Tagged: Hall of Fame

A Conversation With Orlando Cepeda

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Last weekend, the Hall
of Fame opened a new exhibit, Viva Baseball, which chronicles the history of
Latin Americans in the game. Hall of Fame first baseman Orlando
Cepeda, a native of Puerto Rico and one of 11 Latinos currently enshrined in Cooperstown, attended the exhibit opening. During a wide-ranging
conversation with Mark McGuire of the Albany-Times Union, Hall of Fame researcher
Bill Francis, and me, Cepeda talked about his father, Negro Leagues shortstop Perucho
Cepeda, his own experiences playing in San Francisco, and his relationship with
fellow Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente. Humble in discussing his own
accomplishments, Cepeda lavished praise on a number of lesser known Latino
standouts, including Minnie Minoso, Ruben Gomez, and Hector Espino.

 

 

McGuire: What do
you think, looking around this exhibit, seeing your dad’s stuff [on display]?

 

Cepeda: Awesome.
Awesome. Awesome. Incredible. You know, he never saw me play [in the major
leagues]. You know he died one day before I played my first pro game. He died.
I remember like in 1952, I was 15 and I got my knee operation. He had to talk
to the doctor and asked him, “Do you think my son will be able to play ball?”
My father always had it in his mind that someday I would be a ballplayer.

 

McGuire: Who was
better, you or him?

 

Cepeda: He was
better.

 

McGuire: When you
look at the state of Latin players, we think of them as one big group,
regardless of what country they come from. Do you notice different styles of [Latino]
players from different countries? Or is it pretty much the same?

 

Cepeda: The same.
Baseball is [played] one way. They [the Latino players] are the same. So many
great players, from the Dominican, Venezuela, from Cuba, they never had the
opportunity to play in the big leagues–they never made the Hall of Fame–but
they were as good as people who are in the Hall of Fame. So many great Latino
players, like Minnie Minoso, they opened the door for us. He was the first
Latino star in the big leagues, Minnie Minoso. There was also Vic Power, Ruben
Gomez, so many great players that never made it to the Hall of Fame, but they
were very good players.

 

McGuire: What do
you think of the idea that you’re part of an exclusive club here in the Hall of
Fame of Latino players, but it’s pretty much going be doubled [in membership] soon.

 

Cepeda: Yeah, it
is. We’re so proud that we were the first ones in the Hall of Fame. A day like
today will live forever. So that’s why I say thank you to Hall of Fame
president Jeff Idelson for thinking about putting this [exhibit] together. It’s
a great day for Latinos.

 

McGuire: It’s
kind of strange how you growing up couldn’t necessarily have dreamed of playing
in the major leagues [because of skin color], but with Albert Pujols, Jose
Reyes, Johan Santana now, you really can’t picture baseball today without
Latino players?

 

Cepeda: Al Kaline
told me last year that if it weren’t for the Latino player, baseball would have
been dead by now because there are just so many great Latino players today.

 

Markusen:
Earlier, Juan Marichal talked about how you and Felipe Alou helped him when he
first came to the big leagues with the Giants. Who helped you when you first
arrived in San Francisco?

 

Cepeda: Ruben
Gomez. Ruben Gomez. In 1958, I lived with him. You need somebody to work with
you. And that’s what we did with Juan in 1960. We made him feel welcome right
away.

 

Markusen: Of all
the major league cities you played in, which was the most receptive to Latin
Americans?

 

Cepeda: Oh, San Francisco. San
Francisco, because they had so many people from different backgrounds, so much
diversity. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central Americans. So they welcomed me
right away in San Francisco.

 

Francis: Can you
talk about how the Giants embraced the Latin American player? It seems like the
Giants had a lot of Latin Americans. Was it because of Alex Pompez [the scout]?

 

Cepeda: No, it
wasn’t Alex Pompez. The guy who signed me–his wife is here today– was Pete
[Pedrin] Zorrilla. Pedrin, he was very close to Horace Stoneham, the Giants’
owner.

