Top 100 Baseball Blog

Saturday, April 27, 2019

New Book Release- Trouble at the Lambs: How a Violent New York Nightclub Altercation Resulted in Legal Fallout for Baseball Legend John McGraw

New Book Release

John McGraw was a standout major league third baseman before becoming an iconic manager, who led the New York Giants for over 30 years. The fiery spark plug, whose pugnacious nature on the diamond sometime spilled to off the field, could scrap and fight with the best of them. He nearly lost everything in 1920 when an alcohol-soaked night at a famous New York nightclub that resulted in an argument over stage acting left a man’s life in the balance and the baseball legend having to answer to the authorities.

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I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) an topics of baseball that are available on Amazon

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Battle for Chavez Ravine: Eminent Domain and the Construction of Dodger Stadium

Dodger Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is a baseball landmark with few peers. The venue, which opened in 1962, boasts the largest capacity in professional baseball and is roundly viewed as one of the most beautiful places to watch a game. Sadly, in order to be built, an entire community was destroyed, and residents evicted from their homes in what became known as the Battle for Chavez Ravine.

After he was unable to secure a new stadium in New York for his Brooklyn Dodgers, team owner Walter O’Malley shocked the baseball world by announcing he was moving his franchise west to Los Angeles following the 1957 season. The move not only presented him with better opportunities, but for the time being gave him an entire territory to himself, as the Major Leagues had not extended further than St. Louis and Kansas City at that time.

The Dodgers needed a permanent place to play in their new home and one was found for them. The land that the stadium was built upon was known as Chavez Ravine and had been originally seized by the City of Los Angeles in the early 1950s under the premise of eminent domain (the power of the state to take property in exchange for a price) with funds from the 1949 Federal Housing Act. The area was designated as blighted; a slum. While residents were primarily of modest means, the community was vibrant and tight-knit, composed primarily of hardworking families of Mexican-American origin, who often helped make ends meet by raising animals and vegetables.

Originally, the local government planned to use the Chavez Ravine land to construct the Elysian Park Heights public housing project, which would have provided expansive housing, schools and a college. However, after Norris Poulson was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1953, priorities changed drastically. Public housing projects became synonymous with socialist ideology, which rapidly became taboo due to the Red Scare of McCarthyism—ultimately leading to their abandonment. The city bought back the Chavez Ravine land at a dramatically reduced cost under the stipulation that it was to only be used for a public purpose.

The Dodgers began play in Los Angeles using the enormous Memorial Coliseum. On June 3, 1958 voters narrowly approved the “Taxpayers Committee for Yes on Baseball” by a three-percent margin, which permitted the Dodgers to acquire approximately 315 aces of the Chavez Ravine land from the city in exchange for a parcel of land around the minor league Wrigley Field Park, so they could start construction on the next marvel of baseball. It was necessary to go to a vote because the very idea of this transaction seemed to be a clear-cut violation of the previous terms of using the land for public good.

The site of Dodger Stadium was specifically to take over Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop, which were three neighborhoods in Chavez Ravine. Over 1,800 families once lived there; many due to housing discrimination that had driven them from the city. Although some saw this neighborhood as an example of urban decay, many residents had done well for themselves, even if their successes were modest. Eminent domain allowed for them to be removed from their homes, whether they liked it or not. The majority of these removals took place when the land was originally seized for the public housing project. The fact that eminent domain, and no less than for the purpose of a new baseball stadium, was being imposed on a group who already faced discrimination and bias made it even more eye opening. It was the flashpoint of a 10-year legal battle known as the battle for Chavez Ravine.

When the city first asserted eminent domain, landowners in Chavez Ravine were initially opposed to selling their land. There were sit-ins in public offices, protests and other forms of resistance. Even before the appearance of the Dodgers, developers began making offers in the early 1950s, and as a tactic meant to create panic and quick decision making, reduced those offers after the smaller initial group of residents accepted the buyouts. Home owners were told even though they were being made to leave they would “have the first chance to move back into the new Elysian Park Heights development."

By 1957, only about 20 families still remained in the Chavez Ravine zone scheduled for development. Almost $3 million had been spent to buy out those who had left. The holdovers resisted the aggressive overtures to buy them out and hung on to their homes with every fiber of resistance they could muster. Once potential Dodger Stadium construction started looming in 1958, the holdouts were targeted with evictions, as time was money and of the essence.

