Tagged: Obituaries

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Pastime Passings

Baseball lost one of its funniest broadcasters on Sunday, exactly one week after losing a retired ballplayer who was known for his likeable, easygoing manner and strong sense of humor. Here are tributes to both men:

 

Skip Caray (Died on August 3 in Atlanta, Georgia; age 68; possible effects of diabetes):

For awhile, Skip Caray was one of my favorite broadcasters. He helped make those awful Braves teams of the seventies and eighties more tolerable, with an understated but effective style of play-by-play and a biting, delightfully sarcastic sense of humor. I loved how he made fun of the dreadful movies coming up on TBS after the game. As some of the readers at Baseball Think Factory have written, some of those films included such classics as Beastmaster and Dumb and Dumber. Yes, Skip delighted in reading those promos.

As years went by, I became less of a fan of Caray, I think in part because TBS cut back on its schedule of Braves games–to the point where they no longer do Braves baseball. (I do miss seeing those games, especially on Saturday nights.) I also heard a few stories of how Skip could be difficult to work with, especially for people who served off camera at TBS. I also didn’t care for the feud between him and Milo Hamilton, with both parties sharing in the blame for the unnecessary escalation of that rivalry. Skip became a little less likeable to me, but then again, there were those in Atlanta who absolutely revered him. Without question, he was a colorful guy with a unique style–not one of these cookiecutter broadcasting types with the blow-dry hair–and one that will be missed greatly by just about everybody who watched TBS for the last three decades.
 
 
Russ Gibson (Died on July 27 in Swansea, Massachusetts; age 69; long illness):
Gibson was a classic example of baseball perseverance. He spent ten years in the minor leagues, saddled with the tag of a non-prospect because of his suspect bat, before finally making the grade with the Red Sox in the mid-1960s. A member of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” team, Gibson began the season as the Red Sox’  No. 1 catcher but eventually gave way to Elston Howard, who was acquired in mid-season. Gibson spent the final three seasons of his career with the Giants before retiring in 1972. Although he spent most of his career as a backup, Gibson became popular with teammates because of his good-natured personality, a trait that he carried into his post-baseball life.
 
Coincidentally, Gibson died on the same day that his former Red Sox manager, Dick Williams, earned induction to the Hall of Fame.   

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Durham, Posada, and Holtzman

If the Milwaukee Brewers don’t make the playoffs, Ned Yost will surely be fired. That’s one of several conclusions that can be drawn after the Brewers announced their second major mid-season trade on Sunday. The acquisition of Ray Durham, coming on the heels of the pre-All-Star break addition of CC Sabathia, gives the Brewers needed depth and versatility. Although Durham has played almost exclusively as a second baseman throughout his career, I could see the Brewers using him as a Tony Phillips-like superutility player. The switch-hitting Durham could platoon with the disappointing Rickie “Hands of Stone” Weeks at second base, while also filling in at first base and perhaps even the outfield, assuming that Yost is willing to be daring. Durham’s ability to get on base, coupled with his occasional power, makes him a useful player. He also helps balance a lineup that leans far too much to the right side. Other than Prince Fielder, the Brewers haven’t had much left-handed hitting. Durham, a stronger presence from the left side, gives them a little bit more.

The Brewers really have no excuses now if they fail to make the playoffs. It’s debatable whether they’re as good as the Cubs, but they certainly have more talent than the Cardinals, whom they are currently trying to catch in the wild card chase. With All-Star talents like Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Sabathia, and Ben Sheets, the Brewers should beat out the overachieving Cardinals. If they don’t, the Ned Yost bashers will have their most convincing evidence yet that it’s time to make a change in the Brewers’ dugout…

