Tuesday, February 27, 2007

My Interview with Hobie Landrith

Hobie Landrith is perhaps best known as the New York Mets' first pick in the 1961 expansion draft. Manager Casey Stengel explained the choice by saying, "You gotta have a catcher or you're gonna have a lot of passed balls." Landrith had been a backup for the Reds (1950-55) but was traded after the 1955 season, when he had missed time with a broken collarbone. He was a regular for a weak Cubs team in 1956 and hit .221 while leading the all NL catchers in errors. As a regular on the 1959 Giants, Landrith had his best season, hitting .251 with 29 RBI and 30 runs in 283 AB’s.

The Early Days: I was lucky because I had an early childhood experience in baseball that probably a lot of other kids would want to copy. When I was 15 years old, playing baseball on the sandlots of Detroit, a Detroit Tigers scout approached me and asked if I would want to come down to Tiger Stadium and catch batting practice while they were trying to get Hank Greenberg into shape. He had been in the military, had been released, and the Tigers were on the road, and it was a 10-to-15-day span that he was going to be working out, hitting balls and catching balls, whatever. I jumped at the chance and this brought me into contact with members of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, and when the team returned home, they asked me if I would be catch batting practice. I was just overwhelmed by the opportunity to be rubbing shoulders with these players. It was great because it gave me an insight into what it would be like to be a major league baseball player. It was at that time that I felt like, yes, if I worked hard and really honed my skills, that I might have a chance to play in the major leagues. Five years later I was there.

His Catching Skills: I was in the major leagues more because I was a good defensive catcher, and the fact that I was good at handling pitchers. I always thought I was a fairly decent hitter, but I realized that I wasn’t in the big leagues for my bat. I had what they called “warning track power.” You know, I’d hit the ball pretty good, the fans would get up on their feet, and then they’d groan, because the ball would die at the warning track.

I became good at handling pitchers from things I had learned from Birdie Tebbetts when I was with the Reds. He taught me when to get on ‘em, when to not get on ‘em. I was able to recognize when a pitcher was losing his stuff or losing his composure and tried to get him back on track. And sometimes I had to play the bad guy and say things to the pitcher to get him riled up. I called all my own pitches.

On Umpires: You have to know your umpires, number one. And you’ve got to be careful of what you say and how frequently you say it. I remember Al Barlick, first time I said something to him, and he told me, “You do the catching and I’ll do the umpiring, okay?” He said it in a very stern way. And he was the best umpire in the National League at that time. And I said, “Okay.” So, I knew right then to catch the ball and let him umpire. As long as you didn’t use profanity, you could talk to most umpires and not get thrown out.

Stealing signs: It was 1954, the year the Giants won the pennant, and I was with the Reds that year, and we never beat the Giants at the Polo Grounds. The Giants always seemed to rally late in games and beat us. Well, many years later I found out that they were stealing our signs from center field. In some instances, you’d see a batter swing at a pitch like he knew what was coming, and in those instances we’d knock him flat on his butt, because we didn’t know where they were getting the signs. One time in Milwaukee we found out Braves’ players were getting our signs from the bullpen. They had binoculars out there and they were signaling them in to the batter. After the game, Alvin Dark came into the clubhouse and asked us, “Does anyone have a pair of binoculars?” So, we took them out to the bullpen and gave them some of their own medicine. We killed ‘em that game. That’s why we would change our signs when a guy got a real good cut at a ball. We figured they had our signs and at that point and we’d change them.

Playing in Candlestick: It was a blustery, windy, cold place -- it did everything but snow there. I’ve played in early season games in small towns back East when it was cold, but I have never been as cold as I was at Candlestick Park. And it didn’t matter how many layers of clothing you put on, either. That damp air at night would just chill you to the bone. I remember one night Harvey Kuenn put on a bunch of clothes – he had gloves, sweaters, several pairs of socks, long johns – and he was still freezing.

Playing with Willie Mays: Mays used to always call me “Honest John,” although I don’t know why. He gave some of us strange nicknames. Folks would criticize Willie for being hard to talk to, but it wasn’t always that way. Willie got burned by the press one time too many, and he got a little harder every time it happened. He was never that way with his teammates, though. I loved Willie and I had a great relationship with the man. I still do.

Barry Bonds: Dusty Baker asked me to come to spring training a few years ago to coach the Giant’s catchers, which I did. And I got a chance to see Barry Bonds in the clubhouse. For the most part, he was unapproachable. When he walked around in the clubhouse, you always had an uncertain feeling about him. One time I asked Barry for an autograph and he turned around and walked away from me. Orel Hershiser was there and told him to come back and sign, so he did. Barry is a nice person, but for the most part, in the clubhouse, he was not very approachable.

Playing with Willie McCovey: People ask me all the time, what kind of a guy is Willie McCovey? And I tell them, if Willie walks into a room and smiles, everyone in that room smiles too. I was in the lineup for his first major league game when he went 4-for-4 against Robin Roberts. I just feel fortunate that I was able to play with the man during my career. He’s just a wonderful person.

Being Drafted in 1961 by the Mets: The GM with the Mets was George Weiss, what a piece of work he was. I mean, if you’re the first pick, you figure you should make at least the same as you did the year before, right? No. They offered me three or four thousand dollars less than what I was making with San Francisco. So, I sent the contract back. I told Weiss that I found his offer to be totally unacceptable. He sent me the same contract three times and I sent it back three times. I told him that I’d stay home before I signed I accepted these contracts. He wouldn’t budge, so I finally had to sign. The man was cold, cold, cold, and I didn’t enjoy that at all.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

30 Baseball Interviews and Counting...

Starting in April of 2002, I began interviewing retired professional baseball players, their relatives, or other people associated with major league baseball, for the Society of American Baseball Research’s (SABR) Oral History Committee. My inspiration for this series of interviews is a wonderful book entitled, “The Glory of Their Times” in which the late Lawrence Ritter interviewed a handful of major league baseball players who played in the teens and twenties. Before actually reading it, I purchased the book on tape, and listened to it on long drives in the car. Hearing these players’ voices as they recanted their lives and careers through their stories, I became enamored with what they had to say about their own personal perspectives on little pieces of baseball history. And suddenly I realized what really fascinated me about them is that it wasn’t so much about baseball itself, but about the history of this great game and the period in which they played. I enjoyed hearing their versions of the important games they participated in, but I was more interested in what they recalled about the times they lived in. The train rides, the clubhouse banter, their different teammates, the places they hung out at, the stadiums, the fans -- the entire package intrigues me more today than ever, and I just can’t seem to get enough of it.

