Monday, August 29, 2005

Every Signature Tells a Story: Clem Labine and Flint Journal Softball

Clem Labine pitched for two champions -- and the lowly 1962 Mets.

I was showing off my glorious flannel Mitchell & Ness reproduction of Tom Seaver’s 1969 jersey at a card show where members of the 1962 team were signing autographs.

Clem Labine looked up after signing my Mets history book and smiled.

“Hey, you’re wearing my jersey,” he said.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t know if the old guy had kind of lost it, but I didn’t want to be rude.

“I think this is Tom Seaver’s jersey, Mr. Labine,” I carefully responded.

“Nope. I was No. 41 first. Look it up.”

It finally sunk in. For some reason it never occurred to me that other Mets had worn No. 41. I assumed it was the exclusive property of “The Franchise” – and me.

I’ve been wearing No. 41 as a tribute to Tom for as long as I’ve been wearing anything with a number.

One of the responsibilities of being the coach of the Flint Journal’s coed softball team all those years was ordering our jerseys. Being a certifiable uniform junkie, I put great effort into designing our gameware each year. I’d spend the winter planning. We didn't always play well, but we looked awesome!

Our colors were black, red and white because we were a newspaper team. You know the joke from the era before USA Today: “What’s black and white and red (read) all over?

And of course, I got first choice on the numbers. It was a given that No. 41 was locked up.

Looking through the history books, it might have been better if the Mets had locked 41 in the closet until Seaver arrived.

Labine had a nice career, finishing with a 77-56 record in 13 years winning World Championships with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955 and Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960 -- beating vile Yankees both times!

But his magic was gone by the time the expansion Mets were grabbing former Dodgers and Giants. Labine appeared in 3 games, pitching 4 innings and posting an ugly 11.25 ERA before being released.

No. 41 didn’t fare much better the next year, when Grover Powell wore it in 20 games, wrapping up with a 1-1 record and 2.72 ERA.

Jim Bethke wore the number in 1965, with a 2-0 record and 4.28 ERA. But he gave way to Gordon Richardson later that year, who went 2-4 in 50 games over the remainder that season and 1966.

Of course, Seaver debuted in 1967, and today it hangs on the wall at Shea Stadium with Casey, Gil and Jackie.

At the press conference when Seaver announced his retirement in 1987, a reporter asked him how he game upon the number that would be as identifiable to him as No. 3 is with the Babe, No. 44 with the Hammer and No. 9 with the Splinter.

“It’s a very romantic story,” Seaver said with a smile. “I arrived at my locker on my first day and it was hanging there.”

That equipment manager in 1967 had no idea about the important role he’d play in Journal coed softball uniforms somewhere down the line.

In Other Words...

Thanks to the folks at Mets by the Numbers, an amazingly detailed site about every number worn by every Mets player and more. It's one of those site that you start reading, then suddenly realize an hour has gone by.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Roberto Hernandez, the Fish and a Happy Pre-Teen

Getting a ball and proving your Dad wrong...priceless!

I’ve snagged two balls in 34 years of attending Major League Baseball games.

My son Andrew equaled his old man’s lifetime total during one Florida Marlins game last year.

You need to know that my Dad spoils me wildly, and we were at Joe Robbie-Pro Player-Dolphins-Whatever This Week’s Name Is Stadium as the gates opened for a July 26, 2004 game against the Phils.

I don’t know about you guys, but I have set routines for going to a game. I’m incapable of going right to my seat and plopping down until the last out. I have to walk the entire concourse to see every concession booth -- on the off chance that one has different stuff – and scout out the assorted food options before settling in for batting practice.

My Dad lets me get away with this.

We had already inspected everything along the first base side and were working our way around rightfield looking for glorious arepea stands when Andrew spotted Roberto Hernandez – he was a Phillie then – and other pitchers shagging flies and tossing some balls into the stands.

Andrew, who had just turned 12, immediately asked to go down where the other kids were. In one of those all-knowing father voices, I said “You will never get a ball. Keep walking with us.”

But Dad said he wouldn’t mind a break if Andrew wanted to give it a shot.

“That man’s name is Roberto Hernandez. Remember to say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’ You have 5 minutes,” I said, though he was already halfway down the aisle by the time I finished. Dad and I grabbed a seat in the last row of the section.

I swear that within two minutes of Andrew reaching the first row, a ball was hit over Hernandez’s head and stopped near the base of the wall, right where Andrew was standing.

