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.

z image_
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.

IMG_1467 2

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.

z joseph_r_mccarthy
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.
z s-l300

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.

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.

Baseball, Indianapolis, Weekly Column

The Day Babe Ruth Came To Indianapolis.

Babe Ruth - Older  Original publish date:        August 24, 2015

All through the summer of 1946, the mighty Babe Ruth had a severe pain over his left eye that would not go away. At first he thought it was a sinus infection, then a toothache. Whatever it was, it wasn’t getting any better. It eventually caused so much pain that Ruth admitted himself to a New York hospital on November 26. By then the entire left side of his face was swollen, his left eye closed shut, and he couldn’t eat solid food. Doctors removed three bad teeth, then pumped the Bambino full of penicillin and other drugs. By Christmas, Ruth was still in pain and back in the hospital.
Babe Ruth had cancer but the doctors never told him. They had discovered a malignant growth wrapped like a vine around a major artery in the left side of his neck. In the operation that followed, nerves were cut and the artery tied off. Not all of the cancer could be removed. Babe’s wife Claire said she was eventually told, but Babe remained in the dark until the very end. The surgery was on January 5, 1947. In the month that followed, Babe remained confined to the hospital in a state of near constant pain and depression. His hair began to fall out and he lost a lot of weight (estimated at between 80 to 128 pounds). It seemed that the Babe was just waiting to die.
Thousands of telegrams poured in every week from former teammates , sports luminaries (Connie Mack and Jack Dempsey among them), and average everyday fans. Claire read as many of letters as she could out loud to the Babe. On February 6 he celebrated his 52nd birthday in the hospital with Claire, Julia, and their dog, Pal. On February 15, Ruth left the hospital and wept unashamedly as he saw the throngs of admirers gathered outside as he was led to a waiting car. His natty camel’s hair overcoat and matching cap couldn’t hide the fact that Babe Ruth was a shadow of his former self.
Although weak and sickly, Ruth instinctively knew that he was back in the public eye. Extremely conscious of his debt to the “kids of America,” to whose loyal support he attributed his success, Ruth decided to apply himself to child welfare programs after his discharge from the hospital. He was engaged by the Ford Motor Company as a consultant in connection with its participation in the American Legion junior baseball program. In May, 1947, he established and made the first contribution to the Babe Ruth Foundation. Inc., an organization whose name soon became synonymous with youth baseball.
The ravages of his illness left little of Ruth’s once robust physique. The Babe now appeared gaunt, bent and vulnerable. His once resonant voice reduced to only a rasping whisper. The Mighty Ruth continued to astound his physicians by tackling his new job with all his old-time vigor. “They call me a consultant,” said Ruth, “but I want to tell you that I plan to work hard at this job-just as hard as my health permits. The possibilities are unlimited and I won’t be happy until we have every boy in America between the ages of 6 and 16 wearing a glove and swinging a bat.” He logged more then 50,000 miles in support of the program, appearing on diamonds all over the USA in front of thousands of youths.
Treatment with an experimental drug beginning in late June improved Ruth’s health tremendously. Throughout that summer of 1947 Ruth became the official ambassador of the American Legion baseball program. One of his stops while on the “American Legion Goodwill Tour” that summer was at the original Victory Field home of the Indianapolis Indians on 16th Street. Ruth appeared at the August 5, 1947 American Legion Junior All-Star game. The Sultan of Swat appeared on the field, shook hands with players and coaches and posed with local youngsters. He signed autographs for the fans and each All-Star player received an autographed baseball from Ruth. Two of the players in that game were future big leaguers Don Zimmer and Jim Frey representing the Robert E. Bentley Post # 50 out of Cincinnati.
