October 6, 1945 The Curse of the Billy Goat

Red Sox fans are well aware of the famous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the line “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. What my fellow Sox fans may not be aware of, is that the former Cub was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt. For “luck”.

For a Red Sox fan, there was nothing sweeter than the 2004 World Series victory ending the curse of the Bambino.  Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. There were grandchildren and great grandchildren, and sometimes even great-greats, and still the drought wore on. It was 86 years, the third-longest World Series championship drought in Major League Baseball history.

Long suffering fans of the Chicago White Sox endured the second-longest such championship dearth, following the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919.  For 88 years, that mournful cry came down through the ages:  “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.

curse-of-the-billy-goatYet, the suffering inflicted by the curse of the Black Sox and that of the Bambino, pales in comparison with the 108-year drought afflicting the Chicago Cubs since back-to-back championships in 1907/1908.  And they say it’s the fault of a Billy goat.

It was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field. Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.  Really.

Now, goats don’t smell any sweeter than most other livestock, save for the male in rut.  This part of the animals fertility cycle happens in the fall for many breeds and, while it’s pure speculation, the oft-repeated expression “smells like a goat”, comes to mind.  There are different versions of the story, but they all end with the pair being ejected, and Billy casting a curse. “Them Cubs“, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more“.

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Sianis’ family claims that he sent a telegram to team owner Philip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
Billy Sianis was right. The Cubs were up two games to one at the time, but they went on to lose the series. They’ve been losing ever since.

Sam-and-Bill-Sianis-owners-of-Chicago-s-Billy-Goat-Tavern-2015Billy Sianis himself is gone now, but they brought his nephew Sam onto the field with a goat in 1984, to help break the curse.  They did it again in 1989, 1994 and 1998, and always the same result.

The Florida Marlins taunted the Cubs in August of 2009, parading a goat in front of the Cub’s dugout between the second and third innings. Chicago manager Lou Piniella was not amused, though the Cubs squeaked by with that one, 9-8.

In 2003, the year of the goat on the Chinese calendar, a group of Cubs fans brought a goat named Virgil Homer to Houston, during the division championship series. They couldn’t get him into Minute Maid Park, so they unfurled a scroll outside and proclaimed the End of the Curse.

Ol’ Virgil got them through that series, but the curse came roaring back in game 6 of the NL championship. It was Cubbies 3, Florida Marlins 0 in the 8th inning of game 6. Chicago was ahead in the series, when lifelong Cubbies fan Steve Bartman reached down and deflected a ball that should have easily been caught by Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou. The Marlins came back with 8 unanswered runs in the inning, while Bartman required a police escort to get out of the field alive.

cubsFor fourteen years, Chicago mothers frightened wayward children into behaving, with the name of Steve Bartman.

In 2008, a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water around the Cubs dugout. Goat carcasses and parts have appeared at Wrigley Field on multiple occasions, usually draped across the statue of Harry Caray.

Five fans set out on foot with a goat from the Cubs’ Spring Training facility in 2012.  “Crack the Curse” was supposed to do it.  These guys walked 1,764 miles from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field. The effort raised a lot of money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, but the curse of the Billy goat remained serene, and unbreakable.

Red Sox fans are well aware of the famous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the line “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. What my fellow Sox fans may not be aware of, is that the former Cub was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt. For “luck”.

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2015 was the Year of the Goat on the Chinese zodiac. In September, five “competitive eaters” consumed a 40-pound goat in 13 minutes and 22 seconds at Chicago’s “Taco in A Bag”. The goat was gone. Surely that would work. The Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championships, only to be broomed by the New York Mets.

Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy was the NLCS MVP that year, setting a postseason record for consecutive games with a home run. Mets fans joked that, Murphy may be the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), but he wasn’t the first.

1913MilwaukeeBrewers_goatThe cookies pictured above were baked in 2016, and that might’ve finally done it.  That’s right.  The Mother of all Droughts came to a halt in extra innings of game seven, following a 17-minute rain delay.  At long last, Steve Bartman could emerge from Chicago’s most unforgiving doghouse, his way now lit by his own World Series ring. The ghost of Billy Sianis’ goat, may finally rest in peace.

