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Modest Stan the Man

Stan Musial was a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), a group many baseball fans and members of the media also belong to. I was a member and as such was provided with a phone directory of other members. The people who put the directory together sent out a form requesting our names, jobs, phone numbers, address, and areas of baseball expertise.

Musial’s entry listed his address unlike some famous people who did not submit, for example, their address or phone number. However, Musial always was a man of the people and a great supporter of his fans. For occupation, he modestly wrote “retired.”

I gave a little laugh when I came to what he wrote for his area of expertise. First, realize that almost everyone listed something like, “I specialize in old ballparks,” or “Negro Leagues,” or “New York Yankees.” What Musial wrote for his area of expertise was, “Hitting a baseball.” How true!

PERSONAL PLUG: The latest edition of my You’re the Basketball Ref book is out now and available at places like Barnes & Noble and on line there as well as at Amazon and other such sites. It features Lebron James on the cover and challenges readers to make the call on basketball plays, testing your knowledge of rules.

Omar’s Glove Magic

 Does Omar Vizquel belong in the Hall of Fame? He lasted long enough to amass 2,877 hits and his glove work at shortstop is on a level with that of Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith (one respected Plain Dealer writer said Omar was a bit better than Ozzie). Smith wound up with 2,460 hits. I won’t bog things down with a lot of stats, and I’m not too fond of arguments such as, “Well, if Bill Mazeroski, the best glove ever at second, is in, then Ozzie AND Omar belong.” I just throw this out there for consideration.

Those who watched Vizquel a lot, like most Clevelanders, say he belongs (just as so many Pirate fans feel Maz was a deserving Cooperstown inductee). Baseball historian Morris Eckhouse said he believes Vizquel “will get in. I think it may be a couple of years yet, but Omar was a [steady player]. He was flashy, but he showed up and did his job and he was as good as it gets at shortstop.”

Having lived in the Cleveland area now since 1974, I agree that Omar was remarkable. The way he took infield practice between innings of games was unique. He was so talented with his hands that he probably got bored taking practice grounders the normal way, so he would let a ground ball thrown to him by his first baseman between innings roll up and over his gloved hand (without closing the mitt), up over his left wrist, then, and only then, he would grab the ball and make his throw to first. Sometimes, in a variation of that technique, using his old soccer skills, he would kick the rolling baseball into the air where he then would take hold of it and make his throw.

He even devised a way to catch pop ups that were blooped toward the outfield on bright sunny days. Instead of backpedaling or turning and racing to the spot where he knew the path of the ball should take him, he purposely made a Willie Mays-like catch with his back to home plate. Keep in mind, he did that when he could easily have made the catch in the usual fashion, but he had something in mind—using his method, the bill of his cap screened his eyes from the sun. One writer said that he had never before or since seen any infielder do this. 

Stan the Man of Donora and Teddy Ballgame of San Diego

I spoke recently to former Pirate (and Cardinal) Johnny O’Brien whose twin, Ed, also played in the majors. He shared a few stories about two of the game’s greatest of all-time, Stan Musial and Ted Williams.

O’Brien said, “The thing I noticed about the Hall of Famers is it seems to me that almost every one of those Hall of Famers [he played with or against] was a really nice person—they were helpful. You know, Ted Williams didn’t like the media, but he sure liked players and he would spend all kinds of time with you. I’ll tell you a story. George Sisler was our batting coach, the great Hall of Famer, with Pittsburgh, and his theory was that if you’re a right-handed batter, you could move your left foot in relation to what the pitch was. Well, I didn’t believe that. 

“We were in spring training and we went over to play the Red Sox. I wanted to talk to Williams. He was the only guy in the time that I played—and I only played exhibition games against him because we were in the National League—who, every time he got into the batting cage, everything stopped. Everybody would just stop and watch. And he’d always tell the pitcher, ‘Throw anything you want.’ You would get to feel sorry for the ball. I mean, he would really punish the ball.

“They had taken their batting practice and he was running around in left field. So I went out there and said, ‘Ted, I’m Johnny O’Brien,’ and he was a statistical nut. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, and your brother at Seattle University scored all those points [in basketball].’

“I said, ‘You know, George Sisler’s our batting coach.’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah, he hit .420 one year,’ and things like that—he was an encyclopedia. I mentioned the theory that Sisler had and Ted said, ‘Well, Johnny, Mr. Sisler,’—he always referred to him as Mr. Sisler—‘was a great hitter, but he batted in an era where he saw one less pitch than us. He saw the fastball, the curve, the change, and the spitter. We see one more pitch than that. We see the fastball, we see the curve, we see the change up, we see the spitter, but we also see the slider, a variation of the curve. As you know, it comes in as hard as it gets and it breaks. You don’t have time to adjust your foot to that so you do it with your hips.’

“He’s got a bat and he’s moving his hips and showing me. And these two guys show up and they had one of those Movietone cameras with the machine gun roll [of film] on it. They start taking pictures. Williams says, ‘Watch this.’ He turns to them and says, “What the [fudge, only he didn’t say fudge] are you guys doing?”’

“They said they were taking pictures. He said, ‘John and I are having a private conversation. Get your ass outta’ here.’ So they left and Williams looked at me and said, ‘Did you see what I just did?’ I said that I sure did. He said, ‘You can only do that when you’re hitting .340.’”

O’Brien continued his take on Williams and Hall of Famers: “He was so great with players. He would spend all the time with them. And I think of Stan Musial. Really nice people—Jackie Robinson. We felt like we were part of an elite group so we competed hard against one and other, but we were very friendly towards one and other.

