Category Archives: Baseball History

I Don’t Know Medicine … but I Do Know History

I don’t have a medical opinion. And I don’t usually weigh on on things I don’t know about. Still, I don’t really understand why the NHL seems so gung-ho to get back to business. Intellectually, I understand it. Hockey is big business … and, specifically, they’re not looking to extend any of their current television contracts any further than they have to, which they might be forced to do if they are no playoffs this year. Personally, I couldn’t possibly care less about that reason.

Emotionally, I understand it too. Fans say they want to see hockey back. I care a little bit more about that. Still, I have a hard time taking Gary Bettman at his word when he says “our fans are telling us” they want it. I certainly believe that most fans do want it… I just don’t believe that sways Mr. Bettman as much as he wants us to think. Yes, I seem to recall Bettman saying something along the lines of, “our fans are telling us they want us to get our economic house in order,” during the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season. But my guess is, most of those fans would also have said they didn’t want to see the entire season cancelled. (And they DO want NHL players at the Olympics.) So, I basically believe Gary Bettman says and does what’s good for Gary Bettman and the NHL … which is his job, after all.

Gary Bettman announced the NHL’s plans in a video on Tuesday.

We have to trust that Bettman is being sincere when he says the NHL won’t come back if it isn’t safe to play … but I wouldn’t want to bet my life on it! I’m not a doctor. I don’t know where we’re headed any better than most of you do. Still, I don’t believe it’s right for thousands upon thousands of tests (or personal safety equipment) to be made available to professional athletes when so many people who truly need them are still going without. It also seems to me that the athletes themselves are being treated by the owners as little more than chattel – well-paid chattel, admittedly – when they’re being told they might have to isolate for months and months to get the season done. But if they agree, then it’s not for me to decide.

Personally, I’d have no problem if the NHL just called off the season and concentrated on restarting anew in the fall if it proves safe to do so. I’ve yet to watch any of the German soccer games without crowds, and I don’t really know what NHL hockey in empty arenas will be like. I’m also not sure I care to be inside watching hockey games in July and August … unless we’re all forced to be inside again by then. And if we are, how safe will it be to play these games?

The one thing on which I do agree with Gary Bettman is that IF conditions prove safe enough for the return of hockey, the proposal the NHL has made to crown a champion seems like an interesting one that should determine a worthy champion.

The Stanley Cup has undergone many “format” changes
during its long history. So have the Stanley Cup playoffs.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the NHL has called an end to the regular season. Because no one had completed the schedule yet, and not all teams have played the same number of games, the playoffs that will (might!) commence will be expanded from 16 teams to 24. There will be 12 playoff teams in each of the two conferences. The teams will be housed in two yet-to-be-determined “hub” cities where all the games will take place. The top four teams in each conference based on points percentage from the standings when play was halted will be given a bye through the opening “qualifying round.” While the lower 16 teams are playing in best-of-five series to determine which eight teams will continue in the playoffs, the top teams will play round-robin tournaments to determine their seedings as the top teams in each conference. The playoffs will then proceed with 16 teams playing four rounds to decide the Stanley Cup champion. It isn’t known yet if all the playoff rounds will be best-of-sevens as we’ve become used to, or if the first two rounds might be something shorter.

A while back, I heard several NHL players on TV saying how the only true and fair way to determine the Stanley Cup champion is through four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs. I’ve read writers who’ve commented that with anything less, “historians will call the championship into question.” Well, this is one historian who will never call it into question!

The NHL likes to boast that the Stanley Cup is the hardest championship of all to win. That may be true, but the NHL playoff format has hardly been carved in stone! Yes, the NHL has been playing four rounds of playoffs since 1980, and all four rounds have been best of sevens since 1987. Yet even within that setup, the NHL has tinkered plenty. And before that? Does anyone question the greatness of the 1970s Montreal dynasty because they didn’t have to win 16 playoff games? (Only 12.) Or any of the great teams of the so-called “Original Six” era because they had to win just two rounds of playoffs? Hell, even the great Islanders teams of the early 1980s, who won an astounding 19 straight playoffs series, only had to win 15 games, not 16.

The 1987 Edmonton Oilers were the first champions that had to win 16 games.

And even if it’s true that the NHL is mainly trying to salvage the playoffs for financial reasons, it’s also true that the playoffs in professional hockey have almost always been about the money!

In the early days of hockey, there were no playoffs at all. League champions were simply the team that finished the schedule with the best record. Postseason games were only played to break ties if two teams topped the standings with identical records. Once the Stanley Cup came along in 1893, championship teams from rival leagues were allowed to challenge the reigning champion for the trophy. There were still no league playoffs, and some of these teams played as few as four regular-season games. None in these early years played more than 20. Before 1914, the Stanley Cup challenges these teams took part in were either a one-game, winner-take-all match, a two-game, total-goals series, or a best-of-three playoff.

Ottawa dropped out of its league after playing just four games in 1904. The defending Stanley Cup champions were still allowed to accept challenges for the trophy.

