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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
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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
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
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.
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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.
Tired of the talk of steroids and A-Rod? Let’s take a look back at some history.
Thirty five years ago, baseball fans bided much of their time by obsessing over Hank Aaron’s pursuit of a record once deemed unbreakable–the all-time home run mark owned by Babe Ruth. Although many fans expressed support of Aaron’s continuing run at Ruth’s record, there were also those who clearly did not want him to succeed. As a black man who had started his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Aaron received numerous pieces of mail from people who resented him because of his race. Some of the letters were downright vicious; others implied or dictated threats on his life.
When people found out about the angry and hateful notes, Aaron started receiving a greater number of positive letters. In 1974, Aaron noted that he had received over 900,000 the previous year; “the overwhelming majority” of the mail supported his quest to overtake Ruth’s record. Still, the negative notes bore watching because of their menacing tone and direct threats of bodily harm.
The FBI began reading and confiscating the negative letters, which could best be characterized as “hate mail.” The bureau began investigating some of the letters, as a way of determining whether real dangers to Aaron’s life existed. The Braves, gravely concerned about Aaron’s safety, hired two off-duty Atlanta police offers to serve as personal bodyguards. Lamar Harris and Calvin Wardlaw would attend each of Aaron’s game from the stands, observing the stands and the playing field area for potential perpetrators. Wardlaw equipped himself with a .38 Smith-Wesson detective special in the event that Aaron faced an immediate threat of violence during the game.
In addition, Aaron faced other obstacles and controversies as the 1974 season approached. In February, Atlanta president Bill Bartholomay had announced that the Braves would bench Aaron for their season-opening series against the Cincinnati Reds, which would be played on the road. Under that scenario, Aaron would have a better chance of both tying and breaking the record at home. The Braves’ announcement drew rounds of criticism from members of the baseball media. A number of writers contended that the Braves were assaulting the game’s integrity by playing a lineup that was clearly not their best. After all, Aaron had batted .301 with 44 home runs and 96 RBIs in 1973. He was still their best player, even as he turned 40 years of age. Longtime baseball writer Dick Young of the New York Daily News summarized the feelings of some naysayers when he wrote, “Baseball has gone crooked.”
After several weeks of heated debate, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped into the fracas. In a carefully worded statement, Kuhn announced his disapproval of the Braves’ decision to sit Aaron. “Barring disability,” the commissioner went on to say, “I will expect the Braves to use Henry Aaron in the opening series in Cincinnati, in accordance with the pattern of his use in 1973, when he started approximately two of every three Braves games.” Kuhn stopped short of “ordering” the Braves to use Aaron, only because he had no such power to tell a manager whom to play. Yet, the message was clear to the Braves, who eventually reinstated Aaron to the starting lineup on Opening Day.
Facing Reds right-hander Jack Billingham in the Thursday afternoon sun of Riverfront Stadium, Aaron patiently watched the first four pitches thrown to him. With the count now three-and-one, he unleashed his first swing of the new season. A few seconds later, Billingham’s fifth delivery landed beyond the left-center field wall at Riverfront Stadium. In an instant, Aaron had tied Ruth as the all-time home run champion.
Although the Braves obviously didn’t want him to break the record on the road, Aaron remained in the game. He grounded out, walked, and flied out in his final three plate appearances. Not wanting to take any more chances with fate, Atlanta manager Eddie Mathews (a longtime teammate of Aaron) removed him from the game in the bottom of the seventh and replaced him with journeyman Rowland Office, who then gave way to pinch-hitters Ivan Murrell and Frank Tepedino. Without Aaron, the Braves went on to lose in extra innings, 7-6.
After the traditional off day following the opener, the Reds and Braves resumed their series on Saturday afternoon. Given the commissioner’s spring training “recommendation” that Aaron play “two out of every three Braves games,” Mathews decided to sit his venerable superstar. Mathews moved Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr from right field to Aaron’s spot in left, with Murrell taking Garr’s place in right. Murrell went 1-for-2 in Aaron’s absence, but the Braves lost to the Reds, 7-5.
Mathews’ decision prompted an angry reaction from the Commissioner’s Office. Concerned that the Braves were reading his declaration a bit too literally, Kuhn “requested” that Mathews return Aaron to the lineup for Sunday’s game. Mathews asked the commissioner if he was giving him a direct order. According to Mathews, Kuhn responded that it was indeed an “order” and that “severe” consequences would result if Aaron did not play.
So Aaron returned to the lineup for the series finale, but failed to play one of his vintage games. He struck out twice–each time on three pitches–and bounced weakly to third base before being lifted for “defensive reasons.” Aaron remained one short of breaking the record.
