Recent Posts in "A Player to Remember"

  • Andy Pafko, 1921-2013 Andy Pafko, 1921-2013             I first met Andy Pafko in the autumn of 2004.  He had agreed to write the forward for my book on the 1945 Cubs, and invited ...
    Posted Nov 5, 2013, 3:14 PM by Aaron Maass
  • Erica Jong, Meet Jackie Jensen                                 ERICA JONG, MEET JACKIE JENSEN             Who better to think about while travelling to New England than the most enigmatingly fascinating home run hero the region ever knew:  Jackie Jensen.   If ...
    Posted Jul 3, 2013, 12:36 PM by charles billington
  • Billy Martin and Jim Brewer, Revisited Billy Martin and Jim Brewer, Revisited             For all the debate and discussion surrounding the incident between the San Diego Padres’ Carlos Quentin and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Zack Greinke, it ...
    Posted May 10, 2013, 4:35 PM by charles billington
  • Bob Feller Ruins Bridgeport’s Opening Day Bob Feller Ruins Bridgeport’s Opening Day             Loyal followers of the Chicago White Sox had much to look forward to on Tuesday, April 16, 1940.  Comiskey Park had been an ...
    Posted Apr 18, 2013, 3:46 PM by charles billington
  • Gene Conley GENE CONLEY, YOUR TABLE IS READY      March is the first month of the year that Americans can follow both baseball and basketball games simultaneously.  In the NBA, the season starts ...
    Posted Mar 19, 2013, 5:57 PM by charles billington
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Andy Pafko, 1921-2013

posted Nov 5, 2013, 3:14 PM by Aaron Maass

Andy Pafko, 1921-2013

            I first met Andy Pafko in the autumn of 2004.  He had agreed to write the forward for my book on the 1945 Cubs, and invited me to come out and discuss it.  Pafko’s home was a spacious ranch on a golf course in a suburb northwest of Chicago. I rang the doorbell several times and nobody answered. Finally I heard a voice, coming from above me on my right. “Oh good, you’re here”, he said with a thick Wisconsin accent. “I’ll be right down!”  He quickly climbed down a ladder.  At the age of 83 he was cleaning his gutters, twelve feet off the ground.  He was in better physical condition than most men 30 years younger. After decades of working in senior care I had never encountered someone that age that was so well-preserved. Yet, when the life of an Andy Pafko is considered in its entirety, it’s probably what you would expect. His 92 years were pretty exceptional.    

         Pafko was one of six sons of Czech immigrants in Boyceville, Wisconsin.  The Pafkos were dairy farmers.  A gifted natural athlete, he excelled at football and baseball and created quite a stir when he hurled a baseball out of a minor league stadium, beyond the outfield stands, to  win a throwing contest.  The Chicago Cubs signed him out of a tryout camp, and he rose quickly through the minors, winning the Pacific Coast League batting title in 1943. 

      The Cubs called him up and his debut was September 24, 1943, on a rainy day at Wrigley Field with about 400 fans in attendance. He quickly became a fan favorite on the north side, throwing out 22 runners from his centerfield perch in 1944 and leading the team in runs batted in for their last World Series appearance in 1945. Pafko described himself as a “milk and cookies guy,” and mentioned that the crusty Cub manager Charlie Grimm would often say to him, “Hey Pafko, why don’t when are you gonna give me something to worry about?”  In 1950, when he hit 36 home runs for the Cubs, he struck out only 32 times.  Of 40 the players in baseball history that hit over 30 home runs in one season up to that time, only nine others ever struck out fewer times than they have homered; only two players ever attained such hitting artistry since.  When the Cubs traded him to the Brooklyn Dodgers on June 15, 1951, The Sporting News called it the worst trade since the Boston Red Sox sent Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. 

     Playing left field in Brooklyn, he became a key member of the legendary “Brooklyn Rifles”, the nickname given to the trio of Carl Furillo, Duke Snider, and Pafko for both their hitting and throwing ability. Pafko started on the pennant-winning Dodgers in 1952.  Later on he was lucky enough to be traded to the Boston Braves right before they moved to Milwaukee, where he starred as a favorite son/native Wisconsite until he left the game in 1959, winning a World Series in 1957 and a National League pennant in 1958.

