Thursday, May 31, 2012

120. Mickey Mantle: The Miner's Son Becomes A Miner

The Yankee organization was plenty pleased with Mickey Mantle's freshman performance with the Independence Yankees. In the spring of 1950 Mickey was invited to come to St. Petersburg, Florida where the big club training. Despite no one knowing who this teenager was, the kid from Oklahoma quickly stood out.

Batting left-handed he knocked ball after ball over the left field wall and switching sides he scattered hits all over the field. Even among the Yankee legends on the field, DiMaggio, Berra and Bauer, this kid was something else. After watching one particularly impressive blast, Manager Casey Stengel was said to have cried out "What'sis name? Mantle?" When the Yanks broke camp and headed North, Casey went back to New York dreaming of when this kid would be sitting on his bench.

The Yankee management agreed with Stengel's evaluation and the consensus was that he had the rare skills to be able to skip the many rungs of the minor leagues and go right into AA level, the highest level of the minors (now reclassified as AAA). While the temptation to do so must have been excruciating, cooler heads prevailed and it was decided to bring Mickey along slowly. He was just 18 and known to be somewhat homesick and lacking a strong self-esteem. The Yankees had a Class-B farm team in Joplin, Missouri, less than 30 miles away on the old Route 66. The youngster would have the comfort of staying close to home as well as having a familiar face in the dugout - his manager in Independence, Harry Craft, was also moved up and was taking the helm of the Joplin Minors.

At the Miners' spring training camp in Branson, Missouri Mickey continued to awe with his unprecedented hitting performance. He'd beefed up since the previous season and took to rolling up the sleeves of his flannel jersey to make room for his muscles.

When Lee MacPhail, director of personnel for the organization and son of former Yankees owner Larry MacPhail came to Joplin to watch a pre-season exhibition game, he told friends that Mickey Mantle was the strongest and fastest man in organized baseball. There was talk already around the Yankees front office that this kid was going to be the usurp the mantle of the aging Joe DiMaggio.

Buoyed by one successful season under his belt and glad to be close to his family, Mickey exploded. Encouraged by Harry Craft to swing away, Micky was soon leading the Western Association in almost every offensive department. In a night game in Joplin he smashed one home run left-handed, then turned around and did the same right-handed. It was obvious to his teammates, fans and opposing players that this kid was something special.

Mickey was allowed to go home to his family after games played in Joplin. The kid had begun hanging out at a local pool hall and discovered beer. Manager Harry Craft figured letting the kid go home every night to his family would help keep him straight. But having his family close was a double-edged sword. After on game where he went 3 for 4 with a home run, his father Mutt told him that he would have got 4 hits had he hustled on a ground ball. The kid had a quick temper as well which he directed at himself, always believing he could do better.

The only problem was his fielding.

Try as he might, Mickey couldn't seem to improve his play at shortstop. Fly balls were so troubling to him that his own teammates would yell for him to stay away when one came towards short. He committed 55 errors in 137 games and his arm, though strong as hell, was so erratic that legend has it the box seats beyond first base were left empty for fear of getting hit by one of Mickey unpredictable throws.

As the 1950 season came to a close, Mickey could look back on an impressive year. He grabbed hold of the next rung of the Yankee farm system and improved by leaps and bounds over his first season. He was popular with his teammates and fans alike and could bask in all the attention lavished on him. The Yankees, on their way to a repeat pennant that year, rewarded the 18 year-old with a September call-up to the majors. For the final 2 weeks of the 1950 season Mickey watched the big leaguers from the security of the Yankees' dugout. Shy and reserved he couldn't even muster the nerve to talk to idol Joe DiMaggio, the man he was destined to replace. Though he didn't get into a single game, that first experience of being a big league ballplayer would help him get him used to what was ahead.

