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Uncle Andy's Blog

Throwing Zeroes


 

Tall and talented with an infectious smile, he was a kooky character that no one could figure out.  There is an old saying that goes like this; men in the game are blind to what men looking on see clearly.  He was not good looking; in fact his face most often resembled a guy who had just witnessed a murder.  As a young man, his ears were so big, he could get cablevision, and you could stare at him and watch him grow.  He was not the kind of pitcher that you used to make clinic films.  To him it was just a game and you were supposed to have fun.  Pinball machines and comic books stole away his time during days off, while he celebrated his potential in bars across the country at night.  “Let the good times roll,” was his motto and he once answered a friend’s question, “Do you drink Canada Dry?” with “I already have.”  This night owl with huge feet liked the ladies, but loved baseball and booze even more; he could get as drunk as Dean Martin.  He once blew into a breathalyzer and the machine said, whoa, whoa, one at a time please.  His fellow teammates called him “Gooney” and the bartender referred to him as “Last call Larsen.”  He believed that a hangover is just your body’s way of saying that you should not have stopped drinking.  His accomplishment in the game of baseball remains unique and one-of-a-kind. 

There was another side of Don Larsen which would become perfect.  This professional night-fighter, who also became a mediocre Major League pitcher, was born on August 7, 1929, in Michigan City, Indiana.  His father was an American Legion baseball player who took his son to see “Babe” Ruth and the New York Yankees.  Growing up in the West Coast Mecca of baseball talent in the forties, San Diego, Larsen would combine good control and a quirky personality into a Minor League contract with the St. Louis Browns.  He would turn down several college basketball scholarships offers in order to pitch for a living.  It would be one of the best decisions he ever made.  Five Minor League teams in four years would be enough to land him in St. Louis for the 1953 season.  One day after watching Larsen throw, the immortal pitcher “Satchel” Paige once said, “This kid has potential to be the greatest.”  Larsen didn’t turn out to be the greatest, but he did prove to be perfect for one day. 

In 1953, Larsen hit .284 as a rookie with three home runs and won seven out of nineteen games on a Browns team that lost 100 games.  He was really just another pitcher whose face looked like an old catcher’s mitt after an “all-nighter” at the local bar.  Regardless of what he felt like, he continued to show up and throw.  His stamina was amazing.

In 1954, the Browns moved to their new home, in Baltimore, Maryland.  Larsen continued to show signs of brilliance even though he became the first pitcher to lose twenty games in a season, with the Orioles.  He would finish the 1954 season with three wins and twenty-one losses.  As luck would have it, Larsen always pitched well against the Yankees, and this did not go unnoticed by “The Old Perfessor,” Casey Stengel.  Casey just knew that Larsen would get better with age and worked a trade with Baltimore that would send Don Larsen along with pitcher Bob Turley to the 1955 Yanks.  Larsen, who wore #18, won nine out of eleven games the first year in New York and became one of Toots Shore’s best customers.

Spring Training, 1956, would begin with a car wreck for Gooney.  Although Larsen escaped unhurt, it was Casey who had the last laugh.  Casey told a reporter, “Larsen should get a medal.  He’s the only guy I know who could find something to do in St. Petersburg, Florida at three in the morning.”  It would be the beginning of a memorable season.  Don would make 38 appearances and post an 11-5 win-loss record for the World Series bound Yankees.  In an effort to improve for the relentless Casey Stengel, Larsen experimented with a no-wind-up pitching motion.  It would yield perfect results in Game Five of the 1956 World Series.

The Yankees would face their cross-town rivals and current World Series Champion, Brooklyn Dodgers.  Larsen had been roughed up in Game One, as the Dodgers held serve in Brooklyn with back-to-back wins.  In those days, the starting pitcher was sometimes not known until game time.  Third base coach and long-time Yankee, Frank Crosetti, would place a new baseball in the starting pitcher’s shoe, before the game.  Crosetti had no problem finding Larsen’s size 13 shoes before Game Five.  The Series was now tied two games apiece as the six foot, four inch Larsen warmed up in front of the Yankee dugout. 

In the second inning, Dodger great, Jackie Robinson, hit a sharp liner that ricocheted off the knee of Yankee third baseman Andy Carey and in the direction of shortstop Gil McDougald.  Gil’s throw beat Robinson to the bag.  A home run by Mickey Mantle, off Brooklyn pitcher Sal Maglie, and a great catch by Mantle in centerfield, while running flat-out to his right, would give Larsen a two-run cushion by the sixth inning.  It always seems that one or two outstanding defensive plays in the field become the common denominator for throwing a no-hitter or better yet, a perfect game.  These omens were not to be ignored.  Larsen smoked a cigarette in the dugout to relax before going out in the bottom of the seventh inning.  Yankee teammate Mickey McDermott said, “It was then that we noticed he had a zero going.”  Larsen’s ball just seemed to know how to run away from the barrel of the Dodgers bats.  The eighth inning came and went as little Yogi Berra and big Don Larsen continued to work their magic.  Dodger Dale Mitchell would pinch-hit for pitcher Sal Maglie with two outs in the top of the ninth inning.

