Sam

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The lost art of fan mail

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2011 at 6:32 am

I was looking through my photos the other day and came across this picture of Willie Mays reading fan mail between games of a doubleheader sometime back in the mid-1960s. I think this picture says so much about how the game has changed. Writing fan-mail is a lost art for 10 and 11 year old kids nowadays. Indeed, the very term “fan mail” seems archaic when I use it here. I imagine that if a kid nowadays wants to send a message to a player they do so via Facebook or twitter, or one of the other bloated, solipsistic social media outlets. And you wonder if a player received a letter, would they even read it? Probably not. Players nowadays are far too wealthy and their time far too valuable to take the time to acknowledge individual messages from admiring fans. Can you imagine Alex Rodriguez on the trainers table at Yankee Stadium reading fan mail as Mays is here ? I certainly can’t.

But back in Willie Mays’ day players read letters and answered them. The expression on Mays’ face says it all: the game had humanitas back then.

Boy, how times have changed.

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The All-Star game

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2011 at 5:17 am

As baseball gets ready for the All-Star game, I have seen a few articles lately bemoaning the demise of the “mid-summer classic.” Last year, for example, the game had its lowest ratings ever after a steady decline over the years. In fact no one seems to get excited about the All-Star game anymore. I certainly don’t. I usually watch an inning or two at most. But that is out of sheer habit. After all, I have been watching the All-Star game since 1970.

The All-Star game used to be a game we looked forward to from the first day of the season. It was an exhibition game featuring the games greatest players and average players who were having great years. Willie Mays appeared in 24 all-star games. Billy Grabarkewitz, one. Exhibition notwithstanding the teams played hard to win and there was a noticeable absence of fraternizing between players during the game. There were no frivolous events like Home Run Derby with gold balls or a celebrity softball game. It was an exhibition baseball game pure and simple. But one of the highest quality.

Nowadays the All-Star game has a decidedly carnival like atmosphere, in part because of events like Home Run Derby. The game itself is played with nonchalance. Players from opposing sides intermingle good-naturedly and even exchange high-fives after good plays. But this is understandable when everyone on the field is privileged and a millionaire.

Yes, this may be why we have lost interest in the All-Star game and, some would argue, with baseball in general: because the All-Star game showcases the vast gap that now exists in America between elite athletes and the average citizen. Where we once could relate to a perennial All-Star like Stan Musial, who mowed his own lawn and left his number in the St. Louis telephone directory, we simply can no longer relate to players who are so far removed from ourselves.

So once again this year I will watch an inning at most. Or maybe not watch at all.

Carmen Fanzone: Renaissance Man

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2011 at 3:53 pm

In the early 1970s the Cubs had a utility infielder by the name of Carmen Fanzone. Fanzone bounced around the Red Sox farm system for several years before making the big league club in 1970 but he was traded to the Cubs prior to the 1971 season. Plagued by injuries Fanzone never realized the potential he showed as a young player coming out of Detroit in the early 1960s and he was out of baseball by 1974.

The interesting thing about Fanzone was his off-season avocation: professional trumpet player. Fanzone played in Jazz clubs in Chicago, gave lessons and at one point was even a member of the Tonight Show orchestra. On road trips with the Cubs, while most of the other players were out on the town, Fanzone would be holed up in his room playing scales on his trumpet.

When I think about Carmen Fanzone I think about some of the other uniquely well-rounded and talented ballplayers of his era including Curt Flood, an accomplished painter or Denny McClain, an organist who was good enough to record two albums with Capitol Records. Reggie Smith, an all-star outfielder with a host of teams, was proficient on several instruments including, the cello, violin, clarinet and saxophone. On the road with the Red Sox or Cardinals, Smith would often forgo the bars for the art galleries. Steve Stone was a state–wide championship bowler and ping-pong player. And the list goes on and on….

Well-rounded ballplayers like Fanzone just don’t exist anymore for the simple reason that society nowadays attaches value to and amply rewards rigid specialization. Athletes are not immune and it is rare now to hear of a professional baseball player who can do anything well but play baseball. We seldom learn interesting details about a player – simply because there are none to tell. We have only statistics.

It was a better game when Carmen Fanzone played.

