Top 100 Baseball Blog

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Christy Mathewson and His Brothers: A Story of What Might Have Been

Right-handed pitcher Christy Mathewson was one of the greatest hurlers of all time, starring for the New York Giants for nearly 16 years in the early part of last century. He is still third all-time in wins with 373, and perhaps the greatest postseason pitcher who ever lived, posting a 0.97 ERA and completing 10 of his 11 Fall Classic starts. He also had two younger brothers who were also quite accomplished as pitchers. Sadly, neither attained the baseball success of their big brother, and through separate twists of tragic fate, both died way too young.

If everything had gone according to expectations, Christy might not have even been the best pitcher among the Mathewson boys. Two of his younger brothers, Henry (also known as Hank) and Nicholas, were both stars during their prep careers, and perhaps only circumstance prevented them from attaining the success of their big brother.

Christy rose to the major leagues following a stellar career at Bucknell University. Six years his junior, Henry followed him to the same alma mater, graduating around 1906. His proud older brother was exuberant, stating, “He now has as much speed as I had when I broke into the game. He has control and a splendid assortment of curves. All he wants is experience, and with that I am sure he will develop into a star.”

Hoping to double down on their Mathewson good fortune, the Giants signed the college lad to a deal in January, 1906. He had a rather dubious start to his professional career. Christy came down with a case of diphtheria so severe it nearly killed him, and Henry knocked out several of catcher and future Hall-of-Famer Roger Bresnahan’s teeth during warm-ups prior to a spring training game when he accidentally let go of his bat while taking practice swings.  

Realizing that he was raw, the Giants handled Henry with kid gloves for much of 1906, having him just practice with the team in New York and allowing him to occasionally pitch for local independent teams.

Giants’ skipper John McGraw was optimistic but reasonable when discussing the prospect with the press. “Henry has learned a lot about the pitching game and by next spring will be ready to make his appearance in fast society as a promising debutante. I would not say that he is going to be as great a pitcher as brother Matty, but from the form he has shown us so far, I feel I am justified in predicting that he will win more games than some of the twirlers who now are posing as stars.”

Despite the initial announcement that his debut would be held back until 1907, Henry joined the big club by the end of the 1906 season, impressing in his first game by tossing a scoreless inning to earn a save. However, his next game would tarnish his baseball reputation forever and define his career.

On October 5th, Henry made what would be his lone major league start, facing Boston Beaneaters the last game of the year. Although the Giants had won an impressive 96 games, they were eons behind that year’s National League pennant winner, the Chicago Cubs, who finished with 116 victories and a 20-game cushion. With nothing at stake, fewer than 400 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds to see the hometown team off for the year. By the end of the afternoon, most of them probably regretted coming out.

Perhaps wanting to see what the young Mathewson was made of, McGraw let the young hurler pitch the entire game. It wasn’t pretty, as he gave up seven runs, largely on the back of the 14 walks he issued (then a major league record). This was no ordinary squad he was facing either. Boston was ,to put it quite plainly, putrid. Even with the win, they finished dead last with an abominable 49-102 record, and also brought up the rear of the league in team batting average, runs scored and ironically, walks drawn.

For all intents and purposes, that miserable start marked the beginning of the end for Henry’s career. He pitched one scoreless frame for the Giants the following year and played in a few minor league games over years but that was it. McGraw later quipped, “Pitching talent was hardly an inherited Mathewson characteristic.”

Not surprisingly, Christy later defended his brother against those who were disappointed with his career. “He was brought up before he was ready because I got the diphtheria at the start of the ‘06 season. The Giants’ management thought they could sell tickets if there was still a Mathewson pitching at the Polo Grounds. But they should have waited. It cost them a good ballplayer. Hank just wasn’t ready.”

By 1917, Henry developed tuberculosis and was living in Arizona in an attempt to benefit from the dry air. In what proved to be a bad choice, he went back east to Pennsylvania that summer to visit his parents. Sadly, he died on July 1st from his health complications, just 30 years old. The Mathewson brothers combined 373 wins (all by Christy) still rank fifth all-time among baseball pitcher siblings. If not for one wild day by Henry, who knows how high that total might have been.

