August 20, 1938 Lucky Man

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training and went into an abrupt decline, early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean.  I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

The Lane Tech High school baseball team was playing a home game on June 26, 1920.  10,000 spectators assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field.  New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park.  No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. For the first time the nation heard the name, of Lou Gehrig.

GehrigCU

Gehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Columbia would go on to lose that game but Gehrig struck out seventeen batters to set a team record.

The loss didn’t even matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who’d been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several Eastern campuses, including a 450-foot home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands, coming down at 116th Street and Broadway.

NY Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. He played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the New York Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season. In 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”; the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

Murderers--Row

He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, with a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant and a four game World Series sweep, of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ruth, Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record standing for 56 years, until surpassed by Cal Ripken, Jr, in 1995. Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record that would stand until tied by fellow Yankee Alex Rodriquez, in 2012.

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training and went into an abrupt decline, early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean.  I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

The Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”.  It’s “for the good of the team”.  McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it.  The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

Yankees Tigers Gehrig Ends Streak

Gehrig left the team that June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19.  His 36th birthday.  

It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking and a life expectancy, of fewer than three years.

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back but he leaned forward to a reporter, saying. “They’re wishing me luck. And I’m dying.”

The Iron Horse appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939.  He was awarded a series of trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers.  He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them up.   Addressing his fans he described himself as “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth”.

Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day

Henry Louis Gehrig, the Iron Horse, died on June 2, 1941. He was 37 years old.

I drove by the new Yankee Stadium a while back and I thought about Lou Gehrig. It was right after the Boston Marathon bombing. The sign out front said “United we Stand” and with it, was a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks to belt out Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, a staple of Red Sox home games since 1997.

I’ve always been a Boston guy myself. I think I’m required by Mass state law to hate the Yankees, but seriously. It was a Class Act.

August 6, 2011 A Sports Story

In delivering tribute to his father Ed, Steve Sabol explained a philosophy applicable in business, as in life. “Tell me a fact,” he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart, forever”. – Steve Sabol

Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol came home from world war 2 and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided a decent living for his family, but his heart wasn’t in it.  What he liked more than anything, was to watch his son Steve play high school football.

Sabol would take a motion picture camera, a wedding gift, and film the games. He discovered he had a knack for it, and founded a small film production company called Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, Blair.

Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. The game was played in cold so severe that camera operators suffered frostbite, and a wind so strong that it blew the ball off the tee three times before opening kickoff.  Despite all of it, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.

nflfilm

Commissioner Pete Rozelle proposed the NFL buy Sabol out the league’s 14 owners disagreed. Instead, each franchise gave him $20,000 in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight film for each team.

NFL Films production style is unmistakable: the “tight to the spiral” shot of the ball leaving the quarterback’s hand, the on-the-field close-ups and slow motion shots, all of it “mic’d up” in a way you could hear every hit, every sound, as if you were personally on the field.

With the orchestral score and the stentorian tones of John Facenda’s narration, “the voice of God”: “They call it pro football. They play it under the autumn moon, in the heat of a Texas afternoon.”  NFL Films became “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history” according to Salon.com television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “An outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.”

Sabols, 2004 Sports Emmys
Steve and Ed Sabol at the 2004 Sports Emmys

NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings are small relative to the $18 billion in revenue the NFL earns from television alone, the real value of NFL Films is how it promotes the sport. Many credit NFL Films as a key reason that the National Football League has become the most watched professional sports league in the United States.

Fun Fact: While team owners and the teams themselves pay taxes on income the NFL does not. With revenues of $12.2 Billion in 2020 (according to statista.com) the NFL has been a tax exempt non-profit, since 1942.

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2011. Steve was suffering inoperable brain cancer at that time, a condition destined to take his life the following year.   In a tribute to his father, Steve explained a philosophy applicable in business, as in life:

“Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart, forever”.

Sabol_Notes_Quotes

May 24, 1935 Under the Lights

The first night came in history occurred on September 2 1880 when teams from the RH White and Jordan Marsh department stores played to a 16-all tie. Organized baseball would be slow to accept the arc light.

The-lamplighter

In 18th century London, going out at night was a bad idea. Not without a lantern in one hand and a club in the other.

The city introduced its first gas-lit street in 1807 on the Central London Pall Mall, between St. James’s Street & Trafalgar Square. Before long, hundreds of “Lamp Lighters” could be seen with their ladders, gas lights bathing the city in a soft, green glow.

The Westminster Review newspaper opined that gas lamps had done more to eliminate immorality and criminality on the streets, than any number of church sermons.

The United States followed nine years later when the city of Baltimore lit up, in 1816.

Thomas Edison patented the first carbon-thread incandescent lamp in 1879.  The first baseball game played “under the lights” took place the following year near Nantasket Beach, in the ‘south shore’ town of Hull, Massachusetts.

It was September 2, 1880 when two teams sponsored by the RH White & Co. and Jordan Marsh department stores of Boston, played a full nine innings to a 16-all tie.  The era of the night game had arrived. The lamp lighters of London are still around to this very day albeit, fewer in number.