Happy 4th of July

Why yesterday’s players were better

In Uncategorized on June 15, 2011 at 12:12 am

I don’t know how many times I have gotten into arguments with people who insist that professional baseball players nowadays are stronger, faster and overall better athletes than ballplayers of an earlier era. Even experienced broadcasters and analysts adhere to this belief. The facts however just don’t support this mis-guided point of view. A case in point: in the history of Tiger Stadium from 1912-1999 only four players hit the ball over the left-field roof: Frank Howard, Harmon Killebrew, Cecil Fielder and Mark McGwire. McGwire’s scandalous record speaks for itself. Although Cecil Fielder’s name has never been linked to steroids he did play in an era which was defined by steroid use and it would not, therefore, be unreasonable to suspect that he may also have used steroids at some point. Frank Howard and Harmon Killebrew, on the other hand, played when performance enhancing drugs were non-existent in American professional sports, and one could argue that they are the only two players who legitimately hit the ball out of Tiger Stadium in its 97 year history.

Similarly only three players have managed to hit the ball completely out of Dodger Stadium: Mike Piazza , Mark McGwire and Willie Stargell who in fact did it twice. Only Stargell’s and McGwire’s drives left the park on the fly. Piazza’s HR hit the roof in left field and bounced into the parking lot. Once again, McGwire’s record speaks for itself. Was Piazza’s home-run legitimate ? Probably not, for he also has long been suspected of using steroids. Willie Stargell on steroids ? Forget it.

In fact, if you google the older ballparks and the longest HRs in those parks, you will see that the longest HRs were hit by players going back one or two generations e.g. a Ted Williams HR at Fenway in 1946 that was measured at 502 ft – regarded as the longest ever HR at Fenway – or a Dave Kingman shot at Wrigley Field in 1976 which almost hit the scoreboard. In the history of Shea Stadium 1964-2007 only one player ever hit a ball into the third deck in LF. That was Tommie Agee in April of 1969. Not even Mark McGwire on steroids could accomplish that.

If today’s players are better athletes then why don’t they hit the ball as far as players in the “old” days ?

The answer: they can’t.

Baseball’s most exciting play: Play at the plate

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2011 at 5:15 pm

The headlines this week were about Buster Posey’s season-ending injury during the Giants–Marlins game the other night. Because of Posey’s increasing stature in the league – he is one of the NL’s upcoming stars – his is an injury that has generated much discussion. Many people are advocating that baseball change the rules to prevent violent collisions such as occurred Tuesday night. I have no doubt that Bud Selig will give in to these voices of change and at some point – maybe next season – there will be a rule change. And then one of baseball’s most exciting plays – the play at the plate – will be as non-existent as waxed Coke cups with cellophane lids.

In spite of its reputation as a non-contact sport, Baseball has always been a dangerous game. In the dead-ball era two players died after being beaned in the head by pitched balls and a player like Ty Cobb would routinely sharpen his spikes to intimidate the opposition when stealing a base. Although brushbuck pitches were a routine part of the game up until the 1980s batting helmets were not widely used until the 1960s and were not made mandatory until 1971. Yet even with the protection of a helmet there is probably nothing more fearful in sports than standing 60’ 6” away from a pitcher who is hurling a baseball 90 MPH at you – sometimes within inches of your head. In a sense, baseball is a lethal game on every play. But that is the beauty of baseball. It is a non-contact, finesse sport that requires a lot of guts.

Participant in baseball’s most famous home plate collision – during the 1970 All-Star game in Cincinnati – Ray Fosse does not think the rules should be changed to protect the catcher. Asked to comment in the wake of the Posey injury, Fosse said that the sometimes violent confrontation between catcher and base-runner cannot be avoided and that tradition should be respected – even though his own promising career may have been shortened by his collision with Rose. I could not agree more. The image of Rose racing down the third-base line and barreling into Fosse to score the winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning is perhaps the most enduring and exciting moment in All-Star game history.

So with the collision in San Francisco the other night. It is unfortunate that Posey was injured and will likely miss the remainder of the season. But it was exciting baseball.

Baseball at its best.

Interleague play: Frivolity ad nauseam

In Uncategorized on May 21, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Well, I see interleague play has begun again which means it is time for the Sports Purist annual invective against inter-league play.

