May 2, 1939 Lucky Man

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”. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

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.

GehrigCUGehrig 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 a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the NY 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, 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.

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 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.Ruth and Gehrig

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.”

LouGehrigDay, 1939Gehrig 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, at the age 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.

I thought about Lou Gehrig.  I’ve always been a Boston guy myself, I think I’m required by Massachusetts state law to hate the Yankees.   But seriously.  What a Class Act.

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April 25, 1976 Don’t Do it Around Me

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

The bottom of the fourth had just started out in Dodger Stadium, when two “protesters” jumped out of the left field bleachers and ran onto the field.

The pair succeeded in soaking an American flag with lighter fluid, but they weren’t quite fast enough with the match.

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, possum

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 two were being led off in handcuffs.

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

The arrested were identified as 37-year old William Errol Thomas, and his eleven year old son. Poor kid.  He’d be 52 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. He was unemployed and didn’t have anything better to do, so he took the time.

Rick-Monday-CubsRick Monday had served a tour in the Marine Corp Reserve, in fulfillment of his ROTC obligation after leaving Arizona State. “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.”

The flag Rick Monday rescued that day was presented to him nine days later by a Dodgers’ executive, during a pregame ceremony at Wrigley Field. He has been offered up to a million dollars to sell the flag.  As of this date he has declined all offers.

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

April 9, 1974  Open Mouth, Insert Foot

At that moment a roar went up from the crowd, as a streaker jumped out of the stands and onto the field. That’s when he lost it.

The 1974 season opened on the road for the San Diego Padres, the series ending in a humiliating, 25-2 blowout at Dodger’s Stadium.

Padres’ new owner and McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc was anything but pleased with the 0-3 start, saying “They’re snake-bit, and they’ve got the yips. They’re overanxious, trying too hard, too tense”. Kroc was positive, though, at the home opener against the Houston Astros.  Stepping up to the field microphone, Kroc said to the crowd of 39,083 at San Diego Stadium, “With your help and God’s help, we’ll give ‘em hell tonight.”

The home opener at Jack Murphy (now Qualcomm) Stadium on April 9 was no better, ending in a 9 to 5 loss.  In the middle of the eighth, the Padres were well on their way to 0 and 4, when Ray Kroc opened the door of the public address booth and told announcer John DeMott he had something to say.

Kroc had bought the club only two months earlier, when San Diego was in danger of KrocRaylosing its National League team to Washington, DC.  Only moments before,  Padres’ President Buzzie Bavasi had to leave Kroc’s side to investigate concession area water in the clubhouse, when a leak was “promoted” to a flood.

Kroc had to have been cranky when he took the mic in the first place, but it quickly got worse.  “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I suffer with you.”  At that moment a roar went up from the crowd, as a streaker jumped out of the stands and onto the field.

That’s when he lost it.  “Get him out of here. Throw him in jail” Kroc shouted.  Then he continued.  “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the Dodgers drew 31,000 for their opener and we’ve drawn 39,000 for ours. The bad news is that this is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve ever seen”.

Padres radio announcer Jerry Coleman didn’t know how to respond.  “Ladies and Gentlemen”, he said, “that was Padres owner, Ray Kroc”.

It was a bad idea.  Player representative Willie McCovey spoke for the club. “I wish Mr. Kroc hadn’t done that. I’ve never heard anything like that in my 19 years in baseball. None of us likes being called stupid. We’re pros and we’re doing the best we can. His words will ring in the players’ ears for a long time.”

Players were so angry they threatened to boycott the next game.  San Diego dentist Steve Arlin was the losing pitcher that night.  “We were all embarrassed by it,” he said. “We weren’t playing well, but we didn’t need to be reminded”.

Even opposing players jumped into the fray.  Houston player rep Denis Menke said, “That was in bad taste.”  Menke went on to protest Kroc’s comments to Marvin Miller, head of the players’ union.

Miller thought Kroc’s actions were unacceptable, too.  “Imagine what would have happened if a player, after being taken out of a game, made an announcement over the P.A. that his manager was stupid. The player would be fined or suspended. I see a direct parallel in the Kroc case.”

Astros’ third baseman Doug Rader said, “He thinks he’s in a sales convention dealing with a bunch of short-order cooks. That’s not the way to go about getting a winner. Somebody ought to sit him down and straighten him out.” Within two weeks Rader had received so many angry calls from short order cooks, that he had to make a public apology.

