Baseball, Indianapolis, Pop Culture, Sports

“The Purdue Football Team’s Halloween Train Disaster” PART I

1903-Purdue Part 1

Original publish date:  October 31, 2019

It was Saturday, October 31, 1903. The college football season was half over as the Purdue Boilermakers geared up for their annual in-state rivalry game against Indiana University. (The “Old Oaken Bucket” trophy was still 20 years in the future.) The rivalry had started a dozen years before in 1891 and for awhile it looked like a clean sweep for the Purdue squad with the Boilers taking the first 6 games outscoring the boys from Bloomington 227 to 6. Then I.U. reeled off 3 in a row to shock the West Lafayette faithful before Purdue took the 1902 contest by once again swamping the cream & crimson 39-0.
The competition for gridiron glory between these two in-state titans was so hot and intense that, for the 1903 contest, both schools agreed that games should be held on neutral ground to quell “potential hooliganism” on the part of the students and fans. To this point eight games had been played in West Lafayette and two in Bloomington. In the spirit of fair play, officials from both schools decided to play the 11th contest on a neutral field at Washington Park in Indianapolis. Washington Park was located at 3001 East Washington Street where it meets Gray Street (in the southwest corner of that intersection). The ballpark, built in 1900 just a stone’s throw from Irvington, was home to the 1902 defending American Association champion Indianapolis Indians.

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1902 Indianapolis Indians

To get to the new state capital location, both teams joined what seemed like the entire student body as they piled into separate special service trains to travel to the game from north and south of the city. Two special trains, operated by the “Big Four Railroad” (the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway), were chartered to carry over 1,500 passengers from Lafayette to Indianapolis for the annual rivalry game. Purdue’s team train was cobbled together like a patchwork quilt and included modern steel streamliner coaches coupled to older wooden coaches. The Boilermakers football team rode in the wooden cars at the front of the train procession.
wash park baseball for web 1The train was traveling on what would have been the 101st birthday of school founder and namesake John Purdue (born October 31, 1802). Purdue, a wealthy landowner, politician, educator and merchant, was the primary benefactor of the University. In 1903, if you wanted to get to Indianapolis from either school, you had three choices: ride a horse and buggy, walk or take the train. Since these were the days before automobile travel was popular, train travel was the most widely accepted form of transportation.
It was Halloween in 1903; late October in the Hoosier Heartland. It is hard for our modern sensibilities to imagine those pre-electricity rural landscapes dotted by farmhouses scattered in a wide swath like checkers on a checkerboard. In this era, Hoosiers generally lived in small communities and held tight to their neighbors. News traveled slowly and so did the traffic. As the Gilded age of Mark Twain collided with the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt, it became apparent that something’s gotta give. Safety was an issue in this gargantuan game of rock, paper, scissors where iron and steel trumped wood every time.

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Namesake John Purdue.

In West Lafayette, it was a festive atmosphere and the town was buzzingly, excited for the match up against the Hoosiers. Like I.U.’s Bloomington, West Lafayette draws so much of its identity from their University and the entire community was looking forward to the weekend. Purdue was 4-2 on the season with a big win over rival Wabash College, but losses to Chicago and Illinois. Purdue enjoyed a 7-3 overall advantage in the series against I.U. and was feeling confident. Running at the rate of thirty miles an hour, the John Purdue Big Four special was carrying 954 students and spectators, including the football team, University President and star fullback and team captain Harry “Skillet” Leslie.
z Dq2VB3-XQAA21c8Unlike the raucous fans traveling in the 13 plush, modern streamliner train coaches behind them, the Boilermakers team traveled in relative silence, focusing on the task at hand, mentally preparing for their upcoming rivalry game in the cozy confines of an older wooden train car. Unfortunately, the athletes had no idea that a minor mistake would lead to a major disaster. Railroad protocol specified that “Special” trains operate independent of the regular schedule. Timing was everything in the railroad game.
In the early 1900s, the rail service depended on many human components: conductors and their assistants, dining car stewards, ticket collectors, train baggage men, brakemen, and train flagmen on the vehicle itself and yardmasters, yard conductors, switch tenders, foremen, flagmen, brakemen, switchmen, car tenders, operators, hump riders, and car operators on the ground. In 1903, railroad track “switches” were manually operated by lantern carrying tenders fluent in the language of railway lantern semaphore, which, strictly defined, means the act of waving a lantern as a warning.

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Switchman

Switch tenders communicated with brakemen who most often stood atop boxcars waving happily at his railyard cohorts and locals as the train glided past. As the train traveled down the rails, some of these daredevils ran along the top of the cars, adjusting the brake wheels sticking up from each car as they went. The complexities of switching, congestion, and rearranging cars made freight yards a far more perilous workplace and working on a moving train could be downright treacherous. One railyard superintendent, when talking about his workers, once famously said, “Men are cheaper than shingles. . . There’s a dozen waiting when one drops out.”
The trouble was, this apparent dispensability of railway workers could cause havoc in areas where tracks needed to be switched to avoid collisions. As the Purdue Special steamed towards the Circle City at over 30 miles per hour, a clerk up the line from Lafayette failed to inform the yardmaster near 18th Street in Indianapolis that the trains were coming. The first train, carrying the team, rounded a curve at the Mill Street Power House and saw a coal train being pushed back on the tracks. The engineer immediately slammed the engine in reverse, locked the emergency brake, and leapt off the moving train.
Z purdue 2The Boilermakers never knew what hit ’em. The engine slammed into the coal car, splintering apart the first few cars while folding like an accordion. When the two trains collided, the lead car hit the debris, causing it to shoot into the air. This gave the full impact to the second train car, causing all the deaths. The wooden train cars splintered like kindling and were destroyed, and the adjacent cars careened violently off the elevated tracks, tumbling to the ground below like jack straws.
Z purdue 1The Indianapolis star reported, “The trains came together with a great crash, which wrecked three of the passenger coaches, in addition to the engine and tender of the special train and two or three of the coal cars. The first coach on the special train was reduced to splinters. The second coach was thrown down a fifteen-foot embankment into the gravel pit and the third coach was thrown from the track to the west-side and badly wrecked. The coal cars plowed their way into the engine and demolished it completely. The coal tender was tossed to the side and turned over. A wild effort on the part of the imprisoned passengers to escape from the wrecked car followed the crash. Immediately following the wreck the students and the others turned their attention to the work of rescuing the injured, and by the time the first ambulances arrived many of the dead and suffering young men had been carried out and placed on the grass on both sides of the track.”
z LARGE (1)The fans at the rear of the train were unaware of what happened and only felt a slight jolt as the train came to a sudden stop. These rearmost passengers wasted no time in coming to the assistance of the victims up ahead. The erstwhile revelers skidded to a stop at the scene of carnage and were horrified at the devastation before them. Acts of unselfish action made heroes out of athletes and ordinary people alike.
According to Purdue student Joseph Bradfield who was riding in the procession, “We began carrying the people out, the injured ones. There was a line of horse-and-buggies along the whole stretch there for half a mile. We didn’t stop for ceremony; we simply loaded the injured people into the buggies and sent the buggies into town, got them to a hospital…There was no ambulance, no cars…”
z purdue_football_wreck_8Seventeen passengers in the first coach were killed. Thirteen of the dead were members of the Purdue football team. Walter Bailey, a reserve player from New Richmond, although grievously injured, refused aid so that others could be helped. Team Captain Skeets Leslie was covered up for dead, his body transported to the morgue with the others. It was the first catastrophe to hit a major college sports team in the history of this country. The affects would be felt for decades to come and one of those players would rise from the dead, shake off accusations of association with Irvington KKK leader D.C. Stephenson, and lead his state and country through the Great Depression.

