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Uncle Andy's Blog

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.

Legs and Lou


 

One of the best things about sports are the stories and, as time moves past us, sometimes the stories behind the stories get left out or pushed aside.  As a sport enthusiast who has written several books, aired on the radio for twenty years and interviewed many persons from the world of sports, I am amazed at how often we do not know the whole truth.   The history of this game is important to me.  During the summer of 2000, my radio partner, Dennis Quinn, and I interviewed a fellow who was working as an executive for the Texas Rangers.  At that time he had spent 61 years in professional baseball as a player, manager, and front office executive.  In that interview, he described to us a firsthand account of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech given on July 4, 1939.  You see, he was there as the lead-off hitter for the Washington Senators.  I’ve got to tell you, firsthand accounts of historic events give me “Goosebumps.” 

It was already a hot and muggy day when they opened the Yankee Stadium turnstiles at 10 a.m. that morning.  The New York Yankees were hosting the Washington Senators in a doubleheader on Independence Day.  A big crowd was expected as several busloads of fans from Manville, New Jersey, poured into their seats to see for the first time their hometown hero, a rookie centerfielder named Johnny “Legs” Welaj.  Legs had been born on May 27, 1914, in Moss Creek, Pennsylvania.  His family soon moved to Bound Brook, New Jersey, where he graduated high school in 1934, and began playing semi-pro baseball.  Johnny had starred in baseball, basketball and football, and become the inaugural member of his high school’s Alumni Hall of Fame.  He joined the Albany International League in 1936, and his contract was sold to the Washington Senators in 1937.   Welaj made his debut as a Washington Senator on May 2, 1939, and this was the first time his fans, friends, and family would see him play as a professional.   “We were told it was to be ‘Johnny Welaj Appreciation Day,’” said Legs.  Johnny’s contingent of fans gathered around home plate before Game One to celebrate.  It was not until then that Welaj was informed by the Yankee management that Lou Gehrig would give his retirement speech that same day. 

For the first time ever, he was afraid to be on a ball field.  During Game One, Lou told Joe McCarthy, “I’d give a month’s pay to get out of this.”  Joe did not respond.  The Yanks lost the first game, 3-2.  The Yankees lined up along the third-base line and the Senators down the first-base line.  A band marched onto the field.  Lou had lost weight, his uniform no longer fit as he shuffled toward home plate with his head down, arms hanging lifeless by his sides.  Ed Barrow walked beside Gehrig, edging him along.  It was July 4, 1939, before Game Two of the doubleheader.  “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” was about to begin, and 61,000 fans sat in silence at Yankee Stadium.  Now making his way from the dugout, he has been regarded as the greatest first baseman in the game.  Even though his body had been breaking down since the beginning of 1938, he never complained.  Lou Gehrig was the heart of the New York Yankees.  The Yankees hung the World Series buntings out around the stadium and invited the 1927 Yankees’ team to this event.  Special guests were introduced, including Babe Ruth and Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia.   Then Lou received the gifts, a fishing rod, silver plates, and a trophy.  Lou never said a word, as these gifts were handed to him.  The gifts piled up around his feet, as he was not strong enough to hold them.  Lou Gehrig also became the first Major League player to have his uniform number retired.  Gehrig would be the only Yankee to ever wear the #4.  The Yankee emcee, Sid Mercer, asked Lou if he had anything to say.  Gehrig, head still down, wiping away tears with a white handkerchief, shook his head “no.”  Then the fans begin to understand this was it, the last time they may see the “Iron Horse.”  They stood in unison and chanted, “We want Lou!  We want Lou!”  Gehrig stood still, afraid he might collapse if he moved too quickly.  Manager Joe McCarthy whispered in Lou’s ear.  Gehrig slowly stepped toward the microphone and the fans quieted down.  It was as silent as an empty classroom.  Gehrig ran his hand through his hair, then leaned forward and poured his heart out for everyone to hear.  Lou Gehrig would speak without notes, while ringing his blue cap between both his hands.  His words may have been the strongest message anyone had ever heard.  I’m convinced that most of you have only heard a portion of Gehrig’s farewell speech, perhaps the first two sentences and the last two.  Below are his words in their entirety. 

“For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break.  Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.  When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in the ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with such a grand little fellow as Miller Huggins?  To have spent the next nine years with that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Who wouldn’t feel honored to room with such a grand guy as Bill Dickey? When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift—that’s something.  When the groundskeepers and office staff and writers and old timers and players and concessionaires all remember you with trophies—that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law, who takes sides with you, in squabbles against her own daughter—that’s something.  When you have a father and mother who worked all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body—it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that’s the finest I know.  So I close in saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.  Thank You.”

Henry Louis Gehrig grew up in New York City, the only survivor among four siblings.   Lou learned about the game of baseball by collecting baseball cards from his father’s Sweet Corporal cigarette packs.  A mama’s boy, he was considered shy and socially awkward, strong but clumsy, a misfit on a team of drinkers and hell raisers.  There is no doubt that Gehrig and Ruth formed the greatest slugging tandem in baseball history.   He married his sweetheart Eleanor.  He called her “Pal” and she called him “Luke.”  In January of 1938, Lou went to Hollywood to act as an extra on one of the most popular westerns at that time, Rawhide.  He was having trouble with his balance.  Bruises and blisters began to appear on his hands.  Still, Lou never missed a game that year.  Gehrig would be diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or what is now called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”   Doctor’s gave him hope, even wrote him letters of encouragement, all while telling his wife, Eleanor Gehrig, the terrible truth.  There was nothing they could do, Lou would not survive.  Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.  He was 37 years old and, as expected, fought to live until the end.  Some say the Good Lord wept as the New York Yankees were rained out that day.

Our friend, Johnny Welaj, passed away on September 13, 2003.  He had been living at the “Autumn Leaves of Arlington” Assisted Living Center.  He was 89.  Interestingly, Johnny had a brother also named Lou, who played with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1942 to 1950.

The Yankees won Game two for Lou, 11-1.  How lucky I have been to see and experience the greatness of Lou Gehrig through the eyes of Johnny Welaj.   Happy Independence Day! 

 

 

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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