December 7, 2013
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Friday, November 30, 2012
Throughout the winter, I’ll be examining the National Pastime from the standpoint of popular culture, in particular through movies, television appearances, memorabilia and advertisements. It’s remarkable how often baseball and pop culture intersect, sometimes in ways that are curious or funny or even downright bizarre. While some ballplayers have achieved notoriety for appearing in mass media (I’m thinking of Wes Parker’s appearance on The Brady Bunch), other examples are more obscure, but no less entertaining. So let’s have some fun with these situations when baseball steps out of its own beaten path and ventures outward to become part of the cultural mainstream.
There has been a long tradition of ballplayers appearing in film, dating back to the earliest days of motion pictures, when silent movies ruled the theaters. A more recent example, though not too recent, can be found in the blaxploitation films that became so prominent in the early 1970s.
For the uninitiated, blaxploitation films were originally targeted for a black, urban audience, but they also became popular with other ethnic groups and eventually gained mainstream appeal. These films, generally made on a low budget, featured a mix of good and bad features. On the one hand, they gave roles to talented African-American actors who were being ignored by the rest of Hollywood. On the other hand, these films often perpetuated the stereotypes that some whites held toward blacks. The films also contained countless ethnic slurs that spared no one, whether they be white or African-American.
40 years ago, an intriguing blaxploitation piece hit the theaters with the release of Black Gunn. This classic example of 1972 cinema stars former NFL star Jim Brown as the title character. The retired Cleveland Browns great plays what is billed as a “beefy nightclub boss” living in Los Angeles. When his brother, a Vietnam veteran, is murdered after the robbery of the “wrong people,” Brown seeks revenge against the local mafia. Although Brown is clearly the centerpiece, and is surrounded by such veteran actors as Martin Landau and Bruce Glover (the father of Crispin Glover), the film also features appearances by two well-known baseball players of the day, Vida Blue and Tommy Davis.
So what were Blue and Davis, teammates with the Oakland A’s, doing on the set of a feature film? Black Gunn was filmed in 1971, which just so happened to be Blue’s breakout season with Oakland. The pill-throwing left-hander, who also had a terrific overhand curve, led all American League pitchers with a 1.82 ERA, winning 24 of 32 decisions and striking out 301 batters in 312 innings. He drew huge crowds throughout the season, particularly on the road. Some opposing teams like the Yankees even staged promotions to capitalize on Blue’s upcoming appearance at their ballpark.
The media coverage given Blue throughout the season helped his cause for immediate fame; he appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Sport Magazine, and Jet, and even made the cover page of Time, a rarity for a baseball player. Blue also made guest appearances on two nationwide television programs, the Dick Cavett Show and NBC’s Today Show. Given Blue’s on-field performance, which earned him both the Cy Young and the MVP, not to mention his growing media celebrity, he became a logical candidate to make the transition from baseball to film. And so the movie poster heralds Blue’s appearance by “introducing Vida Blue.”
But what about Davis? While the veteran first baseman/outfielder had a fine season in 1971, hitting .324 in a platoon role and a scorching .464 as a pinch-hitter, he was hardly in the prime of his career and certainly lacked the household name status of Blue. Well, that didn’t matter. Davis happened to be Blue’s roommate; the two men were good friends, perhaps the closest of friends among the A’s. So it’s likely that Blue was able to convince the filmmakers to bring Davis along for the Hollywood ride.
In making his only feature film appearance, Blue played a character named “Sam Green.” (How about that, Blue playing a character named Green in a movie featuring the word Black in the title? How great is that?) The role was a small one, but Blue did earn fifth-place billing, right after Brown, Landau, Brenda Sykes, and Luciana Paluzzi, all established veteran actors. In the meantime, Davis settled for lower billing and an even lesser role, playing a character named “Webb.”
While Blue and Davis gave the film two well-known baseball names, they were outnumbered by the number of football players who appear in the movie. In addition to Brown, present-day NFL players Deacon Jones (who plays himself) and Gene Washington also made cameos, as did retired footballers like Bernie Casey (perhaps best known for appearing in Revenge of the Nerds) and Timothy Brown (of M*A*S*H fame).