Adding to the speculation of what heights the Mathewsons might have reached in baseball might is Nicholas. The youngest of the three, he very well may have been the greatest hurler of them all. He never lost a game during his high school career with Keystone Academy, and went unscored upon during his senior season.

During Christmas of Nick’s senior year, the Mathewson household was visited by Hughie Jennings, the manager of the Detroit Tigers, and an acquaintance of Christy (who was also on hand for the holidays). The skipper offered the youngest Mathewson pitcher a $3,000 contract to sign. By all accounts, the youngster was so gung-ho to start his professional career and play with the likes of Ty Cobb that he would have signed for less. Despite Jennings’ promise to keep Nick tied to the bench during his first year while learning the finer points of the game, his father Gilbert and Christy were opposed to him giving up his schooling and wouldn’t permit him to ink a contract.

Christy had always regretted leaving Bucknell early to join the Giants, later writing, “I would advise a boy who has exceptional ability as a ballplayer to sign no contracts and to take no money until he has finished college.” Both he and his father believed baseball would still be there for Nick once he graduated, but if he went immediately into baseball, he would never return to his education.

Nick begrudgingly obeyed the will of his family and went off to college but returned home in January, 1909, complaining of feeling ill and tired—all seemingly classic signs of depression. On the surface, he was doing well—pitching for the school’s varsity team as a freshman, and planning on playing for Nashville of the Southern League later that summer. However, he felt uneasy and was particularly concerned with falling behind at school. On January 15th, he told his family he was going out to tend to some horses, and climbed up to the hay loft of a neighbor’s barn, wrote a brief note and shot himself in the head with a pistol. He was found by Henry, who carried him home and summoned a doctor. Unfortunately, it was too late and he died the next morning in the hospital. He was only 19 years old.

Although Christy achieved baseball immortality, he also suffered a similarly sad fate as Henry and Nick. After surviving 17 major league seasons and service overseas during World War I, he succumbed at the age of 45 from the effects of gas poisoning he had suffered in battle.

The Mathewson brothers were a combination of talent and tragedy. Baseball has never seen anything like them before and likely never will again. It’s impossible to predict what may have happened if they managed to avoid some of the bad breaks that wound up determining their fates but they will always be a prime example of what might have been.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Examining Some Hall-of-Fame Batter and Pitcher Matchups

At any given time there are hundreds of players with active major league careers. While they all undoubtedly possess elite athleticism and skill in order to have gotten so far in the game, only a select few are dominant enough to earn membership into the elite club frequently referred to as the “all-time greats.” If we’re lucky, there might be a handful or so of these players in the majors at any one time. But what has happened when their paths have crossed and some of these legendary batters have stepped up to the plate against their pitching counterparts? The results may surprise you.

Let’s take a look at a sampling of some of the better hitter/pitcher matchups from the past. The only criteria is that both players have to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and have at least 100 plate appearances facing each other in order to provide results that are hopefully a bit more compelling than your typical baseball small sample size. Some results may be surprising, and others may not. Either way, nothing would have been better than actually being at some of those games and seeing it all go down in person.

Mickey Mantle versus Early Wynn: Mantle (.298 career batting average and 536 home runs) and Wynn (300 victories) were among the biggest stars of their generation. However, when facing each other, one clearly came out ahead. That would be the right-hander, who held the switch-hitting Commerce Comet to a .242 average, 13 home runs and 24 RBIs in 161 at-bats.

Wynn may come out with the better numbers, but the 50 walks and 48 strikeouts accumulated by Mantle in these matchups are proof that each at-bat was a grinder.

Willie Mays versus Robin Roberts: With careers that had 15 years of overlap, there was plenty of opportunity for these two to face off. The right-handed Roberts permitted 505 home runs in his career, which is still second all-time, so it would be a good bet that Mays and his 660 career round trippers teed off on him with extreme prejudice. Strangely, that was not the case. Although the outfielder touched him for a .313 batting average in 170 career at-bats, he managed just four home runs and 12 RBIs, shockingly low numbers for the historic slugger.