In reading up for this story, I discovered that the 1913/1914 Milwaukee Brewers roster included a nanny goat, called Fatima. Honest.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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September 26, 1995 Last Skate

There was nothing but potential in that rookie year, but that bright future was never meant to be.

Having come of age in this part of the world, it’s hard to imagine anyone over forty never having been to the old Boston Garden.

Originally built as a boxing venue, “The Garden” was then known as the Boston Madison Square Garden.

President Calvin Coolidge flipped a switch at the White House in November 1928, turning the lights on at the brand new arena.  Three days later, a crowd of 14,000 watched Dorchester native Dick “Honeyboy” Finnegan take the World featherweight championship away from French boxer Andre Routis, in a ten round decision.

From the earliest days, the Boston Garden was the site of political conventions, tennis matches, roller derbies and bike races.  There you could hear the sounds of a Christian revival one night, and a dance marathon the next.

FDR, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower all delivered speeches from the floor of the Garden.  Legend has it that JFK mapped out his political strategy for the 1960 Presidential election, while watching a Bruins game.

I saw my first big-time rock concert, when Aerosmith played the Garden in 1975.

The Boston Celtics played to 16 championships on the old parquet, along with 19 Conference and 15 Division titles.

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Boston Garden is a painting by T Kolendera

Five times did the Bruins hold Lord Stanley’s Cup aloft on the home ice of the Garden, adding to 19 Eastern Division championships, two Conference championships, and a President’s trophy.

In the end, obstructed seats and a lack of air conditioning spelled the end for the Boston Garden.  On this day in 1995, Cam Neely scored the final goal in a 3-0 victory over the arch rival Montreal Canadiens.  There would be no more.

Many of the Greats of Boston hockey were there that night, to take a final skate around the Bruins’ home ice.   Johnny Bucyk was on-hand, along with Milt Schmidt.  There was Phil Esposito, Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr, and possibly the greatest, though few will remember the name of Normand Léveillé.

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A first-round draft pick in 1981, Léveillé scored 33 goals in his first 60 games with the Bruins.  There was nothing but potential in that rookie year, but that bright future was never meant to be.

On October 23, 1982, Boston was playing the Canucks in the ninth game of his second season.  Léveillé complained of feeling dizzy, and lost consciousness during trainers’ examination .  An aneurysm had burst inside of his head.  The delicate filaments of his brain were being torn apart, as a spider’s web is destroyed by a garden hose.

Emergency brain surgery was followed by three weeks in a coma.  At 19, Normand Léveillé would never play hockey again.  He was lucky to be alive.

boston-garden-finalBound to a wheelchair after thirteen years and barely able to stand without aid of a walker, Normand Léveillé came back to the Garden twenty-three years ago tonight, to skate there one last time.

Let sports reporter Brent Conklin finish this story:

“For the final skate, an ecstatic Léveillé held his cane in front of him, while Bourque, facing Léveillé, pulled him around the ice; the crowd clamored in approval as eyes throughout the Garden filled up with tears.

Léveillé’s girlfriend, Lucie Legare, said at the end of the ceremony: “He said the biggest emotion wasn’t to put on the (Bruins) sweater again, but to have his fellow men there, caring. I cried. It’s just too much.”

“It was the highlight of the day,” Orr said.

Thus ends a long chapter in the history of sports. And although the luxurious Fleet Center becomes the center of attention on Oct. 7 — when the Bruins open their season versus the New York Islanders — to the very last second of the post-game ceremony, memories were still being made and dreams realized at rickety old Boston Garden”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 23, 1908 Merkle’s Boner

Bad as it was, Buckner’s Bungle at first had nothing on a Flub that will live for the Ages, Fred Merkle’s Screw-up at Second, a Blooper that would always be known as “Merkle’s Boner”.

For Boston sports fans, there is little to match for pure unhappiness of memory, with the 86-year World Series Championship drought known as the “Curse of the Bambino”.

Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. There were grandchildren and great grandchildren, and sometimes even great-greats, and still the drought wore on.  It was 86 years.  One of the longest World Series championship droughts in Major League Baseball history.

The third longest, actually, behind those of the Chicago White Sox (87 games) and the Chicago Cubs, (107 games).  Pity the long suffering baseball fans, of Chicago.

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It’s the worst moment in Boston baseball, unless you count the ball that lost the 1986 world series, the one that dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs at First Base and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in game six, against the New York Mets.

And that after defeating the Arch Nemesis New York Yankees by 5½ games, for the championship of the American League East.

An unfortunate joke emerged from that game, about Bill Buckner’s most regrettable moment.  A joke unbefitting the caliber of the man’s career in Major League Baseball.

Bad as it was though, Buckner’s Bungle at first had nothing on a Flub that will live for the Ages, Fred Merkle’s Screw-up at Second, a Blooper that will always be known, as “Merkle’s Boner”.

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Fred “Bonehead” Merkle

On this day in 1908, the New York Giants faced off with the Chicago Cubs in the last of a three-game series at the Polo Grounds, in upper Manhattan.

The Giants held a slim lead at this time for the National League pennant, but the Cubbies had managed to hold on to a 2-0 series lead. This game was going to be a Big Deal.

Fred Merkle was 19 years old that day, the youngest player in the National League.

In the bottom of the 9th, Merkle came to the plate with two outs, the score tied 1–1, and Harry “Moose” McCormick on first.

Merkle singled and McCormick advanced to third. Al Bridwell, followed with a single of his own and McCormick crossed the plate, with the winning run.

Except, that’s not the way it happened.

The fans poured onto the field, convinced that the game was over. Fans did that, in those days.

320px-Fred_Merkle_baseball_cardMerkle thought so too, and ran to the Giants’ clubhouse, never touching second base.

Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed and, after fielding the ball and touching second, appealed to umpire Hank O’Day to call the out.

The Ump called Merkle out on a force play. The run didn’t count.

With the winning run nullified, the Giants’ victory was erased and the score tied, 1-all. There was no hope of resuming play, with thousands of fans on the field.

The game was declared a tie, and the two teams finished regular season, tied for first.

The Cubs won the 1908 National League pennant with a 4-2 victory on the rematch, also played at the Polo Grounds, on October 8.

A game that never should have been played, but for a nineteen-year-olds screwup at second, for which Fred Merkle would always be known as “Bonehead”.

Oh.  The joke.  I almost forgot.  Question:  What do Bill Buckner and Michael Jackson, have in common?  Answer:  They both wear one glove, for no apparent reason.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

August 20, 1938 Lucky Man

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

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. It was the first time the country heard the name, Lou Gehrig.

lou-gehrig-columbiaGehrig 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. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters that day, to set a team record. The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who had 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′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street and Broadway.

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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.

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“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 and last major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record which would stand until fellow “Bronx Bomber” Alex Rodriquez tied it, 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”.

lou-gehrigThe team was in Detroit on May 2 when he 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 by the disease which would take his name, as to barely be able to stand.  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.

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As the ceremony 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.”

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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”. 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.

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

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

August 19, 1879 Last of the Bare Knuckle Boxers

Nineteenth century prizefighting rules were nothing like the modern “sweet science” of boxing.

In 1858, the overly crowded tenements of Roxbury Massachusetts teemed with newly arrived Irish immigrants, looked down upon as “unmannered bogtrotters” and given wide berth by the self-appointed elites, of Boston. 5-foot 2-inch Michael Sullivan, newly arrived from County Kerry, worked as “hod carrier” for bricklayers and masons, dug ditches, and did any other job, that was available.

Like many first-generation immigrants, Michael and Catherine Sullivan did whatever they had to do, always hoping for something better, for their children.

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John L. Sullivan

That was the year the couple’s first-born son came into the world. From the beginning, baby John Lawrence was something different. “Strong as a bear” even as an infant, one family legend described little “Sully” clocking a visiting aunt before the age of one, leaving the woman with a black eye.

