Thursday, December 8, 2011
This is a good time to look back at Mets history and put things in perspective, a task made more feasible and enjoyable by the publication of The Mets: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (compiled by the New York Daily News, published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, and reasonably priced at $40), a volume which should be on the coffee table of any Mets fan by Christmas afternoon. With more than 300 pages packed with images and memories, it features text by Daily News staffers Andy Martino and Anthony McCarron, and a Foreword by Ron Darling.
The images are the best thing about the book; if you never looked at the text, you'd still get your money's worth from the images, starting and ending with reproductions of 20 Daily News front/back pages with the most significant headlines in team history--inside the front and back covers. Nearly every page of this franchise history--grouped by decades and including all the key games and players--includes a photograph taken from the pages of the Daily News. These photos cover everything you'd want to be reminded of, and some things you'd rather forget, if you're a lifelong Mets fan.
I enjoyed every photo in the book, but a couple of them stand out for me. One is a ground-level shot of Endy Chavez making "the catch" in 2006, his body stretching so he can his elbow above the fence to make the catch, the ball snowconed in the webbing of a glove that's a couple of feet above the wall, where huge block letter proclaim THE STRENGTH TO BE THERE. Even better than that is the photo of the all-time franchise miracle catch: Ron Swoboda in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. I watched it happen live, and I've seen the footage of the catch hundreds of times, yet I'm still astonished not only that Swoboda caught the ball but also that he got to that spot so quickly. He had to be prescient to get that great a jump, and has suggested as much himself. I've seen a photo of the ball finding his glove just an inch or so above the ground, but for me that image is topped by the one on Page 71 of this new book. It shows Swoboda landing on the turf with his twisted glove a few inches above the ground. His left knee and right forearm have hit the ground, and he is fully outstretched. The amazing part is that the ball is not visible. We can see a couple of feet in front of Swoboda's glove, the webbing of which is no more than three inches clear of the planet. There is no baseball. Knowing that in the split-second it would take for the glove to be flat on the ground, the ball would somehow sail into it, boggles the mind.
I have been a Mets fan since the first day of the franchise, and still remember being bribed by my parents to sit for a portrait when I was eleven years old with the assurance that I'd be able to listen to the first exhibition games of the inaugural 1962 misfits while sitting. I went to a couple of dozen games at the Polo Grounds, and countless more after they moved to Shea Stadium. I've been there through all of it, and I believe this book would have been better served by writers who were more personally involved in the team's history. Gary Cohen would have been a terrific choice, but the Daily News did this project in-house.
McCarron says he's been watching the team since he was a kid in the 1970s, but Martino has only covered the team since 2008. The authors did their homework, plenty of it, and they cover most aspects of the team's history clearly, thoroughly, and rationally. It's a smooth read and every Mets fan can learn a lot; I found their detailed account of the franchise's origins quite illuminating. You'll enjoy reading the text, especially the blow-by-blow descriptions of key innings in important games. You will relish many reminders of the past glory, and you can also wallow in the traumatic times as well. The authors certainly relished digging through the team's dirt, and seldom passed up a good opportunity to rip them.
Having said all that, I have to point out three major problems I have with the text. The first two are related in that they are symptoms of the main problem I have stated--that the authors got too much of their Mets history second-hand. That increased the chance that they might miss some things in their research, might make simple factual errors, and might interpret partial data in a way that skewers the truth they are seeking to describe. Unfortunately, Martino and McCarron are guilty of all three of these things. Let's start with the factual errors. There aren't too many of them (and an acceptable number of typos), but nearly all of them occur in their coverage of the early years of the franchise, and they're all pretty embarrassing. Would someone who has observed the team's history directly make the mistake of identifying Tug McGraw and Jerry Koosman as right-handed pitchers? I doubt it, but these authors did just that. In fact, twice they said Koosman was a righty (once on the same page as a photo of his pitching motion) and from Minnesota (he's a Wisconsin native). They even misspelled Casey Stengel's name twice, and wrote about someone named Edgardo Alfronzo. The most annoying mistakes involved the 1969 champions; this book tells you that Pete Reichert [sic] bounced the ball off J. C. Martin's shoulder in Game 4 of the World Series; that Koosman's record that season was 17-6 (it was 17-9); and most regrettably, that the last out of the Series was a fly ball to center field. Yikes! Red Foley would never have let that happen.
The bigger problem--the error of omission compared to the errors of commission listed above--is that the authors apparently have little idea of how popular the Mets were during the 1960s. "How long did it take for the lovable losers to become mere losers?" they ask on Page 33, talking about the 1962 team. Apparently their answer is "right away," which simply is not the truth. They adopted the view of New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte, whom they interviewed. (All newspaper quotes in the book are from the Daily News, but the authors did interview several Times writers even though they weren't allowed to print their work.) Here is their account on Page 38: "Robert Lipsyte recalls 1964 as the definitive end of the endearing Marvelous Marv, cute loser Mets. After two years of bad baseball, the act simply ceased to charm most people. 'By the time they were at Shea Stadium, that was totally over,' Lipsyte said."
Judging from that summary dismissal, you would get the idea that life at Shea Stadium was dismal, lifeless and barren until the Miracle Mets of 1969. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the authors didn't know enough to research the numbers, or they ignored what they found. Here are the facts: in 1964, the Mets drew 1.7 million fans to Shea, second in the National League, while the Yankees--the pennant-winning Yankees who also led their league in attendance--drew 1.3 million to Yankee Stadium. What? The team that won 53 games drew over 30 percent more fans than the team which won 99 games and its fifth straight pennant? Of course the novelty of the new stadium was part of the appeal, but clearly the "lovable loser" factor was still present. People kept choosing to go to Flushing rather than the Bronx, and it had to be for some other reason than the expectation of a home-team victory.
That season ushered in a stretch of twelve straight seasons in which the Mets outdrew the Yankees, a streak not broken until the Yankees moved into the renovated Yankee Stadium in 1976. In 1969 the Mets became the first New York team since the 1950 Yankees to draw over 2 million fans, but let's look at the period from 1965-1968. Lipsyte says things were dead for the Mets and their fans during that period, and I have to wonder whether the authors were compelled to ignore the Mets' popularity rather than dwell on the worst decade in the history of the Daily News' primary readership's favorite franchise. The fact is that the Mets kicked the Yankees' ass during the 1960s, and Martino and McCarron are remiss in not mentioning a word about it. It was fun at Shea in those years. It was like going to a circus where it was likely that an acrobat would fall.
Quickly, the attendance figures by which the Mets trumped the Yankees in those year: in 1965, 1.77 million to 1.21; in 1966, 1.93 million to 1.12; in 1967, 1.56 million to 1.26; and in 1968, 1.78 million to 1.18. Add it up, and it's an average of 1.76 million to 1.19, or about 48 percent more fans for the Mets. Recall that during these four seasons, the Mets averaged 62.5 wins a season, and by the end had still never finished higher than ninth; the Yankees averaged 75.5 wins despite finishing last in 1966. Clearly there was plenty of losing going on at Shea, so why were the fans going there in droves (they were second or third in league attendance during those years)? Much like the fans at Wrigley Field in recent years, they went to Shea for the giddy, almost party-like atmosphere, the sense of being in a park on a beautiful day or evening, surrounded by people who just want to be there to watch the passing parade, even if it did include a few fielding and baserunning gaffes. Compared with staid Yankee Stadium, Shea was festive, symbolized by the franchise embracing the notion of banners in the stands. That practice was forbidden in the Bronx, but Mets fans quickly found that they could express with wit and images both the joy and anguish of rooting for the Mets.
In 1963, Mets management decide to promote banners by staging the first "Banner Day," during which fans paraded around the field with banners between games of a doubleheader. Pretty soon it became a contest, and I'm pretty sure the first winning banner fittingly declared, "To err is human, to forgive is a Mets fan." By the time the team started to play decent ball in 1968, banners were a fixture, as were the witty perspectives provided by the "sign man" behind the third-base dugout. "Banner Day" was an annual event until the early 1990s, and it is significant that the Mets just announced that "Banner Day" will return in 2012. The fans need some way to express themselves again, though I don't think you'll see any banners at Citi Field promising that Mets fans will forgive as easily as we used to.