These limited Stanley Cup formats were first called into question before the start of the 1912-13 season. Lester Patrick and his brother Frank had created the Pacific Coast Hockey Association the year before. In October of 1912 (likely influenced by the Boston Red Sox thrilling World Series win over the New York Giants), Lester Patrick spoke of his desire to see the Stanley Cup playoffs enlarged to a best-of-seven series, or even a best-five-of-nine. When Lester’s 1912–13 Victoria Aristocrats won the PCHA championship, he would have liked to challenge the National Hockey Association’s Quebec Bulldogs for the Stanley Cup. However, he realized that he wouldn’t even be able to cover his expenses if he took his team some 3,000 miles across Canada by train to play a two-game series in Quebec’s tiny home arena. The following season, the PCHA and the NHA agreed that their two champions would meet in an annual best-of-five Stanley Cup series. The NHL would continue that agreement, and a best-of-five mostly remained the Stanley Cup standard (with a couple of best-of-threes on occasion) until the first best-of-seven Final in 1939.

As for league playoffs en route to the Stanley Cup, the first time a top hockey league created its own independent playoff was in 1916-17 when the NHA split its regular season into two parts. The champions from the first half of the schedule met the champions from the second in a postseason playoff for the right to take on the PCHA champions for the Stanley Cup. (The NHL continued that set up through 1921.) What we think of as the modern playoff format was introduced by the Patricks in the PCHA in 1917-18. Their system pitted the top two teams against each other at the end of a full slate of regular season games.

Lester Patrick (left) and his brother Frank weren’t much older
than this when they created sports first modern playoff format.

The reason the Patricks gave for introducing their new format was that a second-place team might be coming on strong at the end of a season while a first-place team was struggling to hang on after a fast start. Perhaps the second-place team was truly the better team by the end of the season, and didn’t they deserve a chance to go after the Stanley Cup? But if even it hadn’t dawned on them right away (which it probably did!), the Patricks quickly realized that the playoffs kept up fan interest in cities that might otherwise be out of contention … and that these new postseason games were a pretty good way to make a buck!

This reality was hammered home to the NHL in 1924 after Frank Patrick’s Vancouver Maroons finished in second place in the PCHA standings, and then eliminated the first-place Seattle Metropolitans. A new league – the Western Canada Hockey League – had emerged onto the Stanley Cup scene in 1922, but there was no real consensus yet on how to work out a three-team playoff. Frank Patrick decided that his team should play a best-of-three series against the WCHL champion Calgary Tigers en route to Montreal … even though both Western teams would still have a chance to face the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup. This angered NHL executives.

“When we arrived in Montreal,” Frank recalled, “[Canadiens owner] Leo Dandurand wouldn’t even speak to me. He staged a party for the Western clubs and invited everybody but me. Finally, after a couple of days, Leo weakened and ask me what we had played the bye series for. ‘For $20,000,’ I calmly replied. Then he laughed. He knew what I meant.”

What Patrick meant, of course, was the Western teams’ profits from the gate receipts of those three extra playoff games!

Both the PCHA and the WHL were gone from hockey by 1927, leaving the NHL as the only top pro league remaining. Their playoff formats got more and more elaborate after that. And when the Great Depression was turning baseball into a money loser during the 1930s, Lester Patrick – then running the New York Rangers – suggested that baseball should expand its playoff format as hockey had done. Americans mostly laughed at the idea. Right up until 1968, the teams that finished the season in first place in the American League and the National League advanced directly to the World Series. Additional playoff rounds weren’t introduced in Major League Baseball until 1969.

If baseball manages to get going this summer, they’re talking about expanding their playoff format from 10 teams to 14. So it’s not just the NHL that’s experimenting. Back in 1919, people thought the Spanish Flu was all but over when they started the Stanley Cup playoffs, and that turned out to be fatal. Let’s hope they won’t be experimenting with people’s lives this time.

Hockey Helmet History

I guess I’m lucky that my working life has mostly been an interesting one. I’ve always been a person who didn’t like to do anything he didn’t like to do — and I’ve mostly been able to get away with that! Barbara and I always used to say that we may not make a lot of money doing what we do, but we get to meet some very interesting people and have some pretty neat experiences.

As I’ve said a lot lately, I’m kind of burnt out on hockey. But it does still help me pay my bills, so I continue to pay at least some attention. I may not watch very much these days — it’s not my job to do that anymore — but it turns out that I still enjoy poking around in hockey history.

Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Annual General Meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) being held in Windsor, Ontario. (That’s the Victoria Day weekend for those you in Canada, or the “they have a holiday before Memorial Day?!?” weekend for you in the United States.)

In the most recent edition of the SIHR Bulletin, Bill Sproule of Houghton, Michigan, posted the following picture he’d recently come across of the 1914-15 Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association…

picture

In this photo, Ernie “Moose” Johnson (third from the left) can clearly be seen wearing a leather football helmet. Bill’s accompanying story dealt with the well-told early history of helmets in hockey, which is always said to have begun with George Owen — a former Harvard football star — of the Boston Bruins in 1928-29. (It appears that football players began wearing helmets as early as 1893!) Bill rightfully wonders if Moose Johnson should be credited as the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet.

