Saturday, June 30, 2012

123. Reggie Jackson: This One's For You Mom!

This week's post ain't about Reggie Jackson, per se, or even about baseball for that matter. This post is about my Mom, Pattie. At the young age of 64 and just 3 years since her husband died, Mom is lying in a New Jersey hospital room on "comfort care." That pleasant term is the nice phrase for the "death watch". Mom was diagnosed with cancer a month ago and in that short period suffered a stroke, endured brain surgery to remove 2 bleeding tumors and is now in a coma dying from a third inoperable hemorrhaging tumor. By the time I post this, she may already have passed away. But that's neither here nor there.

My mother was never a huge baseball fan, she much preferred football, and much later, due to my brother's interest, soccer. However back in the late 1970's and early 1980's my Mom was caught up in that whole Reggie Jackson Mania that was sweeping North Jersey where we lived. Most of my friends and neighbors were as well (including my gorgeous 3rd grade teacher, Ms. Keslo, who broke my virgin heart the day she tacked a poster of a shirtless Bucky Dent on the wall next to my desk). But I, brought up as the third generation of a staunch line of bitter Yankee-haters, didn't have that option. No, instead of reveling in the Yankees' seemingly endless string of World Series victories in that gleaming cathedral in the Bronx, I was left with the 5th-rate Mets and that bus station in Queens called Shea Stadium.

From 1977 on, while my Pop and I suffered through sickening seasons of Metropolitan's baseball, my Mom gleefully latched onto the biggest wave of baseball euphoria since Babe Ruth, Reggiemania. While I tortured myself by staying up late huddled under the covers with my blue transistor radio listening to the Mets drop another game to the Padres, Mom tuned the t.v. in to watch the Yankees making chumps of the Red Sox. I spent my money on packs of baseball cards hoping to get another one of the Mets also-rans while chewing that copper-flavored gum that came with the cards. Mom came home from the market with boxes of scrumptious looking Reggie Bars. The fact that they were made with nuts which I was allergic to just made it seem personal, like a kick to the balls.

I'm kind of rambling here, but bear with me. I guess what I'm trying to get at here is that my Mom seemed to take the game for what it was, a game. Me and my Pop, we took every Yankee win as a person affront, irrefutable proof that there was no fairness in the world. To he and I, the whole world was against us, and they were winning. Mom took the whole ride for just what it was, being part of something exciting.

Reggie Jackson seemed to embody late 70's New York City. He was bigger than life, fallible but he came through when you thought he was all but finished. They booed the hell out of him, even in his own house and still he bounced off the ropes and forced you to admire his talent as he rounded the bases on the way to beating the hell out of you. He fought with the press and they loved it. He pouted and complained and sulked. And he won. Jackson made things exciting again. I can't think of any player in my lifetime who made the game as exciting as I imagined Babe Ruth did. If Muhammad Ali played right field and wore God-awful ugly tinted glasses, I imagine he would have been like Reggie Jackson.

I remember when he said something about being "the straw that stirs the drink" on the Yankees. When asked about team captain and universally admired Thurmun Munson, Jackson replied maybe he stirred it up too, but only in a bad way. The papers exploded and so did the fans. No one ever dared to disparage Munson, and Reggie became the guy you loved to hate on a team full of guys you loved to hate.

Now more than 30 years later even a casual fan knows of Reggie Jackson while most know Munson as that guy who crashed his plane.

I hated Reggie Jackson. I held him responsible for all the bad things in my life. The kids I fought with in the neighborhood all wore Yankee caps. The girls I thought were pretty all turned their backs on me, the large number 44 and "JACKSON" arched above it the being last thing I saw as they walked quickly away. Reggie played in a building that was as close to the Sistine Chapel as us Americans can build and my team played in a cruelly enlarged version of the locker room at the Y.

My Mom loved Reggie. She squealed with laughter as he propelled his team to yet another pennant. She felt sorry for him when those mooks in the bleachers threw batteries at him as he stood in right field. When he hit all those home runs to win another world series, Mom spent the winter happy with  boundless optimism for the distant spring.

And when Reggie was traded and the Yankees stopped winning, Mom found something else positive in life to root for. It's just the way she was. Well, I'm rooting for you Mom, but like the 1978 Mets, I know it's a lost cause. But I'm still rooting, just the same. It's just the way I am.

Postscript: Like my '78 Mets, Mom didn't make it. She passed away quietly on Sunday morning, July 1st, 2012. Rest easy Mom and tell Pop I said hi.

Friday, June 22, 2012

122. Curly Williams: A Good First Impression That Lasts and Lasts

For the second week in a row I've been fortunate to have two guest authors take the writing reins from me and highlight a player that they felt needed the Infinite Card Set "treatment." Besides offering a another perspective, writing style and different players than I would have chosen, it also gives me a break from writing and researching. You see, a few weeks ago my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and the past couple of weeks have been spent back in New Jersey visiting her in the hospital and trying to gather up all the loose ends that a sudden illness always exposes. That's enough about all that now, but I'd like to thank last week's author, Gary Bedingfield and this week's, Jay-Dell Mah, for pinch hitting for me when I needed them.

