Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition -
Glasses Half Full
Say what you will about the Mets; many already have, and the descriptions range from ghastly to ghoulish. They are an utterly unlikable team, despised even by their own fans, who would like nothing better than for Commissioner Bud Selig to call a false start to the season, institute a do-over, and allow the Mets their own set of winter trade meetings in the middle of the spring. Yet, these 2003 Mets have supplied us with so much journalistic fodder, from the infamous Rey Sanchez haircutting incident to the center field foibles of Roger Cedeno to the unending sagas of Mike Piazza and Mo Vaughn. Even now, as their season finds itself mired in the newly discovered “dog days of spring,” the Mets provide writers with yet another distraction, courtesy of the recent promotion of minor league catcher Jason Phillips. Already established as one of the Mets’ top prospects at the Triple-A level, Phillips is also giving us a look that we haven’t seen in the major leagues since the days of Charley Kerfeld. Wearing those horn-rimmed, half-goggle glasses over eyes that don’t jell well with contact lenses, Phillips brings to mind an interesting litany of four-eyed folks throughout the game’s spectacled history.
Phillips is just the latest player to bring eyeglasses and other forms of optic wear to the forefront. The first major leaguer to wear glasses during a game was 19th century workhorse Will “Woop-La” White, who completed 394 out of 401 starts in his career. In 1877, White wore a pair of eyeglasses for the Boston Red Sox Stockings, who were then a National League franchise. After White donned the spectacles for Boston, no other major leaguer would sport glasses for another 38 years. In 1915, pitcher Lee “Specs” Meadows cracked the 20th century glasses barrier with the Cardinals. Like White, Meadows was a very good pitcher, a winner of 188 games over a 15-year career.
Up until 1921, only pitchers dared wear glasses during games. That changed when George “Specs” Toporcer became the first position player to make the transition. Also a member of the Cardinals, Toporcer wore glasses for the balance of his eight-year career in St. Louis.
Several standout players sported glasses in the 1930s and 1940s, including a trio of Hall of Famers. Charles “Chick” Hafey agreed to wear glasses after being beaned; he should have worn them much earlier because of chronic sinus problems that resulted in five surgical procedures, all of which affected his vision. In 1931, Hafey’s use of glasses helped him win the National League batting championship. (According to Jonathan Light’s minutely detailed Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, he actually wore three different pairs of glasses, since his eyesight kept changing on a day-to-day basis.) Nine years later, the Giants’ Mel Ott began wearing glasses in June, after never having used them previously in game action. The glasses certainly didn’t hurt Ott, who finished second in the National League in on-base percentage. And Paul Waner reportedly donned specs during the war years, though some sources claim that he only used the visual aids off the field and not between the lines for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees.
While it had become fairly accepted practice for position players to wear glasses, catchers remained the final holdout until the summer of 1952. That’s when St. Louis Browns receiver Clint “Scrap Iron” Courtney started the practice at the major league level, a daring maneuver considering that he had to wear glasses under his catcher’s mask, in close proximity to foul tips. Yet, it wasn’t a surprise coming from Courtney, who loved to fight and feared almost nothing.
Horn-rimmed glasses became popular in the late 1960s, as a number of players showed a preference for unusually thick frames. Among those to take on the librarian’s look were massive Orioles right-hander Gene Brabender, controversial Tigers ace Denny McLain, Cardinals catcher Dave Ricketts, and Tigers reliever Tom Timmerman. These non-athletic, awkward-looking glasses would soon give way to the wire-frame look, with the exception of Timmerman, who maintained his horn-rims for the rest of his career.
Another trendsetter arrived in 1971, when the Braves’ Darrell “Howdy” Evans reportedly became the first major leaguer to replace eyeglasses with contact lenses. A number of other players followed suit, including Giants slugger Dave “King Kong” Kingman, who struggled repeatedly with his contacts, especially on blustery days at Candlestick Park.
By the end of the 1970s, the wearing of glasses and contact lenses had become commonplace—so much so that they practically ceased to bring attention to themselves. According to Jon Light, one out of every five major leaguers wore glasses and a total of roughly 50 players used contact lenses by the end of the decade. There was no longer a stigma to wearing glasses, simply a necessary obsession with having the best possible eyesight in a sport that demands the ultimate hand-eye coordination. (Even umpires received official approval to wear glasses during games, as part of the 1974 collective bargaining agreement between the arbiters and major league owners.)
