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Uncle Andy's Blog Archives for 2014-06

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.

 

The Starting Five


No, I’m not talking about the game of basketball, but rather the first five players inducted into the National Baseball Hall-of-Fame Museum located in Cooperstown, New York.   Contrary to popular belief, the first election of players into the Baseball Hall of Fame occurred in 1936, not 1939.  And yes, even though the famous picture of the inaugural class contains ten new members, there were only five original inductees.  Two-hundred and twenty six voting members made up the original Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).  This game called baseball had been played professionally since 1869.  So naturally a special Veterans Committee, made up of men who were more familiar with the players from the early years, was given the authority to also select new members.  The overall intent was to have fifteen honorees by July 12, 1939, the year the Hall of Fame would actually open its doors to the public.  These fifteen would be represented by ten players from the 20th century writers and five from the 19th century Veterans Committee.

Interestingly, players who had been thrown out of baseball like “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and Hal Chase were included on the original ballot, but few writers chose to vote for them.  Each of the voting writers was instructed to vote for ten players and 75% of the those votes or 170 votes were needed to be enshrined.  A total of 47 different players received votes on the very first ballot, but only five players received enough votes to reach the 75% mark.  They were as follows, in order:  Ty Cobb received 222 votes or 98.2% to lead all players; “Babe” Ruth and Honus Wagner were tied for second with 215 votes each or 95.1% of votes cast; the first pitcher, Christy Mathewson, collected 205 votes or 90.7%; and Walter Johnson was fifth with 189 votes or 87.6%.  That’s a heck of a starting five. 

The Veterans Committee was comprised of 78 voters, and 57 different players and managers received votes.  As with the writers, 75% of the votes cast or 59 votes were needed to be inducted, but none received the 75% required.

Eight new members were elected for the class of 1937, three players by the writers and five by the Veterans Committee. “Nap” Lajoie 83.6%, “Tris” Speaker 82.1%, and “Cy” Young 76.7%, received the votes needed for enshrinement by the writers. The Veterans Committee elected John McGraw, Connie Mack, George Wright, Byron Johnson and Morgan Bulkeley.

The 1938 class consisted of just three new members. Pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander received 80.9% of the writers’ votes, while the Veterans Committee selected Henry Chadwick and Alexander Cartwright.

The induction class of 1939 would include ten more new members, three selected by the writers, six from the Veterans Committee and one by special vote.  George Sisler led the way with 85.8%, followed by Eddie Collins with 77.7% and “Wee Willie” Keeler with 75.5%.  Lou Gehrig would get the nod through a special ballot while still alive, due to his terminal illness that forced him to retire early.  Lou Gehrig would die on June 2, 1941.  The six new members chosen by the Veterans Committee are as follows:  “Cap” Anson, “Buck” Ewing, “Candy” Cummings, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, Al Spalding and Charles Comisky.  All in all, thirteen 20th century players and thirteen 19th century selections (26 total) made up the inaugural class for the first public opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The first induction weekend festivities began on July 12, 1939.

I do think it’s interesting that Ty Cobb received more votes than Babe Ruth.  They competed against each other from 1914 to 1928, when Cobb retired.  Cobb, a demon on the base paths, went to the plate with a bat in his hand 11,434 times in his 23-year career.  He recorded 4,189 hits, far and away the most ever, until passed by Pete Rose.  Cobb batted .366, still tops in all of professional baseball, while recording 724 doubles, 295 triples and 117 home runs.  Ty had 897 career stolen bases, 54 of those coming at home plate, another record.  Cobb also scored 2,246 runs while batting in 1,938 runs.  In his day, the game was played base to base and home runs were frowned upon.  Cobb always said he could hit home runs if he wanted to; so on May 5, 1925, Cobb hit three home runs in one game against the St. Louis Browns.

