Casey Stengel was known was the “The Perfessor.” Pete Van Wieren was named “The Professor” by Braves radio/TV partner Ernie Johnson, who said he looked like author and 1954-63 big-league pitcher Jim Brosnan. Van Wieren, a 1976-2008 member of the pioneering first cable broadcast team to ferry baseball coast-to-coast, tied spectacles, brains, and work. “We’re on the air so long and talk about a player four or five times a game and a pitcher all game long,” Pete said. “If you don’t constantly prepare, you run out of things to say.” Recently, Van Wieren ran out of time, dying of cancer at 69.
Van Wieren forged an native Upstate New York state of mind: born, Rochester, named America’s best minor-league city; liked, growing up, the Yankees’ Mel Allen and Red Barber; summa cum laude English major, Cornell University. Once, covering campus baseball high above Cayuga’s waters, Pete got hooked replacing an injured announcer. “Writing or talking, I’d consume papers and magazines – the best possible training for baseball radio.”
After college, Pete joined the Washington Post, then a 500-watt Warrenton, Virginia, station – “I did news, sports, football on tape-delay” – and outlets in Manassas, Binghamton, and Toledo. In 1974, graduate school took him to the Mets’ Triple-A Tidewater team. Ted Turner bought the Braves in January 1976. Two weeks later, the Professor made the untenured bigs: “a double whammy in two ways.”
Pete and Skip Caray were both freshmen in America’s Bicentennial year. Beyond radio/TV, Van Wieren also handled Braves travel. “Planes, buses, equipment, trucks, hotels, meals, tickets – you name it, I did it.” Next year he moved solely to the wireless and the kinetic tube. By then, Turner could literally count a typical Atlanta crowd. Curiosa starred camel relays, bathtubs on wheels, and an ostrich race. “Exciting? You bet it was,” said Pete. “Then the trouble began, which too often meant the game.”
Buying the Braves, Turner upped their TV schedule and renamed WTCG Atlanta the first and still revolutionary SuperStation WTBS, using satellites to reach stations thousands of miles away. “The Braves’ll tie the sticks to the big-time,” Turner said of an offer neither side could refuse: Cable bulged baseball’s stage, bringing the game to small towns far from the nearest major league burg. Meantime, baseball swelled cable’s audience. The pivot was 1982. Atlanta won a bigs record first 13 games – “a two by four,” said pitcher-turned-broadcaster Johnson, “that hit America between the eyes.”
Once Turner and Tug McGraw rolled baseballs from home plate to first, then third, base – with their nose. “Look at yours,” said a friend. Ted: “Yeah, but I won.” Pete’s bulging satchel kept him in the booth, not on the field. “Those were the years,” he said, “we’d have killed to be .500 in June.” Van Wieren did Flames hockey, Hawks hoops, Falcons and Big Ten football, and TBS and TNT’s NBA. Most of Pete’s “best baseball things,” he said, lay ahead.
In 1974, a thing that had happened was Henry Aaron crossing a Ruthian line with his 715th homer. 1976-79: the Braves finished last. 1982: Atlanta won the N.L. West, its first division title since 1969, as SuperStation cable became “the greatest thing to happen [to baseball] since Bat Day,” said the Philadelphia Inquirer. A Storm Lake, Iowa, bar sign read: “The Atlanta Braves: Iowa’s Team.” 1983 and 1985: outfielder Dale Murphy won his second straight Most Valuable Player award and leading the league in runs, home runs, walks, and runs batted in, respectively.
Van Wieren was less than midway through his 33-year WTBS and 1994-95 ABC/NBC The Baseball Network (TBN) stint. Caray did the same network gig: also, the 1976-2008 Braves. Johnson aired the 1962-65 Milwaukees and 1966-91 and 1993-99 Atlantas, in the lingo of the late Ernie Harwell. All were explorers on WTBS’s 63 million homes as the Braves televised 130 games a year from Bangor to Burbank. High point: Murphy went yard a career-high 44 times in 1987. Low: The 1986-90 Braves again dredged last. Finally, they contended in 1991. Daily Pete circled the Atlanta/Fulton County Stadium club level. “I arrived early, not wanting to miss a thing, because it might not happen again.”
Worst to First
In 1990, the Braves had baseball’s worst record – 65-97. A year later, out of the blue, Terry Pendleton led the league in hits (187) and average (.318), Tom Glavine won 20 games for the first of three straight years, and on the final day the heroes of every dog that was under led the Dodgers by a game. “Stretch by [John] Smoltz,” Pete said on WTBS. “The pitch to Cedeno. A high fly ball to right field! It’s fairly deep! Back goes Justice! He’s got it! And the magic number for Atlanta is down to one! The Braves have clinched a tie for [N.L. West] first!” The Giants then beat L.A., Atlanta winning the West for the first time since 1982. The Braves took the League Championship Series, then extended Minnesota to a seventh game in the Series. Three games went extra innings. Five went one-run. “It was phenomenal,” said Van Wieren. “Casual or die-hard fan, Game Seven was terrific” – the Twins’ Jack Morris beat Smoltz, in 10 innings, 1-0.
Next year’s end was equally theatric: the 1992 Braves rallied in the LCS’s ninth inning of the seventh set to beat Pittsburgh, 3-2. Glavine, Steve Avery, and Smoltz moored the pitching. Ron Gant, Otis Nixon, and Teddy Pendleton fueled the offense, the latter leading in four team categories. In one game of the 1992 World Series, showing the codes and courtesies redolent of the South, Skip Caray asked Ernie Johnson to call three innings on the Braves radio network. “Nothing like completing the resume,” Johnson said wryly, turning humor on himself. The Braves wanted to complete the postseason cycle: In their twenty-seventh year in Atlanta, they still hadn’t won a title. They did grip Dixie, drawing a single-season 3,884,725: “More in a week,” said manager Bobby Cox, “than we used to get in a month.”
In 1969, baseball had divided two leagues into four divisions. In 1993, the game split each league into three divisions – East, West, and Central – with each titlist and a team with the best remaining record – the “Wild Card” – making postseason. Fred McGriff became the ninth big-leaguer to hit 30 homers for a seventh straight year. Maddux won a fourth Cy Young award in a row. Actor Bill Bendix used to storm on film: “Wait Till Next Year.” Next year officials killed the 1994 World Series due to little progress in the player lockout – the first Classic lost since 1904. In 1995, the season started late: frozen lines, frozen minds. A Series canceled, two years truncated, and records stained marred new Commissioner Bud Selig’s watch. Helping to save it was a National League East team that finished 90-54, an incredible 21 games ahead of the second-place Mets and Phillies.
In 1995, Van Wieren co-wrote the book America’s Team. That fall, the Braves became the first team to win the World Series for three different cities – Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. Having aired such disappointment for so long – losing a World, League Champion, or Divison Series since 1982 – Caray aired relief, even release: “Fly ball, deep left-center! [Marquis] Grissom on the run! Yes! Yes! Yes! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship!” v. Cleveland in Series Game Six. I keep thinking of ’95,” Pete later said of Atlanta’s World Series title. “We thought that with our pitching staff, we’d win a bunch more than one.”
That Atlanta didn’t “win a bunch,” coming close time and again, was softened by 14 straight playoffs during three Presidencies, two recessions, and two Gulf Wars. Not all were appreciative. Empty post-season seats could be seen at Atlanta v. numerous opponents. “Some fans were spoiled,” said Van Wieren, who wasn’t, daily prepping as if calling the ’62 Mets. “You owe a listener all that you have. In fact, your work should get better as the games get more important, because baseball is the only daily sport. You can’t cram. Your knowledge comes incrementally, game by game.” With Pete, it showed.
An “A” for the Professor
Johnson covered the Braves through 1991, briefly did 1992 Series wireless, and helped launch the SportSouth TV Network by airing the 1993-96 Braves. The World War II Marine flew a U.S. Marine flag on his lawn and became a three-time Georgia Broadcaster of the Year, an Emmy honoree, and 2001 inductee of the Braves Hall of Fame. He died in 2011, at 87. Caray won Georgia’s award seven times, got an Emmy, and made the Braves Hall in 2004. He died four years later, at age 68. Van Wieren entered the Hall with Caray, having won the Ivan Allen, Jr., “Mr. Baseball Award” in 1998 and been honored by Atlanta in 2000 for a quarter-century in broadcasting. Pete’s record number of Georgia sportscast awards (nine) could fill a big-league starting lineup.
A frequent Internet CNNSI.com columnist, Van Wieren reread the rule book cover-to-cover several times a year, as a good Professor should. In 2002, he attended the Society of Baseball Research (SABR) convention in Washington. At the time, many feared another strike or players lockout. “It wouldn’t hurt,” Pete told a panel, “if the Commissioner would say something positive about the game once in a whole.” Unlike Van Wieren, Selig had run out of things to say. Woody Allen said that 90 percent of success was showing up. Ninety percent of Van Wieren’s success was preparation. At the time, the Braves kept showing up each October. TBSers again smiled that Pete showed up each night.
In 2003, Van Wieren, like Caray, was briefly dropped by WTBS, which foolishly listened to scattered listener and critical review of the mikemen’s alleged pro-Braves bias. “Not seeing them and hearing them,” wrote columnist Jim Tucker, “is going to be as weird as not seeing Ted Turner in the Braves box.” Soon, however, ownership realized their mistake, restoring Pete and Skip to play-by-play, where they remained. Van Wieren announced his retirement on October 21, 2008, less than three months after Caray’s death. The broadcast booth was named in Pete’s name: an ultimate honor for a man whose DNA read Braves.
On November 4, 2009, Pete was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma. Several years later he relapsed after additional rounds of chemotherapy. On August 2, 2014, Van Wieren died as he lived, stoically and without fanfare, of cancer. “You broadcast when they tell you,” he often said as in a mantra. “And you better be ready when they do.” Invariably, he was.
Some people grasp priorities. A writer was asked what he would take if he could remove only one thing. “I would take the fire,” he reasoned. Other people can’t see the forest for the trees. Baseball’s hierarchy has become that kind of guy.
Baseball’s three greatest problems today are pace, pace, and pace. Its rhythm has become slow, slow, and slowest: interminable for our attention-span-challenged age. Instead of making baseball more watchable, its elite has made the sport TV-unviewable. This season’s worst error: instant replay, a system baseball’s public doesn’t want or need.
Baseball’s rationale is that bad calls need better umpiring. Spurning the obvious – develop better umpires – its Byzantine response undercuts the men in blue: as Eugene McCarthy said, “The name ‘umpire’ is basically theological, derived from the word nom-pere, meaning ‘one who is without peer.’”
Other sports use instant replay, but baseball is different, its cognoscenti liking the human element, not, as the Wall Street Journal says, “an imperfect way of getting umpires close to perfect.” Begun in April, instant replay lets managers challenge umpire calls, which are transferred to a Replay Command Center in New York, where TV monitors decide if the umps are right. It does what even the ’62 toxic Mets could not — alter the game’s DNA.
