Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The ABA's Last Champions

BEFORE THEY joined the NBA. Before they sold Dr. J. Before they moved to the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, New Jersey, then to the Brendan Byrne Arena in Hackensack, and to the Prudential Center in Newark and on to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, they were the 1976 American Basketball Association champions, the league's last, and they called the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum home.

All hail.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

These Sponsors Were For The Birds

THIS GAME IS BROUGHT TO YOU by booze, beer, broads, clothes, cars and hot dogs.

It's mid-summer at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, 1966. The Orioles are hosting Harmon Killebrew and the American League pennant-defending Minnesota Twins. Clutching the stub from your $2.90 box seat ticket, you plunk down 20 cents for a program and settle in to watch the birds battle the champs.

The reigning AL Most Valuable Player, Zoilo Versalles, digs in at plate. O's hurler Dave McNally peers in for the sign... and you open that 28-page guide to the day's action.

Resolute bird
"Join the real beer drinkers here at the Orioles games! Drink American Beer -- 1st Choice of Real Beer Drinkers!" declares an ad on the inside cover. Not wanting to be caught out with the fake beer drinkers, for 40 cents you buy one. Besides, American is brewed right there in Baltimore.

Paging past the thumbnail bio of outfielder Frank Robinson, your eyes alight on an ad, featuring that year's Buick lineup: Riviera, Electra 225, Wildcat, LeSabre, Skylark and Special. The Rambler Marlin on page 7 looks pretty neat too.

You glance back at Robinson, who entered the day's action batting .319 (en route to his second MVP award), then ahead to the overly formal roster listing Manager Henry A. Bauer and his charges, including young pitcher James A. Palmer, first baseman John W. Powell and, across the diamond, third baseman Brooks C. Robinson.

Baltimore's own
At the program's center, the scorecard is ringed by ads for Liggett & Myers' cigarette brands L&M, Chesterfield and Lark, the Holiday Inn downtown and Schenley whiskey.

Strategically placed below the Schenley item: "NOTICE -- It is illegal for a minor to buy or drink beer in this stadium," or to lie about their age to get it, signed Baltimore Baseball Club Inc.

Meanwhile... Frank Robinson lofts a fly ball to centerfielder Ted Uhlaender. Luis Aparicio tags up and trots home from third. The Orioles lead the Twins, 1-0, after three innings.
Such prices!
Stomach rumbling, you page past the two-page spread for Goetze's hot dogs and right to concession stand price list. A regular red hot costs 30 cents, for a dime more you can have a jumbo. A knish can be had for a quarter. For 15 cents more, it can all be washed away with a Seven-Up or a Meadow Gold ice cream bar.

John W. Powell crushes a home run off Jim Perry and the Orioles lead 2-1...

(Powell, better known as Boog, was a cornerstone on an Orioles powerhouse that was only now coming into its own. With Hank Bauer at the helm, they'd dethrone the Minnesotans and capture the AL flag, the franchise's first title of any kind since 1944, when it was based in St. Louis and known as the Browns. The Orioles would go on to sweep the defending World Champion Dodgers in that year's world series.

The '66 team's exploits would be eclipsed the next year by an epic battle between the St. Louis Cardinals of Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and the Boston Red Sox of Carl Yastrzemski, a seven-game Cardinals/Tigers battle in 1968 and by Earl Weaver-led Orioles that won three pennants and a World Series between 1969 and 1971. But all of this is still in the future for you, the fan, watching this July 3 contest.)

"You don't have to be rich to deal with Ritchie..."
.... Perry takes his counterpart McNally deep, tying the game a 2.



Post-game
Day game. July. Baltimore. Sure would like a hat. A wool one costs $2, twill can be had for a buck less and with the dollar saved, you can buy a felt pennant.

...bottom of the eighth... Brooks Robinson belts a solo shot off Twins reliever Pete Cimino, extending the Orioles lead to 4-2... Stu Miller, who relieved McNally after the seventh inning, looks to lock it down in the ninth...

What to do what to do? No work tomorrow, it's the fourth of July. Still desert hot outside. Perhaps a trip to The Oasis...

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

You Bettor, You Bettor, You Bet

IT WAS A perfectly reasonable idea.

Take Major League Baseball's first 30-game winner since 1934, team him with the reigning National League batting champion, and have them author a handbook on the fundamentals of the game.