This is a vital omission from the Daily News version of Mets history, because that first generation of fans established the foundation for the franchise's enduring popularity. Their children took to the team anew in the 1980s and have pretty much stuck by the team ever since. But to trumpet the Mets' success at the box office in the 1960s would have meant reminding readers that the other huge factor was that the Yankees stank. The authors weren't up to that, but I didn't find any such gaps in their account of more recent team history.
My third beef is stylistic and a pet peeve of mine. The authors use "Met" as the adjectival form of "Mets," referring to things like "the first Met run". Let me make this clear. The franchise is called the Mets. Anything that refers to the franchise has to say "Mets". The only time "Met" is correct is when it refers to an individual player, as in "Richie Ashburn was the first Met to score a run." Otherwise it has to be Mets. This is especially true in New York, where "Met" actually refers to two non-sports entities: the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a matter of fact, the "first Met run" was Gounod's Faust, performed at the Metropolitan Opera House (known as "The Met") in 1883.
In this book, "Mets" and "Met" are often used in the same sentence, depending on the part of speech. That looks bad, sounds bad, and is bad. What does it mean to refer to "Met management"? If the authors are referring to the ball club and not the art museum, they are talking about the people who run the franchise called the Mets. Therefore they are "Mets management" and nothing else. And so on, and so on. It bothered me every time I saw it, and there is more useless interchanging of team-related terms here than I've ever seen in a book.
Despite these reservations, I'll repeat that this is a great book, and you can't go wrong giving it to your favorite Mets fan for Christmas. Or at least by Opening Day 2012, when we'll need a more urgent reminder that in a 30-team enterprise the odds are that you'll win a championship every 30 years, so a team with two titles in 50 years is still far enough ahead of the curve for its history to be celebrated.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
The next thing I heard from him was an e-mail with a link to his own website, at which he had posted the following:
"One of the people who I was most privileged to meet this past Wednesday evening, at the 21st Annual Sports Memorabilia and Card Show in Johnstown, New York, was sports historian and blogger Gabriel Schechter. The author of such books as Victory Faust; The Rube Who Saved McGraw's Giants and Unhittable; Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons, as well as Guts and Glory; The Golden Age of American Football, Schechter's most recent book came out in 2009 and was called This Bad Day in Yankees History, which was sort of a page-a-day calendar highlighting the missteps of baseball's most famous franchise.
"I've long heard that Schechter was a smart guy -- he won $19,600 in 2008 when he appeared on the quiz show Jeopardy -- but I didn't know how truly principled he was. This is readily apparent if you read his insightful blog, "Never Too Much Baseball", at http://www.charlesapril.com/. For instance, this little snippet comes from his posting of August 18, 2011:"
"Well, truth is truth, and that matters to me and to others who have steadfastly corrected misstatements. People will believe all kinds of things. They used to believe the Earth was flat and that cancer was always fatal, and there are still those who insist that the Holocaust never happened or that men never actually walked on the moon. Some people won't believe in global warming until they start choking in the streets..... But when you do know the truth, your head is less clouded by confusion and you have more immunity from the annoying effects of untruth."
"Many people know that I wrote A Bitter Cup of Coffee because I also wanted the truth out there, namely, that Major League Baseball and the players association have been hosing nearly 900 retired players out of pensions for more than three decades. Furthermore, since the mainstream media have been indifferent, by and large, to the plight of these men, I felt that it was my moral responsibilility to do something to remedy this situation.
"So on some level I feel a kinship to a guy like Schechter, who baseball insiders know was terminated by the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown last year for writing about the hypocritical stances the museum sometimes takes. Using office PCs and software to supposedly run Yahoo fantasy baseball, hockey and football leagues and allegedly running no-limit poker tournaments for HOF Fantasy Camp participants at a time when Pete Rose is on the ineligible list for his betting on baseball games are among the laundry list of head scratchers that Schechter writes about in his great blog."
That's what Gladstone wrote, apart from the quote from my blog. The big problem was his assertion that I got fired for writing about the Hall of Fame's hypocrisy, and the implication--through the list of topics in the following sentence--that those things were examples of the kind of hypocrisy that I wrote about while I was working at the Hall of Fame, resulting in my firing. I don't know how he could have done me a greater disservice than by putting it that way, so I sent him an e-mail which read in part:
"You have made a major misstatement here, and I hope it can be corrected. I was NOT fired by the HOF for making remarks or posting blogs that were critical of the way things are done at the HOF. While working there, I was very careful not to write anything overtly critical of my employer. The list of topics (such as gambling) which you included as examples of the kind of thing I wrote about the HOF were ALL written and posted AFTER I was fired. So it's misleading for you to present it as you have."
In the blog which got me fired ("A Wing and a Player," posted in August 2010), I did write about something hypocritical the Hall of Fame did--back in 1971, when they attempted to create a "separate but equal" wing for Satchel Paige and other Negro Leaguers. But while working at the Hall of Fame, I never blogged anything critical of the people I worked with or for. The gloves came off after I was fired, of course, as I tried to make clear to Gladstone. "A Wing and a Player" was the last of three blogs I wrote that summer about the common misconception that the winners of the Spink and Frick Awards are thereby elected to the Hall of Fame. The thrust of those three blogs was critical of the writers and broadcasters for perpetuating this self-serving myth. I said nothing about the Hall of Fame's role in perpetuating this myth, but the Hall tacitly conceded my point this year by handing out those awards at a separate ceremony, removing the chief cause of the misconception, namely that because the awards were given out at the Induction ceremony, the winners were being inducted.
Here is Gladstone's e-mail response to my complaint that he didn't talk to me before writing about me:
"If I erred, it wasn't intentional. If there's heat to take, let the HOF contact me, assuming they read this at all. And strictly speaking, I never wrote that you were fired for the Fantasy Camp poker games or playing fantasy baseball on hOF computers. Your take on my posting was correct. The writers and broadcasters are not inducted into the Hall of Fame when they win the coveted Spink and Frick Awards; to suggest otherwise is misleading or hypocritical."
Let's take a close look at this. The article he posted about me made not a single mention of the Spink and Frick Awards, so you'd have to do the three-step jump he's done here (plus read my original blog) to make the association that when he wrote about "hypocritical stances" by the Hall of Fame, he was referring to those awards and not to the subjects he raised in the rest of the paragraph. Someone who simply read his blog would have a tough time not thinking that he was making a connection in those two consecutive sentences. Sentence A: I got fired for writing about Hall of Fame hypocrisy. Sentence B: Here are some examples of Hall of Fame hypocrisy. That's a basic element of writing that anyone who takes Freshman Comp knows: the lead sentence of a paragraph gives the theme/subject of the paragraph, and what follows illustrates that theme/subject. You'd have to be psychic to read those two sentences and not conclude that they were related.
Thus his denial rang hollow to me, and I also didn't like his statement that only the Hall of Fame might be upset by what he wrote. The irony was inescapable in my mind: here Gladstone had written this piece about my being a "stand-up guy," but as soon as I stood up to his misstatement, he dismissed his own error as excusable because it wasn't intentional.
That is no way to deal with a stand-up guy. I sent the following e-mail to him:
"No, you didn't write that I was fired for playing fantasy baseball on HOF computers. But you did write that I was fired for writing about it, and that is simply not true. If you're going to extol me as a truth-teller, the least you can do is tell the truth. Don't wait to take heat from the HOF. You're taking heat from me."
This was his response:
"Let's back off, shall we? I don't need the attitude you're exhibiting. I wrote a complimentary posting on someone who had always impressed me because of his record and accomplishments. Just be gracious and say thank you."