Last month I did my 30th interview. My goal is 100, which should take a few more years.
Here is a list of the players I’ve taped interviews with:

Duane Pillette
Ernie Broglio
Jesse Gonder
Bob Locker
Bill Wight
Ernie Fazio
Gus Triandos
Joe DeMaestri
Jim Mangan
Eddie Bressoud
Bill Renna
Jim Davenport
Gil Hodges III
Rugger Ardizoa
Dario Lodigiani
Chris Haughey
Cuno Barragan
Hobie Landrith
Ed O’Brien
Nino Bongiovanni
Dick Williams
Gus Zernial
Ernie Fazio
Charlie Silvera
Rob Andrews
Ray Coleman
Bob Roselli
Nate Oliver
Lester Rodney
Joanne Budka-Clines
Erik Johnson
Duane Pillette

Friday, February 23, 2007

My Interview with Jesse Gonder


Jesse Gonder died on November 14, 2004 in Oakland, California at the age of 68. Although his role in MLB was basically that of a journeyman catcher, Gonder found relative success in 1963 and ‘64 as the starting backstop for that hapless new gang of lovable dolts known as the New York Mets. After having started the ’63 season with the Cincinnati Reds, Gonder was shipped off to the Mets, where he hit .302. In 1964, he batted .270 in 131 games. Having begun his career with the New York Yankees in 1960, Gonder became one of the first players to play for both the Yankees and the Mets during his major league career. More notably, Gonder built a reputation over the years for being outspoken at a time when most African-American athletes were reluctant to do so.After he retired from the game, Gonder became a bus driver for Golden Gate Transit in the Bay Area, remaining in that position for over 20 years before retiring in the mid-1990s.

A great baseball high school:
“I graduated from McClymonds in 1955. That team went undefeated the last three years I was there. We had a group of guys here in Oakland that could play ball. Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curtis Flood….myself. I went to school with all of them. A guy named Curt Roberts was there before us, as was Charlie Beamon. We were all good athletes. And Frank was the first one to sign and he went to the big leagues. And after he signed professional, we all figured we had a pretty good chance of going. We had one guy, a scout, named Bob Madic. He ended up being the General Manager for the Toronto Blue Jays. He signed us all into the Reds’ organization. He cleaned up financially, too. We saw small bonuses, but from what I heard, he made quite a bit for signing us.”

Racism: “Back in those days, being black, if you couldn’t accept being humiliated, or insulted, I should say -- if you couldn’t accept being called ‘nigger’ or ‘watermelon eater’, ‘Amos ‘n Andy”, any racial insult that they could possibly throw at you – then you couldn’t make it.”
“I had some good times, but with what I had to go through in baseball, it really wasn’t that much fun. Once I got into the game and I found out how political it was, I realized what was gonna hold me back. It ceased being fun, it really did. There was really nothing fun about it.”
“In Cincinnati, we were the first team to integrate spring training. We stayed at the same motel with the white players in 1962.”

“Only the guys with the thick skin made it. Maybe we weren’t the best athletes, but we had thicker skin. We knew what we had to do to survive. There was really nothing fun about it. Everywhere you ran into racism. Everywhere. In a lot of the places we couldn’t even go in and eat with the white players. We had to sit out on the bus, while they brought us hamburgers and things like that, you know, after they had eaten.”

“Jerry Jacobs, a white player from McClymonds High, signed with the Reds a year before I did. Jerry signed a year before me, and then the next year when I signed, we all left here together from the 6th Street railroad station to go to Douglas, Georgia – that’s where Cincinnati had their spring training. We all grew up together; we all went to school together in West Oakland. And everything was fine until we got to Chicago. And once we got to Chicago and headed South, Jerry Jacobs and I got on the train. I saw all the black people sitting in one place, so I just went and sat with them. It never occurred to me what was going on; I just went and sat with the black people. Jerry came and sat with us too. And the porter came back there and told him, “You can’t sit here. You have to go and sit with the whites. And that was our first taste of racism like that.”

The Great Yankees: “They told me, “Casey wants you.” And I said, “What? “ And they said, “You’re going to New York.” And I said, “No, I’m not. I don’t belong to the Yankees.” And they said, “You do now. They just bought you.” That night, I’m in Yankee Stadium, google-eyed. I guess that was the biggest thrill I got out of baseball at the time, you know? I’m there with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Then, we go on a road trip, we go to Boston. They had already clinched the pennant.”

Mickey Mantle: “Mickey drank a lot. We were talking in Atlantic City at a memorabilia show one day (in the 80’s.) And he told me, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I wouldn’t have drank so much.” And I told him, “Mickey, the liquor is probably what’s kept you alive.” And he thought that was funny.”

Casey Stengel: “ESPN wanted to interview me, Johnny Blanchard and Clete Boyer for SportsCentury about Casey a few years back. Clete declined to be interviewed. He said, “I don’t have anything to say about the so-and-so.” ‘Cause Casey was not a good players’ manager, period. He was a media man. He was an ambassador. Blanchard told the guy from ESPN. “Casey did this to me. He told me when I first came up that I could really hit. And I said, “Yeah, skip – I can hit pretty good.” So, Casey asked me, “Can you catch?” And I said, “Yeah, Casey, I can catch pretty good, too.” So, Casey said, “Well, if you can really catch, then, catch that 12 o’ clock plane to Denver. Blanchard had been optioned to Denver.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

Well, the NBA is past the All-Star break, so it can’t be too much longer until spring training really kicks into gear. Did I hear that NFL minicamps start next week? Just kidding!