All of these appearances, while interesting, don’t tell us about the quality of the film. Though I have never seen Black Gunn from start to finish, I have watched a number of clips and have read a sufficient number of reviews to offer some general judgments. As blaxploitation films go, Black Gunn is pretty much standard fare, and perhaps a bit above average for its genre. Though cheaply made, there is a good supply of fight sequences, funky 1970s music, and plenty of period atmosphere to make it a worthwhile ride.
In terms of acting, Brown is acceptable as the lead character. He has enough charisma and brawn to make up for a lack of technical acting skill. (He also appears often with his shirt off.) Landau, in contrast, overacts badly, especially when he is playing the role of a used car dealer, which is a cover for his true role as a vicious mob leader. By far the best acting is put forth by Glover, who portrays Landau’s lead enforcer. A prolific and talented character actor, Glover brings some gusto and humor to the role of a racist henchman. His performance also stirs up visions of his acting son, Crispin; the two share a number of facial mannerisms and speech patterns.
All in all, Black Gunn provides a relatively uncomplicated entertainment diversion that lasts 96 minutes. You’ll have to look closely to see Blue and Davis, but they are there, as are the full cache of football stars. As long as you don’t take the plot too seriously, you’ll be able to pick out some sports celebrities and enjoy a classic slice of 1970s culture.
Today marks the 50th birthday of one of the highest profile baseball players—or athletes in any sport—of the 20th century. He didn’t have the greatest career nor did he even come close to Cooperstown, but for a few years his star was among the brightest in the sky.
It’s Bo Jackson.
Today, Bo knows AARP membership, but he was as big as it got back in the day. I remember reading an article trying to figure out who was the biggest and most marketable name in all of sports, Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan. The article ultimately concluded it was Jordan, but that tells you how big Jackson was. He was in plenty of commercials, most notably the famous Nike “Bo Knows” ones, in which Jordan was just one of the galaxy of stars orbiting Bo.
Calling Bo Jackson a star baseball player misses at least half the equation—the more important half, at that. He was a true two-sport star—and baseball was his second sport. His best sport was football. As a running back at Auburn, he won the 1985 Heisman Trophy. A great football career seemed ahead for him.
Then he shocked the world by deciding to go for baseball instead, and abandon football. It’s easier on the joints. Jackson joined the Royals and in 1986 made his major league debut. However, it turned out the lure of football was too strong, and in 1987 he made his debut with the Oakland Raiders. He remained a regular in both sports through 1990, when a hip injury ended his football career.
He also made a memorable controversy for himself when he explained his decision to return to football by calling it a “hobby”—a word choice that caused him no small amounts of grief.
Jackson is something of a what-if in baseball. He had talent, but he was a far better football player. In 1989, his best season, Jackson hit 32 homers, stole 26 bases, and drove in 105 runs, but hit only .256 with a .310 OBP. He also had just 15 doubles.
Then again, there’s always the question of how good he could’ve been if he had applied himself full-time to baseball. Surely, he would’ve been better. Not only would he have had more practice time, but those nicks in football can’t be good for the body. In fact, his football-ending hip injury cost him dearly in baseball, sidetracking his career. That said, Jackson’s big problem was that he was a good hitter, but never a great hitter.
His best strength in baseball may have been his sense of timing. In his only All-Star Game, he belted a monstrous first-inning homer that had everyone talking the next day. He once hit three straight homers before going on the DL—and then hit a homer in his first swing upon returning, becoming one of the few people to homer in four straight at-bats. Near the end of his career he played for the White Sox, and when they won their division, it was Bo who drove in the run that clinched a playoff berth.
When he had his first big league at-bat—a national story broadcast across the country—Jackson came within 10 feet of homering. He hit a long ball that went just foul. He ended up striking out, but still had people’s attention.
Jackson’s ability to perform his best when the most were watching showed in football, too. In his fifth NFL game, Jackson played for the Raiders on Monday Night Football against Seattle. Not only did he rush for 221 yards, but he had two touchdowns that many vividly remember. On one, Jackson steamrolled the (over)hyped Brian Bosworth—who’d promised the world before the game that he’d contain the KC Royal. The other was a 91-yard run, punctuated by Jackson running out of the end zone and down a Kingdome tunnel.
Oh, and here’s a fun fact: That great Monday Night Football performance came on Bo’s birthday—his 25th, on Nov. 30, 1987. So it’s the silver anniversary of that game.
