Monday, April 26, 2010

26. "Turkey" Stearnes

Unlike today, baseball didn't stop after the World Series. As soon as the season ended, the most talented professional ballplayers followed the warm weather south to Cuba and Puerto Rico or west to California. Starting at the beginning of the twentieth century Southern California had a thriving integrated league featuring pros from the white and black major leagues. Bonafide stars like Babe Herman, Walter Johnson, Kiki Cuyler, Ted Williams, Jimmy Foxx, Bob Meusel played against the great black stars Bullet Joe Rogan, Biz Mackey, Satchel Paige, Chet Brewer and Turkey Stearnes. During the league's heyday of the late 1920's the all-black Los Angeles Royal Giants dominated the league. The Giants hitters pounded the white pitching and the Giants hurlers smoked the white batters. Blacks were barred from playing in most of the ballparks around Los Angeles so White Sox Park was built specifically for them. Located near Fourth and Anderson Streets fans of all colors showed up to see the best baseball available west of the Mississippi. Although the league was integrated at a time when blacks were being lynched in the south and non-whites were barred from many beaches along the California coast, surprisingly few incidents of racism occurred on the field or in the stands. The spectacle of darn good baseball transcended any sense of racial superiority or inequality.

One of the greatest players of any hue to play in Southern California was Norman "Turkey" Stearnes. In nine years of coming west surviving box scores show he hit for a .373 average and hit 44 homers in 754 at bats.

Stearnes got his unique nickname from the awkward, flailing way he ran the bases, described by fans as looking like a “hunted turkey”. Six foot tall with powerful shoulders, Stearnes was a star centerfielder during the 1920’s and 30’s. He was also a fast runner and led the Negro National League in both triples and stolen bases on a few occasions. Like many other players of his time, he was not shy about sliding into a base with spikes high and his aggressive play became his trademark. He often batted leadoff because of his speed and he was the consummate team player. Talking about his home runs he said "If it didn't win a game, it didn't matter." He was elected to four all-star games, batted over .400 three times and led his league in home runs seven times. Although Stearnes was a quiet and modest man his fans and players understood his value as a player and he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

24. Billy Martin

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I hate the Yankees. In fact I am a third generation Yankee hater. That out of the way, you might be wondering why the heck I would produce a card of the ultimate Yankee, Billy Martin. Respect, that's why. As much as I can't stand the team that he has come to represent, I have to admire his grit and determination as a player. There are some players who just have that natural talent for the game like Ken Griffey, Jr, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. And then there are those other players that seem to get by on sheer will, pouring everything they have into the way they play the game making it seem like they are playing for their life and will do anything to win. Pete Rose comes to mind as does Eddie Stanky and Ryan Freel. These were guys who may not have been the best fielder or the best hitter. They may not have been the fastest or the biggest. They did however always seem to find a way to beat you. Billy Martin is one of these guys and love him or hate him, it is for that reason he belongs in The Infinite Baseball Card Set.

Billy Martin was brought up in the slums of Berkley, California during the depression made all that more grim when his father, always referred to as "The Jackass" by his mother, abandoned the family. An ugly and awkward kid Martin had to grow up tough in his rough neighborhood and he was reputed to be the leader of a local gang. Sports became his way out of the hood and he excelled at both baseball and basketball at Berkley High School. Oakland of the Pacific Coast League signed him upon graduation and after 2 years on their farm teams he made the Oaks at the end of the 1947 Season.

When Billy Martin joined the team it was primarily made up of older veteran players. They took a liking to the feisty young player and dubbed him “The Kid”. Casey Stengel was the manager at the time and while today he is thought of as a kindly, grandfatherly figure he was actually a rough player and a proponent of the old school way of playing the game and winning by any means necessary. He was able to channel all of Martin's inner rage towards the Oaks' opponents and Stengel encouraged his young protege to needle the other team's players. Martin ably replaced the Oaks veteran second baseman Dario Lodigiani when he was injured early in the 1948 season and later also filled in at shortstop and third base providing a valuable utility role during the Oaks championship season. When Stengel became Yankee manager in 1949 he made sure “The Kid” followed. As the manager of The New York Yankees he was expected to win and what better insurance is there than having Billy Martin on your team.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

23. Alexander Cartwright

Today is Opening Day. Unlike New Years Day or my birthday, I always look upon the first day of the baseball season as my mark of another year gone by and the hopeful beginning of another. This past year, or season, had been a tough one, the big crushing blow being the sudden death of my Father in September. Today is a day that had a special meaning for my father and I, the beginning of months of friendly banter about how our favorite teams are doing, how much we both hated the Yankees and who we thought would go all the way. But this year I am left alone on this day, and I face a long season without my best friend. What I wouldn't give for one more catch with my Pop or one more minor league New Jersey Cardinals afternoon game or just one more quick phone call to talk about last night's game. But today is Opening Day, the beginning of a new year, one that always brings the possibility of great things, where it matters only what you do this season, where past failures and disappointments are forgotten and the future is up to you.

So today, Opening day, I bring you the man who probably did more than anyone else in making baseball the great game it is today. Although most think of baseball as a sport played out in the country in idyllic settings, the game as we know it actually came from the crowded streets of Lower Manhattan. Back in the 1830's and 40's successful businessmen who had always lived above or behind their businesses began to move away from their shops into the less crowded suburbs and the young men who worked for them as apprentices and clerks now had many free and unsupervised hours of leisure time at their disposal. Many joined volunteer fire companies that served the dual purpose of serving the community and providing a fashionable club environment. It was while a member of The Knickerbocker Fire Company that Alexander Cartwright learned the game of base-ball.

When he could no longer find enough open space for his team to play in Manhattan, bank clerk and volunteer fireman Alexander Cartwright formed The New York Knickerbocker Base-Ball Club. The exclusive club charged a $5 initiation fee with annual dues of $2, the proceeds going towards the rental of Elysian Fields, a grassy tree-lined park across the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J. Cartwright had a keen interest in writing down a set of universally accepted rules for a game that had many different incarnations depending on where it was played. The distance between bases, number of fielders and most importantly batters need to be tagged out and not simply hit with the ball. The first real game of baseball was played at Elysian Fields in 1846 and Cartwright left New York in 1849 to seek his fortune in California and spread the game where ever he stopped including his final home, Hawaii.

Happy Opening Day to everyone, and I wish you all the best of seasons!