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Harry “Skeets” Leslie.
Baseball, Creepy history, Criminals, Pop Culture, Sports

Tito Francona and the Curse of Rocky Colavito. PART II

Curse Part two

Original publish date:  March 28, 2019

During a spring training Cactus League exhibition game on March 26, 1961, Cleveland Indians outfielder Tito Francona hit a 350-foot home run against the Boston Red Sox at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Arizona. It’s 349 feet to right field, 366 feet to left field, and 410 feet to “dead” center. Unwittingly, when Tito’s homer flew over the right-field fence of paim-fringed Hi Corbett field and finally stopped rolling, it helped solve a murder case. As John Cota, a city parks employee, chased after it, he pulled up short at the edge of a shallow water trench. The ball rolled to a dead stop beside a body, partly covered with a coat, a .22-caliber revolver clutched in his hand. Police identified the body as that of Fred Victor Burden, 50, a house painter from Toronto. Burden was wanted by Tucson police in connection with the shooting death of former prize fighter James Cocio.
z tito_francona_solves_murderThe front page of the Tucson Daily Citizen on March 27, 1961 ran a story headlined, “Practice Homer Leads To Body”. The story detailed, “An over-the-wall smash by Cleveland Indians’ Tito Francona yesterday led to the discovery that Frederick Victor Burden had carried out his threat to commit suicide after killing a man in the home of his estranged wife. Burden’s body, with a bullet in the head, was found by city parks employee John C. Cota, 52, of 238 E. E. 19th St., while he was looking for a ball that had just been knocked over the west wall during the practice at Hi Corbett Field in Randolph Park. The partially concealed body was found lying in a shallow watering trench under low – hanging palm fronds when discovered about 11:30 a m.”
A few days prior, the same paper covered the story about the fatal shooting of 45-year-old James Contreras Cocio. Burden’s body was found lying face up with a .22 automatic pistol clutched in the right hand, his glasses found hanging on a small palm tree nearby. County Pathologist Louis Hirsth said Burden had been dead at least 48 hours. The killer had shot himself in the roof of the mouth, the bullet lodging in the skull. Before the discovery, Burden had been charged in absentia with the first-degree murder of Cocio, a World War II Marine veteran and former three-time Arizona featherweight boxing champion.
Burden, out of the country since January, had returned home from Canada unexpectedly to find his 46-year-old wife Irene and Cocio together in the couple’s home at 2207 E. 20th St. Mrs. Burden told police the two men had argued over her and investigators said it was obvious that the Tuesday night killing was the result of that quarrel. Police said the woman’s husband fired five quick shots at the victim when Cocio opened the rear door of the home and discovered Burden standing outside in his stocking feet. A sixth shot fired at Cocio’s body nearly two hours later wounded Mrs. Burden in the left leg. Burden drove his wife to the home of her employer after discovering the wound, and told her he was going to kill himself. She was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital for treatment of the leg wound and discharged the same day her husband’s body was found. No record survives as to whether parks department employee John Cota retrieved, much less saved, the baseball.
What many might have viewed as a bad omen didn’t derail Tito’s season however. Francona kicked off the season with a Chief Wahoo Indian “Ki Yi Waugh Woop!” He was batting .293 with eleven home runs and 53 RBIs at the All-Star break of the 1961 season and Tito was named to the American League All-Star squad for the only time in his career. He finished the season batting .301 with sixteen home runs, 85 RBIs and he lead American League left fielders in fielding percentage.
z 58558-5FrDespite having emerged as the best defensive left fielder in the league, Francona was shifted to first base during spring training in 1962 and finished the season leading the American League in double plays turned as a first baseman. He finished with 14 homers, 28 doubles and batted .272. When Birdie Tebbetts took over as Indians manager in 1963, Francona was moved back into left, but his numbers fell drastically. His .228 batting average was a career low, and his ten home runs and 41 RBIs were his fewest over a full season. The Indians acquired All-Star Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner to play left field prior to the 1964 season, so Francona split time between right and first base. After the season, he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals for a player to be named later and cash.
Tito had quite a career, spanning 15 seasons and including stops with eight other teams, including the Braves, Cardinals, A’s, Orioles, Phillies, Tigers, Brewers and White Sox. He was originally signed by the St. Louis Browns in 1952 but left the game for two years to serve in the U.S. Army, by the time he returned, the team had relocated and was now the Baltimore Orioles. In 1956 upon returning to the O’s, Tito finished tied with the Cleveland Indians’ Rocky Colavito for second place in American League Rookie of the Year balloting behind Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio. For his career, Francona hit .272 with 125 homers, 656 RBIs and a .746 OPS in 1,719 games. Francona spent six seasons (’59-64) with the Indians.
z ,logo images 1And what about that curse? The curse of Rocky Colavito? Well, in recent years, it has dampened a little with the Indians “rebuilding years” of the past two decades. But. although they’ve played in three World Series Championships since 1995, they still haven’t won one. Here are just a few of the mishaps blamed on that curse since Colavito’s 1960 trade. September 1961: Fireballer “Sudden Sam” McDowell breaks two ribs throwing a fastball. June 1964: Third Baseman Max Alvis suffers an attack of spinal meningitis on a team flight. January 1965: The Indians reacquire Rocky Colavito from the Kansas City A’s in exchange for Rookie of the Year winner Tommie Agee and future 286-game winner Tommy John. July 1970: Reds star Pete Rose plows over catcher Ray Fosse in the All-Star game, effectively ending Fosse’s career in Cleveland. June 1974: Drunken fans pour onto the Cleveland Stadium field during ten-cent beer night, forcing a forfeit while destroying the diamond. March 1977: 20-game winner Wayne Garland hurts his arm in Spring training, effectively ending his career. March 1978: Indians trade Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley to the Red Sox. July 1981: Cleveland hosts the All-Star game which is delayed until August by the MLB strike. August 1981: 1980 AL Rookie of the Year “Super Joe” Charboneau is sent down to AAA, never to be heard of again. April 1987: Sports Illustrated picks the Indians to win the pennant but they lose 101 games and finish last. March 1993: three Indians pitchers die in car crashes and a fourth is seriously injured. July 1994: Indians are speeding towards the World Series when the season is cancelled by a player’s strike.
It is believed by some that the curse extends to the Indians’ old spring training home in Tucson as well. Hi Corbett Field served as the spring training home of Cleveland from 1947 through 1992. Hi Corbett has not been used for Spring Training games since, but parts of the movie Major League were filmed there which ironically portrayed the Cleveland Indians as the laughing stock of the league.
z 2 dudesThere is so much about Tito Francona that typifies that which makes baseball so interesting. Aside from one of the greatest nicknames in sports history, he was considered a journeyman for most of his career, but a damned good one. Tito Francona was a baseball player, a great husband and father and an even better teammate. When he died at the age of 84 he left a lasting legacy. Tito was there at the beginning of “The Curse” and although he’s gone, he’s likely to be there when the curse ends because “Little Tito” just might lead the Indians to a World Series Championship this season. After all, it was Francona who broke the Boston Red Sox Curse of Babe Ruth by winning two World’s Series titles in four years. Yep, baseball is a funny game.