On May 9th, 1958 the Los Angeles Times reported on the eviction of the Arechiga family from the day before, who made a desperate attempt to save their home on what became known as “Black Friday”:

“It has been a long skirmish. And yesterday the battle was joined in earnest.
It including a screaming, kicking woman (Mrs. Aurora Vargas, 38, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Manual Arechiga) being carried from the house… children of the family wailing hysterically as their sobbing mother, Mrs. Victoria Angustian, 29, struggled fiercely in the grasp of deputies… the 72-year-old matriarch of the family, Mrs. Avrana Arechiga, hurling stones at deputies as movers hustled away her belongings… an obstreperous former neighbor, Mrs. Glen Walters, screeching defiance at the deputies and finally being forcibly ejected from the battleground, handcuffed, and taken to a squad car. … Mrs. Vargas was the last to leave — making good her threat that ‘they'll have to carry me.’”

It took two hours for authorities to clear the site. Police kicked the door in and brought movers. 66 year-old Avrana Arechiga, the matriarch of the family, threw rocks at the deputies and reportedly shouted in Spanish, “Why don’t they play ball in [Mayor] Poulson’s backyard—not ours?”

After they were able to clear the home, bulldozers razed the site. Still, it wasn’t over. Members of the Arechiga family were steadfast in their outrage and returned to the property where they continued camping out for a week in an RV. Their story was splashed across the front pages of newspapers and on news broadcasts, causing quite a stir. Once the public vote confirmed that stadium construction could proceed, there was no stopping the project and enthusiasm for baseball overpowered the displaced and disenfranchised.

Dodger Stadium officially opened on April 10, 1962. The team developed a large fan base that has been significantly bolstered over the years by those of Latin heritage. Their patronage became particularly ingrained with the team after the debut of Mexican pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela in the early 1980s.

Years after Dodger Stadium opened, artist Leo Politi wistfully recalled what had been lost at Chavez Ravine. “In many ways, Chavez Ravine was living a life all its own. Horse drawn plows were still in use, and the hillsides were planted with corn and sugar cane... Though all this reminded one of a village in Mexico, nonetheless this was old Los Angeles with a charm all its own, a Los Angeles we will never see again."

For years after Dodger Stadium was erected and open for business family members of some of the evicted families continued to gather annually on the site of their former family homes. Even today, Melissa Arechiga, the great granddaughter of Avrana, operates the Buried Under the Blue website, which is part of an organization charged with maintaining the history of the flattened Chavez Ravine neighborhoods.

Over time, it seems like the origins of the stadium’s construction site has gradually been slipped from the public’s memory. However, it is something that should never be forgotten. UCLA historian Eric Avila told NPR that “The broadcast of these images (of the evictions) on national television, live images on national television, left a very bitter legacy of racial tension between L.A.’s Mexican-American community and the Los Angeles Dodgers. This is the legacy of conflict upon which Dodger Stadium was built.”

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

I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) an topics of baseball that are available on Amazon

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

When Baseball Players Had to Really Work: Off-Season Jobs of the Rich and Famous

With the high salaries that major league baseball players can earn today it’s difficult to comprehend that they may work second jobs. After all, with fame, money and access to resources most people can only dream of, why they want to work themselves to the bone? Regardless of how much they have been paid, players working alternate jobs during the off season has been a common practice throughout the history of the game.

It used to be that being a professional baseball star could pay well, but not necessarily make you rich. These days, the minimum major league salary is $550,000 and the best players in the game can earn as much as $35 million annually. Given the scale of modern major league pay, the idea of Mike Trout working at your neighborhood Staples or Bryce Harper selling you a car is humorous. However, major league players of all abilities and skills have worked a wide variety of second jobs during their careers over the years, including into the present. Here is a small sampling of some.

Yankees catcher Yogi Berra worked at times as a hardware salesman for Sears, a waiter at an Italian restaurant, and as a salesperson at a men’s clothing store.

Fleet of foot outfielder Lou Brock ran a florist shop at one point in the off season, despite lacking previous experience in the business.

Pitcher Gary Bell supplemented his income by working as a photographer, specializing in taking pictures of school children. Imagine having a major league star hand you a plastic comb.

After the 1966 World Series, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer sold men’s’ suits at Hamburgers Clothing in Baltimore for a weekly paycheck of $150.

Journeyman Nick Franklin, last of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018, briefly worked as an Uber driver prior to the 2017 season.

Following the 1906 season where he won 26 games and led his Chicago Cubs to the National League pennant, ace pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown took an off-season job working in a coal mine to help make ends meet.

Carl Furrillo, the star outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, ran a local deli when not chasing down fly balls.

Pitcher Don Rudolph won a total of 18 games during his six major league seasons. He also did quite well in the off season, managing his wife Patti, who was a burlesque dancer. Duties included catching the clothing she flung off the stage during performances and matching her lipstick shades to her outfits.

Richie Hebner was fortunate in that his family owned a cemetery in Massachusetts. He was able to make extra money every off season for years digging graves.

