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.


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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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.


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.

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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.

Baseball, Pop Culture

Chicago Cubs: The Curse of Billy Goat Sianis.

SPT BILLGOAT A  Original publish date:          February 27, 2017

Its not often these days that goats make the news. You may have heard recently that a severed goat’s head mysteriously appeared outside of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. To the uninitiated observer, the news of a blood soaked box containing the mortal remains of a Capra aegagrus hircus (domestic goat) might sound like some Medievel relic or a scene out of a Wes Craven film. However, diehard Cubs fans will immediately recognize the significance of such a macabre offering.
On April 10, 2013, a box arrived at the friendly confines addressed to the club’s owner Thomas S. Ricketts. Ricketts has been making noise recently with threats to move the team out of Wrigley Field unless the ballpark is updated and a newer larger mega-video screen is installed above the Ivy covered walls of the National League’s oldest baseball park. Ricketts is currently embroiled in heated negotiations with city officials and neighborhood business people about the proposed $300 million renovation. Cubs staff discovered the package and immediately called police. Chicago police responded to a call about an “intimidating package” around 2:30 p.m. By why a goat’s head? What did it mean?
Well, Cubs lore says Chicago tavern owner Billy Sianis cursed the Cubs when they wouldn’t let his pet goat into Wrigley Field on October 6, 1945. Sianis purchased 2 box seat tickets for $ 7.20 for he and his pet goat, Murphy. He arrived with the goat wearing a sign stating “We Got Detroit’s Goat”. The legend claims that Sianis was asked to leave a World Series game against the Detroit Tigers at Wrigley because his pet goat’s odor was bothering other fans. He was outraged and declared, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more,” which has been interpreted to mean that there would never be another World Series game won at Wrigley Field. Of course, it helps feed the legend that the Cubs have not won a National League pennant since that World War II Era incident. Making matters worse, the Cubs have not won a World Series in 105 years.
Since then, there have been countless renditions of the fabled incident, so many in fact that it has become hard to separate fact from fiction. Most renditions state that Sianis declared that no World Series games would ever again be played at Wrigley Field, still others say that his ban was on the Cubs appearing in any World Series, regardless of venue. The Sianis’ family claimed that “Billy” (ironically the most popular name for American domestic goats) sent a telegram to then team owner Philip K. Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again because you insulted my goat.” Whatever the truth, the Cubs were up two games to one in that 1945 series but ended up losing Game 4 as well as the best-of-seven series four games to three.
Newspapermen all over Chicago knew a good story when they “smelled” one, so the curse was quickly immortalized in columns and has spread like wildfire for decades hence. Legendary Chicago Daily News, Sun-Times and Tribune syndicated columnist Mike Royko popularized the goat legend when, during the 2003 postseason, Fox television commentators played it up during the Cubs-Marlins match-up in the 2003 National League Championship Series.
In an apparent mea culpa by the team, the curse was “lifted” in 1969 by Sianis himself. It didn’t take, as the 1969 Cubs finished with a record of 92-70, 8 games behind the New York Mets. That star crossed season saw the Cubs in first place for 155 days, until mid-September when they lost 17 out of 25 games. The “Miracle Mets” went on to win the World Series. Later, Billy Sianis’ nephew Sam, was brought out onto Wrigley Field with a goat multiple times in attempts to break the curse: on Opening Day in 1984 and 1989 (in both years, the Cubs went on to win their division), in 1994 to stop a home losing streak, and in 1998 for the wild card game (which the Cubs won).
In 2003, the Chinese zodiac’s Year of the Goat, a group of Cubs fans headed to Houston with a billy goat named “Virgil Homer” and attempted to gain entrance to Minute Maid Park, home of their division rivals the Astros. After they were denied entrance, they unfurled a scroll, read a verse and proclaimed they were “reversing the curse.” The ploy seemed to be working as the Cubs won the division that year, but then came the “Bartman incident”.
In the eighth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS, with Chicago ahead 3–0 and holding a 3 games to 2 lead in the best of 7 series, Marlins’ second baseman Luis Castillo hit a ball down the left field line. As the ball hovered in limbo between fair and foul, several spectators attempted to catch it. One of those fans, Steve Bartman, reached for the ball, deflecting it out of the reach of Cubs outfielder Moisés Alou. Had Alou caught the ball, it would have been the second out in the inning, and the Cubs would have been just four outs away from playing in the World Series. Instead, the Cubs lost the lead and ultimately the game, by giving up eight runs in the inning. Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan, had to be escorted from the stadium by security guards, and received police protection for a time when his name and address were made public on MLB message boards.
In another bizarre incident on October 3, 2007, a goat carcass was found hanging from the statue of beloved broadcaster Harry Caray. While the Cubs did win the NL Central Division title in 2007 and 2008, they were swept in the first round of the playoffs in both years. Yet another dead goat (this time just the head) was found hanging on the Caray statue on Opening day of 2009. At 2:40 a.m. police responded to a 911 call at the intersection of Clark and Addison streets. Police took the goat down and disposed of the remains. No arrests were made in either incident.
More recently, Cubs fans have sought reversal via a more spiritual course by bringing in Catholic priests to bless the field, stadium, and dugout. On April Fool’s Day of 2011, a group calling itself “Reverse The Curse” was born. This social enterprise is dedicated to squaring the deal with Billy Sianis’ ghost by giving goats to families in developing countries to combat worldwide poverty. These goats provide the family with milk, cheese, and alternative income to help lift them out of poverty. Reverse The Curse further expanded into reversing the curses that afflict the world’s children in Education and Obesity.
Some Cubs fans further chart the curse’s effect by the number of players who won World Series titles after leaving the Cubs. They include Lou Brock, Bill Madlock, Manny Trillo, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley, Joe Carter, Greg Maddux, Joe Girardi (as both a player and a manager), and Mark Grace to name but a few. More recently, Tim Lincecum, the San Francisco Giant pitcher known as “The Freak”, was originally drafted by the Cubs.
But what about that original goat and it’s owner? Billy Sianis was born in 1895 in Greece. In 1912 he immigrated to the United States, where he became a prominent, yet crafty, Chicago bar owner. In early 1934, two months after the repeal of Prohibition, Sianis purchased the Lincoln Tavern, a bar across the street from Chicago Stadium, for $205 with a bounced check (he made good on it with the proceeds from the first weekend they were open). That summer a baby goat fell off the back of a truck into the street outside the tavern. Sianis nursed the goat to health and named it “Murphy”. To honor his favorite pet, Sianis renamed his bar the “Billy Goat Tavern” . The bar became a popular hangout for celebrities in the 1940s.
When the 1944 Republican National Convention came to town, he posted a sign saying “No Republicans allowed” causing the place to be packed with Republicans demanding to be served. Of course, a great deal of publicity followed and Sianis took advantage of it. Sianis used his goat to draw attention to his bar; he began wearing a goatee, nicknamed himself “Billy Goat”, and began to sneak the goat into unusual locations for publicity stunts. That explains the Wrigley Field fiasco huh?
In 1964, it moved to its current location under Michigan Avenue. It’s new location, situated between the offices of the Chicago Tribune and the old Chicago Sun-Times building, led to the tavern’s popularity among newspaper columnists, particularly Mike Royko. In 1969, Sianis petitioned powerful Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley to issue him the first liquor license for the moon. His hope, according to the letter displayed on the bar’s wall, was to “best serve his country by serving delicious cheeseburgers to wayfaring astronauts as well as raising moon-goats”.
Sianis died on October 22, 1970, at the St. Clair Hotel where he made his home. Billy Goat Sianis is linked to pop culture and sports trivia for the “Goat Curse”, but that is by no means his only claim to fame. Another sign on the wall reads: “Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger. No Pepsi. Coke,” These words, with Pepsi and Coke in reverse order, were originally spoken and immortalized by John Belushi in, “Olympia Cafe,” an early Saturday Night Live sketch that was inspired by the Billy Goat tavern and it’s Greek owner. Although Belushi himself never set foot inside the Billy Goat, SNL stars Bill Murray and Don Novello (Father Guido Sarducci) were regulars.
Nevertheless, although Billy Goat Sianis’ life resonates through the pages of pop culture history far beyond the reaches of the Wrigley Field Goat Curse, many Cub fans are convinced that some residual aspect of that original 1945 curse persists. Since the Cubs are entering Spring training 2017 as defending World Champions, hopefully this is the last we’ll ever hear about a Cubs curse.