‘The Giants win the pennant!’

October 6, 2013

At 3:58 on the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1951, at the ancient Polo Grounds in Harlem, New York Giants play-by-play man Russ Hodges was no better than Gotham’s third best-known baseball broadcaster. Mel Allen of the Yankees and Red Barber of the Dodgers ruled the electronic horsehide scene in an era when radio still held sway over television. Most of Hodges’ national recognition came from working the Wednesday night fights on CBS-TV along with “Bill the Bartender.”

Then Hodges, two players named Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca and one Brooklyn fan changed all that in seconds. Before Lawrence Goldberg went to work that morning, he told his mother to turn on his Webcor wire recorder if the Dodgers were ahead in the ninth inning of the third and final game of their National League pennant playoff — the better to hear Hodges grovel, he thought. If Mom hadn’t done so, the most famous sports call ever might have been gone with the wind.

The Dodgers were leading 4-2 with one out when Branca relieved Don Newcombe, Brooklyn’s tiring ace. His second pitch was a fast ball high and inside, Thomson swung and the most riveting moment in baseball history — in (ITALICS) sports (END ITALICS) history — ensued. To his everlasting credit, Hodges’ hysterical description matched the drama:

“There’s a long drive! It’s gonna be, I believe! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

So it was that Thomson’s Giants defeated Branca’s Dodgers 5-4. Shock and disbelief enveloped spectators at the ballpark and around the nation, for this was the first sports event televised live coast to coast. Author Roger Kahn told how a non-fan working in a Manhattan office heard the screams and thought World War III had been declared.

Even the nation’s most acclaimed sports columnist was temporarily at a loss for words. Wrote Red Smith in the next morning’s New York Herald Tribune: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it.” (Then, of course, he proceeded to do so brilliantly.)

From that day until this, Thomson and Branca have been linked as firmly as Romeo and Juliet, Caesar and Antony or perhaps Abbott and Costello.

“If it wasn’t for Bobby’s home run, nobody would remember us,” Branca once said. These were good ballplayers, not great. But when Branca (88-68, 3.79 ERA lifetime) threw his fatal pitch to Thomson (.270 batting average, 264 homers), they ascended together to baseball immortality.

“Do you know what you did today?” Thomson’s brother, Jim, asked when Bobby visited him on his way home to his mother’s house on Staten Island.

“Yeah, I hit a home run, and we won the pennant.”

“No, no, I don’t mean that,” Jim said. “You did something that nobody may ever do again.” He was right. Sixty-two years later, nobody has even come close or likely ever will.

Branca had dinner that night with his fiancee, Ann, and a cousin of hers who was a priest. “Why me?” Branca asked.

The Rev. Frank Rowley replied, “God chose you because He knows your faith is strong enough to bear this cross.”

His baseball career cut short by an injury a few years later, Branca went on to succeed in business. Later he became chairman of the Baseball Assistance Team, an organization that helps needy ex-players and their families. But whenever he or Thomson met, the years fell away and it was Oct. 3, 1951, at the Polo Grounds. Again. Forever.

In 2001, the Wall Street Journal printed an overblown story suggesting Thomson knew Branca was about to throw a fastball because the Giants had been stealing opposing catchers’ signs at home all season through a reserve player planted with binoculars in an office adjoining the clubhouse in center field. Branca said he believes the story; Thomson said he did not know what the pitch would be. But it doesn’t really matter. For one thing, many teams tried to steal signs illegally in the ’50s. For another, Thomson still had to hit the pitch.

Why does the game and its unreal conclusion still mean so much to so many? There are so many reasons. For starters, the Dodgers and Giants and their respective fans detested one another. In those days, there were just eight clubs in each major league, and teams met 22 times a year. Thus there was plenty of time for antagonism to simmer.

Expected to be a strong contender, under former Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, for the first time in years, the Giants started 2-13 before calling up a 20-year-old center fielder named Willie Mays from the minors and moving Thomson to third base. Improvement followed, but by mid-August the Giants trailed the Dodgers by 13 1/2 games and had been written off by nearly everybody. Then, unbelievably, they won 37 of 44 to tie for the pennant after the regulation 154 games.

The Dodgers won a coin flip to settle the venues for a three-game playoff, and Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen unwisely chose to open at Ebbets Field and play the last two games at the Polo Grounds. The Giants won the first in Brooklyn 3-1 when Thomson, of all people, hit a homer off Branca, of all people. But the Dodgers rolled 10-0 in the second game at the Polo Grounds behind rookie Clem Labine. That got everybody to Oct. 3.