Except, no, it didn’t work out that way.  The lamp lighter part is true enough.  Today, five gas engineers keep the Victorian era alive, winding and checking the mechanisms, polishing the glass and replacing the mantles of some 2,000 gas lamps.

00E97E09000004B0-2848038-It_is_one_of_the_rare_places_in_the_city_where_a_walker_can_imag-4_1416898177238
Modern-day “Lamp Lighter” H/T UK Guardian

Across the pond though, organized baseball took another fifty years to give the arc light another try.

Evidence exists of other 19th-century night games, but these were little more than novelties. Holyoke Massachusetts inventor George F. Cahill, creator of the pitching machine, devised a portable lighting system in 1909. With the blessing of Garry Herrmann, President of the Cincinnati Reds, Cahill staged an exhibition game on the night of June 19, between the Elk Lodges of Cincinnati and Newport, Kentucky.

The crowd of 3,000  had little trouble following the ball and Cahill was an enthusiastic salesman for his invention, but the man was doomed to frustration and disappointment.  Night-time exhibition games were regularly met with great enthusiasm, yet organized baseball was slow in catching on.

The Class B New England league played a night exhibition game on June 24, 1927 before a crowd of 5,000, sponsored by the General Electric Employees’ Athletic Association. The Washington Senators were in town at that time to play the Boston Red Sox.  Delegations from both clubs were on-hand to watch Lynn defeat Salem in a seven-inning game, 7-2.

Washington manager Bucky Harris and Boston manager Bill Carrigan, were impressed. Senator’s star outfielder Goose Goslin expressed a desire to play a night game. Claude Johnson, President of the New England League, predicted that all leagues would have night baseball within five years, including the majors.

Lighting_Baseball2As the Great Depression descended across the land, minor league clubs folded by the bushel basket. Small town owners were desperate to innovate. The first-ever night game in professional baseball was played on May 2, 1930, when Des Moines, Iowa hosted Wichita for a Western League game.

The game drew 12,000 spectators at a time when Des Moines was averaging just 600 per game.  Soon, minor league owners were finding night games a key to staying in business.

Even then, the Poobahs of Major League Baseball were slow to catch on.  Five years later, the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in the first-ever big league game played under the lights.

A crowd of 25,000 spectators waited on this day in 1935, as President Roosevelt symbolically turned on the lights from Washington DC.  The Reds played a night game that year against every National League opponent and, despite a losing record of 68-85, enjoyed an increase of 117% in paid attendance.

6DZG7YeE
The first night game in Major League Baseball was played on this day in 1935, when the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1

Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, teams upgraded facilities to include lights and, before long, most of Major League Baseball had night games on the schedule. Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs and the second-oldest MLB stadium after Fenway Park, was the last to begin hosting night games. To this day, the Cubbies remain the only major league team to host the majority of its games, during the day.

The first officially recorded night game at Wrigley field ended in a 6-4 win over the New York Mets on August 8, 1988.

January 18, 532 A Day at the Races

Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales into docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races.

Chariots go back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic, coming down from the ancient Greeks by way of the Etruscan empire. The mythical abduction of the Sabine women was carried out, while the Sabine men watched a chariot race. While Romans never used them as weapons of war, chariots were used in triumphal processions, pulled by teams of horses, tigers or dogs, even ostriches.

What the Greeks regarded as an opportunity for talented amateurs to rise within their chosen sport, the Romans saw as entertainment. A class of professional drivers rose to meet the demand.

Look up the Highest Paid Athlete of All Time and you’ll be rewarded with the knowledge that Michael Jordan amassed career earnings of $1.85 Billion, according to Forbes Magazine. 

Mr. Forbes and Mr. Jordan alike may be surprised to know.  Spanish driver Gaius Appuleius Diocles once amassed an astonishing 35,863,120 sesterces, equivalent to FIFTEEN Billion dollars, today.  Not bad for a guy whose name suggests he probably started out, as a slave.

The Hippodrome of the Byzantine era (from the Greek Hippos: Horse and Dromos: Path, or Way) was already the center of sports and social activity in 324.  That was the year Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the Roman Empire east to Byzantium, calling the place, Nova Roma. New Rome.  The name failed to catch on and the city came to be known as, Constantinople.

f285a884c132221b7abbb5958de2452dThe age of Constantine saw enormous expansion of the city which bore his name, including enlargement of the Hippodrome to an impressive 1,476-feet long by 427-feet wide with a seating capacity of 100,000.  By way of comparison, the Empire State Building is 1,454-feet from sidewalk to the very tip of the spire.  Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of Super Bowl LIII, has a rated capacity of 71,000 spectators.

There were four chariot teams or “factions” (factiones), distinguished by the color of their uniform: Red, Blue, Green and White, and echoed by the colors worn by their fans.  Twelve chariots would enter each race, three from each faction. Golden-tipped dolphins were tipped over, to count the laps. Each race ran seven.f9fb0a187c6e429d1e9b2c84e723043bA raised median called a spina ran down the center, adorned with stone statuary and obelisks. Ganging up to drive opposing handlers into the stone median or the stands, whipping opponents and even hauling them out of their chariots was not only permitted, but encouraged.

