Sep 01 2021

Remembering 9/11

Bernie Williams has often wondered about the woman from the armory.

In the years since his retirement from baseball, whenever someone would ask him about his most memorable moment in pinstripes, the New York Yankees center fielder would recall a day following September 11, 2001. It has been 20 years, and while many people and nations continue to attempt to harm the United States, 9/11 and the annual commemorations continue to reveal the best in people.

Though stricken with grief and anger, many Americans then and now vowed to uphold President George W. Bush’s words that “These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”

A few days after the attack, Bernie was part of a contingent of Yankees who visited several sites around the city engaged in relief and recovery efforts. The first stop was the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between East 25th and 26th streets. Bernie was unsure about what he could do to help and if ballplayers should have even entered the location. He then met a Red Cross volunteer who had been working around the clock.

Bernie told her that he just didn’t know what to say, adding “but can I give you a hug?”

The snapshot of that moment has remained with Bernie, a vivid memory with each passing anniversary. The moment, Bernie thought, also possibly was recalled often by the woman. She likely knew who gave her a hug. But, Bernie did not know her name.

Bernie’s personal manager reviewed tens of thousands of pictures to learn that Eva Usadi was at the armory that day. Two years ago, Eva and Bernie reconnected at the 9/11 Museum.

“It was a real hug. I felt it in my heart,” recalled Eva in an article. “I felt his warmth and his compassion and that he saw something in me that I didn’t even know that I needed. That is a moment that I will never forget, and I’ve spoken of it often to friends and family.”

The events of 9/11 shaped each of their futures. We know that Bernie, professionally, played a number of more successful years for the Yankees and since has focused on his music and charitable programs. Eva, meanwhile, dedicated her life to treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder, founding Trauma and Resiliency Resources, Inc., a nonprofit not too far from the armory that aims to end military veteran suicides.

Aug 01 2021

The Player Who Got Away From Rickey

As a young man, he starred in basketball at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. He also played baseball for an amateur team in the Coney Island Sports League, informally known as the Ice Cream League, and then enrolled at the University of Cincinnati to pursue a career as an architect.

Sports, though, tugged at him. He played for his school’s varsity baseball team as a freshman. He struck out 51 batters in 31 innings with his fastball.

He had a tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. He was so nervous that he forgot to bring his glove. His pitches were wild and the Giants passed on him. He then traveled to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, where Branch Rickey watched with a scout. A former major league catcher crouched behind the plate. The young man threw harder and harder until one pitch broke the catcher’s thumb though it was protected by the mitt.

Rickey said that he thought the pitcher had the best arm he had ever seen in the game, and considered providing the young man with a generous signing package of approximately $15,000.

The star of the Ice Cream League and Lafayette High School chose to think about it. He went home and then decided to try out with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. The team’s chief scout, Al Campanis, stood in the batter’s box. The moment was memorable, with the scout indicating that only twice did the hair on the back of his neck stand straight up. The first was when he saw Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the second was when he saw that fastball.

The young pitcher, who received a $20,000 package from the Dodgers, figured that at least it would cover tuition for college if baseball timed out too soon. His arm finally forced him to retire as a young man, but not until his sports career lasted longer than he had expected and hoped. He had pitched so dominantly that he quickly entered the game’s Hall of Fame.

For one of the few times in baseball, Branch Rickey did not get his player. The man who promoted Jackie Robinson, despite all the backlash hitting him square on the jaw as he tried to right a wrong in the game and society, just could not sign one of the few Jewish players at the time.

Sandy Koufax would take Rickey’s former Dodgers, though mostly in Los Angeles now, to new heights during the 1960s.

Jul 15 2021

A Girl’s Dream Comes True 60 Years Later

Sixty years after declaring that the dugout was no place for a girl, the Yankees rectified their error and a fan’s dream finally came true.

During the 1961 baseball season, 10-year-old Gwen Goldman wrote to her favorite team. She asked to be a bat girl. In a letter, the Yankees declined her request. Gwen kept the letter.

“While we agree with you that girls are certainly as capable as boys, and no doubt would be an attractive addition on the playing field, I am sure you can understand that in a game dominated by men a young lady such as yourself would feel out of place in a dugout,” wrote then team General Manager Roy Hamey.