Although the day was overcast and the game was on local TV, the finale unfolded before just 34,320 fans, meaning there were 20,000 empty seats. Why? Nobody seems to remember. Those who did show saw a tight game until the Dodgers scored three runs in the eighth for a 4-1 lead as converted outfielder Thomson waved at a couple of balls that zinged past him at third.

Now the Dodgers were three outs from a pennant, but they got only one. Singles by captain Alvin Dark and Don Mueller and a double by Whitey Lockman made it 4-2 against Newcombe before Dressen phoned the bullpen, where three pitchers were warming up. But Labine had pitched a complete game the day before, and Dressen was told that Carl Erskine had just bounced a curveball.

“Give me Branca,” Dressen said, and the rest is, literally, history.

While Hodges was howling into his microphone at the finish, Barber simply told his listeners on the Dodgers’ radio network, “It’s in there for the pennant,” and shut up to let the crowd noise take over. Later he attempted to put the event into perspective by reminding his listeners that the United States had suffered 2,181 battle casualties in Korea the previous week and adding, “The Dodgers will get over this, and their fans will, too.”

He was wrong.

Flash forward 46 years to a hot, hazy Sunday morning at Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va., home of the Class A Prince William Cannons. Thomson was conducting a mini-clinic for kid players who couldn’t possibly appreciate who he was and what he had done. By way of explanation, he told them a little bit about that distant day and what became known hyperbolically as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

“The Good Lord had a lot to do with that home run,” he said. “You’ve got to be lucky, too. I guess that was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.”

Over lunch with a reporter a bit later, Thomson said something surprising. He insisted his epic home run was not the most important thing in his life.

“The most important thing that happened to me came after baseball, when I had to get out of bed in the morning and go to a job and learn to appreciate the work ethic,” said Thomson, who became a successful businessman when his playing career ended in 1960. After that he spent a half-century not allowing himself to be swallowed up by his 15 seconds of glory. He was a good baseball player. He was a good man, too, and he considered that more significant.

“No, I don’t get tired of talking about the home run,” Thomson said that day in Northern Virginia. “But sometimes I resent that it’s all people remember me for. Heck, I had a good career over 14 years, four seasons where I drove in 100 runs. But I guess if I hadn’t hit that home run, you and I wouldn’t be sitting here now.”

Many older fans consider Thomson’s swat the high point of baseball’s golden era. When he hit it, players did not move from team to team or clubs from city to city, and nobody had thought of artificial turf, designated hitters or night World Series games. But Bobby never clung to the past, not even to its supreme moment.

Although he died at 86 in 2010, Bobby Thomson is still alive and young in one sense. As long as baseball is played, he will be 27 years old in the film clips and the mind’s eye as he lines Branca’s pitch into the left-field stands, hops in exultation around the bases and leaps the last few feet into the arms of exultant teammates at the plate .

Russ Hodges again on that fateful fall day:

“I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it!”

No wonder!


A trip to baseball’s glorious past

July 12, 2013

Baseball’s distant and diverse past is a key part of the game’s appeal for many of us. Now there’s a way to absorb and celebrate it at the click of an electronic key or two — and at no charge. Simply go to TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com, and savor historical articles and artifacts dating from Civil War days until the 1960s.

If you want to know how the curve ball developed in the mutton-chop era, you’ll find out here. Or if your area of interest lies in more modern times, you can learn what pitcher threw two no-hitters and almost had a third during a season when his record was 5-19.

Best of all, the site is constantly updated. In the National Treasures section, you’ll find so much fascinating old stuff that you’ll swear you’re in Cooperstown. Could uniforms ever have been so heavy, gloves so tiny and bats so thick?

Full disclosure: I am chief copy editor for the site, and it’s truly a labor of love. When I was 11 years old, I first read Frank Graham’s tragic biography “Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero” and fell deeply in love with baseball history. Now my bookshelves contain enough horsehide tomes to put a serious squeeze on my collection of every song Frank Sinatra ever did.

(As far as I know, Young/Old Blue Eyes never recorded “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but I do have a DVD of his 1949 movie with that title. Also his 1973 CD including “And There Used to Be a Ballpark.”)

I’ve never understand purported baseball fans who think the sport began with, say, Bryce Harper or Steve Trout. At one point in 1995 as Cal Ripken closed in on Gehrig’s record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, he said, “I don’t really know much about him — I’ll have to read up on Gehrig when the season is over.”

Same thing with Rickey Henderson, who once babbled, “I’ve heard of Jackie Robinson, but I don’t really know what he did.”

Say what? I guess players and readers belong to different species.

Heck, there may even be guys in knickers nowadays who don’t know what Cal Ripken did except grow bald.