According to a Journal study, at the current rate 462 calls will be overturned by season’s end as earphoned umpires, linked to the Big Apple, wait on the field 2, 3, or 5 – in several cases, more than 6 — minutes while the game literally stops – a slow sport made glacial. The “without peer” umpire becomes a prop for a wire between the park and New York. Meanwhile, forget theatric flare-ups of managers, now reduced to intentionally delaying games while TV monitors tell them whether they should challenge a call — gaming the system as spectators and viewers snore. What a loss – at what a cost.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig repeatedly vowed that instant replay would somehow shorten games. In fact, it has made a long game even longer. In 1962, an average big-league set took 2 hours and 20 minutes. By the 1970s it took 2:30. By 2003, it swelled to 2:46; 2010, 2:55; 2013, 2:58 – this at a time baseball is allegedly wooing kids. Instant replay this year has helped balloon the average game to, at last count, 3 hours and 5 minutes, bleaching baseball’s color and shrinking its base. Pace, not umpire accuracy, is baseball’s real enemy within.
Pace Of Nothingness
Even a 1-0 score now routinely tops three hours – like Seinfeld, showing nothingness. The Journal shows why. In a three-hour game, only 17 minutes and 58 seconds of “action” happens – from batters trotting to a fake pickoff throw. Cutting the definition to balls in play and a runner advancing or trying to, the “action” total falls to a mere 5 minutes and 47 seconds. Seeing paint dry seems riveting. Such a game is split into: total time between innings, 42 minutes and 41 seconds; time between batters, 33 minutes and 39 seconds; and time between pitches, 1 hour, 14 minutes, and 49 seconds.
Trim the pitcher-batter duel and you revitalize the game. America split the atom, stormed Normandy, and reached the moon. To quicken baseball, Selig won’t even enforce three laws already on the books. Make a pitcher throw a pitch each 12 seconds with no runner on base – it’s the law. Keep the batter in the box unless the umpire grants permission to step out – the law. Enforce the strike zone, cutting the pitch count and length of a game – yes, the law. Why won’t baseball enforce the rules? Instead, as culture turns more impatient, baseball becomes more inert.
For years Selig pledged to quicken baseball’s pace. He didn’t, recalling what John Adams meant when he said “facts are stubborn things.” Fact: Football routs baseball in video games sales, licensed garb, unique Internet users, and “marketable athletes.” Fact: Between 2009 and 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of children between the ages of 7 and 7 playing baseball in the U.S. fell by 18 percent, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, an industry trade group.
Fact: In a 1960 Gallup poll, baseball routed football as “America’s favorite game,” 39-17 percent.” By 2013, baseball trailed, 42-9, losing every demographic. Says Sports Illustrated: “In every metric, the NFL’s stance as America’s game as undisputed.” From 1984-1993, the World Series averaged 31.4 viewers per game; from 1994-2003, 22.8 million; from 2004-13, 16.6 million. Each Series game last year averaged 15 million viewers v. 60 million in 1959. For thirty years the Series has lost an average of 775,000 viewers every year.
Fact: Regular season is as bad. In 2003, Fox’s Game of the Week reached 3.44 million households; 2005, 3.60; 2012, 2.50. This year Fox cut coverage from 26 games to 12, booting the rest to remote Fox 1 Sports Cable: regular-season network baseball banned for most of the year. In 2014, TBS dropped part of its Sunday Game schedule. ESPN’s Sunday cable series plunged from a 2.75 rating in 2007 to last year’s 1.78. Increasingly, baseball relies on its in-house MLB Network, a virtual network non-person v. the NFL’s four weekly networks — ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Instant replay won’t lure new viewers, or keep those who remain.
Despite all this, Selig is quoted as saying “Baseball’s never been more popular,” “We’re so popular its just unbelievable,” and other phrases totally removed from reality. Perhaps Rob Manfred, baseball’s next Commissioner, will confront the fear that the national pastime is past its time.
The 1962 New York Mets were born in sin, cleansed by pain, and saved in 1969. Sin: the National League’s 1957 adieu to New York City. Pain: Marvelous Marv, Roger Craig, and Casey Stengel’s other expansion ‘62ers. Salvation: In the year men first walked on the moon, the ’69 Amazins’ walked on air: miracle and metaphysical, climbing a stairway to baseball heaven.
”The Mets may last a thousand years, as Churchill would say,” mused Lindsey Nelson, their radio/TV stylist. “They may win a dozen championships. But they can only do it the first time once, and the first time was incomparable.”
The 1969 Mets – Casey’s “Metsies – took a fractured time and briefly made it whole: then and now, crying gotcha to the soul. This week the last living member of their incomparable 1962-78 broadcast trio – Ralph Kiner, joining Nelson and Bob Murphy – died at 91. Let us retrieve perhaps The Greatest Baseball Story Ever Told, and how Mr. Kiner wonderfully helped to tell it.
“I had just retired as a player a year [or two] before that sad year of ‘57,” Kiner recalled of the Mets’ genesis. The August 19 page 1 New YorkWorld-Telegram read: “It’s Official: Giants to Frisco.” On October 7, 1957, once baying, “My roots are in Brooklyn,” Dodgers don Walter O’Malley decamped for Los Angeles, confirming the other elephant in the room. For New York, Moving Day had truly come.
Having baseball do unto him, Mayor Robert Wagner forged a five-man committee led by lawyer William A. Shea to do unto others. Ill-wind: The Reds, Pirates, and Phillies scorned re-location in the Apple. Whirlwind: In 1959, it topped the eight cities of a proposed third major – Continental — league. The threat made the N.L. expand: ergo, the New York Metropolitans.
George Weiss became general manager, Stengel unretired to manage, and the New York State Senate OKd $55 million for a new park to open in 1964 in Queens. Job One was the 1961 expansion draft, age trumping beauty. “Weiss picked old Dodgers and Giants,” mused Kiner. “Craig, Gil Hodges, Charlie Neal.” They looked great on paper, but paper doesn’t play. Unsolved: Who would announce them? For a time, it depended on whom you read.
That October, the Los Angeles Times rumored that “[Vin] Scully is secretly planning to shed his Dodger microphone and steel back to New York to report …the Mets.” Actually, Weiss phoned another New Yorker, the Minnesota Twins’ Bob Wolff, who missed the East. The New York Daily News pealed: “Wolff Coming.” Problem: no station/sponsor. Time passed. “Weiss couldn’t make a commitment,” said Bob, “so I reupped with the Twins.”
Weiss soon signed WABC Radio WOR TV, and the Tennessee phonetist who at eight heard Graham McNamee call a fight so near that he could “reach out and touch the canvas.” Nelson began at the University of Tennessee, airing football on legendary WSM. Later, Lindsey became a World War II Army publicist. In 1945, U.S. and Soviet troops drank captured German champagne at the Elbe. A photo showed Nelson with Russian officers: “To Lindsey Nelson, a very busy man the day this picture was taken. Dwight Eisenhower.”
Lindsey returned to print, radio, and 1952 NBC TV, airing golf, basketball, college football, and weekly Major League Baseball. How could he trade that for The Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York, Inc? Easily, as it occurred. Nelson thought broadcasting daily baseball grand. NBC’s 1957-61 coverage had been blacked out in New York. “Many people, not knowing that, said, ‘Why are they hiring this football guy?’” Lindsey said. If this were Broadway, he replied, the tryout had run five years.
“Nelson gave Weiss a household name,” mused Bob Murphy, who had been in the big leagues since 1954 and fit Weiss’s job description for his second Voice: “a steady professional.” Born in Oklahoma, Bob made the Marines, graduated from the University of Tulsa, and drifted into radio: Class C-Muskogee and Texas League Oklahoma City, Boston’s FenwayPark, then 1960 Baltimore. A year later Baltimore’s Jack Fisher faced Roger Maris in late September.
“It’s number 60!” Murphy bayed on WBAL Radio. “He’s tied the Babe[’s single-season home run record]!” Next month the Orioles dumped his brewing sponsor. Admitting to being “lost in the shuffle,” Bob sent the Maris tape to Weiss. Listening, George found his man. Weiss now needed a former player to leaven the network star and steady professional, considered several ex-jocks, including the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Wee Reese, then hired Kiner. The 1946-55 Pirates, Cubs, and Indians power-hitter had already had a distinctive career, which was fitting. The Amazin’ Mets were distinctive, if nothing else.
From On the Field to Above It
For seven straight (1946-52) years, Kiner led the National League in homers, having allegedly said, “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs. Singles hitters drive Fords.” Kiner’s father had died when Ralph was only four. Soon mom and son left New Mexico for California, where a neighbor and semipro baseball manager “let me tag along and shag.” Ironically, softball fueled the Cadillac. “There wasn’t the high arc on the ball that we see now. So I started to swing upstairs, and it stuck.”
To mom, upstairs meant becoming “a lawyer or doctor. She accepted baseball only when I paid off her mortgage.” The Yankees scouted Kiner, who instead signed with Pittsburgh, got a $3,000 bonus, and bought a 1937 Ford-V roadster. In 194, Ralph twice went deep in his first exhibition. “I [then] got a little fat-headed.” Pirates skipper Frank Frisch aimed to shrink it.
“Kiner, why aren’t you running laps?” Frisch said. Kiner explained, “Mr. Frisch, I have only one pair of baseball shoes, and if I wear them out running, I won’t have any for the games.” Frisch reddened: “Well, that’s fine. You can take those shoes to Barnwell [South Carolina, the Bucs’ minor-league camp] because that’s where you’ll be playing your next game.”
After the Eastern League, International League, and Pacific Theater, Ralph went to Pittsburgh in 1946. Next season it added Hank Greenberg, neither laying down a squeeze. Forbes Field was a pitcher’s park. The Pirates put pens in left field, strung an inner fence, and cut the line by 30 feet. A year later Hank retired. Greenberg’s Garden became Kiner’s Korner.
“Hank got me to stand near the plate. It was my difference,” Kiner said, hitting 294 home runs in his seven straight N.L. title years. 1948: Ralph reached 100 in the bigs’ least-ever career at-bats (1,351). 1949: “Baseball’s amiable Killer,” said The Saturday Evening Post, had 54 with just 61 strikeouts. 1950: The Sporting News Player of the Year got a league-high $65,000. 1952: The Bucs finished 42-112. “How bad were we?” Kiner said. “Joe Garagiola was our catcher.”
That fall he asked General Manager Branch Rickey for a raise. “I know you hit all those homers,” said the Pirates G.M., “but we could have finished last without you.” Joining the Cubs and Indians, Ralph retired with 369 homers: only Ruth had more per at-bat. “He’s the only reason people came to the park,” laughed Greenberg. “Pittsburgh roared, ‘Thank God for Ralph Kiner!’” How to top the topper? It took until 1969, but Ralph found a way.
