Monday, October 31, 2011

95. Buck Lai: The Celestial Speed Demon

If you've been reading my stories for a while, you'd already know that before the 1950's, the best ballplayers weren't all in the major leagues. The Negro Leagues had their stars as did the Cuban and Puerto Rican leagues. Here in the States we had a thriving semi-pro circuit and that is where guys like Buck Lai plied their trade on Saturday and Sunday afternoons throughout the 1920's...

Three times Buck Lai came perilously close to becoming the first Asian-American to play Major League ball. The first time was 1915 when the Chicago White Sox invited Lai, then known as Lai Tin, to join the team for spring training. Sox manager Nixey Callahan had seen Lai play ball when he toured with the Chinese Travelers. The team was made up of Hawaiians and each summer toured extensively throughout the States. The son of Chinese immigrants and a native of Hawaii, Lai was a star athlete back in Honolulu not only in baseball but he held the high school record for the 100 yard dash and running broad jump. Though newspapers reported his expected presence at Chicago’s camp that spring, Callahan was sacked as manager and apparently so was Lai’s direct link to the the Sox.

By 1916 Buck had married a Brooklyn girl named Isabel and was living in Audubon, N.J. While working as an inspector for the Pennsylvania Railroad he played semi-pro ball against top-notch Negro League teams and other touring ball clubs, continuing to make a name for himself in the press becoming known by the nickname "Speed Demon". Two years later the Philadelphia Phillies came knocking and after a tryout was signed to their farm club in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His first year there he batted a respectable .293 and along with Chinese-American teammate Andy Yim, was a favorite of the Bridgeport Americans’ fans. According to newspaper accounts the two “Celestials” sometimes serenaded the crowd, Buck belting out the hits accompanied by Yim on ukulele.

The next year he suffered an injury to his hand which dogged him for the rest of his life and effectively ended his hopes of making the big leagues. Lai played a total of 4 seasons with Bridgeport and batted around .260, about average for the league.

Still keeping his day job, Buck joined the Brooklyn Bushwicks, a major league-quality semi-pro team and was their starting third baseman for more than 10 years. The Bushwicks played 4 games a week and often out-drew the Dodgers in attendance. Besides Buck the Bushwicks boasted quite a few former and future major league players and they played against the best teams in outsider baseball.

Baseball researcher Scott Simkus reviewed 248 Bushwick box scores for games played against top-tier Negro League competition and found Buck hit an astonishing .297! He then compared that record with another contemporary third baseman, Negro Leaguer and Hall of Famer Judy Johnson who hit .295 against the same teams as Buck. Since the Bushwicks were very well-known around the New York area, it was just a matter of time before John McGraw of the New York Giants came calling.

In the spring of 1928, 33 year-old Buck Lai travelled to Augusta, Georgia to join the Giants. Though Buck played third his whole career, New York already had the best third-sacker in the league, Freddie Lindstrom. Buck was offered the chance to win the job at second base but failed to make the cut. Newspaper accounts reported that while Buck was not the best fielder, he more than compensated with his base running, batting and all-around smart sense of the game. Despite all this the Giants thought he was too small to last a season in the majors. Reluctantly Buck agreed to join the Giants top farm club. Lai played 4 games for the Jersey City Skeeters before calling it quits and rejoining the Bushwicks.

In the mid-1930’s Buck formed his own travelling team called the All-Hawaiian Nine featuring the best players of Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian decent. As the they toured the U.S. showcasing the skills of Asian-Americans, a few of his players were offered tryouts by pro ball clubs. Taking after his Pop, Buck’s teenage son, Lai Jr., joined the All-Hawaiians as well. By 1939 Buck had retired from playing ball and resettled back in Audubon, N.J. While working at a ship building company, Buck stayed active in the game by managing a few semi-pro teams in the Camden area and scouting for the Dodgers. With a lifetime of brilliant outsider baseball behind him, Buck Lai passed away in March, 1978 at the age of 83.