Last year when working on the Satchel Paige All-Stars story I came across a really interesting website dedicated to baseball in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The proprietor of the site, Jay-Dell Mah, has graciously accepted my offer to be a guest author here at the Infinite Baseball Card Set.

Willie “Curly” Williams had a knack of making a good first impression. In Triple-A with Toledo, in the White Sox organization, Williams won three steak dinners and a savings bond for a triple which knocked in the first runs of the 1952 season for the Mud Hens. With Colorado Springs the previous season, he belted a game-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Sky Sox scored seven times for a season-opening victory.

In Canada, the admiration was long-lasting. “Curly Williams was one of the finest gentlemen that I ever met”, said Slim Thorpe the Saskatchewan team’s president. “He was always helping the kids. We'd get these young college boys and Curly was in there talking to them, showing them how to do it.”

The youngest of seven children, Williams, whose father died when he was just six months old, grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina where he became widely recognized for his athletic achievements both in baseball and football. As a teenager Williams won a spot on the local Orangeburg Tigers (along with his life-long buddy Modie Risher, once touted as a successor to Roy Campanella) who often competed against barnstorming Negro League teams. It was during his Tigers tenure in the latter part of the 1940s that the famous Newark Eagles of the Negro National League took notice. He became the Eagles’ shortstop both in Newark and, upon the team’s re-location, in Houston and New Orleans. In 1950, as a member of the Houston Eagles, he was selected to play in the Negro League’s East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

A few months later, in winter ball in Puerto Rico, with Mayaguez, the left-handed swatter attracted interest at the major league level especially after a memorable six-day stretch in which he clubbed seven home runs.

The White Sox came calling. The 5’10”, 175 pound shortstop was assigned to Colorado Springs in the Western League and further impressed with a .297 batting average and .547 slugging percentage. But, not feeling anywhere near comfortable with continued sleights against black players, Williams left the club to head back to the Negro League Eagles, now in New Orleans, and hit .351 with 11 home runs in less than half a season.

Convinced to return to the White Sox system, he lined up with Toledo for the start of the 1952 campaign. Williams’ recollections of Spring Training at Avon Park, Florida, didn’t focus on the diamond, but a restaurant kitchen. The kitchen where he was forced to sit for his meals while his white teammates enjoyed the service on the other side of the door at tables in the eatery. He didn’t get to stay at the team’s hotel either. The club found a preacher in the community who agreed to house Williams.

In July, a trade found the infielder in the St. Louis Browns’ farm system, assigned to Scranton of the Eastern League and then the first black player to sign with San Antonio in the Texas League. But, Williams decided to go north, not south, in 1953. He crossed the border to Canada to play in the ManDak (Manitoba-Dakota) League with dozens of other former Negro Leaguers including future Hall of Famers Willie Wells and Leon Day. The integration of the majors and the subsequent decline of the Negro Leagues had reduced playing opportunities for black players and many found a home in the ManDak circuit. The 1950 league champion Winnipeg Buffaloes sported an all-black lineup.

When Williams took the field with the Carman, Manitoba, Cardinals it must have seemed like a Negro League reunion. Under playing-manager Chet Brewer, the club featured, among others, Joe Atkins, Lyman Bostock, Willie Hutchinson, Lester Lockett, Chick Longest, Benjamin Lott, Walter McCoy, Jimmy Newberry, Andy Porter, Herb Souell and Williams, who, in spite of a late start almost won the home run crown blasting 12 in fewer than 200 at bats.

In 1954, he returned for a final season in Negro ball with the Birmingham Black Barons and again was among the loop’s top sluggers.

The following summer it was back to Canada, this time to a small prairie town – Lloydminster – split by the provincial border between Alberta and Saskatchewan. He felt so comfortable he kept coming back to put on the Meridians’ jersey.

“(In Canada) we were treated so well up there that's why I stayed up there so long ... We had so much fun there and everybody was accepted, you know, didn't have problems going any place we wanted to eat. Just wonderful people. May not have made a whole lot of money but people were excited and they enjoyed you and would invite you to their homes."

In his first season in Lloydminster, he hit .280 and, as a third baseman, led the league in fielding. The following year, he was in the top five in average while producing an on-base percentage of .457. Again, he led the league in fielding, this time at shortstop.

