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.

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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.

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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, 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.

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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.

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!”

June 12, 1970 No-Hitter

“I really didn’t see the hitters, all I could tell is if they were on the right side or the left side. The catcher had tape on his fingers to help me see signals. But I was high as a Georgia pine.”

In the sport of baseball, a “no-hitter“ is a game in which nobatter is able to get on base, in the usual manner. Players may still get on base through a walk, an error or being hit by a pitch, but not by hitting the ball.

The talent to pitch 27 or more outs without surrendering a single hit is nearly as scarce, as hen’s teeth. Nearly a quarter-million Major League games have been played in this country between 1876 and 2021. Only 311 have ended, with no-hitters.

No fewer than six Major League ball clubs have recorded but a single no-hitter, in their entire existence. The number of pitchers to throw more than one, are precious few. Those who did it while tripping on acid number…precisely…one.

This is dated. Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove threw San Diego’s first no-hitter in April, this year

At his best, Pittsburg Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis was one of the best there was. Former ESPN announcer and San Diego Padres infielder, Dave “Soup” Campbell once said “I’ve always been asked who the toughest guy I ever faced was, and I always say Dock. His fastball had such great late movement, always seemed to be in one place when I’d start my swing and then move in another direction. It could sink, move in on my hands, or sail away like Mariano Rivera’s cutter.”

And then there were those times…

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn repeatedly ordered the man to refrain from wearing curlers, on the field. He once burned a pre-game pitch list in the locker room and set off the sprinkler system. The man literally went ‘hunting’ Cincinnati batters one day in 1974, striking the first three men in the lineup: Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Dan Driessen. The next two were a little too quick dodging one head shot after another until Ellis was pulled, from the game.

Lest anyone think that was by accident, permit me to put the matter to rest. He said he’d do it, before the game. I believe Dock Ellis still holds the record for most consecutive batters, hit by a pitch.

Dock Ellis could be one of the best in the game, but never seemed to keep the focus to stay that way. Flamboyant, vocal and quick to anger, Jackie Robinson himself once praised Dock Ellis for advancing the rights of black players and criticized him, for talking too much.

And then there were the drugs. Ever mindful of his “can’t miss” status as a prospect, Ellis was never without a bit of chemical assistance. He later said he never pitched a major league game, without amphetamines.

And those were the days he was working.

June 11, 1970 was a Thursday, the day before a double header between the visiting Pirates, and the San Diego Padres. Ellis wasn’t pitching that day and drove to Los Angeles, to visit a friend.

Father Time moved on. The earth revolved on its axis and night followed day but Dock Ellis, knew none of it. “Two or three” LSD tabs took care of that. And then it was Friday. Game day. Ellis crushed another tablet and snorted the thing. Two hours later his host asked, aren’t you playing tonight? Ellis didn’t believe that it was Friday, asking “what happened to Thursday? She had to show him a sports page with the day’s date. June 12, 1970.

It was 2:00pm. He was scheduled to pitch at 6:08.

The rest of that day? Who knows. There was that frenzied trip to the airport, the flight and the pitcher’s arrival, just in time. Sometimes the ball seemed so big he later said, and sometimes, it was small. There was a plate up there or was it several, and why did it (they) keep moving? Years later he said he couldn’t see the batters, just which side of the plate they were on. Catcher Jerry May had to wear reflective tape on his fingers, so Ellis could see the signals.

At 8:18 it was over, the most unlikely no-hitter, in history. Pitching was so erratic the Padres had a man on base, in every inning.

“I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, and once I thought I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who to me was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate. I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn’t hit hard and never reached me.”

Dock Ellis

In 1993, San Francisco’s “proto-punk” singer songwriter Barbara Manning and the SF Seals, a group named after the city’s one-time minor league ball club, released what may be the first and only baseball themed EP in the history, of indie pop.

Manning’s trilogy included a cover of Les Brown’s “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” the “Ballad of Denny McLain” and “Dock Ellis”, the psychedelic ballad of a Major League no-hitter, once pitched while tripping on acid.