Baseball, Creepy history, Criminals, Sports

Tito Francona and the Curse of Rocky Colavito. PART I

Curse Part one

Original publish date:  March 21, 2019

Spring training baseball is back. I am one of those legion of fans who wait every year to hear the five most beautiful words in the English language: “Pitchers and Catchers Report.” As a kid growing up, spring training baseball was always synonymous with Florida. In the Mid-1970s, my family took our spring break vacations at the Island Towers resort hotel in Fort Myers. It just so happened that the hotel was the spring training headquarters of the Kansas City Royals. So it was no big thing seeing guys like George Brett, Frank White, Freddie Patek, and Cookie Rojas hanging out at the pool or chasing my older sisters on the beach. Years later, I ran into Jamie Quirk at old 16th Street Bush Stadium and he informed me that the Island Towers were owned by Buck Martinez’s parents.
Ruth Jersey AuctionMy grandparents retired to Cape Coral in the late 1970s and I recall one of their oldster neighbors showing me a photo album from the 1930s with pictures of the New York Yankees at Spring Training down there. Turns out his family lived near the facility, Fort Lauderdale if memory serves, where the Yankees trained. I can remember the photos in there of Lou Gehrig in a bathing suit (MAN that dude was HUGE!) and Babe Ruth in full uniform on the beach, two bats resting on his shoulder with his fielder’s glove and cleats hanging from the back like a hobo pouch. In his pin striped uniform! On the Beach! Everything in that photo would be worth a small fortune today, including the photo itself!
z seaver 1Somehow, I became a Blue Jays fan. Probably because I went to their first spring training game in franchise history in Dunedin. March 11, 1977 they beat the Mets 3-1 at Grant Field, which was built in 1930 and looked like it. I went to a few games that year. I distinctly recall sitting on a wooden bleacher seat right next to Tom Seaver who was talking to me like it was no big deal. And he was pitching that day. Within a few weeks, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine.” Florida meant Spring Training, period. Somewhere along the line that changed.
They had spring training games in Arizona, something called the “Cactus League”, but that didn’t count for much back then. Today, more teams call Arizona home for spring training than ever before. The teams that play in Arizona now are the Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs & White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers. More than 100 games are scheduled between Feb. 21 – March 26, 2019. The broadcasters say that the travel in Florida is brutal, sometimes 3-4 hour bus rides, while the travel between stadiums in Arizona is usually less than an hour. When it comes to Arizona baseball, I think of a spring training story from the Cactus League that happened before I was born. The story emanates from Hi Corbett Field in spring training of 1961. But first a little background.
HiCorbett1March of 1961 was a busy time: America’s brand new President John F. Kennedy creates the Peace Corps, The Beatles start performing at the Cavern Club, Nine African-American students from Mississippi’s Tougaloo College made the first peaceful attempt to end segregation by staging a “read-in” at the whites-only main branch of the Jackson municipal public library, NASA launches a Mercury-Redstone BD rocket from Cape Canaveral as one final test flight to certify its safety for human transport. Alan Shepard had volunteered to take the flight and become the first man to travel into outer space, but was stopped by Wernher von Braun from going, Less than three weeks later, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would, on April 12, would reach the milestone, Actor Ronald Reagan bursts onto the political scene with his speech “Encroaching Control” before the Phoenix chamber of commerce and the Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo is captured.
Hi Corbett Field is located in Tucson, Arizona. Opened in 1937, it was originally called Randolph Municipal Baseball Park. In 1951, it was renamed in honor of Hiram Stevens Corbett (1886–1967), a former Arizona state senator who was instrumental in bringing spring training to Tucson, specifically by convincing Bill Veeck to bring the Cleveland Indians there in 1947. Veeck owned a ranch in Tucson, and he and players sometimes rode horses there after games. Veeck claimed that he moved the team’s training camp from Florida to Arizona in order to avoid Florida’s Jim Crow laws.

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Bill Veeck

In the mid-1940s, while Veeck was owner of the then-minor league Milwaukee Brewers of the AAA American Association, during one of his team’s spring games in Ocala, Florida, the owner took a bleacher seat and started talking with the fans around him. Veeck had no idea that he had sat in the part of the stadium that was designated for African American fans. That turned out to be a big deal in the segregated “Jim Crow” South of the 1940s. Veeck had no idea that he was breaking a law that kept black fans from mixing with white spectators. In his book, “Veeck as in Wreck”, he wrote, “Within a few minutes, a sheriff came running over to tell me I couldn’t sit there.” The Brewers owner refused to move, and soon the mayor himself was threatening to force him to sit in another section. Veeck countered that if they wanted him to move from his seat, he would would move his team right along with him; to another city. The mayor finally backed down, but Veeck never forgot it.
In time, Veeck sold his stake in the Brewers and bought the Cleveland Indians. Veeck chose Phoenix, Arizona as the Indians’ spring training home for 1947. Veeck convinced the New York Giants to join his Indians so that the two teams could prepare for the season. The next season, Veeck signed Larry Doby to a contract, making him the American League’s first black player. Doby made his major league debut with the Indians on July 5, 1947, about 11 weeks after Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Giants followed by signing Hall of Famer Monte Irvin the next year and the Cactus League was born.
z B99629538Z.1_20180214121756_000_GTU1S68FU.1-0Last year, John Patsy Francona, a Cleveland Indians fan favorite better known as “Tito” died on the eve of spring training. It was the day before Valentine’s Day and the Indians’ pitchers & catchers were just trickling in to their spring training park in Goodyear, Arizona. The passing was made all the more bittersweet when you consider that the team was managed by Tito’s son, Terry Francona. Terry grew up in the Indians dugout where players called him “Little Tito.” As a member of the Montreal Expos, Terry played against our Indians here in Indianapolis at the old 16th street stadium. Before that he played college ball for Arizona State and led his team to the 1980 College World Series Championship. Terry Francona’s dad’s nickname of “Tito” was naturally passed down to his son, and although the broadcasters and news media still call him “Terry”, Tito is what the manager’s friends and players call him.
The elder Francona arrived in Cleveland in 1959 with baby Terry (born April 22 of that year) in tow. That season, Tito was at the top of his game and his presence knocked some all-time Indian greats right off the roster. Francona came to Cleveland in a one-for-one trade that sent Hall of Famer Larry Doby to the White Sox. (Ironically, it was the second time Tito had been traded for Larry Doby after the O’s traded him to the White Sox in 1958) Tito arrived at the “Mistake on the Lake” with big shoes to fill, but Francona, who began the 1959 season as a pinch hitter and utility man, quickly earned a regular place in the lineup. After going five-for-nine with a home run in a June 7 doubleheader against the Yankees, Francona replaced Jim Piersall as Cleveland’s starting center fielder. By the end of the season, he displaced Indians regular first baseman Vic Power, who was shifted to second base.
z AR-304189941That season Tito batted .363 with a career high twenty home runs and 79 RBIs to help the Indians to an 89–65 record and second place in the American League. His .363 average would have led the league, however, he fell 34 at-bats short of the 3.1 per game necessary to qualify. The batting championship went to the Detroit Tigers’ Harvey Kuenn, with a .353 batting average, ten points below Tito. Francona finished fifth in balloting for the AL Most Valuable Player Award that season. He compiled 20 home runs, 17 doubles, 79 RBIs, 68 runs scored, 145 hits, a .414 on-base percentage and a .566 slugging percentage in 122 games.
Ironically, the next season, Francona was shifted to left field when the Indians traded home run leader Rocky Colavito for Kuenn, the same player who edged out Tito for the batting title the year before. With former Indianapolis Indians slugger Colavito gone (Indianapolis was Cleveland’s minor league affiliate from 1952-56), Francona was inserted in the clean-up spot in manager Joe Gordon’s batting order. Tito tallied only six home runs through the All-Star break and was dropped to the number six spot in the batting order for August, and then back up to number two by September. Tito hit eleven home runs over the rest of the season to finish with seventeen overall. He batted ,292 and his 36 doubles led the American League for 1960. The trade of Colavito for Kuenn is considered by longtime Indians’ fans the beginning of the “Curse of Rocky Colavito” and as you might imagine, Tito Francona was right in the thick of it.Francona Tito 2053.68WTC_Bat_NBL