Ruth went to bat 8,399 times, or 3,034 times less than Cobb during his 21 seasons.  “The Babe” recorded 2,873 hits while hitting at a .342 average.  Ruth collected 506 doubles, 136 triples, and slammed an unbelievable 714 home runs.  He also stole 123 bags, scored 2,174 runs, while driving in 2,214 RBI’s.  Ruth’s big body, big personality, and his big booming bat changed the perception of the game for the fans.  The long ball was invented.  Ruth was a seven-time World Series Champ, where Cobb’s Tigers played in three World Series but never won.  No matter how much better Cobb played than Ruth, the Babe always stole the spotlight in the eyes of the fans, but not the writers.

 

 

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.

 

100 Years Ago


 

 

 

George Herman Ruth was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 6, 1895.  Ruth made his Major League debut on July 11, 1914, 100 years ago.  He became the savior of the National Pastime anrestored public confidence in the game of baseball.  “I think I could hit the first time I picked up a bat,” said Ruth.  His Father was a saloon keeper and his mother died when he was six.  His Father sent him to the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, for discipline.  Ruth was there for 12 years where he learned how to pitch and play baseball, but remained undisciplined.

In 1914, Jack Dunn, manager of the Orioles, a Minor League team from Baltimore purchased Ruth’s services at the age 19, for $600 from St. Mary’s industrial School for Boys.  It is here that the newspapers refer to him as Jack Dunn’s new “Babe” for the first time.  The name Babe stuck.  Ruth’s first contract paid him $250.00.  He proceeded to pitch and win ten games in a row for the Orioles and was purchased by the Boston Red Sox.  

Most think that Ruth begins and ends with a 52-ounce bat, but he was signed as a pitcher.  In the next two years, Ruth pitched and won 46 games for Boston.

Power baseball was about to be invented.  Ruth hit his first home run May 6, 1915, against The New York Yankees.   This new Babe Ruth hit well for a pitcher and by 1919, Red Sox Manager Ed Barrow placed Ruth in right field so he could get his bat in the lineup every game.  Ruth was blessed with incredible vision and reaction time.  In 1919, within six days of Ruth being placed in the lineup everyday, he led the entire American League in hitting.  He also set a new record for home runs with 29 for that season.

From 1917 to 1921, several things changed our nation and it’s National Pastime.  World War I ended and millions of men came home from Europe; the attendance at every Major League Park doubled and some tripled.  Bootleg liquor was sold at speakeasies and movies were invented; the Roaring Twenties had a full head of steam.  It was the time of Tom Mix, Jack Dempsey, Knute Rockne, and Bobby Jones.

Then the Chicago Black Sox scandal was discovered in 1920 and baseball went to trial, claiming that Arnold Rothstein and the gamblers interfered with the game.  Eight members of the Chicago White Sox, including the great “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.  Ban Johnson, the American League President, was shoved aside by the owners, and a Judge known as “Kennesaw Mountain” Landis became the final word concerning baseball matters.  The eight White Sox were found not guilty, but Landis banned all eight from ever playing again, even though some of them were not involved in the fix nor had they accepted any money, thus ending Joe Jackson’s bid for the Hall of Fame.  The eight banned White Sox players were as follows:  “Buck” Weaver, “Chick” Gandil, “Lefty” Williams, “Swede” Risberg, Fred McMullan, Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte and “Happy” Felsch.

Ruth loved living large.  “I swing big and I miss big,” he was quoted as saying.  He also saved baseball in 1920 by inventing the home run as an offensive weapon.  In 1920, Harry Frazee, owner of the Red Sox, was broke and sold Babe Ruth to Jacob Rupert, owner of the New York Yankees, for $125,000 and a $350.000 loan.  At that time, New York had never won a pennant, much less a World Series.  After Halas injured his ankle sliding into second base, Ruth would take George Halas’s place in right field.  Halas would go on to play tight end for ten years with the Chicago Bears and then to become their head coach.  Halas would help organize and create what we now call the National Football League. 

Ruth’s salary was $20,000 that year and he earned it by hitting 54 home runs, while the rest of the team hit 61.  Ruth’s 54 home runs were more than all the other 15 teams but one (Philadelphia Phillies hit 64).  Ruth played all his home games in the Pologrounds, home of the New York Giants, while waiting for Yankee Stadium to be built.  The Yankees became the first team to draw one million fans.  