April 25, 1976 A Passing Stallion

“If you’re going to burn the flag, “don’t do it around me. I’ve been to too many veterans’ hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it.” – Rick Monday

That Sunday was an away game for the Chicago Cubs, an afternoon matinee with a 1:00 start time at Los Angeles’ Dodger stadium. April 25, 1976 was hazy with a light breeze and a high of 70 degrees. It was a great day for a ball game.

The count was 1-0 with Dodgers second baseman Ted Sizemore, at bat. It was the bottom of the 4th and announcer Vin Scully, doing the play-by-play:

“Wait a minute, there’s an animal loose . . . two of them . . . all right . . . I’m not sure what he’s doing out there . . . it looks like he’s going to burn a flag . . . and Rick Monday runs and takes it away from him!”

Vin Scully

These particular animals had succeeded in soaking an American flag with lighter fluid, but they weren’t quite fast enough with the match.

Monday, possum

Rick Monday was playing Center Field for the Cubs.  Describing the scene, Monday said “He got down on his knees, and I could tell he wasn’t throwing holy water on it”.

Monday dashed over and grabbed the flag, to thunderous applause from the 25,167 in attendance. All but two, that is.  By that time. those fools were being carted off in handcuffs.

Monday came out to bat in the top of the 5th and got a standing ovation from Dodger fans, while the message board flashed “RICK MONDAY… YOU MADE A GREAT PLAY…”

The arrested were later identified as 37-year old William Errol Thomas and his eleven year old son. Poor kid. He’d be about 56 now. I wonder how he turned out.

Thomas was convicted of trespassing and ordered to pay a $60 fine or spend three days, in jail. The man was unemployed and didn’t have anything better to do with his days, so he took the time.

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Rick Monday was serving a six-year tour with the Marine Corp Reserves in fulfillment of his ROTC obligation after leaving Arizona State. The man had no use for flag burners. “If you’re going to burn the flag”, he said, “don’t do it around me. I’ve been to too many veterans’ hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it.”

Rick Monday requested the flag after the game but it had to be held, pending police investigation. Nine days later, Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis presented Monday with that same flag, during a pregame ceremony at Wrigley Field. He’s been offered up to a million dollars for that flag but declines, all offers.

“As the cheering died, everybody in the stands started singing ‘God Bless America,’ ” Monday recalled. “I was stunned. I stood there and got chills.”

Los Angeles Times columnist, Bill Plaschke

You can see the whole episode at the link below. My favorite part has got to be that impotent little temper tantrum at the end, when the protester throws his little bottle of lighter fluid, at the outfielder’s back. Like a runt piglet, squealing at a passing stallion.

January 18, 1983 Athlete of the Century

Future President Dwight Eisenhower played against Thorpe during the 1912 season and said this, in a 1961 speech: “Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw”.

He was born in Oklahoma Indian territory around 1887, to parents of mixed Caucasian and Indian ancestry. According to custom he was named after something that happened, around the time of his birth. Lighting had lit up the trail to the house in which he was born. So it is he was known by the native name, Wa-Tho-Huk. “Bright Path”. He was raised a Catholic, a faith he would practice all his life with the baptismal name, Jacobus Francis Thorpe. He would grow to be the finest all-round athlete of the first half of the 20th century and maybe, for the next 100 years. We remember him as Jim Thorpe.

Thorpe was an indifferent student and ran away from school several times, especially after his twin brother Charlie died of pneumonia, at age 9. His father sent him to the Haskell Institute, an Indian boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas, hoping he wouldn’t run away again.

Two years later, his mother died in childbirth. That was it. After several arguments with his father, he left to take work at a horse ranch. Thorpe returned to his father at 16 and agreed to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

One day in 1907, Thorpe was walking past the school track. Several high jumpers were at practice and he decided to give it a try. With no warm-up and still in street clothes, Thorpe beat them all on his first try with a high jump of 5-feet, 9-inches.

In those days, Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, yeah, THAT Pop Warner, coached football at the Indian School.

Reluctant to let his best track & field athlete try a contact sport, Warner relented and let Thorpe carry the ball on two rushing plays. He’d be easily tackled and change his mind thought Warner, but Thorpe ran circles around the defenders. Twice. Flipping the ball to coach Warner, Thorpe quipped, “Nobody is going to tackle Jim“.