Just so you know, I had thanked him the first time I wrote; the e-mail began, "I very much appreciate your writing this," and I thanked him for quoting that particular blog passage. I don't know why he felt I should thank him for blithely dismissing my concerns about the veracity of his blog, but the condescending huffiness of his latest e-mail did nothing to soften my attitude. So I responded:
"Maybe you don't need my attitude, but I certainly didn't need your unprofessional approach to your column, which is the only thing that prompted that attitude. When we met, I agreed to let you talk to me and suggested that you read my blogs as research. You read the blogs, drew conclusions from them (incorrect conclusions), and ran with them without checking with their subject. That is a poor way to go about journalism. As I noted in my previous e-mail, it is especially ironic that you wrote about someone you praised as a truth-teller, then not only didn't tell the truth about him but also acted as if there was nothing wrong with that."
I requested that he correct or remove the post and assured him that if he didn't, I would write a blog to clarify the truth of the matter. This was his response, which he began by quoting the paragraph which bothered me:
"There are two sentences that make up the above graph. .....as I've written, you were terminated for writing about the hypocritical stances the museum sometimes takes. The postings about the broadcasters and writers wings were what I meant. You've also written about the betting that goes on. One has nothing to do with the other.
"As far as my unprofessional approach goes, that's really the pot calling the kettle black. Is it this iconoclastic, shoot from the hip attitude that got you canned? 'Cause knowing a bit about employment law as I do, if I did what you did, namely, writing insubordinate postings about my day employer, I'd be canned too.
"This will be my final thoughts on this matter. Accept 'em or don't, I really don't care. Have a nice life."
All right, let's discuss this. He and I may have known that he was talking about the "wings" when trying explain why I was fired, but there was no way for the reader of his article to know that. I will repeat here that despite his confidence on the subject, he still does not know why I got fired. So his presumptions about employment law are completely out of line. In fact, there was a hearing on my firing, because the Hall of Fame challenged my eligibility for Unemployment benefits. At the hearing, I learned that I wasn't fired so much for writing the blog, but for sending the link to a number of members of the BBWAA, leading to e-mail exchanges with a couple of writers. The Hall of Fame felt that I was out of line for engaging in a personal "dialogue" with writers upon whom it depends for casting ballots in the annual Hall of Fame elections. So, contrary to Gladstone's assumptions, I didn't get fired for exposing hypocrisy at the Hall of Fame. The judge ruled in my favor, writing that contacting the writers may have been "poor judgment," it did not qualify as the "willful misconduct" that would be necessary to disqualify me from receiving benefits.
If Gladstone had taken the trouble to talk to me first before writing his article, he would have learned this. But he didn't, and when I called him on his negligence, he attacked me instead. A friend of mine once said, "Righteous indignation is very satisfying, especially when you're in the wrong." Clearly from his final e-mail, Gladstone is relishing his righteous indignation at my failure to do anything besides thank him profusely and continuously for complimenting my blog. I suspect that Gladstone's intention was to use my story to tweak the people who run the Hall of Fame. Otherwise how do you account for his bland assumption that only the Hall of Fame could possibly object to what he had writtten? He seemed much more concerned about their reaction than mine.
So yes, thank you, I will have a nice life. It was a nice life before my 45-second encounter with Gladstone at the show in Johnstown, and his article won't change that. I know the truth of this dispute, and I still care about the truth enough to share it with my readers. If someone else wants to make his readers read between the lines to figure out what he actually means, rather than forcing his readers into the same flawed assumption he has made, that's his problem. Even by the nebulous standards of the quasi-journalistic world of blogging, it's a shoddy way to do things. It's lazy and negligent, especially considering that his subject had agreed to be interviewed for the article. I even gave him my business card with my phone number so he would have no trouble finding me. That's what makes me think that he had no intention of doing more than using my case as a needle to stick in the voodoo doll he's carrying around with the Hall of Fame's logo on it. Again, that's his business. I have my own voodoo doll and my own reasons for needling the Hall of Fame, but I won't take advantage of anyone else to do it.
Friday, October 28, 2011
As someone with a low opinion of LaRussa, I was delighted on Monday to see the ultimate micro-manager done in by breakdowns in the most basic communication. His embarrassment and the changing stories he and his troops gave about the game's gaffes have been hashed over by others, though I have one question about his strategy that gnaws at me: why was Allen Craig running on those 3-2 pitches to Albert Pujols with nobody out in the ninth inning? The fact that the FOX announcers had no problem with it makes me doubly certain that LaRussa was misguided.
I can't recall the last time I saw a runner on the move in the ninth inning when his team trailed by two runs. The Cards had their three big power hitters lined up (Pujols, Holliday, Berkman), and with a home run needed to tie the game, it was imperative to keep that runner on base. I know the rationale behind running him was that LaRussa wanted to stay out of the double play. But just how likely was a double play in that spot. In 162 innings in the major leagues, Neftali Perez has thrown 11 double-play balls, and has struck out 164 batters. The guy is not Dan Quisenberry, throwing everything at the knees. He's a strikeout pitcher, and it was far, far more likely that he would strike the next batter out than that he would get a double-play ball. Yes, Pujols did lead the league in grounding into double plays this year for the second time. But he still struck out twice as often, and over his career has struck out three times as often as he has hit into a double play.
The proof that he was much more likely to strike out in that spot is that he DID strike out, on a waist-high pitch at least 6-8" outside. Two innings earlier, Craig had already demonstrated his ability to get thrown out by a mile trying to steal, so I thought at the time (when he ran on the first 3-2 pitch, a foul ball) that the risk of losing the baserunner on a K-CS double play was too great. In a one-run game it would be a different story, but with the Cards down two runs, there was no actual benefit from the other possible positive result, a base hit on which he could have advanced an extra base. That didn't matter. What mattered was keeping him on base so that even with two outs, Berkman would have a chance to tie the game. But LaRussa decided that it was vital to avoid an event that has occurred once every 7.3 games (Pujols' rate for grounding into double plays) while leaving himself virtually helpless against an event that has occurred once per inning (Feliz striking out a batter). He paid the price, and I was happy to see it.
Now, about Game 6, which was a "Twilight Zone" experience for me as I watched it. I'm thinking of the episode titled "Stopover in a Quiet Town," in which a couple wanders around a place where nothing is what it seems to be, until they discover they are merely the playthings of an alien child who just wants to mess with them. I think there was some voodoo involved, too, especially on those errors. Can't you see some impish kid watching from above the game--flailing at the Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal dolls on the missed fly ball, flicking a fingernail at David Freese's doll as he tried to catch a routine popup, and giving Michael Young's doll a vigorous shake every time he tried to handle a ground ball? Things happened, and you couldn't figure out how. The Cards had an inning in which they didn't hit the ball out of infield, yet they not only scored a run, they left the bases loaded and had another runner picked off.
Watching home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom's strike zone move around, I thought I was looking at some kind of fun-house mirror. Great-looking pitches were called balls, and so-so pitches were strikes, creating an unusually large number of funny and dirty looks from players (and some major-league yapping from Pujols when he was called out on strikes in the sixth inning. Even the pitchers were laughing at the Invisible Shrinking Strike Zone.
It was all part of a thrilling game in which 42 players were used (including 15 pitchers) and 44 batters reached base, which featured seven lead changes and five ties, and you could picture Nolan Ryan's cardiologist waiting for the phone to ring every time the Rangers failed to get that coveted final out. We saw a "prevent-doubles" defense prevent a double--by playing the double into a game-tying triple in the bottom of the ninth. We saw American League pitchers fail three times to lay down a bunt good enough to advance a runner--except for the time when the National League pitcher threw the ball into center field (someone check the Fernando Salas voodoo doll for a fresh puncture). We saw one star nearly break an ankle from being so surprised by that wild throw that he forgot how to touch second base, and saw another star leave a World Series game because of a bruised pinkie after he suddenly found someone foot between his hand and the base it was trying to reach.
We saw all that and a lot more--a little bit of everything--and we can only hope to see some semblance of it tonight in the finale of the most surprisingly great Series I've ever seen. I can do without the voodoo and the "Twilight Zone" effects, however, and hope to see something more along the lines of "The Best Games of Our Lives".
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Upon further review, however, it turns out that this unveiling was mostly for show, a symbolic gesture to Herr Commissioner near the conclusion of the Winter Owners' meetings, held in Cooperstown for only the second time, giving each party a chance to suck up to the other. The Hall of Fame, having finally shed the Doubleday Myth, managed to create another one with the dedication of an empty, inaccessible space in honor of Selig.