 

At one time, the Giants had like 30 Latinos in the minor
leagues. Manny Mota, Jose Pagan, me. From 1954 on, a lot of Latinos.

 

Francis: Can you
talk about the Alvin Dark incident? Was that the worst experience you had in major
leagues?

 

Cepeda: Yeah,
about that, he told me a few years back that he was very sorry that happened.
He didn’t know the Latino heritage, that for a Latino to come here and do well,
was very difficult. He was very sorry for that.

 

Francis: That
must have been tough.

 

Cepeda: Yeah,
very hard, very hard. Because baseball is a tough game in all aspects, and now
you had to deal with Dark and you had to deal with the pitcher. You had to deal
with the game every day; it was very hard.

 

Markusen: How
close were you with Roberto Clemente?

 

Cepeda: Well, I
knew Roberto since 1950. He played for my dad, you know, for a couple of games,
but didn’t make the team. In 1955, we came here to the states. He came here in
1954, to Montreal.
In ’55, we flew together to Florida for spring
training to Fort Myers,
the Giants’ minor league complex. Yeah, very close. Still very close to the family,
his wife, Roberto Jr., who is here today.

 

Markusen: You
must remember very well where you were when you heard that he had died.

 

Cepeda: Oh yeah,
I was at my brother’s house, when I heard the news.

 

Markusen: Another
player prominently featured in this exhibit is an underrated player, Hector
Espino, who was called the “Babe Ruth of Mexico.” Did you ever play against
Espino?

 

Cepeda: Yeah, I
played against him in 1974. He came up, I believe it was in 1960, with St. Louis. He signed with St. Louis [but never
played in the major leagues]. I played against him in ’74, when he was in the
Mexican League.

 

Markusen: How
good was Espino?

 

Cepeda: Great.
Great hitter.

 

Markusen: Do you
think he would have starred in the majors.

 

Cepeda: Yeah,
yeah. He was a great low ball hitter. If you’re a great low ball hitter, you
can play anywhere.

 

Markusen: Thanks,
Orlando, for
your time.

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The Sunday Scuttlebutt

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With Carlos Delgado out of commission for at least two
months and possibly longer, the Mets need to face facts and acquire a first
baseman who can hit with some power. Even with Delgado for most of this season,
the Mets have hit the third fewest home runs among the 30 major league teams;
only the Giants and A’s from the power-starved Bay Area have lower totals. Of
the available first basemen, Nick “The Stick” Johnson appears to be the best
player. According to the estimable Peter Gammons, the Nationals have asked for
right-hander Bobby Parnell in return. As much as Johnson could help, I don’t
see the Mets making that deal. Parnell, who was just clocked at 100 miles per
hour at a weekend game in Fenway
Park, has a full arsenal
of four pitches and could contribute long-term as a No. 3 starter. Given
Johnson’s injury history, the Mets would be wise to hold onto Parnell and
substitute another pitcher or two (Brian Stokes? Sean Green?) in his place…

 

The Mets have also expressed interest in Mark DeRosa, the super-utilityman
who could become the first victim of Cleveland’s
dreadful start. DeRosa’s versatility would be wasted as a first baseman, but he
could always move to left field or second base once Delgado returns in July.
The Mets have received virtually no home run production from their second
basemen or corner outfielders, which points out the lack of depth within their
top-heavy lineup…

 

Is it just me or is anyone else getting sick of Jake Peavy’s
pickiness when it comes to finding a new place to pitch? First, Peavy didn’t
want to go to Atlanta,
and now he’s given the heave-ho to the White Sox, who had agreed to send two
prospects to the Padres. Peavy wants a contract extension to accompany any
trade, and has also indicated that he prefers to play in the National League,
and not the American League. Does Peavy have such little confidence in his
ability that he feels he can’t be successful in the tougher league? If that’s
the case, I’d be awfully hesitant to trade a large package for Peavy,
ostensibly one of the top five or ten starting pitchers in the game. Peavy’s
reticence, along with his inability to get into the seventh or eighth innings,
should serve as red flags to opposing general managers…