Two all-stars for The National Pastime Museum web site are executive director Frank Ceresi, who gathers all the material, and graphics designer Becki Hartke, who makes it look so good.

On the writing front, nine permanent historians keep the words and topics flowing. There also are contributions from such renowned scholars as Stacy Pratt McDermott, assistant director/associate editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., who tells us about a ball game between rabid supporters of Honest Abe and Stephen Douglas before the 1860 election.

And if you want to know what luckless hurler had those multi no-nos in a 5-19 season, I can and will tell you.

Check us out. You won’t be sorry.

 

 

 


A trip to baseball’s glorious past

July 12, 2013

Baseball’s distant and diverse past is a key part of the game’s appeal for many of us. Now there’s a way to absorb and celebrate it at the click of an electronic key or two — and at no charge. Simply go to TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com, and savor historical articles and artifacts dating from Civil War days until the 1960s.

If you want to know how the curve ball developed in the mutton-chop era, you’ll find out here. Or if your area of interest lies in more modern times, you can learn what pitcher threw two no-hitters and almost had a third during a season when his record was 5-19.

Best of all, the site is constantly updated. In the National Treasures section, you’ll find so much fascinating old stuff that you’ll swear you’re in Cooperstown. Could uniforms ever have been so heavy, gloves so tiny and bats so thick?

Full disclosure: I am chief copy editor for the site, and it’s truly a labor of love. When I was 11 years old, I first read Frank Graham’s tragic biography “Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero” and fell deeply in love with baseball history. Now my bookshelves contain enough horsehide tomes to put a serious squeeze on my collection of every song Frank Sinatra ever did.

(As far as I know, Young/Old Blue Eyes never recorded “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but I do have a DVD of his 1949 movie with that title. Also his 1973 CD including “And There Used to Be a Ballpark.”)

I’ve never understand purported baseball fans who think the sport began with, say, Bryce Harper or Mike Trout. At one point in 1995 as Cal Ripken closed in on Gehrig’s record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, he said, “I don’t really know much about him — I’ll have to read up on Gehrig when the season is over.”

Same thing with Rickey Henderson, who once babbled, “I’ve heard of Jackie Robinson, but I don’t really know what he did.”
Say what? I guess players and readers belong to different species. Heck, there may even be guys in knickers nowadays who don’t know what Cal Ripken did except grow bald.

Two all-stars for The National Pastime Museum web site are executive director Frank Ceresi, who gathers all the material, and graphics designer Becki Hartke, who makes it look so good.

On the writing front, nine permanent historians keep the words and topics flowing. There also are contributions from such renowned scholars as Stacy Pratt McDermott, assistant director/associate editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., who tells us about a ball game between rabid supporters of Honest Abe and Stephen Douglas before the 1860 election.

And if you want to know what luckless hurler had those multi no-nos in a 5-19 season, I can and will tell you.

Check us out. You won’t be sorry.


Camden Yards: At 21, still nearly perfect

June 10, 2013

Did something recently that I once vowed I never would. I gave Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos some of my money.

The occasion was a game between the O’s and the Nationals, aka my former and current horsehide loves. My friend Shane and I yearned to experience Camden Yards after too long an absence, so off we crept during afternoon rush-hour traffic on the Beltway and I-95 with expensive online tickets firmly in hand.

It’s hard to believe the ballpark that spawned so many imitations is now three months older than O’s wunderkind Manny Machado and six months older than Nats phenom Bryce Harper (20). Seems like only yesterday that Bush 41 was bouncing his ceremonial first pitch and Rick Sutcliffe was shutting out the Indians on the opening Opening Day in downtown Baltimore. Which means, I guess, that I’m a lot older than either Bryce or Camden Yards.

Because time has passed since I was regularly tearing Angelos a new one in the sports pages of The Washington Times, perhaps I should reiterate the reasons for my antipathy.

(1) He meddled internally for so many years to turn perhaps baseball’s best franchise into its worst.

(2) He did his best infernally for so many years to keep Washington, the nation’s capital, from returning to the national pastime. Fortunately, this endeavor — like so many others — turned into a losing proposition for Angelos.

It’s a good thing Camden Yards opened a year before Peter the Ungreat bought the Orioles from absentee owner Eli Jacobs. Had Angelos been involved in the planning, the old B&O Warehouse beyond the right-field wall might have been torn down and replaced by an asbestos factory.

What Camden Yards begat, of course, is the concept of new ballparks that feel old. Baseball is now happily overrun with smaller downtown facilities built just for rounders rather than multi-purpose, characterless hunks of cement alongside interstate highways.
In other words, ballparks rather than stadiums.