Monday, October 24, 2011

94. Sam "Mayday" Malone: Cheers to a TV Icon

A few weeks ago I finally got around to drawing a card for "Cheers" bartender Sam Malone. Ted Danson's beloved character on the long-running tv show was at one time a relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and his former pitching coach named, well, "Coach" was an employee behind the bar in the shows early years. Although I wasn't a particularly devoted fan of the show when it was on, I have always wondered what a "Mayday" Malone baseball card would look like. After a few hours of work at the drawing table I had my answer, but, like I said, Cheers wasn't my favorite show (I was more of a "Rockford Files" kind of guy) so I decided to ask for help with this week's post. Enter Tom Zappala. Tom, besides being a Red Sox fan, is also author of a book - "The T206 Collection - The Players and Their Stories" - of which I own a well-used copy. Tom and his co-authors wrote a nice biography of each and every player featured in the famous T206 tobacco card set and for a fan interested in baseball at the turn-of-the-century, this book is a must-have. So not only was I happy to get some time off from researching a story, but I got to meet the author of a book I particularly enjoy. So with out further chit-chat, I'll let Tom tell you about Sam "Mayday" Malone...

If Sam “Mayday” Malone paid as much attention to honing his pitching skills as he did to booze and beautiful women, he would have gone down in Red Sox annals as one of the greatest relief pitchers in the history of that organization.

One of the most colorful characters to ever don the Red Sox uniform, Sam was drafted as a “bonus baby” in 1966 right out of Sudbury High. Known for his “slider of death” as well as his nasty curve ball, Malone at 6 feet 3 inches tall was a can’t miss prospect. However, he languished in the minors for six years because of poor pitch command and poor judgment outside of the lines.
In 1971 Malone finally put together a decent season in the minors, going 7-2 as a reliever, while being mentored by Pawtucket Red Sox pitching coach Ernie Pantusso. As a result, Malone was finally called up to the big dance in 1972. In his first MLB appearance, he hit the two first batters he faced and then proceeded to strike out the next three.
Over the next six years “Mayday” showed flashes of brilliance, but became a gate attraction because of his off-field antics. The nickname was given to him because one never knew when disaster would strike while Sam was on the mound. A key member of the American League Pennant winning team in 1975, Malone walked over to the Boston Beer Factory in uniform after the clincher, jumped over the bar and became the unofficial bartender for the remainder of the night. Unfortunately, he drank more beer than he served, and was suspended from the playoffs.
For the next few seasons Sam Malone toiled for the Sox. He was released in 1978 after he gave up 4 consecutive home runs in a game and walked off the field while tipping his hat to the crowd that was actually cheering for him, because they had never seen anything like that before!
Malone eventually addressed his drinking, successfully completing a rehab program, and today, although a green tea drinker, is a very successful tavern owner in Boston. Not only does he accommodate patrons and fans with pictures and stories about his MLB days, but he is also one of the most charitable sports personalities in Boston. “Mayday” Malone has raised thousands of dollars for children's charities and elderly causes throughout the city of Boston. His “Mayday Charity Baseball Game” held the first Saturday in May at Fenway draws thousands. Today he is a beloved Boston hero, and his antics during his playing days simply add to his renown.

Tom Zappala
is a businessman in the Greater Boston area who has a passion for anything related to baseball history. He has had a particular interest in the T206 collection for about 20 years, focusing on player profiles and backgrounds, and enjoys the hunt for new and exciting information on the lesser-known players. He is also the cohost of a popular talk radio show broadcast in northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. He loves his wife, his four great kids, and his Red Sox. Those things, along with a Grey Goose martini and two baseball-size olives, make life great.