Now — surprise, surprise! — I have some doubts about the George Owen story. If he did wear a helmet during his rookie season in 1928-29 (and he may have), it certainly wasn’t widely publicized. Coincidently, when Owen played his first NHL game in Canada against the Canadiens on January 10, 1929, the Montreal Gazette had a story about a player named Nick Carter (aka Fred Carter) wearing a leather rugby football helmet to protect a cut on his head when his Canadian National Railway team faced the Bell Telephone team in a Railway-Telephone Hockey League game (I’m not kidding!) at the Forum the night before. In a story about hockey helmets following the death of Bill Masterton that appeared in The Boston Globe on January 18, 1968, veteran sportswriter Harold Kaese noted that Jack Culhane of Boston College wore a helmet playing hockey during the 1920s. So guys were definitely wearing them that far back, and it was making news when they did.

Whether or not George Owen wore a helmet as a pro hockey player during his rookie season in 1928-29, he definitely wore one during the 1930 NHL playoffs — but so did his Boston defensemates Lionel Hitchman and Eddie Shore. Hitchman, in fact, had already worn a helmet in the regular-season finale to protect a broken jaw, and the article below from the Montreal Gazette on March 20, 1930, mentions that Shore “has worn a headgear in the past.”

Bruins

During the Bruins’ rough opening-round series against the Montreal Maroons, John Hallahan of The Boston Globe noted that “Owen had a brand new one on that made him look something like a halfback.” If it was brand new, perhaps he’d been wearing an older helmet previously? If so, I’ve yet to see that story. And, if Moose Johnson was wearing a helmet during the 1914-15 season, he may well have been the first pro hockey player ever to wear one. But how come?

A brief search through old newspapers turned up the fact that Johnson (like Lionel Hitchman) had suffered a fractured jaw. He was injured either in a practice leading up to, or the pre-game warmup right before, Portland’s first road game of the 1914-15 PCHA season in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 15, 1914. Game stories make it clear that Johnson played for a while with his head bandaged and The Oregon Daily Journal of January 10, 1915, confirms that Johnson had been wearing a helmet in games. Another story from the same paper on January 24 notes that his jaw had finally healed to the point where Johnson might be ready to discard his headgear.

There’s nothing in the papers that claims Moose Johnson was the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet, but he was certainly wearing one long before George Owen. Admittedly, I’m not sure how a helmet that sits on top of your head protects the jaw on the bottom of your head — although I suppose the ear flaps on a football-style helmet help. But what I found most interesting of all was that sportswriters were already taking shots at the relative toughness (or lack-there-of) of baseball players versus hockey players as long ago as 1915, as this Oregon Daily Journal clipping from the January 10, 1915 edition confirms…

story

A Bit of a Heartbreak

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone … but we’re talking baseball today. Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, so no matter what the groundhog said (and, around these parts, I’ve always wondered why six more weeks of winter isn’t an early end) we know that summer can’t be too far away.

Still, the baseball news is sad for Canadian fans. After 36 years at the microphone for Toronto Blue Jays baseball on radio, Jerry Howarth announced his retirement yesterday. His health has not been great in recent years, and he just didn’t feel his voice could hold up over the long season anymore.

Thanks

Jerry didn’t have the “classic pipes” of a sports broadcaster, but he had a passion for baseball and wonderful way of telling stories. He always made the listener feel like they were part of every game he was calling. “Hello, friends.”

I was not a baseball fan before Toronto got its team in 1977. Tom Cheek, and later Jerry Howarth (he joined the team in 1981) certainly did their part to spread the Gospel of the Blue Jays to my brothers and me. My parents had loved the minor-league baseball Maple Leafs and we quickly came to love the Blue Jays in my family. All those 100-loss seasons in the early days didn’t dampen our enthusiasm at all. It was fun (and inexpensive!) to take in a game at the ballpark – even if Exhibition Stadium wasn’t much of a ballpark. Even in those early days, you could find a radio tuned into the game in almost every room in our house.

It’s funny, but here in Owen Sound, I can usually get the games on my car radio from anywhere in town … until I turn onto my own block. Can’t get the games on the radio in the house at all. So, I watch on television. I’m not the first to say this, but baseball is a perfect game for radio … and I haven’t been able to listen to Jerry as much as I’d have liked to in recent years. Now, I won’t get that chance anymore.

Tom
My father took this picture of the Blue Jays’ first broadcasting duo, Early Wynn and Tom Cheek, at a spring training game against the Phillies in Clearwater, Florida, in March of 1980.

It seems that no one has anything but nice things to say about Jerry Howarth. He’s widely regarded as a lovely person. I haven’t had a lot of experiences with him, but the ones that I’ve had certainly confirm that.

When I worked for the Blue Jays ground crew from 1981 to 1985, I always tried to hang around Tom and Jerry as much as I could get away with when they were on the field before games. I loved to listen to them telling stories. A few years later (it must have been the summer of 1987), when I was working for a small company called Digital Media, I was able to arrange for us to get the occasional press pass. The very first time I was on the field as a “reporter,” I re-introduced myself to Jerry. I doubt that he really remembered me, but he immediately marched me up to Jesse Barfield and set up a quick interview for us. He certainly didn’t have to do that, but that’s the kind of person Jerry Howarth is.

