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

 

March 13th in baseball history-THOMSON OUT, AARON IN

1954 | ST. PETERSBERG, FLORIDA – A nasty break for a veteran opened the door for a future superstar on this date in 1954. It was an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson was trying to beat a throw to second base. The former New York Giant , who hit “the shot heard round the world,” in October of ’51, slid awkwardly and broke his ankle in three places.

Thomson would be out of the lineup until July. Put into the lineup was a skinny, 20-year old kid from Mobile, Alabama by the name of Henry Louis Aaron . He would be a regular in the Braves outfield for the next 21 years (He played 2 more years for the Milwaukee Brewers).

With Thomson’s injury many thought the Braves were out of the 1954 pennant race. Sportswriter Henry McCormick wrote, “With him [Thomson] may go the Braves’ hopes of staying in the thick of the pennant fight.” But the Braves stayed in the ‘54 race almost until the end. They were only four games out on September 15th, finishing 8 games out in third place, 89-65. Aaron played 122 games, hit .280 with 13 home runs and 69 RBI.

Hammerin Hank would become and remain the home run king (755) until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007. Aaron remains (as of this date) the all-time RBI leader (2,297). He was voted to 25 all-star games (they used to play two each season).

Contributing sources:
Bobby Thomson
Wisconsin State Journal, March 14, 1954, by Henry McCormick,
1954 NL pennant race

March 12 in baseball history-‘I DIDN’T KNOW THAT’

1903 | NEW YORK, NEW YORK – The New York Yankees are synonymous with Major League Baseball, especially the American League, but did you know they were not one of the original American League teams (actually they were, but why let the facts stand in the way of a good story?). Let me explain:

This much is true; there was no American League team in New York City when the AL was established in 1901. New York officially got a team on this date in 1903 when the owners approved a franchise move.

The franchise that would become the New York Yankees existed in Baltimore as the Orioles, not the Orioles currently taking up residence by Chesapeake Bay. Those Orioles trace their origins back to Milwaukee as the Brewers, no not the current Brewers, the Brewers of old that became the St. Louis Browns, which then moved to Baltimore and became the current Orioles.

Clear as pine tar?

This list of the charter American League franchises of the inaugural year of 1901 and what became of them may help:

  • Cleveland Blues – name changed to Bronchos in 1902, Naps in 1903 and finally Indians in 1914.
  • Milwaukee Brewers – Franchise moved to St. Louis in 1902 and became the Browns, moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles
  • Baltimore Orioles – moved to New York in 1903 and became the Highlanders. Name changed to Yankees in 1913.
  • Chicago White Stockings – officially became the White Sox in 1903
  • Boston Americans – became the Red Sox in 1906.
  • Philadelphia Athletics – moved to Kansas City in 1956. Moved to Oakland in 1968. Named reduced to A’s over time.
  • Washington Senators – moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul in 1961 and became the Minnesota Twins
  • Detroit Tigers – remain in Detroit as the Tigers

It appears the Detroit Tigers are the only charter franchise to neither move nor change its name in the slightest.

Contributing sources:
Baseball-Reference “Leagues”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_League
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Yankees
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Red_Sox#Team_renamed:_Red_Sox

March 11th in baseball history-TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE

1901 | HOT SPRINGS, ARKANSAS Arrogant, ornery and extremely successful Baltimore Orioles manager John McGraw attempted to pull one over on the rest of major league baseball on this date in 1901.

The problem wasn’t that Tokohoma was a Native American, the problem was, he was Black.

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer McGraw tried to sign Charlie Tokohoma, a Cherokee Indian, to a major league contract. McGraw first saw him working as a bellhop at a Hot Springs, Arkansas hotel during spring training. The problem wasn’t that Tokohoma was a Native American, the problem was, he was Black.

By this time a well entrenched “gentgralemen’s agreement” dictated that no team would sign Black players.

Several sources including James A. Riley, author of The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues says Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, the gentleman that he was, let the cat out of the bag. He recognized “Tokohoma” as Charlie Grant, second baseman for the Columbia Giants, a Chicago based Negro Leagues team.

For a few weeks, McGraw insisted that Tokohoma (Grant) was Native American, and had him in the lineup for a few spring training games, but Grant never saw regular season major league action.

Contributing sources:
The Cincinnati Enquirer, Hot Springs, Arkansas, March 11, 1901
Baseball Think Factory
Charlie Grant
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

March 10th in baseball history-MJ’s EXPERIMENT ENDS

1995 | CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – Michael Jordan’s foray into baseball ended on this date in 1995. He gave up his dream of becoming a major league baseball player after one minor league season. Jordan said a players’ strike, which was going on at the time, was blocking his development, “As a 32-year-old minor leaguer who lacks the benefit of valuable baseball experience over the past 15 years, I am no longer comfortable that there is a meaningful opportunity to continue my improvement.”