Here's how Hall of Fame Chairman of the Board of Directors Jane Forbes Clark described the "Center," located off the library atrium in what was formerly offices for the Education Department: "The Selig Center for the Archives of Major League Baseball Commissioners will ensure a permanent home for the documentation and preservation of the Office of the Commissioner's contributions to baseball history. This archive will provide a central location for the study and research of the importance of the Office of the Commissioner, and its role in shaping and advancing the National Pastime for nearly a century."
What did she tell us here? In this place, this "center," we can study and research the preserved documentation of the contributions made by the commissioners. Go in there, American public, make yourself comfortable, and read all about it. Sounds great, and it would be if it were true. But none of it is true. First of all, you can't go in there. I can't go there. Even Hall of Fame staff can't go in there without tracking down one of the handful of people with a key. If you want to trek across the country to do research on that book about one of the commissioners, you won't be allowed in there either. But it doesn't matter, because there won't be anything in there anyway.
The Hall of Fame has a fair quantity of archival material related to baseball's commissioners--more than a dozen, I'm told. The largest collection is the papers of Bowie Kuhn, sent by Kuhn a year or two before he died, when he was afraid that legal problems might result in those papers being seized. But he stipulated that the papers can't be accessed until twenty years after his death. So nobody gets to see those dozens of cartons.
But the other archives won't be in the "Center for the Archives" either. Read that a couple of times to let it sink in. Let's open up a center for the archives, even though we can't put the archives in there. Why not? Because archives need to be preserved in a climate-controlled environment. Every item in the Hall of Fame's collections,apart from the library files containing newspaper clippings, is stored in climate-controlled areas in the museum basement. Temperatures are cooler in those rooms, especially where they keep the photos (at 52 degrees). The Hall of Fame is not about to install climate control in a little office off the atrium so that archives can actually be stored there. Why should they? It isn't as if anyone is going to be allowed in that room!
The procedure for looking at Commissioner-related material remains unchanged from what it has been for many years. You make an appointment to visit the Giamatti Research Center, tell them the archives you'd like to examine, and they bring the material to you in the main research center. The presence of this space--named after an actual commissioner--is irrelevant to library staff and visiting researchers alike. It is a non sequitur, a myth, a fraud.
Yet somehow it is perfectly fitting for this occasion and for this commissioner. The largest of the vacated offices will be available for meetings and conferences--but only involving VIPs. Even though the press released mentions photos (of the nine commissioners) and other items on display, it won't be open to the public, nor will it be part of tours (except for VIPs). There is a skeletal collection of books in the "Center," duplicates of Hall of Famer bios and so on. There's nothing to do in there but sit and thumb through stuff not related to commissioners, which reportedly was exactly how Selig enjoyed himself for awhile after the unveiling. Maybe he was reading the secret documentation that Abner Doubleday really did invent baseball, as Selig still believes was the case. If he believes the Doubleday myth, no wonder he thinks that people will be able to see archives in this archival center.
So even though the place isn't what Jane Clark pretended it was at the unveiling, it is what it is--empty, presumptuous, useless, and inaccessible--and therefore the most fitting tribute to Bud Selig's legacy that I can imagine.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
In the early 1990s, the American public became re-acquainted with Conlon in two ways: The Sporting News issued over 1,000 baseball cards in several sets; and in 1993, BASEBALL'S GOLDEN AGE was published by Abrams. It featured over 200 Conlon photos in a large format, with captions by Neil McCabe. The book was terrific, full of Conlon's haunting portraits and images of bygone stars. Conlon photographed 128 (future) Hall of Famers during his career, and 63 were featured in BASEBALL'S GOLDEN AGE.
Now, a mere 18 years later, Abrams has published a second volume of Conlon photos, titled THE BIG SHOW. Again, it has just over 200 photos, with captions by Neil McCabe and a foreword by Roger Kahn. To celebrate the occasion, Abrams (www.abramsbooks.com) has also reissued BASEBALL'S GOLDEN AGE with a new foreword by Roger Angell. If you want to possess a shelf of the best baseball books, these two Conlon collections have to be on it.
McCabe says the new volume is better than the original, and I agree. Even better. For one thing, the selection is more democratic. This time around, only 41 Hall of Famers are included, leaving more room for lesser players and intriguing story-lines. For instance, where the first volume had ten Babe Ruth photos, the new volume has only two, but has a section including a number of men who intersected with important events in Ruth's career--Jack Warhop, who gave up Ruth's first home run; Guy Bush, who gave up his last; Duffy Lewis, who witnessed both; Sammy Byrd, who was nicknamed "Ruth's legs" because he replaced him so often late in games; and Ford Frick, Ruth's ghostwriter who later went out of his way to protect Ruth from the 1961 home run challenge by Roger Maris.
While the first volume had multiple photos of other stars besides Ruth, the new volume has only one player with as many as four, and that's Bob Fothergill, not exactly a household name. Many related players face each other as you turn the page, the neat connections provided by McGabe. There are also numerous paired photos showing a player early and late in his career, perhaps even later as a coach, eager young faces hardened by years of competition at a difficult and dangerous game. McCabe astutely points out many subtleties in the multiple portraits of certain players.
The true joy to be found in exploring this book is the attention it brings to players so obscure that even aficionados of the Deadball Era or the Golden Age haven't heard of them. But they have great names and faces, and great stories. Submitted for your enjoyment are the immortal Gabbo Gabler, Braggo Roth, Pete Sivess, Buddy Gremp, Smead Jolley, Buzz McWeeny, Pid Purdy, and many more. Look at their faces and see how Conlon's lens permeated their characters and souls. There are happy faces like Jim Bottomley, Melo Almada, and Jim Turner, and brooding faces like Urban Shocker and Charley Hollocher, who died young.
McCabe says the new volume is better because he had a better idea of how to go about the captions. Instead of the more statistical and anecdotal captions he provided the first time around, he has made ample use of quotes--contemporary statements about the player in the photo, or quotes from the subject--to tell each player's key story. So we get Stan Coveleski explaining how slippery elm was essential for throwing his spitball; Edd Roush on winning a rare argument with John McGraw; Slim Caldwell on getting struck by lightning on the pitching mound; Nick Altrock on how he wrestled himself into submission; I could go on and on.
I understand better than anyone why McCabe enjoyed this project so much. I had almost the same experience a few years ago, writing the captions for two photo collections by Neil Leifer, who will someday win the Conlon Award. The first, his baseball photos, is a good book, but the second (football photos) is much better. Leifer says his football photos are his best, and certainly football provides more dramatic and dynamic images than baseball. The football-book editor certainly did a better job of choosing a balanced mixture of images. But I think the text is the big difference. For the football book, the publisher, Taschen, got permission to use the football writings of Jim Murray, the best dispenser ever of sports one-liners. So I had the option of using Murray quotes and other quotes that I wasn't given in the baseball book. The result was that, when I had a photo of an offensive tackle with tufts of turf stuck to his face mask, instead of parading facts about the subject all I had to do was supply Murray's superb statement that "To a lineman, the football is just a rumor."
McCabe has made wonderful use of quotes in THE BIG SHOW to shed light on time-worn tales and to introduce readers to long-lost tales. They are the difference in this book. It is more than a collection of dramatic images by baseball's best photographer. It is a treasure trove of captivating stories and expert testimony about nearly 200 players whose lives were etched on their faces for Conlon to reveal. Get this book and savor it for a long, long time.
[NOTE: At the same time that this wonderful book has been published, the Rogers Photo Archive has established a website, www.theconloncollection.com, where high-quality prints of the entire Conlon collection can be purchased.]
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Russell and I managed to buy tickets separately online in the same row for Monday's twi-night doubleheader between the Pirates and the Brewers. As a bonus, I went to the Saturday and Sunday games with my Reds, stayed with a college friend I hadn't seen since last century, and planned an encore visit to the remnants of the left-center field wall from Forbes Field, which ought to have a statue in front of it of Yogi Berra gazing helplessly up at the spot where Bill Mazeroski's Series-ending home run sailed into immortality on October 13, 1960.