Houston SpatulaBuzzie Bavasi did the most to defuse the situation.  Taking a cue from Rader’s comments, Bavasi designated the next game in the Houston series “Short Order Cook’s Night”.  Any Padres fan who came wearing a chef’s hat, would be admitted into the game for free.  Rader, the Astro’s team captain, took the lineup card to home plate wearing an apron with a chef’s hat, slipping the card off a skillet with a spatula and handing it over to the home plate umpire, like a pancake.

Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn later forced Kroc to make a public apology, but Sporting News columnist Melvin Durslag wasn’t buying it. “The reason (he’d never seen such stupid baseball playing) was largely due to his inexperience at watching baseball.  He knows as much about the sport as Willie McCovey knows about an Egg McMuffin.”

San Diego went on to lose 102 games that year, 42 more than archrival LA Dodgers.  The season wasn’t halfway over, when the new owner wondered what he’d gotten himself into.  I bought the team to have some fun”, Kroc said.  “But it is proving to be about as enjoyable as a wake.  Your own”.

March 19, 1956 Skunked

For those of us who rooted for the New England Patriots during the losing years, the 1986 Super Bowl XX was the worst moment ever. We all had our “Berry da Bears” shirts on. Life was good when New England took the earliest lead in Super Bowl history, with a field goal at 1:19. After that, the room got quiet. Real quiet.

The term “Blowout” was first applied to sports in 1965, to describe a 40-minute inning in which the St. Louis Cardinals scored seven unearned runs in a 12-2 victory over the Milwaukee Braves. Over time, there have been plenty games that deserve that description.

– Russia’s 1976 Olympic victory over Japan in men’s basketball, 129-63.
– The St. Francis College Fighting Saints 1996 baseball season run record of 71-1.
– Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes victory, of 31 lengths.

The most lopsided college football game ever was in 1916, when Georgia Tech rushed for 1,650 yards and didn’t allow a single first down by Cumberland College. Final score, 222-0.GA Tech v Cumberland

In 1927, Kansas City’s Haven High School beat Sylvia High 256-0. In a record-setting season of blowouts, the 1901 Michigan Wolverines football team defeated all opponents by a combined score of 550-0.

In 1940, Chicago Bears coach George Halas showed his players newspaper clippings, in which the Washington Redskins’ owner called Bears players “crybabies and quitters” after losing 7-3 in regular season. Chicago went on to beat Washington 73-0 in post-season, in a game so lopsided it had to be finished with practice balls. Chicago had kicked them all into the stands, kicking extra points.

The Chicago Colts of the National League defeated Louisville, 36-7 in 1897. The modern Major League Baseball record for margin of victory was set in 2007, when the Texas Rangers defeated the Baltimore Orioles, 30-3. Those 30 runs are also a modern-era record for runs scored in a nine-inning MLB game by one team.

On this day in 1956, the Minnesota Lakers scored one of the most lopsided round ball victories ever over the St. Louis Hawks, 133-75. The blowout was second only to the 1991 Cleveland Cavaliers victory over the Miami Heat, 148-80.Cavs meme

In 2009, Dallas’ Christian Covenant High School girls basketball skunked Dallas Academy, 100-0. The victory was widely condemned: Dallas Academy, a school for students with learning disabilities, had a team of eight out of an entire student body population of 20 girls, yet Covenant continued a full-court press with three-point shots well after taking a halftime lead of 59-0. Covenant’s administration called for a forfeit of its own win, calling it “shameful and an embarrassment.” The coach was fired after he declined to apologize.

Three players have won PGA Tour matches by 16 strokes: J.D. Edgar at the 1919 Canadian Open; Joe Kirkwood, Sr., at the 1924 Corpus Christi Open; and Bobby Locke at the 1948 Chicago Victory National Championship. Tiger Woods has the largest margin of victory in the modern era, with a 15-stroke win at the 2000 U.S. Open.

The Detroit Red Wings beat the New York Rangers 15-0 in 1944, but some of the worst sports disasters ever, have been in international hockey. The 2007 Slovakia women’s team defeated Bulgaria 82-0 in a 2010 Winter Olympics qualifying tournament.  At the 1998 Asia-Oceania Junior Championships, South Korea skunked Thailand 92-0. South Korean forward Donghwan Song scored 31 goals, by himself.

Berry da BearsFor those of us who rooted for the New England Patriots during the losing years, the 1986 Super Bowl XX was the worst moment ever. We all had our “Berry da Bears” shirts on. Life was good when New England took the earliest lead in Super Bowl history, with a field goal at 1:19.