Whenever Orioles clips are shown on ESPN or the MLB Network, the hulking warehouse instantly identifies the site as Charm City. Sadly, Nationals Park has no such landmark.

Back when it was in the planning stages, fans were supposed to see the Capitol and the Washington Monument towering majestically in the distance. Then something went wrong. Nowadays, in the park’s sixth season, the Capitol is discernible only if you’re in the nosebleed seats. And any view of the Monument is blocked by a hulking Federal office building.

Imagine, a screw-up in Washington. Who would have thought it?

Although Nationals Park is otherwise fine (particularly if you remember watching games as a kid in dilapidated Griffith Stadium), it ain’t Camden Yards. In Baltimore, in addition to the warehouse, you can get Boog’s barbecue, crab cakes and even horrible Natty Boh. Plus the sound of thousands bellowing “O!” at the appropriate stage of the national anthem.

Even if you’re not an Orioles fan, you can revel in the history of a franchise that B.A. (Before Angelos) won six pennants, three World Series and had baseball’s best record from the ’50s into the ’80s.

You can savor memories of the stars that shone so brightly for fans in the Middle Atlantic area: ’Cakes, Brooks and Frank, Boog, Ed-die and Junior — the guy who showed up for work every day from 1982 to 1998. All led so positively and profanely by the chain-smoking Earl of Balmer. And let’s not overlook the two marvelous voices who related their feats, Chuck Thompson and Jon Miller.

Now that the Orioles are respectable again after 14 consecutive losing seasons (1998 to 2011), baseball at Camden Yards is a sight to admire and cherish. The only way to improve it would be to have the Angelos family elsewhere.

 

 

 

Camden Yards: At 21, still nearly perfect
Did something recently that I once vowed I never would. I gave Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos some of my money.
The occasion was a game between the O’s and the Nationals, aka my former and current horsehide loves. My friend Shane and I yearned to experience Camden Yards after too long an absence, so off we crept during afternoon rush-hour traffic on the Beltway and I-95 with expensive online tickets firmly in hand.
It’s hard to believe the ballpark that spawned so many imitations is now three months older than O’s wunderkind Manny Machado and six months older than Nats phenom Bryce Harper (20). Seems like only yesterday that Bush 41 was bouncing his ceremonial first pitch and Rick Sutcliffe was shutting out the Indians on the opening Opening Day in downtown Baltimore. Which means, I guess, that I’m a lot older than either Bryce or Camden Yards.
Because time has passed since I was regularly tearing Angelos a new one in the sports pages of The Washington Times, perhaps I should reiterate the reasons for my antipathy.
(1) He meddled internally for so many years to turn perhaps baseball’s best franchise into its worst.
(2) He did his best infernally for so many years to keep Washington, the nation’s capital, from returning to the national pastime. Fortunately, this endeavor — like so many others — turned into a losing proposition for Angelos.
It’s a good thing Camden Yards opened a year before Peter the Ungreat bought the Orioles from absentee owner Eli Jacobs. Had Angelos been involved in the planning, the old B&O Warehouse beyond the right-field wall might have been torn down and replaced by an asbestos factory.
What Camden Yards begat, of course, is the concept of new ballparks that feel old. Baseball is now happily overrun with smaller downtown facilities built just for rounders rather than multi-purpose, characterless hunks of cement alongside interstate highways.
In other words, ballparks rather than stadiums.
Whenever Orioles clips are shown on ESPN or the MLB Network, the hulking warehouse instantly identifies the site as Charm City. Sadly, Nationals Park has no such landmark.
Back when it was in the planning stages, fans were supposed to see the Capitol and the Washington Monument towering majestically in the distance. Then something went wrong. Nowadays, in the park’s sixth season, the Capitol is discernable only if you’re in the nosebleed seats. And any view of the Monument is blocked by a hulking Federal office building.
Imagine, a screw-up in Washington. Who would have thought it?
Although Nationals Park is otherwise fine (particularly if you remember watching games as a kid in dilapidated Griffith Stadium), it ain’t Camden Yards. In Baltimore, in addition to the warehouse, you can get Boog’s barbecue, crab cakes and even horrible Natty Boh. Plus the sound of thousands bellowing “O!” at the appropriate stage of the national anthem.
Even if you’re not an Orioles fan, you can revel in the history of a franchise that B.A. (Before Angelos) won six pennants, three World Series and had baseball’s best record from the ’50s into the ’80s.
You can savor memories of the stars that shone so brightly for fans in the Middle Atlantic area: ’Cakes, Brooks and Frank, Boog, Ed-die and Junior — the guy who showed up for work every day from 1982 to 1998. All led so positively and profanely by the chain-smoking Earl of Balmer. And let’s not overlook the two marvelous voices who related their feats, Chuck Thompson and Jon Miller.
Now that the Orioles are respectable again after 14 consecutive losing seasons (1998 to 2011), baseball at Camden Yards is a sight to admire and cherish. The only way to improve it would be to have the Angelos family elsewhere.