Thorpe came to compete in football, baseball, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing, winning the intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship, in 1912. I can’t help but respect that, as someone who moves, like a refrigerator.

Jim Thorpe in 1912

Thorpe came to national attention in 1911, after scoring all four field goals in an upset victory over Harvard, 18-15. In a 1912 victory over Army, Thorpe’s 92-yard touchdown run was called back, due to a teammate’s penalty. He ran it in again on the following play, this time running 97-yards.

He didn’t compete in track & field in 1910 or ’11 but, in the spring of 1912, he started training for the Olympics. At the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, somebody stole his shoes. He scrounged a pair from somewhere including one from a garbage can and won the decathlon, and pentathlon.

It was his first and only decathlon.

Martin Sheridan, champion athlete of the Irish American Athletic Club and five-time Olympic gold medalist told a reporter from the New York World: “Thorpe is the greatest athlete that ever lived. He has me beaten fifty ways. Even when I was in my prime, I could not do what he did today.”

The New York Times wrote in his 1953 obituary, that Thorpe “could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat; the 220 in 21.8 seconds; the 440 in 51.8 seconds; the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35; the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds; and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in.[7] He could pole vault 11 feet; put the shot 47 ft 9 in; throw the javelin 163 feet; and throw the discus 136 feet“.

In today’s Olympics, we’re all supposed to be excited when professional athletes paid tens of millions of dollars to play basketball, defeat some kids from Croatia.

That wasn’t so in 1912. There were strict amateur rules. Sports teachers, professional athletes and anyone who ever competed against them were strictly forbidden from amateur sports, particularly when someone noticed.

In 1909 and 1910, Thorpe played baseball for the Rocky Mount Railroaders of the Eastern Carolina League. They were the worst team in the league despite the presence of Jim Thorpe, but no matter. The man was paid $2 a game, and $35 a week, to play baseball.

The fact was widely known but, in 1913, the Worcester Telegram published an article, stating that Thorpe had played professional baseball. Other papers picked up the story. Plausible deniability thus denied, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Secretary James Edward Sullivan, sprang into action.

Thorpe wrote a letter, hoping it would help: “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names …”

It didn’t. Despite a 30-day rule for such challenges, the AAU retroactively withdrew his amateur status. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped him of his awards, and medals.

Jim Thorpe first signed with the New York Giants in 1913 and played six seasons in the major leagues, between 1913 and 1919. He joined the American Football League Canton Bulldogs in 1915 helping the team to three championships before joining the National Football League where he played, for six years. All the while he would barnstorm around the country with an all-Indian professional basketball team. He was President of the American Football league in 1920 which later became, the NFL.

Jim Thorpe would play professional sports until he was 41. Depression was upon the land on those days and Thorpe struggled to hold down a job. Bouncer. Security Guard. Ditch digger. He briefly joined the Merchant Marine, in 1945. He appeared in several films sometimes sometimes as himself, and sometimes a bit player. He became a chronic alcoholic, married three times and divorced twice, with 8 kids. He was hospitalized with lip cancer in 1950 and admitted, as a charity case.

Jim Thorpe went into heart failure in 1953 while dining with his third wife, Patricia. He was revived and spoke to those around him, but later lost consciousness. Jim Thorpe died at the couple’s home in Lomita, California on March 28, 1953.

Over the years, supporters tried to have his medals restored and Olympic titles, reinstated.

Former teammate and IOC President Avery Brundage would have none of it, saying “ignorance is no excuse.”

In 1981, author Bob Wheeler published Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete. Wheeler and his wife Florence Ridlon, herself a PhD and author of several books, may be Thorpe’s greatest supporters.

The couple founded the Jim Thorpe Foundation in 1982 and, that October, the IOC executive committee approved Thorpe’s reinstatement. Sort of.

Jim Thorpe was declared “co-champion” with Ferdinand Bie and Hugo Wieslander, athletes who had always said, that Thorpe had won. On this day in 1983 the IOC presented commemorative medals to two of Thorpe’s children, Gale and Bill. Today, the IOC lists Thorpe as “co-medalist’.

