Thursday, May 28, 2015

Signed Copies of The League of Outsider Baseball

Since my book launched May 5th I've been fortunate to have participated in a few book signings and will do more throughout the summer. However, not everyone can make a signing and a few people have asked how to get a signed copy by mail. Luckily my studio is right down the street from one of the best independent book stores in the country, THE BLUE MARBLE. They're best known for being the best children's book store in the land but their store offers books for all ages, including a really choice baseball section. The owner Peter has graciously offered to handle all signed book requests, so if you'd like a signed or signed and personalized copy please order it from The Blue Marble's website. As you check out you will see a comments box where you can write in what you'd like me to inscribe. Since I'm right down the street I'll walk over and sign it, Peter will box it up and in a few days you'll have your own signed first edition of The League of Outsider Baseball!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

I originally posted the story of Captain Eddie Grant, former New York Giants 3rd baseman, 3 years ago in honor of Veterans Day. To show my respect and gratitude to all the men and women who interrupted their lives in order to serve and protect this country, I'd like to post it again, my small way to say thank you.

They called him "Harvard Eddie." At a time when most ballplayers barely had a high school education, third baseman Eddie Grant, Harvard Class of 1909, was a member of the Massachusetts Bar, a full-fledged lawyer. He was also a darn good third baseman, batting .322 for Jersey City and leading the Eastern League during his first year in pro ball. The next season, 1907, Grant was called up to the Philadelphia Phillies. He quickly gained attention, not from his bat or fielding skills, but for what he would say on the field: when calling out his claim on a pop fly, instead of yelling the common "I GOT it!", Harvard Eddie called out the proper phrase, "I HAVE it!" much to the amusement of his more modestly educated teammates.

During off seasons Grant returned to Boston to practice law, but each spring he took up baseball again. Traded to Cincinnati in 1911, he lost something at the plate and his batting average plummeted. The death of his wife after barely 9 months of marriage might have been the reason why. In 1913 the New York Giants picked Grant up and although he rode the bench more often than not, John McGraw took a liking to the scholarly third sacker and made him the Giants' bench coach. As much as he loved the game, Grant disliked the life of a part-time coach and player and a the age of 32, retired to pursue his law career full-time.

The Great War had been raging in Europe for 3 years by now and many of Grant's Harvard classmates were active participants even before the U.S. entered the war. Whether they drove ambulances for one of the volunteer organizations operating just behind the trenches or flew airplanes for the French in the Lafayette Flying Corps, college educated men of that era felt a sense of duty and adventure that sadly seems lacking these days. Once America entered the war in April of 1917, even more of these privileged men from wealthy families left their lucrative careers and easy lives to become officers in the rapidly expanding U.S. Army. Back then the Army assumed that a college educated man made a natural leader and "Harvard Eddie" was made Captain of Company H, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. After a period of training on Long Island with his men, Grant sailed for France in the summer of 1918.

The American Army was eager to prove itself to their Allies, France and Britain and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was its chance. Launched on October 2nd, 1918, the Battle of the Argonne was one of the fiercest fights in American military history. The 77th Division charged into the Argonne Forest and strait into the solidly entrenched veteran German Army. It was during the confusing first day of the battle that Major Whittlesey, a New York attorney, got isolated and pinned down deep within the dense forest. Although forever known as "The Lost Battalion", Whittlesey knew exactly where he and his men were, it was just that no one else in the U.S. Army did. After a few anxious days, American aviators braved the dense German anti-aircraft fire and finally located Whittlesey and his battalion. Pilot Lieutenant Harold Goettler and his observer Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley volunteered to circle the forest with the idea that the place that did not fire back at them would be the the location of the lost battalion. They were right and after taking heavy fire which mortally wounded both men, their DH-4 aircraft crashed just short of the French lines. The French soldiers rushed forward to help the downed aviators. Goettler was already dead but Bleckley, with his last dying breath pressed a bloody note into the hands of the closest French soldier. On it was a map showing the location of Whittlesey and his men! With this new information, Captain Eddie Grant and Company H was among the units rushed into the Argonne to rescue the Lost Battalion.

By the morning of October 5th, Eddie Grant and his men had been on the front line and in the thick of the fighting for 4 days. No one, most of all Captain Grant, had had any time for sleep. Being awake and constantly under enemy fire for 4 days must have been a terrible feeling. Add on top of that the responsibility for the lives of the 150 men of his company and you can imagine the stress Grant must have been under. Taken out of the line that day for rest, a fellow officer described the captain as barely able to lift his arm to bring a cup of much needed coffee to his lips. But his company's reprieve was short-lived. The Lost Battalion had been found. When orders to move-out came, Grant got to his feet and took his place at the head of his Company. He led them right back into the Argonne.