 

 

 

Camden Yards: At 21, still nearly perfect
Did something recently that I once vowed I never would. I gave Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos some of my money.
The occasion was a game between the O’s and the Nationals, aka my former and current horsehide loves. My friend Shane and I yearned to experience Camden Yards after too long an absence, so off we crept during afternoon rush-hour traffic on the Beltway and I-95 with expensive online tickets firmly in hand.
It’s hard to believe the ballpark that spawned so many imitations is now three months older than O’s wunderkind Manny Machado and six months older than Nats phenom Bryce Harper (20). Seems like only yesterday that Bush 41 was bouncing his ceremonial first pitch and Rick Sutcliffe was shutting out the Indians on the opening Opening Day in downtown Baltimore. Which means, I guess, that I’m a lot older than either Bryce or Camden Yards.
Because time has passed since I was regularly tearing Angelos a new one in the sports pages of The Washington Times, perhaps I should reiterate the reasons for my antipathy.
(1) He meddled internally for so many years to turn perhaps baseball’s best franchise into its worst.
(2) He did his best infernally for so many years to keep Washington, the nation’s capital, from returning to the national pastime. Fortunately, this endeavor — like so many others — turned into a losing proposition for Angelos.
It’s a good thing Camden Yards opened a year before Peter the Ungreat bought the Orioles from absentee owner Eli Jacobs. Had Angelos been involved in the planning, the old B&O Warehouse beyond the right-field wall might have been torn down and replaced by an asbestos factory.
What Camden Yards begat, of course, is the concept of new ballparks that feel old. Baseball is now happily overrun with smaller downtown facilities built just for rounders rather than multi-purpose, characterless hunks of cement alongside interstate highways.
In other words, ballparks rather than stadiums.
Whenever Orioles clips are shown on ESPN or the MLB Network, the hulking warehouse instantly identifies the site as Charm City. Sadly, Nationals Park has no such landmark.
Back when it was in the planning stages, fans were supposed to see the Capitol and the Washington Monument towering majestically in the distance. Then something went wrong. Nowadays, in the park’s sixth season, the Capitol is discernable only if you’re in the nosebleed seats. And any view of the Monument is blocked by a hulking Federal office building.
Imagine, a screw-up in Washington. Who would have thought it?
Although Nationals Park is otherwise fine (particularly if you remember watching games as a kid in dilapidated Griffith Stadium), it ain’t Camden Yards. In Baltimore, in addition to the warehouse, you can get Boog’s barbecue, crab cakes and even horrible Natty Boh. Plus the sound of thousands bellowing “O!” at the appropriate stage of the national anthem.
Even if you’re not an Orioles fan, you can revel in the history of a franchise that B.A. (Before Angelos) won six pennants, three World Series and had baseball’s best record from the ’50s into the ’80s.
You can savor memories of the stars that shone so brightly for fans in the Middle Atlantic area: ’Cakes, Brooks and Frank, Boog, Ed-die and Junior — the guy who showed up for work every day from 1982 to 1998. All led so positively and profanely by the chain-smoking Earl of Balmer. And let’s not overlook the two marvelous voices who related their feats, Chuck Thompson and Jon Miller.
Now that the Orioles are respectable again after 14 consecutive losing seasons (1998 to 2011), baseball at Camden Yards is a sight to admire and cherish. The only way to improve it would be to have the Angelos family elsewhere.

 

 