The result, published in 1969, was "How to Play Better Baseball," by Denny McLain and Pete Rose, a pocket-sized 64-page treatise on the art of pitching, hitting and fielding like a big leaguer.

The pairing was serendipitous and star-crossed.

McLain, 25, was a bona fide star. In 1968, he'd gone a wondrous 31-6 in helping the Detroit Tigers to a championship while winning the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. For an encore, he went 24-9 in 1969, sharing top AL pitching honors with the Baltimore Orioles' Mike Cuellar.

It was the third and last time McLain would top 20 victories in a season. He'd tally just 22 more over the next three years before arm problems and off-the-field troubles wrecked his career. He was out of baseball by age 29.

Rose, the NL's top rookie in 1963,  immediately blossomed into a perennial .300 hitter and all-star. The Cincinnati Reds' spark plug collected 218 hits in 1969 -- his second highest single-season total -- while winning the second of three batting titles he'd earn over his 24-year career.

They were, arguably, baseball's best pitcher and hitter: two players who would never be better. But, trouble had already found McLain, later it would come for Rose. Their shared demon: gambling.

Fig. 1

Innocence Falls


In 1969, however, they were idols of a sepia-toned era: a time of day games and flannel uniforms. Divisional play was in its infancy. The New York Yankees' fallen star, Jim Bouton, was writing -- but had not yet published -- his tell-all memoir "Ball Four," in which he'd reveal ballplayers were ordinary beer drinking, skirt-chasing men, not gods.

The Rose/McLain handbook and its cocksure earnestness could only have happened before Bouton's best seller stripped away the sport's wholesome veneer.

The pitcher's portion was divided into four parts: Sizing Up the Batters; That Extra Pitch; Playing a Ball Game and Exercise and Equipment.

"There will be spots -- when you have a fat lead and everybody on your side is hitting -- when you may not need to bear down,'' McLain said. "I have even heard tell of a pitcher's feeding a fat pitch to Mickey Mantle once, when the game was not in danger. But you can never get careless."

"To succeed at pitching, you need the four C's: Control, Condition, Concentration and CONFIDENCE," he said.

Fig. 2
Pete Rose radiated confidence and courted controversy while playing more games, 3,562, and accumulating more hits, 4,256, than anyone ever.

He ran over the Cleveland Indians' Ray Fosse, separating the catcher's shoulder to win the 1970 All Star game and slugged the New York Mets' Bud Harrelson in the middle of a 1973 playoff game to avenge a comment the shortstop made to the press.

In 1988, Rose was suspended for 30 days by National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti for shoving umpire Dave Pallone.

Foreshadowing.

"Learning to hit and developing your skill as a hitter is not just a lark," he wrote, telling those who aspired to greatness that it came only with "dreary" effort. "Actually, you will get more fun out of it if you can do it well. Where is the fun of hitting if you can't hit?"

Later chapters addressed fielding at all four infield positions and the outfield, oddly prescient for a player who began as a second-baseman,  but would go on to play right field, left field, third base and finally first.

Ballgame Over


McLain was already in trouble by the winter of 1970 when Sports Illustrated published an expose titled "Baseball's Big Scandal: Denny McLain and the Mob." According to the magazine, the Tigers' ace was involved in bookmaking.

He would later file for bankruptcy and be suspended for half the season by then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who'd absolve the McLain of being a bookie but found him the victim of "a confidence game," according to a SABR.org article. By year's end he'd be traded to the Washington Senators, lead the AL in losses, be dealt to the Oakland A's, then to the Atlanta Braves and finally released.

Fig. 3
The last big league batter he'd face: co-author Rose.

Subsequent years would see the hurler indicted, tried, convicted, imprisoned, acquitted and later tried, convicted and imprisoned again, according to SABR.

Rose returned to the Reds as player-manager in 1984, following his five-year sojourn in Philadelphia and Montreal. He'd retire as player two years later.

In 1989, the winter after the Pallone incident, Major League Baseball opened an investigation into allegations he'd been betting on the game -- MLB's capital crime -- with Sports Illustrated breaking the news in March 1989.

Though he'd initially deny the allegations, that summer Rose accepted a permanent ban from the baseball from Giamatti, now elevated to commissioner. The former Yale University and NL president died of a heart attack eight days later.

In 1991, Rose would be declared permanently ineligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, record number of hits notwithstanding.

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