 

While the Padres failed in their latest attempt to trade
Peavy, they did execute a minor deal on Friday, sending Jody Gerut to the
Brewers for Tony Gwynn, Jr. Let’s chalk this one up as strictly a public
relations move, as the Padres acquired the son of their first full-fledged Hall
of Famer. At best, the younger Gwynn looks like fourth outfielder material,
hardly a fair return for Gerut, who has some power and can handle all three
outfield positions. If Gerut can stay healthy, he’ll help the surprising
Brewers in the jumbled NL Central…

 

How much longer do the Orioles wait before summoning No. 1
prospect Matt Wieters from Triple-A? The O’s, who are going nowhere in a
stacked AL East, have been playing an aging Gregg Zaun as their first-string
catcher when he’s clearly a backup at this stage of his career. Orioles fan need
some reasons to hope; let that hope begin with the promotion of Wieters…

 

Is it any wonder that the A’s aren’t scoring runs? Not only
have they suffered a huge power outage at McAfee Coliseum, but now they’re
batting Orlando Cabera in the leadoff spot. I actually like Cabrera as a
player, but if he’s a leadoff man, then Perez Hilton is a great journalist…

 

Rangers general manager Jon Daniels might be an early
favorite for American League executive of the year honors. Daniels took a great
deal of heat for some of his offseason moves, like moving Michael Young to
third base, but most of Daniels’ plans seem to be working. The Rangers are much
better defensively with Young at third base and rookie Elvis Andrus at
shortstop, allowing Hank Blalock to concentrate on his hitting skills as a DH.
The signing and revival of Andruw Jones has also paid dividends, giving the
Rangers depth in the outfield and a potential trade chip should they fall out
of contention…

 

The Hall of Fame staged a nice event on Saturday, when it
debuted its new exhibit, “Viva Baseball,” which chronicles the history of Latin
American participation in the sport. Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda and Juan
Marichal attended the opening, with both speaking eloquently about their pride
in the achievements of such fellow Latino standouts as Felipe Alou, Roberto
Clemente, and Minnie Minoso. A full house of media, including a number of
prominent Latino broadcasters and writers, made for standing room only in the
VIP seating area bordering the exhibit. With its array of vivid colors, selection
of multi-media interviews with Latino Hall of Famers, the impressive
large-screen video board, and the bilingual approach to storytelling, the
exhibit is brilliantly presented…

 

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, two new names have been added
to the roster for the first ever Hall of Fame Classic, scheduled for June 21 in
Cooperstown. Jeff Kent and Mike Timlin, both
retired after finishing their careers in 2008, have committed to play in the
old-timers game scheduled for Doubleday Field. (I could see Kent hitting three or four home
runs while taking shots at the short left-field porch at Doubleday.) Aside from
Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Ferguson Jenkins, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro, and
Brooks Robinson, the Hall can now boast the following headliners for the game: Kent,
Bobby Grich, George Foster, Jim Kaat and Lee Smith. Of those latter five, I’d
vote Kent and Grich for Hall of Fame induction, with tough “no” votes for Kaat
and Smith. And here’s perhaps the best news about the Hall of Fame Classic.
Tickets are only $12.50, a far cry from the small fortune being asked by the
Yankees to attend games at their new stadium.

A Smattering of Intelligence: Managers, Mitts, and Cactus Jack

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Now that Bob Melvin has been fired as the skipper of the
Diamondbacks, the speculation can begin as to which team will be the next to
fire its field manager. The Cleveland Indians could be that team; with a record
of 13-22, the Indians have the worst record in the American League. That may
not bode well for the future of Eric Wedge, who has been on the hot seat ever
since the Indians started last season
so poorly.