In 1954, the communities of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk of Carbon County Pennsylvania merged to form the borough of Jim Thorpe.

Thorpe’s original medals were at one time in museums but since stolen, and never recovered.

In 2020, a petition called upon the IOC to reinstate Thorpe as the sole winner of the 1912 events. Pictureworks Entertainment, a company producing a film about Thorpe supports the petition as does 1964 gold medalist, Billy Mills.

December 7, 1941 A Game that Never Was

What started that day as an away game, ended, in World War 2

In the age of COVID-19, we’ve all become accustomed to sudden and unexpected changes of plans. The world of College football is no exception.

Millions of college football fans eagerly await the playoffs, just around the corner. Now it appears, some games may not happen. Wisconsin and Minnesota have played every year, for 113 years. For the first time since 1907, the game’s been canceled. If Ohio State misses one more game, the team won’t be eligible to play in the Championships. The Mountain West and C-USA conferences have seen the most cancellations and/or postponements in all of college football, with three apiece.

It must be particularly frustrating for the San Jose State crowd, locked down after the best start, since 1955.

And yet, there’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. The San Jose Spartans flew 2,400 miles west to defeat the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii, 35-24.

In December 1941, the Spartans were scheduled to play three games in the Aloha state. San Jose and the Willamette Bearcats, of Oregon. They were college kids. On the road to enjoy a few days in paradise and to play the game they all 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. Hawaii defeated Willamette 20-6 on Saturday, December 6. The Warriors were scheduled to play San Jose State on December 13. Then the Spartans were to play the Bearcats December 16 before sailing home, on the 19th.

An outing like that was once in a lifetime. Unforgettable. The trip would be that and more, but not for the reason anyone expected.

A great sucker punch came out of the southeast on December 7, 1941. 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 Sunday morning. The sneak attack carried out 79 years ago today destroyed more American lives than any foreign enemy attack on American soil, until the 2001 Islamist terrorist attack, of September 11, 2001.

The President of the United States would address a joint session of Congress the following day requesting a declaration of war, against the Empire of Japan.

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

Meanwhile, the visiting teams were mobilized to perform wartime duties. San Jose state players began working with Federal authorities and the Honolulu police department to round up Japanese, Italian and German citizens, and to enforce wartime blackout orders.

Willamette players were assigned WW1-vintage Springfield rifles and tin hats, and ordered to string barbed wire, on the beaches. Two days later, the Punahou school was taken over by Army engineers. For the next ten days Willamette players stood 24-hour guard, around the school.

If you think you’ve heard the name Punahou it probably involves the school’s most famous alum, future President Barack Obama.

Shirley McKay Hadley, a Willamette student accompanying her father, then serving as state Senator, joked 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, to protect 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. 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 that day 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 17, 1968 The Heidi Bowl

Sportswriter Jack Clary quipped, “The football fans were indignant when they saw what they had missed. The Heidi audience was peeved at having an ambulatory football score intrude on one of the story’s more touching moments. Short of pre-empting Heidi for a skin flick, NBC could not have managed to alienate more viewers that evening.”


For football fans, November 17, 1968 was shaping up to be one hell of a game.  The second-best team in the world Oakland Raiders if the results of Super Bowl II were any indication, against the future American Football League champion and Super Bowl III winner, New York Jets.

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NBC executives were thrilled.  The AFL was only eight years old in 1968 and as yet unproven, compared with the older league. The NFL/AFL merger was still two years in the future. 

This game was expected to keep viewers in their seats, adding to the already large audience anticipated for the 7:00pm presentation of Heidi, a modern remake of the children’s classic story from 1880.

In those days, most pro football games were played in 2½ hours. Network executives scheduled this one, for three.  The contract with Heidi prime sponsor Timex specified a 7:00 start. And so the order went down, to network affiliates.  There will be no delays.

The game didn’t disappoint, In fact it was voted among the ten most memorable games in professional football history in 1997, and the most memorable regular season contest, ever.  The rivalry between the two clubs was intense, a high-scoring game where the lead changed, no fewer than eight times.  