Flame-throwing right-handed pitcher Nolan Ryan worked at times as a gas station attendant and installing air conditioning in his native Teas.

St. Louis Cardinals stars Stan Musial, Terry Moore, Red Schoendienst and Marty Marion sold Christmas trees from a parking lot.

Jackie Robinson won the National League MVP Award with the Dodgers in 1949. That off season, he made extra money working at Sunset Appliances in Queens. The store owner loved his new employee, gushing, “He’s a natural salesman, with a natural modesty that appeals to buyers.” 

Even some current players find alternate employment in the offseason, either because of personal interest or preparing themselves for a career after baseball. Pitcher Collin McHugh used to work part time for the Boosterthon Fun Run office, which is a professional fundraising office for schools.

Meanwhile, Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer has continued working in plumbing for a friend who owns his own business.

As you can see, baseball players can be quite industrious off the field. Although the working man image that has often been attached to them in the past may be fading as salaries continue to rise, it’s an important part of the game that needs to be remembered.

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

I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) an topics of baseball that are available on Amazon

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Mookie Betts: An Interview From the Vault

The Boston Red Sox haven’t had much go right with their team this year; leaving fans seeking positivity anywhere they can find it. Young prospects can be one source of optimism, especially when they turn into stars for the teams who draft, sign and cultivate them No better example of this exists then reigning 2018 American League MVP Mookie Betts. In 2012, he was just getting started in the minor leagues and took the time to chat with me about his burgeoning career while playing for the Lowell Spinners.

The smallish Betts (5’9, 180 pounds) was a three-sport high school star in Nashville, Tennessee, bowling and playing baseball and basketball, but after the right-handed hitter batted .509 as a senior his future was clearly in baseball. He had a scholarship to the University of Tennessee, but the Red Sox drafted him in the fifth round of the 2011 MLB Draft and he started his professional career instead.

After tearing through the minor leagues, Betts quickly developed into a star in the outfield in Boston. In addition to his MVP award, the team won the World Series last season. At 26, he is poised to lead the team into the future and only time will tell how much he is able to not only build on his legacy, but also that of the team.

Mookie Betts Interview:

Having grown up playing three sports (baseball, football, and basketball), how did you end up choosing baseball?: I just feel like it was my best opportunity. I liked playing basketball a lot but I’m too small for that, and baseball has been my love my whole life. I feel like I now have the best opportunity to make it to the top of this sport.

Did you have a favorite team or player when you were growing up?: Not really. I watched everybody and learned from everybody, and that’s how I learned how to play, really.

You had originally committed to the University of Tennessee… Were you going to play just baseball, or other sports as well?: I think it was just going to be baseball. I wasn’t going to try and do anything else because baseball is really time consuming.

How close were you to actually going to Tennessee?: I had to sign 30 minutes, right before the deadline. I was pretty sure I was going to go to school, and then the last offer came and me and my parents sat, and we had to really sit and talk about it. We came to the conclusion that this is what I want to do, so school had to be done with.

How did you know the Red Sox were interested in drafting you?: They came and watched me in high school. I went out and ate with my scout and the day of (the draft), they called me and I talked to them. They asked me, ‘would you be willing [to sign in] the fifth round. Of course I was. I wasn’t expecting it. Me and my mom were just sitting there watching tv and we heard my name. After that, been busting; really.

After you signed with Boston, did you do anything special to celebrate for yourself or with your family?: Two days after (the draft) I was up in Boston. After that we haven’t done anything.

What is one thing you are hoping to work on and improve the most this season?: My strength and my mental game. Baseball has got a lot of mind games going on, and I feel if I get my mind stronger I will become stronger and develop more as a player.

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

I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) an topics of baseball that are available on Amazon

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

How Concerned Should the Boston Red Sox Be With Pitcher Chris Sale?

The 2019 season is officially 12 games in for the Boston Red Sox. Just 12 games. Of those, ace pitcher Chris Sale has started three of them. That’s a tiny sample size, but optics of those games, encompassing 13 innings, have been terrible enough that Boston fandom around the globe are clutching their respective pearls. They may be justified for this kneejerk reaction.

If Sale wasn’t THE Boston ace and hadn’t JUST signed a mammoth five-year, $145 million extension, reactions may have been a little more forgiving towards his chilly start to the season. After losing to the Toronto Blue Jays on April 9th he is now 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA. He has struck out just eight batters in his 13 innings, while allowing four home runs and a batting average against north of .400. These are stark contrasts to his career marks of a 2.93 ERA and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is currently the best of all time.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Sale’s struggles has been a sudden drop in velocity. His fastball, which he has traditionally thrown at an average of about 95 MPH, is not only averaging about 91 MPH this year, but he is also throwing it far less than usual. FanGraphs not only notes this drop in velocity, but also shows how he is throwing his fastball about 36% of the time, compared to his previous low of 49.2% in 2017. His fastball speed ticked up a bit against Toronto, but is still well below his normal standards.