I sat there in disbelief as Hernandez picked up the ball, looked up and placed it in Andrew’s outstretched hand.

Andrew walked back up the aisle with his trophy and said “See, told ya.”

There is nothing that makes a pre-teen happier than being able to tell his father “Told ya.”

We found the booth selling the areapas, a Latin-American treat made from two slices of sweet cornbread grilled with cheese. It's the Marlins' version of selling a knish. Then we and settled in to our seats for the game, which featured A.J. Burnett going up against Kevin Millwood. Dad landed primo seats, 12 rows behind the Marlins’ dugout.

Now, I haven’t brought my glove to a game since I was a kid because I can’t remember the last time a foul ball came to my section, much less my row. Plus it’s hard to keep score wearing a glove. And besides, I can catch anything that comes close, right?

But about midway through the game an absolute screamer goes right past me. I thought about reaching out for it for a millisecond, and it’s probably a good thing I didn’t. It struck an empty seat about five away from me. A slow-moving elderly man had been sitting in that spot until the inning before, and I can only imagine what would have happened to him had he still been there.

So we missed out on a second ball. Or so we thought.

Later in the game, an inning ended with a throw to Marlins first-baseman Hee Seop Choi, who tossed it into the stands on his way to the dugout. It was caught by a guy in the row behind us who tapped Andrew on the shoulder and said, “Here you go, bud!”

And just like that, the 12-year-old had his second Major League ball, just as many as his Dad. Someday, I'll hear the end of this.

A local hobby shop had one of those stands that hold a card and a ball, so I found Topps Total cards of Choi and Hernandez, now proudly displayed with the balls in Andrew’s room.

His conquests were exciting to be sure, but I’m still partial to that magical, misty night in Tiger Stadium when Frank Thomas cemented by fandom.

In other words...

Roberto Hernandez, of course, is now one of the best relievers in the Mets bullpen. So he likely won't ever appear on Mets Walkoffs list of the worst Mets relievers, an awesome post. As an added bonus, it inspired Metstradmaus to reveal how he once taught Donne Wall and Lenny Harris lessons they won't soon forget!

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Yankee Upstairs

In hindsight, It’s probably better that I didn’t realize the guy living right above us was Yankees pitcher Scott Kamieniecki.

My wife and I had just moved into a new apartment in our sprawling complex, landing a better unit with two bedrooms and a washer and dryer. It had only two floors, and four units – two upstairs and two down -- shared a little foyer and an outside door.

I claimed the extra bedroom as my first “baseball room,” a place to hang the glorious life-sized posters of Tom Seaver, Frank Thomas and Harold Baines, the pennants I’d collected since childhood and other stuff.

In the six years we lived in apartments, I can’t say we really got to know any of the neighbors other than a “good morning” when we passed, only sometimes even knowing their names

So it wasn’t much of shock that I didn’t really formally meet the new family that moved upstairs in the fall of 1992. The guy had one of those nasty halo harnesses you wear after a neck injury, and he had a wife and young child.

I saw them a couple times as we passed in and out, even once in Meijer, which is a big store here in the Midwest. My wife was a little miffed after she helped the woman carry some boxes once. Julie introduced herself, the woman said, “We’re only here until our house is done being built” and closed the door on her.

My colleagues in the Flint Journal’s sports department did a good job keeping track of local athletes in the pros, and Flint’s got a lot of them. On the baseball side, Scott Aldred, Mickey Weston and Jeff Hamilton were from suburbs. Scott Kamieniecki was from Mount Clemens, which is closer to Detroit than Flint. But his wife was from Grand Blanc, a Flint suburb where we lived.

My friends at the local card store stayed on top of such things, too. Dave “Pop” Zittel was a retired school administrator who was active with sports programs and opened the store with his brother as a hobby. He knew everyone, and told me Kamieniecki was moving into the area. And we had read that he was having some kind of neck surgery during the off-season.

But I never thought that the guy living upstairs might be the Yankees pitcher. And we barely took notice when the family moved out after a short time. People moved in and out all the time.

A new family moved in, and one day they placed a letter atop of the mailbox in the foyer, and wrote on the envelope “Please forward to Scott Kamieniecki” and the address.

Finally, all the dots were connected…neck surgery…building a house…wife from the area…A MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHER IS LIVING RIGHT ABOVE ME! Or, more accurately, was living above me.

