Rough Weekend in Minnesota

Every team has them. That series where nothing goes right. The pitching isn’t getting it done but you make up for that by not hitting or making a bunch of errors. Or both.

Such was the case for Billy Martin and the Oakland A’s as they visited Bloomington, MN for a three-game series against the Twins in April of 1980. Oakland had won six games in a row entering the series and held a half-game lead in the A.L. West but things got away from them in Minnesota.

In game one of the series, a fan in the stands hurled marshmallows at Martin, which resulted in Martin hurling homophobic slurs in his post-game press conference. The Twins won 10-3 behind Jerry Koosman. Then things got worse for Oakland.

<a rel=
Kingman went 8-20 in 1980

Minnesota took game two of the series 5-1, which set up the finale on Sunday afternoon. Brian Kingman was the Oakland starter and took the mound hoping to end the brief skid and get the A’s back on track. Unfortunately for Kingman, he didn’t get out of the first inning. Kingman faced six batters and five of the reached, and he was lifted for relief pitcher Dave Hamilton.

Hamilton faced eight batters and seven of them reached before he was lifted. When there are two outs in the first inning and you’re on your third pitcher of the game, it’s going to be a bad day. The Twins put 10 on the board in the first inning.

<a rel=
Staked to a 10-0 lead, Zahn couldn’t hold it

That should have been plenty for Minnesota starter Geoff Zahn, but that wasn’t the case. But on the bright side, Zahn gave up fourteen hits and eight runs in four and one-third innings and didn’t get a loss. In fact, he was in line for a win despite allowing eight straight batters to reach in the same inning. Doug Corbett relieved Zahn and got the final two outs of the 5th to escape the jam.

Minnesota ended up winning the game 20-11 but even that doesn’t tell the story of a truly bizarre game. Consider the following:

  • Oakland outhit Minnesota 22-20
  • Minnesota scored 20 runs and had 3 extra-base hits
  • Oakland hit the only homer of the game and it came in the 9th inning
  • Fifteen players played the entire game and only two didn’t record a hit. Naturally they were both Twins.

For Billy and the A’s, it was a weekend to forget. They were swept three games to none and outscored 35-15. Two of their three starting pitchers failed to make it out of the first inning, Martin had marshmallows thrown at him and they left town a game and a half behind the White Sox.

Billy Martin vs. the Marshmallow Man Part II

The story of how Billy Martin lost his job with the Yankees after a fight with a marshmallow salesman in October of 1979 is well known. But there’s an under-the-radar marshmallow story that’s just as good and perhaps even more volatile.

In April of 1980, Martin brought his new team, the Oakland A’s, to Bloomington, MN for the first time since the celebrated incident and things did not go well. Oakland starter Matt Keough lasted just two-thirds of an inning before Martin had to pull him. On his way back to the bench, Martin was forced to dodge marshmallows thrown at him by a fan sitting behind the Oakland dugout. Billy said something to the fan and then ducked into the dugout.

In the 9th inning, the fan once again seized the opportunity to throw marshmallows at the Oakland manager. This time Martin was set to go after him and had a foot on the railing to go up into the stands before umpires and others intervened.

Martin pulled no punches in his post-game media session, including a few choice words that would undoubtedly cause a suspension or worse were they to cross the lips of a current manager.

“He did it once and then went and hid like a baby,” Martin told the Associated Press. “But my coach caught him the second time and the police got him. I hope they fine him.”

“The Minnesota fans are good fans. This was just one guy acting like a jerk. There’s no room for that in baseball. I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate throwing stuff on the field. He could have put somebody’s eye out.”

Incidents of marshmallow induced eye injuries are rare in baseball, but Martin was on a roll and he couldn’t be stopped. Then he really went on the offensive.

“It was a young kid with a French queer’s hat on. When I went up there, I didn’t know whether to kiss him or punch him. I thought he would have caressed me. He was a big, fat fag.”

“It had to be a fag because he was throwing marshmallows.”

Um, OK.

Horner vs. Turner

Bob Horner almost never played for the Atlanta Braves and it would have been Ted Turner’s fault.

Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves in 1976 and immediately began upsetting the baseball establishment. Early in his tenure, Turner ran afoul of MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn over player tampering charges involving Giants outfielder Gary Matthews.