It was the racetrack, or circus and the sport of chariot racing, that truly put the Fanatic in Fans. There are tales of poisoned horses and drivers. Lead tablets and amulets inscribed with curses, spiked through with nails and thrown from the stands. One such curse read:

I call upon you, oh demon, whoever you are, to ask that from this hour, from this day, from this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the green and white factions and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Calrice, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.

Racing chariots were as light as possible and extremely flimsy, to increase speed. With no suspension, even a bump could throw a driver into the path of oncoming teams. Clogs were built into lattice floors, to hold the driver’s feet. Teams of two (biga), three (triga) and four (quadriga) horses were common, but teams as large as six were not unheard of.

Though rare, ten-horse teams were known to take the field.

While Greek drivers held the reins in their hands, Roman charioteers wrapped them around the waist. Unsurprisingly, any driver thrown out would be dragged to death or trampled, unless able to cut himself free.

Crashes were frequent and spectacular, often killing or maiming driver and horse alike. Such wrecks were called naufragia, a Latin word translating as ”shipwreck”.  As many as forty chariots crashed in one catastrophic pile-up, near Delphi.ba90ba114005e082444846ca7ff751f7Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales to docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races. Imagine the worst fan violence of the modern era combined with aspects of street gangs and political organizations, each faction holding forth on the issues of the day and attempting to sway public policy by shouting slogans, between races.

Distinctions between politics and sport, all but disappeared.  Emperor Vitellius, a fan of the Blue faction, had citizens put to death in the year 69 for talking trash about his team. Ten years later, one fan threw himself on the funeral pyre of his favorite driver.

Roman chariot race

In 531, riots broke out during a chariot race. Fans of the Blues and Greens were arrested for murder. The killers were sentenced to death and most were executed but two, escaped. On January 10, 532, the two men one Blue and one Green took refuge in a church, surrounded by an angry mob.

Emperor Justinian, a supporter of the Blues, was beset with problems. The war in the east was not going well with the Persians. At home, there was rampant corruption and public fury over confiscatory tax policy.  Now this.  Justinian resorted to that time honored technique to pacify the turbulent masses.  Bread and Circuses.  He announced a chariot race.

Bad idea.

It was a tense and angry crowd that arrived at the Hippodrome on January 13.  By race #22 chants of “Blue” and “Green” were changed to angry shouts, directed at the Emperor.  “Nίκα! Nίκα! Nίκα! (“Nika” translating as “Win!” “Victory!” or “Conquer!”).

Fury boiled over and anarchy turned to Riot.  The Royal Palace was laid siege over the next five days and the city, laid waste.  Even the magnificent Hagia Sofia, the foremost church in Constantinople, was destroyed.

Now a mosque in Istanbul, the beautiful Hagia Sofia was burned to the ground during the Nika riots of 532 and later rebuilt, by Emperor Justinian.

Rioters proclaimed the Senator Flavius Hypatios as their new Emperor and demanded the dismissal of key advisers.  Soon Justinian himself prepared to flee for his life.  He surely would have done so if not for his wife, the formidable Empress Theodora.

I do not care whether or not it is proper for a woman to give brave counsel to frightened men; but in moments of extreme danger”, she began, “conscience is the only guide. Every man who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how can an Emperor ever allow himself to become a fugitive? If you, my Lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. We are rich, there is the sea, there too are our ships. But consider first whether, when you reach safety, you will not regret that you did not choose death in preference. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: royalty makes the best shroud”. 

The avenue of escape lay open to the Emperor but Theodora’s words, cut deep.  Not to be deterred, the Empress closed the door on escape.  “Royalty is a fine burial shroud” she said.  “The Royal color Purple makes a fine winding sheet.”

Dwzr7yJUUAEA9MYWith spine thus restored, Justinian formulated a plan.  The popular eunuch Narses was sent out with a bag of gold, into the lion’s den.  Small and slight of build, unarmed but for those coins, Narses entered the Hippodrome and went directly to the Blue section.  On this day in 532 Hypatios was in the very act of coronation when the eunuch spoke.  Narses reminded the Blues that Hypatios was a Green while Justinian himself, supported their team.

Gold was distributed among the Blues and the trap was sprung.  As Blue team supporters streamed out of the Hippodrome, Imperial troops led by the Generals Belisarius and Mundus fell upon the crowd, killing some 30,000 Blue and Green alike.jerusalem-distrThus ends one of the great “backfires” in political history.  Senator Hypatius was put to the sword and those who had supported the pretender, sent into exile.  Justinian I would rule another 33 years, rebuilding Constantinople, muzzling the Senatorial Class which had caused him such grief and reconquering lost territories, in Italy.

Wealthy estates were confiscated outright and races were suspended for a period of five years.  None were left to stand against this Emperor for a long and fruitful reign.

December 8, 1941 The Game that Never Was

The two teams departed November 27 aboard the SS Lurline along with an entourage of fans, dignitaries and coaching staff. An outing like that was once in a lifetime. An unforgettable trip and so it was, only not for the reason any of them expected.