The game of baseball was changing, also.  In 1910, a new livelier cork-centered ball was put into play.  From 1917-1921, team batting averages went from .250 to .285.  Increased hitting meant more scoring.  ERA’s went from 2.85 to over 4.00 and stayed there.  Before 1917, only two or three players a year recorded 100 RBI”s or more; but in 1921, 15 players accomplished that feat.

There is no doubt that Ruth’s home run excited the crowds and the owners loved it.  Players followed Ruth with heavier bats with smaller handles.  The papers began to create nicknames:  “Sultan of Swat,” the “Big Bam,” the Great “Bambino” (Italian for baby), “Colossus of Clout,” “King of Crash.”  When Ruth came to the plate, people stood up and began to applaud before he had taken a practice swing.

In 1921, Ruth hit 59 home runs and drove in 171 RBI’s.  In 1922, he hit 35 home runs.  In 1923, Yankee Stadium “The House that Ruth Built” opened its doors on April 18th at the cost of 2.5 million.  One hundred thousand fans showed up for 62,000 seats.  In the third inning with two men on base, Ruth hit the first of his 41 home runs to right centerfield.  He batted .393 for the year and almost single-handedly won the first World Series for the New York Yankees.  Boston fans dubbed the sale “The Curse of the Bambino.”  Lou Gehrig joined the Yankees.  Ruth became the first athlete to earn $50,000 a year.

In 1924, Ruth hit 46 home runs while batting .378.  In 1925, he reported to spring training out of shape.  He became very sick from over-eating and drinking.  He only played in 98 games.  The media called it “The year of the Big Bellyache.”  In 1926, he worked out playing golf and boxing to lose weight.  He was making $52,000 a year and he hit 47 home runs.   

The 1927 New York Yankees have been considered the best baseball team ever assembled.  Ruth hit 60 home runs, not including the four he hit in the World Series win.  His feats made the front page of the newspapers.  His salary was raised to $70,000.  Teammate Lou Gehrig hit 47 home runs.    

In 1928 Ruth hit 54 home runs.  On January 11, 1929, tragedy struck as Helen Ruth died in a house fire.  They had been separated for three years.  Ruth married Claire Hodgson later that spring and he had two daughters, one from each marriage.  At Claire’s insistence, Ruth hired Christi Walsh to manage his finances.  Walsh gave him $35.00 a week for spending money.  On September 29th, Yankee Manager Miller Huggins passed away, and Ruth wanted to manage the Yankees.  Ruth was told “no” to managing, but his salary was raised to $80,000 and guaranteed for two years.  Jack Shawkey was hired to manage the Yanks.  When asked by reporters why he should make more than President Herbert Hoover, Ruth responded, “Why not?  I had a better year than he did.”  Ruth passed 500 home runs in 1929.

From 1930-1934, his fast-paced life started catching up.  He hit 49 home runs in 1930, 46 in 1931 and 41 in 1932.  In 1931, Ruth hit his 600th home run on August 21, 1931.  In 1933, his legs hurt; he used heating pads and gained weight easily.  He barnstormed and starred in movies, spoke on the radio, drove fast, and spent money like it was water.  In his first eleven years, Babe had earned over $500,000 dollars and had nothing to show for it.  No one wanted him as a manager, so by 1935 at the age of 40, he quit.  He was the only player inducted into the inaugural Hall-of-Fame class of 1936 that did not get to manage.

Then he was persuaded to join the Boston Braves with a promise to manage the following year.  Babe realized he was being used to fill seats.  On May 25, 1935, he hit three consecutive home runs at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.  The last home run (#714) cleared the right-field stands.  It was the first time anyone had ever hit three home runs in one game, and he also became the first to hit a home run completely out of Forbes Field.  Five days later, he retired for good. 

Ruth posted a 94-46 win-loss record as a pitcher for his career, with an ERA of 2.28.  Ruth is still second to only Mickey Mantle in home runs hit during a World Series, with 15; Mantle hit 18.  When Ruth hit his 500th home run, the second closest player was Roger Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals, with 236.  Willie Mays and Babe Ruth never hit for the cycle.  Jimmy Foxx became the second player to reach 500 home runs on September 24, 1940; five years after Ruth quit playing.