In 1956, the Pacific Coast League Padres named Kiner G.M. He put on a microphone in 1961. “I’d played mostly in the National League, and here I am doing the White Sox,” re-creating the A.L. by day if Chicago played at night. The Hose was a first-division team. The 1962 Metropolitans formed a league of their own.
The ’62 Mets played for fun, Nelson later recollected. “They weren’t capable of playing for anything else.” In March, they convened in Florida. “We got to work on the little finesses,” said Casey. “Runners at first and second, and the first baseman holding a runner, breaking in and back to take a pickoff throw.” New York lost, 17-1. The Perfessor saw the light, not liking what he saw. “The little finesses aren’t gonna’ be our problem.” Yarns stitched what were.
The first game was truly Metsian. “Roger Craig gets the sign, goes into his motion, and drops the ball!” Lindsey blared of a balk. “Bill White is being waved across the plate!” The Mets lost, 11-4, to St..Louis. The home opener was Friday, April 13, at their temporary den, the Polo Grounds. Hobie Landrith caught: Casey’s first expansion pick: “If you ain’t got no catcher,” he explained, “you get all passed balls.” The question is whether New York would pass.
Instead, the rookies drew 922,530 – “amazing,” Ralph gaped, “when you look at our record.” The “New Breed” scribbled on bed sheets. Placards waved at the roving camera eye. “The most amazing fans that we’ve seen in baseball,” said Casey. “They stick by ya’,” even when their two-headed progenitor returned home On May 30, the Dodgers packed (55,704) the Polo Grounds. “We are frauds – frauds for this attendance,” the Perfessor said. “But if we can make losing popular, I’m all for it.”
Stengel never asked “how we lost 120. I asked how we won 40.” Craig was 10-24. Al Jackson finished 8-20. An umpire called Marvelous Marv –Marvin Eugene Throneberry (MET) — out for missing first base on a triple. Coach Cookie Lavagetto told Stengel, “Don’t argue too long, skipper – he missed second, too.” The 1962 season ended with Joe Pignatano hitting into a triple play. Hitting .306, Richie Ashburn was voted team Most Valuable Player. He took the prize, a boat, out on the Delaware River, where it sank.
Not surprisingly, the Mets’ Three Amigos tried whenever possible to divert attention from anything germane to score. WOR TV’s post-game Kiner’s Korner was a black and white period piece: “the best bad show,” the New York Post‘s Phil Mushnick said, “in TV history.” Then it seemed revolutionary: “anecdotes, interviews with big shots – few of whom were Mets.” Casey often buoyed Kiner’s Korner. Another early guest was the Mets’ backup catcher.
Ralph asked, “Choo Choo, how did you get that nickname?” Clarence Coleman: “I don’t know.” Kiner: “What’s your wife’s name and what’s she like?” Choo Choo: “Her name is Mrs. Coleman, and she likes me, bub.” Once Pittsburgh’s Jim Pagliaroni and Don Schwall appeared eating grapes in togas and Roman gladiator helmets. To Kiner, it felt like 1952 again. The Mets could have finished last without him.
Murphy worried about the first-place Yanks. “I thought we’d have to struggle.” For a time Bob did. “Lindsey didn’t like my conversational style. He was a straight-ahead announcer, eyes on baseball.” One day Nelson eyed a men’s clothing store on Broadway. “Show me jackets that you can’t sell,” he told the owner, buying seven “gaudy, awful” coats. Next month a cabby said, “You’re the guy who wears all those wild jackets!” Nelson told a friend, “See, he doesn’t know my name, but he knows what I do. Against the Yankees, it pays to advertise.”
By 1963, radio/TV topped the Bombers’ – akin, said Murphy, to a mule lapping Man O’ War. The Polo Grounds closed. E Pluribus Unum. The Mets’ new den, Shea Stadium, named for Bill, was christened April 16, 1964, with Dodgers Holy Water from Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal and Giants Holy Water at the Harlem River at the point it passed the Polo Grounds. Seats formed a four-tiered circle from one line to another. “The lower boxes were on rails that moved in into position for football,” wrote the Daily News’ Dick Young. Upper decks rose almost vertically. Few complained, glad merely to have baseball back.
A 1964 The New Yorker cartoon showed several Mets near the dugout. A bystander said, “Cheer up. You can’t lose ‘em all.” One game took a record 7 hours, 22 minutes. Incrementally, hapless has-beens became hopeless maybes. Five times the 1962-68ers hit last, finally leaving the cellar – for how long? “The only certainty,” said Mushnick, “is that the thought of anyone else calling them seemed insane.” Further insanity would have been the thought of the Mets winning a World Series. Later, Casey told us how: “They came on slow,” he said, “but fast.”
A Miracle, Even Now
On April 8, the Mets’ 1969 road began roughly, losing their first game to the first-year Expos, 11-10. In Chicago, Willie Smith pinch-homered a first-day 7-6 Cubs victory. All year the two teams intertwined like vines around a trellis. Tommie Agee became first to reach Shea’s upper deck. Second-year skipper Gil Hodges devised a four-man outfield v. Richie Allen. The Mets forged a May-June 11-game winning streak. Donn Clendenon arrived from Montreal. On July 9, Tom Seaver retired the first 25 Wrigleys before Jimmy Qualls’ single wrecked the perfect game.
Yin: Next week banjo hitter Al Weis zinged the Cubs. “Swung on, a high drive well hit toward left field!” said Murphy. “A three-run [5-4] homer!” Yang: The Mets fell to third, 9 ½ games behind. Chicago’s Billy Williams’ 895th straight game set an N.L. record. Baseball’s best infield tied the Cubs’ Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Glenn Beckert, and Don Kessinger. Santo began clicking heels upon each victory. Towel-waving reliever Dick Selma conducted Wrigley’s Bleacher Bums. Rarely had the Friendly Confines seemed friendlier.
At this point, “sixty-nine” was not yet a term, like Watergate or Waterloo, that stood alone. “Pennant race?” Kiner said. “We weren’t in one.” The Metsies first swept San Diego. A Western road trip then went 6-4. At Candlestick Park, Willie McCovey slashed an August 30 apparent game-ending hit that Rod Gaspar converted into a Giants runner out at the plate. Thinking it the final out, Mets catcher Jerry Grote rolled the ball to the mound, where Clendendon nabbed it, threw to third, and got McCovey! Extra innings: Amazins’, 3-2. Planets realigned.
On September 8, Chicago invaded Shea 2 ½ games ahead. Like Canute, hoping to reverse the tide, Bill Hands almost beaned Agee in the opener. “[The next pitch] is hit to deep left-center field!” said Kiner. “Going, going, it’s gone!” Agee later doubled, scoring the decisive run. A day later, appearing out of nowhere, a black cat hissed at the Cubs skipper. The crowd sang, “Good night, Leo [Durocher],” Seaver romping, 7-1. Ken Boswell’s overtime next-night hit edged Montreal, 3-2. “So, for the first time,” Kiner said, “the Mets have gone into first place! The New York Mets, seven years and four months, for the first time n their history, have gone into first place in the National League race!” The crowd heaved, “We’re Number One!” The moon was in the seventh house.
The Mets swept a 1-0 twinbill v. Pittsburgh. Amazin’: pitchers Jerry Koosman and Don Cardwell knocked in each run. The Cardinals’ Steve Carlton Kd a record 19 men – and lost, 4-3. On September 24, the East River flowed upstream. “Ground ball hit to shortstop!” Murphy sang in the 1-out ninth. “Harrelson to Weis! There’s one! First base! Double play! The Mets win! [6-0] It’s all over! Oh, the roar going up from this crowd! Oh, the scene on the field! Fans are pouring out on the field!”
WOR’s off-season documentary proclaimed To The Mets With Love. A reporter asked Gil Hodges, “Tell us what this proves.” The Mets manager sat back, spread his hands, and laughed, “Can’t be done.” The last laugh lay ahead. “No way anyone could believe that the butt of everybody’s jokes was finally going to win,” said Nelson, until it did. Seaver was 25-7. Koosman went 17-9. Cleon Jones hit .340. Agee had 26 homers. New York drew an Apple N.L. regular-season record 2,175,373. The 100-to-1ers proceeded to meet Atlanta in the first best-of-five League Championship Series – new gateway to the Classic. The Mets won twice in Georgia, 9-5 and 11-6, then repaired to Shea.
The Braves led Game Three, 4-3. “A high drive deep to right!” Murphy gaped. “A [two-run Wayne Garrett] homer!” The ninth commenced, 7-4. “So the Mets are one out away from their impossible dream. And the batter coming up is Tony Gonzalez,” said Kiner. “The pitch, a curve, chopped out to third. Garrett has the ball! The throw to first! And the Mets are the National League champions! A wild, wild scramble as the Mets celebrating their National League championship!” Growing up in Queens, future Voice Gary Cohen left Section 48, Row 9, “in left field, five rows from the top,“ to maneuver toward the field. “Had to get my little piece of turf.” Heaven rarely looked so green.
The American League champion Orioles eyed the Classic, unimpressed. “We are here,” Brooks Robinson said, “to prove there is no Santa Claus.” Don Buford dinged Seaver’s first-set second pitch: 4-1, Baltimore. Koosman, pitching, and Weis, singling, countered, 2-1. Elves awoke. Pre-1981 Series forebade local TV or radio – only a local-team Voice on network TV — here, Nelson. NBC’s Jim Simpson thus aired Game Three’s third-inning heist. “Hit high and deep to center field! Agee, who was pulled around to right, goes over with his speed … He’s got it!” Peacock Bill O’Donnell manned the sixth. “Fly ball to right-center field! Deep in right center! Shamsky with Agee! Agee dives – and he makes the catch!” — Mets, 5-0. The North Pole warmed.
Next day Seaver led, 1-0: one out, ninth inning, tying run on third. Robinson’s line out scored it, Swoboda’s diving catch keeping Game Four even. In the 10th, J.C. Martin bunted “down the first base line,” said O’Donnell, with two Mets on. “[Pitcher Pete] Richert fields, throws, and it hits the runner!” on the wrist, bouncing wildly. “Here’s the runner coming on from third base! And the Mets win the ballgame by a score of 2 to 1!” A day later, trailing 3 games to 1, the O’s led 3-0 when Clendenon hit a two-run wallop. Weis, not homering in five years at Shea, finally did: 3-all. Two eighth-inning doubles and errors made the score 5-3. At inning’s end, Lindsey left the NBC TV booth “to get to the clubhouse for the victory celebration. That’s when it hit me – the whole enormity of the thing.”