The Indianapolis news reported: “Ruth thrilled the crowd when he was introduced during the intermission between the Legion game and the Indianapolis Indians’ game with Milwaukee. Ruth sat through the Legion game and several innings of the Indians game, but his ill health began to take its toll and he had to leave. Earlier in the day, he conducted an hour-long press conference, a pair of radio broadcasts and attended a luncheon in his honor. Once a hefty 278 pounds, Ruth’s weight had dropped to 193. He was coming off an illness that almost cost him his life and had just undergone a blood transfusion three days prior.”
The news spoke to one of the kids after the game about meeting the Babe, “His voice was deep and raspy, he coughed quite a bit, but it was the thrill of a lifetime.” said the unnamed player. The young athlete was surprised to see the once robust Ruth in such failing health, but impressed that he would spend time with them. Babe Ruth breezed through Indianapolis like an aging movie star unveiling their star on the Hollywood walk-of-fame. He was gone as fast as he came. It would be nearly 40 years after Ruth’s visit before my dad, Robert E. Hunter Arsenal Tech class of 1954, sat beside me at old Victory Field and dreamily stated, “You know I was here when Babe Ruth came through in 1947. I was selling peanuts here in the grandstands.” Strangely, he could rattle off the names of all those Pittsburgh Pirates minor league players on that team but couldn’t recall much about the Babe’s visit that day.
Ford renewed Ruth’s contract in early 1948, “not only because he was an inspiration to every American boy but because of the excellent results of his efforts last season.” The ex-slugger’s salary was not revealed but Ford announced that it “ranks him high on the list of baseball’s top money-earners.” As long as his strength permitted, Ruth continued to make appearances on behalf of the Junior Baseball program. It was to be only a momentary reprieve. At his last appearance in June 1948, before 16,000 youngsters in St. Louis, he was too weak to wave a bat for photographers.
The remaining piece of the tumor was growing, and soon morphine was the only thing that could stop the discomfort. Babe still tried to live his normal life of golf outings and devouring steaks, but now the drives fell far short off the tee and the meat had to be served chopped up for him. Soon even biting down on the white of an egg caused excruciating pain for the once mighty “Sultan of Swat.” Despite the pain, Babe wrote in the closing of his autobiography “The Babe Ruth Story” that hopeful summer of 1947: “I’ve got to stick around a long, long time. For above everything else, I want to be a part of and help the development of the greatest game God ever saw fit to let men invent-Baseball.”
Ruth bravely attended the Dodgers-Yankees World Series that fall and in December dressed up as Santa Claus to entertain young polio victims. Babe may not have known or wanted to believe it, but his own time was growing short. On July 26, the Ruth’s went to the New York City premiere of “The Babe Ruth Story”, but as his daughter Julia Ruth Stevens recalled, “he was so sick and so medicated that I’m not even sure he knew where he was.”
Babe Ruth -Babe and Claire left shortly after the picture started and checked into Memorial Hospital for the last time. Babe Ruth struggled to answer letters and meet with visitors right up until August 15, 1948, barely a year after he graced the diamond of Victory Field in Indianapolis. Babe Ruth died in his sleep at 8:01 p.m. on the evening of on Aug. 16,1948. His last conscious act was to autograph a copy of his autobiography for one of his nurses. It was only after the great man’s death that the newspapers announced the cause of death as “throat cancer”.
A long line of mourners encircled Yankee Stadium to pay their respects as Ruth’s body lay in state. During the next two-days, more than 100,000 passed his open casket inside the ballpark. They were men, women, and children of all races and ages; from uniformed Little Leaguers to old men in derby hats. The crowd of worshipful mourners rivaled only the display of grief for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Vendors sold hot dogs and photographs of the Babe to those waiting their turn in line. As crass as that might sound, the Babe would have loved it.