What makes this most nerve-inducing for fans is not just the money, but the sudden change from being one of the most dominant starters in recent memory to a pitcher would not be rosterable if improvements were not made as the season went along. When Sale is right, he is capable of headlining any team and giving them the type of rotation fire power that makes them an automatic World Series candidate if they can reach the postseason.

It’s also quite alarming that these struggles in 2019 come on the heels of Sale suffering shoulder issues down the stretch last season. He missed some starts, but was not the same when he came back, posting a 4.12 ERA and limited in his durability in the postseason.

Sale is just 30, and while he has experienced fatigue in the past, he has been durable (four seasons with at least 208.2 innings) and avoided major injuries during his career. It’s unfathomable that the Red Sox would have inked him to the extension if there was any inkling of long-term concerns; either health or otherwise. Therefore, what gives? His stuff just isn’t there yet and he is no longer missing bats at a historic pace.

Three games are a completely unreasonable amount of time to pass judgement, but his inability to show what fans have come to expect have only been magnified by the team’s dreadful 3-9 start to the season. Sale has done nothing to help turn things around, but it’s also not all his fault either. He is just the most visible of Red Sox stars most drastically underperforming his expectations.

Ultimately, fans will not sleep well at night until Sale reverts to his old form and notches some wins and starts piling up the strikeouts like cord wood again. What is going on with his fastball must also be addressed. Why is he throwing so less frequently and with such lower velocity? If it’s not health related, then what is it?

Red Sox fans hate losing. They dislike uncertainty even less. The struggles of Sale are combining the two and causing ulcers en masse, as answer are even less forthcoming than team victories. If something doesn’t change soon or explanations made available, Milk of Magnesia will become a hot stock in New England in record time.

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

I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) an topics of baseball that are available on Amazon

Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Age of Ruth and Landis: A Review

Baseball entered a new era in the 1920s. The home run was popularized the emergence of irascible slugger Babe Ruth and for better or for worse the game was cleaned up in the wake of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox World Series scandal by the appointment of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the game’s first commissioner. This resulted in a revolution in governance and broadening economics in the game, both in the major leagues and the Negro Leagues. This compelling growth of the business of baseball has been thoroughly researched and written about in David George Surdam and Michael J. Haupert’s The Age of Ruth and Landis: The Economics of Baseball During the Roaring Twenties (University of Nebraska Press, 2018).

You don’t have to be knowledgeable or even that interested in economics to appreciate the new layer of depth Surdam and Haupert have provided baseball history with their groundbreaking work. Although the play on the field remains of utmost importance, these details provide rich context that allows the game and many of its key figures to be seen in new light.
The first step in the evolution was bringing Landis on board. Although he was heavy handed and often immovable, he drastically changed the landscape by bringing a new level of discipline and even dread that cut back on gambling, inappropriate fraternization and other activities deemed to be a threat to the game. This had a lateral effect of also giving even more power to major league owners, as attempts to circumvent their stranglehold on controlling the game were met with a reinforced wall of resistance.
Initially, money was made in professional baseball by sheer spectatorship. However, by the 1920s, owners were implementing new initiatives to expand profits. Concessions, different levels of seating and renting out their parks for other events and even teams like those from the Negro Leagues brought in new dollars. However, teams did not consistently reach solvency. Inability to draw consistent crowds, national crises like war and the Depression all served to stifle growth.
A critical selling point of The Age of Ruth and Landis is that they don’t just stop at Major League Baseball. They have also included data about the Negro Leagues, which if anything is even more interesting. In addition to similar challenges faced by their white counterparts, they faced additional roadblocks like consistently being able to secure venues and keeping their players from going AWOL occasionally to buffer their paychecks by temporarily contracting to appear in exhibitions and other paying baseball gigs.
The economics of baseball have always been shrouded in mystery. In the past owners would often plead poverty as reasons why they couldn’t pay players more, upgrade venues or acquire better talent. At times this was mostly true and complete fabrication. Some teams did have difficulty drawing fans, which could really impact their bottom line, but others made tidy profits. There were also efforts made to keep less-solvent franchises afloat, as the financial health of the two leagues was of the highest importance before all else.
Surdam and Haupert have compiled a thoroughly researched and snappily written book that keeps you engaged throughout, even if you don’t have a proclivity for bean counting. It’s another important thread in the rich and complex tapestry of baseball history and is a worthy addition to the shelf of any self-respecting baseball bibliophile.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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