Like my previous post on Mickey's 1949 season, I'd like to dedicate it to my Uncle Eddie, a great Mickey Mantle fan and the guy who came to my little league games when my father could not. Nick Diunte's article in the Examiner was particularly helpful in this story, check that and his other articles out, he's quite a good writer and focuses on New York City baseball.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day 2012

By the morning of March 4th, 1945, the boys of G Company, 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment, 5th Infantry Division had become hardened veterans. Most had just arrived in Europe barely 3 months before and now those same freshly minted young soldiers had checked the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, chased their asses back across the Rhine and were now slugging their way into the Third Reich itself. The war was close to being over with, the Allies gaining more momentum everyday and the enemy knew it. If the Germans were only fighting the western powers they most likely would have caved in already. However, on the other side of Germany the Soviets were smashing towards Berlin and every day they held out meant more Germans could make their way west to be captured or at least get to an area occupied by the western Allies. No one wanted to be around when the Russians came so the war ground on.

The boys of G Company probably didn’t care much about the reason why the Germans still fought them tooth and nail. Each man had had his life interrupted and shipped half way around the globe to stop an evil that was threatening to swallow the whole world. The boys of G Company had left pretty young wives, anxious mothers, college classrooms or good jobs and took up a Garand Rifle to do their part. Complaining about what they were missing out on was pointless - the fella next to you had the same story. Maybe even better than yours. Nah, complaining wouldn’t do any good. Best thing was to keep marching forward and get this over with. As they wearily crossed the makeshift bridge built over the Kyll River they just cared about the fight they had ahead of them that afternoon and the one after that and the one after that until these Krauts threw in the towel.

If any of the boys in G Company were still sleepy, chances are the mortar fire that greeted them as the crossed the bridge woke them up. The enemy they’d been chasing since Luxembourg had dug in around the town of Erdorf. As the German lines collapsed and contracted the enemy became more dense, more desperate. Besides regular infantry, G Company was marching right into redeployed artillery and Panzer units. As they pushed forward the resistance became stiffer and more determined. Each gain was met with vicious counter-attacks and artillery barrages.

G Company was deployed to sweep the fields around the village of Erdorf. This was pleasant farm land of rolling little green hills and blooming trees. To the boys of G Company, the area they were clearing of enemy troops looked a lot like familiar places in the northeast and Midwest United States. Perhaps more than a few were suddenly lost in thoughts of an afternoon spent in surroundings much like this. The boys of G Company thought back to little places they left behind called Sussex County, Washington Courthouse, Mechanicsburg or Crescent Springs.

To the officers of G Company, this place was just called Hill 378.

The company spread out and took a low hill like they had countless other times in the last three months. All very textbook. Regrouping and moving forward, they entered a wooded area where entrenched German troops and the Panzer tanks were waiting. This obstacle, too, was eventually beaten aside by G Company and just like every other hill and wood and field G Company had cleared in the past three months, they left behind some of their own. As the troops emerged on the other side of the wood and continued eastward into Germany, one of the 32 boys they left behind that afternoon was 22 year-old Private First Class Bill Niemeyer of Crescent Springs, Kentucky. The life he had put on hold in order to beat back the evil that darkened the world consisted of his young wife Marie, infant daughters Deanna Gail and Mary Johanna and a promising pitching career in the Chicago Cubs organization.

Even though Bill Niemeyer never made it up to the Cubs, I wanted to depict Bill in a Chicago uniform. Was he good enough to have eventually made it to Wrigley Field? I don’t know. We will never know. The same as we will never know what any of the other boys in G Company who died that afternoon in Germany would have accomplished in their lives. The one thing I do know is that is their sacrifices, all veteran’s sacrifices, made it possible for me to have a good life in the greatest country in the world. As I sit here writing this, I can see and hear my neighbors enjoying this beautiful Memorial Day weekend. The shouts of the boys next door, the couple across the street putting a pair of mountain bikes in their SUV and the girl on the corner attempting to train her new puppy on her green front lawn. In a few hours I will be going over to see my girlfriend who I love very much, and share a nice, lazy summer evening. All that I see and hear right at this very moment was possible because of men and women like Bill Niemeyer, a 22 year-old promising ballplayer who once lived right down the street from where I sit right now, the place he left to go off to war and never saw again.