If I asked you to make a list of all the pitchers who had the goods to throw a perfect game in the World Series, I’d bet the farm that Larsen’s name would never come up.  The air was filled with electricity as teammates behind Larsen moved in different directions, each trying to guess where Mitchell would put the ball in play.  It was not to be.  Umpire “Babe” Pinelli raised his right arm for a called third strike on Mitchell, and history had been made.  “Never before and never since,” is how New York Yankee public-address announcer Bob Sheppard described the scene.  It was October 8, 1956, and Larsen had done the impossible.  He had thrown 97 pitches, while hurling a perfect game for the first World Series no-hitter.

Larsen would celebrate that night as sports writers scrambles to write the story of the year.  The Series would go seven games with the Yankees finishing as World Champs.  Larsen would be voted Series Most Valuable Player and receive a new Corvette and a guest spot on the Ed Sullivan television show.  Unfortunately, it was all downhill for Larsen after the perfect game.  Not only had his wife filed for divorce on the day of his perfect game, but he didn’t even get a raise from the Yankees brass for the following season.  It was no fun watching him fall apart.  In 1959, he was traded, along with Hank Bauer and a couple of other teammates, to Kansas City for Roger Maris and a little-known pitcher.  In 1961, he helped the San Francisco Giants win a pennant, but later found himself in Texas, pitching for the Houston Astros, by 1965.  He was finally released in 1967 by the Cubs, after only four innings pitched.  Larsen had been the victim of greatness for just a moment, kind of like yesterday’s news. 

I had a chance to sit down and talk with Don Larsen.  He was a guest at the National Sports Card Convention in Dallas, Texas.  Don was quieter than I thought he would be.  He was just sitting there looking around like he was on a butterfly hunt.  His nose and cheeks was cherry-red, as if he had been drinking.  He spoke in a raspy voice and wore the look of a grizzled veteran.  He was serious, never smiled, and gave short answers.  There was something about his eyes.  It must have been a day like this that Al Capone was born.  Maybe he was just tired of being asked about the events of 1956.  I think in some ways, he felt left out of the baseball history books, or maybe he just expected more.  Life can be fleeting at times; you get what you negotiate, not what you’re worth. 

I remember an interview with Yogi Berra that was done by a sportswriter on the day of the last game ever to be played at old Yankee Stadium.  Everybody that was somebody was there, including all the old and young Yankees.  Berra was asked what he would remember most about his time in the “House that Ruth built.”  Even after three Most Valuable Player Awards, 13 World Series Championships as a player and coach, having his #8 retired or being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, all as a Yankee, he thought for a minute and said, “The perfect game with Larsen in the 56’ World Series.  That’s only happened once and I caught it.”  I have often wondered how Don Larsen would have answered that question.  The perfect game was Don Larsen.

 

Andy Purvis is a local author.  His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc.  They are also available in e-reader format.  Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or purvis.andy@mygrande.net.

Blood Picture


 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once said, “Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself, and know that everything in life has purpose.  There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.”  He was a quiet guy, but special:  a game changer extraordinaire.  He had reached his inner peace and was okay with who he had become.  He was once a tall, pencil thin, redheaded kid with a slingshot right arm; he could be as awkward as Jimmy Stewart.   He was small town, as country as corn shucks and always talked football, always.  He had a face that was hard to forget and looked as though he never had a square meal in his life.  He owned high cheek bones, deep-set blue eyes and was baldheaded most of his life.  Even at an early age, he looked older than a pair of Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars.  But, you don’t become a legend without a fight.  He was in for the fight of his life. 

The black and white photo taken of him on Sunday, September 20, 1964, has over the years become ingrained in the very minds of every fan of the world of professional football.   Morris Berman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette snapped this iconic image at old Pitt Stadium.  This picture would change the way photographers looked at sports, and it emphasized the power of capturing a moment of reaction from the players themselves.  In this photo the quarterback now rested on his knees, in the dirt and grass of his own end zone.  He had been knocked down and bloodied by Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive end, “Big Bad John” Baker, who stood 6’ 7” tall and weighed 280 pounds.  Baker’s teammates kidded that John was so big he had his own zip code. This QB would suffer a concussion and a cracked sternum on this play.  His helmet is missing, head down, his shoulders slumping, all while looking exhausted, in pain, broken and discouraged beyond explanation.  Even his swollen hands screamed disbelief as they lay on top of his thigh pads.  He had thrown an interception while being leveled by Baker.  The ball landed in the arms of Steelers’ defensive tackle, Chuck Hinton, and was returned for an eight-yard touchdown.  The New York Football Giants had lost another game.  Pittsburgh would beat New York that day, 27-24. 

But it’s his bald, bloodied head that draws your attention in this photo.  You see, there are two streams of blood visible, one running from his forehead into his left eye, while the other sneaks its way down in front of his left ear.  The “Blood Picture,” he called it, the one picture of him that everybody wanted autographed.  It’s true, I have one myself.  This photo was taken during his seventeenth and final season.  “I hate this picture,” he once said.  Most of us never admit we are too old until it’s too late.  He was 37 years old but looked 50.  A copy of this photo hangs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Eventually, he used this picture on the back cover of his 2009 autobiography, entitled Nothing Comes Easy:  My Life in Football: Y.A. Tittle.  The Giants finished their season in last place with a dismal 2-10-2 record.  Y.A. Tittle, down and out, retired.  

Interestingly, “Big Bad John” Baker lived in the neighborhood where I grew up, located in Wake County, in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina.  Baker attended Ligon High School and then North Carolina Central University.  He was drafted in 1958 by the Los Angeles Rams.  My dad introduced me to John Baker in the off-season, as Baker would return to Raleigh and shop at my dad’s convenience store, known as Gordon’s Market on Six Forks Road.  In 1978, long after his retirement, Baker would be elected Sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina; and he served for 25 years.  Baker used this photo as a campaign tool.  John Baker died on Halloween Night, October 31, 2007, which was appropriate, because the man was simply scary.  Baker was 72 years of age.  In 1972, Baker had appropriately been elected to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. 

Born October 24, 1926, in a small town in Texas, with a Biblical name right out of the Old Testament, Yelberton Abraham Tittle would make the #14 a famous number in New York City.  As a kid, Tittle would change his name to Y.A.  It just seemed simpler to say, and he was embarrassed to say his full name.  “I’ve got the worst name in the world,” he once said in an interview.  Y.A. grew up in the town of Marshall, just a long post pattern from the Louisiana state line.  In 1936, at the age of ten, he had wanted to be like quarterback, Sammy Baugh.  He would lead the Marshall High School Mavericks at quarterback, while wearing a long-sleeved jersey and a leather helmet.  Y.A. was a bit headstrong and was once benched because he refused to run the plays called by his head coach.  Y.A. would grow to be 6’ tall and weigh 192 pounds, and he was recruited by Louisiana State University (LSU).  Tittle accepted their offer and headed to Baton Rouge to play for the Tigers.  He also liked being close to his older brother, Frank, who attended Tulane.  “Frank was my hero,” said Y.A.  In 1947, as a junior, Tittle, while wearing the #63, was named the MVP of the Cotton Bowl which, was played in an ice storm against the University of Arkansas.  The game ended in a scoreless tie.  “It was cold,” said Tittle, “Five degrees below zero.”

Hopefully, you know the rest of the story.  Y.A. Tittle became the first pro football player to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, on November 22, 1954.  The New York Giants retired his #14.  In 1971, Y.A. Tittle also joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame.   

 

Andy Purvis is a local author.  His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc.  They are also available in e-reader format.  Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or purvis.andy@mygrande.net.

 

Last at Bat


 

They are almost all gone.  Only a few remain, maybe less than twenty.  Most are in their late eighties with a few lucky enough to reach ninety.  Because of their age, they now leave us more often than before.  It seems that we lose one or two every month.  The last five years have suddenly taken their toll on the professional Negro League players.  I’m not talking about the guys who played in the Negro Leagues after 1950, but the ones who played before Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the Major League color barrier in 1947.  Those are the real Negro League players.  A talented group of men of color, who never let the word “No” get in the way of a ballgame.  These players did not have the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues, no matter how talented they were.  So for nearly forty years, they played hard and often the game they loved.  Some baseball historians believe that this group of men may have been arguably the greatest and most innovative baseball players of their day.  Players with names like Verdell Mathis, Joshua Johnson, Whit Graves, and Rick Laurent excelled at this game.   Have you ever heard of John Beckwith, Dick Lundy, or John Donaldson?  Believe me, these guys were ballplayers.  They played everywhere, on any kind of field, in any country, and invented the word “barn-storming.” 