My wife said, “Oh yeah, when I helped the woman with the box I saw all kinds of bags with the Yankees logo on them.”

“And you neglected to tell me this why?” I asked.

“Well, when the woman closed the door on me, I thought ‘That’s not very nice' and forgot all about the bags.”

I was crushed. The guy was living right upstairs from my baseball room.

Looking back, I realize this could have gone one of two ways:

Scenario one: Me and Scott become tight buddies, he comes downstairs to hang out and tells funny stories about Rickey Henderson while I throw some brats on the Weber. Then he teaches me a devastating change-up so I can finally beat Will at Wiffle Ball. When the Bombers pull into Detroit during the season he sets us up with tickets behind home plate.

Scenario two: Overcome at having a Major League ballplayer live upstairs, I’m reduced to a stuttering, pointing mass whenever I see my new neighbor, who humors me once by accepting a tour of the baseball room and deeply regrets it when I retell the story of Reggie Jackson and the Hall of Fame ball for the third time. From that point on, Scott tiptoes past my door and up the stairs every time he enters the building to avoid making contact with me, who rushes to the window every time I hear a door slam in the parking lot.

Yup, I think we know which one of those paths we would have walked down.

Kamieniecki, who still lives near Flint, had a nice career in the majors, pitching 10 years with a 53-49 record and 4.52 ERA. He was with the Yanks from 1991 to 1996, spent some time with Baltimore from 1997 to 1990 and split 2000 with the Indians and Braves.

And let’s just say I’ve made it a point to thoroughly get to know any and all new neighbors – just in case.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Hall of Fame Atrocities

I’m hearing a lot of bellyaching about Rafael Palmiero and whether he should go into the Hall of Fame.

Of course he should, unless you want to exclude every other slugger from the juiced era. Raffy may be the first to actually get caught -- not counting leaked grand jury testimony -- but I think no one at this point will be shocked to find out that every great slugger of this era except Mike Piazza was having, ahem, accidental doses of flaxseed oil.

And besides, there are far, far worse things defiling baseball’s sacred shrine in Cooperstown.

I'm talking, of course, about the complete lack of respect to players belonging to a certain New York team -- and some completely unworthy adulation heaped upon another New York team. Some of these omissions are fixable, and we’d better get to it before it’s too late and our hallowed Hall starts to resemble that tacky truck stop in Canton that football calls its hall. The integrity of the baseball Hall itself is at stake, so let's get busy.

Phil Rizzuto: Why does this plaque exist? Enshrining Scooter alone almost forces the place to change its name to the “Hall of Fame Plus an Unworthy Guy Added When the Veteran’s Committee Relented to the Yankee PR Machine.” If Scooter was so good, why did it take 38 years after he retired to put him in? He won an MVP. Well, Dale Murphy has two, and he’s on the outside. The presence of this plaque among true heroes like Jackie Robinson, Tom Seaver and Ted Williams should allow anyone paying admission to demand a refund. I realize that the Yankees would like us to enshrine all their players, even weasels like Derek Jeter, and they darn near get away with it. But we've got to draw the line somewhere, and that line should have been drawn in front of Scooter.

At least this Scooter fiasco is easily repairable, given a crow bar and a few distracted security guards. Some of these other atrocities will be more difficult to fix. I submit the following:

Reggie Jackson: Why is this man wearing a Yankees cap? Baseball’s all-time strikeout king – as a batter, mind you – played 10 years for the Athletics and won three World Series and an MVP. He played five years for the Yankees, a tenure largely remembered for getting Billy Martin fired a couple times and one evening where some rubber-armed Dodger hurlers playing away from their pitcher-friendly yard allow him to doink a hit or three into the cheap seats in a World Series game. And that’s supposed to get him in Lou Gehrig’s company? And we all know what Reggie does when you ask him to sign your Hall of Fame ball. You can read about it here.

Willie Mays: Why is Willie wearing a San Francisco cap on his plaque? Mays started in New York, and he closed his brilliant career in New York, playing a couple seasons – well, 14 of them – on the West Coast. The Hall could have made both Giants and Mets fans happy by using a New York Giants cap, which, of course, bears a striking resemblance to the Mets cap. But no, Metsies are given the short end of the Hall stick. I’m not a big conspiracy guy, but this happens a lot, as you will soon read.