In 1939, Ruth had a heart attack but survived.  Then he developed headaches and cancer of the throat.  In June of 1948, Ruth came to Yankee Stadium for the last time.  He addressed the crowd and ended his speech with these words:  “The only real game, I think, is baseball.”  The ovation still echoes in New York.  Eight weeks later, he would be dead.  Ruth died at the age of 52, on August 16, 1948.   

At the time of his death, he held or had tied 61 Major League records.  Twenty-eight of those were World Series records and the other 33 were Major League records.  Sixty-four years after his death, Babe Ruth still matters, and there is still no one like him.  Ruth finished his career with a .342 batting average, 714 home runs, 2,874 hits, 2,217 RBI’s, and an ERA of 2.28.

The one thing Babe Ruth was afraid of was being forgotten.  Fat chance!

 

 

 

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.

A Yankee for Life


Charles Jeter answered the phone and handed it to his son.  “Derek, you’re going to be a Yankee,” said the voice on the other end.  Derek could not believe it.”  Neither could the rest of the baseball world.  Derek quickly called Michigan Baseball Head Coach Bill Freehan, a former 11 time All-Star catcher with the Detroit Tigers, told him the particulars, and said four words, “What should I do?”  Freehan answered with four words of his own, “You’ve got to sign.”  Derek Jeter signed a New York Yankee contract on June 28, 1992, just two days after his 18th birthday.  The amount was for $800,000.  Jeter had become the first high school player selected in the 1992 Major League draft.  It would become the pick of a lifetime.  So, sit back, relax, put your feet up, and let me tell you the incredible story of how Derek Jeter became a Yankee.

Derek Sanderson Jeter was born June 26, 1974, with good genes.  In the late 1960’s, his dad, Charles, an African-American from Alabama, had played shortstop and second base at Fisk University located in Nashville, Tennessee.  After Fisk, Charles moved to New Jersey were he met his future bride-to-be.  She was of Irish descent, white, and her name was Dorothy.  They moved their family to Kalamazoo, Michigan, when Derek was four.  Charles Jeter taught his son many things, but through it all, Derek Jeter was better then everyone else the first day he played at anything.

He was tall, and very skinny; some said he had to run around in the shower just to get wet.  Derek was the leader of his team at shortstop.  He was quiet, respectful, and said “yes sir” and “no sir.”  When others were heading to the mall, he was going to the baseball diamond to play catch.  Derek Jeter hit over .500 and only struck out once in 23 games, his senior year of high school.  His hands were educated and soft like cotton candy.  His footwork labeled him as a tap dancer, a Gregory Hines at shortstop.  He played basketball in high school to stay in shape for baseball, and he predicted two things:  “When I grow up, I’m going to play for the New York Yankees and marry Mariah Carey.”

The University of Michigan, Notre Dame, and The University of Miami all offered him a scholarship to continue his education, while playing baseball for them.  Dot Jeter wanted her son to go to Notre Dame, while Derek leaned towards Miami, but then he met Bill Freehan of Michigan and changed his mind.  Michigan was coming off of probation and the program was down. 

But lying like a snake in the grass was New York Yankee scout Dick Groch.  One story had Groch telling a Michigan State recruiter who was adding Jeter’s name to a mailing list, “You’d better save your postage; that kid’s not going to school, he’s going to Cooperstown.”  Groch later said that Ken Griffey Jr. had been the best he had ever seen in high school until he saw Jeter.  Now, he placed them right there together.  There was only one problem, the New York Yankees picked sixth in the draft.  No one in their wildest dreams thought Jeter would be there when it came time for the Bombers to pick. 

Here’s how the June 1, 1992, draft would commence.  The Houston Astros owned the first pick.  They also knew there were some issues with their starting third baseman, Ken Caminiti, and the use of steroids.  Infielder Phil Nevin from Cal State Fullerton had been named the College Player of the Year.  Houston Scouting Director, Dan O’Brian, liked both Nevin and Jeter and felt that their scout Hal Newhouser was right about Jeter.  Bob Watson, Houston’s Assistant General Manager, leaned toward Nevin, a college kid versus a high school kid.  The Astros felt that Jeter would be easier to sign, but owner John McMullen wanted someone who would move through their system more quickly.  They called Jeter’s advisor, Steve Caruso and asked what it would take to sign Jeter.  The answer:  $750,000 to $800,000, not a bad price for the Number One pick.  The Astros made their choice.

