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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 06/26/2003

Kudos To Mr. Koppett

I first met Leonard Koppett in 1992, when he received the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for his meritorious contributions to baseball writing. As I sat next to him in one of the dining rooms at Cooperstown’s Otesaga Hotel, located just a few minutes away from the setting of that year’s Induction Ceremony, I congratulated him on his election and induction to the Hall of Fame. Leonard quickly—but politely—corrected me. He pointed out that while he was honored to receive the Hall of Fame’s award for writing, such a distinction should not be confused with someone being elected or inducted to the Hall of Fame. That honor, he pointed out, belonged to Tom Seaver and Rollie Fingers, two of the inductees in 1992. And that was how I learned about the difference between winning the Spink or Frick Award and actual election/induction to the Hall of Fame.

To this day, Leonard remains the only award-winning writer I’ve talked to who was willing to diminish his own accomplishments by emphasizing that he had not been elected to the Hall of Fame. That tells you a lot about what Leonard Koppett was all about. He was humble—and he simply didn’t think it was right to take credit for something that he had not earned. He also wanted to educate me about a commonly-held myth—that writers and broadcasters are actually elected to the Hall of Fame. (Other than Henry Chadwick, no one has been voted into the Hall of Fame based on his accomplishments as a writer or announcer.) For Leonard, it was more important to get the story right than to falsely pad his own ego.

In addition to owning a sense of decency and modesty, Leonard Koppett was also that rare breed of old-time sportswriter who was willing to follow and appreciate the contemporary game. Unlike many writers who started their careers in the 1940s and fifties, Leonard didn’t believe that the players of yesteryear were any better than their counterparts today. Leonard often said that the baseball players of today were just as good, if not better, than the athletes that he covered in the 1950s. He also made a point of saying that we should all enjoy the baseball of today because these are baseball’s glory days.

Leonard possessed an unusual combination of writing—and thinking—skills. Like many of the old-time scribes, he had a flair for writing smoothly and a passion for the game. At the same time, he was one of the few establishment writers who showed a willingness to think about new ideas and philosophies. He was scientific and analytical in his approach, one who was eager to consider new interpretations of statistics. Leonard showed that it was possible to be both a traditionalist and a Sabermetrician, even those two titles might seem contradictory on the surface. If anything, he showed that it was absolutely logical and reasonable to be both traditional and Sabermetric, since that was preferable to being married to one singular, confining philosophy.

Leonard Koppett died on Sunday, June 22, at the age of 79. Coincidentally, that was the same age that my father lost his battle with prostate cancer. It’s an interesting coincidence because, in some ways, Leonard was like a father figure to a young baseball writer like me. He was open-minded about the game, which I liked, and still interested in following today’s players and teams, which I also liked. At the same time, he owned the advantage of having seen players like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Ted Williams during the primes of their careers, and he could tell me about those players I had only seen on their last legs, or on videotape.

Leonard always did a skilled job in relaying to me many of his varied experiences, the ones that accompany a long career in baseball. Leonard was also a gentleman, and he never made me feel bad that he knew more about baseball than I did. Plus, he never turned me down for an interview, which is nice, too. For that—for all of that—Leonard, I thank you.

Major League Morsels—The Rumor Mill

You want rumors? Well, we’ve got them. Not many trades, mind you, but plenty of rumors… The Red Sox have had serious talks with the Mets about closer Armando Benitez, who remains very available after his recent nationally-televised implosion against the Yankees. The Red Sox are willing to pay the balance of Benitez’ salary, which has him making nearly $7 million this season, but are unwilling to meet the Mets’ current asking price, which includes prized infielder Freddy Sanchez. The Red Sox regard Sanchez, who looked like he might be on the way to a minor league batting title before being called up to Boston, as practically an untouchable, especially after the recent trade of Shea Hillenbrand to Arizona. If the Red Sox can somehow satisfy the Mets with two lesser prospects, they’ll gladly use Benitez for the stretch run before letting him go as a free agent. With Theo Epstein and Bill James calling the shots in Beantown, the Red Sox have no interest in signing Benitez long-term, unless he’s willing to cut his salary in half… The Mets have also discussed Benitez with the pitching-short Cardinals, whose bullpen remains a major concern heading into the second half of the season. Unlike the Red Sox, the Cardinals aren’t willing to pay the balance on Benitez’ $6.9 million salary, and that attitude will likely have to change if a deal is to take place… While the Mets continue to shop Benitez to all comers, they’re finding a surprising amount of interest in the declining Roberto Alomar. Although Alomar hasn’t played anywhere near the Hall of Fame level that he had established in Cleveland or Baltimore, some teams think he could still be productive if taken out of New York. One possible destination for Alomar is the Cardinals, who have lost two second basemen, Fernando Vina (ruptured tendon) and Miguel Cairo (broken hand), to the disabled list. The Mets have already asked the Cardinals about putting together a package of two or three prospects for Alomar, but St. Louis seems willing to give former farmhand Bo Hart a longer look and concentrate harder on finding some pitching depth through the trade market… There was a report last week in the New York Daily News indicating that even the Yankees might have some interest in Alomar, but that scenario seems doubtful. If the Yankees were to acquire Alomar, they would then move Alfonso Soriano to the outfield, but that’s not the kind of change that a conservative manager like Joe Torre would like to make in the middle of a season… Sticking with the subject of middle infielders, the Mets are also dangling Rey Sanchez in the hope that someone will take him off their hands. At one point, the Mets considered Sanchez a potential tutor to young shortstop Jose Reyes, but Sanchez’ attitude this season has reminded the organization too much of the anti-social behavior of the Vince Coleman-Bret Saberhagen years. The Mets would like two Grade-B level prospects in exchange for Sanchez, but they’d settle for one. If they can’t get one, then they’ll probably release Sanchez between now and the All-Star break… Earlier this summer, the Mets tried to entice the Cubs into swinging a deal for Sanchez, but Chicago didn’t think Sanchez, primarily a shortstop and second baseman, could play third base. And even if Sanchez could handle the hot corner, his bat is simply too light to carry at such a position. Instead, the Cubs decided to take a gamble on slumping Jose Hernandez, who came over in a deal with the Rockies for the much younger Mark Bellhorn… While the Mets lead the league in trade rumors, the Yankees aren’t running far behind. According to some of the scuttlebutt, the Yankees and Mets have talked about a swap of right fielders: Raul Mondesi for Jeromy Burnitz. The move makes sense for the Yankees, who would like their lineup to become more left-handed, but the recent addition of Karim Garcia probably makes Burnitz extraneous. As for the Mets, a Mondesi-for-Burnitz deal makes no sense for a team that needs to start rebuilding with youth—immediately. Mondesi, a free agent at the end of the season, simply does not fit into Jim Duquette’s plan for the future… By the way, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, deserves credit for making a smart pickup in acquiring Garcia from the Indians. At best, the Yankees will lose a nominal Grade-C prospect from the lower minors, or a small pile of cash, for a serviceable corner outfielder. If Garcia’s wrist is healthy, he is a capable platoon outfielder who can also supply Joe Torre with another left-handed bat off the bench. Don’t be surprised if Garcia cuts into the playing time of Mondesi, who has resorted to his past tendency of flailing at outside breaking balls.

Card Corner

At first glance, nothing about Aurelio Rodriguez’ 1969 Topps rookie card (No. 653) appears askew. Actually, the truth about this card didn’t come out for four more years, finally revealed to the world in 1973. It was then that the secret came out, that the young man appearing in this photo was not Aurelio Rodriguez at all. Instead, it was California Angels batboy Leonard Garcia, who later became a trainer in the Angels’ farm system… As The Sporting News so sarcastically put it in a 1973 article, the card is “not as valuable a card as the 1959 Henry Aaron card, which shows ‘The Hammer’ batting left-handed”… So why did the photographer for Topps snap a picture of the Angels’ batboy when he was actually targeting California’s young third baseman? I’ve heard two theories behind this mistake. According to one story, it was a simple mix-up, caused by the similarities in appearance between Garcia and Rodriguez and exacerbated by Rodriguez’ limited abilities with speaking English. The other theory is more interesting: Rodriguez intentionally substituted Garcia for the photograph session, as a way of playing a practical joke on the people from Topps. Unfortunately, Rodriguez is no longer around to provide definitive insight on the unusual card, having died three years ago in a horrifying traffic accident in Detroit… A product of Mexico, Rodriguez struggled with his English during his early seasons with the Angels. As Rodriguez once said, he knew only three words of English during his first 10 days with California. “Ham and eggs” became a frequent refrain, resulting in a less-than-balanced diet for the young Rodriguez… Always a terrific defender at the hot corner, Rodriguez failed to develop offensively during his career. He resisted repeated attempts by his managers and coaches to hit outside pitches toward the opposite field, stubbornly trying to pull the ball and hit home runs. Rodriguez was also the consummate free swinger, reluctant to take pitches and work out walks… Although Rodriguez never became the star that the Angels once predicted, he did enjoy a solid career, especially with the Detroit Tigers. Combining a rifle arm with the range of a shortstop and silky soft hands, Rodriguez cemented the left side of the infield for the Tigers and would have won more than one Gold Glove if not for the presence of a fellow named Brooks Robinson.

Clyde Without Bonnie

ESPN’s Outside the Lines, continuing to cement its reputation as one of the finest outlets for sports journalism on TV, recently featured a terrific feature on the 30th anniversary of David Clyde’s ballyhooed major league debut with the Texas Rangers. The program, which included interview segments with Clyde, former Rangers outfielder Tom Grieve, and onetime Texas pitching coach Art Fowler, shed considerable light on owner Bob Short’s ill-conceived plan to rush Clyde from high school ball to the major leagues as a drawing card for the struggling Rangers franchise. Clyde’s debut season did much to help attendance at Arlington Stadium, but at considerable damage to Clyde’s career, which seemed so promising after throwing nine no-hitters in his senior season of high school… For those who don’t remember the basic details of Clyde’s saga, here’s what happened. Drafted first in the country out of Texas’ Westchester High School in the spring of 1973, Clyde received a bonus of $125,000 and donned a Rangers’ major league uniform only a few days later. The immediate call-up to Texas was the brainchild of owner Bob Short, which conflicted directly against the advice of manager Whitey Herzog, who believed Clyde needed considerable schooling in the minor leagues. Equipped with both Short’s blessings and a mechanically sound delivery that some scouts compared to that of Sandy Koufax, Clyde made his highly publicized major league debut against the Minnesota Twins on June 27, 1973. (Only 20 days earlier, Clyde had made his final appearance as a high school pitcher.) That night’s game at Arlington Stadium became such a focal point of local attention that the first pitch was delayed by 15 minutes, allowing more fans to free themselves from the massive logjam of traffic outside the stadium. Perhaps rattled by the late start and frazzled by his own nervousness, the 18-year-old Clyde walked the first two batters he faced—Jerry Terrell and Hall of Famer Rod Carew—before settling down to strike out the side. Clyde went on to pitch a respectable five innings, walking a total of seven Twins, but struck out eight batters while allowing two earned runs and only one hit. Unfortunately, Clyde struggled to match his celebrated debut performance over the balance of the season, posting an ERA of 5.03 and winning only four of 12 decisions with the lowly Rangers in 1973. His pitching only worsened in 1974, leading him down a slippery slope to baseball obscurity… The most controversial moments of the ESPN feature involved Art Fowler, a crony of Rangers skipper Billy Martin at virtually every one of his managerial stops and Clyde’s second pitching coach in Texas. Martin didn’t like the left-hander, in part because he didn’t like pitchers and didn’t like rookies, two mortal sins committed by Clyde. Martin also didn’t appreciate the fact that Clyde lost nine straight decisions after starting the 1974 season at 3-and-0. At one point, Martin didn’t pitch Clyde for 31 consecutive days. During one interview segment on ESPN, Fowler supported Martin’s general evaluation of Clyde, claiming that the youngster was vastly overrated, unable to throw his fastball much harder than in the mid-eighties. Fowler also trashed the quality of Clyde’s competition in high school, half-kiddingly suggesting that the left-hander had piled up an impressive set of statistics pitching against “girls.” Fowler’s recollections of Clyde, however, differ significantly from those of Tom Grieve, who was Clyde’s Texas teammate in 1973 and ’74. According to Grieve, Fowler raved about Clyde’s talents at the time, saying that he had the potential to be a 25-game winner once he harnessed his control. Many of Clyde’s Ranger teammates also raved about both his fastball and curve, rating them both as well above major league average… So who to believe, Fowler or Grieve? For what it’s worth, Fowler drew criticism throughout his career for his work as a pitching coach, reinforcing a belief that he held onto jobs in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, New York, and Oakland only because of his friendship with Martin. Given Fowler’s track record as a Martin crony, it’s not surprising that he would come to the late manager’s defense when passing a judgment on Clyde’s ability. It’s that very allegiance to Martin that sheds a light of suspicion on Fowler’s motives. Fowler himself claims that he didn’t think much of Clyde in large part because Martin didn’t think much of him. And that’s not a very critical way of thinking, especially when it’s your job to instruct pitchers and find ways to make them better… By the way, here’s what Fowler had to say about Clyde after one of his starts in 1974. “When his fastball is moving like it was tonight,” Fowler told Randy Galloway of The Sporting News, “and with the velocity he had tonight, he didn’t need [his] curveball.” That doesn’t sound like the description of a pitcher lacking a good major league fastball… While Clyde struggled with his pitching coach and manager, along with the on-the-field demands of pitching against big league hitters, he also gave in to the temptations of a fast-lane lifestyle practiced by several of the Rangers’ veteran players. The hard-living group, which included catcher Rich Billings, infielder Jim Fregosi, and pitcher Clyde “Skeeter” Wright, laid out the welcome mat for Clyde, including him in their post-game visits to local establishments. Clyde began drinking heavily, a vice that became obvious when he showed up late for a team flight while wearing the same clothes he had used the previous day. Unfortunately, none of the Rangers stepped up to help the teenaged Clyde, whose drinking habits only exacerbated his problems on the mound.

More On The 1973 Draft

The list of notable players drafted after David Clyde in 1973 reads like a “who’s who of baseball” for the 1970s and eighties. Three Hall of Famers—Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, and Robin Yount—were taken after the Rangers selected Clyde at No. 1. Several other major league standouts heard their names called out that day, including Jack Clark (by the Giants), Mike Flanagan (Orioles), LaMarr Hoyt (Yankees), and Freddie Lynn Red Sox)… Curiously, two draft picks besides Clyde made their major league debuts in 1973 without having spent a single day in the minor leagues. The trio included Winfield, who was inserted into the Padres’ starting lineup by Don Zimmer, and a diminutive left-handed pitcher named Eddie Bane, who drew a sellout crowd in his first game with the Twins. Much like Clyde, Bane soon slid into baseball oblivion.

Pastime Passings

Baseball has lost several significant contributors over the last month, including a racial pioneer, a Negro Leagues standout, and a Hall of Fame sportswriter. Here are tributes to each of them:

Max Manning (Died on June 23 in Pleasantville, New Jersey; age 84; lengthy illness): Nicknamed “Dr. Cyclops” because of his unusually thick eyeglasses, Manning enjoyed a solid career as a side-arming pitcher in the Negro Leagues in the late 1930s and forties. He was once offered a tryout by the Detroit Tigers in 1937, only to have the offer rescinded when the Tigers discovered that he was black. A tall right-hander with a deceiving delivery, Manning pitched for the Johnson Stars and Newark Eagles, barnstormed with Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, and served in the U.S. military during World War II. In 1946, Manning pitched the final game of the black World Series, helping the Eagles to a 3-2 victory over the Monarchs for the championship. After his playing days, which were short-circuited by arm troubles, Manning worked for nearly 30 years as a popular sixth-grade teacher in Pleasantville.

Leonard Koppett(Died on June 22 in San Francisco; age 79; heart attack): A highly respected writer who had covered baseball since the 1940s and had authored a total of 15 books, Koppett received the Hall of Fame’s prestigious J.G.Taylor Spink Award in 1992. After graduating from Columbia University in 1944, Koppett went to work for the New York Herald Tribune and New York Post, before deciding to relocate to the West Coast as a correspondent for the New York Times. A fixture at A’s and Giants games for three decades, Koppett wrote for the Peninsula Times Tribune, among other newspapers in the Bay Area. Koppett also served as a columnist for the weekly periodical, The Sporting News, from 1965 to 1984… In his columns, Koppett combined a traditional love of baseball with an open-minded, analytical approach to the game. As one of the first established writers to embrace Sabermetrics, Koppett often referred to statistics not contained in basic box scores… Koppett’s knowledge of the game and its history helped him land a position as a voting member on the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, for which he served from 1996 until his death. He provided the Committee with valuable counsel on a wide range of prospective Hall of Famers, from Negro Leaguers to 19th century greats.

Larry Doby (Died on June 18 in Montclair, New Jersey; age 78 or 79 [age disputed]; cancer): As the first black player in American League history and the second African-American player of the 20th century (after Jackie Robinson), Doby played a major role in the game’s social history. Yet, it was that attachment to the breaking of baseball’s color barrier that overshadowed a stellar career in both the Negro Leagues and the major leagues. The teenaged Doby launched his professional career in 1942, when he debuted as a second baseman for the Newark Eagles. He initially played under the name of “Larry Walker,” as a way of protecting his amateur status. After a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, the hard-hitting Doby returned to the Eagles before receiving the call to the major leagues. On July 5, 1947, just 11 weeks after Robinson had debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Doby broke into the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians, who had purchased him from the Eagles for $15,000. The Indians quickly converted him from the middle infield to a combined position as a first baseman and outfielder. The following summer, Doby moved into the starting outfield and helped the Indians to the American League pennant and the last World Championship in the team’s history. A fine defensive outfielder who possessed both speed and power, Doby qualified for seven All-Star teams during his 13 years in the major leagues. He also led the American League in home runs twice and RBIs once… Much like Robinson, Doby endured opposition from racists both at the ballpark and away from the stadium. On one occasion, Doby slid into second base, only to be treated to a spitting shower from the opposing shortstop. In addition, numerous hotels and restaurants turned their backs on Doby because of their policy of serving whites only. And with no other black players on the Indians until the arrival of Satchel Paige in 1948, Doby had to deal with much of the racism on his own. Yet, he rarely expressed much public anger or bitterness over his treatment… After his playing days, Doby continued to play a role as a racial pioneer; in 1978, the Chicago White Sox named him manager, making him the second African-American skipper (after Frank Robinson). Prior to his managerial tenure, Doby had worked as a coach with the Indians and Montreal Expos. He later moved from major league baseball to the NBA, working in community affairs for the New Jersey Nets… In 1998, Doby received baseball’s ultimate individual honor when he won election to the Hall of Fame by the shrine’s Veterans Committee.

Greg Garrett (Died on June 7 in Santa Clara, California; age 55): A standout minor league left-hander, Garrett pitched two seasons in the major leagues with the California Angels and Cincinnati Reds. In 1907, Garrett pitched the entire season with the Angels, sculpting a record of 5-6 with a 2.64 ERA. In 1971, Garrett pitched well in two appearances for the Reds, but never again surfaced in the major leagues. His professional career ended in 1972 as a member of Charlotte’s minor league staff in the Southern League.

Hilly Flitcraft (Died on April 2 in Boulder, Colorado; age 79): A versatile left-handed hitter who pitched and manned the outfield, Flitcraft played briefly in the major leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942. After a two-year layoff from baseball, Flitcraft returned to the game in 1945, enjoying one of the highlights of his career. That summer, he won 15 of 19 decisions with a 3.89 ERA for Wilmington of the Inter-State League.

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.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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