Friday, October 14, 2011

93. Jim Thorpe: A Minor Oversight

Back in 1983 I was in my 8th grade English class when this kid named Brian sitting next to me dropped a copy of Sports Illustrated which he was secretly reading and was cleverly hidden in his textbook. The magazine hit the wooden floor, gathered air beneath its spread-out pages, accelerated and shot across the aisle, coming to a halt under my chair. The teacher was this tall, mustachioed thug who liked slapping us kids around for minor infractions, so I quickly snapped up the magazine so that Brian didn't get caught. I didn't particularly care for Brian, but that teacher was a full-blown dangerous psychotic and it was an unwritten rule that while in his class us kids all looked out for one another. I slipped the magazine in my desk and that sick teacher never noticed. Not only did I save Brian from a beating, but I discovered Jim Thorpe that day. The main article was on the International Olympic Committee giving the long-deceased Thorpe's 2 gold medals back to his children. Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete of the 20th Century, I learned, forfeited his gold because he played two seasons of baseball in the minor leagues...

After excelling in every sport the Carlisle Indian Industrial School had to offer - football, track, baseball and even lacrosse, Jim Thorpe jumped at the chance to make a few bucks playing low-level minor league baseball in North Carolina. A few of his schoolmates had already accepted offers to play down south and in the spring of 1909 he joined his former Carlisle teammates Joe Libby and Jesse Longdeer on the Rocky Mount Railroaders of the Class-D Eastern Carolina League. Making about $15 a game, Thorpe played most positions in the infield and outfield but mostly was utilized as a pitcher. Rocky Mount was the worst team in the league that year and Thorpe registered a 9-10 record at the season's end, but upon a closer look he didn't have as mediocre a season as it appears. 6'-1" and powerful, Thorpe was raw and sometimes wild but had a few good games including 2 shutouts. In August before a home crowd "The Big Chief" as he was called, pitched both ends of a doubleheader against the Goldsboro Giants, dropping the first but winning the second game.

Rocky Mount was a town that had no love for people of color, even if they played on the towns own baseball team. "Coloreds" (which apparently included Native Americans) were expected to stay out of the downtown area and use a "colored road" outside of town to go from one part of town to the other. Thorpe and his two Carlisle teammates, Joe Libby and Jesse Longdeer, discovered this the hard way when they cut through town on their way to the ball field and were set upon by a local cop. When the officer shoved Thorpe he promptly knocked him out cold. The three ballplayers spent the night in jail and Libby and Longdeer left the team short there after.

Away from the discipline of the Carlisle Indian School, Thorpe seems to have cut loose during the season and he had a few additional scrapes with the law due to alcohol. One story has him wandering drunk downtown and smashing his head through a store window on a $5 bet. Another night he and teammate Marvin O’Gara went at each other in a drunken brawl and Thorpe had to be physically cuffed and dragged to the police station by a team of cops. O’Gara wound up being arrested as well after he was apprehended antagonizing Thorpe through the bars of his cell window.

Thorpe reported to Rocky Mount the next season and during spring training injured his arm. The Railroaders made another poor showing in 1910 but Thorpe's pitching kept the team competitors. Although he wound up with a 10-10 record, 5 of those loses were by a single run. The Rocky Mount team eventually traded Thorpe to the Fayetteville Highlanders near the end of the season. In his only game on the mound for the Highlanders Thorpe was unimpressive and got the loss. Manager Charlie Clancy decided to move the big fellow over to first base and his batting started to get a little better by the time the season ended. Unfortunately Thorpe didn't get along with Charlie Clancy, probably because of his thirst for the nightlife. His propensity towards alcohol fueled mischief followed him to Fayetteville and one time an inebriated Thorpe fought off 5 police officers before smashing his head through another window. Still refusing to submit to the law, the police called in the president of the Fayetteville team to try to calm him down, all to no avail. Finally an officer lassoed Thorpe, tied up the big man and subdued him with chloroform him until he was docile enough to be taken to a hospital.

By all reports he showed promise as a pitcher but needed a lot of coaching, both on the field and off. At the plate he hovered around .250 and had trouble with curve balls, something that would haunt him throughout his baseball career. On the base paths he was pretty fast and stole 11 bases in 1910. For unknown reasons Thorpe didn't return to Fayetteville the following season but concentrated on amateur track and field events. Technically, Thorpe forfeited his eligibility to compete because he accepted money to play baseball.