A “streak” involving glasses also started in the 1970s. White Sox slugger and column favorite Dick Allen began an unusual stretch for friends of the four-eyed. Allen captured the American League’s MVP Award in 1972, marking the start of a three-year span in which the award belonged exclusively to gentlemen wearing glasses. Oakland’s Reggie Jackson followed Allen by winning the MVP in 1973 and Jeff Burroughs, then with the Rangers, made it a full-blown trend with his MVP Award in 1974.
In the expansion era, some players have taken eyewear the next step by wearing darkly-tinted sunglasses during games. Some fans of the Phillies might remember right-hander Lowell Palmer, an otherwise obscure pitcher who always seemed to be wearing the darkest of shades at every turn. Palmer even wore the sunglasses when being photographed for his Topps baseball cards in the early 1970s.
Our study of spectacles brings us to a final crucial question: who wore the thickest glasses in major league history? While there’s no scientific answer to that query, a good bet might involve former Yankees, Angels, and Senators flamethrower Ryne Duren. The intimidating reliever featured a pair of dense Coke-bottle glasses—similar to the ones that Jerry Seinfeld wore in his efforts to fool the sometimes gullible Lloyd Braun—which corrected his horrendous 20/200 vision. Given his fastball’s high rate of speed and his overall lack of control, Duren’s habit of squinting through his lenses only added to an opponent’s desire to tread lightly in the batter’s box when facing the unpredictable right-hander.
Major League Morsels
The prophets of gloom have seized upon the Yankees’ record-setting losing streak at home, with some calling the Pinstripers unlikely to make the postseason. While such claims need to be tempered with a careful check of the calendar, the Yankees do have some legitimate concerns. Aside from the bullpen, the biggest shortcoming is an offense that is now lacking in left-handed bats, with both Bernie Williams and Nick Johnson on the sidelines. On most nights, Joe Torre starts a lineup that has only four left-handed hitters—Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, and Robin Ventura—and no capable lefties off the bench (unless you’re counting Enrique Wilson, and I’m not). The lack of left-handed punch, especially with Giambi and Matsui slumping, may partially explain why the Yankees are struggling to score even four runs a game at Yankee Stadium. With no left-handed answers available at Columbus, Brian Cashman really needs to pull a page from the 1978 playbook, when team president Al Rosen swung midseason deals for Jay Johnstone and Gary Thomasson, two veteran lefty bats who gave the Yankees better depth the second half of that memorable summer. Johnstone and Thomasson aren’t available in 2003 (well, they may be available, but their ages are a concern), but their equivalents might be, perhaps a Bobby Higginson or Dmitri Young from Tigertown, a Randall Simon from the Bucs, or maybe a Brian Daubach from the Windy City White Sox. None of these veterans are great players, but they could provide passable fill-in work for the next six weeks, and then supply some bench strength once Johnson and Williams return. While Torre remains stubborn in his loyalty to Zeile, he did make a shrewd move in shifting Alfonso Soriano to the third spot in the order and making Derek Jeter his leadoff hitter. Jeter draws far more walks and is a better baserunner (despite Soriano’s edge in footspeed), while some of Soriano’s solo home runs might now become two and three-run shots… Who can the Yankees offer in a deal for a left-handed platoon hitter? Either Randy Choate or Sterling Hitchcock, who’s finally pitching well, could provide a starting framework to a deal, which could also be spiced up with the inclusion of minor league outfielder Marcus Thames, infield prospect Andy Phillips, or any one of a number of young arms at Columbus. Erick Almonte could have been included on this prospective list a bit earlier, but he’s sidelined for several weeks with a strained ligament in his knee, making him moot as trade bait—at least for the moment… One thing’s for certain: Torre cannot continue to pencil in Todd Zeile as his everyday DH; no longer capable of hitting anywhere near his prime level, Zeile needs to return to his originally intended role as a platoon third baseman and pinch-hitter. And that will only happen if the Yankees make a trade for a lefty bat or Torre shows more confidence in the little-used Bubba Trammell… Sticking with the Yankees, another possible trade target could be the Mets’ Jeromy Burnitz, who does appear revitalized despite a recent stay on the disabled list. Of course, there’s always a natural reluctance for the Mets and the Yankees to get together on deals, but if George Steinbrenner is willing to pick up the tab on Burnitz’ contract, the Mets will shake that reticence quickly. Burnitz may be one of the Mets’ few current tradable commodities, with Mike Piazza, Timo Perez, and Mo Vaughn all on the disabled list, and Rey Sanchez playing like some kind of strange amalgam of Leo Foster and Pepe Frias… The Cubs’ hard-throwing right-handers are the envy of the National League, but their gloves don’t match the talents of their arms. With a starting rotation headlined by Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement, and Carlos Zambrano, and a bullpen featuring Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth, one might think that all is right with Chicago pitching. Yet, the Cubs’ coaching staff has been aghast watching Cubs pitchers try to field their position. More than comfortable throwing pitches and working hitters, the Cubs’ right-handers have fallen into a twilight zone on the mound once balls have been put in play. While the Cubs still won’t trade their starters for anyone else’s in the National League, such defensive lapses could become critical if Chicago makes the postseason, where more teams utilize the sacrifice bunt as part of lower-scoring games. It’s something the Cubs will keep an eye on as the summer progresses.