As a tribute to Aaron’s impending achievement, the Topps Company had issued a unique set of “Hank Aaron Special” cards as part of its 1974 set, including miniature reprints of all of his previous Topps cards. Issued as the No. 1 card in the set of 660, Aaron’s primary card was unlike most of the 1974s, which featured a vertical design with colored banners at the top and bottom of the card. The Aaron card featured a horizontal arrangement, with a gold interior border running along the edges of the card. Rather than fill most of the card with a full-sized photographic image, Topps used a smaller portrait photo of the Hall of Famer, creating an image that filled two-thirds of the card. That allowed Topps to create a special segment with the other third of the card, which featured a blue and gold crown, the name “hank aaron” in a lower-case gold font, and the words “NEW ALL-TIME HOME RUN KING” emblazoned in upper-case purple letters toward the bottom of the card.
In producing the card, Topps did something that it rarely did in creating cards to commemorate special occasions. Rather than highlighting a record-surpassing feat after it had happened, Topps actually anticipated Aaron’s breaking of the record. Keep in mind that the card was issued in March, when Topps traditionally used to release its first cards of the new year, or about a month before Aaron had even broken, much less tied the record. In a sense, Topps took a gamble in issuing the card, albeit a small one, so early in the season. What if Aaron had suffered a season-ending injury during spring training, or had endured the calamity of a broken leg on Opening Day? That would have left Aaron waiting until 1975 to tie and break the record, leaving Topps with what would have been probably its most famous “error” card of all time. Thankfully, no physical adversities came to pass, spring training progressed without injury, and Aaron tied Ruth’s record on Opening Day before eventually breaking it days later–a happy ending for all.
Cano and Carew
Yankees manager Joe Torre took some heat over the internet earlier this week when he compared rookie second baseman Robinson Cano to Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Some of Torre’s Sabermetric critics, who are always on the lookout for axes to grind with the more traditional Torre, belittled the Yankee skipper for making the link between the two, given that Carew won seven batting titles while Cano was rated only a B-level prospect by some scouts. Well, the criticism of Torre is off base here. Torre said that Cano “reminded” him of Carew, in terms of his physical appearance and his swing, and not that he necessarily expected Cano to become as a great a player as Carew. There’s quite a difference between Torre saying that Cano “reminds” him of Carew as opposed to saying that he expected Cano to “become the next Carew.”
Torre has actually used these kinds of comparisons in the past, whereby he creates a depiction of a current player by talking about who that player reminds him of stylistically. Cano has a very smooth swing at the plate, which is probably what influenced Torre to make the Carew remark. A few years ago, Torre talked about the swing of a young Ricky Ledee and how it reminded him of the hitting style of Billy Williams. On another occasion, Torre and former Yankee coach Don Zimmer compared Alfonso Soriano to Hank Aaron, not by saying that they expected Soriano to hit as many home runs but in terms of the similarity in the strength and quickness of their wrists. (And that’s a comparison that was also sounded by several major league scouts.) I think Torre uses these comparisons as a way of conjuring up a mental image for the fans and media (and not to create an undue set of expectations) so that they might have a better idea of how a young player looks in the way that he plays the game. If anything, Torre’s method shows a respect for baseball history and for the strengths of the young player in question. That’s a good thing, and not something meant to create an unreasonable or impossible expectation… Yankee batting coach Don Mattingly also made a comparison involving Cano during spring training, but that analogy didn’t create as much of a firestorm as Torre’s comments. Mattingly said that Cano’s swing and style at the plate reminded him of Ruben Sierra during the latter’s younger days. In terms of statistical output, that’s probably a better gauge of what Cano may be able to do; he’s not likely to win the seven batting championships that Carew garnered with the Twins and Angels, but might be capable of putting up offensive numbers similar to those of Sierra… While Cano doesn’t have the hitting ability or footspeed that Carew had in his prime, he does have one advantage over the Hall of Famer. Cano is a very good defensive second baseman–he’s twice been named the best defender in his league during his minor league days–and likely won’t have to switch positions as Carew was asked to do in the midst of his career with the Minnesota Twins. In 1976, the Twins moved Carew, a subpar defensive second baseman, to the less demanding position of first base, where he played for the remainder of his career.
And Another Thing
For those who are interested, Hall of Fame web manager Dan Holmes and I will be hosting presentations on Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, respectively, in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater this Sunday (May 22) beginning at 1:00 pm. After the presentation, Dan will be signing copies of his book, Ty Cobb: A Biography, and I’ll be signing copies of my book, Ted Williams: A Biography. And then on Monday, May 23, beginning at 10:00 am, I’ll be signing copies of Tales From The Mets Dugout at Augur’s Book Store located on Main Street in Cooperstown.