The Chinese discovered the 365 ½ day solar year in 2300 B.C. The Mets discovered Canaan October 16, 1969. At 3:16 P.M., Dave Johnson swung at Koosman’s 2-1 pitch “There’s a fly ball out to left!” said NBC’s Curt Gowdy. “Waiting is Jones! The Mets are the world champions! Jerry Koosman is being mobbed! Look at this scene!” We still are, reliving the Mets’ “incomparable” year and Kiner’s incomparable career. The 1970 Amazins’ drew 2,697,479, more than they had, or would till 1985. The ‘73ers waved another flag, Nelson again airing Series video. Having swung from tenth to first, the Mets swung back. Lindsey resigned in January 1979, outlasting the Polo Grounds, seven Mets managers, and 238 players from A (Ashburn) to Z (Don Zimmer).
Nelson died in June 1995 at 76, of Parkinson’s Disease. Murphy remained on Mets radio till 2003 — to Marty Noble, “the voice of all things Mets” – at the beach, in the back yard, aboard the Staten Island ferry. His post-game review, “The Happy Recap,” became a life, not game. “I remember thinking it was corny, dropping it, then mail on its behalf.” The ex-Marine had a baritone that rose an octave, home phone number with last four digits 6-3-8-7 (Mets), and team radio booth named after him. Murphy died in 2006, having “tried to bring friendliness to the game.”
In 1975, Kiner entered Cooperstown as a player. Nelson and Murphy joined its broadcast wing in 1988 and 1994, respectively. The early Mets had trouble turning two. “Here we are, making the Hall three for three,” Ralph later laughed. With Nelson, then Murphy, gone, baseball’s longest-running and, to many, best triad ended, only Kiner enduring from clashing magic of 1962 and 1969: increasingly, he became the Mets, his glow perceptible, inexhaustible. As 1995- radio Voice Howie Rose would say, lovingly, “Ralph has been called many things, but never dull.”
“Mr. Kiner’s Ways Are Wondrous”
“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse,” said Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. English was reserved for baseball’s man of letters. “Today is father’s day,” Ralph began. “So to all of you fathers in the audience, happy birthday.” American Cynamid Co. became a TV sponsor. “We’ll be right back,” Kiner said, “after this word from American Cyanide.” Again he neared commercial: “We’ll be back after this word for Manufacturers Hangover.” Once Ralph said of Marvelous Marv Throneberry, “Marv never made the same mistake twice. He always made different ones.” That was also true of the Mets’ comic, cosmic, and beloved Voice.
Overweight, Terry Forster lost 15 pounds because “his wife slept in front of the refrigerator. She gained 15 pounds,” said Ralph, who noted that another pitcher, Rick Sutcliffe, “does interior designing on the side.” Partner Fran Healy was puzzled, so Ralph explained that, breaking chairs, “Rick redesigned Tommy Lasorda’s office.” Some lines were planned: “Statistics are like bikinis. They show a lot but not everything.” Some, uh, clearly weren’t. “The Mets didn’t do well in the month of Atlanta.” In Montreal, “the Phillies again beat the Mets.” “The Mets got their leadoff hitter on only once this inning.” Tim McCarver said that “Mr. Kiner’s ways are wondrous.” They were.
Kiner became famous/infamous for malapropisms — Howard Johnson became Walter Johnson; Marv Throneberry, Marv Strawberry; Gary Carter, Gary Cooper – but should be famous, Howie Rose felt, for story-telling, having a notebook with handwritten tales about “seemingly every player: like the Marines, prepared.” In the 1980s, McCarver, joining him on cable TV’s SportsChannel, revitalized Ralph’s career. In appreciation, Kiner one game renamed Tim MacArthur. “Ralph, you’re probably thinking of General MacArthur,” Tim said. Ralph: “What did I say?” McCarver: “’Tim MacArthur.’ It’s McCarver.” Ralph: “Well, close enough.” Mets lose, 9-1. “Earlier in the broadcast we talked about General MacArthur,” Tim said. “One of his favorite lines was ‘Chance favors a prepared man.’ Obviously the Mets weren’t prepared tonight.” Kiner eyed the screen: “MacArthur also said, ‘I shall return,’ and we’ll be right back after this.”
Once at Wrigley Field McCarver spotted a nearby rooftop wedding. Turning to Kiner, who once dated actresses Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh, Tim asked, “If the game gets rained out, does the wedding count?” Ralph didn’t miss a beat: “Only if it goes five innings.” To Rose, Ralph was “not only one of the all-time great home run hitters but an all-time great with the ladies.” A few years ago the Mets were in Philadelphia. Kiner was in the press lounge with his wife when Janet Leigh’s daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, walked in, causing Ralph to tell Mrs. Kiner that he used to date Jamie’s mom. DiAnn Kiner encouraged her husband to approach Jamie and introduce himself, which he did, saying, “Jamie, my name is Ralph Kiner and I dated your mom back in the 1950s.” Immediately, with no prior warning, Jamie threw her arms around a stunned Ralph and yelled, “Daddy!” To Rose, it was a rare time Ralph was badly fooled and caught looking.
In 1995, WOR canceled Kiner’s Korner, arguably the Apple’s longest-running TV show. “They could make more money going to news,” Ralph explained. Two years later was worse: he suffered Bells Palsy, temporary slurred speech and facial paralysis. Three weeks later, wife DiAnn learned she had cancer: “He started sobbing. He’s such a tender-hearted man.” Ralph left the air, returning in late 1998 physically-challenged, in the argot of the time. Next year “he was fine,” said his wife, “like he’d never been away,” rejoining Mets TV, its booth named after him, imbedded in our DNA.
Kiner eased New York’s post 9/11 recovery, an extended member of its family. He died trailing only Vin Scully for consecutive years announcing a club. Moreover, he showed that story-telling, not a swirl of statistics, forms true baseball broadcasting: for half-a-century New York’s beach bud, mountain messenger, summer music, and pillow pal. A lifetime of study let Ralph Kiner chat as around a fireplace. Requiescat in pace. God bless him, and He will.
Few enriched life like Jerry Coleman, who died this week of head injury from a recent fall, having lived a potpourri of lives in his 89 years on earth. How should we eulogize this baseball original? Should we hail his flying 120 bombing missions in World War II and Korea? Surely they did freedom proud. “Bob Feller and Ted Williams were right,” he said. “What you do for America [in his case, 13 Air Medals, three Navy citations, and two Distinguished Flying Crosses] counts most.”
Coleman was, above all, a patriot. We could also salute his keying eight Yankees pennants in nine big-league years: 1949 Associated Press Rookie of the Year, 1949-57 infield defense stalwart, and .263 batter with 558 hits and 235 walks to only 218 strikeouts. Jerry’s last-day 1949 triple helped beat Boston to wave an A.L. flag. “What a rinky dink,” close friend Williams told him, “that little Texas Leaguer.” Coleman said, “Ted, you just saw the cover of the ball. Its core is still in orbit.”
Finally, we could recall Coleman as a National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum award-winning announcer, gloriously, even incandescently, describing his favorite sport. Few adorned America’s oldest and greatest talking sport like the Californian who knew the way from his native San Jose. “I used to worry about Colemanisms,” he said, ultimately. “Finally I figure they add to my sex appeal.”
Remember Jesus Alou “in the on-deck circus.” Recall “Winfield going back … back … he hits his head against the wall. It’s rolling toward second base”!” Hail the man “sliding into second with a stand-up double.”
Sit back, “put a star on that baby,” as Jerry said, and hail the 1960 CBS TV and 1976-97 radio, 1963-69 Yankees, 1971-71 Angels, and 1972-79 and 1981- Padres Voice. Think of evolution, going yard. Eulogize Coleman with a smile, and with thanksgiving: “Sometimes big trees grow out of acorns,” he said. “I think I heard that from a squirrel.”
Born 14, 1924, our linguist’s road led to high school in San Francisco, Yankees’ Class D Wellsville, New York, Pacific Theatre, and Yankee Stadium. “He can throw backwards [on the double play],” said manager Casey Stengel of his rookie second baseman. “He must have a mirror hanging down his neck.”
In World War II, a B-29 mirror helped spot Japanese, then Koreans, Coleman eluding death with stark resistance. Returning to baseball, he retired at age 33 in 1957 to become Yankees’ personnel director. His CBS TV pre-Game of the Week began in 1960. Instantly it almost closed.
Jerry was interviewing Cookie Lavagetto when the Star-Spangled Banner started. “Better keep talking,” the apprentice thought, and did through the Anthem. Letters swamped CBS. “Believe me,” he later said, “when the Anthem starts I stop, whether I’m taping, talking, or eating a banana.”
By 1963, Coleman made Yankees radio/TV, having never even kept score. He was scheduled for a full inning. Instead 12 men hit in its top half. “I think you’ve had enough,” said the pinstripes Voice, Mel Allen. Jerry agreed. “I went over to the corner, got into a fetal position, curled up,” and stayed.
At first, said Coleman, “You’re so insecure that you need someone to pat you on the back.” Instead, a sadist mailed a record Famous Jungle Sounds, writing, “Listen to yourself.” A road double-header upped angst. Indians lefties Sam McDowell and Jack Kralick were to pitch. Game One’s starter blanked New York inning after inning. “Sam was a strikeout guy with erratic control,” Coleman gawked, “bus his control this day was astounding.”
In the sixth inning, he learned why. WPIX New York telephoned the booth. “Is that McDowell?” Jerry turned to Indians Voice Bob Neal: “Who’s pitching?” Bob lip-synched: “Kralick.” Four decades later the face still dropped. “There were similar in build, Coleman said. “But even that doesn’t explain how we had the wrong guy pitching.”
Another day Jerry and Phil Rizzuto were in a rain delay when a caller phoned asking them to name the all-time Yankees team. “We can’t choose between Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra at catcher,” Coleman said. Otherwise, the team seemed clear: first base, Lou Gehrig; second, Joe Gordon; shortstop, Rizzuto; third, Red Rolfe; outfield, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Roger Maris. “Great team,” Jerry enthused. “We’re feeling good till the phones light up. ‘Hey, fellas, did you forget somebody? Where the hell is Babe Ruth?’” Oops. Coleman says he looked for the nearest closet.
In 1970, Jerry left the Bronx for Angels television. In 1972, inheriting a hemophiliac, he tried to staunch the blood. The 1972 Padres were nearly sold to a Washington, D.C. buyer. Saving them for San Diego, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc snatched the P.A. mike Opening Day. “This is the most stupid ballplaying I’ve ever seen.” Next day he apologized. Jerry couldn’t grasp why.
Coleman managed the 73-89 1980 Padres. “There’s a generation gap between Jerry and the players,” rued Gene Tenace. None split Jerry and his enormous following. In 1981, he returned to radio, “where I’m probably more comfortable. Most players think I was born at 45.” His listeners noted that experience counts.
The Legend Grows
For a time it angered friends that Colemanisms clouded smart prose, a fine voice, and decency. “Beloved,” said the White Sox’ John Rooney. “Sire, he has screwups, but the biggest will be if he doesn’t make Cooperstown.” He did, in 2005, winning the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence, as Coleman’s skill transcended malapropisms to forge an indelible identity. “He’d be excellent in any event,” said Bob Costas. “Goofs make him unforgettable” – Dizzy Dean via Stengel to George W. Bush.