DICK HELLER
Camden Yards: At 21, still nearly perfect
Did something recently that I once vowed I never would. I gave Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos some of my money.
The occasion was a game between the O’s and the Nationals, aka my former and current horsehide loves. My friend Shane and I yearned to experience Camden Yards after too long an absence, so off we crept during afternoon rush-hour traffic on the Beltway and I-95 with expensive online tickets firmly in hand.
It’s hard to believe the ballpark that spawned so many imitations is now three months older than O’s wunderkind Manny Machado and six months older than Nats phenom Bryce Harper (20). Seems like only yesterday that Bush 41 was bouncing his ceremonial first pitch and Rick Sutcliffe was shutting out the Indians on the opening Opening Day in downtown Baltimore. Which means, I guess, that I’m a lot older than either Bryce or Camden Yards.
Because time has passed since I was regularly tearing Angelos a new one in the sports pages of The Washington Times, perhaps I should reiterate the reasons for my antipathy.
(1) He meddled internally for so many years to turn perhaps baseball’s best franchise into its worst.
(2) He did his best infernally for so many years to keep Washington, the nation’s capital, from returning to the national pastime. Fortunately, this endeavor — like so many others — turned into a losing proposition for Angelos.
It’s a good thing Camden Yards opened a year before Peter the Ungreat bought the Orioles from absentee owner Eli Jacobs. Had Angelos been involved in the planning, the old B&O Warehouse beyond the right-field wall might have been torn down and replaced by an asbestos factory.
What Camden Yards begat, of course, is the concept of new ballparks that feel old. Baseball is now happily overrun with smaller downtown facilities built just for rounders rather than multi-purpose, characterless hunks of cement alongside interstate highways.
In other words, ballparks rather than stadiums.
Whenever Orioles clips are shown on ESPN or the MLB Network, the hulking warehouse instantly identifies the site as Charm City. Sadly, Nationals Park has no such landmark.
Back when it was in the planning stages, fans were supposed to see the Capitol and the Washington Monument towering majestically in the distance. Then something went wrong. Nowadays, in the park’s sixth season, the Capitol is discernable only if you’re in the nosebleed seats. And any view of the Monument is blocked by a hulking Federal office building.
Imagine, a screw-up in Washington. Who would have thought it?
Although Nationals Park is otherwise fine (particularly if you remember watching games as a kid in dilapidated Griffith Stadium), it ain’t Camden Yards. In Baltimore, in addition to the warehouse, you can get Boog’s barbecue, crab cakes and even horrible Natty Boh. Plus the sound of thousands bellowing “O!” at the appropriate stage of the national anthem.
Even if you’re not an Orioles fan, you can revel in the history of a franchise that B.A. (Before Angelos) won six pennants, three World Series and had baseball’s best record from the ’50s into the ’80s.
You can savor memories of the stars that shone so brightly for fans in the Middle Atlantic area: ’Cakes, Brooks and Frank, Boog, Ed-die and Junior — the guy who showed up for work every day from 1982 to 1998. All led so positively and profanely by the chain-smoking Earl of Balmer. And let’s not overlook the two marvelous voices who related their feats, Chuck Thompson and Jon Miller.
Now that the Orioles are respectable again after 14 consecutive losing seasons (1998 to 2011), baseball at Camden Yards is a sight to admire and cherish. The only way to improve it would be to have the Angelos family elsewhere.

 


Once more with feeling: Wolff at the door

April 30, 2013

I spent a fun day last week with one of my favorite people and his family. Bob Wolff has been away from Washington for more than a half-century now, but to me and a lot of other senior baseball fans, he will always be the Voice of the Senators.

When I was growing up in Northwest D.C., Wolff was about the best thing about the original Senators — not necessarily a compliment. As he says often of his early broadcasts over WWDC-AM, “All I had to do was say the score was 18-2 or whatever. My listeners knew the Senators weren’t winning.”

Bob and wife Jane, who live in South Nyack, NY, within spitting distance of the Tappan Zee Bridge, turned up Friday at the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building, where a ceremony was held celebrating the library’s acquisition of priceless audio and video recordings from his 74-year career behind assorted and sundry microphones.

Wolff remains active at 92 by doing commentaries for the News12 cable station on Long Island, but apparently some PR person at the Library thinks he has been around even longer. One press release cited his “nine-decade career,” which suggests Bob just missed hobnobbing with Cy Young and John McGraw.

Actually, he didn’t miss by much. Among the sample tidbits unreeled for an appreciative Library audience were audio interviews with Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth. Apparently, Wolff missed out on landing Gen. Abner Doubleday for a visit.

Full disclosure: I worked for Bob as his executive assistant (read: chauffeur and go-fer) in 1956, when I was in high school. I’ve written several times that I was succeeded by Maury Povich, son of longtime Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich, usually adding, “I wonder what ever happened to Maury.”

One day I was corrected by Phil Hochberg, former D.C. Stadium P.A. announcer and now a prominent sports attorney. “That’s wrong, Dick,” Phil said. “I succeeded you with Bob, and Maury succeeded me.”

Heck, you can’t always let inconvenient facts get in the way. “I know,” I told Phil, “but it’s a better story the other way.”

After the Library ceremony ended, close friends joined the Wolffpack for lunch at a downtown hotel, then reassembled that evening at Nationals Park, where Bob was introduced before the Nats and Jordan Zimmermann beat the Cincinnati Reds 1-0. We may surmise that Bob saw few such gems tossed by Washington pitchers during the 14 years (1947-60) that he spent behind the mike at Griffith Stadium with such partners as Arch McDonald and Chuck Thompson. All three are in the broadcasters wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor Bob received in 1995. Back then, too, he was gracious enough to invite me and my family to join the party.

Without, hopefully, getting too sentimental, let me say this about Bob Wolff: In nearly 60 years as a sportswriter, I’ve learned about prose from a lot of pros at the Alexandria Gazette, Washington Star and Miami Herald — people whose names you may not know like Eddie Crane, Bill Peeler, Charlie Barbour and Paul Anger. But nobody — nobody — ever taught me more about being a responsible reporter and columnist than Bob Wolff. All these years later, I respect and love him dearly.

And you know what? I’ve got lots of company.


2013: Is this the year of the Nats?

March 26, 2013
     With appropriate apologies to Jackie Gleason, “and away we go!” The rotund early TV star was a big baseball fan. In fact, he was present for, but not immediately aware of, Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” that won the 1951 National League playoff for the New York Giants and sent broadcaster Russ Hodges babbling into play-by-play history. (“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” etc.).
     Why was Gleason excluded from this maddened mob at the Polo Grounds? It seems that after a morning and afternoon of injudicious imbibing, he had thrown up all over his companion, a temporarily down-and-out singer named Frank Sinatra. So while Thomson was swiping, the Great One was wiping.
     All of which is a remarkably indirect way of getting to our Opening Day point: The fearless but hopefully not luckless Nationals soon will be off and running toward what could (should?) be the most deliciously delightful season for a Washington baseball club since the days of prohibition and flappers, meaning 1924.
     A year ago, the Nats came out of nowhere to win 98 games, the National League East championship and grudging respect from all corners of baseball. If a few of Drew Storen’s playoff pitches had inched closer to the plate and a ninth-inning ground ball had inched closer to diving shortstop Ian Desmond in Game 5 of last October’s NLDS , there’s no telling how far the Nats might have gone — perhaps even to the White House for a celebratory visit with Barack Obama.
     As it turned out, that agonizing 9-7 loss to the Cardinals provided merely motivation for seasons, games and goals to come. And The Future, whatever it holds, arrives Monday when the Miami Marlins show up at Nationals Park for the first of 162 daily struggles that hold so much promise and so many challenges for the guys with that curly “W” on their ball caps.
     On paper (and in cyberspace), the Nats were winter book favorites to show up in the World Series next October. Sports Illustrated just gave them its imprimatur. But as we all know, all that means nothing when teams get down to business. Games are won on the field, which is where Washington excelled in 2012. Of course, that means nothing now either, except in terms of potential.
     With that great pitching rotation and all those muscular batsmen, the Nats could win their first 10 games. They also could lose, inexplicably, their first 10 games. That’s why true fans stay tuned from April to October with a song in their hearts, be it ditty or dirge.
    By now, if you give a rodent’s rump, you should know the key personnel alongside prospective icons Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Suffice it to say these Nats have no apparent weaknesses, not even in the depth department. The late Earl Weaver used to say his better Orioles teams had “deep depth.” In Washington’s case, the proper adjective might be “deeper.”
     Why the current mini-hysteria among area fans with more than some gray in their hair? To put this on a personal basis, I spent my first 23 years as a baseball fan rooting for two versions of the Senators with no more chance of winning a pennant than Strom Thurmond had of winning the White House. Then came those 33 seasons with no ball at all unless you cared to swim 40 miles upstream and give it up for the O’s. True, the Birds were still flying high in the 1970s and early ’80s, but it just wasn’t the same for most D.C. natives. Not hardly.
     When Major League Baseball belatedly came to its senses and moved the Montreal Expos here in 2005, hosannas were heard in the usually jaded Capital of the Free World. But after a totally illogical 81-81 debut season, the Nats killed off much of the joy by going 331-478 from 2006 to 2010. This included the pathetic period, you’ll recall, when impetuous Jim Bowden was running the front office and players flitted here, there and everywhere in search of elusive victories.
     The best thing that ever happened to the Nats, aside from being terrible enough in 2008 and 2009 to land Strasburg and Harper with consecutive No. 1 draft picks, came midway through that encouraging 80-81 season in 2011 when manager Jim Riggleman decided to give GM Mike Rizzo an ultimatum regarding a contract extension. Rizzo quickly told Riggleman where he could go — to the Giants as a scout, as it turned out — and yanked proven winner Davey Johnson out of his role as an adviser to become the new manager.
     Davey, now 70, made two notable pronouncements during the offseason: (1) This will be his last year in the dugout, and (2) its theme is “World Series or bust.” And who are we to argue with the skipper?
    So let’s put the 2013 Nats down for a 102-60 regular-season record, another NL East title, a dethroning of the Giants in the NLCS and a trip to Washington’s first World Series since 1933. It might not happen, of course, but just writing these words sends a chill up and down my spine.
     Play ball — the sooner the better!