One last Bo Jackson story that I have to share. A few years ago he appeared on the Spike TV show Pros vs. Joes, pitting four great athletes against four barroom blowhards. They’d have some events where the joes try to match the pros at their own game, but also one special event, where neither pros nor joes had any experience.
In the Bo Jackson episode I saw, the pros and joes all gave skeet shooting a chance. Jackson had apparently never shot skeet before, but within two or three shots had the hang of it. He started nailing everything after that, the best of any of the competitors.
That Bo Jackson—he sure was something. And today he’s 50 years of something.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that occurred X-thousand years ago today). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to just skim.
Click for more...
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
One of my colleagues in Cooperstown asked me on Tuesday: Does Marvin Miller deserve a place in the Hall? I answered without delay. Yes, I would vote for him. In considering all of the history, how could I not?
That is not to say that I am Miller’s biggest fan. He had an arrogant and condescending way of framing his arguments, to the point that I often threw sharp objects at the television during his press conferences throughout the 1970s and early '80s. His manner of talking down to the media, and in turn to the fans, will forever grate at me.
I also didn’t appreciate the way he handled the issue of illegal drug abuse in the early 1980s; his attitude showed only concern for players’ rights. (That always brought to mind Clint Eastwood’s famous line regarding the deranged serial killer in Dirty Harry: “Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.”) Miller showed little regard for the illegality of the drugs and the harm that the drug abusers brought to the on-field quality of the game.
In spite of Miller’s failure on morality and his preponderance of condescension, his effect on the sport has been undeniable. He didn’t create free agency, as some have said, but he negotiated the process after the decision of Peter Seitz that liberated Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. Free agency, arbitration, the pension plan and other changes that baseball has seen over the past 40 years simply would not have happened without Miller.
When Miller, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 95, became the head of the Players’ Association in 1966, the owners had an unfair grip on the players. Salaries were ridiculously low, players had virtually no basic rights, and the pension plan was wholly inadequate. Those conditions are no longer in place. The process began to change with Miller’s support of Curt Flood during his noble fight for player rights and his battle to defeat the reserve clause. Although Flood lost the case, the written judgment from the Supreme Court stated clearly that baseball owners needed to take a second look at their relationship with players, forewarning that changes would have to be made.
Each strike that was voted upon by the players and enacted by Miller (or in the case of 1976, the owners’ lockout) was designed with a specific goal of improvement for the players, whether it was the pension, free agency, or free agent compensation. The union won almost every time, largely through the negotiating skills of Miller. As a result, the players’ union has become the most powerful union in America. It all started with Miller. If a Hall of Famer is to be measured based on his impact on the game, then no one can be more deserving of the Hall of Fame than Mr. Miller.
Although Miller’s mission was clearly geared to advancing the players’ cause, which he did brilliantly, he also helped bring about a change to baseball’s postseason. In negotiating the free agent system that basically remains in place today, Miller helped create baseball news throughout the winter. With every major free agent signing, baseball publicity was produced during the dead of winter. This served two purposes: giving diehards a steady supply of baseball news during a tough time of year and helping to keep baseball pertinent year round. In turn, these developments likely had the effect of creating further interest in the game and lifting attendance.
So yes, Miller helped the players, but he also created a different dynamic that promoted the game. Put simply, it’s more fun to be a fan in the wintertime now than it was back in the 1960s. Credit Miller.
On the whole, baseball is better off today than it was 40 years ago. The sport is in the news 12 months a year, the players are doing fabulously, and the owners are making gads of money. Miller didn’t create all of the improvement by himself, but he spearheaded the movement at a critical time in the game’s history. So yes, if I had a vote (and that is a scary thought), the eminent Marvin Miller would be enshrined in Cooperstown as soon as possible.
And I think someday he will be.
MLB.com, the official web site of Major League Baseball, is seeking stats stringers to cover these clubs in 2013 and beyond:
Stats stringers are responsible for digitally scoring games from major league ballparks, providing the data used in the live content applications on MLB.com, including Gameday and MLB.TV, real-time highlights and text alerts, and by MLB's business partners.
New stringers undergo an 8-10 week correspondence training program, and co-score several practice games in the ballpark with a returning stringer, before scoring any games solo in the ballpark.
Those interested in applying should send a resume and cover later, addressing the above-listed qualifications, to stats(at)website.mlb.com. Only those who reply to this e-mail address will be considered.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
40 years ago today, one of the most one-sided trades of the 1970s occurred. It was among the best deals the Yankees have made – and among the worst the Cleveland Indians agreed to.