“He’s [John Grubb] under the warning track.” A hitter lined “up the alley … oh, it’s foul.” Dave Winfield led off first – “always a threat to grow.” Nolan Ryan has “the most elastic arm ever made by human hands.” The Pads waived Glenn Beckert. “Before he goes, I hope he stops by the booth so we can kiss him good-bye. He’s that kind of guy.”
Coleman denied saying: “’Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen.’ I said, ‘He’s throwing them up.’” Undeniable: “This is the only afternoon day game in the National League”; “Next up is Barry Carry Garry Templeton”; Pete Rose has three thousand hits and 3,014 overall”; and “There’s a hard shot to LeMaster – and he throws Madlock in the dugout.”
Put a star on these babies: “Redfern won’t be 22 until October. Hey, he’s only 21”; “Whenever you get an inflamed tendon, you got a problem. Okay, here’s the pitch to Gene Tendon”; “It’s swung on and Gamble sends a long fly to right, but Gamble goes back to the wall and makes the catch”; “they throw Winfield out at second, and he’s safe.” “Swung on and fouled to the backstop. Wait a minute, that was a wild pitch and the runner moved over to second. “Reggie Smith of the Dodgers and Gary Matthews of the homers hit Braves in that game.” Final score: “Chicago 8, the Cubs 5.”
In 1979, Winfield nearly made a leaping catch. “If he had made that play,” said Jerry, “they’d be throwing babies from the upper deck.” They fell in 1984. San Diego drew a record 1,983,904, won the N.L. West, and drew America’s Cubs in the L.C.S. The pivot was a Game Four poke. “Hit high to right-center field! Way back! Going! Going! It is gone! The Pads win it!” Coleman cried. “In a game that absolutely defies description, Steve Garvey, in the ninth inning, hit one over the 370-mark, and the Padres beat the Cubs, 7 to 5! Oh, doctor, you can hang a star on that baby!”
In the World Series, Detroit mimicked Stengel’s Yanks on the field. Off it, punks burned cars, smashed windows, and assailed passersby upon its end. Motowners rushed the field. Jerry aired a post-game show. “At Tiger Stadium, it’s only 30 feet from the field to the booth – so somebody picks up the idea of target practice.” Dodging trash, he nearly charged the dry cleaning bill.
Next year Coleman added Game of the Week to CBS Radio’s post-season. “He hadn’t broadcast in the East since the sixties,” said Costas. “People heard what he could do.” At 68, he took up skiing. By then, Tony Gwynn had batted .394, Benito Santiago hit in 34 straight games, and L.A.’s Orel Hershiser broke Don Drysdale’s record 58 straight scoreless innings. The last 10 strung the Pads. “There’s a drive to right field!” said Jerry. “He’s going to put it away! Oh, doctor! History was born right here at San Diego!”
The 1993 N.L. L.C.S. matched Atlanta and Philadelphia. “It was a fantastic game last night,” he told CBS. “I’m still trying to figure out who did what, and why.” The 19988 Padres wrote another flag. The Series again fizzled: a Yankees sweep. A year later Gwynn got hit 3,000 at Montreal. “Right-center field! Base hit! And there it is! Oh-ho, doctor, you can hang a star on that baby! A star for the ages for Tony Gwynn!” One Mr. Padre swings. Another sings.
In 2002, Jerry, 78, became the bigs’ oldest full-time Voice. The ’04 Pads gave him an open-ended pact. Several years later he voluntarily curbed his away, then home, radio schedule. In 2012 the club dedicated a statue of its most beloved Padre in his most beloved attire – Jerry Coleman, in military garb. When he died in January 2014, people brought bouquets and other floral arrangements to lay at the statue. “Sometimes big trees grow out of acorns,” Coleman said, twitting his malapropisms. Sometimes heroes grow out of little boys raised in California, dreaming of playing ball.
Someone’s career can seem ordained at birth. Eric Nadel was born May 15, 1951, in Brooklyn USA, the only place, as the late broadcaster Ernie Harwell said, “where people made a vocation of being a baseball fan.” On July 26, 2014, Texas Rangers radio Voice Eric Nadel will receive the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence. Looking back, Brooklyn to Cooperstown seems a natural evolution.
Nadel’s choice was announced December 11 after a vote of the Hall of Fame’s 20-member Frick Award committee. Eric’s home run call is “That ball is history!” His history includes becoming the 38th Frick award recipient, first primary Voice of the Rangers, and third to represent the Lone Star State after Houston Astros Voices Milo Hamilton and Gene Elston, inducted in 1992 and 2006, respectively.
Filling the Rangers’ vocal canvas for 35 years, Nadel has outlasted Charlie Hough, Nolan Ryan’s 5,000th K, and Davis Freese icing Texas in the 2011 World Series. Brown University Class of ’72 is, not surprisingly, a Renaissance Man: so skilled in Spanish that he airs offseason games in Latin America; author of three books, including Texas Rangers: The Authorized History; and host and producer of the radio series A Page From Baseball’s Past.
Nadel’s past includes a niche as the Ranger’ longest-running Voice, four-time Texas Sportscaster of the Year, thrice Associated Press best Texas play-by-playman, and member of the Texas Hall of Fame. His career reaches points as disparate as the Texas panhandle and Gulf Coast at Galveston, boasts élan as vivid as the architecture of the Rangers’ Ballpark at Arlington, and embodies a State impatient with limits of any kind.
Nadel joined the Rangers in 1979, his “career path different from many Voices in baseball and not one I’d imagined,” he said. By 1978, Eric had already aired the shiny sport for six years in the minors, including Chicago’s top affiliate, the Dallas Black Hawks. “That July, Rangers broadcast head Roy Parks asked if I’d done baseball.” Loving the game, Eric uttered what Winston Churchill called a terminological inexactitude”: he lied.
Nadel told Parks he had aired baseball at Brown. Fine, said the Rangers domo: Send a tape. Not having one, Eric finessed what the British call a sticky wicket. “I’d played ball at Brown, had attended Rangers games in Dallas, and had a decent command of the game’s history and phraseology,” Nadel said. Thus, he could tape a four-game series at the Rangers then-home, Arlington Stadium, and did: “my tryout.”
Nadel said he was “exactly what they wanted: someone young and cheap. Roy Parks figured that by 1979 I could do baseball without embarrassing him. If you like baseball on skates, hear my awful early tapes. With so much cash at risk, today my hiring could never happen.” It did, and before long Nadel was consumed by baseball’s traveling vaudeville of players, managers, announcers, and ballparks heavy with individuality.
Detroit’s Tiger Stadium was a favorite: “the only place I’ve worked where I could see the spin of the ball on its way to home plate.” Reminiscing, announcers try to top one another’s tales. Nadel recalls Rangers catcher Geno Petralli trying to catch Hough’s knuckleball in 1987, tying a major-league record with six passed balls in one game. “Each time Geno chased another knuckler to the screen, almost directly beneath our booth,” Nadel said, “his frustration became more audible.
“To me, Tiger Stadium was its era’s classic double-deck site, twin-tiered around the entire park, the smell of grilled hot dogs permeating from when you walked in the gate,” Eric said. “Seeing the amazingly late break of the knuckleball, I felt for Geno each time he arrived.” It was a view and sensation, he mused, that Red Barber and then Vin Scully must have felt, announcing in the 1940s and 1950s, at a similar ballpark, Ebbets Field.
Raised in Brooklyn, Eric learned from Scully how a Voice could become an extended member of the family. Phillies announcer Scott Franzke likes to relate growing up in Dallas hearing Nadel and partner Mark Holtz tell their inside jokes, “the Rangers’ flagship outlet [then WBAP] playing its silly theme, its Texas twang pitching Panhandle Slim shirts.” In 1991, his freshman year at Southern Methodist University, Scott and two friends decided to see spring training. Next day, driving all night, they arrived at the Rangers’ Port Charlotte, Florida, camp.
On a lark, Scott sent a note to the booth on a napkin from the concession stand – all he and his pals had – asking Nadel and Holtz “to say hi to Dallas.” Improbably, Mark and Eric did, making legends of Scott and his happy wanderers back at SMU, “even mentioning our names on the air, followed by a crack about mustard on the napkin,” said Franzke, still laughing.
Scott remembered that napkin when Holtz died in 1997 of bone marrow disease, recalling it, even now. “Nothing beats baseball for making simple, small connections with fans, day after day, many with mustard-stained napkins of their own,” Franzke said.
For more than a third-of-a-century Eric Nadel has made connections with listeners, year after year, on the vast Rangers KRLD Radio network, becoming mountain messenger, beach bud, and pillow pal. It will surprise few if someone approaches Nadel at Cooperstown and gives him a mustard-stained napkin. Think of it as baseball’s equivalent of love.
While you have busied yourself with life’s important things – the Cardinals’ precocious pitching staff, the beyond the moon Dodgers, and above all, the miracle of the 2013 Boston Red Sox – I have spent this year in the catacombs writing a biography of my former boss, George Herbert Walker Bush, for whom I wrote speeches when he was America’s 1989-93 President.
I hope that you will like the parts of the book that pertain to baseball, Bush’s favorite sport, which he played, coached, and loves – and the friendship between Ted Williams and the future President who batted eighth at Yale – “second cleanup,” Bush mused tongue in cheek. His baseball career ended because he couldn’t hit the curve.
Aptly, Bush, like me, has been a Red Sox fan since he trooped to Fenway Park as a child. Williams, who hit the curve, fastball, and any other pitch ever invented, didn’t just play for the Sox from 1939-1942 and 1946-60. He was the Olde Towne Team – still is, in death. Below is a story about the special friendship between these two special men.
More will appear in coming months as the biography of Bush 41 nears release next year – and as we celebrate his ninetieth birthday in 2014. Reading, please imagine how Bush enjoyed this year’s astounding Red Sox rise from worst-to-first – and how The Kid must have, too, giving God batting tips in the Big Ballpark in the Sky:
Return to February 1988. Vice President Bush trails Bob Dole in the New Hampshire Primary, to be held less than a week away. Having already lost Iowa, Bush will likely lose his dream to become President if he loses here, too. Even his mega-popular wife, Barbara, hadn’t turned the tide. When Bush arrived, he was atypically scolding an aide.
As Rick Robinson wrote in All Right Magazine, “a figure larger than New England itself” approached him, saying, “Any problems, Mr. Vice President?” “Not now,” said Bush, staring in shock at Theodore Samuel Williams. “Everything’s going to be fine now.” Robinson titled his profile: How Ted Williams Changed the World.