After that, the room got quiet. Real quiet.  New England was held to -19 yards in the first half.  Game MVP went to a defensive end with the perfect name of Richard Dent, as “Da Bears” set or tied Super Bowl records for sacks (7) and fewest rushing yards allowed (also 7). Final score, 46-10.

It was the most humiliating loss in Super Bowl history, until the Denver Broncos took us out of our misery with a 55-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, in Super Bowl XXIV.

February 27, 1992 Founding Father and Son, of Golf

The youngest golfer ever to play in one of the majors (the Masters, US & British Opens and the PGA Championship), was the appropriately named “Young” Tom Morris Jr., a Scot who played in the 1865 British Open at 14 years and four months

On this day in 1992, 16 year old Tiger Woods became the youngest PGA golfer in 35 years, going on to become the first $100 million man on the PGA Tour.

He certainly wasn’t the youngest.  Andy Zhang made the US Open in 2012, at the ripe old age of fourteen years, six months, but even he wasn’t the youngest.

The youngest golfer ever to play in one of the majors (the Masters, US & British Opens and the PGA Championship), was the appropriately named “Young” Tom Morris  Jr., a Scot who played in the 1865 British Open at 14 years and four months.

Morris withdrew from that year’s tournament, at about the time General Robert E. Lee was meeting General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Young Tom went on to win the British Open three years later, winning the equivalent of $12 for the feat. Ironically, the victory came at the expense of his father “Old” Tom Morris, Greenkeeper and club pro at the famous ‘Old Course’ at St. Andrews.IMG_0427.JPG

Young Tom followed that first Open Championship in 1868 with three more, in 1869, 1870 and 1872. His record stands to this day, the only player ever to win four consecutive Open Golf Championships.   (There was no championship in 1871).

Young Tom would win three more Opens before dying on Christmas day, at the age of 24. The first of only two teenagers in history to win any of the majors.

In April 1864, Young Tom attended a tournament with his father, at the King James VI Golf Club.  With days to go before his 13th birthday, he was too young to compete in either the professional or amateur sections.  Local organizers organized a two-man tournament between himself and a local youth champion.  A large gallery followed the two young golf stars throughout their match.  Those who did so were rewarded by seeing young Tom win the match, by a score sufficient to have won the professional tournament.

In 2016, the historical drama “Tommy’s Honour” opened the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival, on June 15, based on one of Sports Illustrated 2007 “Books of the Year”, “Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son”, by Kevin Cook.  The film will be broadcast on the Golf Channel, in spring 2017.

February 24, 1980 The Impossible Dream

The Soviet Union entered the Lake Placid games as heavy favorites, having built a 27-1-1 record since that 1960 upset, outscoring their opponents by a combined 175 to 44

In the world of sports, there may be nothing more boring than the “dream team” sent to represent the US in the 1992 Olympics.  NBA professionals all, these guys are paid in the tens of millions to play their game.  To the surprise of precisely no one, they swept their series with an average of 44 points, against opponents like Angola, Lithuania and Croatia.  Yawn.

We didn’t always send professional athletes to the Olympics.  There was a time when athletes’ amateur status was tightly controlled.  Jim Thorpe, possibly the finest all-round athlete in American history, was stripped of his 1912 gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon, because he had once accepted small sums to play baseball during college summers.  It could not have given him much comfort that those medals were reinstated, in 1983.  By that time, the man had been dead for thirty years.

In 1980, the US hockey team defeated Finland on February 24 to win the gold medal, at the winter Olympics in Lake Placid.  It was almost anti-climactic.  The real drama played out two days earlier, when a collection of American amateurs defeated the mighty Soviet Union.

Canadians dominated Olympic ice hockey in the early days of the event, winning six out of seven gold medals between 1920 and 1952.  Team USA scored a surprise gold at Squaw Valley in 1960, after which the Soviet Union seemed unstoppable, winning gold in 1964, ’68, ’72 &’76.

My fellow children of the cold war will attest, a favorite complaint of the era was the semi-professional status of the former Soviet bloc athletes, particularly those from East Germany and the Soviet Union itself.  Between its first appearance in the 1952 Olympic games and its final appearance in 1988, the Soviet Union was at the top of the combined medal count with 1,204.  Even now they’re second only to that of the United States, a country that’s been participating over twice as long.