 

Many observers have pointed to the Indians as first-class
underachievers, one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Just two months ago,
the Indians were the fashionable pick to win the American League Central, a
balanced division ripe for the taking. Personally, I think that prediction was
a bit of a stretch, considering the departure of CC Sabathia, the regression of
Fausto Carmona, and the unsettled state of Cleveland’s outfield beyond superstar
Grady Sizemore. Still, there’s no question that the Indians have underachieved. They shouldn’t be
buried so many games below .500, just a couple of ticks ahead of the Washington
Nationals, the most dreadful team in either league. There’s just no excuse for
such a poor standing.

 

The Indians will probably give Wedge at least two to three
more weeks before making any kind of a change. If they do, they have two highly
logical candidates in place within their organization. First up is Joel
Skinner, currently their third base coach and now in his ninth year on the
staff. Skinner also has prior managerial experience. He served as the Indians’
interim skipper in 2002. Prior to that, Skinner managed for several years in
the Tribe’s farm system, developing a reputation for winning and developing
young talent. A former catcher, Skinner is very bright and familiar with the
organization from top to bottom. The other top candidate is Torey Lovullo,
currently the manager of the Columbus Clippers, who just so happen to be the
Indians’ Triple-A affiliate. Lovullo’s minor league managerial record is
spotless. He has won two International League titles, the highlight of a resume
that features a winning record every season he’s managed.

 

If none of those candidates are to your liking, then how
about this blast from the past? Mike Hargrove, who left the Mariners in
mid-season two years ago, is also available. He’s scheduled to manager a summer
league team of college prospects, but that contract could be broken in favor of
a return to the Midwest…

 

There’s an old axiom in baseball that says, “Every game you
watch, you’ll see something different, something you’ve never seen before.”
That’s an exaggeration, of course, but baseball is such an unpredictable game
of diverse outcomes that we often do come away seeing something new and without
precedent. That happened to me on Tuesday night, as I watched the game between
the Mets and Braves. In the top of the 10th inning, Mets utilityman
Alex Cora, who’s normally a middle infielder, took over at first base. (Cora
had played the position just once before, back in 2005 with the Red Sox.) After
warming up with a standard issue first baseman’s mitt, Cora decided he wasn’t
comfortable with it, ran to the dugout, and replaced it with a regular infielder’s
glove. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen commented that he had never seen that
before, I thought the same thing. I’ve never
seen a first baseman play the position without a first baseman’s mitt, just
like I’ve never seen a catcher go behind the plate without a standard catcher’s
mitt. It’s something that probably happened during baseball’s early history,
before gloves and mitts became so advanced and specialized. It might have even
happened sometime since World War II, but I just can’t recall it. Perhaps
someone out there has seen a first
baseman play without a mitt. If so, feel free to let us know…

 

Earlier this week, former big league right-hander Jack Billingham
visited the Hall of Fame here in Cooperstown.
As Billingham explained to a friend of mine, Hall senior researcher Bill
Francis, he and his wife Jolene, along with his sister and brother-in-law, have
been touring the country in RVs. Along the way, they’ve visited some of Jack’s
old stomping grounds, including Cincinnati (where he pitched most of his career
with the Reds) and Detroit (where he pitched for three seasons late in his
career).

 

This was not Billingham’s first visit to Cooperstown.
Forty years ago, he came to town as part of a contingent with the Astros to
play in the annual Hall of Fame Game. He also has an indirect connection to the
Hall of Fame. Billingham is a distant cousin of Christy Mathewson, part of the
inaugural Hall of Fame Class in 1939.

 

“Cactus Jack,” as he’s sometimes called, remains one of the
most underrated members of Cincinnati’s
“Big Red Machine.” Too often Billingham is remembered for giving up Hank
Aaron’s record-tying 714th home run, and that’s just not fair. While
the Reds’ offensive stars, like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony
Perez, garnered most of the publicity, Billingham turned in workmanlike
performances for a reliable rotation that also included Gary Nolan, Don
Gullett, and Fredie Norman. Durable and consistent, Billingham used a
sinkerball to post consecutive 19-win seasons in 1973 and ’74, before winning a
total of 27 games during the two world championship seasons of 1975 and
’76.  He raised his level of pitching in
World Series play, allowing only one earned run in just over 25 innings, and
still holds the record for lowest ERA in World Series history.