SEASONINGS: The San Diego Chargers just became the butt of all my football jokes for the next year. They hired Norv Turner as their coach! At this point, people may think I have it in for Turner, since I keep writing negative things about him. But the fact is that Turner is just a bad coach. As an offensive coordinator, he’s great—maybe one of the best out there right now. (See, there’s something positive about good ol’ Norv!) As a coach, he doesn’t have the hard-nosed mentality to keep an entire football team together and keep the players believing in him. I follow the New York Giants, so I watch the NFC East closely. While Turner was with the Washington Redskins, I got to see him coach twice a year against Big Blue. And naturally, I kept myself informed on where the ’Skins were in the standings throughout each season. Turner never took that team anywhere. I also live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so when Norv came to the Raiders, his losing ways were headline news every week. I mean, the guy went 9–23 with Oakland! Granted, both the ’Skins and the Raiders were losers when Turner took over, but he didn’t do anything to help them. Now the guys on the Bolts, including LaDainian Tomlinson, are crowing about what a “perfect fit” Turner is, since he helped build the San Diego offense as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator in 2001. But it’s hard to believe that the system Turner implemented six years ago hasn’t changed at least a little. With all the talent on that team, it should still make the playoffs next year, but don’t expect serious contention for a Super Bowl ring. To think that Turner has a better chance of winning a championship than former coach Marty Schottenheimer is ludicrous, even if Turner did win twice in the 1990s as the Dallas offensive coordinator and Schottenheimer has never won a ring as a coach. My guess is that in 2007, the Chargers’ record will be worse than their 14–2 showing last season, and it will get worse every season that Turner is there until he is fired. My condolences to the football fans in San Diego—you were close enough to sniff the Super Bowl this year, too! But keep dreaming! As long as L.T. is there, the team will always start each season with a chance to compete.

I cannot believe how much ink has been devoted to the relationship between Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter since A-Rod was traded to the New York Yankees four years ago. Really—who cares, except for Yankee fans “starved” for a championship who don’t have anything better to talk about? (Try being a Cubs fan to see what it’s like to truly be starved for a championship!) Why don’t all these New York fans talk about what bad moves ownership made over the last few years, or how the pitching has been terrible, or how money spent obviously guarantees nothing? No, they have to discuss how Jeter and A-Rod aren’t buddy-buddy anymore, and that A-Rod is SO emotionally fragile that he can’t function at bat or in the field next to Jeter until Jeter extends an olive branch. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Give me a break! You’d think these guys had been a couple who went through a nasty breakup the way they are portrayed in the media! Did A-Rod disrespect Jeter in Esquire six years ago? You bet. A-Rod was obviously jealous at the success that Jeter has had in the playoffs, winning four rings in five years, especially in light of the fact that A-Rod hasn’t won squat, except a few MVP awards. The MVPs are nice, but we all know they are meaningless with no rings alongside them. Does Jeter have a right to be put off? Yes, indeed—although six years later, you would think such a mentally tough guy would be able to put that kind of thing behind him. Nevertheless, there have been championship teams in all sports who have won despite friction between teammates. True professional athletes should be able to play successfully no matter who is in the clubhouse. I wish the media hounds in New York and around the country would just let the pop psychology go already. If A-Rod can’t handle the heat in the playoffs as a Yankee, it’s not because of Jeter—but it could be because he, his agent, and the rest of the American public actually believe that he’s as good as he’s been pumped up to be since he was on the Seattle Mariners. Maybe everyone should stop believing everyone else and just look at the postseason numbers to determine A-Rod’s worth to his team.

What is Isiah Thomas thinking? New York Knicks forward David Lee played in the rookie-sophomore game at the NBA’s All-Star weekend and scored 30 points on 14-for-14 shooting. He won the MVP for that game, as the sophs smoked the rookies 155–114. He is also the NBA’s leader in field goal percentage, at 61.2 percent, and he is averaging 11.2 points and 10.6 boards a game. Yet venerable Coach Zeke remains adamant about starting the dreadful Jerome James in Lee’s place, keeping Lee coming off the bench. According to the New York Times, James might have had his best outing during his first night as a starter, against the Orlando Magic two weeks ago. Since then, “James’s playing time has withered—from 7 minutes 9 seconds against the Clippers to 4 minutes against Utah to 3:14 against the Lakers and to 1:46 against Golden State. He is scoreless in that stretch, going 0 for 5 from the field, with 5 rebounds and no blocked shots.” So what is the point of starting this guy if he’s going to play less than two minutes before he gets yanked? Maybe instead of having the Knicks fall behind at the beginning of every game, Thomas should get his head out of his behind and back on the court and start Lee. After all, what does Isiah have to lose? If the Knicks don’t show “significant improvement,” as judged by owner James “Duck Folan” Dolan, Zeke’s gone anyway. He might as well go down using all the weapons at his disposal, rather than playing a hunch that isn’t working and further risking the chopping block.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A-Rod and Jeter: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Wow. This article on www.aol.com really kind of shocked me. Two huge superstars aren’t hanging out together anymore. I get all teary-eyed when I read this kind of thing. Do you mean that A-Rod and Jeter aren’t going to be doing a LaVerne and Shirley this season? No riding bikes together or playing board games on the weekend? No long walks in the park? How about an occasional night out on the town, chasing Paris Hilton and/or Mariah Carey? In my opinion, the problem is with A-Rod. He’s not a team player like Jeter has proven he is. It won’t faze either of them, anyway. When you make the kind of cash these two guys do, you can buy all of the friends you’ll ever need! Besides, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig never got along, either – and it didn’t slow them down.