      Pafko was a five-time All-Star who played on four National League pennant winners, and was the first player in history to start for three different World Series teams.  In nine of his fourteen seasons he had more extra base hits than strikeouts.  He always said that the toughest pitcher he ever faced was Ewell Blackwell, with Robin Roberts not far behind. Pafko was named to the Cubs’ All-Century Team in 2000, has a plaque outside Wrigley Field on their Walk of Fame, and his banner hangs proudly in Wrigley Field’s main concourse as their All-Time Centerfielder.  Pafko was as beloved in Milwaukee as he was in Chicago, and his significance of his years with the Brooklyn Dodgers was movingly chronicled in a half-page obituary by Richard Goldstein in the New York Times’ October 10 edition.

            About 250 people came to the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Norridge, Illinois on Monday, October 14 for his memorial service. A table in the narthex had a fascinating display of artifacts and pictures from his life and his playing days. Yet of all old, rare photos of him, his family, and his teammates on display, perhaps the most striking picture of all was a faded color photograph of the Pafko family barn on the rolling landscape in Boyceville. It looked the same as it did probably eighty years ago, solid, dignified, extremely well-preserved…..much like the beloved ball player who grew up milking cows there.

Rest in Peace, Andy; you’ll not be forgotten.

Erica Jong, Meet Jackie Jensen

posted Jul 3, 2013, 7:50 AM by Aaron Maass   [ updated Jul 3, 2013, 12:36 PM by charles billington ]

                                ERICA JONG, MEET JACKIE JENSEN

            Who better to think about while travelling to New England than the most enigmatingly fascinating home run hero the region ever knew:  Jackie Jensen.   If ever an individual was cast for the lead role of “America’s Post War Hero” it was Jensen.  The strange, rather sad circumstances that led to his fall from the limelight to the shadows is just as interesting. 

 Born March 9, 1927 in San Francisco, the handsome, husky Jensen was a three sport sensation at Oakland’s Technical High School, and after a brief stint in the Navy during World War II, he earned a football scholarship to the University of California, playing under  Pappy Waldorf. At Cal the affable Jensen gave the grandfatherly Waldorf all he expected and more, becoming Cal’s first 1,000 yard rusher, winning All American honors, and finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.  He also scored a touchdown in their upset loss to Northwestern in the Rose Bowl. As if that were not enough,  Jensen pitched Cal’s baseball team to victory in the inaugural College World Series, besting  future NFL Hall of Famer Bobby Layne in a classic pitcher’s duel in Cal’s win over the University of Texas, and in a later game striuck out a famous New Englander repeatedly in an easy victory over Yale—George H.W. Bush. 

Before his senior year of football Jensen cashed in on his ability and fame, signing a huge $75,000 salary and bonus (at a time when the Major League minimum was $5,000) to play baseball for the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League.   One fan admiring his play was Zoe Ann Olson, the Olympic Diving silver medalist whom he dated in high school.  Their marriage made headlines befitting Hollywood celebrities.

Three thousand miles across the country the New York Yankees, realizing that Joe DiMaggio was about to celebrate his 36th birthday a month after the World Series, started looking for his replacement.  They bought Jensen’s contract-- along with that of a scrappy, truculent little infielder named Billy Martin—for an astounding $100,000 from the Oaks, further cementing Jensen’s reputation as the peerless Golden Boy. 

The only trouble was that the much celebrated young man, who was only 23 years old when he debuted for the Yankees in 1950, was not ready for Major League pitching, batting only .170 while appearing in just 45 games. Manager Casey Stengel used him but once--as a pinch runner-- in the 1950 World Series.  In 1951 Jensen came back and played a little more impressively for the Bronx Bombers, hitting eight homers and stealing eight bases in just 56 games. It was not enough for the Yankees, and he split the season with the Kansas City Royals, their minor league affiliate  After the  '51season the Yankees’ front office did not give up on Jensen as much as they fell in love with another five-tool phenom:  Mickey Mantle. 

Mantle’s arrival in the Bronx made Jensen expendable, and in May, 1952 he was traded to the lowly Washington Senators. Out of the spotlight and away from the pressure of New York Jensen made the American League All-Star team, hitting hitting .286, driving in 80 RBIs, leading the league with 18 assists, and ranking third with 18 stolen bases.  After 1953 the Senators foolishly traded him for Mickey McDermott and Tommy Umphlett to the Boston Red Sox. 

Jensen, dismayed at being traded once again, had to be talked out of quitting by Boston’s general manager, Joe Cronin.  As things worked out he flourished in Boston, no longer having the pressure of being the team’s biggest star, while getting better pitches to hit with  Ted Williams and Jimmy Piersall   in the lineup.  Red Sox followers became enamored with Jensen as he blossomed into one of the most productive offensive players of the 1950s.