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As early as 6:20, network brass began to worry that the game wouldn’t end on time.  7:00 arrived with a minute & five seconds left to play. The Jets were ahead, 32-29. 

Network and affiliate switchboards began to light up, with fans demanding the game be broadcast in its entirety. Others wanted to know if Heidi would begin, on time.  

NBC Sports executive producer Don “Scotty” Connal and network president Julian Goodman had by this time agreed to “slide the network”, to begin Heidi as soon as Curt Gowdy signed off from the game.

All well and good but by this time, phone switchboards were jammed. Solid.  NBC’s CIrcle-7 phone exchange blew twenty-six fuses, in one hour.  NYPD switchboards, broke down. Broadcast Operations Control (BOC) supervisor Dick Cline nervously watched the clock as Connal frantically redialed, but couldn’t get through.

The television audience watched Oakland running back Charlie Smith return the kickoff from the end zone to the Oakland 22-yard line with 1:01 remaining on the clock. And then the feed was broken.

Heads exploded across the nation as callers reached out to newspapers and television stations, even local police departments, to demand the score.  And Loooord, did they bitch.   Humorist Art Buchwald wrote “Men who wouldn’t get out of their chairs in an earthquake rushed to the phone to scream obscenities [at the network].”

Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders staged the most amazing come-from-behind rally in the history of sports, scoring two touchdowns in 42 seconds.  Gamblers were apoplectic on learning the news, that the Raiders had beat the 7½ point spread.

The film was just reaching a most tear-jerking moment as Heidi’s paralyzed cousin Clara was taking her first halting steps, as NBC broke in: “SPORTS BULLETIN: RAIDERS DEFEAT JETS 43-32”.

If half the nation hated NBC at that moment, now the other half did, as well. Sportswriter Jack Clary quipped, “The football fans were indignant when they saw what they had missed. The Heidi audience was peeved at having an ambulatory football score intrude on one of the story’s more touching moments. Short of pre-empting Heidi for a skin flick, NBC could not have managed to alienate more viewers that evening.”

The “Heidi Bowl” was prime time news the following night, on all three networks. NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report aired the last sixty seconds. ABC Evening News anchor Frank Reynolds read excerpts from the movie, with clips of the Raiders’ two touchdowns cut in. CBS Evening News’ Harry Reasoner announced the “result” of the game: “Heidi married the goat-herder“.

NBC had no option but self-mockery, to redeem itself from the fiasco. One testimonial read “I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I hear it was great”. It was signed by Joe Namath.

A special “Heidi phone” was installed in the BOC, to prevent future such disasters. In 2005, TV Guide listed the Heidi Bowl at #6 of the “100 Most Unexpected TV Moments” in television history.

Actress Jennifer Edwards in the title role of the film, may have the final word in this story: “My gravestone is gonna say, ‘She was a great moment in sports’”.

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November 2, 1985 The Curse of Colonel Sanders

Much has been written of 1930’s Japan and the military officers, who brought the nation to war. How different the 20th century could have been, had those guys picked up baseball, instead.

Baseball as we know it was introduced to the country in 1872. To this day, the game remains the most popular sport in the nation for participants and spectators, alike. In 1907, 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“.

Oh. 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 including Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Connie Mack and Charlie Gehringer. Even Moe Berg was part of that 1934 entourage, the Jewish catcher known as “the brainiest guy in baseball,” who went behind enemy lines during World War 2, to spy on Nazi Germany.

“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 1930’s Japan and the military officers, who brought the nation to war. How different the 20th century could have been, 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.

35 years ago today 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 Japan is one of the largest markets in the world for Kentucky Fried Chicken, #3 behind the United States and China. Not bad for a fast food outfit that opened its first Japanese franchise, only fifteen years earlier.

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” that denied victory to long-suffering Chicago 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 modern 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.

What the hell. They both had beards.

Thus began the curse of Colonel Sanders, a losing streak brought on by the ghost of a man who didn’t appreciate being thrown 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.

