughan was a fourth-round draft choice of the Milwaukee Braves in 1965 out of Brownsville High School in Texas. He pitched well right out of the gate in the minors and was summoned to make his major league debut in 1966 (for the Braves, who had moved to Atlanta).

Vaughan took the mound on September 3rd to face Davie Giusti and the Houston Astros. Although Houston wasn’t a good team, Giusti was an up-and-coming pitcher, who would win 15 games that season.

The game couldn’t have gone much better for Vaughan, who was the second-youngest player to pitch in the majors that season—second only to a young right-hander named Nolan Ryan. He scattered eight hits, three walks and two runs over seven innings, while striking out six on his way to an easy 12-2 victory.

Unfortunately, the game wasn’t enough to gain the southpaw traction in trying to become a regular on the Atlanta staff. He was returned to the minors where he was solid but unspectacular for the next few seasons.

Vaughan appeared in one more major league game. On June 1, 1969, he allowed three walks and two runs in an inning of mop-up relief in a 13-4 loss against the Chicago Cubs.

He pitched in the minors again in 1970 but finished the year in the system of the Kansas City Royals. After the year was over, he asked for a trade to be closer to his family. The request was denied and he never signed another professional contract.

In six minor league seasons, Vaughan was a combined 27-38 with a 4.06 ERA in 117 games. His two brief stints in the majors led to a 1-0 record with a 4.50 ERA over eight innings. More information about his career statistics is available here.

Vaughan not only reached the highest level of professional baseball, he had one magical moment where he showed he belonged. He may not have been able to forge a prolonged career in the majors, but to call his experience anything other than a success would be a mistake.

Previously, I had the pleasure of asking Vaughan some questions about his baseball career. Keep reading to see what he had to say.

Charlie Vaughan Questionnaire:

How did you find out that you had been called up to make your major league debut in 1966?: I was finishing my first full season with the Braves’ Double-A Texas League team, the Austin Braves. We were on our way to play in a four team end of year playoff, when the Braves management called my Austin manager and told him to have me report to Atlanta right away.

I flew to Atlanta a couple of days later and prepared for a Labor Day weekend series against the Houston Astros. I pitched the first game of a Saturday doubleheader.

What was the strangest play you ever saw as a player?:
Eddie Mathews being thrown out rounding first base in 1966, by right fielder Roberto Clemente.

Who was your favorite coach or manager?: My Rookie League manager in 1965, Paul Snyder. He became the well-known Director of Scouting for the Atlanta Braves.

What is your favorite moment from your baseball career?: It has to be pitching in my one and only START in the major leagues, September 3, 1966. I was a month shy of my 19th birthday. Joe Torre was my catcher and he really helped me through those seven innings that I pitched. The Braves got me 12 runs, and I had a shutout for six innings. I have to admit that I tired in the seventh inning and gave up two runs. It was really hot that September afternoon!

I was excited when I got a base hit to center field off the Astros pitcher Dave Giusti. He had no idea how I could hit and he laid a fastball down the middle. Next time up, he got serious and struck me out. Ha!

What have you been up to since you stopped playing baseball?: After six years with the Braves, mostly Double-A and Triple-A minor league, I was tired of the travel and struggle to stay healthy. Elbow, shoulder and back problems haunted me, along with blisters on my pitching finger. 

The sixth year (1970) that I played ball, I was married. That part was good that my new bride got an idea of the professional ball player life style.

Before spring training of 1971, I could not agree on a contract with Minor League Player Personnel Manager, Eddie Robinson, to play another season. I asked him to trade me to the Houston Astros (close to home) but he refused. I held out and he held out and we never spoke again. Back then we didn't have player agents and there was no free agency, so I was locked in with the Braves.

I so-called "retired" (age 23) and sold real estate for five years, before joining my father's seven-store auto parts chain operation with 100-plus employees. It was a great opportunity for my family and I enjoyed 24 years of work there before really retiring in 2000 at the age of 53.

I missed baseball and the wondering "what if" I had gone back for a few more seasons. Could I have gotten healthy enough to pitch up to expectations of the scouts and the sports writers? However, the time comes for each of us to "move on" with our lives, and the reality of a more normal life of enjoying my wife and family was the best decision. Playing pro sports can really mess with your ego and professional athletes tend to think more of themselves than of others. Not all, but most I would speculate! 

If you could do anything about your career differently, what would that be?:
I would not have held out going back to spring training in 1971. Elbow problems kept me limited.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew