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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 07/10/2003

Pride In Pinstripes

When Pete Gray took the field for the St. Louis Browns during the World War II era, we could see that he had only one arm. When Jim Abbott first took the mound for the California Angels, we could see his disability—that he had only one hand, making the fielding of ground balls and bunts far more than a routine chore. When Curtis Pride has taken the field for the Montreal Expos, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves, and now the New York Yankees at the tender age of 34, we never see the disability. We only know it’s there because we read about it, and we might wonder how difficult it is to overcome. Now, playing the game without most of one’s hearing isn’t nearly the same as playing with only one hand or one arm, but it’s still a considerable challenge. On the bases, Pride can’t rely on verbal messages from his coaches or the crack of a bat in determining how far a ball has been hit; he has to make those decisions based on sight and instinct. In the outfield, Pride can’t hear another outfielder or an infielder calling him off a fly ball; he has to pick up his fellow fielders visually and give ground, or aggressively call for the ball and hope that a collision does not result. And we haven’t even discussed the thoughtless taunting and mocking that Pride has likely had to endure from his earliest days playing the game.

Perhaps we take for granted that a player like Pride has been able to forge a journeyman career in the major leagues and a solid career in the minors despite playing with only a small percentage of his hearing. Yet, we shouldn’t take make the mistake of assuming that deafness is only a nuisance in the path toward the big leagues; just try playing a game of softball with cotton stuffed into both of your ears and feel the short-term havoc it plays with your equilibrium. Making the major leagues is tough enough; making the major leagues without complete use of one of your primary senses is downright laudatory—and testament to a player’s will and dedication to the game. For that, Curtis Pride deserves an added helping of respect.

Although Pride is one of a handful of deaf players to make the climb to the majors, he is not the first deaf player in big league history—and not the most famous either. Both of those honors belong to 19th century legend William “Dummy” Hoy (unfortunately, “Dummy” was a commonly used nickname for players during the game’s early history). Both determined and athletic, Hoy not only overcame a lack of hearing but also proved that being 5’4” and 148 pounds doesn’t necessarily exclude one from professional success on the ballfield. Hoy’s lack of size and absence of hearing discouraged major league teams from giving him a shot until he was 26, but the hardworking Hoy made up for his late start by collecting over 2,000 hits, batting .288, and playing a terrific center field (including one game when he threw out three runners at the plate). Some historians consider Hoy a player of sufficient quality to merit consideration for the Hall of Fame.

Another 19th century standout played without much of his hearing, caused by the onset of a disease called mastoiditis. Pete Browning, a hard-hitting outfielder who was nicknamed the original “Louisville Slugger,” managed to carve an impressive resume in the late 1800s with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. Yet, Browning didn’t make the major leagues until he moved on to the National League in 1891, three years after Hoy’s big league debut.

After Hoy, the most famous hearing-impaired player may have been Luther “Dummy” Taylor, who was completely deaf in both of his ears and unable to speak. Still, Taylor pitched well enough to win 112 games over a nine-year career, including a 21-win season for the 1904 New York Giants. Taylor’s disability sparked support from manager John McGraw, who installed a set of coaching signals to be used by the Giants’ third base coach specifically for Taylor’s benefit. According to some reports, McGraw even went as far as to require his players to learn sign language so as to better communicate with Taylor on the field.

Other deaf players have experienced relatively short major league careers. Reuben “Dummy” Stephenson compiled 37 at-bats for Philadelphia in 1892. George “Dummy” Leitner pitched in five games during the 1901 and ’02 seasons. Thankfully, the use of the insulting “Dummy” nickname ended by the time that Dick Sipek broke into the big leagues as an outfielder in 1945. Sipek was the last deaf player to play in the majors until Pride ended the 50-year drought in 1993. Like the others, Sipek and Pride found ways to improvise and persevere—and achieve baseball’s ultimate goal in making the major leagues.

Primer On Pride

Curtis Pride has been 95 per cent deaf since birth, afflicted with inoperable nerve deafness brought on by his mother’s contraction of rubella. Pride wears a hearing aid, but the device does little to help his hearing impairment. He does not use sign language to communicate, but does have the ability to read lips, a skill that he often utilizes to pick up information from his first- and third-base coaches. Unlike some deaf people, Pride has the ability to speak, but his speech pattern reveals clearly that he suffers from severe hearing impairment… Deafness aside, the 34-year-old Pride has more than enough ability to sustain a career as a fourth or fifth outfielder in the major leagues. (Frankly, it’s a little surprising that Pride hasn’t maintained a more regular major league presence, given his combination of power and speed. Perhaps his lack of plate discipline has been a factor here.) Blessed with good hands, he can play all three outfield positions, though he’s most comfortable playing one of the corners. Still quick with the bat, Pride hits with power, but his greatest asset is his speed. If he sticks long-term with the Yankees, which won’t be easy given New York’s current flock of outfielders, it figures to be as a pinch-runner in late-inning situations.

Hall of Fame Handbook

While on the subject of deaf players, Dummy Hoy has commonly been considered the inspiration for the hand signals used by umpires in calling balls and strikes and making “safe” and “out” calls. Yet, inquiries by former Hall of Fame researcher Bill Deane indicate that is merely myth, and not baseball fact. As Deane points out, the 1952 publication, The Silent Worker, provided commentary from Hoy himself about the matter. Within the pages of the publication, Hoy talked specifically about umpires’ hand signals. “The coacher at third [base] kept me posted by lifting his right hand for strikes and his left [hand] for balls,” said Hoy. “This gave later-day umpires an idea, and now they raise their right [hand]… to emphasize an indisputable strike.” According to Deane, this quotation suggests only an indirect connection between Hoy and the umpire’s hand signals, while proving that this practice was not adopted until after Hoy’s career. As Deane also mentions, Hoy merely assumed that his coach’s signals gave later-day umpires the idea. While Hoy might have been correct in this assumption, it’s difficult to say with any certainty… Deane, by the way, is now writing the regular Saturday baseball column for the Oneonta Daily Star, located 22 miles from Cooperstown. The popular column had been written for years by Jim Hamilton, who fell ill and passed away earlier this year.

The Rumor Mill

The Cubs’ loss of Corey Patterson for the rest of the season will likely force Jim Hendry’s hand in making a trade for a center fielder. With no one in line from within to take Patterson’s place (Tom Goodwin, with his lifetime on-base percentage of .333, is not the answer), the Cubs have already talked to the Pirates about Kenny Lofton and the Mets about Jeromy Burnitz, who has looked good in his short stints in center field. The Cubs won’t give up any of their prized young pitching for either of those veterans, but they might be willing to part with a hitting prospect like David Kelton. Lacking the glove to play third, Kelton now projects as either a first baseman or corner outfielder, but he’s blocked by Hee Seop Choi, Moises Alou, and Sammy Sosa at those positions. A report in the Chicago Sun-Times indicates that the Cubs would like to try Kelton in center field, but that seems like a stretch for a player with Kelton’s defensive skills… A more expensive center field option for the Cubs would be Carlos Beltran, but he would cost a lot more than Burnitz or Lofton in terms of both player compensation and salary commitment. The Royals would have to receive a young pitcher like Carlos Zambrano or Juan Cruz as part of a package for Beltran, whom they are still willing to move despite their current lofty status in the American League Central. The Red Sox have also entered the Beltran sweepstakes, reportedly offering a package that includes the disappointing Johnny Damon… Speaking of Beltran, the Yankees really don’t seem as interested in him as they once were, given Hideki Matsui’s eye-opening play in center field and the surprising emergence of Karim Garcia (does he have Steve Kemp’s body or what?) as a player in their corner-outfield montage. The Yankees also realize they have much higher trade priorities, such as a hard-throwing right-handed reliever. In addition, there are some Yankee officials who believe third base has become their biggest need, with concerns growing that Robin Ventura may have reached the end of the line as a regular player. After a solid April, Ventura has played with increasing sluggishness, with both his bat and his range slowing to dangerous proportions. Unfortunately for the Yankees, they have no everyday in-house options at third base (please don’t mention Todd Zeile or Drew Henson) and may have no choice but to make a trade. So what’s out there? Mike Lowell is off the trading block, at least for the moment, and Tony Batista doesn’t fit the Yankee profile. The Yankees have talked to the Padres about Mark Loretta, who’s principally a middle infielder but does have some experience at third base. Loretta is just the kind of contact hitter that Joe Torre would love to have, someone who hits for average, puts the ball in play, and executes the hit-and-run. With their preponderance of power and walk-drawing forces throughout the lineup, the Yankees could easily afford to place a singles-hitter like Loretta at the hot corner.

Thirty Years Ago—Re-Living The Swingin’ A’s

Controversies, slumps, and personnel changes characterized the first half of the 1973 season for the Oakland A’s. Still, the A’s remained in contention, and on June 28, the A’s moved into sole possession of first place in the American League West for the first time. Vida Blue pitched seven and two-thirds strong innings before giving way to Rollie Fingers, who preserved a 3-2 win. It had taken 75 games, but the A’s had finally taken the lead from the Angels, White Sox, Twins, and Royals, who all remained within two games of first place.

After allowing only three hits to Kansas City in his strongest outing of the season, Blue sounded off to those members of the media who had previously proclaimed the demise of his left arm. “All you guys from UPI [United Press International] and AP [Associated Press] and SI [Sports Illustrated] and all the other initials—and anyone else who thinks my arm is dead—come out to the park and get a bat,” Blue challenged the assembled reporters. “I’ll throw you guys 100 pitches and give any man $500 for each ball he fouls off.” Not surprisingly, none of the reporters accepted the offer.

Blue’s arm was healthy—and so was one of the team’s veteran infielders. Dick Green’s recent return from the injured list gave the A’s an excess of second basemen. Even though Green and Ted Kubiak were both slumping badly at the plate, Charlie Finley decided to part ways with classy veteran Dal Maxvill, who had helped Oakland clinch the 1972 Western Division crown. Four clubs expressed interest in Maxvill, before Finley settled on accepting a cash return from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The A’s’ arrival at the top spot of the Western Division didn’t mean that they had completely abandoned controversy. Far from it. In early July, Reggie Jackson committed two errors during a four-game stretch, dropping easy flyballs each time. After a game against the Angels, a reporter asked Jackson how he felt physically, whether he was tired or hurt. Jackson said he felt fine, then quickly—and without warning—changed the subject to Oakland’s coaching and managerial staff. “We make a mistake,” a frustrated Jackson said to a reporter from the New York Times, “and they [the coaches] act as if you did it on purpose. The coaches don’t contribute anything. We make their money for them.” Jackson added a dose of sarcasm to his diatribe. “The way these guys criticize you, you’d think they were all Babe Ruth when they played,” Jackson told sportswriter Murray Olderman.

One of the A’s’ coaches did not appreciate Jackson’s verbal attack. First-base coach Jerry Adair fired back at Reggie. “I’m getting sick and tired of seeing him play half the time,” an angry Adair told The Sporting News. Jackson then tried to clarify his remarks, indicating that he hadn’t intended to include Adair in his critique. Jackson said that he had actually directed his statements at manager Dick Williams and third-base coach Irv Noren, who had criticized Dick Green and Ray Fosse for recent on-the-field mistakes.

The remarks represented the first publicly negative statements Jackson had made about his manager since his hiring in 1970, when Reggie had cited Williams’ reputation as a man who did not stand up for his players. Williams didn’t appreciate Jackson’s most recent sentiments, especially about his underpaid coaching staff. “Everything we do is constructive criticism,” Williams told the New York Times before borrowing an old cliché. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

On the team’s flight from California to Baltimore, Jackson approached Williams about the issue. A Baltimore newspaper later reported that Jackson had challenged his manager to a fight on the plane. Jackson denied the story. “I never told him to get up and fight,” Reggie insisted in an interview with The Sporting News. “I told him never to talk to me again, just to write my name in the lineup.” And what was Williams’ reaction to Jackson’s abrupt orders? “He didn’t say anything,” Jackson replied to The Sporting News, “but I could tell he was ticked off.” To his credit, Jackson later apologized for the way he had spoken to his manager. “The next day I knew I was wrong and I went up to him and said I wanted it to be forgotten.” Williams agreed to do so, hoping to reestablish what had been a solid relationship with his All-Star right fielder.

Still, Oakland beat writers wondered what effect Jackson’s recent public comments might have on the future of Williams and his coaches. There had already been speculation that Williams might voluntarily leave the organization at season’s end and try to find another managerial job. Perhaps even more importantly, how would Charlie Finley react to his star player’s dissatisfaction with the manager? Some writers guessed that Finley might use the opportunity to make public his own criticisms of Williams. Perhaps Finley would reprimand Williams for being overly critical of his players.

Three days after the Jackson firestorm broke out, Finley finally made an announcement. Instead of firing any of his coaches, or Williams himself, Finley surprised almost everyone concerned by announcing that he had renewed the contracts of Williams and his entire coaching staff—Adair, Noren, pitching coach Wes Stock, and bullpen coach Vern Hoscheit—for another season.

The A’s’ beat writers tried to discern Finley’s motivation in granting the contract extensions at such an unlikely and surprising time. Finley denied that he had been influenced by Jackson’s complaints about the “overcritical” managerial and coaching staff. The owner also insisted that the timing of his decision to reward Williams and his coaches with extensions was merely a coincidence and had nothing to do with Jackson. According to Finley, he was simply rewarding his workers for a job well done.

More likely, Finley had decided to send Jackson the following message: Don’t knock your managers and coaches. You work for them, and they work for me. Keep your mouth shut and play. Finley was making it quite clear that he was in charge of the team, not Jackson. In a way, Finley seemed to be punishing Jackson by rewarding Williams and the coaches.

The Jackson controversy overshadowed several positive developments for the A’s in July, including a recent boost in attendance at the Oakland Coliseum. Home attendance, which had been awful during the first month of the season, had earlier prompted Dick Williams to make the following remarks to Sports Illustrated: “We’re World Champions. We’ve proved ourselves. The area hasn’t.” In 1972, the A’s had drawn a total of 921,323 fans—the worst total for a World Championship team since World War II.

In his continuing frustration over the lack of fan support, Williams had warned fans about the possibility of the A’s moving to another city. The A’s, however, wouldn’t feel any immediate urge to relocate the franchise, since attendance had improved considerably in July. The rise in fan interest led some writers to speculate that the A’s might actually break the one million-fan mark for the first time in Oakland’s franchise history. Better play and warmer weather had given A’s fans stronger incentive to visit the Coliseum.

The middle of the season also brought some pleasant on-the-field developments. Reliever Darold Knowles started to throw his fastball hard again, much like he had during his early major league days in Philadelphia and Washington. According to Knowles, overwork during his last two years with the Senators had robbed life from his fastball. Earlier in the season, Dick Williams had also admonished Knowles for his seeming unwillingness to challenge hitters. Knowles claimed that he never intentionally meant to nibble at the plate; he simply had been unable to throw the ball where he wanted. “I’d hate to have to tell him this,” Knowles told The Sporting News in assessing Williams’ complaints, “but I’m trying to throw the ball right down the middle of the plate.” With Knowles throwing his good fastball and throwing it for strikes, the A’s now possessed another capable reliever who could ease some of the late-inning pressure from fireman Rollie Fingers.

On another front, Vida Blue notched back-to-back complete games—something he had not done all season. Blue followed up a four-hit effort against Baltimore with an impressive three-hitter against the Indians. Yet, Vida’s newfound success didn’t dissuade him from taking a subtle shot at Dick Williams. After the win over the Orioles, Blue hinted that Williams had been too quick in taking his starting pitchers out of games. Blue’s observation conflicted with the general media consensus that Williams had been anything but quick in removing his starters; after all, the new designated hitter rule had eliminated the need for pinch-hitting for the pitcher in the late innings and had resulted in an underutilized bullpen.

While the A’s had started to play better baseball, Williams’ health had taken a turn for the worse. On July 19, the A’s skipper suffered an attack of appendicitis, which required an emergency appendectomy that day. The appendectomy would force Williams to miss several regular season games, but did not prevent him from leading the American League in the All-Star Game. Some writers speculated that Finley had ordered his manager to work the Midsummer Classic, even though he didn’t feel anywhere close to perfect health. Williams later denied that Finley had made such a demand.

While Williams struggled with his health problem, Catfish Hunter entered the All-Star break at 15-3, having won 10 consecutive decisions. Hunter’s pitching earned him a spot on the American League All-Star team, which provided Charlie Finley with an opportunity to unveil his inherent cheapness. The producers of a special All-Star Game portrait asked the A’s’ publicity office (translation, Finley) to provide them with a photograph of Hunter. The photograph would serve as the model for the painter of the portrait. Instead of providing an updated photo of Hunter, with his longer hair and mustache, Finley sent a five-year-old picture of “The Cat” to be used in creating the portrait. Hunter’s appearance had changed considerably in the last half decade, perhaps more so than any Oakland player had. No longer short-haired and clean-, Hunter looked unrecognizable to most fans in the outdated photograph and portrait. Another one of Finley’s cost-cutting measures ended up embarrassing his star pitcher, and even more so, the organization itself.

Hunter’s appearance in the All-Star Game became a regrettable one for more important reasons, as well. In the second inning of the game, Hunter faced Cubs outfielder Billy Williams, who smacked a line drive toward the mound. Instinctively, Hunter tried to field the ball barehanded—an unfortunate decision, as it turned out—and incurred a hairline fracture to his right thumb. Already ailing from his appendectomy, Williams became more pained as he watched helplessly from the American League dugout.