Raised in Connecticut, Bush had early gravitated toward Ted’s Red Sox. “The first game Dad took me to was the Polo Grounds,” he said of the Giants’ pre-1958 home across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium, “but my favorite park was Boston’s Fenway. It’s nice to know some things don’t change,” including his awe for someone who could hit, “something I never mastered at Yale” – classic good-field-no-hit, averaging .222.
After moving to Texas, Barbara carpooled players to Little League, giving umpires her mind. Eldest son George W. became Texas Rangers general managing partner before entering politics. Most of his father’s speeches leaving the Presidency in 1993 were paid to help build his Library. Gratis was a speech I had a thrill writing — 1994’s keynote opening of the Ted Williams Museum: “a dear friend,” Bush said, “and the greatest hitter who ever lived.”
Articulate, profane, more handsome than Errol Flynn, Williams became a hero to my father, Woody Hayes, John Updike, and Bobby Knight. By 1988, I knew of no one so revered by men, say, over fifty. Bush felt him a hero, too, and would tell you why. “The first reason was character. Ted couldn’t stand what he termed ‘politicians’ – phonies. Teammates adored him. Rivals asked for batting tips” – wise, given Williams’ six titles, .344 career average, and twice winning the Most Valuable Player award and Triple Crown – “and Ted never turned them down.” Finally, Sox owner Tom Yawkey had enough. “Ted, I know you’re generous, but why are you helping the enemy?”
Real enemies, said Bush, spiked Korea and World War II. The Kid a.k.a. Splendid Splinter, Thumper, and Teddy Ballgame, among other monikers, flew 36 combat missions, never complaining about “losing five and a half seasons from the prime of his career,” Bush jibed. Add them, said longtime Sox announcer Curt Gowdy, “and there’d be no room in the record books for anyone but Ted.”
Bush thought Williams an extraordinary batter, hunter, and fisherman – “also a conservationist before the phrase ‘environment’ existed,” said Bush. Ted raised millions of dollars for charity,” especially the Jimmy Fund: New England’s charity against childhood cancer. “He was a Point of Light before my administration coined the term.”
The introduction of bit politicians had begun at the February 1988 New Hampshire rally, Rick Robinson wrote, when Williams, unannounced and unexpected, strode on stage, getting and needing no introduction. The crowd gasped, stared in disbelief, then stood and roared. The noise volleyed, rose, and crashed against the trees. Ted, still The Kid at 70, introduced “a good friend of mine who’s running for President.”
Applause greeted Bush, though not as deafening as No. 9’s. For two entire days the two of them were inseparable, drawing mammoth crowds: “Whither thou goest,” said Ruth 1:16 in the Bible, “I will go” – in this case, a Laconia dog sled, a Manchester fishing show, the sidewalks of Currier and Ives towns: Williams mobbed; Bush joking that he, the candidate, was hired help.
Years later, I asked White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, a Red Sox fan who in 1988 was Governor of New Hampshire, what had pivoted the primary. Instantly, he said: “The Kid.” On January 20, 1989, Bush was inaugurated as President. He and Sununu both deemed Ted “the greatest hitter who ever lived” – and the man they credited with pivoting the 1988 New Hampshire Primary.
Without No. 9, Bush might have needed a miracle equal to the 2013 Red Sox to become forty-first President of the United States. Sox fans are glad that Bush reserved it for them.
“Kennedy was, whether for good or bad, an enormously large figure,” Theodore H. White wrote of America’s first Catholic president. “Historically, he was a gate-keeper. He unlatched the gate and through the door marched Catholics, blacks, and Jews, and ethnics, women, youth, academics, newspersons, and an entirely new breed of politician.”
Joe Garagiola, 87, an exceedingly large baseball figure, recently retired after 58 years behind the mike, including the last 18 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He unlatched a 1950s and ‘60s gate for urban, ethnic, and, with Dizzy Dean, an entirely new breed of announcer – the ex-jock-turned funnyman. It is a gate that will never close.
Humor obscured how Joe G. asked for little, worked like a dog, and helped found the Baseball Assistance Team. “I went though life as a [1946-54] player to be named later,” Garagiola said in a typical witticism. Ordinary on the field, he has been extraordinary off.
Yet to many Joe will always be boyhood pal Yogi Berra’s ambassador without portfolio. “I’ll ask him, ‘What time is it? Yogi’ll say, ‘Now?’”
“I get lost going to Yogi’s home, and call. ‘Where are you?’ he says. I tell him. He says, ‘You’re not far away. You come this way. Don’t go that way.’”
A woman mused, “Yogi, you look cool in that outfit.” Berra smiled. “Thanks,” he said. “You don’t look so hot yourself.”
What a card – or was Yogi Charlie McCarthy, mouthing a baseball Bergen’s lines? “It’s his humor,” said Garagiola, growing wintry. “He thinks funny, and speaks what he thinks.”
Joe’s mother — “a dear, loving simple woman” – could not speak English. Dad worked in a brickyard. Born on Lincoln’s birthday 1926, their son learned a salute-to-the-flag, catch-in-the-throat, tear-in-the-eye Americanism.
Growing up, he and Berra shared a glove, played in a World Progress Administration league, and worked in a Cardinals training camp. In 1942, Joe graduated from South Side Catholic High School, signed for $500 with St. Louis, and bounced to Class-A Springfield, Triple-A Columbus, and the Army in Manila.
One day he heard the wireless etch a young, fast, and strong Cardinals catcher. “I turned to my closest Army buddy and said, ‘If that guy’s that good, I ‘m in trouble.’” The radio predicted Garagiola would fill Walker Cooper’s shoes. As Joe said, it didn’t say with what.
Meet Me in St. Louis
In 1946, joining his home team, Garagiola was assigned washing sanitary hose. “We used to always put on Stan Musial’s socks ‘TGIF’ – Toes Go In First. Anything to help The Man.” The Man helped by leading the league in seven categories.
Enos Slaughter had an N.L-high 130 runs. Howie Pollett, Harry Brecheen, and Murry Dickson went 51-31. St. Louis was still made a 7-to-20 World Series underdog v. Boston. Games One-Two split. The Red Sox then won Fenway Park’s first Series match in 28 years. To New England, Game Four seemed as long: Redbirds, 12-3. Joe, Slaughter, and Whitey Kurowski each had four of a record-tying 20 hits.
“Here I am,” he said, “living a kid’s ream, and [Ted] Williams picks that day to beat the shift [three infielders right of second base].” Papers blared: “Williams Bunts!” Cards, in seven. Garagiola gloried in his .316 average. The hereafter was stickier: 1947, .247; ’48, minors; ’50, shoulder separation. Hurt, Joe began listening to Harry Caray, “how he called the game, and I got thinking about radio.”
Dealt to Pittsburgh, he rubbernecked the 42-112 ‘52ers. “It was the most courageous team in baseball,” said Garagiola. “We had 154 games scheduled, and showed up for every one. We lost eight of our first nine games and then we had a slump.”
Next year marked the ninth season of Branch Rickey’s five-year plan. One day the Pirates’ G.M. summoned Joe. “He looks at me with his big, bushy eyebrows. ‘By Judas Priest,’ he says, ‘we’re turning the corner. And you, my boy, figure in my plans.’” That week Garagiola was traded to the Cubs.
In 1954, the Giants claimed him off waivers. “I’d bit in the bullpen and say, ‘Why the hell doesn’t he throw the curveball?” Joe said, retiring. “All I had to do to become an announcer was to take out the hell.”
Hired by KMOX Radio St. Louis, the Funny Man began making a virtue of necessity. “You can’t imagine the thrill,” Joe said of his .257 career average, “to walk into a clubhouse and wonder if your uniform is still there.” Their block became terra firma. “A door to door peddler told my mom I was the first boy from the neighborhood with a name ending in a, e, i, o, or u that gets his name in the papers and he no kill anybody.”
Baseball wasn’t “like going to church.” Dead air: “I’m Italian. I like to talk.” Strategy: “An idiot could pick up” the signs. St. Louis forgave his sharp voice. Caray taught using the diaphragm. “I had a lot of help, and needed it. Off my first play-by-play, I wouldn’t have hired myself.”
For Anheuser-Busch, Joe emceed, spoke to B’nai B’rith, the Holy Name, and Masonic Lodge, and bloomed as a ribster. He and Stan Musial became godfather for the other’s child. In 1959, he broadcast with the Cardinals. Back home, Yogi’s pal taped, reviewed, and learned, becoming a Bob Hope of the resin bag. His gate, unlatched, would soon open wide.
In 1960, Herbert Hoover and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were introduced at the World Series. “You amaze me, Yog. You’ve become such a world figure that you draw more applause than either a prime minister or former president,” Garagiola laughed. “You can you explain it?” Berra said: “Certainly. I’m a better hitter.”
That season, Joe released the runaway bestseller Baseball Is a Funny Game. “One day I’m a dumb jock and suddenly I can write.” NBC made him 1961 Saturday and Sunday Major League Baseball color man. Next year Bob Wolff began play-by-play. “You work your side of the street [interviewing players],” said Garagiola, “and I’ll work mine.” On CBS, Dean, incinerating the language, competed each weekend with Wolff and Joe G.
Wolff liked Joe’s pizzazz. “He’d say, ‘The guy stapled him to the bag.’” A runner’s “smilin’ like he swallowed a banana peel.” The game preceded due diligence. “Afterward, we’d replay each pitch. ‘I said this, you said that, and I should have said this.’” Soon Garagiola played The Jack Paar Show with Kaye Ballard and June Valli. Even better is that today every baseball network and big-league team has at least one, some many, ex-athletes-turned-analysts: “Joe’s ultimate gift,” says Wolff.
In 1962, Garagiola left the Cardinals full-time for NBC. Radio bound the 1963 World Series, Monitor, and Joe Garagiola Sports Show. TV blared The Tonight Show, Match Game, What’s My Line?, and I’ve Got A Secret. A writer said, “His words hit home runs.” Leisure, on the other hand, fanned.
The Peacock Spreads
Small world. The 1964 World Series matched the Redbirds and the Yankees, Berra managing. Garagiola called it with, among others, Caray. The Cards cut their seventh world title. The Yankees’ loss cost Yogi his job. As jaw-dropping was the firing of broadcaster Mel Allen, replaced by Joe, auguring “a more human Yankees image,” wrote the Daily News’s Kay Gardella. Sadly, the Bombers chose this time by fall apart, finishing last by 1966.
Understandably, Garagiola avoided whenever possible anything germane to score.
“Once in a while you’d get lucky: the Yankees like they were,” he said. An example was May 14, 1967. “Stu Miller ready,” said Garagiola at Yankee Stadium. “Here’s the payoff pitch by Miller to Mantle. Swung on! There she goes! There she goes! …. Mickey Mantle has hit the [career] five hundred home run!”