With the vision and money of men like Andrew “Rube” Foster in the 1920’s, and “Gus” Greenlee and “Cum” Posey, Jr., in the 1930’s, the Negro Leagues were created; and teams from Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and other cities began to compete for baseball fans of all races.  The players came from Cuba, Venezuela, The Dominican Republic and almost every state in the union, including the Mexican Leagues and other outlaw leagues, to form some of the greatest teams of all-time.  The Birmingham Black Barons, Homestead Grays, New York Black Yankees and the Pittsburgh Crawfords had a deep and successful tradition of great baseball by great players.  The Kansas City Monarchs, Memphis Red Sox, Philadelphia Stars, and Baltimore Elite Giants also attracted huge crowds and big-time players.  Although times were tough and money scarce; the talent on the field and the quality of their play never wavered.  It has been documented that all-black teams played all-white teams a total of 438 times during the off-season, with 309 victories to their credit.  Players like Webster McDonald, Frazier Robinson, Connie Johnson, and Sam Bankhead never failed to excite the crowds with their hard-nosed play.  Remember, anything went, in the Negro League’s style of ball.   Every player in the league could hit the fastball and run to first base in under four seconds.  Negro League pitchers were forced to be creative with their pitches, to be successful.  They threw shine balls, spitballs, cut balls and the bowtie pitch with regularity, to keep the hitters off balance.  The knock-down pitch was expected if you hit a home run in your previous at-bat, and the art of bunting and stealing bases was an everyday part of the Negro League game.  There was lots of talking and bragging on the field, while little tricks of the game became commonplace.  All in all, the Negro League game was exciting, entertaining, and on the cutting edge of professional baseball.  Other players who have had their last at-bat recently are Garnett E Blair, Sr., Toni Stone and “Nap” Gulley.  They continue to leave us at a rapid rate.  It’s human nature to want something that you can’t have; and before long, the Negro League players and their game will pass before us like the wind through the branches of a tree.  Only a few outspoken players shared the stories of their times.  They helped document the accomplishments of their peers and the struggle of their game.  They reminded us of a time when race was an obstacle in sports, yet you heard no bitterness in their voices.  Players like Bill “Ready” Cash, Sammie Haynes, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and the most famous and outspoken, John “Buck” O’Neil, told us about a remarkable group of men and their love for and contributions to the game of baseball.  They told us of Henry Miller, Wallace Guthrie, and Amos Watson.  O’Neil explained the clever nicknames that tell a story or remind us of where these players were from.  Players like Bill “Fireball” Beverly, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Edsall “Catskills” Walker, “Crush” Holloway, and Burnis “Wild Bill” Wright are examples of players with great nicknames, who have passed on recently.  Davis’ and Walker’s nicknames hint at where they were from, like Piper, Alabama, and the Catskills of Albany, New York, while “Fireball,” “Crush,” and “Wild Bill,” attest to Beverly, Holloway and Wright’s competitiveness and abilities. 

You have probably noticed that I have not mentioned the Negro League Hall of Famers.  That is not what this article is about.  Those players will be remembered because they have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum, but they only make up a very small segment of the Negro League games and its glory.  This article is about the other guys, like Jimmy Crutchfield and Armando Vasquez.  Stars like Max Manning, Willie Pope, and Wilmer Fields should not be forgotten. These are the gentleman who rode the buses, played in two towns on the same day, and brought the National Pastime to non-Major League small towns all over the South and Midwest.  They may not have played in the Major Leagues but they did play professional baseball.  If you ever have the opportunity to meet or talk with a Negro Leaguer in any setting, please do.  You might not recognize the names, but the stories will scream the universal language of baseball.  This is their last at-bat.  Do the names Gene Benson, Mahlon Duckett or Quincy Trouppe ring a bell?  They should; but if not, look them up.  You will be surprised.

 

Andy Purvis is a local author.  His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc.  They are also available in e-reader format.  Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or purvis.andy@mygrande.net.

 

Forty Years Ago


 

“He’s sitting on 714.”  Most baseball fans believe it’s one of the top five calls of all-time.  These two guys are forever joined in baseball lore by less than forty words, spoken into microphone one early evening on April 8, 1974, by Braves broadcaster Milo Hamilton, forty years ago.  It was the first game of the new season.  The Atlanta Braves were at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Here’s how the call sounded as Henry Aaron settled into the batter’s box.

“He’s sitting on 714!  Here’s the pitch by Downing, swinging, there’s a drive into left centerfield, that ball is gonna beee…OUTTA HERE!  IT’S GONE!  IT’S 715!  There’s a new home run champion of all-time and it’s HENRY AARON!”    