Since that time, girls and women have applied for positions and have achieved success in Major League Baseball. Charley Finley, one-time owner of the Athletics, introduced girls to snag foul balls during games. Women are in management positions, with the Yankees featuring two successful woman assistant general managers. Women have owned or run teams. Women also have been slotted in many other positions from the low minors to the majors.

Not too long ago, Gwen’s daughter, Abby, sent the letter from 60 years ago to the current Yankees general manager. Brian Cashman then wrote a new letter Gwen, stating that she finally could fulfill her childhood dream.

“Despite the fact that six decades have passed since you first aspired to hold down the position as a New York Yankees Bat Girl,” wrote Brian, “it is not too late to reward and recognize the ambition you showed in writing that letter to us as a 10-year-old girl.”

So, during a game a few weeks ago, Gwen served as a Yankees honorary bat girl and threw the game’s ceremonial first pitch.

“The Yankees have just been so gracious to honor me with this…and to see that girls can stand here, and we can be bat girls, too, and we can be in the front office,” said Gwen, who wore the full uniform of the team she loved as a child.

Gwen had attended games with her father. When she was away at summer camp, he mailed to her newspapers clippings about her team. Gwen now hopes that her story will inspire young women, including her daughters and granddaughter, to chase their dreams.

Jun 15 2021

Fields Are Filled With Beautiful People

Everyone enjoyed opening day during May for the Beautiful People baseball league in Orange County. Following the lifting of COVID restrictions, players were able to have some outdoor fun, see old friends, meet other players for the first time and return to the large grass field, the rubberized field and the tee-ball field.

Beautiful People is pleased, as we all are, to begin to place the pandemic far away from the ballpark. The 14-year-old charity unites athletes, parents and volunteers. It is part of the national adaptive baseball Miracle League. The local organization recently added soccer, basketball and cheerleading to its programs.

For some athletes, such as Parimala, this was their first time on these ball fields and possibly their initial exposure to baseball. Meanwhile, a boy in a Day-Glo orange shirt quickly donned a helmet, clutched his bat and ran with old friends toward one of the fields. Elsa, a black lab service dog accompanied nine-year-old Kenny to most places on the field but stood back and only watched as the boy spun his motorized wheelchair to catch the ball when he played first base.

The 120 athletes in the league are from towns throughout Orange but also from Sullivan County and New Jersey. They have autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other health concerns. The games are not just for children. Since programs for older youth and adults are limited, the players’ ages range from six to 32.

Beautiful People attempted a variety of virtual programs over the last year. Some were more successful than other online activities. The goal was to keep the community engaged during the pandemic and provide a vital outlet and release for the athletes and their parents.

COVID reduced the number of “buddies” to shadow the players now that they are back on the field. The preferred ratio of adults to players at Beautiful People is one-to-one but that is not possible right now. The loss of volunteers is an issue that all nonprofits have endured during the pandemic. League organizers hope the ratio quickly will adjust during the coming months.

It’s one step at a time, with the first day on the fields on a warm Sunday featuring plenty of whoops and cheers.

It’s nice to be back!

May 01 2021

Striking Out Stars Nothing To Sneeze At

Eddie Feigner never played a major league baseball game. But he became famous as a barnstorming showman with his four-man softball team.

Eddie’s team, known as the King and His Court, traveled around the world, similar to basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. Along with Eddie, the team only fielded a catcher, first baseman and shortstop. Spanning more than five decades beginning during 1946, the team played approximately 10,000 games in all 50 states and more than 100 countries for 200 million fans. Many from Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Westchester recall seeing Eddie hold court.

The former U.S. Marine, whose pitches were clocked as fast as 104 miles per hour, was known for throwing from behind his back, between his legs while kneeing and blindfolded. A 2002 list of the 10 greatest pitchers featured Eddie along with Major League Baseball Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax.

Eddie’s most impressive feat may have been when he struck out six straight major league hitters during an exhibition game at Dodger Stadium during 1967. The batters were the top stars of the time—Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Willie McCovey, Maury Wills and Harmon Killebrew. Each player won a Most Valuable Player award during the 1960s, and all but Maury are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

To honor his service as a U.S. Marine, Eddie and his team often played against military personnel at bases and on the decks of aircraft carriers. Considerable amounts of ticket profits were donated to charity. Following Operation Desert Storm, Eddie placed veteran support as the chief charity for game proceeds.