“Let me tell you a story. Ed and I had kind of a notoriety because we were twins—the first twins that ever played short and second together in the major leagues. So we’d get invited to a lot of things. Well, the Cardinals were in [Pittsburgh] and they were going to honor Stan. They invited Ed and I to come over. They were going to give us $25 apiece to go, so we were all for that. During the game, I’m on first base and Stan says, ‘I see you guys are going to come over to my shindig tonight. How are you going to get there?’

“I said I didn’t know. He said, ‘Well, I’ll drive you over and back cause I’m coming back to the hotel.’ We got together and drove over, had a nice meal, honored Stan, and on the way back Stan said, ‘What did you guys get?’ I told him $25 apiece. He said, ‘I got $100. I’m not in too much need of it. Here, you guys share that.’ And he gave us the 100 bucks.

“Then, when I joined the Cardinals in ’58, he was the first guy who came over and said, ‘Hey, nice having you with us,’ and stuff like that. He was really a class guy.”

When I wrote the book Stan the Man I never, EVER heard anything but glowing things about Musial. O’Brien nailed it–Musial was a class guy all the way.

Wilt the Stilt as a Singer?

Seven-Foot Singer: Digging through some old magazines, I came across a 1960 issue of Sport magazine which featured a story on Wilt Chamberlain. Long before Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt cut a record. It was called “By the River,” and he even went on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand to lip sync the song.

Then with the Philadelphia Warriors, it was a short trip for Wilt to Clark’s tv studio to make his appearance. Clark appraised Wilt’s singing by saying, “He’s got a good voice . . .  I think he could make it as a pop singer.”

I listened to the song on You Tube and somehow it didn’t sound like Wilt’s voice to me. If you should hear it, please make a comment and tell me if you agree with me or not–also let me know if you thought the song was any good!

Pittsburgh Pirates Note: That same issue of Sport featured pre-season predictions for the 1960 pennant races. A poll of 151 players and managers selected the Yankees to win the A.L. flag and the Pirates to finish FOURTH behind the Braves, Giants, and Dodgers. They felt Mickey Mantle would cop the MVP in his league and Hank Aaron the trophy in the N.L. Their choices for the best pitcher: Frank Lary in the American League and Sam Jones (not eventual Cy Young winner Vernon Law) in the N.L.

I recently interviewed Law for a book I’m working on dealing with the ’60 season and he said of the Bucs stunning World Series win, “On paper the Yankees were a better ball club than we were—no question about that, but we had 25 guys who wanted to win, too.  We scratched and fought and did everything we could.  Of course, Harvey [Haddix] pitched a couple of great games, I was adequate enough to hold them down—I think my ERA against them was around 3.20, or something like that [it was exactly 3.44 with two wins and a no decision] and held them good enough to give us a chance to win and that’s the way it turned out.”

Law said the Pirates, who were blasted by scores of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0 by the Bronx Bombers, said that no matter how bad a thumping they took, a loss is a loss.  “You’ve got to put it out of your mind and go after them.” They did, winning it in seven.

The Other Griffey, His Dad, and Ichiro

The last blog featured some info on Ken Griffey Sr. This one begins with a story about a young Ken Griffey Jr. from an interview I did with Seattle sportswriter Larry Stone, a man who did a piece on Griffey and Donora, Pa. some years back.

Stone covered the Mariners when Ken Griffey Jr. was a rookie. “He was 19-years-old and fighting to make the team. At first the Mariners didn’t want him to make the ball club because they thought he needed more seasoning, but he was the best player in all of Arizona. So he was going to make the team. 

“The manager, Jim Lefebvre, called him into his office on the last day of spring and told him that the Mariners had just traded for Dale Murphy and he was going to play centerfield. He said he was sorry to tell him this, but he had to go back down to the minor leagues. Junior was crushed, almost in tears.

“Lefebvre said, ‘Do you know what day it is today?’ Griffey goes, ‘No,’ so Lefebvre said, ‘Open the door.’ When he opened the door to the office, the entire team was out there. They yelled, ‘April Fools.’”

Quick item about Senior from a recent interview: Western Pennsylvanians who were around in 1960 remember that as a landmark season for the Pirates and most of us still remember where we were when they clinched the World Series versus the dynastic Yankees.

Griffey Sr. is no exception. He was in sixth grade (along with me) at Sixth Street School in Donora when Maz ended the Series. He recalled, “I was walking back home. I remember either our principal Miss Kelly or one of the teachers said that Mazeroski won the game on a home run. I wasn’t really into baseball all that much in ’60 except for [playing youth ball].”

How could he have known that 15 years later he’d be on a World Series winning team. That clash versus Boston went the full seven games and featured one of, if not THE most exciting Series games ever. Furthermore, the year after that, he helped propel his Reds into another World Series, one that they’d also win (this time in a sweep of the Yankees) by hitting .385 in the NLCS versus the Phillies.

Ichiro: This next story is fitting in that Ichiro retired just the other day: Stone has covered the Mariners for decades now. He said Ichiro, a man he feels is highly intelligent, had “some memorable quotes. There was one, my all-time favorite, actually, about the first time he was going to face Dice-K [Boston pitcher and fellow Japan native Daisuke Matsuzaka]. Through a translator he said, ‘I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the inner-most recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.’” Hardly a quote bandied around in most locker rooms.   stone said look up other funny quotes on line

Stone added that “on the list of unique players that I’ve covered, he’s probably at the top. I mean, he could hit a ground ball to second base and beat it out. He believed that his bat had, like a soul, a spirit, so he treated his bats and equipment with more care and respect than anyone I’ve ever seen. He also had like a velvet bat case that he carried his bat around in—almost like a humidor type thing that a lot of the players sort of copied after him.” That’s not unlike a great pool player with a special case for his cue.

“He got mad at a Mariners coach who inadvertently sat on one of his gloves because that was just sacrilege to him. He would clean up after himself in the dugout and he just had a different ability and hitting style than anyone else I’ve ever covered.”