Baseball, Indianapolis, Sports

A Christmas card from the Indianapolis Clowns.

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Original publish date:  January 3, 2019

My wife and I have developed a Christmas time tradition of visiting Gatlinburg, Tennessee every December. We’ve been traveling to the area on and off for over 25 years. Back then the region retained an atmosphere where one could imagine Dolly Parton walking down the sidewalk but nowadays, one might expect to see Wayne Newton driving past in a limousine instead. It used to be the type of place where kitschy souvenir stores sold Cedar wood souvenir moonshine stills, featured live bears and homey gemstone pits for the kids to dig through. But those days are long gone. Gatlinburg is today home to glitzy storefronts selling Harley Davidson clothes, designer moonshine and Pandora charms.
You can still drive through Smoky Mountain National Park in search of black bears at Cades Cove and find a cozy log cabin to eat a flapjack in. Some things never change. A couple weeks ago we stopped at an antique mall near Lexington Kentucky where I found a shoebox full of old letters just begging for my attention. One of the envelopes contained a Christmas card from the old Indianapolis Clowns Negro league baseball club. I opened it quickly but carefully, saw what was contained inside, and handed it to Rhonda with the explicit instructions, “Don’t lose this.” I knew we were going to be holed up in the room for the next couple days and this would be a fun thing to examine over morning coffee.
I’m an early riser; Rhonda likes to sleep in and I’m okay with that. It was time to examine my find. The envelope contained a Christmas card from the 1961 Clowns baseball team after they relocated to Hollywood, Florida in the late 1950s. The Christmas card looks like any other; bright red, white & green with “Season’s Greetings” on the front. However the magic happens when you open it and the contents are revealed. The interior features a great real photo image of the entire uniformed team captioned: “Indianapolis Clowns Baseball Club” at bottom. The photo is actually a B&W snapshot that was individually inserted into a pocket window frame inside the card. It is easy to imagine a room full of elegantly dressed women chatting gleefully away as they carefully stuff each photo in place in the Clowns’ front office. Or maybe it was a room full of bat boys and ticket takers. Regardless, it makes for a romantic holiday image.
z d1901The card reads: “Greetings of the Season and Best Wishes for a Happy New Year. Baseball’s Professional Clowning Champions- 35th Consecutive Annual Tour! Indianapolis Clowns Ed Hamman, Bus. Mgr. Syd Pollack, Gen. Mgr. Box 84- Hollywood, Florida” inside. The original mailing envelope has the return address on front and same on back via an embossed stamp on the back. The Christmas card was sent to the Babe Ruth Baseball League in Vero Beach, Florida. True baseball fans will recognize Vero Beach as the spring training home of former Negro leader Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers and later the Koufax/Drysdale Los Angeles Dodgers. For a baseball fanatic, there is a lot going on in this little Christmas card.
z d1900The team photo pictures 10 players in old wool baseball uniforms standing in a line with another four players dressed in comic field costumes including a female player holding one of the Clowns’ trademark props, a grossly oversized baseball bat. The Clowns were one of the first professional baseball teams to hire a female player. They featured three prominent women players on their roster in the 1950s: Mamie “Peanut” Johnson (1935-2017) a right handed pitcher who went 33-8 in 3 seasons with the Clowns, Constance “Connie” Morgan (1935-1996) who played 2 seasons at second base for the Clowns and the first female player in the Negro Leagues, Marcenia “Toni” Stone (1921-1996) who once got a hit off of Satchel Paige.
Most of my interest in the Clowns centers around the fact that they’re from my hometown. But also because they were the first professional team for one of my baseball heroes; Hank Aaron. On November 20, 1951, Aaron signed his first Pro contract with the Clowns. The 6 foot, 180 pound Aaron would play three months at shortstop, batting cleanup for the Clowns. He earned $200 per month.
While with the Clowns, his teammates called him “Pork Chop” because it was the only thing the kid from Mobile Alabama c76-34fknew how to order off the menu. Aaron first experienced overt northern style racism while playing with the Clowns. The team was in Washington, D.C. and a few of the Clowns’ players decided to grab a pregame breakfast in a restaurant behind Griffith Stadium. The players were seated and served but after they finished their meals, they could hear the sounds of employees breaking all the plates in the kitchen. Aaron and his teammates were stung by the irony of being in the capital of the “Land of Freedom” whose employees felt they “had to destroy the plates that had touched the forks that had been in the mouths of black men. If dogs had eaten off those plates, they’d have washed them.”