Many thanks to Gary Bedingfield who is the foremost authority on baseball and World war II. While looking around for a ballplayer to feature this Memorial Day I of course consulted his amazing website Consulting a page he constructed showing the many professional ballplayers who died fighting for our country, Bill Niemeyer jumped off the screen. He was born and raised right where I was sitting. I might even pass his relatives at the market or live next door. The fact that he came from this place made his sacrife a bit more personal for me, especially as I sat there with a nice fresh cup of coffee by an open window enjoying the beautiful Kentucky scenery he never saw again. The place of his death was even more interesting as that part of Germany looks very similar to what he had grown up in. I’m glad I found Bill’s name on that website and I encourage every other baseball fan to take a look at Gary Bedingfield’s monumental work. His site features in-depth articles about hundreds (actually it might even be thousands of entries by now!) of players who found themselves in the service during the war. Gary is also an author of two indispensable books on the subject, "Baseball's Dead of World War II: A Roster Of Professional Players Who Died" and one of my personal favorites, "Baseball In World War II Europe (part of the Images of Sports series)."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

119. Mickey Rutner: Man On Spikes

When I first started this blog a little over two years ago, I started receiving many requests for players to be profiled on here and given The Infinite Baseball Card Set "treatment." Out of all the emails I began to notice that it was not one particular player that was asked for the most, but rather a whole ethnic group: Jewish ballplayers. I did cards and stories on here of Sandy Koufax and Moe Berg, but I began slowly researching different players of the Jewish faith, trying to find characters who would fit in with the kind of stories I like to write. Guys with interesting stories who may not be known to the casual fan of baseball history. Mickey Rutner was one of those guys, and in fact he appears on page 15 of the Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball." Ron Kaplan, founder of the highly informative baseball book review site Kaplan's Baseball Bookshelf, told me that no feature on Jewish ballplayers was complete without including Mickey. As far as I was concerned, including Mickey was a pleasure because not only was he the inspiration for a fine baseball novel and made-for-TV movie, but I had actually met him back in 2002 and had a nice talk with him while taking in a minor league ballgame in Round Rock, Texas.

Mickey Rutner wasn’t a great ballplayer, but he was a darn good one. His entire major league career consisted of 12 games with Connie Mack’s 1947 Philadelphia Athletics but it was his long, bittersweet minor league experience that inspired author Eliot Asinof to make him the hero of his best selling 1955 novel “Man On Spikes”. The novel follows hero “Mike Kutner” as he winds his way through the minor league system battling prejudices and the exploitation of the players toiling in its farm system. In Asinof’s novel the prejudice faced by the main character was due to his wearing of glasses - the real “Mike Kutner”- Mickey Rutner, faced anti-Semitism.

Mickey grew up in Hempstead, New York and after starring on his high school baseball team went on to play the sport at St. John’s University. In 1939 while playing in a semi-pro league sponsored by major league clubs and made up of college players, Rutner was teammates with another Jew from New York named Eliot Asinof. The team was run by manager Bill Barrett and after a losing streak approached Asinof telling him “there’s too many Heebs on this club. You’re fired.” Rutner got to stay.

After graduation Mickey was signed by the Detroit Tigers. Given a $3,000 signing bonus which he was later cheated out of, he was sent to play in their minor league system. While playing for Winston-Salem in 1941 Rutner’s manager was none other than Jake Atz, famed Texas League manager now in the last year of his long and successful career. Atz, also a Jew, told Rutner that his name Mickey and degree from St. John’s must have fooled the Detroit management into signing him. If they knew he was Jewish he wouldn’t have been offered a contract. The Tigers already had one Jew on the team, Hank Greenberg.