In 2001, when we published The Toronto Blue Jays Official 25th Anniversary Commemorative Book, I had a chance to be in the radio broadcast booth during a game to talk about the book. It was a thrill to be on the air with Tom Cheek, but I remember that when I was done, Jerry asked me quietly about my favourite parts of the book. I told him that while the Pennant-Winning and World Series years of 1985 to 1993 had, of course, been fun, my favourite story was something smaller. It came under the category titled “Oddities and Others” and was the story of the final game of the 1982 season.

Jesse

Until the baseball strike of 1981, even a diehard fan like me knew that the Blue Jays were terrible. Still, the team played better in the second half of 1981 and, with players like Willie Upshaw and Damaso Garcia, the outfield of George Bell, Jesse Barfield, and Lloyd Moseby, and platoon partners Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg and Ernie Whitt and Buck Martinez, we finally got a glimpse of the future in 1982. The team was 44–37 in the second half, and with a series-sweeping win over expansion cousins Seattle on the final day of the season, the Blue Jays  finished with nine wins in their last 12 games to escape last place for the first time in franchise history … sort of.

With a record of 78–84 in 1982, the Jay actually finished tied for sixth with Cleveland in the seven-team American League East. I can remember fans chanting “We’re Number Six!” in the stands after the game, and “Bring on the Indians!” knowing that we would beat them in this theoretically tiebreaking playoff and escape last place for real.

Attendance was only 19,064 (in my memory, the crowd was bigger … but not much) yet everyone stuck around to the end. When Jim Clancy finished up his complete-game victory, he was cheered off the field and threw his hat and his glove into the seats. Alfredo Griffin brought a bag of balls out of the dugout, and he and his teammates began tossing them to the fans too.

1982

There would be bigger celebrations in the years to come, but that one always felt special to me – a treat for the real fans. I can recall Jerry smiling as I reminded him off it. I don’t know what (or if) he remembered of it personally, but he certainly seemed to appreciate the story.

Best of luck wherever the future takes you, Jerry.

Your retirement certainly marks the end of an era.

Who’s The Fastest?

This past Sunday (January 28, 2018), The Nature of Things on CBC aired an interesting episode called Champions vs Legends. In it, sports scientist Steve Haake investigated the question: “What if the greatest elite (winter) athletes – present and past – could compete against each other on a level playing field? If competitive conditions were made equal, would today’s stars come out on top? Or would they be beaten by the heroes of the past?”

It’s impossible to truly make the conditions equal, but it was very interesting. If you’re in Canada, you should be able to click here to watch it all online if you choose to. Also, although it DID air last Sunday, the CBC web site currently shows it as airing THIS Sunday. It was joined in progress due to the NHL All-Star Game, so maybe they’re planning to run it again in its entirety?

Weber
Don’t bother clicking on the arrow. It’s just a screen shot, not a video link. Sorry!

Among the six segments in the episode was one in which Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens tried to match Bobby Hull’s shooting prowess with a retro wooden stick. Weber had his slap shot clocked by radar at 108.5 miles per hour at the NHL All-Star Game a few years ago. But when he used leather gloves and a wooden stick in this episode, the fastest he could manage was 91 miles per hour. When he switched back to his current stick, his shot jumped to 103 mph.

Bobby Hull, as the episode notes, is said to have had his slap shot clocked at 118.3 miles per hour during the 1960s. This was a prominent feature of an article in Popular Mechanics in February of 1968 … though as the show also notes, nothing is said about how Hull’s shot was actually measured. These days, it’s generally conceded that Hull’s shot was never accurately measured, and that any timing device from his era would be unreliable. No doubt he had the hardest slap shot of his era, and likely the hardest of all time up to that point, but it’s hard to believe that Bobby Hull could really have approached 120 mph with a wooden stick in the 1960s. On the other hand, what might have been able to do with a modern carbon fibre stick?!?

Hull

This Popular Mechanics article reports Bobby Hull’s slap shot being clocked at 118.3 mph.

But all this is really just a roundabout way for me to show off a fun clip I found recently in an old newspaper. The article is from The Ottawa Journal on March 30, 1917, picking up a story from The Vancouver Sun. It compares the hockey shot of Didier Pitre to the baseball pitch of Walter Johnson. (Recall that in August of 2016, I posted a story about the documentary Fastball featuring Walter Johnson and the history of measuring baseball’s fastest pitchers.) The comparison is made by Harry Cheek, a journeyman minor league catcher with just two games in the Majors who had recently retired after playing three years in Vancouver.

Didier Pitre is not a particularly well-known name these days, but he was one of the biggest stars in hockey during a 20-year career beginning in 1903. He starred mainly with the Montreal Canadiens from the team’s inaugural season in the National Hockey Association in 1909-10 through 1922-23 in the NHL. In his heyday, he was widely regarded as having the hardest shot in hockey.