Let me cut to the bottom line: if you haven't been to PNC Park, get there! Don't wait for the Pirates to be contenders; though all four games I attended were close and mostly well-played, the ballgame is not the chief attraction. Simply sitting in any seat in the park and taking in the spectacular views beyond the outfield walls is a breathtaking experience you cannot get anywhere else. I lived in the Bay Area when the park first known as Pacific Bell Park opened in 2000. I went to twenty or so games there before moving to Cooperstown in 2002, and it's fantastic. No major league park, including PNC, has a more attractive perimeter. Take the walkway past McCovey Cove to the McCovey statue, stroll along the concourse past right field where you can duck into an enclosure and watch part of the game for free, circle around past the marina and the looming Bay Bridge, and complete the circuit by admiring the statue of Willie Mays in front of the main entrance and the statues of Orlando Cepeda and high-kicking Juan Marichal near the Lefty O'Doul Bridge in the right-field corner.
As terrific as the views were at Pac Bell, I found that the best views from inside the park were in the worst seats for watching the game, out in the upper deck in right field, where you could look down at the fans in boats waiting for a Barry Bonds blast into the cove, and enjoy the best angle on the marina and the bridge. But you didn't have that great a view of the game. That's the best thing about PNC: you can get similar views from out in right field of the bridges on the Allegheny River, but the most spectacular views are from the seats that are also closest to the baseball action. And they're about as cheap as you can find for prime seats these days; Russell and I sat in the grandstand one section over from home plate for $27. For my first game, I splurged on a box seat seven rows up from the first-base dugout. It cost a mere $35; the same seat at Fenway Park would cost $135, and it would be at least twice that sum at Yankee Stadium.
Let's talk about the views at PNC. Better yet, let's look at them. Here are some of the photos I took:
Notice how the colors of the buildings change depending on the amount of sunlight. The top photo was taken at twilight, the middle one on a cloudy early afternoon, and the bottom one around 5 PM. They appear to be right beyond the outfield fences, though the yellow bridge reminds us that the Allegheny River lies in between. That's the Roberto Clemente Bridge, a footbridge leading to a downtown area that has undergone decades of renewal. A century ago this city was dubbed "Smoketown," but that is thankfully just a factoid from the distance past now. Here's a better image of the Clemente Bridge, with The Great One's statue and yours truly:
I saw four close games in three days on this trip, all decided in the late innings, the Pirates splitting two games over the weekend with the Reds, and dividing a pair with the Brewers in a rare twinight doubleheader. One player I particularly wanted to see was the Reds' flamethrowing lefty, Aroldis Chapman. He entered a tie game on Saturday and gave up two runs, taking the loss, but not before I got this striking image of a 98mph pitch that for him is almost a change-up:
I saw a lot of good baseball in Pittsburgh, except for one recurring theme. Since it's one hobby horse I haven't carried on about in my blog before, this is the time. It concerns sacrifice bunts by position players. I thought Bill James proved back in the 1980s that the sacrifice bunt was a self-defeating strategy, and the explanation seems pretty simple. If you have a runner at first base with nobody out, you have a better chance of scoring (and of scoring more runs when you do score) than you do with a runner at second base and one out. The same is true with any combination of runners; if you give up an out, you reduce your odds of scoring, even if you've advanced the runner(s). The obvious conclusion is that you should only ask your weak-hitting pitcher to sacrifice, not your professional hitters.
Apparently Clint Hurdle and Dusty Baker haven't gotten the message, because I watched them demonstrate the futility of asking hitters to bunt. Two instances occurred in the first game I went to, and a third in the doubleheader, which made me think that these managers would have been more comfortable in 1911 than in 2011. In the bottom of the fourth inning, trailing 1-0, the Pirates had runners on first and second with nobody out. Up came Neil Walker, one of the two best hitters in the lineup. He bunted. Let's say the bunt works and moves the runners to second and third. The next hitter was Brandon Wood, hitting about .210, and following him was Ronnie Cedeno, another weak hitter. So the guy who was on pace for 90+ RBI tried to bunt over two runners. Does that make any kind of sense? In the fourth inning of a 1-0 game?
Walker popped up the bunt and the pitcher caught it easily. Wood struck out, but Cedeno singled in one run before the rally fizzled. In the next inning, Walker came up with runners on first and second with one out, and he singled in a run. In fact, the failed sacrifice attempt was the only out he made in the game; he went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles. But Clint Hurdle felt it was more important in the fourth inning of a 1-0 game to take the bat out of Walker's hands. No wonder the Pirates are near the bottom of the barrel in runs scored this season.
What happened in the seventh inning turned my stomach. Trailing 3-2, the Reds started the inning with a single and an RBI double, tying the game. Up came Paul Janish, like Brandon Wood a player for whom the term "professional hitter" might be a stretch, sporting a .220 career average. So I could almost see why Dusty Baker asked him to bunt the first pitch. He bunted foul. On deck was a pinch-hitter for the pitcher, so give Janish a chance to bunt the runner to third. When Baker had him bunt the second pitch, I had to wonder. Janish isn't a pull hitter, and the least he should be able to do is tap a little ground ball to the right side that would move the runner to third. He might even get a base hit.
Two things should be mentioned at this point, two things about baseball in recent years that most observers (especially the ex-players doing commentary) have concluded: bunting "skill" has deteriorated, and pitchers keep getting worse at fielding bunts. So a bunt in fair territory isn't automatically conceding an out. Just as a .200 hitter's little ground ball to the right side might find the hole and become a base hit, so might the bunt halfway to the mound get misplayed into runners on first and third. So I could almost see why Baker asked Janish to bunt twice. Of course, Janish merely proved that he wasn't up to that task.
So what happened on the 0-2 pitch? Janish tried to bunt again! And he popped it up right to the pitcher. I almost chewed up my scorecard when I saw that. Did Baker think Janish was no better than a pitcher with a .115 batting average? Did he have so little faith that Janish could make enough contact by swinging to move the runner over? He had managed a double and a single the night before. Way to stoke his confidence, Dusty! Bunting on an 0-2 pitch with nobody out! Baker got what he deserved. The Reds didn't score that inning, and the Pirates got the winning runs off Chapman in the bottom of the inning when that guy Walker came up with runners on first and second and one out, and singled in the deciding run.
Skip ahead to Monday and the second game of the doubleheader with the Brewers. The Brewers stormed to an 8-1 victory in the opener (it was 2-0 after seven innings), giving them a 9-0 record against the Pirates this season. When Corey Hart opened the nightcap with a home run, I'm sure the hometown fans thought, "here we go again." But the Pirates held tough, and it was a 2-2 game going to the bottom of the seventh inning. The Pirates got the first two men on base, and here came rookie third baseman Josh Harrison, who had tripled and singled in the first game and was hitting about .260. You know Hurdle asked him to bunt the first pitch, and you also know that he fouled it off. The pitcher was Zack Greinke, a tough righty with a wicked curve, so let's give Harrison a chance to sacrifice.
You probably know what happened on the second pitch. Another signal to sacrifice, and another foul ball. At some point, doesn't the manager have to say, "okay, kid, let's see what you can do," and give him a chance to hit? Isn't that what a young team like the Pirates is about--giving young players a chance to do something right? Is playing for one run even the best option for the home team in a tie game in the seventh inning against a high-powered offense? Well, Hurdle, possibly having learned a lesson about the futility of asking a hitter in 2011 to lay down a sacrifice, decided to let Harrison swing away.
Greinke threw a wicked curve that broke low and away out of the strike zone. Harrison chased it with a flailing hack--and sent a dying quail into short left field that went for a double, scoring the go-ahead run. From that point, the Pirates proceeded to put together their biggest rally of the season, a seven-run outburst that allowed them to cruise to the victory. That's all it took. Give a "professional" hitter (no matter how raw or helpless he looks, he's still getting paid $300,000+ to swing the bat in the major leagues) a chance to hit. Something good might happen. Imagine asking your shortstop to bunt an 0-2 pitch with nobody out in the seventh inning of a tie game!