 

Yes, Cactus Jack was pretty good.

A Smattering of Intelligence: Hinch, Freel, and The Little Professor

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Less than six weeks into the season, the Diamondbacks have
decided that a major change is in order for their underachieving team. By
sacking Bob Melvin and hiring front office farm director A.J. Hinch to manage
the team, the D-Backs have signaled a radical change in the direction of their
on-field leadership. Hinch has no prior managing or coaching experience at any
level, not even in rookie ball. What he does have is an eye for young talent,
an ability that the D-Backs hope will translate into an ability to develop that talent. The latter area is
where Melvin fell short; too many of Arizona’s talented young players (like Mark
Reynolds and Chris Young) have failed to become significantly better than they were in
2007, when the Baby Backs came within two games of the World Series.

 

Did Melvin deserve to get fired? Perhaps, but not at this
early stage of the season. I tend to think that managers–like young unproven
players–deserve at least two full months of the season before we make
wide-sweeping judgments about their ability. I would have given Melvin until
the end of May; if the D-backs had shown no signs of a turnaround, a move would
have been mandatory. And what about Hinch? I know he’s a bright guy who has
drawn good reviews for his work as an Arizona’s
front office whiz kid, but his lack of any kind of on-field coaching or
managing experience is alarming. Contrary to what most Sabermetric general
managers like Josh Byrnes (and Billy Beane) seem to think, you cannot put just anyone into the managerial chair. It’s
not an interchangeable position. Rather, it’s a highly demanding and important
job that requires the right kind of temperament, personality, and experience.
Who knows how Hinch will do…

 

The Cubs made an interesting, if not major, transaction on
Friday, acquiring utilityman Ryan Freel from the Orioles for spare outfielder
Joey Gathright. Is this Chicago’s
way of trying to right the wrong that was done when GM Jim Hendry dealt Mark
DeRosa to the Indians for three middle-road prospects? Or is Hendry simply
trying to fortify his bench while ridding himself of a player (Gathright) who
had become so extraneous that he was sent to the minors earlier this week?

 

Freel isn’t the player that DeRosa is, either in terms of
power or versatility, but he does provide some flexibility. Freel can play
second base, third base, and all three outfield spots, while giving Lou
Piniella a decent pinch-running option in the late innings. Gathright is
certainly the more dangerous baserunner, but he’s strictly an outfielder, a
position that has become especially deep for Chicago given the resurgence of Kosuke
Fukudome and the presence of supersub Reed Johnson. This is really a no-brainer
move for the Cubs, who will benefit from Baltimore’s
inability to find a role for Freel…

 

In the late 1990s, Ted Williams championed Dom DiMaggio for
the Hall of Fame while serving as a member of the Veterans’ Committee. Even
with credit for the three seasons he lost to World War II, I felt that DiMaggio
fell short of the Hall of Fame standard. He was a very good player, but a bit
short of Cooperstown greatness.

 

That’s a trivial point, however. In many ways, Dom DiMaggio
represented everything that is good about baseball. DiMaggio, who died early
Friday morning at the age of 92, was a five-foot, nine-inch outfielder who wore
glasses; “The Little Professor” looked about as imposing on the ballfield as Chicken Little. But as
an overachiever performing in a sport where size plays little importance, he made
himself into a fine player who hit for average, drew walks, and played a dandy
center field–a very substantial player on some fine and underrated Red Sox
teams of the late 1940s. He was also, by all accounts, a true gentleman who was
highly regarded for his character by teammates and opponents alike. And that
matters a lot more than any argument about whether DiMaggio belongs in the Hall
of Fame.