Doctors placed Hunter’s thumb in a splint for several days before removing it. A hardy Catfish began throwing six days after sustaining the injury, which led doctors to predict a quick recovery period of only two weeks. If so, the break would force Hunter to miss about four or five starts; that was big news, considering that he had last missed a starting assignment seven years earlier in 1966 due to an appendectomy. An optimistic Hunter mused that the injury might provide a long-term benefit. “Heck, it might help me,” Hunter reasoned in an interview with The Sporting News. “I need the rest. I’ll be strong for August and September.”

The A’s initially hoped to place Hunter on the disabled list retroactive to the All-Star Game, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to allow such a move. Then came more potentially bad news. A New York City doctor informed Hunter that he wouldn’t be able to pitch for at least two weeks. The A’s physician didn’t agree, however. Dr. Harry Walker refuted the New York medical prediction, saying that Catfish could return in less than seven days. Dr. Walker’s prognosis pleased Finley but upset Hunter, who claimed his thumb was still very sore. Hunter subsequently tried to throw batting practice, but revealed that his thumb hurt so appreciably that he couldn’t cut loose with either his fastball or his most necessary out-pitch—the slider. A few days later, Catfish reported improvement in the hand’s condition, lending some credence to the soothsaying skills of the Oakland doctor.

SABR Update

Although Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) hostess Marjorie Tillapaugh passed away earlier this year, the organization will still hold its annual Induction Weekend meeting at Tillapaugh’s Funeral Home on Sunday, July 27, at 7:00 pm. All SABR members who are in Cooperstown for the induction weekend are welcome to attend the meeting. For those SABR members interested in hosting presentations on the 27th, please contact me at bmark@telenet.net and I’ll pass the message on to SABR’s Gene Carney.

Pastime Passings

Makoto Kozuru (Died on June 2 in Tokyo, Japan; age 80; heart failure): Known as the “Japanese Joe DiMaggio” because of a batting style that resembled that of the longtime Yankees’ great, Kozuru established Japanese single-season records of 161 RBIs and 143 runs. He set both records in 1950, when he also hit 51 home runs and earned league MVP honors. During a 15-year career, Kozuru hit .280 with 230 home runs and 923 RBIs, numbers that helped him win election to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980. After retiring as a player, Kozuru served as a batting coach and scout for the Hanshin Tigers.

Vince Lloyd (Died on July 3 in Green Valley, Arizona; age 86; stomach cancer): A longtime broadcaster who worked Chicago Cubs games for 38 years, Lloyd teamed with legendary announcers like Jack Brickhouse and Lou Boudreau during his tenure in the Windy City. As a broadcaster for WGN-TV and WGN Radio, Lloyd was often overshadowed by more well-known names in the Cubs’ booth. In the early years of televised Cubs games, Lloyd teamed with Brickhouse, one of the most popular broadcasters in Chicago’s history. He later worked with Boudreau, a Hall of Famer, as the radio voice of the Cubs for 23 years. In one of his most notable achievements, Lloyd became the first sportscaster to conduct a live interview with a sitting president at an Opening Day game. In 1961, Lloyd interviewed President John F. Kennedy before he threw out the first pitch of the season at Washington’s traditional presidential opener… In tribute to Lloyd’s memory, the Cubs observed a moment of silence at Wrigley Field before their Fourth of July game against the rival St. Louis Cardinals.

Bill Miller (Died on July 1; age 75; congestive heart failure): Pitching mostly for the New York Yankees, Miller worked in 41 games from 1952 to 1955. He played for the Yankees’ World Championship teams in 1952 and ’53, but did not appear in either of those World Series. Concluding his career with the Baltimore Orioles, Miller compiled a lifetime record of 6-9 with five complete games and two shutouts.

John Royster (Died on June 29; age 43; heart attack): Formerly a senior editor at Baseball America, Royster died suddenly of cardiac arrest after participating in an adult softball league game. Royster had worked at Baseball America for 14 years, covering high school baseball while editing a number of Baseball America’s book publications. Royster, who left the well-respected periodical last year, was highly regarded for his knowledge of baseball, his writing skills, and his attention to detail.

Jack Bruner (Died on June 24 in Lincoln, Nebraska; age 88): A left-handed pitcher, Bruner hurled parts of two seasons for the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Browns. After splitting the 1950 season with Chicago and St. Louis, he returned to the minor leagues for the rest of his playing career.

Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including the award-winning 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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