March 24th in baseball history-BIRD WAS GUESSING CURVE

2001 | TUCSON, ARIZONA – Many hitters thought Randy Johnson‘s fastballs were deadly. On this date in 2001 one of them truly was, and the dove it struck never knew what hit it.

During an exhibition game against the San Francisco Giants, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ pitcher wound up and threw a fastball to a Giants hitter at precisely the moment a dove flew in front of home plate. The ball hit the bird. The result was a cloud of feathers and an ex-bird

According to the Associated Press (AP), Diamondbacks catcher Rod Barajas said, “I’m sitting there waiting for it, and I’m expecting to catch the thing and all you see is an explosion.” The home plate umpire called it a “no pitch.”

Sportswriters and columnists had a field day with the unfortunate demise of the bird, which ended up in “fowl” territory. Johnson said he didn’t think it was all that funny.

When wildlife wasn’t getting in the way of Randy Johnson pitches he was pretty good, and as of this writing, still is. He’s won five Cy Young awards. Entering the 2009 season, has a record of 295 wins and 160 losses. He’s been on 10 all-star teams, and was a member of the 2001 World Series Champion Diamondbacks. And as far as we know, no more of his fastballs have collided with any birds.

Contributing sources:
The Associated Press (AP), Tucson, Arizona, March 25, 2001
More on Randy Johnson

March 23rd in baseball history-GEORGE, HOWIE & DAVE

1990 | BRONX, NEW YORK – A messy soap opera involving New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Dave Winfield, one of his players, hit the headlines again today with the arrest of Howard Spira. Spira, a small-time gambler and former sports radio station stringer, was arrested and charged with extortion. 

Spira was convicted a year later for trying to extort $110,000 from Steinbrenner. The mess ended up getting the Yankee owner banned from baseball when it was revealed that he had given Spira $40,000 to find out some dirt about Winfield. Steinbrenner insisted the money was to help “Howie” get back on his feet.

Steinbrenner and Winfield had been feuding for a number of reasons since Winfield signed a 10-year, $23 million contract with the Yankees that Steinbrenner didn’t feel he quite lived up to. Winfield was upset with Steinbrenner for, among other things, claiming he reneged on a promise to donate $300,000 to Winfield’s foundation. That’s where Howard Spira came in. Spira once worked as a publicist for the Foundation. Steinbrenner paid Spira to find out some stuff on Winfield that Steinbrenner could use against him.

Steinbrenner was reinstated as Yankees owner in 1993. Howard Spira served 26 months in a federal prison for extortion. What’s never been clear is why someone with the resources of George Steinbrenner would seek out someone like Howie Spira rather than, say, an ex-FBI agent.

Contributing sources:
ESPN.com
DeadSpin 

March 22nd in baseball history-TRAGIC OFF-DAY

1993 | CLERMONT, FLORIDA On the one off-day the Cleveland Indians had the entire 1993 spring training an afternoon of relaxation turned into tragedy. Pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed and Bobby Ojeda was seriously injured when the fishing boat they were in rammed into a pier on Little Lake Nellie in Clermont, Florida. The lake is about 25 miles north of their spring training site at Winter Haven, Florida.

The three Indians pitchers brought their families to the lake to enjoy the day off. Olin, Crews and Ojeda had been fishing and were returning to shore when the accident happened. Crews was piloting the boat. An autopsy showed Crews was legally drunk when the boat slammed into the pier. He was killed instantly. Olin was pronounced dead the next morning. Ojeda had serious head lacerations but survived and made a complete recovery.

Twenty-seven year old Steve Olin had come into his own as the Indians closer the previous season. He appeared 72 games and had 29 saves.

Thirty-one year old Tim Crews had just signed with Cleveland as a free agent after spending six seasons with the Dodgers. He had an off year in ’92 when his ERA ballooned to 5.19, but he was just two years removed from an ERA of 2.77 in 66 games.

Thirty-five year old Bob Ojeda was a 13-year veteran when the accident happened. He won 115 games in his career, and was a major part of the New York Mets World Championship season in 1986 going 18-5. He recovered enough to appear in 9 games in ’93. He signed with the Yankees in ’94 but was released after appearing in two games.

Contributing sources:
Tragedy still haunts 

March 21st in baseball history-THE BIRD MAN

1977 | LAKELAND, FLORIDA – When Detroit Tiger pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych twisted his knee shagging fly balls on this date in 1977 it seemed like a minor bump in the road for the 1976 rookie of the year. He was expected to miss his next start. Unfortunately, the injury was more serious than first thought. Fidrych had torn cartilage in his knee and would need surgery. He was never the same, and was out of baseball three years later.