Ted Turner
Turner on Opening Day 1976

Kuhn summoned the maverick owner to his office and informed Turner that he was going to be suspended for his transgression and in addition, the Braves would lose their upcoming first round draft pick in the 1978 draft. The selection happened to be the overall number one selection.

Turner pleaded his case, telling Kuhn that he would be happy to serve a suspension but he didn’t want the Braves to lose their draft pick. Turner’s motivation for accepting the suspension was in part due to the fact that a suspension would allow him to focus on the 1977 America’s Cup which he and the crew of Courageous ended up winning. Kuhn relented and the Braves kept their pick in 1978 which was used to select Horner.

Horner made an immediate impact, slamming 23 homers in just 89 games and winning the Rookie of the Year Award. In 1979, his first full season, Horner hit .314 with 33 homers and 98 RBI. He was a star.

Horner struggled out of the gate in 1980 and Turner had seen enough. After beginning the season two for his first 34 Turner, calling on his four years of baseball experience, felt it best to send Horner down to AAA to regain his stroke.

“This is incredible,” said Horner. “It’s beyond incredible. It’s something words can’t describe, really.”

Horner wasn’t the only one who felt Turner’s wrath. Ironically, Gary Matthews, coming off a season in which he hit .307 with 27 homers and 90 RBI was benched as well. It’s not often that a team dumps their opening day three and four hitters, but Turner did just that.

“I’m confused, worried, baffled, a thousand emotions rolled into one,” Horner said. “I don’t know what they expect out of me, I really don’t.”

After recovering from the shock of being sent down just six months after a 33 homer season, Horner refused to report to the minor leagues and went on the offensive.

”If I felt that there was any justification for being sent down to the minors, I would go,” Horner said. ”But when everyone calls me – fans, friends, teammates, high-level people in the front office – and tells me that it’s just Ted going a little wacko again, it confirms what I already know. Ted Turner is a jerk, an absolute jerk.”

”I don’t want to punish him. That’s ridiculous,” said Turner. “I’ve even been thinking of offering to go with him to the minors. If I was vindictive, why did I give him a three-year, $1-million contract? I didn’t have to do that. It’s me and the Atlanta Braves who are being punished for Mr. Horner’s terrible play.”

The standoff lasted twelve days with the Braves asking for, and receiving, permission to place Horner on the disqualified list for refusing to report to Richmond. He eventually rejoined the team in early May and finished the season with a .268 batting average, 35 homers and 89 RBI.

Happy Birthday, Al Bumbry

Al Bumbry is 70 now. How did that happen?

On my Facebook page, I like to find stories about guys rather than just post their batting average or home run totals. While doing that, I found a few stories about Bumbry’s service in Vietnam.

Bumbry attended Virginia State College on a basketball scholarship and with the war raging in Vietnam he was certain to be drafted. So he made the decision to join the ROTC, which would allow him to graduate before heading to war.

Upon reaching Vietnam the summer of 1970, Bumbry was installed as a platoon leader for reconnaissance missions. His commanding officer also instructed him to take care of his men and ensure that they got back home safely. It was a message he took to heart.

Bumbry would earn a Bronze Star for bravery, but he took more pride in the fact that during his time at war, all of his men made it home.

Not surprisingly, he returned from Vietnam a changed man. In college, he had won the Central Intercollegiate Association batting title with a .378 average, but struggled in his 35 games with the Orioles farm team in Stockton, CA before being called up for active duty.

Once he returned to the U.S. in 1971, he immediately started hitting for the Orioles Aberdeen minor league team in the Northern League. He attributed his success to the fact that after what he’d been through, and seen, in Vietnam, a high batting average didn’t seem as important as it had in 1969. He’d been in life or death situations, and facing a tough lefty was no longer among them.

In 1973, less than two years after returning from Vietnam, Bumbry earned Rookie of the Year honors in the American League and went on to enjoy a 14-year career with the Orioles and the Padres.

 

 

Send in the Qs

April 13th, 1980 began like just another day. But by the end of the evening, some 17,000 plus baseball fans could rightly tell their kids they witnessed a major league baseball first.

The Kansas City Royals led the Detroit Tigers 1-0 in the 7th inning when KC starter Paul Splittorff began to struggle and was replaced by submariner Dan Quisenberry. And just like that, it happened…

Catching for the Royals that day was 25 year-old Jamie Quirk. The Quisenberry/Quirk combination was the first-ever All-Q battery in the history of the game.

