Top 100 Baseball Blog

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ty Cobb, Babies and Puppies; Oh My!: The Baseball Historian’s Notes for the Week of March 8, 2015

With other sports and interests vying for their attention, it’s important to keep baseball alive with the younger generations. A great way to achieve this is through school teams—right from elementary school through college. Some programs have faded away over the years but in some rare instances there has been a revival, including at New York University.

After a 41-year hiatus, the Violets once again are fielding a baseball team. Never a true powerhouse, they did made the College World Series in 1956 and 1969, and count Ralph Branca as a successful alum. It goes to show that such programs don’t necessarily have to be about being dynasties. Instead, making memories and building on an historical legacy is more than enough.

*Baseball has lost another of its all-time greats with the death of former outfielder Minnie Minoso. The seven-time All Star was a native of Cuba, and played several seasons in the Negro Leagues before becoming the majors’ first black player in Chicago when he joined the White Sox in 1951. In 17 seasons (he also played for the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Senators), he hit a combined .298 with 186 home runs, 1,023 RBIs and 1,963 base hits. He is well known for being the only player to ever play in six different decades, with pinch-hitting opportunities in 1976 and 1980 helping him reach that milestone. He was 89.

*Former batting champion Alex Johnson has passed away at the age of 72. An outfielder, he played 13 seasons (1964-1976) for eight teams, and led the American League in hitting at .329 for the 1970 California Angels. A career .288 hitter, once his playing days were over he took over the trucking business founded by his father.

*Adding to the week’s melancholy roll call is Jeff McKnight, who recently passed away at the age of 52. A utility man who truly played all over the field, he spent parts of six seasons (1989-1994) in the majors with the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles, hitting a combined .233 with five home runs in 218 games.

*The Michael Lewis book Moneyball chronicles the strategy of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in identifying talent, maximizing player value and building a team—which veered considerably from traditional standards. The 2002 Oakland draft class was featured prominently in the book, as those players’ skills were valued specifically because of how they fit the philosophy. Lewis’ wife Tabitha Soren photographically chronicled these players, and have been updated in true “where are they now” style in this terrific ESPN piece titled Faces of a Revolution.

*In the early 1980s there were few athletes as popular as Los Angeles Dodgers’ left-handed pitcher Fernando Valenzuela. With 99 wins by the time he was 25, and a distinct panache on the mound, kids around the world would likely do whatever he told them—including eating a well-balanced healthy breakfast. This Spanish-language commercial for Cornflakes features the popular southpaw pitching cereal in his native language for his many acolytes.

*Security is a point of major emphasis at major league ballparks around the country. Unfortunately, society is in a place where anything can happen at any time and precautions must be implemented to provide the safest experience for everyone. This wasn’t always the case. As David Pincus of Sports Illustrated writes, Bernard Doyle was accidentally shot to death at the Polo Grounds during a 1950 New York Giants game by a juvenile fan firing a handgun from a neighboring rooftop. Not only did the game go on without interruption but fans actually clamored to fill the dead man’s seat after his body was carried out of the stadium.

*Joe Niekro was one of the best knuckleball pitchers of all time, accumulating 221 wins during a 22-year major league career. While he was a master of the fluttery pitch, he may have also had some tricks up his sleeves or in his pockets. He was ejected from a 1987 game against the California Angels after umpires found an emery board in his uniform pants. Although he claimed innocence when it came to scuffing the ball, he was subsequently hit with a 10-game suspension for the incident.

*Grantland’s Jonah Kerri has a new book out on the Montreal Expos titled  Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos. Many moments and players are covered but someone who was given special attention was former outfielder Vladimir Guerrero. This excerpt will remove any doubt that he was one of the greatest and most unique players to ever grace a diamond.

*Kevin Mitchell will always be remembered most for his bat on the merits of 234 career home runs in 13 big league seasons. However, it’s tough to argue against his greatest moment actually came in the field. In 1989, while playing for the San Francisco Giants, he made an amazing bare-handed catch to snare a slicing liner off the bat of the 
Cardinals’ Ozzie Smith. I still remember seeing it on This Week in Baseball. As Mel Allen would say, “How about that!

*Interleague play is a way of life in baseball these days. However, it wasn’t always the case. Started in 1997, it has proven popular with fans, as matchups are able to occur that would have previously been prevented by league alignments. Although it is less than 20 years old, the idea had been bandied about for quite a bit longer than that, as this 1960 newspaper article shows.

*There’s a new documentary film called Stealing Home out there about the efforts of a small group of volunteers to reclaim the ground where demolished Detroit Stadium used to stand.

*Hall of Fame outfielder Ty Cobb is well known for his reputation of being a hard man. However, he also had a softer side, as this photo of him posing with a young child and a red wagon full of puppies will attest. 

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

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