Nowadays interleague play seems to be all about faux-historical World Series matchups. The most heralded interleague series this year is between the Cubs and Red Sox, the first visit by the Cubs to Fenway Park since the 1918 World Series. Is this series really worthy of all the national interest it has garnared ? The Cubs have been mired in medoicrity for over half a century and the Red Sox were equally bad until Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, with the aid of steroids, brought Bean Town two world championships in recent years. Moreover, when they market this series as the Cubs “first visit to Fenway since 1918 ” Major League Baseball implies that there is continuity in the game. Yet baseball in the dead-ball era and the sport nowadays have so little in common that they don’t easily invite comparison. Babe Ruth led the AL in home runs in 1918 with 11 and two pitchers tied for the most complete games, 30. Does baseball nowadays resemeble anything like this ? Is the 2011 Cubs’ franchise really the same franchise that played in the 1918 World Series ? The 1918 Cubs played at Comisky Park. Wrigley Field had not even been built yet.

As you would expect both the Red Sox and the Cubs took the field this weekend in throwback jerseys, the Cubs in an all gray road uniform and the Red Sox in an all white uniform with matching white cap – looking more like culinary staff at the Savoy Hotel complete with toques than a baseball team. A lot of teams are doing this now, wearing throw-back jerseys that date back half a century. You feel like you are watching a Buster Keaton movie, the aesthetic of an all white, nameless uniform completely lost upon the modern-day viewer. The effect is almost comical.

Interleague play with turn-of-the century throwback jerseys. Baseball circa 2011.

Frivolity ad nauseam.

Harmon Killebrew: Gentleman farmer

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2011 at 5:15 pm


One of the icons of my childhood, Harmon Killebrew, died yesterday. Along with Frank Robinson, Frank Howard, Mickey Mantle et. al Killebrew was one of the preeminent sluggers of the game in the 1960s and early 1970s. Year in year out his name was near the top of the list of American league HR leaders and only Babe Ruth had more consecutive 40 hr seasons than Killebrew (eight).

Growing up in the Bay Area I had limited opportunity to see Killebrew play. I probably went to a few A’s – Twins game as a kid but I don’t really remember. I was after all a Giants fan. However, several years after he retired, Killebrew became the color man on the A’s telecasts. Killebrew was a pleasure to listen to on the A’s broadcasts. He had a mellifluous voice without ever so much as a hint of anger or indignation –at a blown call or a mental mistake by a player on the field. As a player Killebrew shunned wrist bands and batting gloves when they became popular in the late 1960s and stepped into the batters box with the austerity of a monk. So as a broadcaster with the A’s did he refuse to clutter pauses with meaningless statistics or incessant chatter but simply offered his analysis of play when necessary.

After several years of broadcasting A’s games Killebrew retired to his farm in Oregon. Somehow the image of Killebrew as gentleman farmer seemed to fit. Harmon Killebrew was a minimalist, and this came across in everything he did, his tape measure home runs and 9 kids the exceptions.

When I read this morning of Killebrew’s death, the first thing that came to mind is how different the game is now. Nowadays a player of Killebrew’s stature is inevitably involved in contract disputes, free agency, the occasional paternity suit, or, as is more likely, steroid use.

Soft spoken sluggers like Harmon Killebrew belonged to another, better era.

Thanks for the wonderful memories Harmon. You will be missed.

What is Fantasy Baseball anyway ?

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2011 at 6:41 am

I have never understood fantasy baseball. In fact I really don’t even know what fantasy baseball is. I have so little interest in fantasy baseball that I have never even bothered to google it to find out what it is. People occasionally ask me if I play fantasy baseball but I quickly demur at the suggestion, lest they invite me to join a fantasy baseball league. My concept of fantasy baseball is that is a refuge for grown men who were never good at sports when they were kids and who, as a result, are somewhat insecure about their maleness.

When I was a kid the equivalent of fantasy baseball was Strat-O-Matic. But I never knew anyone who played Strat-O-Matic. None of the kids I hung out with showed any interest and I have only a vague recollection of what a Strat-O-Matic card looked like ( something like a Milbourne card if I recall) . If one somehow found its way into your collection, you just threw it out. Unless it was Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. And even then it didn’t warrant a rubber-band but just sat in the bottom of your shoe-box under your Topps cards. Needless to say, Strat-O-Matic was just for kids. Fantasy baseball, for some reason, has an especial lure for adults. I have no idea why.