In December 1941, the San Jose Spartans and the Willamette Bearcats of Oregon, went on the road. They were college kids, enjoying a few days in paradise and a chance to play, the game they loved. What could be better than that?

The two teams departed November 27 aboard the SS Lurline along with an entourage of fans, dignitaries and coaching staff. The Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii defeated Willamette 20-6 on Saturday, December 6. The Warriors were scheduled to play San Jose State on December 13, followed by a Spartans- Bearcats matchup, on December 16.

An outing like that was once in a lifetime. An unforgettable trip and so it was, only not for the reason any of them expected.

On December 7, 1941 a great sucker punch came out of the southeast. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes attacked Hickam Air Field and the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, lying at peace in the early morning sunshine of a quiet Sunday morning. The sneak attack carried out 80 years ago yesterday destroyed more American lives than any foreign enemy attack on American soil, until the Islamist terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

The President of the United States addressed a joint session of Congress on December 8, requesting a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.

Back on the mainland, the families of players now stranded in Hawaii, received no word. There were no communications. None could know with certainty, that brothers and sons were alive or dead. Hawaii was locked down, under Martial Law.

Meanwhile, the visiting teams were mobilized to perform wartime duties. San Jose state players were sent to work with Federal authorities and Honolulu police to round up Japanese, Italian and German citizens, and to enforce wartime blackout orders. Willamette players were assigned World War 1-vintage Springfield rifles and tin hats, and ordered to string barbed wire on the beaches.

If you’ve heard of Punahou High School it probably involves the school’s most famous alumnus, the former US President Barack Obama. 80 years ago today all hell, was about to break loose at Punahou high.

United States Army Corps of Engineers troops began to appear at the Punahou gates at 1:00am, on December 8. By 5:00am, Dole Hall Cafeteria Manager Nina “Peggy” Brown was ordered to prepare breakfast, for 750 men. For the next ten days Willamette players stood 24-hour guard, around the school.

Many players had never so much as handled a gun. Now in the darkness every shadow carried the menace, of an enemy soldier. Wild gunfire would break out at the sound of a stealthy invader which turned out to be nothing, but a falling coconut. Shirley McKay Hadley was a Willamette student in 1941 accompanied by her father, then serving as state Senator. She joked it all, many years later, “They were lucky they didn’t shoot each other.”

Female members of the entourage were assigned nursing duties. Spartan Guard Ken Stranger delivered a baby, on December 7.

On December 19, players received two-hours notice. It was time to go. The civilian liner SS President Coolidge had been commandeered to transport gravely wounded service members. This would be the kids’ ride home complete with Naval escort, a defense against Japanese submarine attack.

Seven San Jose players stayed behind and joined the Honolulu police force , for which each was paid $166 a month. Willamette coach Roy “Spec” Keene refused to let any of his players stay behind as none had been able to speak with their parents, first.

Nearly every member of both squads went on to fight for the nation. Willamette Guard Kenneth Bailey was killed over Bari Italy in 1943 and awarded the Purple Heart, posthumously.

Bill McWilliams served 27 years in the United States Air Force, as a fighter bomber pilot. He’s written a book about 12 of these guys who went on to fight the conflict, of the “Greatest Generation”.

The book came out in 2019 and it’s still in print, if you’re interested. It looks like one hell of a story.

Andy Rogers played for the Willamette squad and went on to serve for the duration of the war, with the 3rd division of the United States Marine Corps. Mr. Rogers is 98 today and lives in Napa Valley, California. The only living member of either traveling squad who would have played that day, in the game that never was.

November 2, 1985 The Curse of Harlan Sanders

Much has been written of the rise of imperial Japan and the military officers, who brought the nation to war. How different the 20th century might have turned out had those guys picked up baseball, instead.

Baseball as we know it was introduced to the nation, in 1872. To this day, the game remains the most popular sport in the country for participants and spectators, alike. In 1907, Ambassador to the United States Tsuneo Matsudaira commented: “the game spread, like a fire in a dry field, in summer, all over the country, and some months afterwards, even in children in primary schools in the country far away from Tōkyō were to be seen playing with bats and balls“.

Did I neglect to mention? The nation we’re talking about, is Japan.

Professional baseball got off to a rocky start in 1920s Japan and continued to flounder, until 1934. That’s when media bigwig Matsutarō Shōriki pulled off a “goodwill tour” with an all-star American team.

“The [1934] party included future Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Foxx and Ruth, along with several other American Leaguers (asked to accompany the tour when the National League forbade its stars from coming along). Even Moe Berg, the big league catcher who would eventually work as a United States government spy, was a member of the ball playing entourage”.

H/T baseballhall.org

Much has been written of the rise of imperial Japan and the military officers, who brought the nation to war. How different the 20th century might have turned out had those guys picked up baseball, instead.

The first Japanese professional league was formed in 1936, becoming large enough to split into two leagues in 1950, the Central and Pacific.