Ted Williams versus Bob Feller: Rapid Robert and his 100 MPH fastball against Williams, perhaps the purest hitter to ever grip a bat, must have been a magnificent sight to behold. Fortunately, for fans of the time, they faced each other quite frequently—as they both played for only one team each during their lengthy careers (Williams for the Boston Red Sox and Feller for the Cleveland Indians). The lefty-swinging outfielder torched Feller to the tune of a .371 batting average with nine home runs and 31 RBIs in 124 at-bats (data is missing for three games). He also drew 34 walks while whiffing just 10 times, helping build a .506 OBP. These numbers are even more impressive when considering Feller led the American League in strikeouts seven times and won 20 or more games six times.

Hank Aaron versus Sandy Koufax: With 165 victories and a 2.76 ERA before retiring at the age of 30 because of an arthritic elbow, the southpaw Koufax may have gone on to post even more mind-blowing numbers if granted the gift of health. On the other hand, Aaron enjoyed 23 relatively uninterrupted seasons on the way to a .305 batting average, 755 home runs, 2,297 RBIs and 3,771 base hits.

Pitting these two titans of talent against each other could well be expected to cause the skies to rumble with preternatural thunder but the results of this matchup are surprisingly one-sided. In 116 at-bats, Aaron bashed his way to a .362 batting average and seven home runs. He also whiffed just 12 times and drew five intentional walks.

Mike Schmidt versus Tom Seaver: The right-handed hitting Schmidt was one of the greatest third basemen of all time, hitting 548 home runs during his 18-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies. He had plenty of chances to face the right-handed Seaver, who spent all but the final few years of his 20 major league seasons in the National League, racking up 311 wins and 2.86 ERA.

When it comes to determining who got the better of this matchup, there was really little contest, as Seaver dominated. He struck out Schmidt 35 times, allowing just 16 hits and two home runs in 85 bats, a .188 batting average and a .294 slugging percentage, which is nearly half his career mark of .527.  Schmidt may not have fared well facing Tom Terrific but certainly took out any potential lingering frustration on other pitchers.

Willie Stargell versus Juan Marichal: Although they played on opposite sides of the country, the 13 years of their respective careers they were in the majors at the same time meant they became quite familiar with each other. Stargell’s talent, which resulted in a .282 batting average and 475 home runs, seemingly meant little to the right-handed pitcher, who was no slouch with 243 victories and a 2.89 ERA. In 109 at-bats, the first baseman managed just 19 hits (.174 batting average), three home runs and 10 RBIs. He also struck out 28 times and managed just four walks.

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Millers and the Saints: A Review

Fans have traditionally been drawn to the game of baseball for many reasons but one that keeps them coming back over and over again is the fantastic rivalries that develop between teams. These are created by regionalism, annual competitiveness and star players that are compared and contrasted against each other. Not reserved to just the Majors Leagues, all levels of baseball are rich with these rivalries. Author Rex D. Hamann has captured one of the best with his 2014 book, The Millers and the Saints: Baseball Championships of the Twin Cities Rivals, 1903-1955 (Publisher- McFarland * * Order Line- 800-253-2187).

The Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Saints are two of the most storied franchises in baseball history; both dating their inaugural seasons back to the 1880s. Although they weren’t always in the same circuit at the same time, they were both powerhouse members of the American Association between 1902 and 1960, providing the time frame for Hamann’s examination. During that time, they won a collective 17 championships (nine for St. Paul and eight for Minneapolis) and along the way developed a terrific regional rivalry that became known as the “Streetcar Series.”

Until the Twins came along in 1961, the Millers and the Saints were the “big leagues” for Minnesota. Hamann has captured what their matchups meant to the two most prominent cities in the state and the surrounding communities by compiling a synopsis of each of the 17 championship seasons and the 1934 campaign (where the Millers finished in first place but lost in the postseason).

Even for the sturdiest of baseball fans, digesting large chunks of history of not one but two franchises is a tall order. However, Hamann has done a neat trick of consolidating a lot of information in the 312 pages. There are not only brief accounts of the games played between the Millers and Saints during the highlighted seasons but also a liberal helping of statistics and vintage photos.