People who play fantasy baseball seem to fall into two categories:

1.) The guy you sit next to at the ballpark who keeps score, listens to the game on a headset and wears a replica jersey. He doesn’t talk much during the game, shells a lot of peanuts while keeping score and usually brings a PBJ in wax paper from home. A beer ? Out of the question. He works at a printing company or a Copy Mat and derives great pleasure from discussing fantasy baseball with his co-workers or other initiates to this banal game. He never marries.

2.)The hyper-social male whose frenzied social networking masks a deeply seated insecurity among large groups. He is always schmoozing, patting people on the back, desperately trying to give people the impression that he “belongs.” He plays in a fantasy baseball league and wears this fact as a badge of honor. He is also known as a jerk.

Fantasy baseball: just another reason why baseball was better when I was a kid.

A statistical analysis of the 1968 Detroit Tigers amid the Detroit Metropolitan weather vector

In Uncategorized on May 15, 2011 at 5:18 am

Abstract: We analyzed localized Detroit weather patterns for each game on the 1968 home schedule of the Detroit Tigers. Using statistical models with an allowance for wind speed, precipitation and temperature we were able to determine a predictable association between batting averages of Tiger starters and prevailing weather conditions.

We had three data brackets as follows:

FW – (fair weather) less than 0.4 % sky cover; Wind speed: < 16 MPH
PC – (partly cloudy) more than 0.4% sky cover ; Wind speed < 16 MPH
OVC – (overcast) Wind Speed < 16 MPH

Left handed hitters in the Tigers lineup Jim Northrup, Dick McAuliffe and Norm Cash hit an average of .24 pts higher on overcast to partly cloudy days (.301) as opposed to clear days. (.277.) while right-handed hitters e.g. Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, Don Wert and Mickey Stanley were only 12 pts higher on overcast to partly cloudy days. Pitchers on average hit .6 pts higher on clear days. When the wind speed exceeded 16 MPH, right-handed hitters tended to be on average .18 pts higher while left-handed hitters showed no variance. We theorize that this was owing to a location in Tiger Stadium behind the first base concessions area where convective air currents ( CAC) – horizontal rapid air movement at low altitudes – have been measured. When emanating from the right side of the field, CAC favor a right-handed hitter.

More home runs were hit by the Tigers on partly cloudy days than on either OVC or FW days. The exception was Wednesday FW afternoon contests with a low dew point (lower than 40 º F ) at game time. There is a strong correlation between the body’s thermoregulatory abilities and bat grip – more evaporation of perspiration at a lower dew point = greater bat grip – and this would explain with some degree of certainty why we would see more home runs on FW/ dew point < 40 º F days. But we cannot speculate as to why there were more home runs on Wednesday day games – a total of 24 home runs were hit by Tiger batters on Wednesday day games – than on any other day. Further research is needed to answer this question.

Sherman L. Peabody PHD
Winston Collingworth PHD
Reddenbacher Institute for Sports and Gender, University of Tulane

Doubleheaders

In Uncategorized on April 28, 2011 at 5:41 am

For no particular reason I was thinking about doubleheaders tonight. Whereas each Major League team used to play a handful of doubleheaders each season, nowadays it is unusual if a team has even one doubleheader on its schedule. And now they are called “day-night doubleheaders” the first game played in the afternoon and the second game in the evening, three or four hours after the conclusion of the first game. Fans of course must buy tickets to two separate games, what is always the coda of the announcement when the “doubleheader” is announced with great ceremony on the radio broadcast. In other words, if you want to go to a doubleheader nowadays you have to buy two tickets, leave the ballpark after the first game, and re-enter the park several hours later. Is this a doubleheader or deceitful marketing ?

Doubleheaders were wonderful because, more than anything else, it meant that you got to watch a game for free. Buy one and get one free. What was more American that. One suspects that owners did not make any money by allowing fans to buy a $ 1.00 bleacher ticket and watch two games over the course of an afternoon. But back then it really didn’t matter. Doubleheaders belonged to an era when the line between baseball as a game and baseball as a business was not so clearly drawn. Doubleheaders were just another baseball tradition that showed up on the schedule year in year out. Fans profited. Owners lost. No one cared becuse it was just baseball.

Doubleheaders gave us some of the greatest single-day performances in baseball history e.g. Stan Musial’s 5 home runs in a DH on May 2, 1954 or Roberto Clemente’s 10 hits in a DH in 1970. If you loved baseball, you especially loved Sundays – because of doubleheaders.

Doubleheaders. Yet another marvelous baseball tradition that greed has banished into obscurity.