Yogi Berra: I’m fairly confident Yogi is rightfully wearing a Mets cap on his plaque. You just can’t see it -- another slight! And I can’t blame him for dissing the Yanks after the way the team treated him. Yogi played his entire career in pinstripes, became their manager, took them to the World Series in his first year as skipper and they went and fired the guy. So the Mets brought him over, coaxed him out of retirement for four very important games in 1965 and put him at the helm when fatherly Gil Hodges unexpectedly dies. Of course, Yogi took the Mets to the series, too. Now, look at his plaque: “Managed Yankees to pennant in 1964.” Hello! What are we forgetting? Who’s writing this stuff, Bob Klapisch and his Yankee apologist buddies? I know, I know, Yogi was elected to the Hall in 1972, before the 1973 “You Gotta Believe” team. But that’s what happens when you start adding managerial stuff to plaques when a guy is still managing.

Nolan Ryan: Another clear example of the Mets not getting the love. Ryan pitched five years for the Mets, the same number as he did for the Rangers. His tenure with the Mets is best remembered for a win in the first-ever NLCS and a fine performance in the World Series, earning the only ring of his 27-year career. Meanwhile, his time with the Rangers is remembered for bitch-slapping Robin Ventura. And we have to keep in mind that the Mets made the ultimate act of charity by giving Ryan to a poor, struggling Angels team in search of an identity. For all that, we don’t even get a mention in the text of his plaque. I could forgive the non-reference if he was at least donning that classy interlocking NY on his plaque cap.

Gary Carter: The Expos' abstract logo is hard enough to figure out when it's in color. But in bas relief on a plaque? Forget about it! I can picture a young fan in the not-so-distant future admiring the plaques of baseball's heroes and saying, "Daddy, why does this guy have a moose footprint on his cap? Isn't this the guy who started the Miracle of Game Six with a base hit?" The father will say, "Well, son, it is true that Gary Carter is known as a Met and even wanted to go into the Hall as a Met. But the people running baseball were feeling guilty for screwing up what was a great team in Montreal through a series of inept owners, including the commissioner. Yes, he owned even another team at the time. Sometimes that's called a conflict of interest. But we can read about that on his plaque. I think he's wearing a Yankee cap. Anyway, the guilt-ridden people running baseball wanted proof that the Expos existed, so they strong-armed the Hall into putting the Montreal logo on the cap."

There you go. I have issues with the plaques of Richie Asburn, Warren Sphan, Casey Stengel and Eddie Murray, but you see the devious tend at work here.

Luckily there's still time for us to start pressuring the Hall for the proper cap to be proudly displayed on the plaques of Rickey Henderson, Tom Glavine, Mike Piazza and Pedro Martinez.

In other words...

Speaking of Pedro, he's only the latest Mets pitcher to have a no-hitter foiled. The guys at Faith and Fear in Flushing have a great article about the rogue's gallery of dream-killers here.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Ballpark Ghosts: The Met and the Mall

All that remains of Metropolitan Stadium, former home of the Minnesota Twins.

Imagine a ballpark so bad that a domed, plastic-grassed multipurpose barn was an improvement.

Picture a ballpark so woebegone that tearing it down and replacing it with a mall was actually a pretty good idea.

We can only be talking about Metropolitan Stadium, home to the Minnesota Twins from 1961 to 1981.

I was visiting Minneapolis for an education writers conference in 1996, and used some free time to wander over to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The Twins were on the road, but I was hoping to check out a gift shop.

I got even luckier.

I walked in and an employee asked "Are you here for the tour?"

"Why yes. Yes, I am," I replied, thinking quickly.

"They just started." the employee said. "You can catch up with them."

Sure enough, a group of kids — they might have been Cub Scouts — was there on some kind of field trip. I think the other dads thought I was a chaperoning parent who they hadn’t met yet. I tagged along in the rear of the group. No one asked who I was, and I didn’t volunteer information other than some small talk like, "Hey, they kids sure are enjoying the tour. This was a good idea." A good adventure always has risk.

The Hubert Humphrey Metrodome, not the nicest-looking ballpark.

We walked through some of the luxury boxes and some of the service corridors. The clubhouses were off-limits, but we were able to go out on to the field.

A college football team was practicing down one end of the turf, but we were allowed to wander around right field. Some of the kids and I had fun pretending to make Kirby Puckett-esque catches against the "Hefty bag" that serves as the outfield wall. A massive Dodge ad seemed to stretch from the foul pole all the way to centerfield.

I was struck by just how cavernous the place was. The team made some half-hearted attempts to dress it up with some banners of players hanging along the roof. And there was no hiding it’s multi-purpose-ness.