Pitre

It does make sense that the lever quality of a hockey stick would allow a hockey player to shoot harder than a pitcher can throw. Still, it’s hard to imagine Didier Pitre could shoot a puck in 1917 faster than than the 83 miles per hour Walter Johnson had been measured at in 1912 … not to mention the 93 mph the Fastball documentary says that actually translates to. And it’s interesting that Nolan Ryan’s fastball upgrades to the same 108.5 miles per hour as Shea Weber’s best slap shot. These days, I think it would be interesting to know how many players in the NHL can approach 100 miles per hour with their best shot compared to the number of pitchers who can approach 100 mph with their best fastball.

Jack of All Trades Was a Master Too

I thought this story would be quick and easy. But I was wrong.

A week ago, on November 29, a statue of Jackie Robinson was unveiled at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. What makes this new statue different from others commemorating the man who broke modern baseball’s racial barrier is that this one honours Jackie Robinson’s contributions to football in Southern California where he grew up.

Statue
Jackie Robinson wearing the #55 he sported while starring at Pasadena Junior College.

Robinson was a four-sport star, excelling at football, baseball, basketball and track, at Pasadena Junior College in 1937 and 1938 and then at UCLA in 1939 and 1940. The stories I saw about the unveiling of the football statue mentioned that Robinson played many games at the Rose Bowl and that his 104-yard kickoff return there is still thought to be the longest touchdown run in the history of the storied stadium.

I thought it would be fun to find a newspaper clipping about that run and set out to hunt one down. Generally speaking, the many books and articles written about Robinson over the years seemed to agree that the play happened during the final game of Pasadena’s perfect 11-and-0 season in 1938.

Pasadena
Jackie Robinson and teammates with he Pasadena Junior College baseball team.
(Photo courtesy of John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball.)

Jackie Robinson was a remarkable athlete, and football may well have been his best sport. He played quarterback and safety at Pasadena Junior College and during that undefeated season in 1938 he rushed for over 1,000 yards. Older sources say he scored 17 touchdowns, but newer research claims he had 18. Robinson also threw seven touchdown passes, kicked one field goal and converted many of his team’s touchdowns too. In all, he scored 131 of his team’s 369 points.

So, I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find evidence of a 104-yard touchdown run. Then again, Robinson was playing at a Junior College in an area of the United States with more universities than anywhere else. His games did get covered in many of the California newspapers I can find online, but there’s not always a lot of detail.

There’s likely more in a Pasadena paper hiding in a library somewhere, but I couldn’t find much from the 39-6 win over lowly Cal Tech on Wednesday night, November 23, 1938. There’s nothing about a 104-yard touchdown, and though I’ve seen stories and books putting the attendance anywhere from 18,000 to 30,000 that night, the newspapers I’ve found show only 3,500.

Both
United Press stories on the Cal Tech game from newspapers in Berkley and Bakersfield.

As I expanded my search, I found several references over the years saying that Jackie Robinson had run for “only” a 99-yard touchdown in the Cal Tech game. However, in the description I found for the 1939 Junior College Annual of Pasadena City College available online at Abebooks (you can buy it for US$540 if you choose!), there’s a very detailed account of the 1938 football season. Of the game in question, it says: “Jack Robinson and 16 other seniors rang down the curtain on their Pasadena football careers as they walloped cross town rival Cal Tech 39-6…. Robinson’s closing chapter was a 104-yard run to the touchdown, climaxing the greatest individual career in jaysee history.”

Beyond that, the next mention I could find of Robinson running for a 104-yard touchdown doesn’t appear until an April 12, 1977, story in the Los Angeles Times marking the upcoming 30th anniversary of Robinson’s Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“The season ended,” wrote Shav Glick of Robinson’s 1938 Pasadena football campaign, “with Cal Tech and another 30,000 in the Rose Bowl and Robinson’s final contribution was a 104-yard kickoff return.”

Shav Glick knew Robinson personally. They both attended Pasadena Junior College together. Glick first started reporting sports in Pasadena as a 14-year-old in 1935 and wrote his final column for the Los Angeles Times in January of 2006 at the age of 85. He was likely at the Cal Tech game, and may have been writing from memory, or from old newspaper stories he himself had written and saved. He may well have written that recap from 1939.

Sun
Brief coverage of the Cal Tech game in the San Bernadino County Sun.

Interviewed for a 1997 story in the New York Daily News, Glick said of Robinson’s football skills, “He was so spectacular. In a game against Cal Tech, Robinson returned a kickoff 104 yards and collapsed in the end zone.” Added Hank Ives, longtime publisher of JC Grid-Wire and the foremost authority on Junior College football: “He must have run 200-plus yards. He reversed his field twice, running back and forth.”

Ives was born in Southern California in 1926, so perhaps he was at the game that night too. And yet…

Many of the biographies of Jackie Robinson mention his 104-yard touchdown run. Most note that it was a kickoff return. But not all. In his 1997 biography of Jackie Robinson, Arnold Rampersad wrote of that 39-6 win over Cal Tech: “In the next game, his last as a Bulldog, Jack said farewell with a masterpiece. Setting up behind his own goal line in punt formation, he gathered in the hiked ball, then raced 104 yards for a touchdown against a muddle of disbelieving Cal Tech players.”