The diversity of players and managers (Hall of Famer Walt Alston sharpened his skipper skills with the Saints before being hired by the Los Angeles Dodgers) that graced the rosters of the two teams is something to behold. In true minor league tradition there were plenty of prospects (Ted Williams was a Miller in 1938) and also many former major league players finishing out their careers. Prominent among those was Joe Hauser, who was a rising slugger in the American League during the 1920s but saw his star dip due to a serious knee injury. Finding a home with the Millers, he became one of the greatest hitters the minor leagues has ever known, bashing 69 home runs alone during the 1933 season.

As with any history book worth its salt, one must look at the sources and notes. Hamann shines in this regard, as his copious end notes and bibliography reflect the tremendous amount of research that must have gone into this work.

Sadly, the arrival of the Twins spelled the end of the rivalry as it had been known for decades. The Millers and the Saints were to Minnesotans what the Red Sox/Yankees and Dodgers/Giants were to their own parts of the world. The Millers/Saints may not have received the same large-scale national attention but were every bit as important for the region they represented. The intensity of the matchup and the talent and colorful nature of the personalities that represented each team is on full display. They may be gone (The Millers folded in 1960 and the Saints play on in the independent American Association) as they were once known but they leave behind a rich legacy that did Minnesota and baseball proud.

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

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Sunday, June 7, 2015

13 Not So Famous Baseball Players Banned by Kennesaw Mountain Landis

Kennesaw Mountain Landis is still perhaps the most iron-fisted commissioner in the history of professional sports. Hired by major league baseball owners in 1920 to bring order to the game in the wake of the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal from the 1919 World Series, the bushy-browed former federal judge ruled baseball with absolute power until his death in 1944. Although his tenure is inextricably linked with the eight Chicago players he banned for their alleged roles in throwing the Fall Classic, there were others who he threw out of the game.

The banned “Black Sox” (Shoeless Joe Jackson, Happy Felsch, Buck Weaver, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullin, Chick Gandil, Lefty Williams and Eddie Cicotte) have been frequent subjects in baseball research, so we will skip over them here. What deserves more attention are the other 13 players who Landis banished for a variety of actions he deemed detrimental to the game of which he was given complete control. Their stories run the gamut and are a fascinating glimpse of how careers sat on a razor’s edge before the days of the Player’s Union and other mechanisms designed to provide more due process.

Without further ado, the list of 13:

Benny Kauff, Outfielder: A forgotten great player, Kauff twice led the Federal League in batting and stolen bases, and hit a combined .311 in eight big league seasons between 1912 and 1920.

Following the 1919 season with the New York Giants, he was accused of selling a stolen car. He played the 1920 season but was suspended by Landis in 1921 as the case went to trial.  Kauff claimed that two of his employees had given him a false bill of sale for the car and that he had resold it under the belief he was the legal title owner. A jury acquitted him in less than an hour but the commissioner refused to reinstate him, telling writers he believed the player was guilty and that the case had raised serious concerns about his character.

The Commissioner told Kauff that the trial "disclosed a state of affairs that more than seriously compromises your character and reputation. The reasonable and necessary result of this is that your mere presence in the lineup would inevitably burden patrons of the game with grave apprehension as to its integrity.”

Although Kauff later became a scout, he was never officially welcomed back to baseball (even unsuccessfully petitioning the New York State Supreme Court to intervene in the matter, which they declined to do). He died in 1961 at the age of 71.

Dickie Kerr, Pitcher: “Honest” Dickie Kerr was a rising star, winning a combined 53 games in his first three major league seasons with the Chicago White Sox (1919-1921). The left-hander even won 21 games and led the American League with 5 saves in 1920. His nickname came from his straight play in the 1919 World Series, where he posted two complete-game wins despite the alleged best efforts of some of his teammates to the contrary.

His banishment came in the offseason after the 1921 season when he played in exhibition games with some of his banished “Black Sox” teammates—a serious violation. Although he was reinstated in 1925, he pitched in just 12 more games in the majors, never winning another game. He went on to have a successful career coaching and managing in the minors. He became a significant mentor to a young Stan Musial, and helped his transition from a pitching phenom with a bum arm to a legendary outfielder. So integral did “Stan the Man” find his influence that he later bought his former coach a house and even named his son Dick in his honor.

