Friday, 1 September 2017

NEW YORK, NEW YORK!

During the post-Second World War era, baseball fans heard a steady diet of topnotch play-by-play sportscasters who either started or perfected their craft in New York City when three teams--Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees and New York Giants--were the toast of the town as well as dominant forces in the major leagues. In those years, two distinct, country-boy voices come to mind: Red Barber and Ernie Harwell. 

Red Barber (US Public Domain)
Getting his start in the “Big Time” when hired by Cincinnati Reds GM Larry MacPhail in 1934, Mississippi-born Walter Red Barber brought baseball to the Ohio fans with a classy, Southern drawl that the locals fell in love with, especially women who learned a lot about the game from himBarber used a folksy, dry wit, calling himself “The Ol’ Redhead.” He would belt “Oh, doctor” when an on-field play excited him. Over and above everything, he knew the sport. He used catchphrases such as a “Rhubarb,” which was his way of describing an on-field confrontation. “Walking in the tall cotton” was a player at the top of his game; and “They’re tearing up the pea patch” was a team on a win streak. 

When Larry MacPhail moved over to the near-bankrupt Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, he was exposed to a silly, five-year agreement between the three New York major league teams in which the clubs promised not to broadcast their games for fear of hurting attendance. Although threatened by the two other clubs, MacPhail ignored the five-year pact, then negotiated a deal in 1939 with WOR, a 50,000-watt blowtorch radio station in New York City, and hired Red Barber away from the Cincinnati Reds to handle Brooklyn’s play-by-play. That same year, Barber broadcasted the first major league on television, from W2XBS, an experimental NBC affiliate. 

With the Dodgers improved play on the field and tremendous fan interest with 
the instantly popular Barber at the mike, Brooklyn attendance soared from 660,000 in 1938 to just under a million in 1939, outdrawing the two other New York clubs. In the first year with WOR aboard, sponsors paid the Dodgers a whopping $113,000 for radio ads. Yankee and Giant management took note, and hired their own play-by-play radio people soon after, thus putting an end to anyone thinking the broadcasts would have a negative impact on attendance 

Winning 100 games in 1941, the Dodgers grabbed their first pennant in 20 seasons and attracted 1.2 million fans to
 Ebbets Field, the most in the majors. In 1942, the second-place Dodgers again led the American and National Leagues in attendance. Both Barber and MacPhail played a huge role in the Dodgers’ success, staving off the creditors and putting the team in the black for years to come 

While MacPhail left for war overseas following the 1942 season, Barber continued broadcasting for the Dodgers, witnessing more National League pennants in 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953, with near misses in 1950 and 1951, where he
 continued with his catchphrases. The one most suited to the borough was “The bases are F.O.B,” which meant the sacks were “Full of Brooklyns.”  

A
nnoyed that owner Walter O’Malley didn’t back him up in relation to a contract dispute with Gillette in broadcasting the 1953 World Series games for NBC, Barber refused the low-paying assignment and left Brooklyn the next spring, joining the New York Yankees booth in 1954, where he teamed with Mel Allen doing radio and TV work in New York and some nationally until 1966 
Barber died in 1992 at age 84.  

Ernie Harwell (US Public Domain)

Southerner from Atlanta, Ernie Harwell holds a record that no one will probably ever match: As a sportscaster with the Double A Atlanta Crackers over local radio station WATL, he was so highly thought of by Dodgers GM Branch Rickey that he was traded to the Dodgers in 1948 for a player, backup catcher Cliff Draper. That’s how badly Rickey wanted Harwell to break his contract with the minor league Crackers. Also, I guess that’s how badly Atlanta needed a catcher at the time. Incidentally, Harwell replaced Red Barber, who was on sick leave from a bleeding ulcer. When he returned, Barber and Harwell, along with Connie Desmond, formed Brooklyn’s broadcasting team.  

After two years of this alliance, Harwell moved across town to the New York Giants from 1950-1953
where he teamed with Russ Hodges. Harwell was at the mike for NBC Television in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit his coveted home run in the bottom of the ninth during the last game of the three-game playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers to decide the National League pennant.  

Fired from the Giants, Harwell
 was the radio voice of the Baltimore Orioles during their inaugural season in 1954. He stayed there until 1959, then joined the Detroit Tigers in 1960 for a long run teamed-up with several different personalities. For the first few years, he did radio and TV, then exclusively radio in The Motor City. Beginning in 1973, Paul Carey joined Harwell, and the two stayed together for 19 years until the end of the 1991 season, a record in Detroit sports broadcasting that still stands. 