Thanks to the fact that Bulls’ owner Jerry Reinsdorf also owned the Chicago White Sox, when Jordan retired from basketball in 1994 he was given an opportunity to play for the Birmingham Barons, a White Sox Double-A farm team. He played one season:

Michael Jordan, Birmingham Barons – 1994
Games             127

Average          .202
Home Runs    3
RBI                    51
Stolen bases   30

While his stats were mediocre, 51 runs batted in and 30 stolen bases in 127 games against professional baseball players weren’t bad for a guy who hadn’t played baseball since he was a kid.

The basketball world now awaited the inevitable – Jordan’s return to the National Basketball Association where he led the Chicago Bulls to three championships before retiring in 1993 to try baseball. Michael Jordan returned to the NBA a month after he announced his retirement from baseball. He went on to lead the Bulls to three more world championships – 6 in all.

Contributing sources:
Chicago Tribune , March 11, 1995
More on Michael Jordan 

 

March 9th in baseball history-A Cleveland Indian, no really!

1897 | CLEVELAND, OHIO – A member of the Penobscot Indian tribe was signed by the National League Cleveland Spiders on this date in 1897, and some later claimed that’s where Cleveland’s American League franchise got its name.

Louis Sockalexis showed superb athletic ability and ferocious power playing baseball as a kid on the Penobscot reservation in Maine. Stories, some apocryphal, had him throwing a ball 600 feet over the Penobscot River and hitting a baseball just as far.

He went on to play ball at Holy Cross College and the University of Notre Dame before signing a major league contract. His career didn’t last long, before the turn the century he was no longer a major league baseball player – heavy drinking took its toll. Sockalexis died in 1913 at age 42.

A year after Sockalexis died Cleveland’s American League team was in need of a new name. They had been called the Naps, after star player Nap Lajoie, but he was traded in 1914. The name “Indians” was chosen.

As time went by the story that the team was named in honor of a real Indian, Louis Sockalexis, was allowed to surface. Ithaca College Professor Ellen Staurowsky, among others, looked into the issue and wrote in the Sociology of Sport Journal, in 1998 that the name “Indians” was more likely chosen for exploitative purposes. The real story of why “Indians” was chosen was that it was a take off on the Boston Braves which were a baseball sensation that year for going from last place on July 4th to winning the World Series.

Contributing sources:
“An Act of Honor or Exploitation?: The Cleveland Indians’ Use of the Louis Francis Sockalexis Story,” by Ellen Staurowsky, Sociology of Sport Journal, 1998
The American Indian Quarterly   

March 8 in baseball history-BASEBALL IN PARIS

1889 | PARIS, FRANCE – A dream came true for Albert Spalding on this date in 1889. A team of touring American baseball players he organized played an exhibition baseball game in Paris, France.

They finally settled on a park in the shadow of Eiffel’s rising tower,

There was some difficulty finding a suitable field. As Mark Lamster wrote in Spalding’s World Tour, “Paris was endowed with countless formal parks and squares, but a large, enclosed space that would allow Spalding to charge admission was proving harder to come by.” They finally settled on, and got permission to use, the Parc Aérostatique, a park in the shadow of Eiffel’s rising tower, which would be completed later that year.

Albert Spalding, the fledgling sporting goods magnate, was a good ballplayer in his own right, and quite the promoter. He decided to tour the world to promote baseball and, in turn, get more business for his sporting goods venture.

He set out west from Chicago after the 1888 season with a group of 20-odd ballplayers, including stars Adrian “Cap” Anson and John Montgomery Ward. They barnstormed across the western states playing in cities like Omaha, Denver and Salt Lake City, eventually reaching San Francisco and settling sail for Hawaii and Australia. Spalding’s tour played in Sydney, Cairo, Paris, London and numerous ports along the way.

The tour returned to the United States in April 1889, more than a year after leaving. And just in time for the 1889 National League baseball (the American League hadn’t been established yet.)

Contributing sources:
Spalding’s World Tour, by Mark Lamster, Public Affairs Publishing, 2006
Eiffel’s Tower

March 7th in baseball history-BRING BACK THE SPITTER?

1955 | CLEARWATER, FLORIDA Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick believed baseball had tipped in favor of the hitter, so on this date in 1955 he said if he had his way he would bring back the spitter.