In 1954, his first season in Fenway Park,  Jensen led the American League with 22 stolen bases, finished third in RBIs (117), and fourth in  home runs (25).  He followed that offensive performance the following year finishing first in RBIs (116), third in stolen bases (16), and fifth in total bases (275).  The pattern continued over the next four years. In 1956 Jensen was first in triples (11), second in total bases (327) and fifth in stolen bases (11), while in 1957, he was fourth in RBIs (103); while in 1958, first in RBIs (122), second in bases on balls (99), and fifth in home runs (35). In 1959, he was once again first in RBIs (112).  Jensen’s great productivity won him the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1958.  During this decade Jensen also became the first athlete to play in a Rose Bowl, World Series, and  baseball All-Star game. As a result, Jensen developed a large national following, and the Sporting News Baseball Guide listed one of  his hobbies as collecting model trains.  Few who read it realized this avocation hinted at his premature retirement from baseball. 

As the major leagues expanded west and schedules became more compacted, the baseball industry moved further away from train travel and turned to the rapidly expanding airline industy.  Jensen had a tremendous fear of flying.  He worked hard at overcoming this phobia, and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey arranged for Jensen to get psychotherapy –a novel intervention for a baseball player in the 1950’s—to help his star player overcome this crippling anxiety. Sadly it did not work, and Jensen sat out the entire 1960 season. Convinced to give it one more try before Opening Day in April 1961, Jensen turned to hypnotherapy and played once again. By the end of the season he was disappointed in his waning offensive skills and retired for good. 

After his baseball career ended, Jensen became a sportscaster and opened a restaurant in Jack London Square in San Francisco. He died of a heart attack at age 55 in July, 1982. While he quit playing over 50 years ago, New Englanders who remember the popular slugger can think wistfully about how a Jackie Jensen in left field could help keep the Orioles and Yankees at bay during this current pennant race.  As Johnny Gomes hits a little more than his weight with four home runs, imagine if Boston’s beloved hero of yesteryear could be sandwiched in the lineup  between Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Napoli and David Ortiz…. 

Billy Martin and Jim Brewer, Revisited

posted May 10, 2013, 10:30 AM by Aaron Maass   [ updated May 10, 2013, 4:35 PM by charles billington ]

Billy Martin and Jim Brewer, Revisited

            For all the debate and discussion surrounding the incident between the San Diego Padres’ Carlos Quentin and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Zack Greinke, it is interesting to see how baseball history has a way of repeating itself.  Fifty two years ago a sparse crowd at Chicago’s Wrigley Field witnessed firsthand how a frustrated hitter can only take “so much” before he snaps and takes justice into his own hands, with himself and many others suffering the consequences.

           On August 4, 1960 Jim Brewer was pitching for the Chicago Cubs against the Cincinnati Reds in front of a crowd of 4,209 when Billy Martin came to bat.  Brewer delivered a fastball, high and inside, and Martin reflexively raised his arm to avoid being hit in the head. While Martin claimed the pitch hit him in the elbow, home plate umpire Stan Landes disagreed and called it a foul ball, saying it hit his bat.  Martin was incensed, swung and intentionally missed the next pitch, and purposefully threw his bat in Brewer’s direction after  missing the ball. When nobody offered to return it to him he went out near the mound to get it himself.  Martin claimed that as he was bending over to grab it Brewer walked off the mound and said “you little Dago SOB” , with his left hand balled up in a fist. Martin reached up and sucker-punched the much taller Brewer in the face, knocking him to the turf, while Cubs catcher Elvin Tappe and first baseman Frank Thomas immediately rushed Martin, knocked him to the ground, and piled on.  Martin’s roommate, pitcher Calvin McLish, came out to free Martin but suffered injured ribs when Brewer, still on the ground, kicked him in the chest.  McLish then landed several clean punches on Brewers’ face.  This embroglio was Martin’s eleventh fisticuff in just over ten years of professional baseball.       

         The pitch evoked some traumatic memories for the truculent little second baseman which triggered his violent reaction.  One year earlier in 1959, while playing for the pennant-contending Cleveland  Indians, Martin was hit in the face when the Washington Senators' Tex Clevenger lost control of a fastball.  The ball hit him flush on the temple. Martin was rushed to the hospital with a broken jaw, broken orbital bone, and a shattered cheekbone.  He was out of action for six weeks and returned wearing a football faceguard on a  batting helmet. He vowed after the Clevenger  beaning that he wouldn’t take it anymore when  pitchers threw at him.            