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 the Colonel’s other hand and 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. So it is for long suffering fans of the Hanshin Tigers, the curse of Colonel Sanders, lives 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

November 1, 1959 Game Face

For NHL hockey, the face mask became standard equipment on this day, in 1959. I’m not sure if goalies are any prettier these days, but they have a lot more teeth.

Stanley Cup

In the Netherlands, modern ice hockey began sometime in the 16th century.  North Americans have played the sport since 1855.   For all that time, flying hockey pucks have collided with the faces of goaltenders.  The results have not have been pretty.

The name of Montreal Canadien goal tender Jacques Plante is engraved five times on Lord Stanley’s cup, once for each of five consecutive championships between 1956, and ‘60.  

For a lifelong Bruins fan, that isn’t easy to say.

Jacques Plante Putting on Mask
Original caption: 11/1/1959-New York, NY- His face and shirt bloodied, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante puts on a special plastic mask after being treated for a facial cut received in the opening period of the Rangers-Canadiens hockey game. Plante suffered a severe gash on the left side of his face when he was struck by a shot off the stick of Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers. After donning the mask, which he had designed himself, Plante returned to the game. November 1, 1959 New York, New York, USA

Plante literally wrote the book on NHL goal tending. He was the first to take the position outside of the crease, making himself the third defenseman. He was the first to take the puck behind the net and the first to bring anything even vaguely resembling stick handling, to the position. Before Plante, a Goalie’s job was pretty much to deflect the puck and let the defenders take it from there.

On this day in 1959, Jacques Plante decided he’d had enough. It was three minutes into a game with the New York Rangers when he took a puck to the nose on a shot fired by Andy Bathgate. The puck broke his nose, opening a wound requiring seven stitches to close.  When Plante returned to the ice, he was wearing a fiberglass mask.

Coach Toe Blake was furious. He had allowed the mask during practice, but this was regulation.  Nobody wore a mask.  Coaches believed they cut the goaltender’s field of vision, and, besides.  These were supposed to be the “fearless” guys, who jumped in front of the puck.

Easy for him to say.  It wasn’t his face.  Plante was adamant, and Blake wasn’t about to bench the best goalie in the NHL. There would be one more game when Plante played without the mask, the only game the Canadiens lost in that series, and that was the end of it.  

For Jacques Plante, the mask had now become standard equipment.

In 1966, Life Magazine published an image of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Terry Sawchuk, “a face only a hockey puck could love“. “Re-created here, by a professional make-up artist and a doctor” read the accompanying article, “are some of the more than 400 stitches he had earned during 16 years in the National Hockey League. Terry Sawchuk’s face was bashed over and over, but not all at one time. His wounds healed. The scars weren’t easily seen – except for a few of them. The re-creation of his injuries was done to help show the extent of his injuries over a span of years”.

During a 1968-’69 season playoff game against the Boston Bruins, a puck fired by Phil Esposito hit Plante in the forehead, knocking him out, cold.  He later said that the mask had saved his life.  He’s probably right.

Gerry Cheevers, who played for the 1970-’72 Bruins, famously had his mask marked up with stitches. That started when a puck hit him in the face during practice. When Bruins coach Harry Sinden followed Cheevers to the dressing room, he found the goalie enjoying a beer and smoking a cigarette. Sinden sent Cheevers back out on the ice and John Forestall, the team trainer, painted stitches on his mask. Every time Cheevers was hit after that, he would have new stitches painted on. The mask became one of the most recognizable symbols of the era, and now hangs on the wall of his grandson’s bedroom.

Gerry Cheevers
Gerry Cheevers

Jacques Plante wasn’t the first NHL goaltender to wear a face mask.  Montreal Maroons’ Clint Benedict wore a crude leather mask in 1929, to protect a broken nose.

clint-benedict
Montreal Maroon’s goaltender Clint Benedict, 1930

It was Plante who introduced the face mask as everyday equipment, now a mandatory fixture for all goaltenders.

I’m not sure if NHL goalies are any prettier these days, but I bet they have a lot more teeth.

August 6, 2011 Tell me a Story

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”.

Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol returned from World War 2 and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided his family a decent standard of living, 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.

Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 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 opening kickoff.  Despite all that, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.

nflfilm

The league’s 14 owners rejected commissioner Pete Rozelle’s proposal to buy out the filmmaker, instead giving him $20,000 apiece in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight reel for each club.

Thus was born the 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 yourself 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.”

NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings are small compared with 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.

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”.

July 17, 1914 The Miracle Braves

The Braves didn’t even have a home field that year, in the unlikely event they made the playoffs.

OIP (2)Boston was a two-team town in 1914, when the American League Red Sox hired 6’2″, 200-pound left handed rookie George Herman “Babe” Ruth from the Baltimore Orioles.

The American League hadn’t yet adopted the designated hitter rule, that wouldn’t happen until 1973. The Red Sox started Ruth as pitcher, but it was his bat that made him one of the best. Unlike most power hitters, Babe Ruth maintained his high batting average, ending his career with a .342 lifetime average.

Four years later, Red Sox owner and theatrical producer Harry Frazee sold the “bambino” to the arch-rival New York Yankees, to finance production of a Broadway musical.

Thus began an 86-year season of misery for We who love the Red Sox™, an interminable World Series drought we call the “Curse of the Bambino”.  Little babies grew up and had babies of their own.  They had grandbabies and great grandbabies and even a few great-greats and still, the drought wore on.   To this day, Boston-area mothers invoke the Curse of the Bambino to scare wayward children into acting right.

But that must be a story for another day.1914nl

In 1914 the National League Boston Braves were in dead last place on July 4.  Bottom of the barrel with a record of 26 wins and 40 losses, 11½ games behind the first place Giants.

For eleven years in a row and this one was shaping up to be no exception, the view in 1914 was shaping up to be one from the cellar.

The Braves didn’t even have a home field in the unlikely event they made the playoffs that year.  The club had abandoned its 43-year home at South End Grounds, that August. In post-season, the Boston Braves were reduced to the humiliating reality of renting Fenway Park from their cross-town rival, Boston Red Sox.

One of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history started on this day with a three game road trip to Redland Field, in Cincinnati.  The Braves won three consecutive games with 1-0, 6-2 and 3-2 victories over the Reds.

The Braves played 37 games through the end of regular season, winning all but two.

The World Series match-up against the Philadelphia Athletics was a David vs. Goliath story, the 1914 A’s recipients of four American League pennants over the last 5 years and finishing regular season 8½ games ahead of the second place, Boston Red Sox.

braves

Game one in Philadelphia was a Boston Romp, ending with a 7-1 victory. Game two was a cliff hanger, the score tied at zero going into the 9th inning. Infielder Charlie Deal found himself on second when A’s center fielder Amos Strunk lost the ball in the sun.  Deal scored the game’s only run on Les Mann’s two-out single to center field.

Game 3 in Boston was the real thriller. The score was tied at two at the end of regulation play, with the Athletics scoring two runs in the top of the 10th. Boston came back with two runs in the bottom of the inning, and won the game in the 12th when A’s second baseman Donnie Bush threw a wild ball past third, with outfielder and pinch runner Les Mann scoring the winning run from second.

It was two outs in the 5th inning when Braves shortstop Johnny Evers hit a two-run single to center field, putting Boston ahead 3-1 in game 4. The A’s never responded.

1920px-Fenway-park-1914-world-series
Fenway Park, game 3 of the 1914 World Series, October 12, 1914.

The “Miracle Braves” had emerged from dead-last to defeat the defending World Champion Philadelphia Athletics in the first four-game sweep in World Series history.

In 2011, a descendant of Johnny Evers consigned his ancestor’s 1914 World Series ring to auction, raising an intriguing question.

OIP (1)Today we take team-issued Championship rings for granted, but the practice isn’t believed to have begun until years later. Prior to that and dating well back in the previous century, World Series winners were rewarded with team-issued pins.

This was the second such ring known to exist, the first issued to shortstop Walter James Vincent “Rabbit” Maranville, also of the 1914 Boston Braves.  It may be that Evers and Maranville had the rings made for themselves, or maybe players were offered a choice of rewards. Perhaps rings were offered to all players but only at their own expense, causing most to pass on the opportunity.