UCLA
Jackie Robinson wore #28 while playing football at UCLA.
(Photo courtesy of John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball.)

That seems rather incredible. Perhaps even foolhardy, although no doubt the Pasadena team felt they could crush Cal Tech even if this gamble turned over the ball so close to their own goal line. And there’s a little corroborating evidence too. Jules Tygiel made no mention of it in his 1983 book The Great Experiment, but wrote of Robinson’s touchdown prowess in Pasadena in an article for the Los Angeles Times in 2006, “the last [came on] a 104-yard dash on a fake punt.”

At this point, it seems impossible to know for sure, but I’m leaning towards the fake punt rather than a kickoff return. If anyone knows of a detailed, first-hand account of the game, I’d love to see it.

Blue Monday

The World Series started last night. The Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Houston Astros 3-1 in the quickest World Series contest since Game 4 in 1992 … which happens to be the first Word Series game I ever attended. Yesterday also marked 25 years since the Blue Jays wrapped up the 1992 World Series in Game 6 in Atlanta. That will tie into a story I’m planning for next week. Today, I’m using the Los Angeles victory over Houston to reminisce about my visit to Montreal during the Dodgers-Expos National League Championship Series in 1981. But first, a bit of back-story…

Blue 1
YouTube clip showing the fateful moment of impact on Blue Monday.

As I’ve posted on Facebook a couple of times recently, teenaged me was an Astros fan. Among my gang of friends at the time, we all quickly came to love the expansion Blue Jays. My guess is, none of us (I know I wasn’t) had been big baseball fans before the Blue Jays started in 1977 … but very soon we needed pennant contenders to follow too. I suppose we also needed a reason to boast that “my team is better than your team!”

Blue 2
In case you’re wondering, I’m the one on the right!

I can’t say that it was a conscious choice to steer clear of the American League, but our “other” teams were all in the National League. David became a Pirates fan in 1978 when they made a late run to battle the Phillies in the NL East. By 1979, they were World Series champions, and David has remained a Pirates fan to this day. Steve became a fan of the San Francisco Giants in 1978. They battled the Dodgers for the NL West that summer, but faded down the stretch. Jody and Rob were Dodgers fans because, well … the Dodgers were the Dodgers. They were the best team in the National League and I think Rob and Jody both saw themselves living in Los Angeles some day. (Jody lives in San Diego now.)

I liked the Astros. Yes, the garish, colourful uniforms were part of it, but I liked J.R. Richard. He was 6’8”, threw 100 mile per hour, and he struck out 303 batters in 1978 and 313 in 1979. The funny thing is, I don’t remember a single game I ever saw him pitch! I never saw the Astros live, and there was only one Game of the Week on television, and Houston didn’t get many of those. I must have seen him on This Week in Baseball, and I clearly remember the photograph of him holding eight baseballs in one hand.

Blue 3

By 1981, we’re all huge baseball fans, and all of us – except Pirates fan David – also like the Expos. And, of course, Montreal is a lot closer to Toronto than Houston, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. I don’t remember which of us decided we should go, but Rob’s family had connections in Montreal and he could get us tickets for Saturday and Sunday. So off we went.

We were all in Grade 13 (a foreign concept, I know, to any Americans reading this, and even to any younger Canadians) but we skipped the day of school on Friday and piled into Steve’s car. I don’t remember much about the drive, except that as we got to the end, the fact that Pie IX is pronounced like “Pee-Neuve” led to some problems getting to Olympic Stadium. But we did get there and we picked up our tickets.

I don’t think any of us ever considered getting a hotel room. Rob’s family had friends that he and Jody stayed with, and I asked a cousin-in-law of mine if Steve and I could stay with relatives she still had in Montreal. No problems for Rob and Jody, but when Steve and I showed up, it was clear this family we were staying with had only been expecting me … and they certainly weren’t prepared to feed dinner to the two of us! Steve and I found somewhere cheap nearby, then met up with Rob and Jody so – even though only Steve and Jody were actually of legal drinking age – we could go downtown and watch the Friday game in a bar.

The Dodgers and Expos had split the first two games of the series in Los Angeles. The Expos won game three in Montreal that night 4-1 on the strength of a complete game pitching performance from Steve Rogers and a three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth by light-hitting Jerry White. I do remember the excitement in the bar … but what I remember even more was our waitress throwing back the change we had left her as a tip on our first round of drinks!

Blue 4

Game 4 was on Saturday afternoon. It was close, and tense … until the Dodgers blew it open with two runs in the eighth and four in the ninth for a 7-1 victory. It was cold and dank, but for me (and I’ve been to at least one postseason game every time the Blue Jays have made the playoffs) this was still the single best fan experience I’ve ever had at a game! The joint was jumpin’, and singing along to The Happy Wanderer (“Valder-ee, Valder-ah, Valder-EEEE, Valder-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah”) was a blast! Even the loss wasn’t so bad, because now we could be at the fifth and final game on Sunday.