         While Martin played six weeks after his 1959 beaning, Brewer did not fare nearly so well six weeks after the sucker punch. The big right-hander underwent three separate surgeries in August 1960 alone, and by mid-September - his six week mark - Brewer's vision problems were so bad that he could not see well enough to pick up a baseball, let alone pitch it.

          A little more than two weeks later the Reds returned to Wrigley Field for a make-up game. Brewer and Chicago Cubs owner Phil Wrigley slapped Martin with a million dollar lawsuit, with Wrigley adding to the indignity by having the scrappy second baseman served in the visitors' locker room at Wrigley Field before the game.  A shocked Martin tried to cover his anxiety by saying “Ask Wrigley how he’d like it, cash or check.” In his biography he vowed that McLish’s punches did all the damage to Brewer but kept his feelings to himself at the time.   The Reds' front office initially got a lawyer to defend Martin but after they traded him to Milwaukee  (and also after the Reds had a front office regime change) Martin was left on his own. Wrigley dropped his lawsuit but Brewer did not.  The case went to a jury trial, which did not buy Martin’s argument that when a pitcher walks off the mound toward a batter it means that he wants to fight. Brewer was awarded $25,000 but the amount was later cut in half. Martin got the money from an acquaintance in Minneapolis and spent several years paying it off.

          Brewer came back from his serious injuries and pitched seventeen years for the Cubs, Dodgers, and Angels. He appeared in three World Series for the Dodgers in 1965, ’66, and ‘74. When he retired he was 69-65 with a 3.07 ERA and more than twice as many strikeouts than walks.

      There are remarkable parallels between the Quentin/Greinke incident and the Martin/Brewer incident.  Quentin claimed Greinke came off the mound and gestured, just like Martin claimed Brewer  came off the mound and cursed him . Greinke braced his shoulder as Quentin rushed him, and  Brewer balled his fist as Martin approached the mound. Both Greinke and Brewer got the worst of their encounters, yet their assailants suffered greatly in the past in identical situations, and in  Quentin’s case he was victimized by the same individual  --Greinke--  many times in the past.  Perhaps if Greinke had started his career in a league where pitchers have to bat he would not have included hitting hitters like Quentin in his repertoire........ 
                                       Perhaps someday baseball players will realize that everyone loses a beanball war.        

Bob Feller Ruins Bridgeport’s Opening Day

posted Apr 11, 2013, 11:06 AM by Aaron Maass   [ updated Apr 18, 2013, 3:46 PM by charles billington ]

Bob Feller Ruins Bridgeport’s Opening Day

            Loyal followers of the Chicago White Sox had much to look forward to on Tuesday, April 16, 1940.  Comiskey Park had been an empty shell for nearly five months, with no activity since Sunday, November 26, 1939, when the Chicago Bears drubbed the hapless Chicago Cardinals, 48-7.  Now that spring had returned, the somber but majestic sports cathedral at 35th and Shields would come alive again as the Sox  hosted  the Cleveland Indians to kick off the 1940 baseball season.  Sox fans had high hopes that the Pale Hose would improve on the shiny 85-69 record they had tallied in ’39, and maybe challenge the Tigers and Yankees if they could get off to a good start.  A boyish gentleman from Van Meter, Iowa, however, had other plans. 

21-year-old Bob Feller and his Cleveland Indians left the Congress Hotel that morning thinking it was much too cold to play baseball.  With a stiff north breeze and the temperature struggling to reach 35 degrees, Feller was not thinking as much about coming off a 24-9 season as he was about his poor spring training, and his particularly un-Feller-like pitching performance three days earlier.  On Saturday April 13, Rapid Robert had pitched an exhibition game in Cleveland, yielding 15 hits and 10 runs in just five innings. Feller was skeptical about what he might be able to do with the ball in such inclement weather in Chicago, and his experience in the second inning proved him correct. 

In the White Sox half of the second, Taffy Wright latched onto one of Feller’s offerings and launched a tricky fly ball to Roy Weatherly in center field.  The wind gave Weatherly fits, and he dropped the ball as Wright scampered safely to second.  Nobody thought too much about it when the official scorer called it a two-base error.  For the next two batters, Sox catcher Mike Tresh and pitcher Eddie Smith, Feller fiddled with his curveball, but the stiff wind at his back  would not allow it to break over the plate.  Tresh and Smith both walked, and Bob Kennedy came up with the bases loaded. Feller decided to throw him nothing but fastballs. The 21-year-old Kennedy, playing in only the fourth game of his Major League career, was completely overmatched and meekly struck out.  For the rest of the game, Feller decided to stay with his devastating heater, and in the Indians’ half of the fourth, when Wright misplayed Indian catcher Rollie Hemsley’s flyball into a triple, the Indians squeaked a run across the plate.  The way the Master of Van Meter was dealing, it was all the tribe from Cleveland would need.