The Germans threw everything they had at the Americans rushing into the forest. If Whittlesey and his dwindling men could be captured or killed it would be a devastating blow to the upstart fresh Americans as well as their weary Allies. The story of the Lost Battalion had made newspapers all over the globe and its rescue would come as a giant shot in the arm to the young nation eager to prove itself to the world in the greatest war mankind had ever known. As the 307th Regiment marched forward the German artillery pounded the road leading into the forest. Men and horses were torn to bits by the constant exploding shells but still Captain Grant and the American Army moved forward through the hail of shrapnel.

Among the wounded being brought back past the advancing infantrymen was Major Jay, commander of Grant's battalion. Recognizing Eddie he waved him over. All the other ranking officers were either dead or wounded. Harvard Eddie was now in charge of the battalion.

Though it didn't seem possible, the shelling increased. The Germans knew they had to destroy the Americans before they reached Whittlesey. The whole road had become a deathtrap but everyone knew they had to move forward. Grant called his officers together to brief them on the situation. At that moment a shell exploded, tearing apart the two young lieutenants standing next to Eddie. Grant tried yelling over the screams and explosions for a stretcher bearer. Signaling his men to take cover and waving his arms wildly in desperation for medics that never came, the next shell exploded directly on top of Harvard Eddie. He died instantly.

New York sports writer Damon Runyon was a war correspondent in France during war and had known Eddie Grant well during his time with the Giants. He wrote a stirring eulogy for the former third baseman entitled "Eddie Grant Sleeps In The Argonne Forest". The story was reprinted widely including in the 1919 Spalding Guide and Grant, the only major leaguer killed in the war, gained posthumous fame. In 1921 the New York Giants dedicated a plaque commemorating the former infielder and bench coach in front of which a wreath was placed each Memorial Day in a solemn ceremony started by his old friend, John McGraw. That plaque was famously stolen after the last Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1957. Historians searched in vain for the plaque or any trace of who the scumbag was who stole it but it wasn't until 1999 that a couple moving into their new Hohokus, New Jersey home discovered a plaque wrapped in a blanket hidden in the attic. Turns out the home was formerly owned by a New York City cop named
Gaetano Bucca. Officer Bucca, whose police beat in 1957 included the neighborhood surrounding the Polo Grounds, had apparently stolen the memorial. But baseball historians aren't positive the plaque is the real one stolen from the Polo Grounds. The San Francisco Giants for their part didn't seem to care as they try to distance themselves from their former life in Manhattan. First World War historians did however finally get the team to install a replacement in the new ballpark a few years ago. You can see it near the Lefty O'Doul entrance, but in this day and age of so many "heroes", this modest memorial to a fallen soldier who gave his life for his country just doesn't seem to be enough.

Dedicated to every serviceman and servicewoman who interrupted their lives, and in some cases such as Captain Grant, gave their life, so I may live free in this great country of ours. Thank You.

Monday, May 18, 2015

197. Rex Barney: Trying To Find His Way Home

WDNC Radio Broadcast of the June 4, 1943 game between the Durham Bulls and Norfolk Tars: on the mound for the Bulls making his professional debut this afternoon is Rex Barney. Just weeks ago the 18 year-old was in his senior year in high school back in Omaha, Nebraska. As soon as he had that diploma in his paws he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization who sent him here to our Durham Bulls. Barney fires a few warm ups in to catcher Jack Phillips. The Dodgers scouts all praise his blazing fastball and the velocity at which this kid can throw. Before the game this afternoon Bulls manager Bruno Betzel was already comparing Rex Barney's speed to the great Bob Feller. Now folks, that's some good company to be in! Ok, Barney is finished with his warm ups and Grady Dunlap steps into the box to lead it off the 7th inning for Norfolk. Barney looks in for the sign from Phillips. Big sweeping windup and high leg kick - here's the pitch...

(Sound of a thump followed by paper shuffling and muffled yell)

Sorry about that folks - Barney's pitch sailed 5 feet over Jack Phillip's head and came right through the chicken wire of our radio and press booth. Right through it! The ball hit old Bill Parker of the Herald-Sun square in the noggin', but the rest of us are all ok, shaken but ok. Bill, are you - ok, he's ok. The umpire puts a new Spalding in play and Barney again looks in for the sign. Look out folks, this kid's pitching style is of the compass variety - he throws in the general direction of the plate...

That was Rex Barney's first pitch in organized baseball. 

Throughout the course of the summer of 1943, Barney went from the Durham Bulls to the Montreal Royals and finally on August 18th he made his big league debut at Ebbets Field. With the exception of precious few moments, Rex Barney' major league career echoed that first pitch in Durham. Try as he might, he never could get that heater of his over the plate. 