 It was “pure” Milo Hamilton.  For some of us, baseball is life.  I still wonder about the places he’s been, the players he’s interviewed and the scores of fans he’s entertained.  For most of us, he’s Uncle Milo.  He was family; he came into our homes 162 times a year, until these last couple of years.  I even listened to his call when I was at the Astros game.  He always stirred my imagination.  One of the secrets of baseball is that you play almost every day.  Therefore redemption was only hours away.  Milo used the game to help people discover themselves.  They could use those discoveries to confront anything in their life.  Baseball is a teacher; it reveals your heart and soul and the game is designed to reveal it to you. 

There will never be another like him as far as I’m concerned; I love the old man.  As he got older, he began to look tired, frail, and almost sickly until he found his way into the announcer booth or onto the field of play.  It was like flipping a switch.  A microphone made his eyes light up like lanterns.  The game simply turned him on.  Milo could sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and make you laugh.  He walked every day into his radio booth intoxicated by the promise of that day’s game.  He didn’t like being surprised; he studied and saved his information in a satchel that may have been as old as him.  He loved baseball so much; even his computer wore batting gloves.  No one wanted to talk to Milo Hamilton about another announcer or player; they wanted to talk about Milo Hamilton.  The longer an announcer stays with the same team the more the fans identify with that team.  Fathers, sons, and sons of sons, we all become a part of his history.  

His educated eyes could fill books with the magic of the grand old game.  Most of us know about his calls of eleven no-hitters, the grand slams, and historic home runs.  For sixty-seven years, he opened his scorecard and charted baseball history.  He taught us how to figure batting averages, told us how players got their nicknames and why.  He described routine double-plays, the importance of a bunt single, why stealing third increases the chances of scoring by nine, and the reason so many players strike out looking.  He taught us about Uncle Charlie, twin killings, chin music, and frozen ropes.  Seeing-Eye singles, right down Kirby and “Holy Toledo, what a play!” became his signature calls.  Every play reminded him of days gone by, when only the player, the city, and the circumstances were different.  I would love to see through his eyes, if only for a moment.  Listening to him call a game made me feel like a hundred dollar bill in a two dollar wallet.  Writer Phil Hirsh once wrote, “Baseball is the only game you can see on the radio.”  Milo made it easy for all of us.  His canyon deep voice was unmistakable.  He was always “in” the game.  You could never tell by his tone of voice whether his team was behind or ahead.  Everybody wanted to be connected, to be a part of him.  Let’s call that a professional. 

Baseball looks so easy to play from your seat.  It is, in fact, the hardest of them all.  The game moves at a pace where a grandfather can talk about what’s happening on the field with his grandson.  They see and experience virtually the same game.  Milo taught me how to score a game, what to look for, how to anticipate a great play.  He gave us a history lesson every night and allowed us to dream about what it would be like to play Major League baseball.  All words seemed better to me when spoken by Milo Hamilton.   

What you saw was what you got with Milo.  Not many of us find our true place in life; that does not hold true for Milo Hamilton.  I can’t imagine him doing anything else.  Milo has been a part of the Dennis & Andy’s Q & A Session radio show for almost twenty years.  Twice every year he joins us on the air, live from Houston, Texas.  My partner Dennis Quinn always referred to our interviews as “Milo unplugged.”  On two different occasions, we took our show on the road to Minute Maid Park, and Milo was nice enough to join us there, in the booth, talking baseball.  We talked old school baseball; from “Stan the Man” and “Hammerin’ Hank” to “The Ryan Express.”  We covered everything from the disappearance of the hook slide to the tragedy of steroids and everything in between.  There is never a time I did not learn something.  It has been said that the greatest classroom often lies at the feet of the elderly.  How true.

Milo was inducted into the Broadcast Wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.  He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2000.  He has been an announcer for 67 years.  His first job in Major League baseball started in 1953, with the St. Louis Browns.  He has also announced for six other Major League clubs. 

I once told him how much he was loved as I was leaving his company.  I think it may have surprised him.  He didn’t know how to respond, but he smiled.  I’m absolutely sure he knows he’s loved, but does not hear it enough.  We are always more appreciative of something we had and have now lost. 

Milo visited Corpus Christi, January 24, 2014, with the Astros caravan.  I couldn’t wait to see him.  When he walked into the room he was surrounded by the TV guys like Custer at the Little Big Horn.  We sat and laughed and talked about the call.  He and Hank still speak with each other quite often.  Milo looked good as he is winning his battle with cancer.  I’ve never met a more giving individual.  There will never be another Milo Hamilton.

 

Andy Purvis is a local author.  His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc.  They are also available in e-reader format.  Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or purvis.andy@mygrande.net.

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