Perhaps these two rings are merely the only two known to have survived.  Be that as it may, at least a few players had begun to associate rings with championships, long before their first official issue, in 1922.

A notorious cheapskate, A’s owner Connie Mack gave his star pitcher Chief Bender the week off before the series, with orders to personally scout the Braves roster.  Instead, the man took a vacation. When later asked to explain himself, Bender replied: “Why should I check out a bunch of bush league hitters?” The following season, Bender and fellow pitcher “Gettysburg” Eddie Plank jumped ship to join the rival Federal League. Mack unloaded most of his other “high-priced” talent. Within two seasons, the Philadelphia Athletics had amassed the worst losing record in modern baseball history.

Page break

In 1949, American poet and self-styled “incurable fan” Ogden Nash penned a poem for the January 1949 issue of SPORT Magazine.  It’s called

“Line-Up for Yesterday: An ABC of Baseball Immortals”. 

Hat tip, Wikipedia

Letter Player Verse
A Grover Cleveland Alexander A is for AlexThe great Alexander;

More Goose eggs he pitched

Than a popular gander.

B Roger Bresnahan B is for BresnahanBack of the plate;

The Cubs were his love,

and McGraw his hate.

C Ty Cobb C is for CobbWho grew spikes and not corn,

And made all the basemen

Wish they weren’t born.

D Jay “Dizzy” Dean D is for Dean,The grammatical Diz,

When they asked, Who’s the tops?

Said correctly, I is.

E Johnny Evers E is for Evers,His jaw in advance;

Never afraid

To Tinker with Chance.

F Frankie “Fordham” Frisch F is for FordhamAnd Frankie and Frisch;

I wish he were back

With the Giants, I wish.

G Lou Gehrig G is for Gehrig,The Pride of the Stadium;

His record pure gold,

His courage, pure radium.

H Rogers Hornsby H is for Hornsby;When pitching to Rog,

The pitcher would pitch,

Then the pitcher would dodge.

I Nash, the author I is for Me,Not a hard-hitting man,

But an outstanding all-time

Incurable fan.

J Walter Johnson J is for JohnsonThe Big Train in his prime

Was so fast he could throw

Three strikes at a time.

K Willie Keeler K is for Keeler,As fresh as green paint,

The fastest and mostest

To hit where they ain’t.

L Nap Lajoie L is for LajoieWhom Clevelanders love,

Napoleon himself,

With glue in his glove.

M Christy Mathewson M is for Matty,Who carried a charm

In the form of an extra

brain in his arm.

N Louis “Bobo” Newsom N is for Newsom,Bobo’s favorite kin.

You ask how he’s here,

He talked himself in.

O Mel Ott O is for OttOf the restless right foot.

When he leaned on the pellet,

The pellet stayed put.

P Eddie Plank P is for Plank,The arm of the A’s;

When he tangled with Matty

Games lasted for days.

Q Connie Mack Q is for Don QuixoteCornelius Mack;

Neither Yankees nor years

Can halt his attack.

R Babe Ruth R is for Ruth.To tell you the truth,

There’s just no more to be said,

Just R is for Ruth.

S Tris Speaker S is for Speaker,Swift center-field tender,

When the ball saw him coming,

It yelled, “I surrender.”

T Bill Terry T is for TerryThe Giant from Memphis

Whose .400 average

You can’t overemphis.

U Carl Hubbell U would be ‘Ubbellif Carl were a cockney;

We say Hubbell and Baseball

Like Football and Rockne.

V Charles “Dazzy” Vance V is for VanceThe Dodger’s very own Dazzy;

None of his rivals

Could throw as fast as he.

W Honus Wagner W is for Wagner,The bowlegged beauty;

Short was closed to all traffic

With Honus on duty.

X Jimmie Foxx X is the firstof two x’s in Foxx

Who was right behind Ruth

with his powerful soxx.

Y Cy Young Y is for YoungThe magnificent Cy;

People batted against him,

But I never knew why.

Z Zenith Z is for ZenithThe summit of fame.

These men are up there.

These men are the game.