“Just a little off the top and about a foot and a half off the sides.” That’s what Oscar Gamble might have told his specially arranged barber after joining the Yankees during the spring of 1976. Unlike his former team in Cleveland, the Yankees didn’t permit afros, long hair, beards, or anything less than conservative grooming. Immediately after the trade, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner instructed public relations director Marty Appel to order an immediate haircut for Gamble. Appel made all of the arrangements for a “private” cutting, thus avoiding the spectacle of a public barbershop setting. (Could you imagine the amount of hair that ended up on the cutting room floor? There might have been enough to create a shag carpet.) As a result, Gamble never did get a chance to wear his massive-sized afro under his Yankee cap, as seen in his 1976 Topps “Traded” card, numbered 74T. (The Yankee cap is airbrushed over his Indians cap, but the afro is not airbrushed or enhanced by special effects—it’s real, baby.)… During his two seasons with the Indians, Gamble’s big hair made for quite a sight at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium and at other American League ballparks. According to Hall of Fame researcher Russell Wolinsky, fans frequently serenaded Gamble with chants of “BO-ZO!” in tribute to the popular TV clown of the 1960s and seventies; clearly, political correctness was far less in fashion than it is today. Gamble’s big hair also affected his style of play. He could rarely complete a turn around the bases without his helmet falling to the ground, while long chases after fly balls in the outfield would similarly result in the unintended departure of his cap from his head. And by the end of a game, Gamble was usually left with a particularly bad case of “hat hair,” with his afro suffering severe indentations from both cap and helmet… Several ABA stars of the 1970s came close to matching the dimensions of Gamble’s hair, including Darnell Hillman of the Indiana Pacers and Stew Johnson of the San Diego Conquistadors. Hillman’s hair was actually taller than Gamble’s, but lacked the width… Well, enough with the hair and on to baseball. Gamble’s 1976 Topps “Traded” card was made necessary by the deal that sent him from Cleveland to New York on November 22, 1975. In exchange, the Yankees surrendered right-handed pitcher Pat Dobson, who had slumped to an 11-15 record with a 4.07 ERA in 1975 and had drawn the wrath of Yankee manager Billy Martin. The trade worked out well for both teams, as Dobson won 16 games and lowered his ERA to 3.48 with the Indians, while Gamble filled the Yankees’ need for another left-handed power hitter. Playing mostly against right-handed pitching, Gamble slammed 17 home runs in 340 at-bats. He also provided an unexpected boost on defense, recording a career-high 10 assists from the outfield. Yet, it was the following season that Gamble provided his largest contribution to the Yankees’ championship legacy; he was the principal part of the package that brought Bucky Dent to New York, creating the most unexpected of outcomes in the fall of 1978.
In one of my recent entries for “This Date In Baseball History,” I recounted the following tale, which makes for a good story but is lacking in accountability:
On May 23, 1965, Ron Swoboda of the New York Mets takes his position in right field wearing a batting helmet on his foot. The reason? After an unsuccessful at-bat, Swoboda tries to kick his helmet, only to get his foot stuck. Unable to remove the helmet, Swoboda is ordered to take the field by manager Casey Stengel.