That was the only ugly thing I saw in three days at spectacular PNC Park.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
There is no such "wing". There's an exhibit in what I described as a nook, and the award winners are honored there. The misconception continued unabated at the start of this year's baseball season. On the initial telecast on ESPN, the new crack "Monday Night Baseball" team of Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser, and Bobby Valentine took all the way until the second inning to note that they were in the presence of "three Hall of Fame broadcasters"--Vin Scully, Jon Miller, and Jaime Jarrin. I cringed when I heard that, knowing people like me who care about accuracy were in for a long season. Midway through the season I got another jolting reminder of how pervasive the myth is. After Reds announcer (and 2000 Frick Award winner) Marty Brennaman accused the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans of being "whiners," he was taken to task as someone "who should know better, as a Hall of Fame announcer," by none other than Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, the smartest man in baseball (as acknowledged by everyone between LaRussa's right ear and left ear).
My trio of blogs a year ago had a couple of consequences. Because I sent a link to about 20 prominent members of the BBWAA, I was fired, a liberation that has led to one of the most enjoyable years of my life. More importantly to the baseball world, the Hall of Fame decided that--after nearly a half-century of handing out the awards at the induction ceremony--they would forthwith give out the Frick and Spink Awards at a separate ceremony the day before the inductions of the actual Hall of Famers.
As a result, there is no longer any illusion that the award winners are being "inducted" into the Hall of Fame. A google search yields no claims since the ceremony that this year's Frick Award winner, Dave Van Horne, or the Spink Award winner, Bill Conlin, were inducted. Conlin's newspaper reported late last year, when the award was announced, that he had been elected, but that premise has been dropped. As for Van Horne, here's the lead of the column written by Brad Wilson of his hometown newspaper, the Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania) Express-Times:
"The nook where Easton native Dave Van Horne will live forever with baseball's other immortals at the National Baseball Hall of Fame here in Cooperstown, N.Y. takes some dedication to find.
"Tucked above the main gallery whose famous bronze plaques eloquently tell the story of America's national pastime, the display dedicated to the game's storytellers takes a bit of patience and perhaps directions from a staff member to find, but the effort brings rich rewards."
Bravo! I attended the Saturday ceremony at Doubleday Field (the birthplace of baseball's greatest myth, that Abner Doubleday invented the sport) to see if anyone harbored the illusion that the award winners were now Hall of Famers. I asked half a dozen Hall of Fame staff members, "who's being inducted today?" and they all gave the correct answer: nobody. The ceremony itself was terrific, featuring a typically acerbic speech by Conlin (who took several digs at Bud Selig, warming my heart), a heartfelt speech by Van Horne, and a moving speech by baseball executive Roland Hemond, the second winner of the Buck O'Neil Award for lifetime achievement. The best thing about having a separate ceremony was that, for the first time, the award winners were the center of attention. With just a few exceptions (most notably Bob Uecker), they have been largely ignored by the crowds at the induction ceremony all these years; the spectators have come to see their favorite players inducted, and that's all they care about. When weather has looked threatening, Hall of Fame officials would move the award winners from the start of the program to the end, resulting in a large-scale exodus during their presentations. This year, even though only about 2,500 spectators were admitted (free) to Doubleday Field, they all wanted to be there to honor the winners, and they all paid attention to the speeches.
So there might be a happy ending to all of this controversy. Nobody can stop Marty Brennaman from claiming repeatedly that he's a Hall of Famer, and nobody can stop the Tony LaRussas and Dan Shulmans of the world from believing it. But in the coming years, as the tradition of the separate ceremony becomes entrenched, there's a chance that the myth will disappear. People believe what they're used to hearing and seeing over and over again, and after sufficient time passes, the future generations won't even be award that there was ever confusion over who was and wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame.
To illustrate this trick of the mind, I want to go back and take a final, revealing look at how this misconception grew over the past half-century. It didn't appear out of thin air; it occurred because the people who had the loudest voice--the people hosting the induction ceremony and introducing the winners--either ignorantly or intentionally perpetuated the notion that the award winners were being inducted. I have gone through every induction ceremony transcript to see who made these misstatements and when. I found about two dozen--some vague, some egregious--not counting last year's ceremony, which I wrote about in last year's blogs.
Here are those references (I call the file "Frickinspink"). I'll give you the year, the quote, who was being introduced, and who said it. In some cases it was the award winner--and by the way, I found exactly ONE award winner who went to the trouble of reminding the audience that he knew he wasn't being inducted, he was merely winning an award. That was St. Louis writer Bob Broeg, winner of the Spink Award in 1979. Most of the time, the confused person was the MC of the ceremony, the current head of the BBWAA (if I don't identify the speaker, it was the BBWAA representative). After the quotes, I will add comments, especially when the quote falls into a gray area. Here you go:
1967: BOB ADDIE (intro of Grantland Rice): “It’s altogether fitting that he should be in the HOF where he helped put so many of these ballplayers.”
1968: WATSON SPOELSTRA (intro of Damon Runyon): “It’s wonderful to know that writers get into the HOF too for their ability and not their extracurricular affairs.”
1973: FRED LIEB (accepting Spink Award): “I want to give thanks to Ford Frick, who originally suggested this idea of putting some living members into the HOF.” A decade into the Spink Award, it was pretty clear that the writers felt they were being elected. In those early years, the BBWAA went back to honor its earliest heavyweights, as the Hall of Fame itself did in its first decade.
1978: BILL LISTON (intro of Gordon Cobbledick & Edgar Munzel): “. . .The presentations of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for 1977, which in case you don’t realize is the induction of great baseball writers into this great hall.” No mincing words there, as Liston made sure everyone knew what was what--even though he was 100% wrong.
1979: BLAKE CULLEN (PR director for National League, intro of Bob Elson): “What finer reward could baseball give than having a plaque hung here in baseball’s HOF. . .to see Bob join that very special family, the Baseball HOF.” So two years in a row, there was an explicit statement of the untruth. You can see how the snowball was growing.
1988: JIM MURRAY (accepting Spink Award): “Putting me in a HOF, a baseball HOF, is ridiculous.” Technically, you could consider this a way of saying that Murray knew he wasn't being put in the HOF. I'd like to give him credit for knowing better--but I know better.
1991: JOE GARAGIOLA (accepting Frick Award): [To Yogi Berra] “We’re in different buildings, but here in Cooperstown together.” This is where I have to explain another big factor in the confusion. From the opening of the Hall of Fame's library in 1969 until the 1994 renovation, the library and the museum were in separate buildings, and the display of Frick and Spink Award winners was in the lobby of the library. If the library could be thought of as a "wing" of the museum, then the award winners were indeed honored in a separate "wing". That's what Garagiola acknowledged here. He knew he wasn't a Hall of Famer like his pal Yogi. He knew his plaque would be in another building and not in the museum's plaque gallery.
1992: MILO HAMILTON (accepting Frick Award): “I congratulate my fellow inductees today.” Hamilton must not have heard Garagiola's speech. He bought into the delusion with glowing self-satisfaction.
1992: TRACY RINGOLSBY (intro of Ritter Collett): “. . .One of 43 writers to have been inducted.” Here's another case of the BBWAA president making a blatant misstatement, showing that the myth was firmly entrenched and not going anywhere.
1995: BOB WOLFF (accepting Frick Award): “There’s something else that all of my distinguished HOF broadcast colleagues have. . .” Also: “. . .the historic news that I had been selected for the broadcast wing of the HOF.” He also referred to Garagiola, Jack Brickhouse, Chuck Thompson and Lindsey Nelson as “HOFers”. I was surprised that it took until 1995 for someone to use the word "wing" and wonder if it was related to the fact that the display was now in the museum itself. A year ago, I noted the scalding irony that the award was named for Ford Frick, the chairman of the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors in 1971 and the man who adamantly wanted the plaque of Satchel Paige, the first Negro Leaguer elected to the Hall of Fame, hung in a new museum display on the Negro Leagues. That is, Frick wanted a "separate but equal" wing so that nobody would be confused into thinking that Paige was actually a Hall of Famer (when his election was announced, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn made a point of reminding people that Paige was not actually a Hall of Famer). By the 1990s, the truth had gotten so twisted that winners of the Frick Award believed they were Hall of Famers BECAUSE they were displayed in a separate wing.