Williams was a perennial all-star who also took a turn as manager of the club. In his first full month at the helm, in 1961, he led the Meridians to 25 wins in 32 games, including tournament victories at Lacombe and Lethbridge. Curly loved the big tourney at Lacombe. In the 1960 event he reached base 14 times in 15 appearances. In the 1961 go-round, Williams had three hits and scored twice in the semi-final match as a warm-up for the final in which in homered, tripled and doubled, drove in four runs and scored a pair.

Curly retired after the 1963 season and ten seasons in Canada. Fittingly, he went out with a blast -- a .391 average.

Williams played with and against many of the giants of major league and Negro league baseball – Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe and Monte Irvin.

"Such a nice man, beautiful, just beautiful", said Risher "too nice sometimes. I used to get on him about it, telling him you can't be the saviour for everybody".

In 1997, the Sarasota, Florida Council declared "Curly Williams Day" in honour of his efforts to raise funds (through the Curly Williams Foundation) to provide college scholarships for needy students.

Williams was also a major figure in winning pension benefits for many Negro Leaguers who had, based on their color alone, been denied an opportunity to play in the majors.

He died in August, 2011 at Sarasota, Florida at age 86.

Jay-Dell Mah is a former radio and television news reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto. Since his retirement from the CBC, in the late 1990s, baseball research has been a prime activity. His web site – – documents semi-professional and amateur baseball in Canada (mainly in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and the northeastern United States from the early 1900s to the mid 1970s. A highlight of his baseball career came in the summer of 2010 with induction into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame. In late 2010, he was selected as one of the top 100 most influential figures in baseball in Canada. The native of the prairie border city of Lloydminster, is co-author of Black Baseball Players in Canada: A Biographical Dictionary, 1881-1960 (McFarland & Company, 2009). He’s a member and former webmaster of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. Mah now lives in the British Columbia interior community of Nakusp.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

121. Tom Woodruff: Speed on the Field, Speed in the Air

One of my favorite baseball websites I always check in on is Writer/researcher Gary Bedingfield has created the best clearinghouse of information and stories related to baseball and World War II, from the hundreds of service teams to all-star tours of the war zones to a painstakingly researched list of ballplayers killed in the line of duty. It is a fascinating glimpse of how the sport of baseball helped the United States get through some tough times and it also pays tribute to the hundreds of sports heroes who selflessly put their careers aside in order to help defeat the evil that was threatening our world. When I did my card and story on Bill Niemeyer a few weeks ago, it was Gary's site that I turned to first. Looking over his new creation, Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice, I had an idea - why not have Gary pick one of his ballplayers, I'll do the illustration and we'll give everyone a reason to check out his unbelievable research on wartime baseball...

Tom Woodruff was a league-leading base stealer his first two years in the minors. Five years later he was inflicting heavy damage on Japanese shipping as a US Navy fighter pilot roaming the Pacific from the deck of the USS Enterprise. After earning a string of awards for extraordinary heroism against the enemy, Tom's luck ran out in November 1944.

Thomas J. Woodruff attended St. Louis University High School, where he was a three-sport athlete and an honors student. He was a varsity baseball teammate of Joe Schultz, who enjoyed a nine-year career as a major league catcher with the Pirates and Browns, and went on to manage the Seattle Pilots and Detroit Tigers. Another teammate, William Quinn, became the first governor of the state of Hawaii and president of Dole Pineapple. Yet another, Bob Hyland, became a pioneer in the radio business, becoming the vice-president of CBS radio and creating the talk-radio call-in format. [1]

Following graduation in 1936, Woodruff enrolled at St. Louis University, and was on the Track team and Freshmen basketball squad before signing with the St. Louis Browns in 1938. The Browns sent the young shortstop to the Corpus Christi Spudders of the Class D Texas Valley League, and he batted .271 with 6 home runs, 20 triples, 71 RBIs and a league-leading 44 stolen bases. He also led the team with 84 base on balls and 13 sacrifice hits. In 1939, he joined the Paragould Browns of the Class D Northeast Arkansas League and batted .279 in 120 games with 10 home runs, 56 RBIs, a team-leading 115 runs scored and a league-leading 62 stolen bases. [2]

The 22-year-old began the 1940 season with the Springfield Browns of the Class B Three-I League, playing alongside future major leaguers Ray Coleman, Earl Jones, Ed Busch and Len Schulte. But after batting only .248 in 55 games he joined the St. Joseph Autos of the Class C Michigan State League on July 9. Bringing outstanding speed on the basepaths and combining with manager Elmer Kirchoff to make a neat double play combination, Woodruff helped put the Autos on a winning streak. In 27 games, he was batting .404 and had stolen 17 bases when he broke his leg in a game against Grand Rapids in August. But despite his limited playing time he was voted to the Michigan State League All-Star team picked by the loop's sports editors and team managers.