Well, that turned out to be WRONG. Last week on the Hall of Fame Hour (featured Fridays on MLB Radio at mlb.com), Swoboda informed me that I had made a few mistakes in re-living this tall tale. According to Swoboda, the story should have read something like this:
On May 23, 1965, Ron Swoboda of the New York Mets is involved in a comical incident in a game in St. Louis. After making a three-base error, followed by an unsuccessful at-bat, Swoboda tries to stomp on his helmet, only to get his foot stuck. Upset by the rookie’s show of temper, manager Casey Stengel removes Swoboda from the game and orders him to the clubhouse.
And that’s the RIGHT version. A check of the boxscore for that day supports Swoboda’s claim. Swoboda was indeed removed from the game, replaced by Johnny Lewis, who moved over from center field. Journeyman Billy Cowan took Lewis’ place in center, with Danny Napoleon inserted into the left-field slot by a rather perturbed Stengel. So what’s the lesson here? If you’re going to take a swing or a swipe at your helmet, make sure you don’t get your hand or foot stuck in it. Or something.
Re-Living The Swingin’ A’s—30 Years Ago
On May 25, 1973, Oakland’s Bert “Campy” Campaneris returned to Detroit for the first time since the ugly bat-throwing incident involving the Tigers’ Lerrin LaGrow in the 1972 playoffs. Believing that LaGrow had hit him intentionally in the ankle on orders from Tigers manager Billy Martin, Campaneris fired his bat toward the mound, sparking a bench-clearing brawl in Game Two and resulting in his suspension for the balance of the American League Championship Series. For his part, LaGrow claimed that he held no grudge against Campaneris. “Heck, I’ve forgotten all about it,” a forgiving LaGrow told The Sporting News. “That’s all over.”
Surprisingly, Billy Martin—not always the sort to avoid grudges—agreed with the sentiments expressed by LaGrow. “It’s all over. It’s history,” Martin told The Sporting News, before acknowledging that his feelings toward Campaneris had been quite a bit different during the controversial playoff game. “If I would have gotten to him at the time,” Martin bragged, “I would have kicked the [bleep] out of him.” Still, Martin claimed that recent media reports of him continuing to seek revenge on Campaneris were greatly exaggerated. “I was quoted as saying that if there was another fight, Campaneris would be the first guy I would go after,” Martin explained. “That was a little misquote there.”
As much as Martin despised Campaneris at the moment he hurled his bat toward LaGrow, the Tiger skipper respected the veteran infielder as a fiery, combative sparkplug who always hustled. Evidence of Martin’s regard for Campaneris could be found in 1983, when Campy would conclude his major league career with the Yankees. After a one-year layoff from major league baseball, Campy arrived at the Yankees’ spring camp in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida—uninvited. Knowing that the Yankees needed a middle infielder, Campaneris asked New York’s manager for a playing job. The manager responded by challenging him to make the team. Campaneris proceeded to earn the final spot on the 25-man roster, and hit .322 as a backup second baseman and third baseman to Willie Randolph and Graig Nettles, respectively. Who was the Yankees manager at the time? It was a forgiving and respectful Billy Martin.
Tiger fans were not as kind as Martin and LaGrow in offering their reaction to Campaneris’ initial visit to Detroit. Fans at Tiger Stadium lustily booed Campy each time he stepped to the plate. “After I do it,” Campaneris told Will Grimsley of the Associated Press in recalling the incident, “I am sorry. In Detroit, they boo me, but others don’t. When people bring it up, I no say anything. I want to forget.” Some of the Tigers wouldn’t let him forget. In the field, Campaneris took a fall when Tiger catcher Bill Freehan knocked him down with a fierce takeout slide at second base. The collision with the rugged Freehan resulted in a pulled right shoulder muscle, which forced Campy to the sidelines for six games. The A’s proceeded to lose the first five of those games before salvaging a win, dropping their season record to 2-9 in those games in which Campaneris did not play.
In losing that fifth consecutive game, Vida Blue incurred a no-decision, as the A’s dropped a 4-3 decision to the Yankees. Blue didn’t pitch badly, giving up only two earned runs in six innings. Yet, the left-hander remained dissatisfied with his performance. “I’m not really worried, but I am concerned,” Blue told the New York Times, while apparently contradicting himself within the same sentence. “I feel tired. I don’t know why. The ball goes, but not the way it should.”
The five-game losing streak represented the worst for the franchise since Dick Williams had been named manager after the 1970 season. The frequent losses resulted in roster changes. With left-hander Rob Gardner already on the disabled list, Oakland recalled Dave Hamilton from Tucson. Williams called upon Hamilton to replace the disappointing John “Blue Moon” Odom, who had shuttled between starting and relieving, in the regular rotation.
Upon his promotion, a reporter questioned Hamilton about one of his Tucson teammates, an outfielder named Charlie Chant. The reporter asked Hamilton whether Chant, whose name sounded like that of famed film detective Charlie Chan, was actually of Chinese descent. “No,” Hamilton told The Sporting News before exhibiting the flakiness of a left-hander. “He’s a right fielder.” Perhaps Hamilton didn’t understand the question. Whatever the case, Hamilton seemed like he would fit in well with the rest of Oakland’s menagerie of colorful characters.
The five-game losing skid during Campaneris’ absence left the A’s with a mediocre record of 23-24, an embarrassing mark for the defending World Champions. Finley decided the time was right to send journeyman Rob Gardner packing. While revealing that the disabled Gardner wasn’t hurt very seriously to begin with, the A’s sold the oft-traveled southpaw to the Brewers. Oakland fans, however, hadn’t seen the last of Finley’s favorite pitching yo-yo. In his first appearance against his former team, Gardner shut down the A’s, making Finley question his latest player personnel maneuver.
Charlotte Witkind (Died on May 18; age 83): A limited partner for the New York Yankees since George Steinbrenner initially purchased the team in 1973, Witkind was a passionate fan of the game known for her ability to memorize statistics. Witkind first met Steinbrenner at an inauguration party for Ohio Gov. John Gilligan in 1973, when “The Boss” was looking for investors to help him with his proposed purchase of the Yankees. Witkind and her husband, Richard, became limited partners in the team's ownership. Witkind’s husband remains a part-owner of the franchise.
J.B. Spencer (Died on May 17 in Gretna, Louisiana; age 83): A veteran of every position except pitcher, the versatile Spencer played in three Negro Leagues championships during his career, winning titles with the Homestead Grays in 1943 and ’44, and another championship with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1945. Prior to spending five seasons in the minor leagues, Spencer also played for several other black ball teams, including the Baltimore Elite Giants, Harlem Globetrotters, New York Black Yankees, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and Seattle Steelheads
Bill Thompson (Died on May 17; age 79; complications from surgery): Formerly a radio announcer for the San Francisco Giants, Thompson worked with several famous broadcast partners, including Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons. Thompson’s tenure with the Giants lasted from 1965 to 1975.
Mickey Kreitner (Died on March 6 in Nashville, Tennessee; age 80; complications from open heart surgery): A catcher in the 1940s, Kreitner played 32 games for the Chicago Cubs in 1943 and ’44, hitting .172 with no home runs and three RBIs. After his playing days, Kreitner became a successful and diversified restaurateur, owning 39 establishments over a span of 43 years.
Charles Aleno (Died on February 10 in Deland, Florida; age 85): A versatile infielder-outfielder, Aleno played four seasons for the Cincinnati Reds during the World War II years. In 320 at-bats, the light-hitting Aleno batted only .209 with two home runs and 34 RBIs. He played all four infield positions, along with the outfield, during a span of 118 games.
Ralph Beard (Died on February 10 in West Palm Beach, Florida; age 73): The right-hander pitched one season in the major leagues, losing all four of his decisions in 1954. In 13 games and 58 innings for the St. Louis Cardinals, Beard forged an ERA of 3.72.
Phil McCullough (Died on January 16 in Decatur, Georgia; age 85): McCullough pitched one game in his major league career, lasting three innings for the Washington Senators in 1942. A right-handed pitcher, he struck out two batters and allowed two runs in his lone big league appearance.
Bruce Markusen is the author of that OTHER book on the A’s, A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (ISBN number 1-878282-23-9), which is available at www.amazon.com and at many major bookstores, including Borders Books. Markusen, who has also written The Orlando Cepeda Story and Roberto Clemente: The Great One, appears regularly on MLB Radio (MLB.com) each Friday from 12 noon to 1:00 pm Eastern time.
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