Eddie made light of his relative unknown status in the sports world. When Sports Illustrated named him the most underrated athlete of his time during 1972, he replied, “I’m a pipsqueak because I’m caught in a nothing game. It’s like being a world-champion nose-blower.”

Eddie has been gone for about 14 years, but he remains vivid in the memories of so many fans and the many others he helped with the proceeds from the games.

Feb 01 2021

Bronx Infielder Hopes To Return To Yankee Stadium

Andrew Velazquez is from the Morris Park section of The Bronx. He grew up at Yankee Stadium, too.

Andrew was good enough to play ball in the minor leagues, and after each season he returned to the big ballpark. Each visit served as personal motivation to improve his game as he strived to wear a major league uniform.

After playing ball all the time while growing up, Andrew toiled the infield at Fordham Prep, where he earned All-Bronx Player of the Year from “The New York Post.” He committed to Virginia Tech but opted to turn pro after high school. A seventh-round draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks during 2012, Andrew holds the record for reaching base in 74 consecutive minor league games, a mark he set with the 2014 Class-A South Bend Silver Hawks in the Midwest League. He broke the record of 71 that was held by a couple of players who would become Yankee rivals — Kevin Millar and Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox.

Andrew already has had his “cup of coffee” in the majors, playing briefly with the Tampa Bay Rays during 2018 and 40 games with the Baltimore Orioles last season. He played in three games at Yankee Stadium, with one plate appearance, as a member of the Rays. A personal dream, though, always has been to wear the Yankee pinstripes. That could occur this year. The 26-year-old infielder recently signed a minor league contract with the Yankees. By chance, Andrew’s personal trainer lives near Yankee Stadium, allowing the young player to picture himself playing at the ball yard as he passes it each day. More motivation.

Growing up a Yankees fan and as an infielder, we shouldn’t be surprised that Andrew wore #2 in tee-ball. But, there is a twist to Andrew’s story. When his father took him to a game at the stadium, Andrew became fascinated with an all-star infielder who happened to feature his number on a Yankees jersey. That is how Derek became Andrew’s favorite player.

“When I was in kindergarten [at St. Francis Xavier], I said I’d play in Yankee Stadium,’’ Andrew recently was quoted in a local newspaper. “I’m gonna bust my ass to get there again.”

Oct 01 2020

The Sports Legacy Of Mary Pratt

Mary Pratt passed away earlier this year at the age of 101. She had been identified as the last surviving member of the 1943 Rockford (Illinois) Peaches. Mary was a left-handed pitcher and hitter who also played for the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Comets.

The teams were part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that existed from 1943 until 1954. The league was immortalized in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own.”

Mary was born on November 30, 1918, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts. She attended Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. During her college years, Mary participated in numerous sports — basketball, softball, volleyball, lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, archery and sailing. She earned a degree in physical education and began her career as an instructor in Quincy.

Mary joined the Peaches at the start of the league’s inaugural season, playing in 24 games with a 5–11 win-loss record on the mound and a .235 batting average. She played five years in the league, which had a unique competitive rule. To maintain a high level of competition, players were shifted or traded at the discretion of league officials. After one year with the Peaches, Mary played for Kenosha.

During her first year with the Comets, Mary won 21 games and pitched a no-hitter. She led Kenosha to the league championship series. According to an article for the Society of American Baseball Research, Mary “was very effective using a controlled slingshot or windmill windup to get hitters out.” Unfortunately, her subsequent years with Kenosha were not as successful as the 1944 season. Mary won just one game during the final two years she played in the league.

Back home, Mary continued to teach physical education classes until 1986. She coached the school softball, basketball, soccer and tennis teams, and her softball teams won 10 state championships. Mary also officiated basketball, softball, field hockey and lacrosse games.

Mary Pratt enjoyed a stellar athletic career. She was a trailblazer for the many women who have enjoyed athletic competition over the last eight decades. Her legacy is secured with induction into the New England Sports Museum, Boston University Hall of Fame and the Boston Garden Hall of Fame.