Gene Paulette, Infielder: The journeyman bounced around between four teams during a six-year big league career. He was alleged to have accepted gifts from St. Louis gamblers while playing for the Browns and Cardinals from 1916 to 1919, and had even offered in a letter to help fix games by recruiting others. His association with shady characters and his failure to show up for a scheduled questioning with Landis resulted in him being jettisoned from the game after the 1920 season—technically the first player the Commissioner ever banned.

Hal Chase, First Baseman: “Prince Hal” had a .291 career batting average and one of the slickest gloves in the history of the game. Unfortunately, he also had a hard time steering clear of trouble, especially when it came to gambling. He was accused of throwing games on multiple occasions (likely contributing to why he played for five teams during his 15-year career), yet somehow managed to evade punishment until he was effectively blackballed from both the National and American Leagues following the 1919 season. After the “Black Sox” trial, Landis declared that anybody who bet on baseball would be shut out of the game, which became known as a formal ban of Chase
Showing how seriously such banishments were taken, American League President Ban Johnson supposedly pressured Mexico to deport Chase in 1925 after he went there in an attempt to start a professional league. It did not get off the ground and he spent the rest of his life working menial jobs until his death in 1947 at the age of 64.

Heinie Groh, Third Baseman: The tiny right-handed hitter has the distinction of owning the shortest lifetime ban of anyone from this list—2 days. A star player, he held out with the Cincinnati Reds in 1921 after they wouldn’t give him a raise. Although he and the team worked out a deal that he would sign a contract and then be traded to the New York Giants, Landis believed that would set a bad precedent. Groh was banned and told he could either play for the Reds or not at all. Groh gave in and reported, effectively lifting the ban. He finished with a 16-year major league career, hitting a combined .292 with 1,774 hits and 566 RBIs. He also played in five World Series (his teams went 2-3), with his first ironically being the 1919 matchup against the White Sox.

Heinie Zimmerman, Third baseman: Similar to Chase, the infielder was alleged to have attempted organizing teammates to fix games, to the point his manager, John McGraw, sent him home for the season from the Giants early in 1919. He ultimately confessed to trying to have players throw games but not to playing poorly himself. That essentially blackballed him for baseball but Landis’ “Black Sox” ruling effectively handed out the lifetime punishment, similar to Chase.

In a classic case of what might have been, Zimmerman may have been on his way to an eventual compelling Hall of Fame case. Just 32 at the time he played his final major league game, he hit a combined .295 with 1,566 hits in 13 seasons with the Chicago Cubs and Giants. He also led the league in hitting and home runs once, RBIs twice, and missed out on the 1912 Triple Crown by three RBIs.

After baseball he worked as a plumber and operated a speakeasy in New York with famed gangster Dutch Schultz. His brother-in-law was shot to death in 1928 in a gang dispute, and in 1935 the ex-player was named as a co-defendant in the federal tax evasion cases against Schultz. He was able to walk away from the case and lived until 1969, passing away at the age of 82.

Jimmy O’Connell, First Baseman: Following several years of posting monster numbers in the Pacific Coast League, the left-handed hitter was purchased by the Giants for the princely sum of $75,000 prior to the 1923 season. He spent the next two years primarily coming off their bench, hitting a combined .270 with eight home runs and 57 RBIs in 139 games.

During the last few games of the 1924 season, the Giants were neck and neck with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant. O’Connell allegedly told Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Heinie Sand “it will be worth $500 to you if you don’t bear down too hard against us today.” The overture was rejected and reported, leading to O’Connell’s lifetime ban. Giants’ coach Cozy Dolan (who also appeared in one game as a player that year—the last of his seven major league seasons) was also implicated and banished.

O’Connell told Landis he was merely following orders in offering the bribe, and also implicated star teammates George Kelly, Frankie Frisch and Ross Youngs in the plot, although they were never found to be culpable. The full truth may never be known but it does seem unlikely that a 23-year-old bench player in his second year would have hatched such an elaborate scheme on his own. He ultimately became a semi-pro star in Arizona, playing against other banned players and Negro League teams.

Joe Gedeon, Second Baseman: The infielder and his solid glove and quiet bat toiled for seven seasons (1913-1920) with the Washington Senators, New York Yankees and St. Louis Browns. Unfortunately, he received his ban following the 1920 season, his best ever, in which he hit a career-high .291 with 61 RBIs in 153 games for the Browns. He was a friend of Swede Risberg and was found guilty of being present during one of the Black Sox players’ meetings with gamblers.