Unlucky Don Gullett’s Lucky Decade

Original publish date:  April 16, 2018
Chances are, if I asked you to name the most successful pitcher of the 1970s, you’d choose a lot of names before you got to my pick. Baseball being the stat driven sport that it is, you could argue all summer long abGulletout the question itself, let alone the answer. And don’t even get me started on sabernetrics — those guys are nuts. But for my money, the best pitcher of the 1970s was Don Gullett.
If you were a late stage baby boomer growing up in central Indiana, you were a fan of the 1970s Cincinnati Reds. Those Big Red Machine teams were fun to watch. At least a few of those players started out with the Indianapolis Indians, the AAA farm club of the Reds. Any Reds fan worth his pine tar can name the Reds “Great 8” starting line-up: Bench, Rose, Morgan, Pérez, Concepción, Foster, Griffey, and Gerónimo.
That Great 8 included baseball’s all-time hit leader, three Hall of Famers, six NL MVPs, four NL home run season leaders; three NL Batting Champions; 25 Gold Glovers and 63 All-Star Game appearances. Those 1975 and 1976 World Series championship teams are considered the greatest teams of our generation. Ask any Reds fan who’s on the mound, the answer is always Don Gullett.
Donald Edward Gullett was born the sixth of eight children from tiny Lynn, Kentucky, (in the northeastern part of the state across the Ohio River from Portsmouth, Ohio) on January 6, 1951. As a teenager Gullett worked on neighboring farms pitching bales of hay to supplement the family income. It should come as no surprise that Gullett was so good, so young that he began taking the high school mound while just an eighth grader. The pro scouts began visiting Greenup County to watch the phenom before he was old enough to drive.
A three-sport star in high school, Gullett attended McKell High School. As a senior he was All-State in baseball, basketball, and football. Although forever associated with baseball, his exploits on the gridiron made him a Kentucky schoolboy legend. In one game alone against Wurtland High School Gullett scored 72 points, scoring 11 touchdowns and 6 extra points. Later he scored 47 points in a basketball game against Wurtland. Needless to say, he was heavily recruited by major colleges for all 3 sports. But Gullett’s first love was baseball. He won 30 games for McKell High School as a senior including a perfect game where he struck out 20 of the 21 batters he faced.
The Reds selected 18-year-old Don Gullett in the first round of the 1969 Major League draft, number 14 overall. He signed for a $25,000 bonus. He bought his first car with that bonus, an orange Plymouth Roadrunner. He pitched for the Northern League’s Sioux Falls Packers, going 7-2 with a 1.96 ERA in 11 starts that season. He made his big league debut on April 10, 1970 against Mays, Bonds and McCovey’s San Francisco Giants. The left-hander relieved Ray Washburn in the fifth inning with the bases loaded and two outs. Don retired Tito Fuentes on a fly ball to the shortstop. Gullett struck out Willie Mays to end the next inning before being replaced. At 6 feet and 190 pounds, those Bay City bombers didn’t bother Gullet a bit.
The rookie spent most of 1970 in the bullpen, relieving 42 times and starting twice. On August 23 against the New York Mets, he struck out six batters in a row, tying the NL record for consecutive strikeouts by a relief pitcher. Gullett struck out eight of the twelve batters he faced in that game. Gullett’s success was due to his blazing fastball, deceptive change-up, and excellent control. By now, sportswriters were comparing the young lefty to Sandy Koufax.
Cincinnati won the NL West in 1970, then swept Pittsburgh in the NLCS, Gullett picked up two saves along the way by retiring Wiilie Stargell and Roberto Clemente respectively. In the World Series the Reds lost to the Baltimore Orioles in five games but Gullett pitched well, appearing in three games and giving up only one run in 6⅔ innings. After Pirate slugger Willie Stargell faced Gullett for the first time and struck out on three pitches, he described Gullett as “Wall-to-wall heat.” Gullett earned the nickname “Smokin’ Don” for his white-hot fastball and his bad habit: cigarettes.
In 1971 Gullett became a full-time starter, winning 16 games while losing six, leading the league in winning percentage with .727 and posting a 2.64 earned-run average. Despite his stellar pitching, the Reds had a losing record (79-83) and didn’t make the 1971 postseason.
Bad luck struck Gullett in 1972 when he was diagnosed with hepatitis. When he returned, Manager Sparky Anderson assigned him to the bullpen. That year Gullett had his only losing season (9-10) of his entire career but the Reds still won the NL West. The Reds beat the Pirates and again headed to the World Series against the Oakland A’s but lost the Series in seven games.
Gullett, not yet fully recovered from hepatitis, spent the first month of the 1973 season in the bullpen. He again took the bump as a starter and finished the season with nine consecutive victories and posted a career high 18 wins against eight losses. On August 18, Gullett surrendered the 660th and final career home run hit by Willie Mays. The Reds won the NL West again in 1973, but lost the NLCS to Mays and the New York Mets three games to two.
By 1974 Don had added a forkball (later called a split-fingered fastball) to his pitching repertoire. That season, manager Sparky Anderson said, “It’s the only Hall of Fame battery active in baseball today.” The manager was speaking of Johnny Bench and Don Gullett.
“Barring an injury, (Gullett) is almost sure of making the Hall of Fame. I know he’s going to win at least 250 games with the start he has.” Sparky had good reason to expect great things for his young left-hander. After all, the three best southpaws of the previous generation — Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, and Sandy Koufax — were in the Hall of Fame. In 1976, when Gullett turned 25, he had already won 91 games — many more than Spahn (8), Ford (43), and Koufax (53) had won by that age.