Like 
Red Barber, his fellow-Southern counterpart, Harwell had his own catchphrases. And they were classic. “He stood there like a house by the side of the road, and watched it go by” was a called strikeout. “That one is long gone!” was home run. “He kicks and deals” referred to a pitcher winding up and throwing from the mound; and his way of calling a double play was “It’s two for the price of one.” 

In December 1990
, WJR Radio--quite possibly influenced by Tigers President Bo Schembechler--decided to take Tiger baseball in a “new direction” and had asked Harwell and Carey to step down after the 1991 season. At 62, Carey was going to retire at that time, anyway. But the 72-year-old Harwell refused. Angry fans and the local media backed him up, while WJR and team management slung mud, blaming each other. Nevertheless, Harwell was gone for 1992, with Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun taking over.  

Harwell then did part-time radio play-by-play
 for the California Angels. In early 1993, Mike Ilitch bought the Tigers and one of the first moves he made was get Harwell back in Detroit. For the season, Harwell teamed with Rizzs and Rathbun on WJR, handling the middle-innings play-by-play. He went on doing TV in town, then returned to Tigers radio until he retired in 2002, after 55 seasons broadcasting baseball, 42 of those with Detroit, while in between broadcasting different All-Star Games, World Series and post-season games nationally 

Harwell
 died in 2010 at the grand old age of 92, remembered forever as one of the most-loved play-by-play personalities in major league history and the most-loved in Detroit. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

THE BIG THREE: RASCHI, LOPAT, AND REYNOLDS, OH MY

The New York Yankees were the toast of baseball for forty-plus years from the Babe Ruth 1920s to the Mickey Mantle 1960s. Winning came easy: They were expected to play in every World SeriesIn fact, one sportswriter uttered that, “Cheering for the Yankees is like cheering for US Steel.”  From 1936-1939, they won four straight championships, then ten years later they took an unprecedented five straight from 1949-1953 

Fans and the press called the Yankees
 the “Bronx Bombers” because they could slug a lot of homers. But that wasn’t all they had. The Bronx Bombertag was basically a myth. They had the pitching--clutch pitching. No better example of that were manager Casey Stengel’s five straight championships. Without three quality starters in the rotation--Vic RaschiEddie Lopat, and Allie Reynolds--the Yankees would have been second-rate in that span.  

The Big Three, as they became known, were different as night from day, yet complimented each other well. In addition, Casey--the intelligent skipper that he was--knew when to use them and against what teams.
 All three meant business on the mound. They were strong-spirited team players who didn’t take any guff from other Yankees not hustling. They knew the Yankee tradition of winning and expected it from others. They had attitudes and were tough as nails on the opposition.  

1953 Bowman Gum card of Vic Raschi (US Public Domain)

Hard-throwing, six-foot-one Vic Raschi joined the Yankees as a 27-year-old rookie in 1946, three years out of baseball due to time spent as a US Army physical-education instructor during World War II. After that, he made up for lost time. Early in his career, he was told by pitching coach Jim Turner to put some weight on in order to go nine innings more often. He did by adding 20 pounds, remaining around 215 pounds for the rest of his career.  

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, his nickname was “The Springfield Rifle.” 
With a reputation for winning the big ones, Raschi was the epitome of consistency, often saved by Stengel to pitch against the opposition’s bestDespite bone chips in his pitching arm and torn cartilage in his right knee, he hated to miss starts. From 1949-1951, he won exactly 21 games each season, and started at least 31 games for five straight seasons from 1948-1952. During the five 1949-1953 championship years, his record was 92-40.  

Combining a great slider and changeup with his fastball, Rasch
i was best described as a brute on the mound. Unshaven on days he pitched, he would stare down batters to gain a physiological edge. “He’d keep his eyes on their eyes, like a boxer before a fight,” his catcher, Yogi Berra said. Raschi also hated mound conferences with Berra and the infielders. His approach to such distractions was simple: “Give me the damn ball and get the hell out of here.” 

In 1952, Raschi signed for $40,000 for the coming season, the most ever for a Yankee pitcher, with a stern warning from GM George Weiss: “Don’t ever have a bad year.” I guess he considered Raschi’s 13-6, 3.33 ERA marks in 1953
 as bad. That fall, Raschi was asked to take a 25 percent cut in pay. He refused and was sold outright to the St Louis Cardinals on February 23, 1954, during spring training after posting lifetime marks of 120-50 and a .706 winning percentage as a Yankee. In 1954, the Cleveland Indians broke the Yankee five-year dominance by beating them out of the American League pennant 111 wins to 103. Several teammates agreed in unison that if they still had Raschi in the rotation, they would’ve no doubt won six straight championships. 