The Soviet Union entered the Lake Placid games as heavy favorites, having built a 27-1-1 record since that 1960 upset, outscoring their opponents by a combined 175 to 44.  The 1980 team had world class training facilities, having played together for years in a well-developed league.  Vladislav Tretiak was widely believed to be the best goaltender in the world at that time.  He, defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov and forward Valeri Kharlamov, would all go on to be enshrined in the International Hockey Hall of Fame.

In exhibition games that year, Soviet club teams went 5–3–1 against NHL teams.  A year earlier, the Soviet national team routed an NHL All-Star team 6–0 to win the Challenge Cup.

University of Minnesota coach Herb Brooks had assembled the youngest team in U.S. history to play in the Olympics, with an average age of only 21.  Left wing Buzz Schneider was the only veteran, returning from the 1976 Olympic squad.  Nine players had played under Coach Brooks.  Another four came from archrival Boston University, including goalie Jim Craig, and team captain Mike Eruzione.  For some players, the hostility of that college rivalry carried over to their Olympic teammates.

The Soviet team had demolished earlier opponents by a combined score of 50-11.  The US squad had squeaked out a series of upsets, 23-8. The day before, New York times sports reporter Dave Anderson wrote, “Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle, as did the American squad in 1960, the Russians are expected to easily win the Olympic gold medal for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments.”

Team USSR took an early lead of 2-1 in the first period.  Mark Johnson tied the score with one second left, leading Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov to make the goofiest decision, ever.  He pulled the best goalie in the world, replacing him with backup goaltender Vladimir Myshkin.  The move shocked players on both teams.  Years later, Johnson and Fetisov were NHL teammates, and Johnson asked him about the decision.  “Coach Crazy”, was all he said.

Aleksandr Maltsev scored an unanswered goal on a power play, 2:18 into the second period.  At the end of the second, the Soviet Union led, 3-2.

Mark Johnson scored his second goal of the game at 8:39 in the third, in the last seconds of another power play.  For the American team, it was only the third shot on net, in the last 27 minutes. Vasili Pervukhin got in his goalie’s way with ten minutes to play, as Mike Eruzione fired one past Myshkin to put the Americans ahead, 4-3.

miracle-on-iceThe Soviets attacked ferociously, but Craig let nothing past.  Altogether the Soviet team made 39 shots on goal to the Americans’ 16, but the score held.

In the final moments of the game, the crowd began to count down the seconds.  ABC Sportscaster Al Michaels calling the game in a rising crescendo:  “11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles!? YES!!”

David had slain Goliath.  Rocky Balboa had defeated Captain Ivan Drago.  A bunch of college kids had just beaten the Soviet Union.  Coach Brooks sprinted back to the locker room, and cried.  Pandemonium reigned supreme, as  Jim Craig circled the ice, wrapped in a flag.  ABC sportscaster Jim McKay compared the victory to a Canadian college football team defeating the Superbowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.  Afterward, players spontaneously broke into a chorus of “God Bless America” in the locker room.

sports_illustrated_miracle_on_ice_cover
The March 3, 1980 cover of Sports Illustrated needed no captions. Everyone knew what happened.

In the gold medal round on the 24th, the Americans were behind at the end of the 2nd period, 2-1.  The American team was in the locker room during the second intermission, when coach Brooks said “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your f***ing graves”.  Team USA defeated Finland for the gold medal, 4-2.

IOC President Avery Brundage (1952-1972), was adamant about preserving the amateur status of the Olympics. Once he was gone, the floodgates began to open.  Years later, sportswriter Ron Rapoport said “The pros are there for a reason… The pro athletes are pre-sold to the public, which means increased viewership.”

Nineteen years later, Sports Illustrated called the Miracle on Ice “the top sports moment of the entire 20th century”.

The “Dream Team” of 1992 crossed a line that can never be retaken, but that can’t change the finest moments in sporting history.  For those of us who follow Boston sports, that means the 2004 World Series, the last 2:17 of Superbowl LI, and the Miracle on Ice, of 1980.

February 10, 1920 Play Ball!

In a world where classified information is kept on personal email servers, there are still some secrets so pinky-swear-double-probation-secret that the truth may Never be known

Former Boston Braves pitcher Max Surkont once said “Baseball was never meant to be taken seriously — if it were, we would play it with a javelin instead of a ball”.

I’m not sure about javelins, but I know how much we all love to see home runs when we go see a ballgame.