Do you want to hear the good news or the bad news on the Yankees? The good news involves their standing in the AL East; they’re only two and a half games behind the Red Sox and four and a half games behind the Rays. The bad news is that their roster has been rendered a M*A*S*H unit, with Jorge Posada back on the disabled list, where he joins Hideki Matsui, Chien-Ming Wang, and Phil Hughes. With Posada’s right shoulder continuing to bark, the Yankees are looking at the real possibility that he won’t play again in 2008. Even if he does manage to suit up, he can forget about doing any catching the rest of the season. That leaves the Yankees in a quandary. As good as Jose Molina has been defensively, he is the kind of offensive non-entity that the Yankees can no longer afford to carry.  With their offense already devalued by Matsui’s injury and the wear-and-tear to Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu, the Yankees need a catcher who can hit at least a little. Some of the available candidates include Baltimore’s Ramon Hernandez, the Rangers’ Gerald Laird, Cincinnati’s David Ross, and the Padres’ pair of Josh Bard and Michael Barrett. Brian Cashman won’t have to break the bank for any of those receivers, but he will have to part with at least one prospect in any deal, something that he’s been reluctant to do up until now…

In a year that has already seen the passing of Eliot Asinof, W.C. Heinz, and Jules Tygiel, the baseball world lost another writing giant over the weekend. Jerome Holtzman, the unoffficial dean of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, died after a long illness. He was 82. Holtzman is best remembered for spearheading the invention of the save statistic, but his legacy encompasses far more than that. For years, he successfully covered both the Cubs and the White Sox as the guardian of the Chicago baseball beat. He wrote a terrific oral history, No Cheering in the Press Box, which chronicled the memories of some of the game’s early writers. He also provided some unique memories to other members of the BBWAA, as they delighted in watching him verbally spar with Dick Young, the dean of New York City baseball writers. Holtzman and Young might not have liked each other, but they were both impressive old-school chroniclers of the game’s history.

Caught On The Fly–Blanton, Jocko, and Marzano

A’s general manager Billy Beane did very well in acquiring two high-ceiling prospects from the Phillies for Joe “Bulldog” Blanton. The workmanlike right-hander has struggled badly this year, with an ERA creeping toward 5.00 and a declining strikeout rate. While I understand the Phillies’ interest in Blanton–they need starting pitching in the worst way and hope Blanton can fill the bill as a No. 3 starter–they paid a high price in surrendering second baseman Adrian Cardenas (no relation to former major league shortstop Leo Cardenas) and pitcher Josh Outman (what a wonderful name for a pitcher). Cardenas might have to be moved to the outfield at some point, but he has enough of a bat to justify playing him anywhere. Outman could join the Oakland bullpen by mid-2009, when the A’s figure to be more legitimate contenders to the Angels’ throne out west…

His death has hardly been acknowledged by the mainstream media, but it deserves to be at least mentioned here. Former Negro Leagues broadcaster and writer Sherman “Jocko” Maxwell died earlier this week at the age of 100. Maxwell religiously followed the exploits of the old Newark Eagles, submitting stories on game days to the Newark Star-Ledger. Maxwell also announced–free of charge–Sunday afternoon games in Newark as part of a broadcasting career that finally came to an end in 1967. Like other great Negro Leagues writers, including legends like Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith, Maxwell fulfilled an important role in publicizing and promoting black baseball both before and after Jackie Robinson integrated the game at the major league level…

For weeks now, we heard nothing public about the cause of death of former major leaguer John Marzano. That changed earlier on Friday, when the coroner announced that Marzano died from a fall that was caused by “ethanol intoxication,” or essentially alcohol intoxication. Ever since Marzano’s death in late April, speculation had centered on his death being caused by a heart attack, but that has now been ruled out. I’m really not sure how to feel about this latest revelation. If Marzano, a seemingly healthy 45-year-old man, had died suddenly because of an unexpected heart attack, it comes across as much more alarming because of concerns that it could happen to anyone. On the other hand, the news that his death was related to alcohol consumption makes it all the sadder because the circumstances could have been avoided. While the cause of death has been altered, the end result remains the same. Marzano, one of the game’s nicest guys and most energetic forces, is gone all too soon.