1954 Bowman Gum card of Allie Reynolds (US Public Domain)

As a Cleveland Indian from 1942-1946, part-Cherokee 
Allie Reynolds, nicknamed “Superchief,” had acquired an unfair reputation for walking too batters and having no guts on the mound, someone who shied away from challenging hittersa pitcher who wanted the win and duck out after a few innings. Then he became a New York Yankee in a trade that sent the popular second baseman Joe Gordon to the Indians. Yankee fans were enragedTheir reasoning was simple: Gordon was a winner; Reynolds was so-so at best. As with Raschi, pitching coach Turner came to the rescue by teaching Reynolds the art of pitching, and not just throwing. Reynolds learned to take his time between pitches and change speeds. Heeding Turner’s advice, Reynolds made the fans forget Gordon in a hurry. 

The versatile 
Reynolds could beat you in many ways. In his first year as a Yankee, he won 19 games against eight losses to lead all AL pitchers with a .704 win percentage. He pitched two no-hitters in 1951, the same season he won 17 games, threw an AL-leading seven shutouts and saved seven games in 14 relief appearancesIn 1952, he won 20 and led the AL with a 2.06 ERA, 160 strikeouts, and six shutouts in 244.3 innings. In 1953, Stengel turned Reynolds even more into a closer where he saved 13 games in 26 relief appearances. He still found time to start 15 games, completing five of those and recording 13 total wins for the season. 

I
n his six years in New York, he was on six World Series winners. The two other times, the Yankees finished second and third. Between 1949-1953, he started the opening games of the Fall Classic on four different occasions. In relief in 1950, he saved the clinching final game for Whitey Ford against the Philadelphia Phillies, then won the final games of the 1952 and 1953 Series coming out of the bullpen against the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team he owned. In his six World Series, he won seven games (two in relief) and saved four others. In 77.3 innings, he fanned 62 batters and threw two shutouts. He also helped the team out and his own cause by batting a lifetime .308 in post-season, double what he hit in his 13 regular seasons combined. 

What made Allie Reynolds especially fearsome was his fastball in late innings when the grandstand roof cast a shadow from the batter’s box half-way to the mound, making it extremely difficult for hitters to pick up Reynold’s rising 
fastball coming out of the sun, where the ball looked like an aspirin pill.  

1952 Bowman Gum card of Eddie Lopat (US Public Domain)

Last but not least, there was little, five-foot-ten southpaw Eddie Lopat, known as “The Junk Man” and “Steady Eddie.” Some opponents weren’t as kind with their nicknames, however. Iconic Boston slugger Ted Williams referred to him as “that f------ Lopat!” Lopat frustrated hitters with his assortment of  breaking pitches thrown with expert command and plenty of movement.  

He wasn’t flashy and didn’t
 strike out that many batters. Instead, he’d retire them on flies and a whole lot of ground balls. His tosses looked as big as basketballs coming to the plate, then they’d disappear into the catcher’s mitt. He had four pitches: screwball, fastball, curve, and slider. Deceiving to say the least, he used two speeds on his screwball and three speeds each on the other three, for a total of 11 different pitches for hitters to swing and miss at 

Born Edmund Walter Lopatynski to Polish parents in 1918, 
Lopat came to the Yankees in 1948 after four years with the Chicago White Sox where he had won a total of 50 games as a regular starter who continually beat the Yankees enough for GM Weiss to take notice. On February 24, the Yankees gave up three players--Aaron Robinson, Fred Bradley, and Bill Wight--to get him, in one of the best deals Weiss had ever made.   

Lopat
 was the perfect contrast to the heat of Raschi and Reynolds, especially when he would slow things down by starting the third game of a three-game setOther times Stengel would place him in the middle of the two, which really threw the opposition off with three-game, heat-gunk-heat combinationHis walk totals were microscopic during the five championship years, when he won 80 games to only 36 losses. He won 21 games in 1951, and led the AL with a 2.42 ERA, while 16-4 in 1953.  

In seven World Series starts
 between 1949-1953 (at least once each post-season), Lopat won four, lost one, and a posted a 2.60 ERA in 52 innings, walking only 12. Against the Cleveland Indians, his lifetime regular-season record stood at 40-12, amazing considering the all-star starting pitchers he faced: Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and Bob Lemon. 

In the end, it all comes down to winning. The Big Three, in their New York Yankee careers, won a combined 371 games and lost only 169 for a .687 win percentage. During the 1949-1953 years, they were 255-117 and .685. 
Surprisingly, none of the three pitchers are in the Hall of Fame, and may not ever get there. However, teammate Charlie Silvera, a backup catcher to Yogi Berra with the Yankees from 1948-1956, said, “Those guys should be in Cooperstown as one unit.”