Today, the Kansai region of Honshu is the 2nd largest metropolis, in all Japan. That’s where you’ll find the Hanshin Tigers, those perennial underdogs of Nippon Professional Baseball and arch-rival to the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo, widely regarded as the kings, of Japanese baseball.

As a life-long Red Sox fan, this story is beginning to sound familiar.

November 2, 1985 was a time of unbridled joy for delirious Tigers fans, following Hanshin’s 6-2 drubbing of the Seibu Lions to win the ultimate prize, the Japan series pennant, of 1985.

Now you may not know this, but the Japanese people are crazy, about Kentucky Fried Chicken. Japan is the third largest market on the planet for the Colonel’s yard bird, #3 only behind the United States and China. Not bad for a fast food outfit that opened its first Japanese franchise on July 4, 1970.

Which brings us back, to baseball.

The Boston baseball fan is well acquainted with the “Curse of the Bambino”, the 86-year World Series championship drought, second only to the “Curse of the Billy Goat” denying victory to long-suffering Cubbies fans, for 106 years.

Since 1985, Japanese mothers have scared wayward children into acting right with the curse, of Colonel Sanders.

The Hanshin club emerged victorious in 1985, due in large part to the efforts of American slugger, Randy Bass. Delirious after unexpected victory in game one and superstitious as baseball fans the world over, Hanshin supporters gathered at the Ebisu Bridge over the Dōtonbori river in Osaka, to partake in one of the most bizarre spectacles, in the history of sports.

Fans would shout out the names of Tigers players and someone who resembled that player, even vaguely, would jump into the river. There being no Caucasians in attendance to represent Mr. Bass, the crowd took hold of a storefront statue of Harlan Sanders, and threw it into the River.

A young fan of the Hanshin Tigers dives into the Osaka river to celebrate the team’s first league championship win in 18 years 15 September 2003. Tigers defeated Hiroshima Carp 3-2. AFP PHOTO/JIJI PRESS (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)

What the hell. They were both white guys and they both wore beards, right?

Thus began the curse of Colonel Sanders, a losing streak brought on by the ghost of a man who didn’t appreciate being tossed, into a river. Brief rallies in 1992 and again in ’99 brought hope once again to the Hanshin faithful, (gosh, this story sounds Really familiar now), only to have cruel fate, block the way. Repeated efforts were made to retrieve the Colonel from the river, only to be met, with failure.

The curse, dragged on.

“Dangerous! Do not dive into this river. Osaka Regional Development Bureau and Osaka-Minami Police station” sign at the new Ebisubashi bridge H/T Wikipedia

The joy of victory smiled upon the land of Hanshin once again in 2003, when Yomiuri Giants MVP Hideki Matsui was traded to the New York Yankees, clearing the way to a Central League pennant for Hanshin. Even so, final victory remained elusive. The Japan series went to the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks that year, in 7 games.

Celebration turned to tragedy that year, when thousands of Tigers fans jumped into the river. 24-year-old Masaya Shitababa, drowned. The Osaka city council ordered construction of a new bridge over the Dōtonbori beginning in 2004, making further such jumps, next to impossible.

Divers discovered the upper part of Harlan Sanders’ statue on March 10, 2009 and the lower piece, the following day. And yet one hand and the Colonel’s eyeglasses, were nowhere to be found.

Colonel Sanders’ left hand and spectacles remain missing to this day and the KFC where it all started, is closed and gone forever. The October 26, 2021 English language edition of thehanshintigers.com blog mournfully reports: “Game 143 vs. Dragons: Lifeless Last Game, Pennant Lost”. So it is for long suffering fans of the Hanshin Tigers. The curse of Colonel Sanders, lives on.

Image.jpeg

August 20, 1938 A Class Act

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C., after the diagnosis. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”


The Lane Tech High school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920. 10,000 spectators assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field. New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park. No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. The nation was about to know the name, of Lou Gehrig.

lou-gehrig-columbia

Gehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Columbia would lose the game but Gehrig struck out seventeen batters that day, to set a team record.

The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who’d been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful, left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several Eastern campuses, including a 450-foot home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street & Broadway.

lou-gehrig-97280682
Lou Gehrig played Fullback for Columbia during the 1922 season

New York Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. He played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the New York Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season, in 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”; the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, with a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

00gehrig60-superJumbo
“Gehrig with his parents, Christina and Heinrich, in 1938. The three lived together in the house until Gehrig got married in 1933”. Hat tip, New York Daily News

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr.

Gehrig hit his 23rd major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record which would stand until fellow “Bronx Bomber” Alex Rodriquez tied it, in 2012.

This was the last one.

Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, and went into an abrupt decline early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

lou-gehrigThe Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2 but that was it. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

ny_50yankess_02Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19. It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking and a life expectancy, of fewer than three years.

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939, his once mighty body now so weakened, as to barely be able to stand upright.  Only two months earlier, manager Joe McCarthy had asked Babe Dahlgren to take the Iron Horse’s position.  Now he asked the 1st baseman to look out for his dying teammate.  “If Lou starts to fall, catch him.”

Gehrig was awarded a series of trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers. He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them.