The Sunday Scuttlebutt

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How quickly a player’s value can change. Brandon Inge could
have been had for a song during spring training. The Tigers would have taken a
small amount of talent from any team willing to pick up the bulk of Inge’s
contract for 2009. Just a few weeks later, the Tigers are glad that nobody took
a flyer on their starting third baseman. Through Sunday’s games, Inge has hit
seven home runs and is making an early argument for a berth on the American
League All-Star team, especially with Alex Rodriguez on the disabled list. He’s
also played a stellar level of defense at third base, which is no surprise to some
scouts who consider him capable of winning a Gold Glove…

 

The Royals made a surprising move this weekend when they
designated third-string catcher Brayan Pena for assignment. Pena is a rare
breed in 2009–a backup catcher who can actually hit and carries more than a
modicum of power. He also brings versatility to the table, with his ability to
fill in at third, first, and the outfield corners. Expect the Royals to find a
taker in a trade for Pena. If not, he won’t last long on the waiver wire. There
are at least a dozen major league teams who could use help behind the plate

 

The Yankees just cannot seem to avoid injuries. For the
third straight year, the Bombers have been assaulted by a wave of physical
setbacks to start the season. They have five players slated to be part of their
25-man roster currently on the disabled list. The growing list includes set-up
reliever Brian Bruney (elbow), starter Chien-Ming Wang (hip), and default third
baseman Cody Ransom (torn quad), all of whom have hit the DL during the
Yankees’ disastrous weekend venture to Boston…

 

Speaking of waves of injuries, I thought the A’s would be a
factor in the AL West, but the disabled just isn’t cooperating. Staff ace
Justin Duchscherer remains on the 15-day DL with an elbow that underwent
arthroscopic surgery and won’t be able to return until the middle of May at the
earliest.  The A’s also learned this week
that their No. 1 set-up reliever, Joey Devine, will likely be lost for the
season because of an elbow injury. With Duchscherer and Devine, the A’s would
have made a run for the Western Division with the Angels, who have a ravaged
pitching staff of their own, but without at least one of the “Double D’s,”
Billy Beane may have to conduct another firesale this July…

 

Jeff Francouer has promised repeatedly that he’ll be a new
player in 2009, but we’re still seeing the same strangling level of impatience
at the plate. Through Sunday’s games, Francouer has drawn only three walks in
18 games, which is palatable if you’re a Kirby Puckett type of player, but unacceptable
if you’re not hitting for power and not bringing Gold Glove fielding to right
field. Unfortunately, the Braves are strapped for outfielders. They’ve already
made top prospect Jordan Schafer their starting center fielder and just had to place
the disappointing Garret Anderson on the disabled list…

 

On paper, the signing of Milton Bradley made tons of sense
for the Cubs. They need the kind of left-handed bat that the switch-hitting Bradley
can provide. But Bradley has started out miserably at the plate (one hit in 23
at-bats), has already suffered his first injury, and won’t play again until Lou
Piniella deems him 100 per cent healthy. In the meantime, the Cubs will
continue to play with 24 men. Observers in Chicago are also wondering when Milton and
Sweet Lou will have their first blow-up. Both men have explosive tempers that
tend to erupt when things go badly on the playing field. Watch out in the Windy City…

 

Carlos Beltran is hitting like he did during the 2004
postseason, when he practically carried the Astros to their first berth in the
World Series. By flattening out an already level swing, Beltran has been able
to hit National League pitching at a .406 clip. Beltran won’t hit .400 for the
entire season, but his speed, patience, and ability to switch-hit make him a
contender for his first batting title. I just hope that Beltran doesn’t wear
himself out trying to catch everything in an outfield that will feature Daniel “Bull
in a China Shop” Murphy all too regularly and Gary Sheffield on occasion… Sheffield’s
presence on the roster continues to surprise many of the New York beat writers. With Sheffield in town, Fernando Tatis’ role has been reduced
to almost nothing, while Ryan Church remains a platoon player in the eyes of
Jerry Manuel. Sheffield started Friday night’s game against Washington’s Scott Olsen, the first time the
Mets had faced a left-handed starter all season…

 