It didn’t seem like it was a particularly nice place to see or play a game, though there’s no denying the Twins have enjoyed some success there.

Of course, after reading about where the Twins used to play, the Metrodome seemed like paradise.

Metropolitan Stadium was built for the Minneapolis Millers of the minor leagues in 1956, but it was clear it was intended to lure a Major League team. It had a curved, triple-decker grandstand stretching from first base to third, and some temporary bleachers.

The Washington Senators arrived and were renamed the Twins in time for the 1961 season, and the first and second decks of the grandstand on the first base side were extended down the left field line. But for some reason, only better bleachers were added along the right field line, creating what I’m assuming were some horrible sight lines.

What was already a hodgepodge became even worse when the Vikings football team added a double-decked pavilion in left field, kind of an early version of the disaster in Oakland where the Athletics and Raiders share a stadium.

Given all these issues, it wasn’t long before there was talk of leveling the stadium, with the usual debate about who would be picking up the tab. Apparently maintenance was scaled back to accelerate the pace, and it got so bad that in the ballpark’s final season the third deck was considered a safety hazard because of broken railings.

But a bad setting doesn’t always make for bad baseball. The Twins went to the World Series in 1965 and took the division crown in 1969 and 1970. Zolio Versalles earned an MVP and Jim Perry a Cy Young. Hall-of-Famers Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew played at the Met, along with Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva and Bert Blyleven, players who still get strong Cooperstown consideration.

Metropolitan Stadium was leveled in the early 1980s to make way for the Mall of America, which I learned is only a $1 bus ride away from downtown Minneapolis. I had some time after to conference ended and caught the bus, curious to see if anything remained of the stadium.

The mall itself is not especially exciting. It’s pretty much the same stores you see in every other mall — just more of them — with a small theme park in the middle.

A Camp Snoopy employee pointed me to a plaque in the floor that rests in the approximate location of home plate.

And high on a wall sits a stadium seat — with no way to get to it. That’s the spot where Killebrew hit the longest home run in Metropolitan Stadium history, a 520-foot blast on June 3, 1967.

In Other Words...

There are two Web sites, and that I find to be awesome resources for stadium histories.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Forces That Heal: Tom Seaver's 300th Win

You just know there are cosmic forces at work in baseball.

Usually the forces show their hands with a foul ball to Steve Bartman or a slow roller to Bill Buckner, keeping ancient storylines alive.

But sometimes the forces work to heal. I submit Aug. 4, 1985, twenty years ago this month, as proof.

If M. Donald Grant stabbed Mets fans in the heart by trading Tom Seaver to the Reds in 1977, losing him a second time in 1984 was like taking the wounded pump and throwing it out on the tracks in front of the No. 7 train.

Back then, teams that lost a player through free agency were allowed to compensate by selecting from a pool of unprotected players from each of the other teams.

The Mets, with a rotation of decent starters and Dwight Gooden on the horizon, figured no one would take an icon with a 9-14 record.

Wrong. The White Sox lost pitcher Dennis Lamp to the Blue Jays, they picked Seaver from the pool.

I didn’t take this well.

Just a hunch, but I think I was the only community college newspaper editor in the country to direct his cartoonist to take general manager Frank Cashen to task.

Tom pitched well in Chicago over the next season and a half and I closely followed his march toward 300 wins. He aimed at No. 299 against the Red Sox on July 30, and a win there would mean he’d get to go for the historic milestone in New York, where he never should have left.

Here’s were cosmic forces come into play. Seaver pitched nine innings in a 4-4 tie. But the Chisox threw three runs on the board atop the tenth to get Tom the win.

The next day, my dad bought tickets so the entire family could make our first trip to Yankee Stadium. I was beyond thrilled, and it was appropriate that we could experience it together. Lord knows my folks suffered through my devotion to the Mets and Seaver over the years. And I was leaving for the University of Missouri in a couple weeks, and this would be a meaningful send-off.

Sadly for the Yankees, the team had selected that day to honor Phil Rizzuto, retire his number and throw another plaque up in Memorial Park. Because you know, Ruth, Gehrig and the Scooter…all cut from the same cloth. Whatever.

Rizzuto never had a chance. As he was being showered in trips and golf balls, Tom tried to slip down to the bullpen to get warmed up. That’s when the chanting shouted, “SEA-VER…SEA-VER” cascading down from the upper deck.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Seaver, but you’re going to have to get your win in another city,” Rizzuto said in his remarks. Whatever. Phil then got stepped on by a real cow with a fake halo, which is about right.