Only it rained on Sunday, and the game was cancelled.

We’d already skipped school on Friday, so Jody, Rob and Steve decided we should go home. I was beyond angry. I don’t think I spoke a word to any of them for the first few hours on the drive back to Toronto. So, we weren’t there for Blue Monday when Rick Monday took Steve Rogers deep in the top of the ninth to give the Dodgers a 2-1 series-winning victory. Of course I watched it all on television … but when all is said and done, I think I’m glad I wasn’t there.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Spring is here. Baseball season is under way. Hockey playoffs are just around the corner. Can’t beat it! No real story this week. Just some fun images from this day in history. Click on each one to see it in greater detail.

On this date 85 years ago in 1932, April 4 was a Monday and Toronto newspapers were reporting on Saturday night’s win by the Maple Leafs in overtime against the Montreal Maroons to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. You don’t see many action photos from this era.

Leafs 1932

April 4 was also a Monday 40 years ago in 1977. The Blue Jays would wrap up spring training  in Dunedin that day and fly to Toronto at night ahead of the franchise’s first Opening Day on April 7.

April 4 Star

April 4 Globe

Rock and a Hard Place…

Right up front, let me say that I hope Tim Raines makes it on Wednesday when this year’s election results for the Baseball Hall of Fame are announced. All the early indications are that in his tenth and final year on the ballot (players used to get 15 years, but that’s no longer the case), Raines will finally top the 75 percent of votes needed for induction.

It’s a strange thing. After waiting the required five years to qualify for the Hall of Fame ballot, what suddenly makes a player worthy after being forced to wait another 10 years? Many are saying it’s a triumph of the new voting rules that have phased out older sportswriters who are no longer actively covering the game. The younger writers are more open to modern statistical interpretations.

Expos
Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Tim Raines and Al Oliver at the 1982
All-Star Game in Montreal. Raines was only 5’8″ and 160 pounds, but his
solid physique earned him the nickname “Rock” at an Expos rookie camp.

For a player like Tim Raines, who didn’t reach the big milestones such as 3,000 hits, younger voters are more likely to be impressed by the fact that when Raines’ hit total of 2,605 is combined with his 1,330 walks, he actually reached base more often (3,935 to 3,931) than eight-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn. (Gwynn’s lifetime batting average was .338 to Raines’ .294, but his on-base percentage is .388 to Raines’ .385) . And though Raines’ career total of 808 steals is well behind all-time leader Rickey Henderson’s 1,406, the fact that Raines was caught only 146 times to Henderson’s 335 means Raines’ success rate of 84.7 percent is better than Henderson’s (80.8). It’s also better than the only other players from the 20th Century who had more steals than Raines: Lou Brock (938 / 75.3%) and Ty Cobb (897 / incomplete data).

In the New York Post recently, baseball writer and Hall of Fame voter Ken Davidoff said, “Raines’ admittance, if it happens, would serve as a triumph of facts and statistics over emotions and memories.” But, as Richard Griffin in the Toronto Star has written (and I’m paraphrasing), “if all you did was feed the numbers into a computer, it would be easy to decide who makes it in.” Obviously, statistics play a huge part in this, but I, for one, would hate to see memory discounted entirely.

1981

For example, I know that Jack Morris didn’t put up the career numbers of recent Hall of Fame pitching inductees like Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. But I watched him pitch his whole career; hating him as a Tiger, impressed by his one year as a Twin, and then amazed by his 1992 season in Toronto. Yes, he had a 4.04 ERA that year, but he was every bit as good as his 21-6 record indicates. When he needed to shut you down, he did. His complete-game, four-hitter 4-0 win over Boston on June 11, 1992, when he outpitched Roger Clemens (and yes, I remember it well … but I had to look up the date!) was a masterpiece. Though he never received more than 67 percent of the vote in his 15 years on the ballot between 2000 and 2014, for me, Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer.

As for Tim Raines, my thoughts are this… In the first 13 years of his career (basically 11 full seasons) with the Expos, he was definitely a Hall of Fame-calibre player. He was the kind of guy, like Roberto Alomar, that when he was at the plate, you expected something good to happen. But I’m not sure fans of the teams he spent his final 10 years with (mainly the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees) felt the same way. Sure, he was a good teammate and a good role player, but as a Blue Jays fan in those years, I don’t recall having any fear of him coming to the plate like the excitement I’d felt when he was batting for the Expos … although he did put up some pretty good numbers against Toronto in the 1993 American League Championship Series.

1982

All in all, I’d say for Tim Raines the good years outweigh the mediocre ones, but this has to be a big reason why his candidacy has gone right down to the wire. Another reason, so I’ve read, is that some writers have refused to vote for him because of his cocaine suspension. To me, that’s ridiculous. How can you hold it against someone who served his time, kicked the habit, and never relapsed?

Which brings us to Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and others of the steroid era. If I had a vote, I’d vote for them.

