Tuesday, February 23, 2010

7. Bill Sayles

In tribute to the spirit of the Olympics going on now in Canada we have Bill Sayles, member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team. Although baseball was first showcased at the 1912 Games, 1936 was the first organized team specifically made up of real ballplayers. Tryouts were held in Baltimore and 12 amateur ballplayers were selected. They were later augmented by a few more ex-collegiate players and the team sailed to Berlin in August 1936. Originally the idea was for the U.S. team to play a team from Japan but the latter pulled out before the games started. The U.S. team was split into 2 teams, the home team called the "Weltmeisters" or "World Champions" and the visiting team called the "U.S.A. Olympics". In the week leading up to the exhibition game newspaper articles were printed and clinics were held demonstrating the finer points of the National Pastime. On the evening of August 12, 1936 the 2 teams took the field before over 100,000 spectators. After 7 innings of play, Weltmeister player Les McNeece hit a home run breaking the 5-5 tie to win the game. The crowd which had steadily dwindled over the course of the game politely applauded and the first Olympic baseball game ended. The International Olympic Committee agreed to feature Baseball in the 1940 Tokyo Games and 16 nations were slated to compete but the second world war put a stop to that. The sport was not to make another Olympic appearance until 1984.

Bill Sayles. This University of Oregon graduate travelled to Baltimore for the Olympic Team tryouts and was picked to represent the U.S.A. at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A fireballing right-hander with a reputation for wildness, Sayles was the pitcher for the Weltmeister (German for “World Champions”) team. He faced off against another team made of fellow Americans called “Olympics.” In front of over 100,000 spectators Sayles gave up 11 hits and 5 runs but held for 7 innings to be the winning pitcher after Les McNeece hit the game winning home run. Despite being a popular exhibition, baseball failed to catch on as an Olympic sport. Bill Sayles returned to the United Stated and was signed by the Boston Red Sox. He went on to play for Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers. He later became a scout for the Cardinals and died in Lincoln City, Oregon in 1996.

Monday, February 22, 2010

5. Pete Hill

One of the reasons I started this project is that I always thought it unfair that so many great players never got their own baseball card during their careers. The negro league players are the perfect example of this. Take Pete Hill. Probably one of the greatest outfielders of the dead ball era before the first world war and he has no American cards showing him in his prime.

Pete Hill was the complete ballplayer, an excellent fielder and a hard hitter who rarely struck out. He was most compared to Ty Cobb for his natural ability and fiery play. Hill played for some of the greatest early negro teams including the Philadelphia Giants from 1904 to 1907 and the Leland Giants from 1907 to 1910. He also played six winters in Cuba. With Rube Foster’s American Giants in 1911 Pete hit safely in 115 of 116 games and he won the Cuban batting title that same year with a .365 batting average. Hill was named captain of the American Giants and Rube Foster considered him his "field general" and a second manager. He left Chicago in 1919 and took over as manager of the Detroit Stars, where he was credited with a .391 average in 1921. He finished up his career in 1925 as the player-manager of the powerful Baltimore Black Sox. Pete Hill died in Buffalo in 1953.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

3. Dave "Lefty" Brown

When I first read Robert Peterson's ground breaking book on the negro leagues "Only The Ball Was White" I was fascinated by the story and grainy photograph of Dave "Lefty" Brown. Imagine a star with the fame and talent like Randy Johnson who also happened to be a convicted highway robber and who disappears at the peak of his career because he shot a guy in a drug deal and you have Dave Brown. I know I shouldn't celebrate such an unsavory character, but who can resist a story like that!

According to legend, manager Rube Foster secured Brown’s release from a Texas chain gang in order to sign him for his Chicago American Giants. Once free he became the ace of the pitching staff for Foster‘s powerful teams of the early 1920’s. His league records of 10-2, 11-3 and 8-3 for the years 1920-1922 show his dominance at this time. He had great speed and a good curve served up with superb control. Lefty is often named as the best left hander in Negro League history. Unfortunately trouble seemed to follow him around and in April 1925 he was accused of murdering a man on a New York City street during an argument. Brown disappeared the next day and rumors have him playing ball in small towns under assumed names with the F.B.I. hot on his trail. He may have been arrested in Greensboro, N.C. in 1938, or he may have died under shady circumstances in Denver.

1. Leon Day

For my first card, I thought I'd start off with Leon Day. Back when I was a kid, my Grandfather would tell me stories about back in the late 30's seeing the Newark Bears and the Jersey City Giants, farm teams of the Yankees and Giants. He also told me about the Newark Eagles which was a negro team. A negro team? What the heck was that? He explained that before Jackie Robinson joined Brooklyn in 1947 blacks had their own leagues, the Newark Eagles being one of them. This piqued my interest and I searched in vain for any other mention of these mysterious black leagues, but this was back in the early 80's and information was scarce to say the least. Finally I stumbled across Robert Peterson's "Only The Ball Was White" and I got the story at last and a life-long interest in the Negro Leagues began. Fast forward to 1991 and I'm designing the graphics for Oriole Park at Camden yards in Baltimore. I get interviewed on local tv and I meet presenter Dr. Bob Hieronymus. Somehow or other we start talking about the Negro Leagues and find out we are both deeply interested in the subject. Dr. Bob introduced me to Leon Day, the great pitcher for the Eagles who lived in my neighborhood. I was fortunate enough to start up a friendship with Leon and I spent quite a few hours in his baseball room talking about his career and his contemporaries. Leon was a terribly modest man, never really bragging about how great a pitcher he had been back in the day. Getting him to talk about his career was tough, but he was quick to point out all the great players he shared the field with. Because of he and Dr. Bob I got to meet many of the living negro league players when they would get together for reunions. Leon would tell the other guys I was ok and not one of the scumbag baseball memorabilia dealers that would try to scam them out of their souvenirs. The stories I was privy to during these dinners were amazing! Thanks to Dr. Bob's efforts, Leon was finally given the honor he so deserved when the Baseball Hall of Fame opened it's doors to him in 1995. He learned about his enshrinement while lying in the hospital and died a day or so later. So it's only natural that card number 1 in the Infinite Baseball card Set belongs to my friend, the great Leon Day.

Leon Day had a screaming fastball and a sharp curve that made him one of the negro leagues most successful pitchers. He was a dangerous hitter as well as a fast base runner. Day was as complete a ballplayer as you’d want. He pitched from the stretch without winding up and he held the record for strikeouts in the Negro National League, Puerto Rican Winter League and the East-West All-Star Game. Day was the ace of the Newark Eagles staff from 1936 to 1943 and he went 13-0 in 1937, 16-7 in 1939, 6-0 in 1940, 3-0 in 1941 and 7-1 in 1942. He served in Europe with the Army and was an integeral part of the team that won the European championship in 1945. On opening day 1946 he pitched a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars and went 13-4 leading Newark to the World Series beating the Kansas City Monarchs. He played minor league ball in Canada until retiring in 1955 and he died in Baltimore in 1995.