During that fateful 1975 Big Red Machine Championship season. Don was already 8-3 by June 11 with a 2.09 earned-run average. He seemed on track to a 20-win season. But on June 16 in the ninth inning of a game against Atlanta, Larvell Blanks hit a line shot back up the box that fractured the pitcher’s left thumb. Gullett earned his ninth victory, but was out for two months. He returned on August 18 under the watchful eye of manager Sparky Anderson. Gullett`s arm snapped like a whip, and the ball popped Bench’s catcher’s mitt at 96 m.p.h. Don Gullett was back. He won five more games (losing only one) to finish the year at 15-4.
The Reds captured the West and once again met the Pirates again in the NLCS. Gullett started the first game for the Reds, winning 8-3 but the big story was his hitting. He had a single, a home run and three RBI’s. The homer was the first, and only, of his major-league career and the first ever by a pitcher in an NLCS game. The Reds ousted the Pirates 3- straight and beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1975 World Series. Everybody knows that story and many call it the greatest World Series ever played.
After the Series was over, Gullett returned to his 75-acre Greenup County farm on Ky. Hwy. 7 to raise Black Angus cattle, it was one of the same farms where Don had baled hay as a teenager. The deeply religious Gullett eschewed drinking, carousing, and womanizing. He preferred hunting, fishing, and listening to country music. The only change in Gullett after he became a World Series champ was that the Roadrunner became a Lincoln Continental.
Sparky’s Reds expected great things from Gullett in 1976. The manager said “Barring another injury, I figure Don’s a cinch to win 20 or more this season.” However, once again, the injury bug caught up with Don Gullett. On May 20 muscle spasms in the neck plagued him until the end of August. Despite the pain, Gullett went 11-3, for a winning percentage of .786 and a 3.00 ERA. The Reds won their division again and swept Philadelphia in the NLCS, three games to none.
The New York Yankees won the AL pennant, and faced the Reds in the World Series. Despite tearing tendons in his ankle during his game 1 victory, the Reds swept the Yankees in four games, becoming the first NL team to win back-to-back world championships since the New York Giants of 1921 and 1922.
In 1976 free agency hit baseball and Don Gullett was right in the middle of it. For the first time ever, veteran players with expiring contracts could play out their options and sign with any team they wanted. The Reds were unwilling to offer Gullet a long term contract. As a result, a dozen clubs bid for his services with the New York Yankees signing Gullet to a six-year $2 million contract. Despite Gullett’s injuries, he still had the best winning percentage in baseball and the Yanks were willing to gamble on his health.
On April 10, 1977, “The Two Million Dollar Man” made his debut as a Yankee. Even though injuries plagued Gullett for most of the season resulting in missed starts, he managed to win 14 games while losing only four to lead the American League with a .778 winning percentage. The Yankees won the AL East and beat Kansas City in the ALCS three games to two. Gullett earned another trip to the World Series where the Yanks beat the NL champ Dodgers 4 games to 2.
An aching left shoulder limited Gullett to only eight appearances in 1978. He won four of his first six starts, and pitched two complete games. On July 9 he faced the Milwaukee Brewers and could not get out of the first inning. He allowed four runs on three hits and four walks and was charged with the loss. It was the last time he ever pitched in the majors, his playing career over at the age of 27. On September 29 he underwent surgery for a double tear of his rotator cuff. Although unable to play in the 1978 World Series, he was on the Yankees’ roster. Gullett is one of the few men in the history of baseball to be on the roster of four consecutive World Series champions — Cincinnati in 1975 and 1976 and the Yankees in 1977 and 1978.
The Yankees released him on October 30, 1980. He finished his career with 109 wins/50 losses, for a winning percentage of .686, second only to Whitey Ford (.690) among all left-handed pitchers (minimum of 100 wins).
After his release Gullett returned to farming. He had a heart attack at age 35 that nearly killed him. Gullett stopped smoking and continued working on his farm, but he was still drinking lots of coffee. In 1989 he suffered another heart attack. In June 1990 he underwent triple-bypass heart surgery. He served as pitching coach for the Cincinnati Reds from 1993 to 2005, a career longer than he had as a player.
Don Gullett played for the Reds from 1970-76 and the New York Yankees from 1977-78. His nine-year career spanned the 1970s, during which Gullett was a member of six World Series teams (1970, 72, 75, 76, 77, 78), including four consecutive World Champions. In nine Big League seasons, Gullett played in the post season seven times. His career ended 40 years ago. While he may not be the pitcher most fans remember as the best of the best, at least for the seventies, he was the most successful pitcher in the Big Leagues.
The courthouse in Gullett’s hometown has two stone markers out front, one that reads: “This is Gullett Country” and another honoring Greenup County’s poet laureate Jesse Hilton Stuart. You’ve likely never heard of Stuart, heck you may not even remember Don Gullett. But perhaps it was Stuart who summed up the career of Smokin’ Don Gullett best when he wrote: “Time will go on as time will. New people will be born into the world. The old people go from the world and give place to the new. Children grow up, and babies are born. And the world goes on. There is not any turning back the hand on the clock.”