In 1912 as a member of the United States Olympic Team, Thorpe won 2 gold medals and was declared by the King of Sweden to be the world's greatest athlete. A hero upon his arrival back in the states, Thorpe's new-found fame quickly turned dark fast. Almost at once rumors started to swirl about him playing professional baseball somewhere down south - a no-no if you want to be eligible for the Olympics. While many college athletes played sports for money and kept their eligibility, Thorpe neglected to do what they all had done: use a false name. It wasn't hard to find records pertaining to Thorpe's 2 years in the Eastern Carolina League and there was one guy in particular who helped make sure the story had legs.

Fayetteville manager Charlie Clancy seems to have gone out of his way to make the story of Thorpe's baseball career known. Not only did he volunteer the story to a local reporter, he sweetened the pot with a few seamy stories about the Olympian's taste for the nightlife and even called him "yellow" on the mound because he claimed he would develop a sore arm after 7 innings and would magically be fine the next day. The story was picked up in a few newspapers and that, coupled with an anonymous teammate ratting him out to another newspaper effectively sealed Thorpe's fate. He came clean about playing in North Carolina but claimed he did not know it was against the Olympic rules. Charlie Clancy, for what it's worth, backtracked and tried to redact his story but the dam had burst. His 2 gold medals were swiftly taken away from him.

Jim Thorpe went on to become a household name during the teens and twenties as he played professional baseball with the Giants, Reds and Braves from 1913 to 1919 as well as what passed for pro-football with the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, New York Football Giants and Chicago Cardinals. After his athletic career ebbed he struggled to hold a job, the boozing he started in his minor league days finally developing into alcoholism. He died almost penniless in 1953 at the age of 64.

In January of 1983 the International Olympic Committee officially gave Jim Thorpe's 2 children his gold medals back.

I had been wanting to do a Jim Thorpe card for quite a while but it took me a while to gather enough info on that part of his life. 2 books that were really helpful were Kate Buford's "Native American Son" and William Cook's "Jim Thorpe: A Biography." For a much more in depth look at the pre-Olympic baseball career of Jim Thorpe, please go to Brian McKenna's classy and well-researched Baseball History Blog. Don't just stop at the Thorpe article, there are a whole lot of other nice pieces by Brian on there that are very interesting.

Monday, October 10, 2011

92. John Gedsudski: All Hail The Chief

Unlike most of the other fathers in their neighborhood out on Staten Island, John Gedsudski's pop pushed his boy to go farther than just high school. Tadeusz Gedsudski valued a good education and his boy was going to be a college man, and God willing, a lawyer or doctor. Mr. Gedsudski and his wife Zofia were from the old country and fully grasped the opportunity their new country offered not just to them, but to their only son. As far as those two were concerned, the sky was the limit for young Johnny.

Although stocky and but 5'-4" tall, John Gedsudski was a star athlete at Curtis High School, lettering in 3 sports (basketball, football and baseball). Clever with his hands as well as mind, as a Boy Scout he made the coveted Eagle rank in what was at the time a record three years and in school led the debate team to the state finals. His play on the gridiron induced New York University to offer Gedsudski a scholarship and he easily made the varsity squad his freshman year. Besides a full academic schedule (Gedsudski now had the ambition of becoming a lawyer) he supplemented his income by working for a youth program called "The Comanche Club" designed to keep young city kids out of trouble in their spare time. It was his role as leader of his Comanche Club group that he became known as "Chief", a moniker he initially shied away from, but over time it stuck fast, ultimately usurping John as his first name for the rest of his life.

In 1926 "The Chief" just missed being named to the College Football All-American team when he was beat out (by a single vote) by Lloyd Yoder of Carnegie Tech. On the diamond he held down first base for N.Y.U. batting .389 in his first year and .453 his sophomore year. More over, Gedsudski finished both seasons without a single error, the first time it had been done by a N.Y.U. player.

Of course it was only a matter of time before John McGraw of the New York Giants got wind of the stocky young first baseman. In the late spring of 1926 Gedsudski received a hand written note most cordially inviting him to try out for the New York Giants' baseball club at the Polo Grounds.