1996: JEROME HOLTZMAN (MC of ceremony): “It is now my distinct pleasure to introduce the first new HOFer. He is Mr. Joseph Durso.” Holtzman, just three years away from being named MLB's first "official historian," should have known better, but this is a measure of how rampant the myth had become.
1997: HAL McCOY (intro of Charley Feeney): “Let me read what will be on Charlie’s plaque. . .our newest inductee.” McCoy was one of several people to perpetuate the myth who was later the beneficiary of it. In my first blog, I noted that when Lon Simmons won the Frick Award, fellow broadcaster (and Simmons protege) Jon Miller eagerly called him a Hall of Famer, making me realize that many people like Miller willingly spread the untruth in the hope that people would call them Hall of Famers if/when they won the award, which was exactly what happened last year, prompting my blogs (that first one was titled "Unfortunately, I Was Right").
1998: JIM STREET (intro of Sam Lacy): “The plaque that will be placed on the wall of the writers’ wing inside the HOF. . .”
1998: SAM LACY (accepting): “I’m thankful to Larry Whiteside who sponsored my entry into this HOF. I’m thankful to Larry Doby for going in along with me.”
1998: JAIME JARRIN (accepting Frick Award): “. . .the first Latin American announcer that received during his life enshrinement in the Baseball HOF.” From these last three statements in 1998, you see how deluded the winners had become, regarding the "wing" and election as interchangeable.
2000: CHARLIE SCOGGINS (intro of Hal Lebovitz): “This award will hang in the writers’ wing at the HOF.”
2000: HAL LEBOVITZ (accepting Spink Award): “I can’t stop thanking my peers for voting me into the writers’ wing of the Hall. . .If I have a secret to pass on to make the Hall of Fame, it’s just to live long enough.”
2002: HARRY KALAS (accepting Frick Award): “It’s very special to be inducted with. . .Ozzie Smith.” The strange notion of a "separate but equal" Hall of Fame status was unshakeable at this point.
2003: JOHNNY BENCH referred to Harry Caray as “a HOF announcer”.
2003: HAL McCOY (accepting): “. . .Andy Furman, who was calling me a HOFer on the radio years before I ever thought anything like this could possibly happen.” McCoy was reportedly quite upset at the Hall of Fame staff member who broke the news to him that he wasn't actually a Hall of Famer. Another award winner pestered a staff member a year after the award, demanding to know why his plaque wasn't in the gallery yet. This is when the misconception stopped being harmless and became downright sad. In e-mail exchanges I've had with several award winners, the common note they sound is weariness at constantly having to correct people who call them Hall of Famers, a weariness that apparently can only be overcome by letting the misconception stand unchallenged.
2004: LON SIMMONS (accepting): “I do not now consider myself the quality of being a HOF announcer.” Well, I don't either. I consider him definitely the quality of an award winner, however.
2009: BOB DuPUY (MLB’s CEO, and HOF Board of Directors member, intro of Tony Kubek): “This man is now a HOFer.” Honestly, don't you think the situation was completely out of hand when a Board member didn't even know the difference? Joe Morgan, the Vice President of the Hall of Fame and Miller's broadcast partner on ESPN when Miller won the award, made no attempt on the air to correct the statement that Miller had been elected.
I have saved the best for last, though it's out of sequence. Here are the immortal words of Mets announcer Bob Murphy, accepting the Frick Award in 1994:
“My special thanks to the members of the Ford C. Frick committee, the gentlemen who cast the votes. I remember so vividly back in ’78. It was the late Chub Feeney who had the idea of a special wing at the HOF for baseball broadcasters, and I was fortunate to sit on that very first committee and I had the privilege of voting for Mel Allen and Red Barber, and stayed on the committee for a number of years. I remember the late Bart Giamatti said to me, 'Bob, would you enjoy being considered for the HOF?' I said, 'Are you kidding?’ He said, 'Well, you’d have to get off the committee. We don’t elect people that are sitting on the committee.’ I said, 'Consider my resignation.’”
Isn't that a happy ending? It isn't about elections or qualifications or where your name is going to be displayed. It's about being part of the good-ol'-boy network, and who cares what they know? If Bart Giamatti said you could be elected to the Hall of Fame, who wouldn't bail out of the silly committee? He was the chairman of the board, after all. But someone must have had another idea. Between Giamatti's death in 1989 and Murphy's "election" in 1994, four other broadcasters won the Frick Award. At least one of them knew he wasn't a Hall of Famer; at leastone knew that he was.
It just proves that for decades, the people who have been most directly involved in the award and what it means have been careless with their understanding and their words. Bart Giamatti probably did think he was electing Bob Murphy to the Hall of Fame. What does it matter, you ask? Well, truth is truth, and that matters to me and to others who have steadfastly corrected misstatements. People will believe all kinds of things. They used to believe the Earth was flat and that cancer was always fatal, and there are still those who insist that the Holocaust never happened or that men never actually walked on the moon. Some people won't believe in global warming until they start choking in the streets. People will believe what they want to believe, and Marty Brennaman will keep telling everyone that he's a Hall of Famer. You can't stop that. But when you do know the truth, your head is less clouded by confusion and you have more immunity from the annoying effects of untruth. The Hall of Fame finally saw it my way and decided this year and removed the chief circumstance that had forced their award winners to hem and haw when strangers identified them as Hall of Famers. I hope the award winners from now on will be able to sleep better and go out in public more comfortably than their predecessors. I know I will.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The first baseball season I worked at the Hall of Fame was 2003, and it quickly became clear that many of my colleagues were obsessed with fantasy sports. Nothing since then has changed that first impression. During the season there were daily discussions on how everybody's team was shaping up, trade proposals, and plenty of razzing of anybody whose team was tanking. Naturally, I asked if I could be part of the league in 2004. Erik Strohl, the commissioner of the "big" league that involved about a dozen HOF employees, told me I'd have to wait until someone dropped out, since they didn't plan to expand the league.
In 2006, Strohl decided to expand the league to 16 teams, and I was brought into the brotherhood. The fee was $40. Part of that, I learned, was spent on a memorial for a friend of Strohl's (a non-HOF person and league member who had passed away), and the rest went to prize money. First place was around $200, second place was worth about $125, and the third-place finisher got his $40 back. An additional $40 went to the team that improved the most after the All-Star break (to give managers of second-division teams a reason to stay involved). That prize money has remained the same, as has the allocation for the memorial.
Few events on the HOF's annual calendar are as eagerly anticipated as Draft Day. It occurs on a weekday in mid-March, in the early evening. For various reasons, some of the managers choose to conduct the draft from their offices at the Hall. I did so that first year because I had a very slow dial-up internet service at home, and was afraid that I wouldn't be able to keep up with the rapid-fire draft. There were four of us in the museum after 6pm that evening, and it was fun to make a pick and zip around the other offices to compare notes with and harass the other managers.
I stayed in that league four years, winning it in 2007, for which I got the prize money plus a cute little bobble-head doll from Yahoo, the website on which the league was conducted. Like most of the managers, I spent a fair amount of time at work on league activities. I usually got to my office 10-15 minutes before my official workday began, and I'd check my fantasy teams before doing anything else. I'd monitor standings, see how everyone did the night before, make roster changes, lineup changes, and so on. If this spilled over into the start of my work-day, so be it. During the day, there were all those discussions with other managers, all those trades to consider, occasional visits to Yahoo to make roster changes, and all that razzing. Lots and lots of razzing. It was a blast. The majority of the managers were from the Curatorial and Research departments, but there were managers from the business part of the operation as well. Many of us participated in more than one fantasy baseball league, but the only important concern centered around how you were doing in the "big" league.
That's the league that Jeff Idelson joined in 2009. He said he had never participated in a fantasy league and wanted to find out what it was all about, so he ponied up his $40, drafted a team, and spent the season comfortably in the middle of the pack. But in August 2009, something happened. The HOF was having a problem with bandwidth and decided to do something about it. The employees were kept in the dark about the issues, but of course we heard things, and had to react to a change in policy which restricted internet access on HOF computers. We heard that the problem was too many people listening to game broadcasts; that some Visitor Services people were caught playing video games during work hours; that the HOF was too broke or too cheap to buy the extra bandwidth needed to conduct routine business; and so on.