With Feller throwing nothing but fastballs, the White Sox continued to make nothing but outs.  After two hours and twenty-four minutes of baseball, the small crowd of 14,000 had experienced the first Opening Day no-hitter in baseball’s history, a 1-0 masterpiece.  Six years later, on May 5, 1946 pitcher Leon Day of the Newark Eagles threw a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars to open the Negro National season, but Feller’s accomplishment stands alone in the annals of Major League history.  How did the young fireballer celebrate this historic feat? His parents and younger sister had taken the Rock Island Rocket from Des Moines to Chicago to see him pitch, and the whole family had breakfast together the next morning. 

Sox loyalists could take some solace in knowing that their local heroes made history on this date also:  no other team in history had ever ended a game with the same batting average it started with!

Gene Conley

posted Mar 13, 2013, 4:54 PM by Aaron Maass   [ updated Mar 19, 2013, 5:57 PM by charles billington ]

GENE CONLEY, YOUR TABLE IS READY

     March is the first month of the year that Americans can follow both baseball and basketball games simultaneously.  In the NBA, the season starts to mean a little more.  In baseball, the pitchers and catchers have been in camp for several weeks, and real games, albeit with some non-rostered invitees wearing numbers on their backs that are higher than NFL linemen, are being played in earnest. 

     Things get better as the weeks progress. The March Madness tournaments are not far off.  Just about the time the NCAA and NIT fields get small enough to really mean something, the baseball teams are whittling down their rosters, trying to shape their starting rotations, and talking to the press about who might be their closers. By the time Opening Day arrives, we have a veritable sports Horn of Plenty on the flat screen, with baseball’s regular season, the final stages of the NCAAplayoffs, and the NBA’s “second season” heating up. Yes, the end of winter and beginning of spring is a good time to be a fan.  Imagine how much better it would be if you were playing both sports at that level, at the same time.  Gene Conley, can you share with us how good it was?

     Donald Eugene Conley’s major league debut came on April 17, 1952 with the Boston Braves.  A highly touted rookie, Conley drew the nod to start in the Braves’ third game of the season against the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Like a lot of rookie pitchers in their first starts, it did not go too well for the 6’8” hurler, who gave up four earned runs in four innings.  The potent Dodger lineup nicked him for eleven hits; Conley walked two and had one strikeout. In spite of his poor showing, Braves skipper Tommy Holmes left him in to start the fifth inning, but that did not turn out to well for the tall youngster, either, as Andy Pafko led off and promptly homered. After Gil Hodges followed with a double to left, Conley was pulled, replaced by the Braves long man Bert Thiel. Conley did have some measure of success that day, however, hitting a line drive single to left in his only trip to the plate. The big hurler  would go on to pitch six years with the Braves, two with the Philadelphia Phillies, and three in the American League for the Boston Red Sox, leaving baseball in September, 1963, two months shy of his 33rd birthday. When he retired from the Big Show, Conley’s record stood at 91-96 with 888 strikeouts and a respectable 3.82 ERA.

       Conley’s NBA career began with the Boston Celtics on November 16, 1952, six days after his 22nd birthday and six months following his major league debut.  It was Boston’s seventh game of the year when Conley came in as a substitute at forward.  Although he did not score from the field and committed two fouls, he made two free throws. The Celtics were high on their tenth round draft pick out of Washington State, and Conley went on to carve out his niche on the hard court as an effective rebounder, averaging 6.3 rebounds per game during an average of 16 minutes of playing time.  After the 1952-1953 season, Conley took a five year break from the NBA, returning to the Celtics for the 1958-’59 season, playing in Boston for three more seasons, through the spring of 1962.  Before the start of the 1962-’63 season, Big Gene was traded to the New York Knicks. Two years later, he untied his NBA laces for good. 

        One does not have to look hard at Conley’s careers to see that he was not simply filling two rosters.  During his time in the Majors, he appeared in four National League All-Star games;  1954, 1955, and both contests in 1959.  Conley also played in the 1957 World Series, winning a title as a pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves.  Seven months later, he contributed to another world championship when the Celtics won the first of three NBA titles with Conley on the team.   One can only wonder if an athlete will ever achieve such a milestone again. 

         For this and many other reasons, Gene Conley, your table is ready.  Order anything you want; you earned it a long time ago.                        

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