Sully excelled in sports as a boy and got into plenty of fights, which he easily won. He left high school as a young teenager and made a few bucks in semi-professional baseball, while working as a tinsmith, plumber and mason.

Prize fighting was illegal in those days, looked down upon by the middle classes as “butchery for profit”. The working classes had no such qualms, reveling in the sport in the saloons and music halls of most American cities.

Nineteenth century prizefighting rules were nothing like the modern “sweet science” of boxing. The earliest recognizable form of the sport, as opposed to mere brawling, came about after a 1744 bout in which British boxer George Stevenson was fatally injured, following a fight with Jack Broughton.

Broughton’s “seven rules of boxing” were printed and framed, and posted that August at his London amphitheater.

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Jack Broughton

Frank Lewis Dowling wrote in Fistiana; or The Oracle of the Ring:…Results of prize battles from 1700 to December 1867, that Broughton’s rules brought about “that spirit of fair play which off ers so wide a contrast to the practices of barbarous ages…[when] It is to be lamented that, even in modern times, the inhuman practices of uncivilised periods have subsisted to a disgraceful extent, and hence we have heard of gouging, that is to say forcing out the eye of an antagonist with the thumb or finger…kicking a man with nailed shoes as he lies on the ground, striking him in vital parts below the waistband, seizing him when on his knees, and administering punishment till life be extinct…”

In 1838, William “Brighton Bill” Phelps died following a particularly savage match with the British bare-knuckle prize fighter, Owen Swift. Phelps, who had himself killed a man in the ring, died after an 85-round, ninety-five minute fight for which Swift was tried and convicted, of manslaughter. Robert Rodriguez, author of The Regulation of Boxing: A History and Comparative Analysis of Policies Among American States writes that the “London Prize Ring Rules” of that year and amended in 1853 “introduced measures that remain in effect for professional boxing to this day, such as outlawing butting, gouging, scratching, kicking, hitting a man while down, holding the ropes, and using resin, stones or hard objects in the hands, and biting.”

The London prize ring rules specified the size and shape of the ring,  and that of the spikes in the fighter’s shoes, as well as the role for each fighter’s “second”.  Nothing is said of the length or number, of rounds.  Each round ended when a fighter was knocked (or thrown) to the ground.  There followed a thirty-second break when the umpire would cry “Time!”, and an eight-second interval when each combatant was to step up to the “scratch line”.  Failure to come “up to scratch” or incapacity put an end to the match, but 70+-round fights, were commonplace.

72086-004-DDFAAC8EThis was the world of bare knuckle boxing in the age of John L. Sullivan.  He thrived in that world. The urban prize ring was his “temple of manhood”.  He intended to be its Crown Prince.

In 1879, Sullivan trounced the veteran brawler Mike Donovan in an exhibition match. The older fighter was the more skilled and experienced, but the 21-year-old made up for it with speed and power. Afterward, Donovan knew that he had “just fought the coming champion of the prize ring.”

A month later, Sullivan challenged “any man breathing” to fight for prizes ranging between $1,000 to $10,000. Sometimes, matches were fought with bare knuckles, other times, with padded gloves and timed rounds.  Over 450 fights, Sullivan seemed unbeatable. “The Hercules of the Ring.”  Gamblers and other backers were making a fortune.

The media eagerly promoted the fighter as an “urban Paul Bunyan”. Stories were told and retold, each becoming more outlandish, as Sullivan “battled wild animals with his bare hands, drank rivers of liquor, had his way with regiments of women. . . .”

The epic drunkenness and domestic violence of the man’s real life at home, went largely unreported.

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Sullivan was a Rockstar, the “Boston Strongboy”, the first professional athlete to make a million dollars. He performed in vaudeville, and hung out with some of the most iconic figures of the ‘gilded age’, from Presidents and Kings to wild west gunslingers. Sullivan made countless public appearances and even considered a run for the United States Senate. A famous song of the era invited listeners to “shake the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan.”