The game went by like a blur. The Yanks stepped out to an early lead. Several times, “Let’s go Mets” chants broke out -- probably for the first time ever in that yard. The White Sox sent four across in the top of the sixth. The Yanks threatened in the eighth and the ninth, but the baseball forces were clearly determined to right a wrong.

The stadium erupted as Don Baylor, the home team’s slugger, flied out to Reid Nichols, just below our seats out in left. I can still see Seaver jumping into the arms of fellow future Hall-of-Famer Carlton Fisk, then running to the stands to his family while I hugged members of mine.

I’ll never forget the chills and the tears of that sunny afternoon. The uniform might have read SOX, but I didn’t see it. For a day, M. Donald Grant’s spiteful banishing to Cincinnati didn’t happen. For a day, the front office didn’t make the mistake of not protecting “The Franchise.” For a day, he never left and claimed his historic win before the fans who would enjoy seeing it the most.

Do you believe? The final score that day was 4-1, the same as the uniform number that would eventually be retired at Shea. Over in Chicago the Mets were playing the Cubs and Dwight Gooden won his 11th straight game. The score in that game: 4-1.

And give Tom credit for taking care of business, pitching a complete game. Will, me and the rest of the Executive Board were in Detroit the day Roger Clemens made an attempt at his 300th win. He was pulled in the sixth with a 7-1 lead, only to have the Yankee infield kick the ball around and allow an historically bad Tigers team to tie the game. He lost his next game to the Cubs, and only lasted 6.2 innings in the game against the Cardinals when he eventually reached the milestone.

Perhaps it wasn’t Clemens’ fault. He didn’t have the cosmic forces on hand to mend wounded hearts.

In Other Words...

Three Hall-of-Famers played in that game, another -- Rickey Henderson -- is a lock to be a first-ballot inductee. Which active players will join them in Cooperstown? Will analyzes their chances this week on You can read it here. The Hall-of-Famers were Seaver, Fisk and Dave Winfield. Two guys who fall just short -- Harold Baines and Don Mattingly -- played, as well as future managers Baylor, Ozzie Guillen and Willie Randolph.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Every Signature Tells a Story: "Double Duty," "Peanut" and a Lesson Learned

Tigers pitcher Mike Henneman in his Detroit Stars uniform.

Sometimes I think I know a lot about baseball history.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by what I don’t know.

I was excited when I heard the Detroit Tigers would be honoring Negro League players by wearing Detroit Stars uniforms for a July 8, 1995 game. They were playing the Kansas City Royals, who would be wearing the Kansas City Monarchs road grays, modeled below by Wally Joyner. The team is playing a similar tribute game this weekend.

And I was even more excited that some of the Negro League stars would be on hand to sign autographs. Historic uniforms and free autographs – that’s all good. I have a lot of respect for these players. I never will be able to imagine how frustrating and hurtful it must have been to be prevented from playing in the Major Leagues because of their race.

Will and I arrived early and hopped on the line where Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Lester Lockett and Dennis Biddle were signing; all were in good spirits and sharing stories about their playing days.

There was a woman sitting behind the table, too. Some people were asking for her autograph, which I thought was strange. I didn’t know if she was a player’s wife or an assistant. We made polite small talk while waiting my turn to pass a ball to the next player.

Signatures secured, we slipped down to the field to watch batting practice and snap some photos of the players in their Negro League uniforms. One of things I enjoyed most about old Tiger Stadium was that you could get right down near the field.

Before long, “Double Duty” was brought on to the field for some television interviews. He was 93 then, and celebrated his 103rd birthday in July and passed away Aug. 11.
Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe interviewed before the game. He passed away Aug. 11.

Before the game, the Tigers brought each of the Negro Leaguers out on the field, and I noticed the woman walked out with the rest.

The Tigers announcer introduced her as Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, one of three women to play in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s.

Will looked over and said “Oops!”

I was deeply embarrassed, exposed as both ignorant and sexist in one swoop.

Later I did the research. Johnson -- a right-handed pitcher -- and teammates Toni Stone and Connie Morgan played for the Indianapolis Clowns. Johnson posted a 33-8 record and credits Satchell Paige with helping her with her curve ball.