TAMPA, Fla. – Alex Rodriguez sat himself precisely upon the sheet of notebook paper with "13" written on it, the unspoken direction located on the home-dugout bench at Legends Field here, wedged between a smile and a sigh.
He arrived at New York Yankees camp Monday. He stopped by for his annual physical, which, as it turned out, preceded another 15 minutes of poking and prodding, this without the benefit of the Latex glove.
There are five issues that dog the two-time MVP, and he came prepared to discuss them all.
First, he is 4-for-41 without an RBI in his last 12 playoff games for the Yankees. ("I've stunk.")
Second, it got so bad Joe Torre had to hide him in the eighth place in the order. ("I was embarrassed.")
Third, he won't really say if he'll opt out of the final three years of his contract after this season. ("I want to be a New York Yankee.")
Fourth, Derek Jeter doesn't want to be his best friend anymore and hasn't wanted to be for quite some time.
Fifth, does this Jeter thing have anything whatsoever to do with any of the first three?
OK. Alex?
"Well, let's make a contract," Rodriguez said. "You don't ask me about Derek anymore, and I promise I'll stop lying to all you guys."
That sounds fine. Wait a second. …
"Let's be honest," he continued. "Look, Derek and I were best of friends about 10, 12 years ago. Became best of friends. We're still good friends. We get along well. We cheer hard for each other. He cheers for me. And we both want to win a world championship. Do we go to dinner every night like we used to? No. But we're good friends, have a lot of respect for each other, and we want to win. No more questions about that."
Which, of course, brought a few nods and about 10 more questions. Because this is Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez we're talking here, and for six weeks every spring this little green corner of Tampa becomes New York without the snow shovels. And what was that about the lying?
"I think it's just important to cut the [BS], you know?" he said. "I mean, it is what it is. I think when you get into all the [bull], people start assuming that things are a lot worse than what they are, which they are not. But they're obviously not as great as they used to be, when we were like blood brothers, you know?"
The natural follow-up, then, as everyone had decided to opt out of the A-Rod/Jeter contract anyway, was: What happened? And why?
"You don't have to go to dinner with a guy four or five times a week to do what you do," he said. "It's actually much better than all you guys [suspect], but I just wanted the truth to be known. … You go from sleeping over at somebody's house five days a week, and now you don't sleep over. It's just not that big of a deal. That's happened with your friends, I'm sure. Some of your friends.
"I think it's just important to let all you guys know. You guys haven't heard it from me [before]. It's an old question. There's nothing there. It's much better than you guys are going to write, but the reality is, there's been a change in the relationship over 14 years and hopefully we can put it behind us."
Rodriguez starts his fourth season as a Yankee, his 14th as a big-leaguer – he's more than halfway to 900 home runs – and finds it necessary to divulge he no longer sleeps over at the shortstop's house.
If Jeter were charged with opening a hole for A-Rod to run through, or if Jeter were the point guard and A-Rod his points-hungry power forward, this might matter.
But this is baseball and these are grown men.
Jeter gets his at-bat, then A-Rod gets his. If A-Rod can't reach a ball to his left, then Jeter gets it. That's the end of it.
Sure, Rodriguez must deliver, particularly in October, assuming the Yankees get there. Sure, he's in danger of getting those 900 home runs and no one remembering a single one. And sure, he gets booed a lot, and right about now a lot of New Yorkers probably can't decide if they're overjoyed Rodriguez might opt out of his contract or indignant Rodriguez might opt out of his contract.
But to suggest Jeter has anything to do with those failures, or that his friendship or public support would have done anything to avert them, is misguided.
The Yankees presumably would benefit greatly from an emotionally secure A-Rod, but could Jeter really play a part in that?
"I care about what he thinks about me on the field," Rodriguez said. "I think it's important for us to be on the right page and we are. We're here to win a championship together."
Beyond that, he said, "I'm a big boy. I'm 31 years old now. So I should be able to help myself out there."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

How Wrong is Tim Hardaway?

Tim Hardaway made some pretty caustic remarks recently about former NBA player John Amaeci being gay. They were hateful and inappropriate. Now he’s getting a lot of flack about it. Personally, I’m torn on this subject. First, I have no problems with homosexuals or lesbians. I live in super liberal San Francisco, where people walk around every day naked and drooling with tennis balls tapped up their butts while talking to dogs in three different languages, and no one in this town, including myself, really cares – as long as they don’t drool on me or ask me to play catch with the tennis ball. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing those crazies to gay folks in any way. I’m just making a point. The gay people I know are compassionate, creative, wonderful individuals and human beings just like anyone else. Someone’s sexual preference has never been a concern of mine, so if someone is attracted to members of the same sex, more power to them. If they like livestock or hump ottomans, I could care less. To each his own has always been my belief. On the other hand, if Tim Hardaway doesn’t like gay people, why shouldn’t he have the right to express his opinions? Now the NBA has asked Hardaway not to attend their All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas because of his remarks. I understand embracing diversity in the workplace, but I feel like we’ve gone too far in trying to be completely accepting of everyone. Some groups just don’t like other groups, for whatever reason, and as long as they don’t threaten or harm each other, I believe they’re totally within their rights to express it. We supposedly live in a free-speech society. What if Hardaway had spoken out against the war in Iraq, Catholic priests, pay toilets or chronic jaywalkers? Would he have been banned for that? His opinion may be moronic and many of us may disagree, but why should he be punished and chastised by society just because he’s homophobic? People from the KKK and other racist, hateful organizations get up all the time and spout their propaganda in the media. If they’re protected by the Freedom of Speech, why isn’t Hardaway? Athletes say stupid stuff all the time (examples: Charles Barkley, Mike Tyson, Dennis Rodman), because they’re human and have a porous filter between their brains and their mouths, but why should they be penalized for it? I don’t think Hardaway is going to be invited to be the marshal of the Gay Day Parade, but even if he is an idiot and a homophobe, he doesn’t need to be banned for saying what he believes. Dumb-ass celebrities, redneck racists, and even ignorant politicians all have a place in American society. That’s the downside of living in a totally free country.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Pee Chee Folders: Classic Sports Images that Everyone Remembers

Anybody who ever went to school in this country within the last 60 years knows about Pee Chee Folders. For many of us, they were the first sports images we ever remember looking at on a regular basis. The one you recognize will pinpoint when you went to school. If the top one is familiar to you, you’re quite old, probably in your 80’s or 90’s. If the middle one is more recognizable, you’re probably somewhere in your 60’s. And if the bottom version brings back feelings of nostalgia, you’re around my age (48) or a little younger. Pee Chee’s always had the worst art on them, and more than one student got in trouble for drawing inappropriate things on them in order to spice up their boring look.

There’s a great web site I found that has articles on the history of advertising in America, and it also had this piece on Pee Chee Folders:

Sadly, the most recognized element of my own school days is no longer being made, even though it lasted almost 60 years, and became the most abused item in every student's arsenal of paper.
The yellow Pee Chee Folder was first released in 1943 by the Western Tablet and Stationery Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Early versions featured young boys and girls at the soda shop, or wartime images such as jeeps and navy ships.
By 1964, Mead Paper had bought Western Tablet and introduced new artwork to the Pee Chee line. These images of tennis players, football heroes, track stars, and dancers were drawn by Francis Golden, who received only a one-time fee for pictures that would grace millions of folders each year. Golden later became a prominent water colorist, and over the years new artists took over illustrating Pee Chee folder updates. According to Mead, the style of art was updated approximately every ten years.
The modification of Pee Chee folders could probably serve as some sort of psychological study-sort of like reading inkblots or tealeaves. Every student except the most fastidious, added elements, colored in parts, scratched out eyes, doodled on, or sexually modified the familiar images to suit their own bent and grade level. In my era, swastikas were a popular addition, as were Rat-Fink-style car drawings and rocket ships. Girls tended to favor romantic elements, such as hearts and flowers, while the boys were more likely to use a good eraser to blot out the faces of the runners, or add anatomically correct appendages. But since I went to Catholic school, none of that was left intact for very long. Consequently, in my classes many Pee Chee folders were drenched in ink, layer after layer first revealing, then covering up various parts of the drawings.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

My Interview with Gus Zernial


Gus Zernial’s greatest achievement in major league baseball was probably when he led the American League in home runs in 1951. He was a power-hitting outfielder who never played for a first division team, but he hit 237 career homers and batted .265. His nickname was Ozark Ike, based on a popular comic strip at the time. From 1951 to 1957, only Mickey Mantle hit more round trippers in the AL. In 1951, Zernial hit 33 home runs, and in 1953, he had his best power year with 42. He played for the A’s in Philadelphia and Kansas City; then with the White Sox and Detroit. Although he was a great hitter, his fielding was far than spectacular. Twice during his career he broke his collarbone chasing down fly balls.

Norma Jean and Ozark Ike: While with the White Sox in 1949, a young starlet by the name of Marilyn Monroe came to the ballpark to do a pictorial for a National Enquire-type magazine. Gus remembered that she was “such a nice girl.” “She asked a bunch of questions about baseball…she was really interested in the game.” Zernial said that he was perplexed later when they made her look less than wholesome in many of her films. When DiMaggio started dating Monroe years later, they asked Joltin’ Joe about Marilyn and Gus, and the Yankee Clipper made a disparaging remark about Zernial, something to the effect that “Marilyn would never date a bush leaguer like Zernial”. For some reason known to only Joe, DiMag held a grudge against Zernial until the day he died.

Hit 33 HR’s in 1951, but didn’t even get in the all-star game that year:
“There was a guy around at that time named Ted Williams, and although I always finished second, he pretty much beat me out in the all-star voting every time. Casey Stengel was the manager of the all-stars every year, because the Yankees won the American League every year, but he never chose me. Casey never selected me for the all-star team, and I was always up in the voting. But, he had people he wanted to put in there, and I can understand that. Casey had his own players that he liked to select. For instance, Jackie Jensen was someone he liked to pick, even though he didn’t do real well in the voting that year. And he chose Jackie. And in 1953, when Ted had to go back in the service for awhile, of course, I won the voting that year. I started the all-star game, and Casey was still there. I think he would have prevented me from playing in the all-star game that year if he could have. He was so anxious to get Minnie Minoso in there that he barely let me get two at bats. But, I singled in that game – it was the first base hit of the game. But, that’s Casey. Managers will always have their favorites and they still do.”

Striking out a lot: “Today they strike out 110 times only halfway through the season. I averaged about 70 strikeouts a year. In 1951, we didn’t have a good team. We had good players, but we didn’t have a good ball club. And I think in some of those games I was just trying to hit a home run late in the game when we were trailing. That’s no excuse for the strikeouts, but we’d be behind and I’d go up and try to hit it out, you know?”

Association with Appling: “Luke Appling took me by the hand, showed me around the league, took me to into a few bars, showed me the ropes, so to speak. No, he was a great, great guy. Luke and I become good friends, he did it all with me. I’m really happy to say I played with some really great players. Played with Appling, Kaline – guys like that.
I had some HOF years, but I certainly didn’t have a HOF career. In 1954 when I got hurt, that was the end for me. Hurt my shoulder in 1954.”

Booed by the Philadelphia A’s fans when he hurt his shoulder:
“Yeah – Philadelphia, they’ll boo ya. There are certainly some boo birds there.
Announcer told fans I’d broken my shoulder. Took me down this tunnel and I could hear them booing me all the way down to the clubhouse.”

Racism in the game: “I think when Jackie Robinson first came up, I think some of the players resented it, and some didn’t. But, I never had any trouble with it, at all. Told my brothers, “Hey, the black players are just the same as us.” They resented that situation. I said, “Hey, that’s part of the game.”

All the stadiums are history now: “Every home ball park I played in is now gone. There’s nothing left. Chicago. Chicago’s stadium is gone. Same with Philadelphia, Detroit and Kansas City. All those stadiums are gone. Tiger Stadium is actually still there, but they don’t play there anymore. Detroit used to have a nice downtown, but it’s not as nice now.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

NY Giants Clean House

I cannot believe how rapidly LaVar Arrington has fallen from grace. A couple of seasons ago, he was one of the hottest young players in the league. Now, he's looking for a job. Couldn't they have traded him for some draft picks or something? They must really be upset with the guy. By releasing him the way they did, the Giants are going to cost Arrington a ton of money on the free agent market. Other teams will be suspicious and reluctant to bid on a guy who was let go so abruptly. The Giants are in a major rebuilding phase whether they like it or not. And the bottom line is that they're in trouble, because Eli Manning is no Peyton. Or even an Archie, for that matter.

This was on www.cbssportsline.com yesterday:

The New York Giants released linebacker LaVar Arrington and two other starters Monday in the first major shake-up under new general manager Jerry Reese.
New York also cut linebacker Carlos Emmons and offensive tackle Luke Petitgout, both of whom were slowed by injuries over the last two seasons.
The release of Arrington ended a brief and unsatisfying tenure with the Giants for the former Pro Bowler, who was signed last year for $49 million over seven years but suffered an Achilles injury against Dallas on Oct. 23 and played in only six games.
"LaVar's situation is unfortunate because he was just starting to really become a factor in our defense at the time of his injury," Reese said.
Reese, who last month replaced the retired Ernie Accorsi, served notice that he will not stand pat with a team that won the NFC East in 2005 but was humiliated in a first-round playoff loss to Carolina, then squeaked into the playoffs last season with an 8-8 record and again lost in the first round.
"These are difficult decisions," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "But as Jerry and I looked at the roster, they are decisions we felt we had to make as we start to compose our team for the upcoming season."
Combined with the retirement of running back Tiki Barber, the Giants now have additional salary-cap space to pursue free agents this offseason. Emmons had two years remaining on a five-year contract worth $16.5 million and was to make $2 million this year, and Petitgout had two years left on his contract and was due $5 million for 2007.
Arrington, whose contract was filled with incentives, was scheduled to make $900,000 next season.
Petitgout started 106 games at tackle and guard over eight seasons for the Giants, but broke his leg against Chicago on Nov. 12 and missed the Giants' final seven games. He became expendable when guard David Diehl switched to left tackle and played well in his absence.
Dumping Petitgout's contract could give the Giants a better shot at re-signing free-agent center Shaun O'Hara.
Emmons, acquired from Philadelphia in 2004, played in 36 games in three seasons but missed a total of 11 games in the last two seasons with a pectoral injury.
Calls to the agents for all three players were not immediately returned Monday evening.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

Sorry I was gone this week—I was in the Big Easy taking cooking lessons! But I still have my fingers on the pulse of the sports world!

SEASONINGS: Have you seen how noncommittal Bud Selig is about congratulating Barry “Steroid Boy” Bonds if and when Bonds breaks Hank Aaron’s home run record? Selig said he will not make a point of going to San Francisco Giants games when Bonds gets close, and if Bonds does break the record, he can expect only a phone call from the commissioner. Selig used Trevor Hoffman’s breaking of the career saves record as an example of a record that was overtaken while he was not in attendance. Also said Bud: “I wasn't there when Roger Clemens won his 300th game.… I have said before, if and when Barry Bonds breaks that record, it will be handled the same way that every other record in baseball that’s been broken was handled.” Isn’t it a shame that baseball’s grandest record is being treated with such apathy by its highest executive? Thanks to Bonds for that.

Speaking of baseball, it’s hard to believe that pitchers and catchers report Tuesday. It’s only been a week since the Super Bowl! But the NBA is not really holding my interest this year, so now that football is over, it’s nice that baseball is on the horizon. Incidentally, I have no picks right now. Talk to me after the All-Star break and we might be able to have a discussion about that.

By the way, congrats to Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy for leading the Colts to victory over the Bears in the Super Bowl. Even after Devin Hester’s return for a touchdown on the opening kick, I thought the Colts would win the game. Rex Grossman has nothing on Manning, and the Bears’ defense had no chance. Maybe now, Manning can relax and enjoy the rest of his career as he racks up more and more records. And maybe he’ll be able to enjoy any future playoff appearances without having to answer any of the endless, tedious questions about how he could never win “the Big Game.”

I thought I would respect the Dallas Cowboys a little more if Jerry Jones decided not to hire Norv Turner as the new head coach. But Wade Phillips—to follow Bill Parcells, no less—makes me laugh almost as hard. Compared to the Tuna, Phillips should be called “the Cream Puff”—T.O. will tear him apart and walk all over him next year. You can be sure that Jerry Jones will be holding the puppet strings attached to Phillips and will orchestrate his every move. And when T.O. acts up, Jones will let Phillips know who wears the pants! I expect nothing but disarray and dysfunction coming from the Cowboys during Phillips’s tenure as head coach, no matter how fast Tony Romo develops. Look for the Eagles and Giants to win the NFC East every year until the ’Boys get a new head coach who has a spine.

Lastly, I have occasionally mentioned my amazing wife in my column, and she’s going to get praise again. She took me on a surprise trip to New Orleans for my birthday last week to learn how to cook gumbo. The trip was awesome, the gumbo was incredible, and I can’t thank my wife enough! But I just want to add that even though the Superdome looks great again compared to the pictures from after Hurricane Katrina, there are sections of the city that are still devastated and whole neighborhoods that seem practically abandoned. So if you are looking for a place to go on a trip, I urge you to consider New Orleans. Bourbon Street is still Bourbon Street, and some of the finest cuisine and music on the planet is still in the Big Easy, but some restaurants and stores are only half-staffed because the people and the money just aren’t back yet. So go to Mardi Gras this year or next, if it’s something you always wanted to do. Attend the annual jazz festival. And of course, see some games there. Go to the Superdome to see the Saints next year. Once the Hornets come back on a regular schedule, go take in some hoops. The city of New Orleans would appreciate it, and you’d be helping your fellow citizens recover from a terrible disaster. Face it—if your city was hit by an earthquake, a hurricane, a tornado, or some other awful catastrophe, you’d want other people to come help you, too.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Nino Bongiovanni: The 11th Oldest Living Major League Baseball Player