On this day in 1887, thousands of adoring fans crowded the ways to Nantasket Beach in Hull, to glimpse the Heavyweight Champion of the World with his diamond-studded, gold-plated belt.

Depending on who you read, Sullivan was first considered world heavyweight champion either in 1888 when he fought Charley Mitchell in France, or in 1889 when he knocked out Jake Kilrain in round 75 of a scheduled 80-round bout.

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Souvenir poster, 1888

The modern sport of Boxing was born in 1867, with the twelve rules drawn up by John Graham Chambers, member of the British Amateur Athletic Club under the sponsorship of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry.  Timed rounds and gloves remained optional until the night of July 8, 1889, a scheduled 80-round bare knuckle bout between the undefeated champion John L Sullivan, and Jake Kilrain, the last professional fight to be held under the old London Prize Ring rules.

Whiskey had taken its toll on Sullivan by this time.  It looked like he was done when he threw up in the 42nd round, but Sullivan got his second wind.  Kilrain’s second threw in the towel in round 75, afraid that his principle was about to be killed.

John-L.-Sullivan-vs.-Jake-KilrainSullivan’s unbeaten record over 44 professional fights came to an end on July 9, 1892, when “Gentleman Jim” Corbett  unloaded a smashing left in the 21st round that put the champion down, for good.  Sullivan would later say that his opponent only “gave the finishing touches to what whiskey had already done to me.”

Sullivan retired to his home in Abington Massachusetts. In his later years, the last bare knuckle champ in history became a sports reporter, celebrity baseball umpire and tavern owner. He gave up his life-long addiction to alcohol taking his last drink in 1905. Sullivan took to the temperance lecture circuit, but the prizefighting years and those “Rivers of Whiskey” had taken their toll.

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John Lawrence Sullivan earned over a million dollars over his career, and died with an estate valued at $3,675, and ten dollars in his pocket.  He was fifty-nine. Sullivan constantly warned young men to avoid the perils of alcohol. “John L. Sullivan, champion of the world, could not lick whiskey.  What gives any one of them the notion that he can?”

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

July 18, 1921 Say it ain’t so, Joe

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.

From the World Cup to the Superbowl, the world of professional sports 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 revenue failed to find its way to the players.  Even the best, held second jobs.

Around that time, Chicago White Sox owner Chuck Comiskey built the most powerful organizations in professional baseball, despite a stingy reputation.

BlackSox-Lg_400x400The scandal of the 1919 “Black Sox” series began when Arnold “Chick” Gandil, the first baseman with ties to Chicago gangsters, 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 his 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 he 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.

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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, that 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 in 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 in the majors.  Gandil was back in the minors, at the time.

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“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.

The Black Sox trial began this day in 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,Black Sox Headline in the possession of Comiskey’s lawyer. It’s 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. The day after the acquittal, Landis issued a 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”.

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

Black Sox Eight_men_banned

Ironically, the 1919 scandal lead 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 for 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!”

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June 12, 1928 The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth

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 at home on June 26, 1920. 10,000 spectators had 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. It was the first time the country heard the name Lou Gehrig.

lou-gehrig-columbia-universityGehrig 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. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters 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′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed 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. Gehrig 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 the New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the 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, and 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.

On this day in 1928, Gehrig hit 2 triples and a pair of home runs, leading the Yankees in a 15-7 victory over the Chicago White Sox.  At Comiskey Park, no less.

lou-gehrig

He 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 and last major league grand slam in August 1938, a record that would stand until fellow Yankee Alex Rodriquez tied it in 2012.

lou-gehrig-5Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. 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.

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”.

Gehrig 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.

Yankees Tigers Gehrig Ends Streak

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. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939. He was awarded 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. Addressing his fans, Gehrig described himself as “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 back in 2013, the week after the Boston Marathon bombing. The sign out front said “United we Stand”. 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.

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I thought about Lou Gehrig, and how the man compares with some of these guys today.  I’ve always been a Boston guy myself.  I think I’m required by state law, to hate the Yankees.  But, all kidding aside.  The man and the club.  They’re a pair of Class Acts.

Gehrig

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.