Do I wish there was no such thing as drugs in sports? Yes. Still, I think the world has been pretty hypocritical about performance enhancing drugs. Athletes have been using whatever they could to get an advantage for a very long time. Caffeine to get up; nicotine to calm down; oxygen; cold medications; amphetamines. What is it that makes a guy a hero for taking a shot of cortisone and playing through the pain versus a guy taking a shot of something else?

1983

Yes, I know it’s illegal to use one without a prescription. So, that’s where we draw the line? But what makes something a medical miracle and something else an abomination? Why isn’t it cheating to take a tendon from a cadaver, or another part of your own body, and sew it into a pitcher’s elbow? What if doctors could figure out a way to do the same thing with muscles? Would THAT be cheating? We certainly don’t say pitchers can’t have Tommy John surgery because is wasn’t available in the old days. We don’t say today’s hockey players can’t have their knees scoped because they didn’t have that medical advancement in Bobby Orr’s day.

We’re pretty quick to jump on professional athletes who we perceive as not trying hard enough. But we seem to be even harder on the athletes who felt they had to take drugs to be the best they could be. What if Bobby Orr could have taken a shot of something and it saved his career? Would we look back on it as cheating … or would we see it as one of the greatest athletes of all time doing whatever it took to stay at the top of his game?

I Love A Parade

Well, after 108 years of waiting, Cubs fans couldn’t have asked for a much nicer day for a parade last Friday. They say there was a total of 5 million people who lined the streets or were on hand for the “Cub-stock” rally at Grant Park.

Parade

According to Major League Baseball’s web site, it was the seventh-largest gathering of human beings in world history… and the largest ever in the Western Hemisphere.

  1. Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, India, 2013 (30 million)
  2. Arba’een festival, Iraq, 2014 (17 million)
  3. Funeral of C.N. Annadurai, India, 1969 (15 million)
  4. Funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran, 1989 (10 million)
  5. Pope Francis in the Philippines, 2015 (6 million)
  6. World Youth Day, 1995 (5 million)
  7. Cubs World Series parade (5 million)
  8. Funeral of Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1970 (5 million)
  9. Rod Stewart concert, Brazil, 1994 (3.5 million)
  10. Hajj pilgrimage, Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 2012 (3 million)

Since the parade, Cubs players have been to Disney World, appeared on Saturday Night Live, and taken the World Series Trophy to a Blackhawks game. None of them, however, have attempted to duplicate the old Blackhawks’ celebratory feat of rolling a star player through the downtown business area in a wheelbarrow.

Hawks Clips

Not only did Roger Jenkins do this with goalie Chuck Gardiner in 1934,

Hawks Pic

He did it again with Mike Karakas in 1938.

But it seems that this odd wheelbarrow tradition dates back nearly as far as the Cubs’ last World Series win in 1908, as it may well have begun with hockey’s Quebec Bulldogs in 1912 – a story that appears in a couple of my children’s books and which I often tell when I’m visiting classrooms.

Quebec

Tuning In Over Time

Game Seven of the World Series. As classic phrases go, it doesn’t get much better than that! I don’t really have a favorite in this one, but it’s hard not to be rooting for the Cubs. Still, if they do win it, it’ll certainly be tough not to feel bad for fans in Cleveland.

 Cleveland
These fans in Cleveland are reacting to the game played in Chicago.

The Indians drew more than 67,000 fans to Progressive Field for games three, four and five of the series … which were played at Wrigley Field in Chicago! These fans paid $5 for a ticket (proceeds going to local charities) to watch the game on the giant video board. This has become something of a thing in recent years, but fans have been gathering to follow their teams on the road like this for more than a century!

When the Winnipeg Victorias hockey team traveled to Montreal to play their Victorias for the Stanley Cup in February of 1896, telegraph wires were run to local hotels so that Winnipeg fans could receive play-by-play updates during the game. Soon, fans all across Canada were showing up at train stations or outside of newspaper offices to “listen in” on these telegraphed reports. As early as 1907, fans gathered inside the rink in Kenora, Ontario, to receive updates from Montreal as the Thistles battled the Wanderers for the Stanley Cup.

Crowds
Fans gather in the street to follow the World Series.

Baseball has similar traditions, with a history of elaborate electronic scoreboard devices set up in American cities to follow the action of the World Series. Often, these devices drew big crowds in the streets outside of newspaper offices, but there were also set ups in theaters, armories, and other reception halls.

Ads
Ads in the New York Times in 1915.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it amazing how much the Gameday display on the web site for Major League Baseball…

MLB

looks like one of those old-fashion scoreboard machines…

1912

My favorite of these old-time devices is something call the Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator. It was like a giant arcade game which used mechanical men to re-enact each play in a game as it was received via telegraph. For more on this one, you can see a story I wrote a few years ago for the Society for American Baseball Research.

Manikin Field
The Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator, circa 1913.

Manikins
Details of the Manikins from Thomas Jackson’s patent application.

And during the 1926 Junior World Series when the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Louisville Colonels, fans in Louisville had a unique way of following the action when their team was in Toronto.

1926
From The Globe in Toronto, October 5, 1926.

So, as it so often seems to be, the more things change, they more they stay the same!