A Tale of Two Stars: Musial and Griffey

Something went wrong with the last post, but here is the correct blog.

Because so many readers of my blogs are from Donora, Pennsylvania, I thought today’s content would be exclusively on two of the most stellar athletes to come from that town.

When I wrote Fathers, Sons, and Baseball as well as the book Baseball Dads, I wanted to be sure to include stories about Stan the Man Musial and my Donora High classmate Ken Griffey Sr. (and, yes, I included some material on Junior). In fact, I ALWAYS write about my hometown in magazine articles and books every chance I get–even in the book America’s Football Factory (where I discussed men such as Deacon Dan Towler).

Here are some samples. First, on Musial from Stan the Man: The Life and Times of Stan Musial. For now, forget (if you can) all of his remarkable stats and accomplishments. This is a man who remains among the top 10 or so players of all-time. However, as I interviewed tons of people who knew Musial, he was always remembered for his gentle nature, his warmth, his deep and sincere concern for his fans, his genial, fun-loving ways, and good humor. In short, he was a helluva’ man on and off the field, unlike too many surly stars of recent years such as the belligerent Barry Bonds.

George F. Will visited Donora from time to time as his grandfather was a Lutheran minister in town for some time toward the end of his life.  Will called Musial “an extraordinarily affable man.  It was like he was Everyman, except, and this is what you have to keep in mind, no one gets to be that good in athletics by being a normal man.  That is, beneath that preternatural affability, and beneath that genuine affection for the fans, there was a . . . flame burning.”

Most people agree with former Cardinal Marty Marion who stated, “Stan was just a good ol’ country boy . . . No, if you didn’t like Stan, you didn’t like anybody.”

Once, when asked why he was so congenial, why a smile perpetually adorned his face, Musial replied, “Well, if you were me, wouldn’t you be smiling?” He truly had a lot of smile about.

Chuck Tanner related the story of the aftermath of his first big league hit.  Upon reaching first base, Tanner heard the friendly Musial say, “Nice hitting.  You know, I live near you.”  Tanner was astonished, “Can you imagine that?  He said he lives near me, not that I live near him.”

Dodgers’ pitcher Carl Erskine said, “I knew him as an opponent and respected him a great deal, but I knew him off the field and learned that he was a real gentleman and a real class act.  So what I’d heard about him was true, that he was a first-class person.”

Finally, from Ron Necciai, another Mon Valley native who played pro ball (once striking out 27 men in a minor league contest): “I pitched against the Cardinals. Stan sent their clubhouse man over to the Pirate clubhouse to get me and bring me over there to talk to him.  He knew I was from Gallatin.  I sat there for at least 20 minutes.  He was very encouraging. He was very complimentary.  Here I was, Mister Absolutely Nobody in the National League and he’s the greatest name in the National League and he sends for me.  He didn’t have to do that.”

Switching to Griffey Sr., here are some excerpts from the Fathers, Sons, and Baseball book mentioned earlier. Donora’s Ulice Payne, who played on Marquette’s 1977 NCAA basketball championship team and who was the president of the Milwaukee Brewers, met with Musial and said, “He was very proud of the fact that Ken Griffey, Sr. had become a major league player.  He would see Senior, who was coaching in the Reds’ organization then, from time to time.  To have guys from Donora do well in major league baseball was important to him.”

And Griffey, of course, did extremely well in the majors (.296 lifetime batting average), but, again, forget the stats and feats. There’s much more to Senior. Among other things, he imparted words of wisdom to family and fellow big leaguers. Griffey, Jr. told me, “My father always said to us [children], ‘Don’t be anybody else.  Just be yourself.’”  Because of that, he said, he never even really had a baseball hero, but his dad was his favorite. Slugger Ellis Burks revealed that when Senior was his batting instructor, he taught him more than any other coach ever.