But 1976 was magical.

Twenty-one year old Mark Fidrych wasn’t even expected to make the team out of spring training. He made his first start in May only because the scheduled starter had the flu. But Fidrych went on to win 19 games while losing 9. He led the league with a 2.34 ERA and completed 24 games, also the league leader. He won Rookie of the Year honors and was second in voting for the Cy Young award.

Fidrych created a national sensation not only because he pitched well, but also because of his personality and antics. He was “a little out of left field,” but seemed to really have fun playing the game.

Fidrych was called “The Bird” because he resembled Big Bird from the Sesame Street children’s TV show. When he pitched he’d talk to the baseball. He’d stoop down and carefully manicure the mound. He’d throw balls back to the umpire because he said they still had hits in them. Detroit drew huge crowds every time he pitched even though the team was never in the pennant race. Opposing teams tried to get the Tigers to change their pitching rotation so he’d pitch in their park.

Fidrych took it all in stride. The name of his autobiography was “No Big Deal.”

He returned to his native Massachusetts after baseball. Tragically, on April 13, 2009 Fidrych was found dead under the truck he was apparently working on. He was 54.

Contributing sources:
Mark Fidrych Baseball-Reference
The Associated Press, Lakeland, Florida, March 22, 1977
More Mark Fidrych
BaseballRace.com

March 20th in baseball history-MINOR UPS & DOWNS

1953 | WASHINGTON, D.C. – There was a time when Major League Baseball (MLB) teams were prevented from broadcasting games within 50 miles of a Minor-League Baseball (MiLB) ball park. The thinking was the major-league broadcasts hurt minor league attendance.

That appeared to be the case in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but in 1949 the U-S Justice Department said the rule violated anti-trust laws. The broadcasts had to be allowed.

The 12th year in a row that minor league affiliated baseball drew over 41-million fans.

As U-S Senator Edwin Johnson put it, “Then the heavens caved in.” Senator Johnson’s reaction may have been a little melodramatic, but on this date in 1953 the Colorado democrat introduced a bill that would leave it up to each individual team whether to allow major league broadcasts in minor league towns. Johnson said the broadcasts, many now television, were destroying minor league baseball in small cities and towns, but is that still the case?

At its zenith in 1949, there were 59 minor leagues and 448 teams. Attendance nationwide was 39.6 million. When Senator Johnson introduced his bill in 1953 the number of leagues had dropped from 59 to 39 and many of them on shaky ground. Johnson’s bill did not pass, and minor league teams continued to shrink in number.

But broadcasting and other factors eventually breathed life into minor league baseball. According to Street & Smith’s SportsBusinessDaily, in 2016, total paid attendance of minor league teams affiliated with major league teams was **41.4 million. That’s down slightly from 2015, but the 9th largest attendance in MiLB history. And the 12th year in a row that minor league affiliated baseball drew over 41-million fans.

Contributing sources:
The Associated Press, Washington, D.C., March 21, 1953
Official site of Minor League Baseball  
MiLB teams

**These numbers do not count independent professional baseball leagues such as The Northern League and The Frontier League.

March 18th in baseball history-A CHANGE IN THE AIR


1953 | ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA – The Boston Braves got official permission from the other Major League Baseball (MLB) owners on this date in 1953 to relocate to Milwaukee. It was the first franchise move since 1903 when the Baltimore Orioles moved to New York City to eventually become the Yankees.

The Braves’ move opened the flood gates.

Expansion and relocation were in the air. As Braves owner Lou Pernini put it, “The country has changed in the last 75 years. You can’t deny Los Angeles and San Francisco are major league in every respect, and so are Montreal, Baltimore and some other cities.”

The next season the St. Louis Browns packed up and moved to Baltimore to become a reincarnation of the Orioles. By 1958 the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants had moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively. The Milwaukee Braves moved again in 1966 to Atanta, where they remain. Montreal and several other cities, such as Seattle, Anaheim and San Diego eventually got new teams. By 1972 there were 30 major league teams in two leagues, more than double the number the two leagues started with.
Pernini also thought back in 1953, “A third major league is the only answer for the future.” That has not come about. In fact, in 2001 there was discussion among the owners about contraction – eliminating teams. That has not occurred either.
Contributing sources:
The Associated Press, St. Petersburg, FL, March 19, 1953, by Jack Hand
MLB team histories

March 17th in baseball history-“MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL” IS BORN

1871 | NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK – “Major league baseball” didn’t just happen, it evolved in fits and starts. One of those starts took place on this date in 1871. Representatives of ten clubs; some professional, some amateur, some amateur only in name, met at Collier’s Café on Broadway in New York City to form The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players.