Former pitcher and now Astros scout, Hal Newhouser, took the call from his boss, Dan O’Brian, upstairs.  “Well, I’m through,” he said to his wife when he came down the stairs. “They picked Nevin.”  Newhouser never spent another day in baseball after that, except when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame later that same summer.  He was beside himself with the Astros’ decision.  “He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Newhouser.  Hal never used a radar gun.  He didn’t need a gun to tell him that Jeter threw fast.  Other scouts with radar guns said he topped out at 90 mph from shortstop to first base.  Turns out Hal didn’t need stat sheets or box scores either.  The Houston Astros had lost 97 games during the 1991 season, and that’s one of the reasons Newhouser had been hired to scout for their team.  Hal had made the long round trip from Bloomfield to Kalamazoo to see young Derek Jeter play in high school numerous times, all with joy.  “I don’t know if Derek will play shortstop or end up in centerfield.  Either way, he’s going to play in the Majors for 20 years,” exclaimed Newhouser. 

The second pick was owned by the Cleveland Indians.  In 1989, the Tribe had just signed Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez, and they were in dire need of pitching.  A big hard-throwing right-hander named Paul Shuey, a pitcher from the University of North Carolina, was right there for the choosing.  They took Shuey.

The third pick belonged to the Montreal Expos who also needed pitching.  They liked left-hander B. J. Wallace of Mississippi State University.  Wallace went north to Canada with the Expos.

The fourth pick rested with the Baltimore Orioles.  With Cal Ripken Jr. at shortstop the O’s grabbed up power-hitting outfielder, Jeffery Hammonds, of Stanford University.

Pick number five fell to the Cincinnati Reds.  They wanted Jeter but future Hall-of-Fame shortstop Barry Larkin was in the way.  They chose the next best player in outfielder Chad Mottola, from the University of Central Florida.

George Steinbrenner had been banned for life from day-to-day operations of the Yankees by Commissioner Fay Vincent, for paying Howie Spira $40,000 to spy on Derek Jeter’s idol, Dave Winfield.  Nevertheless, George made it clear that he still owned the team and he approved Jeter as their pick if he fell that far.  The Yankees were in need of some luck as they had not been in the playoffs since 1981.  “Captain Luck” was staring them right in the face with the sixth pick.  Anthony Robbins once said, “You see, in life, lots of people know what to do; but few people actually do what they know.  Knowing isn’t enough.  You must take action.”  

And so it began with the sixth pick of the 1992 draft.  Kevin Elfering, the Assistant Scouting Coordinator, and Director of Minor League Operations for the New York Yankees had never seen Derek Jeter play.  All he was required to do was say, “Derek Sanderson Jeter of Kalamazoo Central,” and he was a Yankee.  Unbelievably, the best baseball player in the land fell to the New York Yankees.

Derek Jeter has collected 3,304 hits, five Gold Gloves, and five World Series rings, all while playing in 12 All-Star Games.  He just announced his retirement at the end of this year.  To think, he could have been a Houston Astro.  All they had to do was say his name into the telephone.  What a difference it might have made, especially since Houston now plays in the American League.

 

 

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.

Is anyone sitting here?


    

 

It was a Saturday afternoon, at Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston, Texas, home of the Houston Astros.  I had two weekend season tickets in the last row behind home plate.  On this particular day, a fellow dressed in a suit and tie approached me and asked, “Is anyone sitting here?”  “No,” I said, “have a seat.”  He was elderly, stood over 6 feet tall, slender and wore glasses, with gray hair.  I was used to seeing people all dressed up, as the seats I had were first class and somewhat expensive.  Over the years, I had sat close by many different baseball scouts and former players from other teams and once met President George Herbert Walker Bush and his wife Barbara; along with Astros owner, Drayton McLain.