In 1968, Joe joined NBC The Today Show regulars Barbara Walters, Hugh Downs, and Frank McGee. Some foresaw a flop. Instead, he “indulged in diamond talk with Frank Robinson,” Ben Gross wrote, “boxing with Muhammad Ali, poetry with Marianne Moore, and politics with Hubert H. Humphrey.” President Johnson introduced him to a diplomat. “Turn on your TV set tomorrow morning and you’ll see this fellow. I watch him every day.”
Define New York: “The only four-letter word they object to is ROTC.” Was Joe sentimental? “Give me the Queen of Spades and I’ll bawl.” A slider was “a curveball after taxes.” A plane trip spawned “rope burns from my Rosary.” Garagiola rose at 4:30 A.M., caught the 5:26 commuter train, and knew his niche. “I’m not Joe Show Six, just a sweatshirt guy running stop speed to stay even. Those guys on the bubble gum cards, they’re mine.”
By 1973, Joe’s card listed Joe Garagiola’s Memory Game, Sale of the Century, and Monday’s pre-game Baseball World of Joe Garagiola. Wife Audrie asked: “How many cards or suite do you need?” Leaving Today, he called, with Gowdy, the 1974 All-Star Game. Next day Joe grabbed NBC executive Carl Lindemann. “I can’t work with him,” he said. “Curt kept cutting me off. I couldn’t say a word.”
In 1975, he hosted NBC’s Next Year Is Here and First World Series of Bubble Gum Blowing. A new gate soon opened. “Mr. Garagiola,” read an NBC press release, “will do our [entire 1976] play-by-play [Tony Kubek, keeping color].” Political animals aren’t limited to politics.
“Often Even Great”
NBC hoped that Joe’s charm and unorthodox dwelling on the personal would halt Game’s decade-long hemorrhage. Instead, ratings bobbed from 6.7 (1977) via 7.5 (1978) to 6.3 (1981-82). “Saturday had a constituency,” said executive producer Scotty Connal, “but it didn’t swell.” Opposing Game, local-team TV split the audience. By contrast, regulars awaited Joe’s bits like a Star Trek groupie.
The 1952 Bucs meant a belly laugh: “Once we had a rainout and we staged a victory party.” Diction was a yuck. One year Yogi, Dizzy Dean, and Garagiola joined the Missouri Hall of Fame. “What do you want? Good grammar or good taste?” Game mixed aplomb and nonchalance. “I’m an expert on two things – trades and slumps.” How far did Yogi go in high school? “Nine blocks.” If Howard Cosell lunched “with everyone he says he does he’d weigh 720 pounds.”
ABC’s 1976 power grab was no laughing matter, buying half of all big-league coverage. “Still, Game, half of post-season – we got lots left,” Joe said. Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson fought in 1977. Next year New York again made the Series. Game Two: L.A., 4-3, ninth, two on. Reggie kept fouling off Bob Welch. Finally: “He gets him!” Joe cried. “What a battle!”
Garagiola never caught a no-hitter. In 1981, he called Nolan Ryan’s fifth. Pressure building! This may be it [game-ending grounder]!” A year Vin Scully got play-by-play, Joe retaking color. “People couldn’t wait for us to be the odd couple, always sniping at each other,” Vin later mused. Once again Joe adjusted. Wolff, for one, was not surprised. “If I couldn’t see who was warming up, he’d write me a note. ‘Smith to the left, Jones to the right.’ That way I could say it: Joe wanted me to look good.”
By late 1983, The New York Times wrote: “That the duo of Scully and Garagiola is very good, and often even great, is no longer in dispute.” Talking less, Joe was saying more. “He understood the cash,” a friend said of NBC’s 1984-49 407 percent bigs hike. Scully was the star”; Garagiola, Pegasus, the Peacocks’ junior light. In 1984, he predicted a Series pitchout. “How did you know that?” Vin gawked. The fist sign, he said, hadn’t changed since 1944. “He’d say the batter wiggled,” said Harry Coyle, “so we’d put the replay on him, and the camera proved him right.”
The 1980s tied flag-waving, supply-side economics, and Ronald Reagan’s remembered and/or reinvented past. NBC’s fused: 1984, Jack Morris’s’ no-no; 1985, Ozzie Smith’s L.C.S. parabola; 1986, Buckner Series; late 1988, baseball’s excising Game. Joe resigned that fall – “I was trying to renegotiate, and they left me twisting” – returning to 1990-91’s Today. Cooperstown followed. “The Hall of Fame!” he said. “My God, Rickey wouldn’t believe it!” Miming Yogi, Garagiola thanked those who made the day necessary. “I couldn’t hit my way in here. I talked my way in instead.”
In 1993, the Smithsonian Institution hailed Joe’s baseball world. “Tonight’s honor might not be Mt. Rushmore,” wrote Jack Paar of his folically-challenged friend, “but there’s still a place on Mt. Baldie.” Joe was Gerald Ford’s emcee in the 1976 Presidential campaign. Recalling another president, Jack termed him the only Voice to have slept in the Lincoln Bedroom before it became the Hollywood Hotel.
Garagiola moved to Phoenix, called the Angels and Diamondbacks, and hailed Arizona’s first general manager: “My Rickey! Dad said of son Joe. Pop helped open a gate for former players: the Baseball Assistance Team.
By 2002, the average big-league salary, $29,000 in 1968, neared $2.4 million. “These guys,” he snapped. “Where’s concern for the players before?” A pitcher couldn’t afford to bury his 11-year-old son. An ex-Dodger pondered a raffle for an amputated leg. “Nobody cares about no pension then. Without them, guys today wouldn’t be living like they are.”
BAT paid bills, bought insurance, above all, gentled shame. Unlatching hope: a conservative, turned do-gooder; the hustler, aiding those whom life forgot. Bob Dole once told Richard Nixon that he was too complicated to be understood. “Aha! Nixon enthused. “Now you’re getting somewhere.”
Complexity was also true of Joe Garagiola. His final stint was 18 years of airing the Diamondbacks. His final gate was knowledge, unlatching it for every viewer.
Raised on J Street on the west side of Pensacola, the Toronto Blue Jays’ first Voice formed a 1950s stickball league, used broom handles for bats, and played and called baseball. Pre-air conditioned Florida opened doors and windows. ”Like it or not,” said Tom Cheek, then a teenager, “the whole neighborhood heard me.”
His family bought its first TV the year that a neighbor got a tape recorder. The conflux let him describe, say, Auburn-Alabama. Tom’s heroes were Curt Gowdy, Mel Allen, and Dizzy Dean. No one asked what he wanted to do. Cheek wanted to broadcast baseball.
On October 23, 1993, he called a drive that everyone in the game heard. “Here’s the pitch. A swing – and a belt! Left field! Way back! Blue Jays win it! [v. Philadelphia] The Blue Jays are World Series champions as Joe Carter hits a three-run home run in the ninth inning and the Blue Jays have repeated as World Series champs! Touch ‘em all, Joe! You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!” Tom never called a bigger prize.
This summer Cheek will enter a shrine that every baseball man aspires to: the Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the 37th recipient of the Ford C. Frick award for broadcast excellence. Dead of cancer in 2005, Tom, then 66, will be recognized by a new generation, as he was outlasting eight Canadian prime ministers and six U.S. presidents – his life a long and winding road.
It really began in 1957, when the U.S. Air Force sent Cheek, 18, to San Antonio, Cheyenne, rural New York, and Africa. More than 10,000 died in an earthquake on Morocco’s resort of Agadar. To stop rats and flies, the military dropped corrosive lime and bulldozed rubble. Tom knew people buried alive. Discharged, a shaken motormouth missed his neighborhood. The bigs never looked so good.
In Burlington, Vermont, Cheek aired college football and “a few Expo games [1974-76].” Once, he visited Toronto, then renovating Exhibition Stadium. “I’m standing on Lakeshore Boulevard, and I tell [wife] Shirley,‘I’ve put in time. I’m going to be part of a team there some day.’”
In 1891, Toronto’s first team had left organized baseball. Six years later the Eastern League moved to nearby Hanlon’s Point. The city’s minors died in 1967. In 1977, the A.K. finally granted an expansion club. A baseball bonanza, eh? — except that Exhibition had a football core.
Foul lines, bases, dirt squares, and plastic grass garbed the Canadian Football Leaie Argonauts’ home. “Almost none of the seats,” said skipper Roy Hartsfield, “even faced the plate.” A contest chose the Blue Jays’ name. Tom, 37, won CKFH Radio’s audition. Like Toronto, he resolved to make up for lost time.
Cheeky From the Start
Opening Day 1977: Jays 9, Chicago 5, before 44,649. Dinging twice, Doug Ault is seldom heard from again. The wind chill hits 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow off the lake covers the entire field. The hockey Maple Leafs’ Zamboni repeatedly clears the turf. Any Canadian could share: CBS TV linked Halifax and Keitchikan.
Bust soon linked each year. Cheek had a saying: “Win a little, die a lot.” Hartsfield’s went: “If they heat us today, we’ll strap ‘em on again tomorrow.” Tom did, beating hoarseness, laryngitis, and even pneumonia. “At four in the morning I wondered if I’d see the light of day.” Would the Jays? – last through 1981.
One night a young man dropped a foul. The next pitch was popped there, too. Lunging, his girlfriend caught the ball. “Can you believe it?” Cheek boomed. “He boots it and she catches it.” Cooed sidekick Early Wynn: “She probably knows all about his hands.”
Each year Wynn drove a motorcoach from Florida. Looking out the window in Coon Hollow, Tennessee, he saw his front wheel rolling beside the road.
“Your life must have flashed before your eyes,” Cheek said. “What was going through your mind?”
“Tom, I recalled the lines of that sonr,” popular in the 1970s. “’You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel.’”
“Touch ‘Em All, Joe”
The something loose was a screw in pitcher Mark Lemongello. Once he threw an ashtray at team president Peter Bavasi. Hartsfield told him to walk a batter intentionally. The righty threw a pitch 15 feet to the right of catcher Rick Cerone. A loyalist blessed any wheels staying on. Tom’s included ABC TV’s 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympics.
In 1985, Toronto lost a 3-1 game L.C.S. lead. The ‘87ers blew a last-week division: win a little, die a lot. Exhibition Stadium closed May 28, 1989. As usual, the seventh-inning stretch tooted a homey number. “Okay-okay, Blue Jays-Blue Jays. Let’s play – let’s play BALL!” Cheek would call it two miles and a roof away.
The first stadium with a retractable roof convened that June. Eight Boeing 747s could fit in SkyDome, later renamed Rogers Centre. The first homestand, it began to rain. The roof jammed without closing. Another night, millions of gnats forced umpire Don Denkinger to put the top down. The bugs were not a monkey wrench: Ontario loved its new-age digs.
Toronto won the East. In 1991, it hit a bigs-first four million attendance. Joe Carter batted in the ninth inning, October 2. “A fly ball will win it!” Tom said. “The winning run ninety feet away. The pitch – a swing – and a base hit! And the Blue Jays are the champs of the American League East!” Some edge: Like 1989, they lost each L.C.S. north-of-the-border game.