Mickey moved up a rung to Wilmington in 1942 and batted .277 along with a spot on the league All-Star team. His career seemed to be headed in the right direction when he was drafted. Mickey spent 3 prime years serving in Europe with the 45th Division before rejoining Wilmington in the Spring of 1946. Now playing third base, Rutner exploded batting .310, 126 RBI’s and his 36 doubles lead the league. He made his second All-Star game appearance that year as well. Moving up to the Birmingham Barons in 1947 Mickey responded by hitting .327, earning his promotion to the major leagues.

Playing his first game in an Athletics uniform on September 11th, Mickey went 2 for 4 against the White Sox. In his first appearance at Yankee Stadium, Mickey had the thrill of getting a game-winning base hit off ace Yankee relief pitcher Joe Page. All told Mickey played in 12 games for Philadelphia and hit .250 including a double and home run. He was invited take spring training with the Athletics the next year but by the start of the season he was sent back to Birmingham. Veteran Hank Majeski was the regular third baseman and although Mickey was good, he wasn’t better than Majeski.

Rutner continued to post good numbers playing in the high minors- .312 for Birmingham in 1948, .287 for Tulsa in ‘49, .286 for Toronto in ‘50 - but the majors never called again. The parent team of every club he played for had a good player already manning third base. First it was Majeski in Philly then Vern Stephens in Boston, then Grady Hatton in Cincinnati and finally Willie “Puddin' Head” Jones on the Phillies. As he grew older he slipped back down the ladder into the depths of the minor league system. After 10 years in the minors he hung up his spikes for good after the 1953 season ended. His lifetime average was just shy of .300. It was two years later that Mickey Rutner’s futile plight in the minor leagues was made famous by his former teammate now novelist Eliot Asinof. The book was further popularized when it was made into a television movie later that year.

In his later years Mickey retired to Texas where he took up a job with the Roundrock Express baseball club as the team’s official luxury suites greeter. Shaking hands and telling baseball stories, the old Man On Spikes wound down his last years again working around the game he loved. While undergoing surgery for a torn rotator cuff, Mickey developed a fatal staph infection and passed away at the age of 88.

The Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball" is finally released and can be purchased by clicking on the tab right below the arrow on the main header of this blog.

Friday, May 11, 2012

118. Cannonball Dick Redding: Clean livin' and a fast fastball

When I started to watch that HBO series "Boardwalk Empire", about prohibition and crime in 1920's Atlantic City, I kept wondering if they were going to mention the great Negro league team that once represented that resort city. As I got through the whole first season, the show touched on the large black community of Atlantic City but came up short in regards to showing anything of the baseball team that once called the town home. Originally formed in Jacksonville, Florida and known as the Duval Giants, the team was convinced to relocate to New Jersey by a couple of local black politicians. Making the move north in time for the 1916 season they were renamed the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants after the corrupt major of town, Harry Bacharach. The team had a good following due to the seaside town's vacationers looking for entertainment as well as the quality of the players the Bacharachs put on the field. Besides Negro league stars Dick Lundy, Nip Winters and Oliver Marcelle, the Bacharachs boasted one of the greatest pitchers of any color to ever stand on a mound, Cannonball Dick Redding.

Perhaps the fastest pitcher of all time, Dick Redding’s fastballs were thrown in an assortment of different deliveries from hesitation wind-ups to compact throws from the waist. His match-ups with fellow Negro league legend Smokey Joe Williams attained mythical status through their retelling. Among the major league teams he defeated were the Boston Braves and the N.Y. Giants and against the Jersey City Giants he struck out 24 men. In 1922 Babe Ruth fanned on three straight pitches from Redding and he once out-dueled Carl Mays 2-1 in 15 innings. Redding would often pitch both ends of a double-header and is reported to have thrown 30 no-hit games in his career. Though he was big and burly, Redding never argued balls and strikes and prided himself on living a clean life, no smoking drinking or cursing. When his career ended in the 1920’s he turned to managing and skippered the Brooklyn Royal Giants until 1932.