My new friend asked if I knew a lot about baseball.”  I said, “I think so.”  Then he said, “I see you like to keep score,” and I nodded a yes.  “Do you know who holds the record for grand slams?” he asked.  I said, “Yes, it’s Lou Gehrig with 23.”  “No,” he said, “I mean for the Astros.  Who holds the record for grand slams for the Astros?”  I did not know, but was willing to guess.  I offered up Jimmy Wynn, Jose Cruz, and Rusty Staub; and then I said, “I don’t know, who was it?”  He said, “It’s me.”  Now I’m embarrassed, especially since I’ve had a radio sports talk show for many years and really do spend a lot of time on baseball.  So I said, “And who are you?”  He grinned like a catfish, stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Bob Aspromonte.”

I remembered the name and shook his hand while he snickered at me.  I knew a bit about his background and asked him for his autograph.  He was actually with his brother Ken, who had played professionally for six different clubs before becoming the Manager of the Cleveland Indians.  They both had seats down in front of me.  I remembered a story I had heard years ago about Bob and a kid who was blind.  I asked him to tell me the tale.     

Bob Aspromonte signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957 at the age of 18.  He was from Brooklyn, New York, and went to high school with Sandy Koufax.  He played third base from 1962-1968 and became one of Houston’s Colt 45’s first baseball stars.  He set the National League record for errorless games with 57, at third base.  Bob hit 60 home runs during his thirteen-year career and in 1971; he became the last Brooklyn Dodger to retire.

In 1962, a nine-year-old kid named Billy Bradley, living in Arkansas, was struck by lightning and blinded, while playing on a baseball diamond.  He was moved to Methodist Hospital in Houston for eye surgery and listened to the Colt 45’s games on the radio.  His favorite player in baseball was Houston’s Bob Aspromonte.  Billy called the Colt 45’s and asked to meet Aspromonte.  Bob was told what Billy had said and decided to visit Billy in the hospital.  Bob took Billy Bradley a signed ball and a glove.  Billy was blindfolded and could not see anything, including Bob.  Shades of Babe Ruth--Billy Bradley asked Bob to hit a home run for him in his next game. 

Once the press caught wind of the request, added pressure was applied in interview after interview.  As fate would have it, in Bob Aspromonte’s last at-bat, with Billy Bradley listening to the game on the radio in the hospital, Bob hit a home run.  Houston announcer Bob Elston screamed, “This one is for you, Billy Bradley.”

Interestingly, the following year, Aspromonte visited little Billy one more time in the hospital, and again Billy asked Bob to hit him another home run.  Bob Aspromonte delivered this time with a grand slam.  Luckily for Bob, Billy regained part of his sight, but this is not the end of the story.

On July 26, 1963, after receiving partial sight from further surgery, little Billy Bradley attended his first Houston Colt 45’s baseball game.  He had asked Bob Aspromonte to hit him another home run.  Billy was finally going to see his hero play in person.  “When he asked again, I said, ‘Billy you’re really pushing your luck.  Will you settle for two base hits?’” said Bob.  In the first inning, Bob came to the plate with the bases loaded against the New York Mets.  Pitching for the Mets was Tracy Stallard, the same guy who had given up Roger Maris’s 61st home run in 1961, to break Babe Ruth’s single season home-run record.  Apsromonte hit another grand slam over the left field wall, and the place went crazy.  Bob was crying; Billy was crying.  The fans were crying.  The game was stopped so Billy could come down on the field, where the two embraced.  Bob gave Billy the baseball.  All was right in the world; or was it?

This was not the end of the story.  In 1974, during a freak accident, Bob Aspromonte was blinded when a car battery blew up in his face.  The same surgeon who had restored Billy Bradley’s vision performed surgery on Bob Aspromonte. The surgery gave Bob back about 40% of his sight, but required him to wear glasses.  Bob Aspromonte hit a team-record six grand slams for the Astros and became a successful Budweiser Distributor, and Billy Bradley became an executive with Merrill Lynch Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee.  They still visit with each other quite often.

 

So, that’s the story of how I met Bob Aspromonte.  

 

 

 

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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