On the morning of May 23rd, 1926, Chief Gedsudski made the trek up to Harlem and knocked on the clubhouse door at the Polo Grounds. Traveling secretary Jim Tierney showed the young man around the clubhouse and outfitted him in a well-used Giants road uniform before accompanying him onto the field to be introduced to John McGraw.

The Giants in 1926 were a team in transition, some of the older stars who made the team world champions at the beginning of the decade were being replaced or retired and the team now was about half fresh talent handpicked by the Giants' savvy manager. Older first baseman Highpockets Kelly was being moved to second to make room for the rookie phenom Bill Terry, and The Chief, knowing how highly acclaimed Terry was, knew he had a slim chance of replacing him at his natural position.

Tierney and Gedsudski walked across the outfield grass towards the Giants dugout. Deep inside the shaded recess McGraw was studying a newspaper which, upon approach was revealed to be a racing form. A tall, thin man, too old to be a player so probably a coach, stood next to him. "Mr. McGraw, this is John Gedsudski" said Tierney. The stubby looking McGraw looked up slowly and squinted at the two men and suddenly a flash of recognition washed over him and he enthusiastically responded "yes, yes, of course, the N.Y.U. first baseman. Glad you could make it, son."

Far from being the angry, imposing man the newspapers all wrote about, Gedsudski later said that McGraw emanated a sort of casual regality, a powerful man comfortable with his position and secure in the knowledge that he need not lord it over anyone. In this split second between McGraw's greeting and Gedsudski's response, The Chief made a fateful decision - knowing Bill Terry had first base all but tied up, he mentally scanned the Giants line up and noted the weakest spot. The Chief shook McGraw's hand and said: "Pleasure to meet you Mr. McGraw, I am also a left fielder."

McGraw's eyes widened a bit. He turned slightly and nodded to the tall, thin coach who made a note on a folded piece of paper. The Giants starting left fielder was Irish Meusel, a 10-year veteran who was as of late fast showing his age in the Polo Grounds' vast left field. Although his average hovered around .280, his days were clearly numbered. McGraw nodded his square head at the tall, thin coach, and then: "Good. Take a bat and let me see you swing in the cage."

Gedsudski grabbed one of the bats spread out in front of the dugout (one of Frankie Frisch's The Chief later said) and followed McGraw and the tall, thin coach to the batting cage. Without a word, using his beefy hands to communicate, McGraw pulled Ross Youngs out of the box and directed Gesudski to the plate. He swung a few times to limber up and then faced the pitcher. The first pitch was a fastball which he promptly lined into left field. The next pitch was knocked into left center just behind the where the shortstop would be and the next 2 pitches The Chief pounded into the upper deck. Initially nervous, Gedsudski now swung free and easy, peppering the field with his hits. When he swung a missed a few, he remained unshaken and followed those rare misses with towering shots that fell into far-away grandstands.

He was in such a natural groove that it took the pitcher to straiten up and stop throwing for The Chief to realize McGraw had called a halt to the pitching exhibition. The manager talked with the tall, thin coach who finally called out to Gedsudski to grab his glove and go out to left field.

Being a first baseman, Gedsudski of course only had a first baseman's mitt with him. Designed to take throws from the infield, the design of a first baseman's mitt was decidedly different than the type an outfielder would use. Armed with the wrong equipment, The Chief jogged out to left field and stationed himself in front of the blue Arrow Collars sign.

John McGraw himself lumbered out to the plate and hit screaming liners out to Gedsudski whose 5'-4" stocky body struggled to field. Solidly built for a first baseman, he was just not properly constructed to roam the Polo Grounds' cavernous left field. His first baseman's mitt also hampered him as he tried to make running catches - the ball popped out time after time. After about a dozen or so missed opportunities, The Chief could see McGraw stop and look intently at him. After a long moment he waved the tall, thin coach over who shrugged his shoulders and walked slowly back behind the batting cage. McGraw grabbed another baseball and hit a high pop-up to shallow left, just behind the infield dirt. Gedsudski ran his fastest but the ball dropped about a foot in front of him. By the time he recovered and looked towards the plate, McGraw was walking back to the dugout and the tall thin coach was walking out towards him, crossing something out on that folded piece of paper.