What they did tell employees was that in order to use the HOF's bandwidth capacity more efficiently, our computer usage would be monitored. The upshot was that, for the first time, the HOF adopted a filtering service that prevented access to certain websites. The Barracuda program that they installed mainly targeted sites designated as involving gambling or pornography. Some of those designations proved absurd, as anyone knows who has dealt with such programs. Remember the words of the U.S. Senator whose committee was investigating pornography: "I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it"? Well, the strangely endowed Barricuda program had a liberal definition of forbidden territory and was capable of barring a website like this one right here simply because the word "pornography" appears on it.
What bothered the HOF fantasy league managers was that Barricuda barred access to the Yahoo fantasy league pages. We could no longer access our league or manage our teams on our work computers, even during non-work hours. Some guys got around the Barricuda censorship by bringing their laptops to work to access forbidden sites. Some of us tried instead to get an exception made to the policy. You could get exceptions made by going to the powers-that-be (chiefly the head of the Information Services department or Senior Vice President Bill Haase), and I succeeded one time with some innocuous site which contained a biography of some long-ago historical figure I needed to read for a fact-checking project. I was allowed access to the site but had to tell them the minute I was done so that Barracuda could flag the next person who tried to access it.
A couple of people made official requests to have access to Yahoo restored, but to no avail. The strange thing was that a half-dozen of us were also in a league on espn.com, and the commissioner of that league successfully made the case that full-time access should be granted--on the same basis which was advanced on behalf of the Yahoo league! The rationale was that these sites have up-t0-the-minute information (biographical and statistical) which is important to people whose job involves daily discussions with the public about who is doing what, and who have to base their writing/research/museum exhibits on thorough and accurate data. For some reason, it was deemed that it was okay to use espn.com, but not yahoo.com. You might think that this argument was nonsense, but the fact is that everything that happens in baseball, everything that other people write and say about the game, past and present, is relevant to the work that goes on in the HOF library. With an estimated 50,000 questions directed to the Research department every year, the people who work there have to know what is being posted and where.
I went to see Jeff Idelson in late August, to discuss the new censorship policy in general and its effect on the "big" league in particular. He listened but said there was nothing he could do to change the policy. He also told me that he was totally screwed in the league because not only couldn't he access Yahoo at work any more, but he couldn't access it at home either. I wanted to ask him how that was possible (had the HOF installed Barricuda on his home computer?), but didn't because I figured the answer would just make me feel sad.
That was that. The rest of the season bore out my worst fears as a manager. I now had to set my lineups at home before going to work, which was certainly possible. But it meant that if one of my starters wound up not starting a day game, I had no chance to adjust my lineup. I counted four times when this cost me strong performances by players I would have substituted, and that was enough to cost me third-place money. So I quit all my fantasy leagues in 2010. I didn't see how it could be worth all that time and effort if Barracuda's bias against one website could flush it all down the toilet. I wasn't the only manager who quit the league over that policy. At least two others did, including Jeff Idelson.
But here's the catch. Baseball isn't the only sport that has captured the fantasy enthusiasts at the HOF. They've had fantasy football and hockey there for as long as I worked there. Every Monday during football season brought a rehashing of Sunday's action, and I lost count of the number of times that Erik Strohl strolled past my desk to discuss hot goaltenders with the person I shared the office with, Bill Francis (otherwise known as "Bartleby the Researcher"). So there is fantasy action every day of the year at the HOF.
This next thing is what truly befuddles me. The hockey and football leagues are also conducted on Yahoo--and HOF employees are allowed access to those leagues on their work computers! But they're still not allowed to access their baseball league at work. Isn't that the screwiest logic? We've got people who are involved in baseball as their work, but let's not give them access to a site with a ton of baseball information. Instead, let's make it easy for them to monitor their football and hockey leagues at work.
When managers were being recruited for a new Yahoo baseball league starting this year, I was one of three HOF people (the other two still work there) who signed up. I did so as a favor to the commissioner, and of course because I now work out of my home and can access Yahoo any time I damn well please. But right after the season started, one of the HOF managers refused to pay his league fee. He hadn't realized it was a Yahoo league, and he explained, "I do all of my fantasy leagues at work." So he hasn't made a single roster change all season--and his team has been in the top three all season. I know. That doesn't say much for the rest of us.
But it does say a lot about the waste of time and resources at the HOF. I know fantasy baseball isn't illegal, but it is gambling (make no mistake--if there were no money at stake, these leagues wouldn't exist), which the HOF should be more sensitive about than other institutions. [Can you say "Pete Rose"?] That is, the HOF is sensitive about gambling when other people are doing it. It must be okay if a member of its Senior Staff, Senior Director of Exhibits and Collections, Erik Strohl, is still the commissioner of the big league. Then again, if it's nothing but harmless fun, why didn't Jeff Idelson want anybody to know that he was part of it?
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Between the time the Hall of Fame snubbed me and the time they finally hired me in 2002, I left Las Vegas, spent nearly five more years dealing poker in California, and published two books of baseball history (VICTORY FAUST and UNHITTABLE!) which gave me enough credibility as a baseball historian to get hired as a researcher in the library. There I peaceably went about my business and limited my poker involvement to playing in the same once-monthly, 25 cent-limit, friendly game I had enjoyed during my first Cooperstown tenure a decade earlier.
In 2005 the Hall of Fame folks decided to launch a new program: a fantasy camp. Many major league franchises were running these popular camps, and it made sense to stage one at the Hall of Fame. In addition to the baseball fun and publicity, the Hall's aim was to find a bunch of fellows rich enough to spring for the $8,000 price tag, gather them in Cooperstown, and possibly persuade them to become substantial museum donors. Here is the announcement released to potential attendees:
"For an experience that will never be forgotten, lovers of baseball will flock to Cooperstown, NY, to spend five days with some of the greatest names in baseball history.
Baseball’s First Annual Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp
The Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp gives baseball enthusiasts a chance to experience the atmosphere of a real major league-style locker room as they practice and play the game using professional bats and equipment provided by the Louisville Slugger company. You can share laughs and stories with some of the greatest players in baseball history, while making friendships with other lovers of the game. The camp managers will be:
* George Brett, three-time batting champion with 3,154 hits, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999
* Lou Brock, Hall of Famer inducted in 1985 with 938 stolen bases and 3,023 career hits
* Phil Niekro, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997 with 318 career victories and 3,342 strikeouts
* Duke Snider, Hall of Famer inducted in 1980 with 407 career homers and 11 World Series homeruns
Other Hall of Famers who will be on hand as camp coaches to offer professional tips include Mary [sic] Wills, Joe Niekro, Jamie Quirk, Carl Erskine, Dave Bergman, and Jon Warden. You can watch the season’s playoff games at night with Hall of Famers, get their autographs, and have your picture taken with them, so you can bring your camp experience home with you. Play golf with the Hall of Famers on the lush Leatherstocking Championship Course of the Otesaga Hotel, where you’ll be pampered in luxury for four nights. A private behind-the scenes tour of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will be conducted exclusively for camp attendees. The camp week will conclude with a private, candlelight dinner in the Hall of Fame Gallery where fantasy camp accomplishments will be recognized and honored.
Only 48 places are available, and the package includes lodging, ground transportation, all meals, and special gifts. The cost is $7,995 for individuals and $7,495 apiece for groups. Cost for Friends of the Hall of Fame Benefactor members is $6,995, and the cost for Friends of the Hall of Fame Benefactor members coming with friends is $6,495. To reserve your spot on the roster, call 1-607-547-0327 or register online. The fantasy camp is open to both males and females, and you can bring along a non-playing guest for a small fee. Come live your baseball dreams, or honor a friend or loved one by giving them this once-in-a-lifetime experience. All you need is a love of the game."
Annual Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp, and I was just as glad. It was still illegal, and they didn't con me into participating any more.