Finally, a postscript to Hank Aaron’s visit to the Hall of
Fame on Saturday. In filling out all of the artifacts contained in the new
Aaron exhibit, the former Braves legend has donated more than 50 pieces of
memorabilia to the Hall of Fame and Museum. The large supply of Aaron artifacts
include not only the requisite share of milestone bats, balls and gloves, and
his entire uniform from home run No. 715, but also several bricks and a porch
post from Aaron’s childhood home in Mobile, Alabama. Those surviving pieces
from Aaron’s youth serve as yet another reminder of how “The Hammer” came from
modest beginnings, overcoming a lack of money and a preponderance of racism on
his way to one of the greatest careers in the game’s history. Kudos to Hall of
Fame curators Erik Strohl and Mary Quinn for a job well done in constructing
such an extensive exhibit on Aaron, now on permanent display on the Museum’s
third floor.

The Hammer Hits The Hall

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In trying to answer the question, “Who is the greatest
living player?,” only a few players even enter the discussion. Willie Mays
comes to mind, as does his controversial godson, Barry Bonds. Fans mindful of
the game’s history may want to include Stan Musial in the conversation. A few
bold contemporary fans might even throw Albert Pujols into the fray, even
though he is still in the midst of career greatness.

 

The other man who deserves to be mentioned in this
discussion actually visited Cooperstown on
Saturday. Hank Aaron, the game’s longtime home run king who is now second on
the all-time longball list, came to Cooperstown
to participate in the opening of a sparkling new exhibit, known as “Chasing the
Dream,” which details the life and career of “The Hammer.”

 

Aaron has long wanted the Hall of Fame to honor him with an
exhibit. Clearly, he believes he deserves it. When asked what it meant to join
Babe Ruth as the only men to have entire rooms dedicated to them at the Hall,
Aaron did not supply a politically correct answer that smacked of humility. “It
means I’m supposed to be on the same platform [as Ruth]. I’m proud of what I’ve
accomplished.”

 

I can’t say that I would argue with The Hammer. Given his
ceaseless consistency, his sustained brilliance, his unquestioned success in
the face of racism and hatred, Aaron deserves a special place in the Cooperstown museum. Aaron was not the most colorful or
flashy of ballplayers–he didn’t hit tape measure home runs and he didn’t run
out from under his cap–but he was, if you will, a workmanlike superstar. He was
a true five-tool player who graded out as excellent in all departments:
hitting, speed, defensive prowess, strength of throwing arm, and, of course,
power. And he remained a high-level player well into his late thirties, at a
time when most other stars of his and earlier eras had begun to show
significant levels of decline.

 

Aaron’s accomplishments become even more impressive in the
face of the shackles that were placed on him early in life. He grew up as part
of a poor family in Mobile,
Alabama. “As a black kid, we
didn’t have that many things to do. You either had sports or you could become a
schoolteacher. There was not many things you could do.”

 

As a youth, Aaron impressed scouts from the Negro Leagues
enough to merit his first professional contract. “I was signed from the
sandlots of Mobile,”
Aaron told a packed house in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. “I got $200
per month. Back then, that was big money,” Aaron said with a chuckle. “I had
been making nothing in Mobile.”

 

During Negro Leagues stints with the Bears and the Indianapolis
Clowns, Aaron caught the eyes of the Boston Braves, who would soon become the
Milwaukee Braves. The Braves gave Aaron a raise, but sent him to Jacksonville of the South
Atlantic League. Aaron made history by becoming part of a contingent that broke
the league’s longstanding color barrier. “We had three black players on that
team. I had a very good year. I led the league in everything but hotel
accommodations.”

 

Not only did Aaron and his two black teammates have to stay
in separate hotels and eat in different restaurants; they had to endure uncivil
behavior at the games. “The problem we had was with spectators. We had a rough
time in the South. It got ridiculous.

 

“At some ballparks, we could not dress in the clubhouse. If
you went 0-for-4, the fans would throw bananas at us. After the game, we would
be at the [boarding] house together and say to ourselves, ‘How silly is this?’
Some people were so hateful to us.”