Sep 15 2020

Babe Ruth Always Drew Crowds…Even During A Health Crisis

Baseball has been here before – playing its games during a national health crisis.

It was 1918. The nation was at war. The people of Hartford, Connecticut, decided to raise money for sports equipment they would send to France, hoping the local boys in the U.S. Army could occupy their idle time with baseball and football.

James Clarkin owned the Eastern League’s Hartford Senators. On September 9, he traveled to Boston to see the Red Sox and Chicago Cubs finish the World Series at Fenway Park. The series was played early that year, following the regular season that had been reduced to 130 games due to The Great War. The Hartford owner pitched an idea to the players, offering each team $1,000 and a share of the gate, for a quick post-series trip to Hartford for a game or two to raise money for Hartford’s Doughboys.

The proposal struck out. Many players were going into the service, or fulfilling “work or fight” orders in factories. Others just wanted to return home. Babe Ruth, however, liked the idea. So, with Babe in his pocket, James Clarkin created a weeklong barnstorming trip through New England, with stops in Hartford at the beginning and again at the end of the series.

Babe already was a huge attraction for the game. He would fill the stands. Never mind that the pandemic – the Spanish Flu – was spreading through New England at the time. “The grip” had caused panic during the spring and now it had returned in a more deadly second wave.

Warnings from health officials in Connecticut attempted to separate Ruth from his fans. However, his personality was not compatible with “social distancing.” While we know a lot about Ruth’s life, many people are not aware that earlier that year he was hospitalized with a rough case of the Spanish Flu. He suffered with a 104-degree fever and a swelled larynx. He nearly died but enjoyed a successful season with 13 wins and 11 home runs (tying the league record) following his recovery.

The first game in Hartford was scheduled for 4 p.m. Trolleys were added to the schedule to get about 5,000 people to the ballpark. As fans flocked to the game, doctors made house calls (remember these?) and the city’s hospitals were crowded with victims of the flu. When the players returned to Hartford a week later, Ruth again packed fans into the park. Local newspapers pleaded with the public to avoid crowds but also tempted them to see Babe play in a doubleheader.

About 3,000 fans were in the park for the twin bill while 500 convalesced in hospitals and others remained in bed at home. An unknown number of fans who attended the Hartford games were infected with the flu, but they just didn’t understand that avoiding crowds would suppress the spread of the disease. Most of them, luckily, recovered from the illness and bragged for years that they saw 23-year-old Babe Ruth storm through Hartford to raise funds for the local boys “over there.”

Aug 15 2020

From Rookie Extraordinaire To The Hall Of Fame

Earlier this month, I wrote about the death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman from a pitched ball during a game on August 16, 1920 at the Polo Grounds. Following Chappie’s funeral, dazed Indians players, management and fans somehow continued their emotional drive for a pennant.

At first, the Indians placed several other roster players at shortstop. But, no one could play the position as well as Chappie. So, Indians owners dug into their minor league system for a 21-year-old who was a standout on the New Orleans Pelicans. Joe never had seen a major league game. In fact, he never had visited a major league city. By his own admission, Joe never had ventured outside of the south and now he was selected to replace a baseball icon in Cleveland during a pennant race.

The game of baseball was teetering. Soon after the death of Chappie, evidence emerged that the 1919 World Series had been fixed by gamblers and certain members of the Chicago White Sox. What became known as the Black Sox Scandal pulled another dark cloud over baseball as the Indians, Yankees and White Sox fought for a pennant.

The Indians eventually grabbed the American League flag and then headed to Brooklyn for a World Series that had been a baseball dream for Ray Chapman. As the series opened, The Cleveland Plain Dealer featured a three-column by eight-inch drawing of an Indians ballplayer holding his cap to his side while leaning on a bat. The player was gazing toward a giant pennant waving on the horizon. Looking down from the clouds was Ray Chapman. The inscription above him read, “Carry On.” In a reference to the gambling scandal, the caption below the illustration read, “It pays to play clean.”

Cleveland won the championship five games to two in a best-of-nine series to conclude an exciting yet painful baseball season. But, that’s not the end of the story. I am sure you are wondering about that young shortstop who replaced Chappie.