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Pastime Passings

The last few days have been rough ones for ballplayers and fans of the 1950s, sixties, and seventies. We’ve lost four retired players since last Thursday, all of whom had an impact on the game. Here is a tribute to the good memories they’ve left with us.

 

Bobby Murcer (Died on July 12 in Oklahoma City, OK; age 62; brain cancer):
Bobby Murcer was not a Hall of Fame ballplayer. He wasn’t the greatest center fielder in the history of the Yankees’ franchise. He never won a world championship, not in New York, San Francisco, or Chicago.

And yet, none of that matters. Murcer was a very good ballplayer who upheld the fine tradition of center fielders in the Bronx. A five-time All-Star, he put up two superstar seasons in 1971 and ’72–when he slugged .543 and .547 and totaled 58 home runs and 190 RBIs–along with about a half-dozen other campaigns of solid production. If he had been a bit luckier, he would have been part of two world championship teams with the Yankees. More to the point, above and beyond his many on-field accomplishments, Murcer had Hall of Fame personality and character. That’s what matters most.

I never met Bobby in person, but did have one opportunity to interview him over the phone. Some might question whether I knew Murcer well enough to make any judgments about him. That might be a legitimate concern in the case of many ballplayers, but it wasn’t with Murcer. When everyone in baseball tells you how good and caring and sensitive someone is, and that is corroborated the one time you have a chance to talk to him, that works well enough for me.

As a ballplayer, Murcer overcame an ill-fated stint as a shortstop and a lengthy stint in the Vietnam War to become an All-Star center fielder. He posted those two Hall of Fame seasons in 1971 and ’72, becoming a beloved Yankee Stadium fixture along the way. He never reached that peak again, in part because of the Yankees’ shift to Shea Stadium and in part because of an unwanted trade to San Francisco, where Murcer hated the ill winds of Candlestick Park. In spite of those geographical hardships, Murcer became one of the most productive outfielders of the 1970s.

In 1979, Murcer provided Yankee fans like me with two of the only highlights of a torturous and tragic season. The first occurred on June 26, when the Yankees brought Bobby back to the Bronx in exchange for an obscure right-hander named Paul Semall. The second came in early August, when only hours after delivering the eulogy for his friend Thurman Munson, Murcer drove in all of the Yankees’ runs in a dramatic 5-4 comeback win on Monday Night Baseball against the Orioles.

Thanks, Bobby, for memories–so many others, too–just like that.

Steve Mingori (Died ion July 10 in Kansas City, MO; age 64; natural causes):
He didn’t win a lot of games or earn many saves, but few middle-inning left-handers were as successful as Mingori. If he pitched in today’s game, he’d easily command one of those three-year, $18 million deals on the free agent market. Inconsistent in his early years with the Indians, Mingori emerged as an important weapon for the Royals of the mid-1970s, pitching out of the Jack McKeon/Whitey Herzog bullpens. Mingori used a herky-jerky sidearm delivery that made him tough on left-handers, and owned a deceptive screwball that made him effective against right-handed bats. (Mingori’s motion was so herky-jerky that it later caused him severe neck pain after his playing days, requiring surgery to alleviate the discomfort.) Off the field, Mingori was known as a joker and prankster. He became infamous for stealing food that belonged to the grounds crew at Royals Stadium, prompting one angry groundskeeper to dub Mingori “Crater Face.”

 

Dave Ricketts (Died on July 13 in St. Louis, MO; age 73; renal cancer): 
Acclaimed as both a coach and a clubhouse prankster, Ricketts made many friends during his days with the Cardinals and Pirates. After a non-descript career as a backup catcher in the 1960s, Ricketts became a coach with the Pirates in the early 1970s. He was activated briefly as a player during Pittsburgh’s 1971 world championship run, but didn’t appear in an actual game that season.

Several years ago, the late Nellie Briles told me about the role that Ricketts, his former teammate with the Cardinals, played during the Pirates’ world championship run in 1971. “Dave Ricketts was the No. 1 needler on the ballclub,” Briles said of the journeyman catcher-turned-coach, who was actually activated for three weeks in 1971 but did not appear in any actual games. “That was the style we had in St. Louis.  When we were winning the championships [with the Cardinals], Dave Ricketts was also there.  [In Pittsburgh], we always had this constant needling going, and the only rule we had about needling each other is that we never got personal.”