By contrast, Dave Winfield, 40, became the oldest 100-RBI man in 1992. On October 14, beating Oakland, 9-2, Toronto took its first flag. The Series bound an ump-blown triple play, first non-U.S. team, and Winfield’s Game Six 11th-inning up. “A base hit down the line!” said partner Jerry Howarth. “White scores! … Alomar scores on Dave Winfield’s two-base hit!” Blue Jays, 4-3: Win a little, win it all.
“Everywhere people were thanking you,” said Cheek, more thankful in 1993. Again Toronto made the Classic. Game Four welded Nutcase and roller derby: record score (Jays 15, Phillies 14), runs (29), and time (4:14). In Game Six, hits splattered around the Dome. The Jays trailed, 6-5, two on, one out, in the ninth.
Mitch Williams threw would-be strike three. Seconds later Cheek was baying, “Touch ‘em all, Joe!” Carter leapt around the bases. Tom celebrated by becoming a Canadian citizen, remaining so till his death.
A Jays’ Wing – and Tom’s Prayer
“It won’t last,” said Leafs had Cliff Fletcher, correctly. Hockey’s hub hugging baseball was a gas while it did. North America’s largest McDonald’s moored the on-site 348-room SkyDome Hotel. One couple kept blinds open, making love. “Forget my play-by-play.” Said Cheek. “The crowd liked theirs.” Security applied the kibosh, like the bigs’ 1994 work stoppage.
“We didn’t have baseball roots, so it hurt more than, say, Boston,” said Boston’s Cambridge School of Broadcasting alumnus. The 1993 Blue Jays had drawn a still-A.L.-high 4,057,947. Now tickets lingered for a game. Even the optimist worried, despite winning 2001’s Jack Graney Award and becoming Canada’s baseball Dr. Spread the Game. In Toronto, Cheek said, “The only thing better than a winning baseball team is a losing hockey team.” Anyone who loved baseball wanted to see others love it, too.
In 2004 life, unlike love, changed. On June 3, Cheek’s father died. Tom missed two games, ending his record 4,306-consecutive-game streak. Nine days later, like a Hardy plot, Cheek fils braved brain tumor surgery. He did several games at home, hoping for recovery. The Jays named him to their Level of Excellence – only the third non-player. Voice cracking, Cheek hailed people he had never met. “Thank you [for cards and calls] and God bless you.” As a child, Tom deemed baseball “my main course.” Many now preceded theirs with a prayer.
That offseason cancer returned, Cheek brooking further treatment. On Opening Day 2005, Tom aired an inning on the wireless at Tampa Bay, near their home in Florida. He died October 9, the first of eight straight years he was a top 10 finalist for the Frick Award. Cheek often said, “Give me music with a message. Sinatra, Diamond, a little Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson].” Perhaps the message of his life is that childhood dreams can happen if you work and persevere enough.
New York City has always been a rabid baseball town: Mel Allen, Red Barber, and Lindsey Nelson; Willie, Mickey, and the Duke; Murderers Row, the Boys of Summer, the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff, the Miracle Mets. Thus, jaws dropped and eyebrows raised when, among other follies, the following this month occurred:
Yawning acres of seats at Yankee Stadium marred the final of the Division Series v. Baltimore and last two games of the ALCS. According to The Wall Street Journal, the average playoff attendance was the Yankees’ lowest postseason since 1932.The Bombers’ regular-season attendance was their lowest since 2003 – down, as the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington adds, more than 2,700 per game since 2010.
How could this happen in baseball’s once-capital? The shorthand answer is the 2009 Bombers leaving one Yankee Stadium for another. A moral says that you can’t buy tradition. The Yankees tried insipidly to transfer tradition, not grasping what they had. The Big Apple’s major baseball park has become a big lemon instead.
Since 1923, the original House That Ruth Built had meant a drop-dead look of monuments and sloping shadows and steep-ridged seats. Until 1974-1975’s generic makeover, The Big Ballpark in the Bronx’s numbers wrote a feel-good shrine: left field, 301 feet: left-center, 457; center, 461; right-center, 407; right field, 296. Acreage and triple tiers built the stage. Winning – 27 pennants there through 1964 – filled it. If The Stadium wasn’t broke, why fix it? Pricey ticket, concession, and luxury suite greed.
Film’s Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko says, “Greed is good.” It can also be blind. The 57,000-seat Stadium’s last four years drew4 million, including 2007’s record 4.2 million and 2008’s selling out after June. A year later the new 52,325-seat The House That Greed Built opened to bile reserved for Sarah Palin – except that at least she grasped the middle class.
The Yankees $51.55 average ticket price trails only the Red Sox $53.38. Prices for the new venue include $525 to $2,625 home plate and dugout to dugout boxes, making the Sox seem like Tobacco Road. (Fenway Park’s intimacy continues to help it daily sell out.) Associated Press once counted only 37 of 146 premium seats filled: averaging, says the Journal, $305.11. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig “broke down all the prices of all the seats, and they are affordable.” That is true, if you’re Warren Buffett.
To a viewer, TV’s center-field shot shows first-row boxes behind the plate emptier than a politician. A top-that insult was Major League Soccer’s head twitting the Yankees’ gate: Charles Atlas, decked by the 98-pound weakling. The Old Stadium had first- and third-base camera wells: “a must for a new park,” said the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick. The New junked them for vacant stands. Like Fenway, The Old Stadium’s exquisite low home-plate camera shot was unobscured by an angled backstop. The New’s vertical wire screen blocks half the infield, like peering through prison bars at Sing Sing. Yogi Berra said he observed a lot by watching. We rarely watch what we cannot see.
Old Stadium decks perched one atop another, din ricocheting off the tiers: literally, the ballpark shook. New right field’s upper tier seems as remote as Jersey City, the design helping sound leave between the grandstand and bleachers – says Tigers outfielder Quinton Berry, “like playing at a library.” The New York Times quoted a patron: “You guys call yourselves Yankee fans? Make some noise!” Adds ESPN’s Buster Olney: “What a difference in atmosphere from even a few years ago.”
Renovation could have restored The Stadium to, say, 1964. “No ballpark could hold a Louisville Slugger to that place,” Scott Pitoniak wrote in Memories of Yankee Stadium. Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione recalls how “Anything could happen. A 300-foot homer, a 450-foot out. They could have made the Stadium like it was for Mick.” Instead, baseball’s flagship team paved paradise for those in the counting house. Lemon in, lemon out.
Benjamin Disraeli said: “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.” In desperation, the Yankees this month even moved denizens from the upper to lower deck to preclude empty-seat playoff TV ridicule. (It didn’t work.) You couldn’t try that, say, at post-season Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, St. Louis, or San Francisco, since every seat was filled.
Few liken the $1.5 billion New Stadium to PNC Park, A&T Park, Camden Yards, or renovated Fenway Park. At the least, the Yankees should cut ticket prices and build an angled wire backstop below the TV booth so that a viewer – imagine – can see the game. Edward Bennett Williams once compared his Redskins and Orioles, asking “What’s dumber than the dumbest football owner? The smartest baseball owner.” Williams died in 1988. At the park or on television, Yankee Stadium often seems dead today.
To some, progress means bulldozing the past. “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers,” rued actor James Earl Jones, “erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.” Steamrolled: battlefields, historic shrines, even homes by eminent domain.
“Only baseball has marked the time,” said Jones, forgetting, say, Ebbets Field, Forbes Field, and the Polo Grounds — each pummeled by the wrecking ball: falling to, nor marking, time. A decade ago Boston’s Fenway Park, born in 1912, seemed sure to join them: too few suites and concession stands; too little parking – above all, too small.
If you’ll forgive an unpaid ad, my new book, Mercy! A Celebration of Fenway Park’s Centennial told Through Red Sox Radio and TV (Potomac Books, $27.50),tells how baseball’s oldest park was improbably preserved.
In the process, Boston won its first World Series in 86 years and set an ongoing major-league record 760-plus home game sellout streak. Even more, it remains the best spot to watch baseball on television, “There’s not a bad camera angle,” said the late NBC director Harry Coyle, especially the low home plate shot – a viewer’s picture window. Such jewels are hard to find.
Ironically, Fenway was saved by ex-Orioles owner Larry Lucchino, who built seminal Camden Yards, which began the “new old” ballpark craze – 21 in all — occurring since its 1992 debut. In 2001, Lucchino helped buy the Sox, former Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis telling him, “Anyone who wants to tear down Fenway Park should be criminally indicted.”
As 1975-79 and 1983-1991 Massachusets Governor, Dukakis had asked aides: “Is this true? Is Fenway beyond saving?”
“‘Baloney,’ they said. ‘Of course it can be rebuilt’” – ultimately, for 35 percent of a new Fenway’s estimated $850 million cost.
To Lucchino, Dukakis said, “I hope you’ll take a very serious look at saving Fenway.” To his surprise, the new Sox president did.
For one thing, Boston’s loony cost of land encouraged Lucchino to stay put. Ownership also heard Red Sox Nation: The Sox sans Fenway would not be the Sox. It forged more restrooms, high-tech boards, and sponsors. Diciest was scrapping the fabled Screen for Green Monster seats atop the 37-foot left-field Wall. Capacity swelled, helping Fenway become baseball’s ATM. “Renovation became a 10-year cycle,” Lucchino said. “Each year we had a new Christmas present to be unwrapped on Opening Day.”
Renovation will let the Sox stay an estimated 30 to 40 years. “That doesn’t mean the franchise’s next stewards will want to stay here,” said Lucchino, “but this will be an alternative.” Three years ago the rival Yankees chose another alternative, deserting the original Big Ballpark in the Bronx for a pedestrian, TV-unfriendly heir. You can’t buy tradition. The Yankees tried vainly to transfer it, not grasping what they had. A visit shows how Fenway is now baseball’s Lourdes, rebuilt pew by pew.
Taxis jam one-way streets. Charter buses deposit pilgrims from outposts of the Nation. Tykes with baseball gloves and Red Sox pants and caps take dad’s hand, enter through archways in a brick façade, and walk into a tunnel toward the field. Says USA Today: “That Fenway is standing at all, let alone bustling at its seams nightly with patrons … is an amazing story of history and business savvy” – tradition, above all.
The Monster, nearby Prudential Building, and Citgo sign remain real as any relative. Here Pedro Martinez hurled and Tony C. broke hearts and Ted Williams ruled. The message board still ties average, photo, and ads to pay the bills. The sound system blares Madonna, not Lawrence Welk, but the Wave still seems wayward. After a game the crowd scatters around and from the Hub. Ushers caress stragglers. Few want to leave.
Alexander Chase said, “Memory is the thing we forget with.” In the Fens, we recall. Shakespeare coined “a little touch of Harry in the night.” In person or especially on TV, every park could use a touch of Fenway Park.