While visiting the Philadelphia Phillies training camp Frick said, “Something positive should be done to help the pitchers.” In advocating the return of the spitball Frick added, “There’s nothing dangerous about it. It was nothing like the screwball they have to throw today, with a twisted elbow and tricky snapping of the wrists. No wonder today’s pitchers can’t go on as long.”

Runs and ERA’s were up in the 50’s compared to the 40’s (during World War II), but runs and ERA’s were down from the 1930’s. It’s true, throughout the years pitchers have been steadily pitching fewer innings and throwing fewer pitches, but for a variety of reasons, two of the most prominent being the proliferation of the home run, and the increased strategic prominence of the bullpen. Needless to say, the spitball did not come back – legally.

Contributing sources:
Associated Press, Clearwater, Florida, March 8, 1955
Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)   http://www.retrosheet.org/
Ford Frick of United Airlinehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Frick

March 6 in baseball history-TOO SHORT TO FAIL

2006 | PHOENIX, ARIZONA Kirby Puckett always tried to look on the bright side, which would have helped his family, friends and fans when he died on this date in 2006. The former Minnesota Twins outfielder and member of the Hall of Fame suffered a massive brain hemorrhage the previous day, and died after surgery to relieve the pressure.

Puckett probably would have said something like, “It was a short life (45 years), but a fulfilling one.” This is what Puckett (5′ 8″ 210 lbs) actually did say when he was forced to retire in 1996 after waking up one morning blind in one eye, “I was told I would never make it because I’m too short. Well, I’m still too short, but I’ve got 10 All-Star Games, two World Series championships, and I’m a very happy and contented guy.

It doesn’t matter what your height is, it’s what’s in your heart.”

Kirby Puckett was born Chicago and raised in the Robert Taylor Homes, at the time, the largest public housing project in the country and one of the most notorious; infested with drugs, gangs and crime. But Kirby make it out, attending Bradley University for a short time where he was an all-conference outfielder as a freshman. He transferred to Triton Junior College outside Chicago and was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 1982 draft, after his hometown Cubs passed him up. He finished his 12-year career with a lifetime .318 average, and despite a shortened career finished with over 2,000 hits and 1,000 RBI’s.

Puckett’s pristine, community-conscious image took hit after he was forced to retire. His former wife accused him of threatening her, and he was accused (and acquitted) of groping a woman in a Twin Cities restaurant. As time went on he gained a tremendous amount of weight, ballooning to well over 300 lbs, which likely lead to his hypertension and contributed to his death.

Contributing sources:
Kirby Puckett – Baseball-Almanac
1982 Amateur Draft – mlb.com

 

March 5th in baseball history-YANK PITCHERS SWAP WIVES

1973 | FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDANew York Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and  Mike Kekich dropped a bombshell on spring training camp on this date in 1973. They announced to the world that they had swapped wives… and kids and a poodle and a terrier. “It wasn’t a wife swap,” they said, “It’s a life swap.”

America had lived through the turbulent, permissive 1960’s, but this was a shock on so many levels, not the least of which was that the swap was announced to the world.

Just like in baseball; you win some, you lose some and some get rained out. Peterson and Kekich had been close friends for years, and said there was nothing sordid about the “affair.” They and their wives began discussing the switch the previous summer and put it in effect in October, 1972.

Fritz Peterson was still living with Susanne Kekich and her two daughters, aged 4 and 2, at the time of the press conference, but Mike Kekich and Marilyn Peterson‘s relationship had already gone south. Their living arrangement with her two sons, aged 5 and 2, had been on-again/off-again. It also became apparent that the two left-handers had had a falling out over one affair working and the other not. Murray Chass wrote in the next day’s New York Times that, “…it was obvious they had bitter feelings toward each other.”

Fritz Peterson and the former Susanne Kekich eventually married and had four children of their own. The last that was heard they were still married and living outside Chicago. Peterson attended a Yankees charity event in Fort Lauderdale in January of 2013. The Mike Kekich and Marilyn Peterson affair was over before it started. Kekich eventually remarried and at last report was living in New Mexico.

Both achieved some success on the mound, but neither saw their careers flourish after the swap. Kekich finished his 12-year major league career with a 39-51 record. Peterson had career record of 133-131 over an 11-year career. He also did better on the domestic front.

Contributing sources:
The New York Times, March 6, 1973, pages 51-52, by Murray Chass
The New York Times, September 9, 2009, Fritz Peterson writes a book
Washington Times, March 7, 2005
The Palm Beach Post, January 26, 2013   
Jackson, MS Clarion Ledger
, by Rick Cleveland, August 29, 2000