She was called "Peanut" after Monarchs third baseman Hank Bayliss came to bat against her and called out “You're nothing but a peanut!” Johnson struck him out and the name stuck.

Remember that scene in “A League of Their Own” when the black woman picks up and overthrown ball and whips it back on to the field? That’s homage to Johnson, who was turned away from a tryout when All American Girls Professional Baseball League would not allow black women to play in the all-white league.

Johnson taught me a lesson that day, and she’s still teaching, speaking about Negro League history around the country.

The other players I met that day also have interesting stories. Radcliffe got his nickname in the 1932 Negro League World Series, when he caught Satchel Paige in the first game of a doubleheader, then pitched a shutout in the second game.

Biddle, who pitched for the Chicago American Giants, tied Bob Feller’s record of winning five games as a 17-year-old in 1953, turned 18 and won 10 more. He injured his arm and was out of the game by 19. Today he is an executive with the Helmar Brewing Company.

Lockett played during the 1930s and 1940s with the Birmingham Black Barons, Philadelphia Stars, Cincinnati Clowns, Chicago American Giants and the Baltimore Elite Giants, hitting more than .400 twice.

I humbly apologize to Mrs. Johnson, and if I ever have the opportunity I’d be honored to have her sign my Negro leagues ball.

In Other Words...

Greg at the always interesting Faith and Fear in Flushing site has a great article about how he is finally thinking about Tom Glavine as a Met and not some former Brave parading in a Mets uniform, almost forgiving him for his Atlanta misdeeds. You can read it here.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Off-the-Wall Mets Treasures are Part of the Fun

Some of the fine relics Will and I saw at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago last weekend were valued at thousands of dollars — hundreds of thousands in the case of the famed Honus Wagner card that was on display.

But my favorite purchase of the day set me back a whole buck.

See, while I can appreciate the expensive stuff, I'll never afford it. Luckily, I've developed a fondness for the strange and the fun, the off-the-beaten-trail treasures you usually find in the bargain bins.

I’m talking about items like my new Mets outlet cover.

Hey, anybody can walk out of there with a Startling Lineup figure. Lots of dealers were selling them. But I also like the stuff you come across once in your life.

This particular treasure was in a box in front of a table stacked high with McFarlane sports action figures, which are amazing. But I cheered when I pulled out the outlet cover, about as loud as I did when Will found the affordable stack of 1971 Topps high numbers.

It’s just too strange. Think about it. I’ve seen Mets switch plates before, and that makes sense. Light switches are in visible places. But outlet covers? I usually hide them behind the book shelf.

And that’s what makes it cool.

There are a bunch of wonderfully off-beat items decorating my basement baseball room, from the Mike Piazza yo-yo to the Tom Seaver super-ball.
There are even some semi-useful things, like the Mets logo salt and pepper shakers, the Gil Hodges coasters and serving tray and the Tom Seaver Action Baseball game, where you hit a marble and it rolls into different slats. All are fun, all are on display.

Then there are the "what in the heck were they thinking" things. Those are the classics.

Clearly some company paid the Major League Baseball properties licensing fee, then wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Mets fly fishing lure: What can you catch with this? Marlins, of course.

The Mets toothbrush: It’s shaped like a bat, and hangs in a little adhesive-backed stand with the logo.

The Mets bike reflector: You gotta keep safe biking home from night games.

The Mets pocket radio: This might be able to pick up “Mike and the Mad Dog” — if I was standing right next to the transmitter.

The John Franco “Happy Birthday” greeting: This is a cassette where Franco reads a generic birthday greeting, then shares a baseball memory. It’s fun, it’s in his own voice and I’d love to get it on my iPod somehow.

Other than the Franco tape — which I just had to hear — I don’t know if these work. I keep them in their package and hang them on a cork-covered wall in the basement with the Mets subway ads, player buttons and other glorious relics.

The best head-scratcher in the bunch isn’t actually a Mets item, but it’s still amazingly cool.

It’s an official SkyDome international time zone calculator. There’s a photo of the stadium on the front, and when you open it up there’s a map of the world with the time zones and a little wheel so you can calculate what time the game starts when the Blue Jays are in Seattle. Or Asia.
So keep the Honus Wagner card. I’d rather save space for my new outlet cover.

In Other Words...

One of the best things purchased at the National was “The Fenway Project,” published by the Society of American Baseball Research. SABR collected 64 stories of Fenway for the book, including one from Will that starts on page 35. We’ll have complete coverage of the convention at