As part of my participation in SABR (The Society for Baseball Research) and for my web site: www.thisgreatgame.com, I interview old retired baseball players. Last weekend I got the opportunity to interview Dario Lodigianni, who played for the Philadelphia A's and Chicago White Sox, as well as the San Francisco Seals and Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. We spent two hours talking about his life and it was a wonderful experience.
Here is an interview I did 2005 with a former player named Nino Bongiovanni. Nino played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1938 and 1939. He is 95 years old and the 11th oldest MLB ballplayer still alive. When I interviewed him, he was #25. Here are a few excerpts from our interview:

"We didn’t have any little leagues like they have now. To make our own diamonds, we used to cut the weeds, and make baselines, and that was our ballpark. And the rest of the infield and the entire outfield was nothing but weeds. I wanted to play ball so badly, I took a 2 by four and took a pocket knife and made a bat out of it. Then, I took a round rock and then wrapped it up with all kinds of string and stuff and I made a baseball and then wrapped it all up with bicycle tape, and you don’t know what it felt like to hit that kind of a ball with that kind of a bat – it was really rough on the hands. But, we had nothing else in those days.

In Portland, 1934, I hit in 56 straight games, but only got credited with 44. A sportswriter, Screwball Gregory took two hits away from me in that 44th game. I went on to hit in 12 more, so I would have tied DiMaggio.

Played against some big names. Bobby Doerr, Joe DiMaggio, who broke into the Pacific Coast League around the same time I did. I remember him as the greatest hitter I ever saw.
The best baseball player I have ever seen.

I could run and I was a pretty good contact hitter. I never struck out very much. In 1939, we won the pennant and got into the World Series against the Yankees. I got to pinch-hit once, in the third game. They called Ernie Lombardi the goat in that series, because of the ball he failed to hang on to, and he laid down, slowly getting up. What happened was, Charlie Keller, who was built like an ape, was coming in from third base, running full steam, and he hit Ernie Lombardi on the side of the temple, and knocked him about 20 feet away from the plate. And Ernie was a little slow getting up, so they called him a goat. He didn’t get up right away, because he was almost knocked out. I think a smaller man would have stayed there, but Ernie was a big guy, so he took the blow pretty good. Joe DiMaggio scored while he was lying there.

Relationship with Reds manager Bill Mckechnie: I did not like him because he did not like me. He used to call me dago, which I didn’t like. But, I was afraid to go over and tell him that I didn’t like him calling me that. So, I just let it go. But, uh, I’m sure he didn’t like me. Because every time I’d do something he didn’t like out in the outfield, I could hear him yelling at me all over the park. He did that twice, and you know, that showed me up in front of all those fans, and it there was no reason for it. "

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Andy Reid's Brats

Philadelphia Eagles’ Head Coach Andy Reid was no doubt extremely grateful to get rid of troublemaking prima donna WR Terrell Owens after he butted heads with T.O. in 2005. What he probably didn’t realize is that he’s got two little prima donnas at home who share his last name.

Two of Andy Reid's sons were involved in two separate incidents recently, and one of them was taken to a local hospital for a blood test after police found drug paraphernalia in his possession, according to investigators.

Police said Britt Reid was involved in some sort of dispute with another driver in West Conshohocken Tuesday morning. The man, a local carpenter, told police that he and a man in his 20s with reddish hair, driving a black SUV, exchanged curse words and hand gestures as they jockeyed for position on an area road.

When the two stopped at a red light, the carpenter said the man got out of his SUV, threatened him verbally and flashed a gun at him before fleeing, according to police. Following the incident, investigators filed warrants for the Reid home and SUV. Investigators recovered two weapons; one from the SUV and a platinum handgun from the Reid home.

The source also said that police recovered drugs from the SUV. In a separate incident, a second son of Reid's, 24-year-old Garrett Reid, was found to have drug paraphernalia -- but not drugs -- on him after he was involved in a car crash that same day. A 55-year-old woman, injured in the crash, was released from the hospital the next day.

These brats are gangster wannabes who think they’re above the law because their father is an NFL coach. What a complete joke. These punks make me sick. Maybe Andy should spend some quality time with his sons during the off-season, because this type of behavior is obviously a major cry for help.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

My Super Bowl XLI Predictions

Super Bowl XLI is going to be a complete blowout. Every year we spend the two weeks before the Super Bowl and after the Conference Championship games talking up the underdog and convincing ourselves that the game will be worth watching. In reality, the odds makers are usually always right, and they have this one picked perfectly, if not maybe just a little too conservatively. The Indianapolis Colts are going to blowout the Chicago Bears in embarrassing fashion, by a final score of 38-20. Chicago will score a meaningless touchdown late, but the game will never be close. Peyton Manning will be the MVP, the Colts will throw for more than 300 yards and run for more than 150, and the Bears will commit 3 turnovers, including 2 Rex Grossman interceptions. At one point Indy will be up by more than 3 touchdowns and Manning will complete 6 straight passes. There will be a special team’s touchdown and a defensive touchdown, Billy Joel will do a sub-par job on the national anthem and Prince will steal the halftime show without baring either of his breasts. The commercials will get a low B grade, the pre-game show will go on forever and I will eat more than my share of chicken wings, potato skins and chili con queso. Those are my Super Bowl XLI predictions and I’m sticking to them. Enjoy the game. It’s doesn’t get any more American than this!

UPDATE: I was close on some of these predictions and pretty on the $$ on some others. There was a special teams and a defensive touchdown; Manning almost threw for 300 yards, the Colts got 150 yards rushing, Prince was great and the commercials were atcually the worst ever.

Yo, Meathead!