 

Such abusive and outward racism subsided when Aaron received
his first call to play for the Braves. “Milwaukee
was a great city,” Aaron said unequivocally. “If not for Milwaukee, I didn’t know if I’d be a
ballplayer. The fans were really good. I give them all the credit.”

 

Aaron not only started his big league career in Milwaukee, but he
finished it there. When the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, Aaron moved with them,
staying there long enough to hit his record-breaking 715th home run
in those gaudy blue and white Braves uniforms. After that historic 1974 season,
the Braves sent him back to Milwaukee–by
now the home of the Brewers. Aaron played two seasons with the Brewers as a DH,
before retiring at the end of the 1976 season. He realized that it was
appropriate to call it quits. “The last year in Milwaukee, Del
Crandall was the manager. I slid into what I thought was a base, but the base
was 15 feet away. I knew it was time.”

 

Just like it was time for the Hall of Fame to create an
exhibit in his honor. It’s tastefully done and aesthetically pleasing, with a collage of
Aaron photos as you first enter, followed by four distinct sections that
chronicle The Hammer’s youth, his minor league days, his halcyon major league
career, and the good work he’s done after baseball, highlighted by his “Chasing the Dream” foundation.

Thirty five years after succeeding Ruth, Aaron and the Babe now stand alone–with rooms all to themselves–right here in Cooperstown.

The Nickname Game: Hank Aaron

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On Saturday, Hank Aaron will appear at the Hall of Fame here
in Cooperstown to commemorate the opening of a
new exhibit about his life and career. “Chasing the Dream” will be a full room honoring Aaron and chronicling his accomplishments. It will become only the second room
dedicated to one man at the Hall of Fame; the other belongs to a fellow named
George Herman Ruth.

 

Given Aaron’s impending presence in Cooperstown,
it seems fitting to honor him with this week’s installment of “The Nickname
Game.” Aaron had several nicknames during his long career with the Braves and
Brewers, though all derived from the use of a single word–“hammer.” Aaron’s
nicknames–at first “Hammerin’ Henry” and then the less formal “Hammerin’
Hank”–originated at the typewriters of sportswriters, who saw a chance to make
an alliterative play on his first name while also paying tribute to Aaron’s
thunderous bat. The nickname was later shortened to “Hammer,” which was easier
to say and fit more easily into smaller headline space.

 

Unlike other superstar players with unique nicknames (Willie
“The Say Hey Kid” Mays, Stan “The Man” Musial, and Babe “The Bambino” Ruth),
Aaron’s nickname did not remain in his sole possession. Instead, it influenced
players from later generations.  Slugging
John Milner, who made his big league debut with the Mets in 1971, or 17 years
after Aaron debuted in Milwaukee,
also became “The Hammer,” largely because he considered Aaron his boyhood idol.
While Milner never came close to matching Aaron’s greatness, he did become part
of the Pirates’ team that won the world championship in 1979. He also accomplished
far more than perennial Oakland
A’s prospect Bobby Brooks, an athletic outfielder who earned the moniker for
his hard-hitting style in the minor leagues. Brooks played only briefly for the
“Swingin’ A’s,” who had a number of talented outfielders ahead of him,
including Reggie Jackson, Billy North, and Joe Rudi.

 

Perhaps the most interesting “Hammer” to emerge in the 1970s
also came from the A’s, but from the front office. As a member of the skeleton
crew employed by Charlie Finley, Stanley Burrell worked as a glorified go-fer.
Burrell received the “hammer” label from Jackson,
the team’s All-Star right fielder and future Hall of Famer. Burrell couldn’t hit
like Aaron (or like Reggie for that matter), but did carry an uncanny facial
resemblance to Hammerin’ Hank. Burrell never gained much fame working in
baseball, but would later turn his singing and rapping talents into a musical
career as “M.C Hammer.”

 

And to think, it all started with Hank Aaron.
Congratulations, Hammer, on your new room at the Hall of Fame.