The Birth of the Game Winning RBI

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

At the beginning of 1980, Major League Baseball implemented Rule 1004-a, which established a new batting statistic called Game Winning RBI. A batter would receive credit for a GWRBI if they recorded ”the r.b.i. that gives a club the lead it never relinquishes.”

Introduced during the spring by the Elias Sports Bureau, the intent of the statistic was to quantify something that many people weren’t convinced even existed; the idea of “clutch hitting.” Throughout baseball history, certain players seemingly always delivered when their team needed it most. This would be a way to reward them.

Of course, the biggest clutch hitters come through after the leaves turn and the lights are at their brightest. A single in the 8th inning of a World Series game can get a player branded as a clutch hitter for years despite the fact that they may have struck out the previous ten times in exactly the same situation.

But baseball is a game driven by numbers, both good and bad, and on the surface the GWRBI was a nice idea. If a player drives in a run in the 8th inning of a tie game and his team wins there should be a way to track that and reward those who accomplish this feat more than others. Unfortunately for proponents of the rule its flaws were exposed the very first time the stat was used.

Flawed from the Start

Foster made history on April 11, 1980
Foster made history on April 11, 1980

It was April 11th, 1980 and the Cincinnati Reds were hosting the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day at Riverfront Stadium. Phil Niekro started the game for the Braves and got himself in trouble right away. In the bottom of the first, after a Dave Collins groundout, Ken Griffey and Dave Concepcion singled to bring George Foster to the plate. Foster doubled to left to give Cincinnati a 2-0 lead. Two batters later, Johnny Bench also doubled to left as part of a four-run first for the Reds.

Two more runs in the second inning chased Niekro and gave the Reds a 6-0 lead. For Niekro, it was the shortest of his seven Opening Day starts in an Atlanta uniform and continued a string of bad luck/bad pitching in season openers. He was tabbed with the loss as the Reds rolled 9-0. The defeat brought his Opening Day mark to an ugly 0-6 with an ERA of 6.88. Clearly, the knuckleball is a warm-weather pitch.

George Foster earned the first Game Winning RBI in the history of Major League Baseball. His first inning double off Niekro drove in the first two runs for his team in a 9-0 shutout. Not exactly clutch hitting on his part.

The rule faded into obscurity in 1989 and is no longer an official statistic, but if you’re looking to win a bar bet, the all-time leader in Keith Hernandez with 129.

 

 

April Crossword Puzzle

How much do you remember about the 1980 baseball season?

April Crossword

April clues

 

To download a PDF version, please click below.

April, 1980

“The Kid” signed for me

I SUCKED at baseball when I was a kid.

I was among the t-ball elite of Oxford, Ohio back in 1977. But once the ball started moving, I began to experience tremendous difficulty at the plate. At the time, there was still room for all-glove, no-hit infielders in the big leagues, but being an all-glove, no-hit 11 year-old was a different story. As such, I had very little in common with my big-league heroes.

But Gary Carter was different. Gary Carter collected baseball cards, just like me. His collection was the subject of a feature story in the New York Times in July of 1980, where he detailed buying packs at the concession stand at Little League games and building sets when he was a kid.

Somehow, word of Carter’s collection reached me in Ohio and I wrote him a letter about it. I spent a lot of time writing letters to baseball players in the ’70s and ’80s asking for autographs. Some wrote back, many didn’t. But Carter did.

I have no idea what I said other than bringing up the fact that we both collected cards, a fact which separated me from practically none of the other kids who wrote requesting an autograph, but he wrote back.

Gary Carter autograph
My Gary Carter autograph

Once I sent a batch of letters I anxiously checked the mail each day and seeing the Montreal Expos envelope was a thrill. I got Gary Carter’s autograph!

Carter passed away far too young. Brain tumors took his life in 2012. He was only 57. But back in the early ’80s “The Kid” provided me with a thrill that lasts to this day.

 

Bert Blyleven Bolts from the Bucs

The complete game is an anachronism in baseball today. But in 1980 it was an important part of the game and a source of pride for the pitchers who threw them.

As the Pittsburgh Pirates began defense of their 1979 World Series championship, manager Chuck Tanner indicated he wanted to see more complete games out of his starting pitchers. If the Pirates were to repeat, Tanner had an eye on resting Kent Tekulve and the rest of the bullpen as much as possible.