Aaron finished with a .366 batting average in 26 official Negro league games; 5 home runs, 33 RBI, 41 hits, and 9 stolen bases. At the close of his three months with the Indianapolis Clowns, Aaron received two offers from MLB teams via telegram; one from the New York Giants and the other from the Boston Braves. Years later, Aaron recalled later: “I had the Giants’ contract in my hand. But the Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – fifty dollars.” The Braves eventually purchased Aaron’s contract from the Clowns for $10,000.
6e74e37f42cfa93767ef6009b79ad35aDuring Aaron’s tenure the Clowns were a powerhouse team in the Negro American League. However, the story of the Indianapolis Clowns does not begin, or end, with the Hank Aaron connection. The team traces their origins back to the 1930s. They began play as the independent Ethiopian Clowns, joined the Negro American League as the Cincinnati Clowns and, after a couple of years, relocated to Indianapolis. The team was formed in Miami, Florida, sometime around 1935-1936 and was originally known as the Miami Giants. After a couple years the team changed its name to the Miami Ethiopian Clowns and hit the road to become the longest running barnstorming team in professional baseball history.
Over the next few decades, the Clowns developed into a nationally-known combination of show business and baseball that earned them the designation as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. The team built a national following as one of baseball’s favorite entertainment attractions during the 1930s and the club was the only “clowning team” to earn entrance into black baseball’s “major leagues.” Though the Clowns always played a credible brand of baseball, their Globetrotter-like comedy routines was the stuff that paid the bills, filled the stands and brought national attention.
In 1943, the team toned down its clowning routines and joined the Negro American League. They also moved to Ohio’s Queen city to became the Cincinnati Clowns. The team floated back and forth between Cincinnati and Indianapolis for the 1944 and 1945 seasons before officially moving to Indianapolis after World War II in 1946. While this was an epiphanal moment in the history of Indianapolis baseball, the euphoria didn’t last long.newscan0024
Baseball’s color barrier came tumbling down on April 18, 1946, when Jackie Robinson made his first appearance with the Montreal Royals in the Triple-A International League. Robinson was called up to the parent club the next season and helped the Dodgers win the National League pennant on his way to winning the first National League Rookie of the Year award. After Robinson’s success, a steady stream of black players representing the elite of the Negro leagues flowed into the majors leagues. By 1952, there were 150 black players in major league baseball. For the Clowns, the result was sadly predictable. Black fans followed their stars to the big leagues, and attendance at traditional black ballparks tanked.
The Negro National League folded after the 1949 season. Some proposals were offered to keep the league alive as a developmental league for black players, but that idea was contrary to the goal of full integration. The Negro American League continued on throughout the 1950s, but closed its doors for good in 1962, the year after this Christmas card was issued. So the Negro leagues, once among the largest and most prosperous black-owned business ventures, faded into oblivion. After the demise, the Clowns continued barnstorming across the country and returned to their clowning routines out of financial necessity. It remains a testament to the strength of the Clowns’reputation that they were able to sign a young Hank Aaron who would, nowadays, come out of baseball’s minor league system.
The years immediately preceding this Christmas card were, despite the demise of the Negro leagues, the most productive for the Indianapolis franchise. In 1950 the Clowns won their first Negro American League championship behind their star catcher Sam Hairston, who won the League’s Triple Crown title with 17 homeruns, 71 RBI and a .424 batting average. Hairston also led the league with 100 hits and 176 total bases.
During the 1951 season the Clowns did not play a single home game in Indianapolis but won their second Negro American League championship. The Clowns captured their third league championship in 1952. The Clowns’ success earned them a steady barnstorming gig during the off-season traveling with Jackie Robinson’s All Stars. In 1954, the Clowns won their fourth league championship in five years. The next year, the Clowns dropped out of the league to pursue a full time barnstorming schedule. The Clowns played 143 games on the road in 1963. Although this sounds like a staggering number, it is the smallest number of games the Clowns had ever played in one year. Along the way the Clowns broke all color barriers by playing in front of both white and black crowds.
downloadHarlem Globetrotter star “Goose” Tatum also played for the Clowns during this time. Goose was as much of a showman on the diamond as he was on the basketball court. Whether fielding balls with a glove triple the size of a normal one, confusing opposing players with hidden ball tricks or playing second base while seated in a rocking chair, Tatum was amazing. During the same era, Richard “King Tut” King played the field using an enormous first baseman’s mitt and occasionally augmenting his uniform with grass hula skirts in the field. King, who spent over 20-years with the Clowns, paved the way for great white baseball comedians like Max Patkin.
Clowns pitcher Ed Hamman would fire fastballs from between his legs and from behind his back while going as far as to go into the crowd to sell peanuts and programs while his team was at bat. Hamman also invented   “shadow ball”. Hamman’s brainchild had all nine players going through the motions of a real game from pitching to fielding to batting -all without a ball. Hamman’s name appears on the 1961 Christmas card as the team’s business manager.
lfBy 1966 the Indianapolis Clowns were the last Negro league team still playing. The Clowns continued to play exhibition games into the 1980s, but as a humorous sideshow rather than a competitive sport. After many years on the road as a barnstorming team, the Clowns finally disbanded in 1989. The Clowns were also the first team to feature women as umpires. The 1976 movie “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings”, starring James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor, is based on the Indianapolis Clowns.
According to the official website of the Negro Leagues: “The Harlem Globetrotters have won their place in the world’s hearts as comedians with great basketball skill. The Indianapolis Clowns did exactly the same in segregated America. The Clowns crossed all color barriers with their brand of comedy and earned their place in baseball history with trend setting ideas, actions and great play between the lines. Unlike the Globetrotters however, the Clowns took an opposite road to fame. The Clowns became a legitimate playing team after beginning as entertainers -the exact opposite of their basketball playing cousins.” Seasons greetings everybody through the haze of history and your Indianapolis Clowns.

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Baseball, Criminals, Pop Culture

The real story of “The Natural.”

Eddie Waitkus
Eddie Waitkus & Ruth Ann Steinhagen 

Original publish date:  June 24, 2013

The Major League All-Star break is over and once again regular season baseball games are in full swing. Off hours are filled with baseball themed like Major League, Field of Dreams, A League of their own, Eight Men Out and, of course, The Natural. But did you ever stop to think, is Robert Redford’s character in The Natural based on a real life player? Well, the answer is yes. And no.
It would be more accurate to say that the film is based on an event, rather than an z waitkus-52tindividual player. On June 14, 1949 Philadelphia Phillies “Whiz Kids” (and former Chicago Cub) first baseman Eddie Waitkus was shot by an obsessed fan named Ruth Ann Steinhagen in a Chicago Hotel Room. The comparison between Waitkus and the movie character pretty much ends there. But it is a Helluva story.
Just a few years into the start of what seemed a very promising career, Waitkus was shot in the chest at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. A 19-year-old typist at the time of the incident, shooter Steinhagen became infatuated with Eddie when he was a Cub and seeing him play every day fed her obsession. However, once he was traded to the Phillies, Ruth Ann’s sanity snapped when she realized that her “crush” would only be in Chicago 11 games that season.