Well, well, everyone’s favorite poster boy for steroids is back in the news. He’s finally going to sign his contract with the Giants. No, wait, the commissioner’s office won’t approve the contract. Now the contract’s been rewritten. No, wait, Bonds won’t sign the new contract.

Man, I wish there was some way we could just be rid of Barry Bonds—from baseball, from the news, from everything!

I know, I know, people will now say I’m just perpetuating the problem myself by writing about it here. I can’t help it. Barry Bonds is within striking distance of Hank Aaron’s record! Why can’t somebody stop him?

I mean, is there anyone out there who really wants Bonds to play this year? Most fans I know don’t want him to. In fact, it seems as if the pool of Giants fans who disapprove of Bonds is finally becoming more vocal. Of course, there are still some local yahoos who root for Bonds because they can’t figure out what he did wrong. (D-uh!)

Some fans are baseball purists, as well, those who believe that baseball statistics are hallowed numbers. To these fans, among which I place myself, cheating is just not part of the game—ever. In my mind, once someone is found to be a cheat (that is, someone who has blatantly broken the rules, not someone who has practiced questionable behavior before there were any rules barring such), he should be banned from the game. To watch Bonds plod on toward Aaron’s pinnacle without anyone crying for shame is incredibly frustrating to the purist.

I get the feeling most players don’t want Bonds to play this year, either. Mark Sweeney probably doesn’t, though he would never say such a thing out loud and upset the delicate locker-room chemistry that will be needed once spring training begins. Sweeney is the teammate from whom Bonds says he got the substance that caused him to fail an amphetamines test. Thanks a lot, “pal.”

Then there are the players who are purists. These guys believe in the spirit of the game and detest the idea that any records could be broken by cheaters. Can any current pitchers who feel this way pitch to Bonds with a clear conscience, knowing Aaron’s record is on the line?

Nor does Major League Baseball really want Bonds to break the record. Bonds is a complete embarrassment to Bud Selig, as well as the MLB Players Association: Why did it take these groups so long to finally pass rule changes allowing for drug testing? Now Selig has to watch as Bonds inches ever closer to the record held by the commissioner’s friend Aaron, who also happens to embody all that’s noble about baseball and its ponderous history.

Do you notice that you never see anything in the news about how Aaron feels about Bonds passing him? That’s because Aaron is too classy to come out and say what he really feels: that Bonds is an abomination to the sport and should not be allowed to continue, no matter how much money the Giants and the rest of baseball think they might rake in during both home and away games as Bonds gets ever closer.

I heard a rumor about a shady deal that might take place: If Bonds is indicted for perjury, the feds will let him go free, as long as he walks away from baseball for good and leaves the record alone. As much as I would love to see Bonds spend time in prison, it would be fine by me if this deal actually came to pass. Then maybe in years to come we could watch someone who is clean try to match Aaron’s Herculean feat, and Hammerin’ Hank wouldn’t have to feel as if a fraud was taking his home run crown.

SEASONINGS: I have to laugh when I see that the Cowboys are seriously considering Norv Turner as a coaching replacement for Bill Parcells. I do realize that Turner has had success as an offensive coordinator, with the Cowboys when they won all those Super Bowls in the 1990s, and then less consistently with San Diego, Miami, and San Francisco. But his terms as head coach have been pretty grim. He was 49–59–1 as head coach of the Redskins, with only one trip to the playoffs in seven years, and 9–23 as head coach of the Raiders for two years. I don’t know if Turner has the charisma to take on the personalities in Dallas (read “Jerry Jones and T.O.”)—is Jones just looking for a puppet he can control again after three years of a strong-willed Tuna ended well short of a ring? If Turner is Jones’s choice, the Cowboys will sink.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

A's Will Soon be The Cisco Kids

Welcome to the complete corporatization of major league baseball, America. The entire sports climate in this country has been moving in this general direction for the past few years, and now it’s finally here.

Cisco Systems, Inc. has reached a deal with the Oakland A’s in which the Northern California-based corporation will build the team a new ballpark in Fremont, a city about 15-20 minutes south of Oakland, depending on traffic, which, no doubt, is about to get a lot more congested in the very near future. The agreement would create a 32,000-35,000-seat stadium, which of course will be named Cisco Field, on a 143-acre parcel held by the company, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

If the plan is approved by the city, the A’s could be playing there as soon as 2011. A’s owner Lew Wolff declined to speak to reporters yesterday after he left a meeting with four Fremont City Council members, but you know he must be secretly grinning from ear to ear!

The City of Oakland blew it and never built a new stadium for the A’s when they should have done a long time ago. And then they let Raiders Owner Al Davis put that ridiculous wall of stands and luxury boxes in the place, so that now it looks more like an overpriced apartment building than a baseball stadium. I went there 2-3 times this season, and it’s an outdated, uninspiring stadium that can’t in any way compare to the exciting new baseball-only facilities of today.

It will be a good thing all away around for the A’s. Maybe now they can spend a little money on players. Even though Billy Beane has done an amazing job getting young rookies through the farm system and acquiring old guys via free agency, it just hasn’t been enough to assemble a team that can get into the World Series.

An influx of ca$h from a new stadium will mean Beane can throw a few bucks around to get exactly the type of team he’s looking for without worrying so much about the bottom line. This whole thing with companies owning and operating professional sports teams is the wave of the future, anyway.

It reminds me of the movie “Rollerball” where teams are owned by enormous corporations representing entire continents.

The only two things to ask now are: Will Fremont okay the deal? They’d be stupid not to. There will undoubtedly be a group of citizens from Fremont who will fight it and say the new stadium will be bad for the city. Those folks always exist. But, for a small town like Fremont to reject a deal like this – one that can bring them so much prestige, jobs and mucho dinero – would be municipal suicide.

The other question is: What do you name the team? The Fremont A’s? The Silicon Valley A’s? The Northern California A’s? How about the Cisco Kids!? It’s just a matter of time. I can see it now. The Apple Computer Antelopes. The Hewlett Packard Packers, the Yahoo Yankees and the Google Gophers.