Woodruff's option was taken up by Springfield at the start of 1941. The team he had played for before joining St. Joseph, and the young infielder was torn between the desire of stepping up into Class B competition and returning to the Autos. "If you consider the calibre of play, the playing conditions, teammates, and the two cities of St. Joseph and Springfield, I'd probably rather come back to the Autos," he told the Benton Harbor News Palladium. "But I've got to also look at it from the baseball angle that the Three-Eye circuit naturally carries more prestige than the Class C Michigan League and baseball men give more recognition to you if you're from a class B loop," he added. [3]

Nevertheless, and with his military draft call looming, he was back with St. Joseph by mid-April. He was batting .278 with 18 RBIs, 4 home runs and 12 stolen bases in 19 games when military service requested his presence June 6. May 28 was the date of the popular shortstop's last game and the event was dubbed "Tommy Woodruff Night" as the Autos faced Grand Rapids before a crowd of 850 at Edgewater Park. Batting in his usual number two spot Woodruff was hitless at the plate but safely handled five chances in the field. As the Autos headed to Lansing to play the cellar-dwelling Senators, Woodruff headed home to St. Louis and reported for induction. [4]

Woodruff began his military life at the Army Replacement Center at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where he was attached to the public relations staff, having studied journalismn at St. Louis University. He later transferred to the Navy and as an aviation cadet, trained at Pensacola Naval Air Station, earning his wings as a fighter pilot in June 1942. Lieutenant Junior Grade Woodruff flew the Grumman F6F Hellcat, and saw action in the Pacific from August 1944, as part of Fighter Squadron VF-20 aboard the USS Enterprise. He made fighter sweeps over the Bonin Islands, Yap Island and in support of the landings at Peleliu in September. In October, strikes were made against Okinawa, Luzon and in support of the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea. Woodruff was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and Navy Cross for his aerial combat achievements.

During November, he made attacks against land targets in the Philippines and enemy convoys including the November 11 attack on an enemy convoy at Ormoc Bay. On that day, the Navy pilots encountered stiff opposition from ant-aircraft fire but sank two destroyers.

On November 14, 1944, he flew a mission against Clark Field in the Philippines that was the most trying for the pilots of VF-20. Anti-aircraft batteries of all sizes had been greatly strengthened since previous strikes and were finding their targets with alarming accuracy. Six fighters were shot down that day, including Woodruff. His body was never recovered and a year later he was officially declared dead.

Woodruff was posthumously awarded a gold star in lieu of a second Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the attack against the Japanese convoy on November 11, 1944. He is memorialized at the Manila American Cemetery at Fort Bonifacio in the Philippines.

Lt (jg) Woodruff's Navy Cross citation:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Thomas Joseph Woodruff (NSN: 0-145682), United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Fighter Plane in Fighting Squadron TWENTY (VF-20), attached to the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE (CV-6), in strikes against the Japanese Fleet on 24 - 25 October 1944, east of the Philippines. On 25 October Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Woodruff participated in a coordinated attack on a large formation of enemy warships and in spite of intense anti-aircraft fire scored rocket hits on a destroyer. On 20 October with complete disregard for his own personal safety and in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire he attacked and obtained a direct bomb hit on a light cruiser inflicting severe damage. His courage and skill were at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

General Orders: Commander 1st Carrier Task Force Pacific: Serial 046 (January 31, 1945)
Action Date: October 24 - 25, 1944
Service: Naval Reserve
Rank: Lieutenant Junior Grade
Company: Fighting Squadron 20 (VF-20)
Division: U.S.S. Enterprise (CV-6)

About Gary Bedingfield As an Englishman, my enthusiasm for baseball may seem a tad strange. Baseball is not popular in Britain, and yet I developed a passion for the American national pastime at a tender age. And since 1999, I've been researching the impact of war on professional baseball. Why? Well, it gives me an opportunity to combine two things that fascinate me in life – World War II and the great game of baseball.

Coinciding with the release of my first book on the subject, "Baseball in World War II Europe" in 2000, I launched the now popular website as a way of sharing the information I was uncovering. A major part of this website was a section entitled "In Memoriam," dedicated to baseball players who lost their lives during World War II. It amazed me that no prior listing had ever been compiled relating to the National Pastime's commitment to the war in relation to deaths and I took it upon myself to rectify the situation. In 2009, McFarland publishers released my second book, "Baseball's Dead of World War II," a collection of 127 biographies of players who lost their lives while serving with the military during World War II. Since the release of "Baseball's Dead" the list has grown to 142 and I decided to look beyond World War II and see what players made the ultimate sacrifice in other conflicts, or even while serving in the military in peacetime.

The result of this research is, launched in January 2012, and dedicated to the 381 players who died in service. It serves as the only Internet source dedicated to these men and will eventually include biographies for every player I am able to uncover, from major league to amateur.

What do I hope will become of this information? Well, one day, I’d love to see Major League Baseball recognize the players who died in service. Maybe a plaque inscribed with their names. C’mon guys, it’s time they were honored.