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Ruth Catherine Steinhagen

Born two days before Christmas in 1929, Ruth was the daughter of immigrant parents from Berlin, Germany. Born Ruth Catherine Steinhagen, she adopted the middle name Ann at some point in her youth. While she never actually met Waitkus before she shot him, she created a ‘shrine’ to him inside her bedroom with hundreds of photographs and newspaper clippings – sometimes spreading them out and looking at them for hours, according to her mother. She would often set an empty place across from her at the dinner table reserved for Waitkus. She told her doctors, after the incident, “I used to go to all the ball games to watch him. We used to wait for them to come out of the clubhouse after the game, and all the time I was watching I was building in my mind that idea of killing him.”
In 1948, Steinhagen’s family sent her to a psychiatrist, but her obsession didn’t diminish, even after Waitkus was traded to Philadelphia. After the shooting, police found extensive clippings in her suitcase and even pictures papering the ceiling of her bedroom at home. On June 14, 1949, the Phillies came to Chicago for a game against the Cubs. After the game, which she attended, Steinhagen sent Waitkus a handwritten note through a bellboy, inviting him to visit her in her 12th floor room in the Edgewater Beach Hotel where they were both registered.
Claiming to be Ruth Anne Burns, the note began: “Mr. Waitkus–It’s extremely important that I see you as soon as possible. We’re not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain to you.” After insisting that she was leaving the hotel the next day and stressing the urgency of the request, she concluded: “I realize this is a little out of the ordinary, but as I said, it’s rather important. Please, come soon. I won’t take up much of your time, I promise.”

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Waitkus

According to Waitkus’ friend and roommate, Russ Meyer, Waitkus received the note, which was attached to the door of their 9th floor room after returning from dinner with Meyer’s family and fiancé past 11:00 p.m. Waitkus called the room but the woman would not discuss the details over the phone. The Sunday Gazette Mail says Waitkus knew some people named Burns. Waitkus’s son later speculated that his father may have “thought he had a hot honey on the line.” For whatever reason, he went to meet her in the room.
The details of what happened in the room are a little sketchy. According to the Associated Press report day after the shooting, Steinhagen told police that as Waitkus entered the room, she greeted him by saying, “I have a surprise for you”. After which she retrieved a .22 rifle from the closet and shot him in the chest. Meyer said that Waitkus told him that when he entered the room, the woman claimed to be “Mary Brown.” He said that Waitkus claimed Steinhagen’s words after retrieving the gun from the closet were “If I can’t have you, nobody else can.” Another account claimed that Steinhagen said, “You’re not going to bother me anymore.” Waitkus, who later said he believed the woman was joking, stood his ground and was shot. He said he asked her, as she knelt beside his prone body with her hand on his, “Oh baby, what did you do that for?”

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Ruth Steinhagen

Steinhagen later told police that she had originally planned to stab Eddie, and use the gun to shoot herself, but changed her plans when Waitkus walked into the room and sat down. Steinhagen still intended to shoot herself, but evidently could not find another bullet. While Waitkus was lying on the floor bleeding from the chest, Steinhagen called down to the front desk of the hotel and told them “I just shot a man….” After the shooting, she went to wait for the authorities on the benches near the elevator, although she later claimed that she stayed with the wounded man and held his head in her lap until help arrived. The phone call, which brought quick medical attention as well as police, saved Waitkus’ life.
Steinhagen was arrested and then arraigned on June 30, 1949. Questioned about the shooting, she told police she did not know why she had done it, explaining that she wanted “to do something exciting in my life.” Strangely, when taken to Waitkus’ hospital room the day after the shooting, she told Eddie that she didn’t know for sure why she had done it. She told a psychiatrist before she went to court that “I didn’t want to be nervous all my life”, and explained to reporters that “the tension had been building up within me, and I thought killing someone would relieve it.” She said she had first seen Waitkus three years before, and that he reminded her “of everybody, especially my father.”
Steinhagen’s counsel presented a petition to the court saying that their client was “unable to cooperate with counsel in the defense of her cause” and did not “understand the nature of the charge against her.” The petition requested a sanity hearing. At the ensuing sanity hearing (which also occurred on June 30, 1949), Dr. William Haines, a court-appointed psychiatrist, testified that Steinhagen was suffering from “schizophrenia in an immature individual” and was insane. Chief Judge James McDermott of the Criminal Court of Cook County then directed the jury to find her insane, and ordered her committed to Kankakee State Hospital. The judge also struck “with leave to reinstate” the grand jury’s indictment of Steinhagen on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder, meaning that prosecutors could refile the charge if Steinhagen recovered her sanity.
Steinhagen never stood trial, but instead was confined to a mental institution until 1952, when she was declared cured and released. Waitkus did not press charges against Steinhagen after she was released, telling an assistant state’s attorney that he wanted to forget the incident. After her release, Steinhagen moved back home to live with her parents and her younger sister in her parents’ small apartment on Chicago’s North Side. She shunned publicity in the ensuing decades, and remained a recluse for the rest of her life. In 1970, she and her family purchased a home in a crowded, racially mixed neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side. She lived in the home with her parents and sister and, after their parents died in the early 1990s, continued to live there even after her sister died in 2007. She employed full-time caregivers in her final years.
She lived a quiet and secluded life, steadfastly maintaining her privacy, avoiding reporters, and refusing to comment publicly on her shooting of Waitkus. She never married and worked an office job for 35 years, her neighbors and coworkers never knew of her place in infamy. Court records and routine background checks reveal no information about her career. On December 29, 2012, Steinhagen died in a Chicago hospital of a subdural hematoma that she suffered as a result of an accidental fall in her home. She was 83 years and six days old, and left no immediate survivors.

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Bill “Swish” Nicholson examines his teammate’s scar.

The bullet that struck Waitkus lodged in a lung, barely missed his heart, required four surgeries and prevented his return to baseball for the rest of that 1949 season. Eddie nearly died several times on the operating table before the bullet was successfully removed. The incident profoundly influenced Waitkus’ career and personal life as well; he was never the same player after the shooting. Eddie developed somewhat of a phobia worrying that others might not understand why he had visited Steinhagen’s room. He also, according to roommate Meyer, developed a drinking problem after the incident.
On August 19, 1949, the Phillies held “Eddie Waitkus Night” at Shibe Park and showered their wounded first baseman with gifts. Waitkus appeared at the stadium in uniform for the first time since he was shot in Chicago. Although the shooting left Waitkus knocking on death’s door, he was back in the Phillies’ Opening Day lineup the next year, going 3-for-5. After the 1950 season, Waitkus was named the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year.
Eddie Waitkus, Stephen WaitkusThe Waitkus shooting is regarded as the inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s 1952 baseball book The Natural, which was made into a film by Barry Levinson in 1984. Other than the shooting, its hard to make a comparison between Eddie Waitkus and Roy Hobbs, the character played by Robert Redford in the film. In The Natural, Hobbs was shot as a teenage phenom before ever reaching the majors and the shooting kept him from reaching the big leagues until the age of 34, at which point he immediately started hitting like Babe Ruth with his miracle bat “Wonder Boy”. When shot, Waitkus was a 29-year-old veteran of both World War II and 448 major league games.
z The_NatrualMiraculous comeback aside, Waitkus, who died in 1972, was no Hobbs at the bat. Though he was enjoying his finest season when he was shot, he had just one home run in 246 plate appearances, and when he retired in 1955 at age 35, he had just 24 home runs in 4,681 at bats. Waitkus hit for respectable averages (.304 in 1946, .306 in 1949 before the shooting, .285 for his career), but they were empty. He hit for little power and drew only an average number of walks. He did make a pair of All-Star teams and drew some low-ballot MVP votes in two seasons, but was by no means a Hall of Fame candidate.
Whether it was the seasons’ lost to World War II, his advancing age or the shooting, Eddie Waitkus never really lived up to the Roy Hobbs hype. Turns out that author Malamud built his iconic character around what was by far the most interesting thing about Waitkus’s career; the shooting. The similarities between fact and fiction end with the echo of that gunshot.