Here’s a great Griffey story that dates back to 1989.  It’s a story that portrays their love that was displayed even while hiding under the guise of some macho teasing.  Back then, Senior was still with the Reds and his son was a rookie with Seattle.  Someone asked Senior if he thought someday the two might play together on the same team.  With a broad, bright smile, he replied, “No way!  He’d drive me nuts.” Of course, this was one time Senior’s predictive skills were way off as the two would go on to make history as father-son teammates!

I’ve mentioned this before, but after I wrote the book which is out now on Amazon entitled 1960: When the Pittsburgh Pirates Had Them All the Way, I was able to get Vernon Law to write some words of endorsement for the back cover, but I wanted at least one more big name to help out. Not at all surprisingly, Kenny came through.

Finally from the book Baseball Dads, something Donora people already knew about Kenny. Alex Grammas coached under Sparky Anderson at Cincinnati during the Big Red Machine Days. He summed up Senior by saying, “He could run like a deer. He was as fast as you get. He’s a good guy, a real good person.”

Final trivia note: the combined total of home runs hit by Donora’s Big Three of The Man, The Kid, and Senior stands at 1,257 and collectively they banged out 8,554 hits. I don’t think any other small town can boast of such lofty totals!

MLB Items July 2020

While I miss baseball and glad it’s soon to be back, this season is a farce. Sixty games instead of 162? And they’re going to call the team that wins it all the WORLD CHAMPS?Obviously, the fewer the games played (and with so many teams allowed to play in the postseason), the chances of the very best team winning the title are greatly reduced. Plus, all teams are not competing on a level field–some clubs, due to players choosing to sit this one out, are at a disadvantage already. And, sure, injuries are part of the game, but some teams are bound to be just plain lucky and experience little loss of key players due to the virus. The beauty of baseball is that over a long haul, the better teams rise to the top. That’s why I liked it better when only the VERY best from the N.L. and the A.L. got to advance, but those days are gone.

I hate the concept of wild card teams, but realize that money talks. Still, I can’t help being very old school on some baseball matters. That’s why I was so upset when a commissioner (Bud Selig) who brought in so many changes to the game which went against purist values still insisted he was a traditionalist. My argument was this: you can’t have it both ways–you can be a traditionalist and keep the game basically the way it’s been for decades, OR you can bring in changes, but then realize that you can no longer claim to be a traditionalist.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying baseball should never change– that players should still wear heavy wool or flannel uniforms and toss their gloves onto the field at the end of each half inning. Some change is certainly good and inevitable, but DRASTIC change such as bringing in more and more wild card teams dilutes the value of the World Series all too often.

Quiz (answer at end of this blog): Which of the following men has the a) best and the b) worst lifetime winning percentage (each one managed 25+ seasons and Connie Mack managed for 53 total seasons):  Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Casey Stengel, and Mack.

I read a book recently that had some nice things to say about the Griffeys. It also related a story about how Junior used to always get his dad Old Spice for Father’s Day. Senior didn’t have the heart to tell his son he didn’t even like that cologne. And, if I recall what I read, one day when Junior was grown up, he came across a stash of a whole lot of unused bottles of Old Spice. When Junior became a father himself, Senior teased him by instructing Junior’s kids to make sure to buy their dad Old Spice each Father’s Day!

One thing about the book that bothered me, though, was the author’s stating that Senior could have a quick temper. Now, unless he was referring to getting upset with Junior when he was young and messed up (or some such thing), I think the writer got this all wrong. From 7th grade through our senior year, I (and a few friends I asked about this issue) never recall him losing his temper. He was easy going, pleasant, very mild mannered. I never saw him lose his temper on an athletic field or in the hallways of Donora High School. Watching him play in the majors in person and on TV, I never saw him even squawk at a bad call, and I sure can’t recall him getting ejected from a game–maybe he did, but, again, my impression of him to this day–and I’ve spoken with him quite a few times after our high school days (for example, a chapter of my book Fathers, Sons, and Baseball is devoted to the Griffey family)–is that he is very, very even tempered. He often returns to his hometown and is very generous with his time, never forgetting his old friends and classmates. By the way, the same was true of mild-mannered Stan Musial, so maybe it’s something in the Donora air or water, as one writer once joked.