Up until this time, baseball had been considered an amateur sport, but the Cincinnati Red Stockings led by former cricket player Harry Wright were an exception. They showed people would pay to see good baseball.

According to Leonard Koppett, author of Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, the Red Stockings drew an estimated 200,000 fans playing about 60 games around the country in 1869. In 1870 the Red Stockings played a memorable extra inning game before 20,000 paying customers in New York. The commercial viability of professional baseball was no longer in question.

The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players only lasted 5 years – and is not considered a “major league” by MLB – but several of its teams became the foundation of the National League, established in 1876 and going strong to this day.

Contributing sources:
Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, by Leonard Koppett, 2004
National Association of Professional Base-Ball Players
The National League

 

March 16th in baseball history-GETTING BEAT AT YOUR OWN GAME

2006 | ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA – In a shocker, Mexico eliminated the United States from the first World Baseball Classic on this date in 2006. With the likes of Alex Rodriquez, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon and Vernon Wells on the U-S team Mexico beat the Americans 2-1 in Anaheim.

Clemens took the loss for the USA. The winning pitcher was Culiacan, Mexico native Oliver Perez, at the time a 5-year major league veteran, but certainly no Roger Clemens.

The United States’ mediocre record was 3 wins and 3 losses. The team had an impressive .337 team batting average and 3.13 ERA in the first round, but slipped in both categories in round two – .242 batting average and 4.32 ERA.

Japan ended up beating Cuba to win the Classic in 2006.

Contributing sources:
The New York Times, March 17, 2006, Anaheim, CA
The New York Times, March 15, 2006, Anaheim, CA
WBC Statistics

March 15th in baseball history-FRENCH LICK?

1945 | FRENCH LICK, INDIANA • More spring training camps opened on this date to prepare for the 1945 season, but not in the hot-spots you’d expect. The country was still in the midst of World War II. Travel restrictions forced teams to train close to home. Indiana turned out to be a popular place.

Here where spring training was for a number of teams:
The New York Yankees – Atlantic City, New Jersey
The Cleveland Indians – LaFayette, Indiana
The Chicago White Sox – Terre Haute, Indiana
The Boston Red Sox – Pleasantville, New Jersey
The Philadelphia Athletics – Frederick, Maryland
The Detroit Tigers in – Evansville, Indiana
The St. Louis Cardinals – Cairo, Illinois
The Chicago Cubs – French Lick, Indiana
The Pittsburgh Pirates – Muncie, Indiana

… Just to name a few.

Major League Baseball also drastically limited exhibition games at the urging of The United States Office of Defense Transportation. Teams could only play games with other teams if they were on a direct route to their home city. Side trips were not allowed. Some teams played very few exhibition games against other teams that spring.

Contributing sources:
Spring Training Notes, Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1945
United Press, March 16, 1945
The Baseball Guru

 

March 14th in baseball history-GIONFRIDDO REMEMBERED

2003 | SOLVANG, CALIFORNIAAl Gionfriddo died on this date in 2003. He was 81. Gionfriddo’s major league career only lasted 4 years, a total of 228 games, but the 5-foot 6-inch, 165 lb outfielder ended his short career by taking the spotlight from a Hall of Famer, and it guaranteed the Dysart, Pennsylvania native a place in baseball history.

It was the sixth game of the 1947 World Series at Yankee Stadium. More than 74,000 fans were on hand, most hoping the Yankees would close out the Series. They had a 3 games to 2 lead. It was the bottom of the 6th inning. The Brooklyn Dodgers had grabbed an 8-5 lead in the top of the 6th. There were two out, but the Yankees had two men on. Joe DiMaggio was up. He could tie the game.

DiMaggio hit the first pitch from Dodger reliever Joe Hatten. It looked like it might be a new ballgame. Gionfriddo, who’d been put in left field as a defensive replacement that inning, raced toward the left field corner. He was running out of room, and surrounded by Yankee fans. His hat flew off. At the last moment he reached out and grabbed DiMaggio’s shot – just feet before the 415 mark. The inning was over. The Yankees didn’t score. DiMaggio kicked the dirt. One of the rare times in his entire career he showed any emotion on the field.

The Dodgers went on to win that game 8-6, but the Yankees closed out the series in the next day. Al Gionfriddo didn’t get in the lineup. He would not play another game. After the 1947 season he retired, feeling pretty good about himself.

Contributing sources:
MLB box scores etc.,
RetroSheet