Ricketts remained with the Pirates’ organization as their bullpen coach until 1973. He then re-joined the Cardinals as a member of Red Schoendienst’s coaching staff. Ricketts’ first coaching term with St. Louis lasted only two years, but he returned to the organization in 1978, kicking off a 14-year tenure as a coach and batting practice pitcher. During his second tour of duty in St. Louis, Ricketts received high praise from Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. “The SOB is the hardest working man I’ve ever seen,” Herzog told sportswriter Dick Wagner years ago. Even after his days as a major league coach ended, Ricketts remained with the Redbirds’ organization as a spring training and minor league instructor.

Ricketts’ work ethic and knowledge of catching earned him a reputation as a catching guru, with an unmatched ability to improve the defensive play of young receivers. Simply put, Ricketts was one of those unheralded baseball guys who become essential to the game through their ability to pass the torch from one generation to another.

 

Chuck Stobbs (Died on July 11 in Sarasota, FL; age 79; cancer):
Stobbs was best remembered for giving up a famed tape-measured home run to Mickey Mantle, one that allegedly traveled 565 feet, but he also won 107 games during a 15-year career with the Red Sox, White Sox, Senators, Cardinals, and Twins. Known as an intense competitor on the mound, Stobbs provided some other memorable moments. During the 1956 season, he once threw a wild pitch that landed, according to reports, in row No. 17 of the grandstand. Seventeen rows deep! Despite that momentary lapse, he led all American League starters with a ratio of only 2.3 walks per nine innings. He also won a career-high 15 games that summer, an impressive total given Washington’s seventh-place standing at season’s end.

After putting together his best season in ’56, Stobbs lost his first 11 decisions in 1957 on his way to a 20-loss season. To his credit, he kept taking the ball late in the year, even as the milestone loss loomed. Later in his career, Stobbs moved to the Senators’ bullpen, where he became the club’s No. 1 reliever. 

Bobby Ray Murcer

I guess I felt something wasn’t quite right when I heard Bobby Murcer on his first Yankee broadcast of 2008. With his voice weakened and distant, it just didn’t sound like him. And then Bobby never returned to the broadcast booth.

All of my worst fears were confirmed on Saturday afternoon, when I heard the news that Bobby Murcer had died earlier in the day. Only 62 years of age, Bobby succumbed to the effects of brain cancer, which was first diagnosed in December of 2006.

This is heartbreaking news for me–as I’m sure it is for all of Bobby’s fans, and of course, his family and friends. When I first started following the Yankees in the early 1970s, he and Thurman Munson were my favorite players. They were two of the reasons why it was always worthwhile to switch the television dial to WPIX, even when the Yankees were losing more games than they were winning.

In his prime, Bobby was a five-tool player who did everything well. He enjoyed a couple of Hall of Fame seasons before showing some slippage in his game. And just as we waited for Bobby to bounce back, the Yankee front office broke our collective hearts by trading him to the Giants for Bobby Bonds.

Thankfully, the Yankees brought Murcer back in 1979, allowing him to finish out his career in the only place he should have played. When he retired, he stayed in the Bronx, becoming a broadcaster and friend to a new generation of younger fans. For us older fans who remembered watching him play, his place in the broadcast booth gave us a continuing connection to an earlier and more innocent era in Yankee history.

A few years ago, Bobby provided me with one of the most lasting thrills of my professional career when he agreed to become a guest on the Hall of Fame Hour show that Billy Sample and I hosted for MLB Radio. I’ll always cherish those few on-air moments with Bobby, who was as gracious and kind as I’d always been led to believe.

Today, I’m one of just many people offering thanks to the man who was known as Bobby Ray Murcer. He was one of the genuinely good ones; they’re realizing that in heaven right about now.