Gedeon orchestrated his own downfall, as he traveled to Chicago to try and collect a $20,000 reward White Sox owner Charles Comiskey offered for information regarding the plot. The infielder admitted to his presence at the meeting, which didn’t result in the cash reward as he hoped. Instead, Landis determining that while he may not have fixed the games himself, he was aware of the plot and thus could not continue with baseball.

After testifying he won $600-700 betting on the 1919 Series (He claimed he didn’t try for a bigger score because of a guilty conscience) he was released by the Browns even though he was exonerated by the grand jury. Nonetheless, his official banishment soon followed.

He was later arrested for violating the Volstead Act, and then again for possession of counterfeit money. He died in 1941 at the age of 47. His nephew Elmer Gedeon, who played in five games for the 1939 Senators, died in 1944 while serving in World War II, making him one of just two major leaguers to die in combat.

Joe Harris, First Baseman: The right-handed hitter batted an impressive .317 during 10 seasons with six teams in the majors between 1914 and 1928. He received his life-time banishment in 1920 after electing to play for an independent industrial team instead of the Cleveland Indians, who held his contract rights. He took the alternate offer because it provided a higher salary and a business off the field, but was contrary to baseball’s rules.

Prior to this, Harris had served in World War I, and was discharged following a severe truck accident that required reconstructive surgery to address significant facial injuries. Perhaps feeling a bit patriotic, Landis reinstated the player after reviewing his application for reinstatement.

Lee Magee, Infielder/Outfielder: The jack of all trades played for seven teams in nine major league seasons (1911-19), hitting a combined .276 with 1,031 hits and 186 stolen bases. He was released by the Cubs prior to the start of the 1920 season. Upon suing them for his salary, his court testimony indicated he had bet $500 on a 1918 game in which he was playing for the Reds. He said that he had wagered on his team to win but found out it was erroneously placed on the opposing team, which led to him canceling his check to the bookmaker. This information, along with his Cincinnati manager Christy Mathewson testifying he thought something was suspicious about the game not only lost Magee his court case but also earned a lifetime ban from Landis.

Phil Douglas, Pitcher: The big right-hander nicknamed “Shufflin’ Phil” was a solid starter during his nine-year major league career, winning a total of 94 games with a 2.80 ERA for five teams. He was also one of 17 pitchers permitted to continue throwing a spitball after it was abolished in 1920. Although he led the National League with a 2.63 ERA in 1922, he clashed with his manager John McGraw, leading to a suspension and a fine. During his time away, he supposedly wrote a letter to Les Mann, an outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, offering to vacate his contract:

“I want to leave here but I want some inducement. I don't want this guy to win the pennant and I feel if I stay here I will win it for him. If you want to send a man over here with the goods, I will leave for home on next train. I will go down to fishing camp and stay there.”

Douglas’ offer to jump teams to try and derail his former skipper reached Landis, who banned him. It’s important to note that the pitcher had a reputation of struggling with alcohol, and the letter was possibly written while under the influence. No matter, he was kicked out of baseball for life. He died in 1952, and a proposal sent to Commissioner Fay Vincent for his reinstatement in 1990 was rejected.

Ray Fisher, Pitcher: Like his teammate Groh, the right-hander refused to play for the Reds in 1921 after the team cut his salary by $1,000. He even went so far as to ask for his release, which was not granted. Although his win total had dipped from 14 to 10, and his ERA had risen from 2.17 to 2.73, he was still a quality pitcher and had a reasonable argument (if baseball’s rules permitted it). Because he wouldn’t play for less money, Landis banned him, and his major league career was over, finishing with a 100-94 record and 2.82 ERA in 10 seasons.

Fisher became the head coach at the University of Michigan later that year, a post he held until 1958. In 1944, he received a silver lifetime pass to all major league parks from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Since it was signed by both league presidents, he assumed his ban was no more, something he held as true for several decades before learning that was not in fact the case. Ultimately, his ban was lifted by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1980, two years before the former hurler’s death.

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