On Nov. 27, 1972, the Yankees sent Cleveland Rusty Torres, Charlie Spikes, Jerry Kenney, and John Ellis in exchange for Jerry Moses . . . and Graig Nettles.
Five of those six names you’ve probably never heard of, with Nettles of course being the exception. Nettles would play 22 years in major league baseball, hit 390 homers (including a league leading 32 in 1976), and have a stellar defensive reputation.
Most of that was in the future, though. 40 years ago today, Nettles was a 28-year-old third baseman who’d just completed his third year as a starting third baseman. He was a respected talent—he’d even received a token 10th-place vote for AL MVP in 1971—but he wasn’t seen as anything too special. Cleveland was actually Nettle’s second team. The Twins had sent him there.
He was a good offensive player, but was ultimately a ‘tweener. He had some power, but nothing great. He drew some walks, but he was well under the league leaders. Sure he had a great glove, but in 1972 defensively there was Brooks Robinson and then there was everyone else. Nettles was one of the everyone elsers. Worst of all, Nettles’ weakest point was batting average, which was the best regarded offensive stat back then. In three years as Cleveland’s third sacker, he’d hit just .250. That’s nice, but nothing outstanding. Combine that with his 71 homers, and Cleveland felt he had enough value to be worth trading but not enough value to be worth keeping.
Also keep in mind that Cleveland had just finished in last place in 1972—and that was despite a Cy Young Award performance from ace pitcher Gaylord Perry. The team was 10th in runs scored with a .234 average. Nettles, they felt, was part of the problem, not the solution. So they peddled him off and see how many holes they can fill in the process.
So what did they get? All four guys coming to Cleveland were position players. If things worked out perfectly, they might get half of a starting lineup. Yeah, if only some things broke their way, they could have two good starters.
The least of the four was infielder Jerry Kenney. 10 months older than Nettles, Kenney was already a bust. He was supposed to be the Yankees third baseman of the future, but hit .193 in 140 games in 1970. He improved in 1971, but flopped back in 1972. The Yankees wanted Nettles to replace Kenney. So they gave Kenney to Cleveland, who hoped he could rekindle his game. It didn’t take. He played five games in Cleveland before calling it a career.
Well, he was supposed to suck. How about Rusty Torres, the young rightfielder? He’d hit .211 in a partial season with the Yankees in 1972, but he was only 23-year-old and maybe he’d improve as he aged? Nope. In two years and 230 games, he hit .199 and 10 homers.
Next is John Ellis. He was a first baseman/catcher who’d actually had success in the bigs before coming to Cleveland, hitting .294 in 52 games at age 23 with the 1972 Yankees.
Sure enough, that wasn’t a fluke, as Ellis was a solid hitter for Cleveland in 1973 and 1974, hitting .278 with 24 homers. It’s nothing world class, but it made him an above average hitting catcher. Yeah, but in 1975 he strangely flopped. Cleveland palmed him off on Texas, where he became a longtime backup.
That just leaves Charlie Spikes, a corner outfielder just shy of his 22nd birthday at the time of the trade. Spikes had the best career of the bunch, earning a starting slot in the Indians outfield for four years. But he didn’t quite pan out. He started out showing promise, hitting 23 homers at age 22 in 1973, albeit with a low .237 average. Next year, he kept the power and improved his average to .271. But he was still merely serviceable. With fewer walks or steals, you need better power or a superior average from a corner outfielder.
Instead, Spikes fell apart. He hit .229 with 11 homers in 197 and .232 with three homers in 101 games in 1976. As he entered what should’ve been his prime, he was worthless.
Cleveland got four flavors of blah. Meanwhile, Nettles made a half-dozen All-Star teams, and was solid and steady enough to keep his job in the starting lineup through 1987, at age 42. By that time he was no longer a Yankee, but Nettles helped New York claim three pennants and three division titles from 1976-81. Meanwhile, Cleveland had become an annual cellar dweller in the AL East. The only nice thing for Cleveland is that Jerry Moses, the other guy they gave up, didn’t do anything.
Still, it was a terrible trade for Cleveland – a trade that is now 40 years old.
Aside from that, many other baseball events celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that happened X-thousand days ago) today. Here they are, with the better ones in bold to make things easier to skim.
Click for more...