Baseball, Criminals

The New York Mets, Bobby Bonilla and Bernie Madoff.

Bonilla

Original publish date:  July 6, 2015

On Sunday, October 7, 2001, 6-time all-star Bobby Bonilla of the St. Louis Cardinals stepped to the plate before a crowd of 47,518 fans at Busch Stadium. The 3-time silver slugger award winner appeared as a pinch hitter and struck out in the 9-2 loss to the Houston Astros. It was Bonilla’s last at bat as a player. He officially retired at season’s end citing “injuries and reduced playing time” as the main reason for his decision. And although Bobby Bonilla has not recorded an MLB at-bat in 14 years, on July 4th, he cashed a $1.19 million paycheck from the New York Mets.
Bonilla was a 3rd baseman / outfielder for 8 teams (Pirates, Mets, White Sox, Marlins, Braves, Cardinals, Orioles and Dodgers) during his 16 year big league career. He finished with a .279 lifetime batting average, 287 homers and 1,173 R.B.I. He turned 52 years old this year and yet his salary would be the eighth-highest on the Mets 2015 payroll. He received his first million-dollar-plus check on July 1, 2011 and will continue to receive one every year until 2035. The $1.19 million tag would place him above Mets stars Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey even though Bonilla hasn’t worn a Mets uniform in 16 years.
At his peak, he averaged 20 home runs a year with 100 RBIs and a batting average over .300. In 1991, Bobby signed a five-year $29 million contract with the Mets that made him the highest paid baseball player ever, up to that point. Bonilla played for the Mets from 1992-1995, tanked, then bounced around the league for 3 teams in 3 seasons. He returned to Shea Stadium and the Mers in 1999 when he hit a paltry .237 with seven homers and 30 RBI in 60 games. During that horribly bad season, Bonilla spent the bulk of his time arguing with manager Bobby Valentine. The season ended with an embarrassing incident that irreparably severed the Mets love affair with Bobby Bonilla.
In Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, the Mets were down to the Atlanta Braves 5-0 in the first inning. By the 7th inning, the Mets had tied the game. Both teams battled run-for-run to remain tied through the 10th inning. By then, Bonilla and teammate Rickey Henderson had been pulled from the lineup. While their teammates were fighting for their series lives (they were down to the Braves 3 games to 2), Ricky and Bobby were absent from the dugout. Seems they were in the clubhouse playing Go Fish as the Mets lost to the Atlanta Braves 10-9 in 11 innings The victory sent the Braves to the World Series.

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New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, Bonilla and manager Bobby Valentine.

By then, the Mets wanted to get rid of Bonilla’s contract so badly that they deferred his $5.9 million buyout until the year 2011. Ironically, Bonilla signed with Braves for the next season even though the Mets still owed him $5.9 million. Enter the biggest financial error in Mets history. Instead of simply writing Bonilla a check for that amount in 2011, they agreed to spread it out over 25 years, plus interest. The Grand total after eight percent interest? $29,831,205. Cha-Ching!
So why on earth would the New York Mets agree to that incredibly lucrative contract that still pays Bobby Bonilla millions every year? The answer involves some razzle-dazzle financial planning, an overly aggressive Mets owner and, are you ready for this? Bernie Madoff. Mets owner Fred Wilpon accepted the deal mostly because he was heavily invested with Ponzi scheme operator Madoff. Wilpon did the math and decided that the 10 percent returns he believed he was getting on his Madoff investments outweighed the 8 percent interest the Mets were paying on Bonilla’s initial $5.9 million. While it is true that the Mets team owner deserves the blame, Bonilla deserves some credit here.
Bobby was in the twilight of his career and he knew that these were likely the very last dollars he would ever see from a big league contract. He was still young (36) with a young son and daughter who would be looking to go to college, and he likely had many years worth of life left to live. Whatever money he had saved up plus this final payment from the Mets would need to last him the rest of his life. Bonilla surely realized that high profile athletes going broke was an all too common story. Sports Illustrated recently reported that 70% of NFL players, 60% of NBA players and a high majority of MLB players went bankrupt within 2-4 years after retirement.
z marijuana--pile-of-moneyMany of these athletes are notoriously bad at managing their own money. Their teams often take care of all travel, meal and lodging expenses as part of their contracts. They see their salaries as instant, disposable income and make terrible investment decisions. When they retire or injury ends their career, they continue to spend wildly even though there is no more money coming in. Curt Schilling lost every cent of the $50 million he made playing baseball on a failed video game company. Allen Iverson squandered a $150 million fortune on gambling, houses, jewelry, child support and a 50-person entourage. Mike Tyson blew through a $300 million fortune. Evander Holyfield blew through a $250 million fortune. Phillies star Len Dykstra lost his fortune, then regained it only to lose it again. Locally, former Colts Quarterback Art Schlicter lost his fortune to drugs and gambling and he has been in-and-out of prison since his playing days ended.
When it came time to leave the Mets, Bonilla was smart enough to negotiate one of the most forward thinking contracts in sports history. He knew the Mets wanted him gone but they still owed him $5.9 million. Bonilla and his agents offered the team a quick fix: The Mets could release him and delay paying him the $5.9 million buyout for 11 years, with interest, starting in the year 2011. When he received his first payment, Bobby was 48 years old and had not played in the big leagues for a decade. He has basically guaranteed himself a big league salary every year for the rest of his life. Today Bobby Bonilla makes more than most of the team’s active players! So, again, why would the Mets ever agree to that deal?
In 1986, real estate developer Fred Wilpon purchased 50% of The New York Mets for an undisclosed sum. He then purchased the remaining 50% for $135 million in 2002. Wilpon was one of the biggest investors in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme hedge fund. It has been reported that Wilpon lost about $700 million with Madoff, which led to speculation that he would be forced to sell the team. Wilpon expected that the Mets would actually make a huge profit by deferring Bonilla’s $5.9 million. Even though it meant agreeing to pay Bonilla more than five times the amount they owed ($29.8 million), Wilpon estimated that the Mets would make $60-70 million in interest off of the $5.9 million over those 25 years investing with Madoff. Unfortunately for the Mets, Bernie Madoff’s investment fund was actually a gigantic scam that wiped out between $20 and $65 billion in wealth for thousands of investors. Madoff’s in jail for the rest of his life, Bonilla is a lifetime millionaire and Wilpon is still majority owner of the New York Mets. Go figure.
G1BBNOT21 3C S USA PA$1.9 million annual salary a decade after an employee leaves the job? What does all that mean? Well, nothing really. That is nothing to everyone except Bobby Bonilla. Keep in mind that an average annual teacher’s salary in Indiana is $ 53,000, a Hoosier cop makes about $ 50.000, a Circle City Fireman makes about $ 45,000 and the President of the United States makes $ 400,000 per year. To me it means that it’s the Major League All-Star game break again and I felt like writing a baseball story. True, the Bonilla deal remains a trivial footnote from the pages of sports history, but it’s a footnote that I find infinitely interesting.