Quiz Answers: The best WL% of the managers listed belongs to Bobby Cox at .556. Torre and La Russa follow with .538 and .536 respectively. Stengel, who managed some poor teams before he was hired by the Yankees, then managed the hapless Mets, had a WL% of just a bit over .500 at .508. However, the lowest WL% here is Mack’s .486. He had five seasons in which he won 100+ games and he won nine pennants and five W. Series titles, but he also suffered through TEN seasons with 100+ defeats. He had great job security, though, as he was one of the owners of the Philadelphia Athletics.

One Man, One Game, 27 Strikeouts

Ron Necciai, who went to high school in the same town, Monongahela, Pa., as standout NFL kicker Fred Cox and Hall of Fame legend Joe Montana, struck out more men in a single professional game than any pitcher ever. Pitching for Class D Bristol in the minor leagues on May 13, 1952, he went the distance, firing a no-hitter and accounting for 27 outs on strikeouts (with 17 batters going down swinging). However, in this oddity, there were more than 27 outs recorded–for example, after one strikeout, the batter reached first safely when the catcher couldn’t come up with the ball cleanly. Only 1,183 fans were in attendance.

In his two starts before his historic 27 K outing, Necciai had set (briefly) a club record with 20 whiffs then followed that up with 19 more. Still on a roll, in his first start after the 27 strikeout performance, 24 more batters went down on strikes for an incredible 51 strikeouts over two games, or 22 1/2 K’s per game. This would be his final start at Bristol and it resulted in his third shutout over his last four starts.

Not only that, but between the 19 and the 27 strikeout showings (which, by the way, was just his 21st game as a pro), he relieved once, retiring 11 of the 12 men he faced via whiffs. He accomplished all this at the age of 19! His record, seven K’s more than the major league record for a nine inning game, still stands even though decades have since passed.

Actually, his very first game after the 27 K contest featured him coming out of the bullpen–this time he fanned all eight men he faced. He truly was a strikeout machine.

MISC.  In the record setting outing, Necciai allowed one walk, hit a batter, and saw one opponent reach via an error…The 6′ 5″, 185 pound Necciai felt sick when he took to the mound that historic night, but clearly overcame that issue…He posted an ERA of 0.42 and he recorded 128 outs with an incredible 109 coming via strikeouts at Bristol…Arguably, only control problems and health issues kept him from being a big league star.

Pirates G.M. Branch Rickey heaped praise on Necciai. One quick quote–  “The greatest all around pitcher I ever saw never was a major league regular.” Necciai once reflected, “There are has-beens and never-wases. I’m a might-have-been. I lived a lifetime in one night.” For more on what Rickey said, including his evaluation of Necciai’s blazing fastball, and more on Necciai in general, go to:  https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ron-necciai/

The sources for the above paragraph were a story by Paul Jayes, “A Moment of Glory He’ll Never Forget,” from the April 19, 1983, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and SABR, an excellent organization and resource for avid baseball fans.

Despite Necciai’s terrific 27 strikeout achievement, one he is reminded of by fans and friends almost daily, and one he says he does not tire of discussing, he has remained modest. In an interview I conducted with him about four years ago, he joked that at the major league level he had nothing to do with the reporters. “I was too lowly—they wouldn’t speak to a scrub-beanie like me when there were so many other guys in that league who were great.” Maybe so, but great is a fitting word to describe what Necciai accomplished with his untouchable all-time record.

WAR, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? I wonder how many readers of this blog put either a) a lot  b) some  c) very little OR  d) no stock in the WAR statistic? If you locate my blog from March 7, 2020, you might be tempted to, based on one glaring instance, place no credence in the stat. Briefly, Jim Leyland pointed out that an obscure player, Darwin Barney, had a higher WAR than Miguel Cabrera the year the Tiger slugger won the Triple Crown!