That’s not always how the game was played. The “Hitless Wonders” of the Chicago White Sox won the 1906 World Series with a .230 club batting average. Manager Fielder Jones said “This should prove that leather is mightier than wood”.  Fielder Allison Jones, that’s the man’s real name.  Is that the greatest baseball name ever, or what?

deadballparksIt was the “dead-ball” era, when an “inside baseball” style of play relied on stolen bases, hit-and-run plays and, more than anything else, speed.

That’s not to say there were no power hitters. In some ways, a triple may be more difficult than a home run, requiring a runner to cover three bases in the face of a defense still in possession of the ball. Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Owen “Chief” Wilson set a record of 36 triples in 1912. “Wahoo” Sam Crawford hit a career record 309 triples in his 18 years in Major League Baseball, playing for the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit tigers between 1899 and 1917. 100 years later, it’s unlikely that either record will ever be broken.

In his 1994 television miniseries “Baseball”, Ken Burns said that “Part of every pitcher’s job was to dirty up a new ball the moment it was thrown onto the field… They smeared it with dirt, licorice, and tobacco juice; it was deliberately scuffed, sandpapered, scarred… and as it came over the plate, [the ball] was very hard to see.”

Spitballs lessened the natural friction with a pitcher’s fingers, reducing backspin anddead-ball causing the ball to drop. Sandpapered, cut or scarred balls tended to “break” to the side of the scuff mark. Balls were rarely replaced in those days.  By the end of a game, the ball was scarred, misshapen and entirely unpredictable.  Major League Baseball outlawed “doctored” pitches on February 10, 1920, though it remained customary to play an entire game with the same ball.

The first ever game to be played “under the lights” was forty years in the past in 1920, but it would be another 15 before the practice became widespread.

Late afternoon on August 16, the Cleveland Indians were playing the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman took the plate in the top of the 5th, submarine-pitcherfacing “submarine” pitcher Carl Mays.  These are not to be confused with the windmill underhand pitches we see in softball.  Submarine pitchers throw side-arm to under-handed, their upper bodies so low that some of them scuff their hands on the ground, the ball rising as it approaches the strike zone.

Chapman never moved, he seems not to have seen it coming. The crack of the ball hitting his head was so loud that Mays thought he had hit the end of the bat, fielding the ball and throwing to first for the out. Wally Pipp, the first baseman better known for losing his starting position to Lou Gehrig because of a headache, immediately knew something was wrong. The batter made no effort to run, slowly collapsing to the ground with blood streaming out of his left ear.

ray_chapman_grave29-year-old Ray Chapman had said this was his last year playing ball.  He wanted to spend more time in the family business he had just married into. The man was right.  Raymond Johnson Chapman died 12 hours later, the only player in the history of Major League Baseball, to die from injuries sustained during a game.

The age of one-ball-per-game died with Ray Chapman, and with it the era of the dead ball. The lively ball era, had begun. Batters loved it, but pitchers complained about having to handle all those shiny new balls.new-balls

MLB rule #3.01(c) states that “Before the game begins the umpire shall…Receive from the home club a supply of regulation baseballs, the number and make to be certified to the home club by the league president. The umpire shall inspect the baseballs and ensure they are regulation baseballs and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed. The umpire shall be the sole judge of the fitness of the balls to be used in the game”.

Umpires would “prep” the ball using a mixture of water and dirt from the field, but this resulted in too-soft covers, vulnerable to tampering. Something had to take the shine off the ball without softening the cover.

rubbing-mudPhiladelphia Athletics third base coach Lena Blackburne took up the challenge in 1938, scouring the riverbanks of New Jersey for just the right mud. Blackburne found his mud hole, describing the stuff as “resembling a cross between chocolate pudding and whipped cold cream”. By his death in the late fifties, Blackburne was selling his “Baseball Rubbing Mud” to every major league ball club in the country, and most minor league teams.rubbing-mud-2

In a world where classified information is kept on personal email servers, there are still some secrets so pinky-swear-double-probation-secret that the truth may Never be known. Among them Facebook “Community Standards” algorithms, the formula for Coca Cola, and the Secret Swamp where Lena Blackburne’s Baseball Rubbing Mud comes from.

Nobody knows, but one thing is certain. The first pitchers will show up to the first spring training camp, a few short days short days from now. Every baseball thrown from pre-season to the 2017 World Series, will first have been de-glossed with Lena Blackburne’s famous, Baseball Rubbing Mud.

Go Sox.