I had heard about Rex Barney many times as a kid from my Grandfather. As most of you already know, Grandpa Joe was a Brooklyn Dodgers man going back to the 1920's. When ever there was talk of a young pitcher with tremendous speed my grandfather would bring up Rex Barney. The old man loved to mention how Barney no-hit the hated New York Giants in '48. Grandpa never tired or retelling that one. But, like Karl Spooner and Pete Reiser, Rex Barney embodied the notion of unfulfilled expectation - the big "what if?"

As an 18 year-old in 1943 Barney went 2 and 2 before he was drafted into the service. He drove a tank across Belgium and into Germany and then returned to the Dodgers in 1946. Barney was wild as hell, but his speed captivated the Brooklyn management - besides he was only 21, there was plenty of time for him to learn control. Barney went 3-5 for 1946 then 5-3 in '47. Still the wildness remained. One minute he'd be burning them in over the plate and the next he'd throw a ball 20 feet over the catcher's head and into the box seats. The first thought was he simply wasn't concentrating or bearing down. It was true, Barney was a husky good-looking guy who loved the broads. He was a clothes horse and as the most heavily-touted pitcher in the Dodgers organization he held virtual movie star status throughout the borough of Brooklyn. 

Nineteen forty-eight looked like the year he figured it all out. The big Nebraskan won 15 games including a no-hitter against the Dodgers hated rivals, the New York Giants. The home plate umpire for that No-no said later that Bob Feller, at the time recognized as the fasted man to ever pitch, had nothing on Barney's fastball. The season's totals showed his ERA was the fifth best in the National League and he'd finally recorded more strike outs than walks. 

The Dodgers organization was pleased with his progress - there was only one problem. In the last week of the '48 season Barney slid hard into second base breaking his ankle. It wasn't thought to be especially worrisome - he had the entire winter to take his time and recover. 1949 was going to be Rex Barney's breakout year.

Only it wasn't.

No one, not even Rex himself could pinpoint why he lost his control again. Barney often said that his pitching motion was altered after the broken ankle. The Dodgers brought teams of specialists, both of the physical and psychological variety, in a search for answers. What ever it was, Barney began a quick and merciless decent out of the majors. 1949 ended in a 9-8 record followed by 2-3 in 1950. The minor leagues followed and then a rung lower into the semi-pros. All the while Barney sought help from any source trying to regain his control. There was a heartbreaking article in the April 1954 edition of Collier's Magazine entitled "Can't Anybody Help Me?"

Unfortunately no one could. 

Years later Barney told author Peter Golenbock that after he found himself without a job or career he contemplated suicide. Rex Barney had never thought of a life without baseball. After bouncing around for a decade Barney broke into radio. By 1965 he was in Baltimore hosting his own sports talk show. It was there in Charm City that Rex Barney made the majors again, this time at the Orioles PA announcer. For over three decades Rex called out the pitching changes and public announcements. The Baltimore fans fell in love with his rich voice intoning "Thankyoooooooou!" after every announcement. His his catch phrase of "give that fan a contract!" after a spectator made a great catch of a foul or home run ball made him a local legend as big as Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver. 

It was in this later capacity that I got to meet Rex Barney. I was 21 and had been one of the designers of the graphics at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I was having a lunch meeting with the Orioles VP who drove the whole Camden Yards project, Janet Marie Smith, when in walks Rex Barney. Now I have been fortunate in my life to have met many big name ball players and entertainment personalities. Names that would make your head spin and a paparazzi cameraman get the shakes with expectation. But very few could compare to the glee I had in meeting old Rex Barney. When Janet Marie Smith realized that I knew who the old man limping into the restaurant was, she happily introduced me to the ballplayer. Rex gave me a warm handshake and listened politely as I mumbled something about my grandfather telling me about his no-hitter against the Giants. In a game full of so many lousy characters, Rex was a class-act and I couldn't wait to call my grandfather and tell him that.

Dogged by declining health, Rex Barney passed about four years later. The city of Baltimore, which gave Rex Barney a second chance at the big leagues, mourned the passing of its adapted son. As a tribute to his tremendous speed, to this day coaches in the Dodgers organization describe a pitcher with blinding speed but no control as possessing a "Rex Barney Fastball".

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The League of Outsider Baseball on the Radio and in the Papers!

With The League of Outsider Baseball hitting the shelves on Tuesday, I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by Scott Simon on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition this morning. Here's a link to the segment.

On other media fronts, the book has been getiing really great reviews from all parts of the country from Charlotte and Chicago to Dallas and Los Angeles!