March 26, 2013
   With appropriate apologies to Jackie Gleason, “and away we go!” The rotund early TV star was a big baseball fan. In fact, he was present for, but not immediately aware of, Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” that won the 1951 National League playoff for the New York Giants and sent broadcaster Russ Hodges babbling into play-by-play history. (“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” etc.).
   Why was Gleason excluded from this maddened mob at the Polo Grounds? It seems that after a morning and afternoon of injudicious imbibing, he had thrown up all over his companion, a temporarily down-and-out singer named Frank Sinatra. So while Thomson was swiping, the Great One was wiping.
All of which is a remarkably indirect way of getting to our Opening Day point: The fearless but hopefully not luckless Nationals soon will be off and running toward what could (should?) be the most deliciously delightful season for a Washington baseball club since the days of prohibition and flappers, meaning 1924.
A year ago, the Nats came out of nowhere to win 98 games, the National League East championship and grudging respect from all corners of baseball. If a few of Drew Storen’s playoff pitches had inched closer to the plate and a ninth-inning ground ball had inched closer to diving shortstop Ian Desmond in Game 5 of last October’s NLDS , there’s no telling how far the Nats might have gone — perhaps even to the White House for a celebratory visit with Barack Obama.
As it turned out, that agonizing 9-7 loss to the Cardinals provided merely motivation for seasons, games and goals to come. And The Future, whatever it holds, arrives Monday when the Miami Marlins show up at Nationals Park for the first of 162 daily struggles that hold so much promise and so many challenges for the guys with that curly “W” on their ball caps.
On paper (and in cyberspace), the Nats were winter book favorites to show up in the World Series next October. Sports Illustrated just gave them its imprimatur. But as we all know, all that means nothing when teams get down to business. Games are won on the field, which is where Washington excelled in 2012. Of course, that means nothing now either, except in terms of potential.
With that great pitching rotation and all those muscular batsmen, the Nats could win their first 10 games. They also could lose, inexplicably, their first 10 games. That’s why true fans stay tuned from April to October with a song in their hearts, be it ditty or dirge.
By now, if you give a rodent’s rump, you should know the key personnel alongside prospective icons Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Suffice it to say these Nats have no apparent weaknesses, not even in the depth department. The late Earl Weaver used to say his better Orioles teams had “deep depth.” In Washington’s case, the proper adjective might be “deeper.”
Why the current mini-hysteria among area fans with more than some gray in their hair? To put this on a personal basis, I spent my first 23 years as a baseball fan rooting for two versions of the Senators with no more chance of winning a pennant than Strom Thurmond had of winning the White House. Then came those 33 seasons with no ball at all unless you cared to swim 40 miles upstream and give it up for the O’s. True, the Birds were still flying high in the 1970s and early ’80s, but it just wasn’t the same for most D.C. natives. Not hardly.
When Major League Baseball belatedly came to its senses and moved the Montreal Expos here in 2005, hosannas were heard in the usually jaded Capital of the Free World. But after a totally illogical 81-81 debut season, the Nats killed off much of the joy by going 331-478 from 2006 to 2010. This included the pathetic period, you’ll recall, when impetuous Jim Bowden was running the front office and players flitted here, there and everywhere in search of elusive victories.
The best thing that ever happened to the Nats, aside from being terrible enough in 2008 and 2009 to land Strasburg and Harper with consecutive No. 1 draft picks, came midway through that encouraging 80-81 season in 2011 when manager Jim Riggleman decided to give GM Mike Rizzo an ultimatum regarding a contract extension. Rizzo quickly told Riggleman where he could go — to the Giants as a scout, as it turned out — and yanked proven winner Davey Johnson out of his role as an adviser to become the new manager.
Davey, now 70, made two notable pronouncements during the offseason: (1) This will be his last year in the dugout, and (2) its theme is “World Series or bust.” And who are we to argue with the skipper?
So let’s put the 2013 Nats down for a 102-60 regular-season record, another NL East title, a dethroning of the Giants in the NLCS and a trip to Washington’s first World Series since 1933. It might not happen, of course, but just writing these words sends a chill up and down my spine.
Play ball — the sooner the better!

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