It was a long ride back downtown from the Polo Grounds, but The Chief was undaunted. He may have failed his tryout with the mighty New York Giants but he truly was more interested in getting accepted into N.Y.U.'s law school next fall. Sports were fun and rewarding, but more than that they were a vehicle with which he could use to obtain a higher profession in life. Where as his father could hope to do no better than his job as a cutter in the garment industry, The Chief had the goal of becoming a prosecutor for the City of New York. Two months after his tryout with the Giants he was formally accepted into New York University School of Law.

With the need to earn money to support himself while in law school, Gedsudski took a larger role in the Comanche Club's activities. One of the few club leaders who held a driver's license, Gedsudski worked extra hours driving the organizations' converted school bus. The Chief poured himself into his leadership role and taught his boys how to play football, baseball, box and build fires (not actually lawful in Central Park, but Gedsudski was an expert at putting out fires as well as starting them). The first aid expertize the Chief displayed when mending a wounded Comanche coupled with his unwavering honesty in umpiring their sporting events earned the unbending respect of a whole generation of grammar school street toughs. When the sun was too hot or the rain too hard, The Chief would gather his boys around inside the converted bus and tell stories to pass the time. Some, told in his shy, modest way, recalled his past stardom on the football field and the Comanche's never tired of hearing about his brush with the great John McGraw. But it was the fictional stories, told in serialized form, which The Chief made up out of thin air that really fascinated the boys. Some were so good his Comanche's actually wished for a rainy day in order to hear the next installment. One, which he called "The Laughing Man" featured a hideously mutilated superhero accompanied by a wolf, a giant, a dwarf and a strikingly beautiful half European-half Asian girl who spent their time fighting evil Chinese bandits.

Even with his law studies and Comanche Club duties, Gedsudski found the time to fall in love. Mary Hudson was a fellow law student and though both were from very different backgrounds (her family was the Connecticut Hudsons, her grandfather was Pierce Hudson III, founder of the New York and Northeastern Railroad), the two hit it off on an intellectual level. When Mary showed up at a Comanche Club baseball game and playfully demanded a place on one of the teams, her surprise prowess with the bat and speed on the bases not only won over the boys but made The Chief love her even more. Then, as so often happens, Mary and The Chief found themselves in a bit of trouble - Mary was pregnant.

The Hudson's, already biting their tongue at Mary's relationship with the son of recent immigrants who they deemed to be below their daughter's station, now brimmed over with anger and resentment. The contemporary plan of action called for Mary to be sent on an extended vacation (say 6 months in a secluded Swiss resort for women), returning perhaps a few pounds heavier but sans an embarrassing baby and her suitor to be rebuffed and sometimes paid to walk away.

The Chief had other plans.

After many heart filled and some downright inflammatory conversations with Mary, The Chief made the decision to leave law school and take a job beside his father in the garment factory. It wasn't high wages, but it would be enough to raise a family on. They would be married as soon as possible so as to avoid unpleasant rumors. The Chief pledged his love to Mary. One afternoon the boys in the Comanche Club, watching from a far, even saw him get down on one knee before her.

In May of 1928 Mary went to Switzerland and John finished law school.

Upon graduation, The Chief took a position with a small but respectable firm on Long Island that specialized in immigration law. Sometime around 1934 or so, The Chief boarded a train to Jersey City where he waited patiently on the dock for a small boy recently arrived from overseas on the S.S. Bremen. Carrying a Swiss passport, the stocky 6 year-old was quickly processed through Ellis Island and was deposited on the New Jersey shore. The Chief, his tongue twisted like a pretzel trying to speak hastily-learned French, welcomed his son home. On the long train ride back to Long Island, The Chief entertained the boy with the first installment of a new fictional story.

His son, chin resting on his knee, listened intently.

Thanks to J.D. Salinger.