Joe certainly was an emerging star, but he made his share of rookie mistakes. He had only four hits in the series and he made three errors. Fate, though, looked upon Joe to close out the season for the Cleveland World Champs. At 3:57 p.m. in the seventh game, he fielded a grounder and flipped the ball to the second baseman for the final out.

Joe was known for patience and work ethic. He played 10 years at shortstop and third base for Cleveland and then another three seasons for the Yankees. He played 1,103 consecutive games from September 13, 1922 through April 30, 1930. Joe’s lifetime batting average was .312 and he gathered more than 2,200 hits. He always put the ball in play, striking out only 114 times in 7,132 career at-bats for an average of one strikeout every 62.5 at-bats. Joe was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame during 1977.

Joe Sewell excelled as a major league baseball player when, at a tender age, he was asked to replace the beloved Ray Chapman under difficult circumstances for his team, the city of Cleveland and for baseball. A Cleveland sports writer recognized the player’s upside soon after he joined the Indians, writing near the end of the 1920 regular season, “Once more, doff the chapeau to Joey Sewell, rookie extraordinaire.”

Aug 01 2020

Remembering Fun-Loving Chappie

Though none of us recall one of the saddest days in American sports, all of us should pause for a moment on August 16 to reflect on the tragedy that occurred in Manhattan 100 years ago.

~ James C. Metzger

Chappie was known as a happy-go-lucky guy, always laughing, smiling and singing. Everyone who met him loved him. He wasn’t just a Major League Baseball player. He was a star.

All Chappie wanted was to bring a pennant and a World Series championship to Cleveland. If this could be accomplished now, Chappie hinted that this might be his final season as a ballplayer. At the age of 29, he planned to follow a business career with his new father-in-law’s company.

On August 16, 1920, the Cleveland Indians were in New York for a tense three-game series with the Yankees as the teams battled for first place. During the subway ride aboard the elevated train to the Polo Grounds for the first game, Chappie tried to ease the pressure on his teammates. The team had run into bad luck, their shortstop said, because the team had stopped singing as a group. Right there, in the subway car, Chappie began to sing “Dear Old Pal o’ Mine” in his sweet tenor voice.

Later that day, Ray Chapman, one of Cleveland’s baseball icons, was sprawled on the ground near home plate. He had been struck in the head with a pitch from Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. Chappie died in a hospital the next morning.

Many who arrived at the stadium for the scheduled second game of the series had heard about the events of the previous day but they did not yet know that Chappie had died. At the Polo Grounds gates, league officials and detectives told the fans that the game had been postponed. Hundreds of fans walked to the undertaker’s establishment, James F. McGowan at 153rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where the player’s body had been transported from the hospital.

That evening, Chappie’s remains were brought to Grand Central Terminal by his widow and team officials. The casket was enclosed in a white pine box. On top was a bouquet of flowers. As the casket was carried through the terminal, hundreds of New Yorkers stopped during their evening rush home. Men removed their hats. Women wept.

News about the death of a major league baseball player from a pitched ball spread across the country. In a Cleveland newspaper, the words of a writer explained the sorrow: “Lawyers forgot to talk of cases, ministers found it hard to concentrate on their work, politicians neglected their interests for the time being, workmen stood at their tools, and all thought of Chapman and his loss.”

Across the city, flags hung at half-mast. At the corner of East Sixth Street and Superior Avenue, where the paperboy known as “Izzy” featured the baseball scores for his customers, game results did not appear that day on the boy’s poster. He was devastated.

Hundreds of people gathered at Cleveland’s Union Station to await the arrival of the Lake Shore Limited from New York. The crowd watched quietly as the widow and her father stepped from the train along with the casket. Following a church funeral, Ray Chapman was laid to rest on August 20 at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.

On September 3, when Cleveland again played at its home stadium, a lone bugler walked to the shortstop area of the infield at League Park. Fans removed their hats. Members of the Cleveland and visiting Detroit clubs stood at attention on the field. A sailor, a member of the Cleveland naval reserves that was Chapman’s old unit, lifted the bugle to his lips and played taps.

Ray Chapman is the only Major League Baseball player to die from an injury received during a game. The official boxscore from the August 16, 1920 game at the Polo Grounds simply recorded the incident as “Hit by pitched ball—By Mays (Chapman.)”

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The epilogue to this story will be featured in the post to appear later this month.