2018_07_loug2

As the event drew to a close, Master of Ceremonies Sid Mercer asked for a few words.  Overwhelmed and struggling for control, Gehrig waved him off.  The New York Times later wrote, “He gulped and fought to keep back the tears as he kept his eyes fastened to the ground”.  62,000 fans would have none of it.  The chant went up.  “We want Lou!” We want Lou!”

Eleanor Gehrig, a “tower of strength” throughout her husband’s ordeal, watched from a box seat.  New York Daily News reporter Rosaleen Doherty wrote that she did not cry, “although all around us, women and quite a few men, were openly sobbing.”

mlb_a_gehrig1x_600x400

At last, Lou Gehrig shuffled to the microphone, and began to speak. “For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break.”  As if the neurodegenerative disease destroying his body, was merely a “bad break.” He looked down and paused, as if trying to remember what to say.  And then he delivered the most memorable line, of his life.

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.  He was 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium a while back, and I thought of Lou Gehrig. It was right after the Boston Marathon bombing, in 2013. The sign out front said “United we Stand” and beside it, a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games, since 1997.

Copy-of-BostonBombingNYYankeesSign

I’ve always been a Boston guy myself. I think I’m required by Massachusetts law to hate the Yankees. But seriously.  What a class act…

August 16, 1936 Testing Betty

Imagine turning this story, into a movie. Cast it with any actress you like and then, throw it all out. No one would believe such an outlandish story.

Mr. Price took his seat on the L train and waited for the ride home after school. He was a biology teacher in the Riverdale Illinois school system but, for now, he was just glad to be inside. Where it was warm. The train rumbled to life as he wiped the fog away from the glass.

The train was beginning to move now when he spotted one of his students. Betty Robinson. “Smiling Betty”. Such a good natured kid.

Betty had a good 200 yards to go plus a set of stairs, but she was going for it. Running as fast as her legs could carry her, it was too far. She’ll never make this train but there will always be another.

Minutes later a biology textbook plopped into the seat beside him. He looked up in amazement to see Betty Robinson. Smiling. She wasn’t even winded.

Betty knew she was fast, but she never knew how fast. She’d never been been tested but this biology teacher, just happened to be the assistant track coach.

The last bell rang the following day and there stood Mr. Price with a stopwatch. A chalk line was drawn across the tiled floor. Fifty yards up the hallway, Betty Robinson assumed an awkward crouch at her own line, and then came the whistle. Betty was all pumping legs and flailing arms. Her form was ridiculous, but, yeah. She was fast. She crossed the finish line 6.2 seconds after the whistle. 1/10th of a second faster than the women’s indoor world record, for that time.

He asked her if she’d run in an amateur race, just a few weeks out. Betty never knew there were women’s races, but, yes. He didn’t bother to tell her. Helen Filkey would be running too. The woman who held the record.

Coach Price and a senior from the boy’s team taught the sophomore everything they could over the next few weeks. How to bring those arms in. How to anticipate the whistle and how races were won or lost in those first few seconds. Then came race day at Soldier Field. “Smiling Betty” crouched at the blocks, only feet away from the fastest woman in the world. Betty came in second. She was only sixteen.

She joined the Illinois women’s Track & Field club and there she encountered…something new. Today we take women’s athletics for granted, but the 1920s, were a different story. Women were expected to do certain things. Athletics, was not one of them. Even the Olympics, were a man’s world. For the first time Betty met other women, pushing the limits of athletic performance.

The 1928 Summer games in Amsterdam were the first Olympics, to host women’s track and field. Betty came in second in the qualifying round but her times more than qualified her, to go.

There she was, 16 years old and taking the train to New York, to catch the ship to Europe. Training on deck, Betty developed a schoolgirl crush on Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimmer and future star of the Tarzan films. She thought he was the finest specimen of manhood, she had ever seen.

American athletes saw so many disappointments at the 1928 Olympics, but not Betty Robinson. She walked away with gold in the women’s 100 meter sprint, with a new world record, of 12 seconds flat. From a standing start. And silver in the 800 meter relay, didn’t hurt.

Every Olympics has the “it” girl. Simone Biles. Nancy Kerrigan. Nadia Comăneci. Elizabeth Robinson was all that and more in 1928. The first female 100-meter gold medalist in history and, in 1928, a “new kind of girl”.

Betty was a celebrity. There were gifts of diamonds and pearls, Douglas MacArthur gave her a gold bracelet. The International Olympic Committee allowed such things, back then.

Betty returned to Riverdale. She had her first boyfriend. She enrolled in Northwestern but never let up on her training. The 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles were getting closer, every day.

Betty’s cousin Will had a biplane in those days. The two loved to go up in that thing, especially on those hot summer days. She even had a leather helmet, with goggles. Just like Amelia Earhart.

Then came the crash. The man who removed her broken body brought her to Oak Lawn infirmary, because he knew the coroner.

Betty’s arm was broken, her legs destroyed. Her once smiling face badly cut up. The coma lasted, for weeks. She woke up with pins in her legs, now shorter than they used to be. They weren’t even the same length. “I’m sorry” the doctors said, “you may never walk again”.

