Cooperstown Confidential: Three departuresby Bruce Markusen
February 26, 2010
Unlike major league baseball, where franchise moves lately have been rarer than eclipses of the sun, the minor leagues are in a constant state of mobility. Between affiliation changes and franchise relocations, one needs a scorecard to keep track of who’s playing where in a given season.
That reality recently invaded the central New York area, of which I‘m privileged to be a part. The small city of Oneonta, only 22 miles from here in Cooperstown, lost its New York-Penn League franchise, the Oneonta Tigers, to Norwich, Conn. Poor attendance, a perennial problem in the City of the Hills, motivated the move.
The departure of the O-Tigers ended the town's stretch of nearly 45 consecutive years as the host of an NYP-League franchise. The marriage began with the Oneonta Red Sox of 1966 and continued with the Oneonta Yankees the following year. Remaining a Yankee affiliate until 1999, Oneonta then joined forces with the Tigers organization.
Along the way, a long line of future major league stars wore the Oneonta colors, including Curtis Granderson, Don Mattingly, Amos Otis (a onetime Red Sox farmhand), Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and a football Hall of Famer named John Elway. One could compose a pretty fair all-star team of players who called Oneonta home.
Like most area baseball fans, I’m disappointed (and slightly angered) by the decision of the Tigers’ new ownership to move the club to Norwich. If owner Myles Prentice had lived up to his original agreement to keep the team in Oneonta through this summer and then endured another poor round of attendance, his decision to move the team would have been far more understandable. But Prentice couldn’t wait, instead reneging on his promise to former owners Sam Nader and Sid Levine that he would stay in Oneonta through at least 2010. (Prentice will pay a financial penalty for failing to live up to the conditions of the lease.) As Levine said to a reporter about Prentice’s decision: “You can’t trust anyone anymore.” Refreshingly honest in his response, Levine deserves a commendation for accurately appraising the situation.
Tigers general manager Andy Weber also comes out looking suspect here. Weber claimed that he tried for months to obtain a beer license for Damaschke Field, but the paper trail indicates that no such paperwork was filed with the proper authorities in 2009. It makes one wonder whether the Tigers intentionally filibustered on the beer license issue as a way of minimizing attendance, and thereby justifying their decision to move the team so quickly.
If that’s the case, the Tigers ownership deserves nothing but scorn. If the Tigers legitimately tried and failed to obtain a beer license, they still deserve a rebuke for a lack of honesty. Either way, let this serve as a word of warning to the good folks in Norwich…
Jim Bibby, AKA Fontay O'Rooney
Former big league pitcher Jim Bibby died on Feb. 15, bringing to mind a flood of memories for fans of 1970s baseball. Bibby, who lost a battle with cancer at the age of 65, is best remembered for three reasons. In 1974, as a young hardballing righthander with the Rangers, he threw a no-hitter against the world champion A‘s, striking out 13 batters. Five years later, Bibby became a significant contributor to the world champion Pirates of “We Are Family“ fame. And he was the older brother of another professional athlete, Henry Bibby, a fine shooting guard with the Philadelphia 76ers during the Julius Erving/Maurice Cheeks era.
Yet, I’ll remember Bibby for so much more. He was one of the biggest pitchers of the era, a hulking 6-foot-5, who pushed the scales to the 250-pound mark. He was also the sweatiest player I’ve ever seen play. On hot, humid days, he would look like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, the perspiration pouring down his face and arms like he had been caught in a waterfall. Bibby sweated so much on the mound that it was hard to watch him work; the more you watched him, the more you started to sweat.
Perhaps my most profound memories of Bibby come from the riotous book Seasons in Hell, by Mike Shropshire. Much of the material is rated X, and therefore not so fitting to my writing sensibilities, but some of it can be shared here. For some reason, Bibby used to go by the stage name of “Fontay O’Rooney”vaudeville. And no one understood why he picked the odd moniker of Fontay O’Rooney. The alter ego just made him more colorful, a player teammates enjoyed having around in St. Louis, Texas, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
Whatever the reasons for the alternate name, Bibby was just a friendly, amiable guy. A veteran of two years in the Vietnam War, Bibby’s intimidating physical appearance belied his friendly nature. He was outgoing and funny, and so popular as a minor league pitching coach that the Lynchburg Hillcats held a bobblehead night in his honor. Willingly signing autographs before and after games, Bibby always took time to talk to fans who wanted to chat with a former big leaguer.
Farewell, Jim Bibby. And farewell, Fontay O’Rooney…
Slick Surratt, Negro Leagues star
Another good soul departed us earlier this month. He was Alfred “Slick” Surratt, a veteran of World War II who played in the Negro Leagues during the '40s and '50s before doing his part to preserve the legacy of black baseball. Surratt, who died recently at the age of 87, played the outfield for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1947 to 1952 and also barnstormed with Satchel Paige’s all-star teams.
Known for his whippet-like build, Surratt played a game predicated on speed. He was an exceptional bunter who tried to hit ground balls and line drives. Surratt used to joke that if he hit a ground ball that bounced more than once, the infielder could forget about throwing him out. He was exaggerating, of course, but only slightly.
After his playing days, Surratt became involved in efforts to start the Negro Leagues Museum in his native Kansas City. Along with his former manager Buck O’Neil, Surratt helped launch and promote the museum, which chronicles the history of the Negro Leagues from 1920 through their eventual disbanding in the early 1960s. In many ways, Surratt was a lesser known version of O‘Neil—gregarious, upbeat, and always willing to spin stories about his days in black baseball.
Surratt maintained a good sense of humor about segregation in the South. He used to point to the Arkansas license plate on his car, which featured the slogan, “Arkansas: The Land of Opportunity.” Surratt then said, “At the first opportunity, I left.”
Whenever I hear of the death of another Negro Leaguer, I’m reminded of how quickly we’re losing these links to our baseball past. Most of the survivors of the Negro Leagues are now in their 70s and 80s, and a number of them have had to struggle with subpar health care. Sadly, it won’t be too long before they’re all gone, taking with them their firsthand recollections of their days in black baseball.
So if you ever happen to run into a former Negro Leaguer, make sure to ask him to tell you a story or two. And thank him for making the best of a bad situation, when the color of his skin mattered more than it should have.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.
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