Baseball, Politics

Joe McCarthy & the Cincinnati Red Legs Scare. Part I.

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Original publish date: April 4, 2016

It’s that time of year again. The rosters are set and the boys of summer have oiled their gloves and taped their bats for another season. Springtime has always been the zenith of hope for Cubs fans (and usually their best chance of winning a pennant) but this year the Cubs are picked by many to win the title so there’s no story in that. The once mighty Reds held a fire-sale over the winter so 2016 could be a long season for Reds fans (my wife among them). This is also an election year and the airwaves are hot with news from the campaigns. Trump, Cruz and Kasich are battling for the GOP nomination. Clinton and Sanders are chasing the Democratic nomination. Charges of sexism, elitism, racism and socialism pepper nearly every news story and blog. Politics and the Reds? That reminds me of a story.
In the decade or so after World War II, the idea of communist subversion at home and abroad seemed frighteningly real to many people in the United States. These fears would define the era’s political culture and spark a worldwide Cold War that lasted over half a century. Then, as now, some took advantage of those fears to advance their own personal agenda or further their career. The Cold War paranoia sparked a dastardly era in America that became known as the “Red Scare” and the demagogue Du Jour was Republican Senator Joseph P. McCarthy of Wisconsin.
Beginning in 1950, McCarthy spent nearly five years trying in vain to expose communists and other subversives working in the U.S. government. In the hyper-suspicious atmosphere of the Cold War, the mere insinuation of disloyalty was enough to convince many Americans that their government was packed with traitors and spies. McCarthy’s accusations were so intimidating that few people dared to speak out against him. While McCarthy’s Red Scare accusations were focused on national and foreign communists in the government, it quickly became a witch hunt for Commies influencing society thru the media, music, art, literature and motion picture industry.

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Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy.

It seemed like no-one was safe from accusation. McCarthy accused icons of the government of supporting communism including two of Harry S Truman’s Secretaries of State; General George Marshall and Dean Acheson. McCarthy eventually insinuated that President Truman himself was soft on Communism after he made the decision to remove General Douglas MacArthur from power during the Korean War. In time, McCarthy targeted many names you might recognize: Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Pete Seeger, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leonard Bernstein, Danny Kaye, Linus Pauling, Burgess Meredith, Edward G. Robinson and Orson Welles. All targets of McCarthy’s Red Smear.
McCarthy contended that all of these individuals (and more) worked within communist organizations and/or belonged to the Communist Party of America. Additionally, McCarthy’s reckless accusations ruined careers of those who were not famous and worked in the private sector. Many of those who were black-balled remained ostracized from their respective profession long after the Red Scare subsided. The fear of association with anything “Red” became so pervasive that even a professional baseball team from Cincinnati decided to change their name.
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The Cincinnati Reds name is a colloquial abbreviation of the Queen City’s original team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, which was the first fully professional baseball team. The Red Stockings had ten men on salary for eight months to play baseball in the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). It was organized in 1869 by Harry Wright, who also played center field for the team and managed the defensive positioning, something typically unknown at that time. The Red Stockings were wildly successful early on, going 57-0 in league play and posting a perfect 65-0 record overall (still the only perfect season in professional baseball history). The team barnstormed the nation coast-to-coast, challenging (and defeating) every base ball club it played that inaugural season.
They followed this up by winning 24 straight games the next season. On June 14, 1870, after 81 consecutive wins, the Cincinnati Red Stockings lost 8-7 in 11 innings to the Brooklyn Atlantics before a crowd of 20,000. Apparently, the novelty of an undefeated team wore off quickly with attendance declining substantially after that first loss. Although they only lost 6 games that second season, the Red Stockings Executive Board recommended that the club not employ a team for 1871, citing that it was just too expensive.
Five years later in 1876, the National League is formed in New York City with Cincinnati as a charter member. In October of 1880, Cincinnati is expelled from the league, due in part to its refusal to stop renting out their ballpark on Sundays and to cease selling beer during games. The next year, the American Association is formed and the Reds would play their next eight seasons in the league which included (for a short time) a team from Indianapolis known as the Hoosiers. In 1889 the Red Stockings rejoined the National League where they remain to this day.
MR-RED_53Irregardless of all that storied history, in 1953 the Reds decided to rename themselves the “Cincinnati Redlegs” to avoid the social stigma, potential money-losing prospects and career-ruining repercussions of being viewed as the “Reds”. Think about it, newspaper headlines like “The Reds bomb St. Louis” or “Reds murder Senators” might spread War of the Worlds style pandemonium. Okay,okay the Senators and Yankees were American League teams, but you get the idea.
So, for a four year stretch from 1956-1960, the name “Reds” was removed from the team’s logo and no longer appeared on team uniforms. Programs, tickets, pennants, buttons, and all team memorabilia was changed from Reds to Red Legs. The club’s logo was altered to remove the term “REDS” from the inside of the “wishbone C” symbol. In short, Cincinnati’s beloved Reds were no more.
Ironically, the term Red Legs, at least in the pages of history, was viewed as no better than the Red Stain nickname of the Reds. Red Legs derogatorily described guerrilla raiders in the Civil War, a 1670s Scottish pirate or a specific group of poor white people living on various islands in the Caribbean who generally originated from Ireland and Scotland and were most commonly known as “white slaves”. Guerrillas, pirates or slaves seemed to be a more prudent choice for the Reds during Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare.

z 1953-asg_n4bbzbf86ibb1eetmgobqanusSometimes peer pressure and cultural hysteria make businessmen do strange things.
It was not until Joe McCarthy attacked Ike’s Army in 1954 that his actions earned him the censure of the U.S. Senate. Even so, it took four years for the team to change the name back to the “Cincinnati Reds” after the 1958 season. By the start of Spring training in 1959, the team would be known as the Reds again. The cultural back-peddling inspired one unnamed exasperated team executive to remark: “If the communists don’t like it, let them change their name. We were the Reds before they were.” It didn’t take long for the anti-communist fears to fade. One need only consider those Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s (during the Cold War) as evidence. And would did the Reds beat in the 1976 World Series? The Yankees. Yep, the news headlines read “Reds defeat Yankees”. What would Joe McCarthy say about that?
Next week: Part II- Joe McCarthy’s Lavender Scare.