Betty’s favorite brother-in-law Jim served in the Great War, in France. The gas had taken his health back in 1918. Twenty years later it would take his life, but Jim always had time, for Betty. He would carry the fastest woman in the world in his arms, sometimes waiting for traffic to cross the street and sit on the park bench.

On bad days Betty couldn’t straighten her legs. On good days he would help her stand up. First with an arm held tightly around her shoulder and then a hand, on the small of her back. One day she needed no help at all.

The 1932 Olympics came and went. Betty Robinson watched another woman win the 100 meter sprint.

Stop if you will and run this as a movie, in your mind. Cast the actress of your choice in the role and imagine her coming back from that plane crash, to win Gold in 1936. Now toss it all out because it’s such an outlandish idea, but that’s what happened.

From standing to taking a step and then two, and then walking, and then beginning to jog her broken body began to learn what her old one, already knew. She could never bend down again so she set her sights on the only event, where she didn’t have to. The relay.

The 1936 Olympic games opened in Munich, under the watchful gaze of Reichsführer Adolf Hitler. The growing threat of Nazi Germany hung like dark and threatening clouds, over Europe.

The 1936 Olympics. Where the American track & field athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals, smashing the Nazi myth of the “Aryan Superman”. Where Wehrmacht Hauptmann (Captain) Wolfgang Fürstner designed and built the Olympic village only to be replaced, two weeks before the games. The Nuremberg laws against racial “impurity” had judged Fürstner to be, half Jewish.

Then came the day of the women’s 400 meter relay. Hitler had to be watching as was Owens, himself. Robinson took the baton at a dead run, neck and neck with a German woman chosen, to leave her in the dust. Betty ran her broken body for all it was worth. 100 meters later she was only behind, by a few steps.

This video is glorious even if it is, in German.

The last American runner took the hand-off. She was closing on the German when her opponent, dropped the baton. It was over. Betty Robinson had been tested and judged, satisfactory. The American team had won Olympic gold.

The XI Olympiad closed on August 16, 1936. Three days later Wolfgang Fürstner, the German patriot whose nation no longer had need of his services ended his life, with a pistol.

Today, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt holds the 100 meter record with a time, of 9.58 seconds. Florence Griffith-Joyner is the fastest woman with a time, of 10.49. With all the advantages of the day, the personalized training & nutrition and scientifically designed running gear that’s a scant 1.51 seconds faster than Betty Robinson and her old shoes, and the flapping, loose-fitting clothing required to preserve the feminine modesty, of 1928.

August 6, 2011 Father and Son

“Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart, forever”

Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol returned from World War 2 and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided a decent standard of living for his family, but his heart wasn’t in it.  What Sabol liked more than anything else, was to watch his son Steve play high school football.

Sabol would take a motion picture camera, a wedding gift, and film Steve’s games. He found that he had a knack for it, and founded a small film production company called Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, Blair.

In 1962, Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants. The game was played in cold so severe that camera operators suffered frostbite, and a wind so strong  it blew the ball off the tee three times, before the opening kickoff.  Despite all that, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.

nflfilm

Commissioner Pete Rozelle proposed to buy out the filmmaker but the league’s 14 owners objected, instead giving Sabol $20,000 apiece in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight reel, for each club.

Thus was born a storybook production company, called NFL Films.  The production style was unmistakable: the “tight to the spiral” shot of the ball leaving the quarterback’s hand, the on-the-field close-ups and slow motion shots, all of it “mic’d up” in a way that let you hear every hit, every sound, as if you were personally, on the field.

Football fans of a certain age will remember the orchestral score and the stentorian tones of John Facenda’s narration, “the voice of God”: “They call it pro football. They play it under the autumn moon, in the heat of a Texas afternoon.”  NFL Films became “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history” according to Salon.com television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “An outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.”

NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings were small compared with the $18 billion in revenue NFL earns from television alone, the real value of NFL Films is how it promoted the sport. Many credit NFL Films as a key reason that the National Football League has become the most watched professional sports league in the United States.

Sabols, 2004 Sports Emmys
Steve and Ed Sabol at the 2004 Sports Emmys

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on this day in 2011. Steve was suffering inoperable brain cancer at the time, a condition which would take his life the following September.   In delivering his tribute to his father, Steve Sabol explained the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart, forever”.

August 3, 1921 Banned from Baseball

Today, top players are paid the GDP of developing nations, but that wasn’t always the case. One-hundred years ago, much of that money failed to make its way to the players.  Even the best, held second jobs.

From World Cup Soccer to the Superbowl, the professional sports world has little to compare with the race for the Pinnacle Trophy. The contest for Championship, in which entire economies slow to a crawl and even casual sports fans, are caught up in the spectacle.

For professional baseball, the “Fall Classic” began in 1903, a best-of-nine “World Series” played out between the Boston Braves and the Pittsburg Pirates. Boston won, in eight.

