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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dwight Gooden Goes Back to the Future: The Baseball Historian’s Notes for the Week of December 21, 2014

2014 is nearly in the books. Outside of the mad dash that is the remainder of the holiday season, another year is done for all intents and purposes. It was another great 12 months for baseball, as the game continues to be as popular as ever before. Whatever you celebrate (or don’t), have a relaxing and enjoyable holiday season.
Now, on to the notes for the week…

*Former Los Angeles Angels first-round pick Ryan Bolden was killed in a fight over candy this week. The former outfielder was the 40th overall selection in the 2010 draft. His career ended following the 2013 season due to injuries and a lack of progress in his development. In 112 career minor league games (all at the rookie league level), he hit a combined .164 with three home runs and 26 RBIs. Bolden was 23.

*Another passing to report in 86-year-old Herb Plews. A former infielder who played parts of four seasons with the Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox (1956-59), the right-handed batter hit a combined .262 with four homers and 82 RBIs in 346 games. Originally signed by the New York Yankees in 1950, a military stint interrupted his playing career. Read more about his career and life in this official SABR biography written by Bill Nowlin.

*Sean Lahman of the Democrat & Chronicle has an interesting piece about the 1960 Rochester Red Wings, the last American team to play in Cuba before the U.S. embargo went into place. At the time, tensions were so high that their departure from the country was more like something from a movie plot than a standard short flight back to mainland. More than 50 years later, they retain their place in history, but perhaps not for much longer given the shifting political climate.

*Speaking of baseball and communism, the two have had connections in the past. Historian John Thorne at the MLB Our Game blog does his typical bang-up job in researching how communist party leaders of the past viewed America’s Pastime, including their belief that it was used as a device of distraction by capitalism to divert the attention of workers from their “miserable conditions.”

*Dwight Gooden was simultaneously one of the best and one of the most flawed players in baseball history. He won 194 career games in 16 major league seasons, captured the 1984 National League Rookie of the Year and 1985 National League Cy Young Award. Unfortunately, the incredibly talented right-hander was also troubled with drug, alcohol and other off-field problems that prevented him from putting together a Hall-of-Fame resume. Now in retirement, he has his life in full control and is able to look back on the follies of his youth. He recently penned a letter to a younger version of himself that was published in The Players’ Tribune. His decades of maturation and reflection are visible to all to see, and a good reminder of how well he has become since his days as a nearly untouchable flame thrower for the New York Mets.

*Arm woes have halted or ended the burgeoning careers of many a pitcher. Although the medical advancements of Tommy John surgery have allowed many professionals to come back from previously catastrophic damage, there is still great debate over how hurlers, especially those still in school or college, should be handled when it comes to workload. The Boston Globe’s Obnoxious Sports Fan looks at the efforts being made to treat arms right, and how the reluctance to take these precautions prematurely ended many careers of varying degrees of promise.

*There are many celebrities who claim membership in the fan bases of baseball teams. One of the most well known is comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his beloved Mets. He is as knowledgeable as any fan about the franchise, and much funnier than any other. This clip from him sitting in the broadcast booth during a 2010 game is a little glimpse of how he mixes his humor with love of the game.

*There are also some baseball players who style themselves as comedians. Check out this clip of Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson telling one of his favorite jokes on a 1980s television show The Funniest Joke I Ever Heard while he was a member of the California Angels.

*One way baseball has attracted fans has been through the attachment of people to baseball cards. Being able to have the picture, statistics and bright colors of logos and uniforms in the palm of one’s hand has often been more than enough to develop undying allegiance. Joe Pinsker of The Atlantic has written a cultural history of baseball cards and how their popularity has shifted over time in this country. This is an especially interesting read given the recent passing of card pioneer Sy Berger, who is credited with developing the first “modern” baseball card with the Topps Company.

*Looking for any last-minute holiday gift ideas for the baseball fans in your life (or yourself)? Freddie Fitzsimmons: A Baseball Life by Peter J. De Kever may be just what you need. Fitzsimmons, the Hall-of-Fame pitcher, who had a 20-year major league career with the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, had more than enough interesting stories from his time in baseball to be worthy of a biography.

*Finally, some amazing footage of the batting practice/pre-game warm-ups at the old Polo Grounds in New York for the 1934 MLB All Star Game. With rosters chock-full of future Hall-of-Famers who played before the era of television, actually getting to see them bat and throw is a rare treat.

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