His opening day starter, Bert Blyleven, supported his plan 100%. From 1971 through ’78, Blyleven had completed nearly half of the games he started.  In ’79, that number slipped to just four in 37 starts and he was not happy about it, feeling it robbed him of the chance for more wins which equated to a larger contract.

Opening Day Difficulties

Pittsburgh opened their season against St. Louis and the Cardinals held a 1-0 lead in the top of the 6th when Phil Garner’s single broke up Pete Vuckovich‘s no-hit bid and brought up Blyleven’s spot in the order. Seeing a chance to possibly tie the game, Tanner lifted Blyleven and sent Mike Easler up to hit. The move backfired as Easler hit into an inning-ending double play.

Through his first four starts of the season, Blyleven was excellent but had nothing to show for it. His record was 0-2, but he had an E.R.A. of 2.42 and was allowing fewer than one base runner per inning while posting 26 strikeouts in 26 innings. The problem was offense. The Pirate bats had produced just eight runs in his four starts.

But for Blyleven, the lack of offensse was secondary to not being permitted to finish what he started. Despite Tanner’s pre-season proclamation, Pirate pitchers completed three of fourteen starts and Blyleven had yet to go the distance.

Game number 15 of the season was on April 29th in Pittsburgh against the Montreal Expos with Blyleven on the mound. Through five innings, the Pirates led 4-2. But a sixth inning Montreal rally tied the game at four and brought Tanner out of the Pittsburgh dugout to once again remove Blyleven. The Pirates eventually won the game 5-4 in 10 innings, but Blyleven was livid. So much so that he requested a trade and left the team the following day.

A Line in the Sand

“I felt I had to speak up,” he told the media. “If I didn’t, maybe 20 years from now, I’d be wishing that I had spoken up. Maybe 20 years from now I’ll wish I hadn’t spoken up.

The move did not sit well Blyleven’s teamates and some weren’t shy in expressing their concern.

“Pitching is more of a strength on our club than most people realize,” fellow pitcher Jim Rooker told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  “The reason we won everything last year is that our pitching came through when other staffs were not as flexible as ours. We need Bert.”

“I can understand a lot of things about ballplayers,” said Bill Madlock. “But going home… I don’t know why he did that.”

Pirates General Manager Pete Peterson told the press he considered Blyleven semi-retired and sent a message to the other 25 teams announcing his availability via trade and requesting a pitcher in return.

Rumors flew that he was headed to the Yankees in exchange for Ed Figueroa or the Red Sox with Pittsburgh receiving Mike Torrez. One of the more interesting rumors was that the California Angels supposedly knew of Blyleven’s impending departure before the Pirates did. Blyleven lived in California and allegedly told friends he was considering leaving the team.

Blyleven returned to the Pirates a few weeks later and was inserted back into the rotation against the San Francisco Giants. He went the distance in a 5-0 loss and finished the season with a 8-13 record with five complete games. He was traded to the Indians in December.

 

 

 

Joe Morgan and J.R. Richard’s (not so ) Secret Mission

On April 1st, 1980, members of the Major League Baseball Players Association voted to walk out of the final week of spring training. The move was a warning shot intended to get the attention of the team owners who were longing for the good old days before free-agency.

Some teams stayed at their spring training sites and hosted informal workouts. Some teams disbanded and went home for a quick break before opening day.

But the most bizarre incident took place in the Orlando airport when Houston Astros third baseman Enos Cabell decided to head home after the strike vote. Teamates Joe Morgan and J.R. Richard wanted Cabell to stay in camp and continue to work out with the team. Their desire for team unity was so great that the two of them, 5 foot 8 Morgan and 6 foot 8 Richard, were seen sprinting through the airport in full uniform trying to track down Cabell before he boarded his 12:40 p.m. flight to California.

“We didn’t know which airline,” said Morgan. So we had to run around the airport looking for a flight that left at that time for Los Angeles.”

“It tripped me out,” said Cabell. “When I saw Joe and J – man, I couldn’t believe it. Neither could anyone at the airport.”

“We thought he should stay along with the rest of us,” said Morgan. “I told him if I’d done all that running around the airport, making a spectacle of myself with my uniform on and found out he wouldn’t come back, there was gonna be a fight right there on the spot.”