Excepting the boycott year of 1904 when there was no series at all, most World Series have been ‘best-of-seven”. That changed in 1919, when league owners agreed to play a nine-game series, to generate more revenue and increase the popularity of the sport.

Today, top players are paid the GDP of developing nations, but that wasn’t always the case. One-hundred years ago, much of that money failed to make its way to the players.  Even the best, held second jobs.

This was the world in which Chicago White Sox owner Chuck Comiskey built the most powerful organization in professional baseball, despite a miserly reputation.

BlackSox-Lg_400x400

The 1919 “Black Sox” scandal began when Arnold “Chick” Gandil, White Sox first baseman with ties to the Chicago underworld, convinced his buddy and professional gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, that he could throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

New York gangster Arnold Rothstein supplied the money through his right-hand man, former featherweight boxing champion, Abe Attell.

Pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams were principally involved with throwing the series, along with outfielder Oscar “Hap” Felsch and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg.  Third baseman George “Buck” Weaver attended a meeting where the fix was discussed, but decided not to participate. Weaver handed in some of his best statistics of the year during the 1919 post-season.

Star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson may have been a participant, though that involvement has been disputed. It seems that other players may have used his name in order to give themselves credibility. Utility infielder Fred McMullin was not involved in the planning, but threatened to report the others unless they cut him in, on the payoff.

The more “straight arrow” players on the club knew nothing about the fix. Second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk and pitcher Red Faber had nothing to do with it, though the conspiracy received an unexpected boost, when Faber came down with the flu.

1919WorldSeries
Official Program

Rumors were flying as the series started on October 2. So much money was bet on Cincinnati, that the odds were flat.  Gamblers complained that nothing was left on the table.  Cicotte, who had shrewdly collected his $10,000 the night before, struck leadoff hitter Morrie Rath with his second pitch, a prearranged signal that “the fix was in”.

The plot began to unravel, the first night.   Attell withheld the next installment of $20,000, to bet on the following game.

Game 2 starting pitcher Lefty Williams was still willing to go through with the fix, even though he hadn’t been paid.   He’d go on to lose his three games in the best-of nine series, but by game 8, he wanted out.

The wheels came off in game three.  Former Tigers pitcher and Rothstein intermediary Bill “Sleepy” Burns bet everything he had on Cincinnati, knowing the outcome in advance.  Except, Rookie pitcher Dickie Kerr wasn’t in on the fix.  He pitched a masterful game in game three, shutting Cincinnati out 3-0, and leaving Burns, flat broke.

Cicotte became angry in game 7, thinking that gamblers were trying to renege on their deal.  The knuckle baller bore down to a White Sox win and the series stood, 4-3.

Williams was back on the mound in game 8.  By this time he wanted out of the deal, but gangsters threatened to hurt him and his family if he didn’t lose the game. Williams threw nothing but mediocre fastballs, allowing four hits and three runs in the first.  The White Sox went on to lose that Game 10-5, ending the series with a 3 – 5 Cincinnati win.

Rumors of the fix began immediately, and dogged the team throughout the 1920 season.  Chicago Herald and Examiner baseball writer Hugh Fullerton, wrote that there should never be another World Series.   A grand jury was convened that September.  Two players, Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson, testified on September 28, both confessing to participating in the scheme. Despite a virtual tie for first place at that time, Comiskey pulled the seven players then still in the majors.  Gandil was back in the minors, at the time.

shoeless-joe-jackson-ftr-snjpg_1m7pjeo8s1d9a10801rklma0fo
“Shoeless” Joe Jackson

The reputation of professional baseball had suffered a major blow.  Franchise owners appointed a man with the best “baseball name” in history, to help straighten out the mess.  He was Major League Baseball’s first Commissioner, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Black Sox Headline

The Black Sox trial began on July 18, 1921, in the Criminal Court in Cook County.  Key evidence went missing before the trial, including both Cicotte’s and Jackson’s signed confessions. Both recanted and, in the end, all players were acquitted. The missing confessions reappeared several years later, in the possession of Comiskey’s lawyer. Funny how that works.

According to legend, a young boy approached Shoeless Joe Jackson one day as he came out of the courthouse. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”. There was no response.

The Commissioner was unforgiving, irrespective of the verdict. On August 3, the day of the verdict, Landis delivered the following statement:

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball”.

Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis

Jackson, Cicotte, Gandil, Felsch, Weaver, Williams, Risberg, and McMullin are long dead now, but every one of them remains: Banned from Baseball.

Black Sox Eight_men_banned

For many, the 1919 scandal paved the way to the “Curse of the Black Sox”, a World Series championship drought lasting 88 years and ending only in 2005, with a White Sox sweep of the Houston Astros.  Exactly one year after the Boston Red Sox ended their own 86-year drought, the “Curse of the Bambino”.

The Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper published a poem back on opening day, of the 1919 series. They would probably have taken it back, if only they could.

“Still, it really doesn’t matter, After all, who wins the flag.
Good clean sport is what we’re after, And we aim to make our brag.
To each near or distant nation, Whereon shines the sporting sun.
That of all our games gymnastic, Base ball is the cleanest one!”

%d bloggers like this: