Baseball Nivrana

I’ve been a collector for my entire life. You never know when you may need a 37-year-old pocket schedule and I don’t want to be unprepared. So I packed up my sons and headed to Chicago for the Fanatics Authentic Sports Spectacular.

The autograph section was busy all day
The autograph section was busy all day

One of the big draws of shows like this is the autograph pavilion. There are always lots of big names with big price tags attached.

Since I spent some time working in baseball I’m pretty spoiled and I don’t like to pay for autographs but there were obviously plenty of people who were there specifically for that. Some of the bigger names on hand included Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Cal Ripken, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams. There were also plenty of members of the 2016 Cubs.

But I had two things on my mind: Soak in as much atmosphere and cool stuff as I possibly could and work on my 1972 Topps set.

1972 Topps Baseball
My White Whale

Baseball cards form the bulk of my collection and my latest project is completing the 1972 set. It’s tough and expensive but I’m in no hurry. Had I been so inclined, I could have easily finished the set. There were multiple dealers there with binders of cards from 1972. The only thing stopping me was the expense of purchasing the cards and the expense of the subsequent divorce when I returned home.

 

Aside from filling want lists, one of the big attractions for me  was just taking in all the show had to offer. Going to a card show is like visiting a museum where everything is for sale. Click To Tweet

Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron & Roberto Clemente
Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron & Roberto Clemente

The ’80s were well represented, too.

Steve Garvey, Leon Durham, Willie Stargell
Steve Garvey, Leon Durham, Willie Stargell

Fans of Olde Tyme Baseball had something to see.

1935 Goudey Lou Gehrig & Babe Ruth
Lou Gehrig & Babe Ruth

But my favorite part of shows like this is all the oddball stuff you can find.

Mickey Mantle & Willie Mays baseballs
Mickey Mantle & Willie Mays baseballs
1957 Milwaukee Braves Ashtray
1957 Milwaukee Braves Ashtray
1976 Phillies Phantom World Series Press Pin, 1970 Reds World Series Press Pin, 1980 All-Star Game Press Pin
1976 Phillies Phantom World Series Press Pin, 1970 Reds World Series Press Pin, 1980 All-Star Game Press Pin

It was an outstanding afternoon with my kids and a few of their buddies. My youngest son bought his first T206 card and my older son picked up some relic cards. I got a bit closer to finishing my ’72 set and picked up a signed Bill Madlock photo.

 

As we were preparing to leave, I spotted one last item, a signed Dickie Noles warm up jacket.

Dickie Noles warm up jacket
Dickie Noles warm up jacket

Noles holds a special place in my heart as it was his pitch up and in to George Brett in the 1980 World Series that signaled the beginning of the end of the Royals in the series. Kansas City fans probably have different feelings on Mr. Noles.

If you get the chance, I’d highly recommend attending a similar show near you. You never know what you’ll find.

1984 Topps Cello Packs
What I wouldn’t give to tear into these

Joe Morgan’s Mysterious Dodgers Connection

Joe Morgan made a career out of beating the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The damage varied from beating L.A. in the regular season to knocking them out of the playoffs. Over a nine year span, Morgan’s teams ended the Dodgers season five times, including two defeats on final day of the season. But one thing many don’t know is that Joe Morgan nearly became a Dodger. Twice.

Mr. Red

Joe MorganDuring his eight seasons as a member of the Cincinnati Reds Morgan was one of the top players in the game. From 1972 through 1976 he was dominant. During that time he hit 108 homers, drove in more than 400 and drew nearly 600 walks while stealing 310 bases. After Morgan won his second consecutive MVP award in 1976, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray called him, “pound for pound the best player ever to play baseball.”

“What other guy 5 feet 6 inches, 150 pounds in any sport dominates the way Joe Morgan does?” Murray wrote in an October 1976 column. “It’s like a 4-9 guard in basketball throwing in 50 points a game.”

But by 1979 it was obvious his time in Cincinnati was over. Injuries and age limited him to just a .236 batting average in 1978. In 1979 his home run total slipped from a high of 27 to just nine. He also wanted out of Cincinnati. In his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball he cited the Reds firing Sparky Anderson after 1978 as a tipping point for him.

“With Tony, Pete and now Sparky gone, the heart of the Big Red Machine had all but ceased. It was… before the 1979 season was even under way that I decided to play out my contract and move on.”

Free Agency

Morgan entered the 1980 Free Agent Draft and was selected by the Rangers, Giants, Padres and the Dodgers. Morgan wanted to go to a winner and the Dodgers were at the top of his list. L.A. was set at 2nd base with Davey Lopes, who hit .265 with 28 homers the year before, but they weren’t set in center field. Derrel Thomas was the incumbent but the Dodgers weren’t sold on him offensively.

Signing Morgan would allow Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to move Lopes to the outfield and plug a future Hall of Famer into one of the best infields in the major leagues. There was just one small snag.

Morgan’s signing was predicated on Lopes agreeing to move to center field. But Lopes balked and Morgan didn’t want to be the reason for a fracture on a pennant-contending club.

“I don’t want to be used as a scapegoat,” Lopes told the L.A. Times. “But I don’t want to throw all that work out the window.”

Joe MorganIt was clear the Dodgers longed to add Morgan to their lineup but not at the risk of upsetting Lopes and Morgan knew it. His agent, Tom Reich, did his best not to upset anyone by saying there were “no villains in  this matter, certainly not Davey Lopes. He’s the best second baseman in the league. Joe knows that.”

Morgan signed with the Houston Astros and beat the Dodgers in the N.L. West in a one game playoff.  In 1982, as a San Francisco Giant, Joe Morgan’s homer off Terry Forster on the final day of the season knocked L.A. out of the playoff hunt.

1983

The following year, Morgan moved to Philadelphia. Reunited with Pete Rose and Tony Perez Morgan did what he did best: beat the Dodgers. The “Wheeze Kids” beat L.A. in the NLCS before losing to Baltimore in the World Series.

At the conclusion of the ’83 season, Lasorda decided he was due a raise. He was fresh off leading the Dodgers to their first World Series win since 1965 along with back-to-back playoff appearances and he wanted to get paid.

In his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, Fred Claire described what happened next.

“Tommy and I met for breakfast at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I made my best pitch… Still Tommy knew Peter (O’Malley) was going to have the final say when it came to the manager of the Dodgers.”

The two returned to Dodger Stadium where Lasorda met with O’Malley. According to Claire the meeting didn’t last long and when it was over he went to O’Malley’s office while Lasorda headed to his office to make some phone calls.

When Claire arrived he was informed it was time to search for a new manager. In the room was Claire, O’Malley, G.M. Al Campanis and Scouting director Ben Wade. Claire suggested Morgan and there was soon consensus.

Morgan was still technically a member of the Phillies, so Claire called Phillies owner Bill Giles to request permission to speak to Morgan.

No sooner did O’Malley hang up with Giles did the phone ring again. It was Lasorda calling from his office asking if O’Malley’s previous offer was still on the table. Informed it was, Lasorda took it.

Joe Morgan spent 1984 with the Oakland A’s and then retired. According to Claire, he never realized how close he came to becoming Lasorda’s replacement.

 

Reflections on Riverfront Stadium

I didn’t grow up going to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. I cut my teeth as a baseball fan at the concrete monolith known as Riverfront Stadium.

I attended my first big league game there in 1975 when the Reds hosted the Astros. Over the years there were lots of memories, some shenanigans and a beer or two (OK, more than two.)

Riverfront Stadium was where I first saw my favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies, in person. I stood just a few feet from Steve Carlton while he warmed up in the bullpen and it was absolutely amazing to be that close to a guy I regularly watched on TV. Over the years I saw some great moments in Reds/Phillies history in that ballpark. It didn’t have charisma, charm or beauty; in fact is was kinda soulless. Damn, I miss that place.

Riverfront Stadium didn't have charisma, charm or beauty. Damn, I miss that place Click To Tweet

“Straight A” Tickets

The Reds had a program where students getting good grades were able to get free tickets to certain games. On the surface, it was a very nice goodwill gesture. Reward the youngsters for their hard work in the classroom! In reality, it was a great way for the Reds to sell tickets to games against crappy teams that didn’t draw well.

You see, earning good grades didn’t get you tickets to a Reds/Dodgers game in September; it got you tickets to a Reds/Padres game in June. On a Tuesday. In the upper deck. I got Straight A tickets a few times, though I’m not sure how, and also tagged along with friends who were more studious than myself. It was a win/win. At least for me and my friends because we didn’t have to pay for the extra tickets the Reds made it so easy to order.

The Coveted Blue Seats

The best seats in the house were the Blue Seats. They were field level and you had to go through a huge tunnel to get to them. My friends and I would scout out the tunnel, hoping to sneak down but there was always an usher checking tickets. Sometimes we could sneak past with a large group but those occasions were rare. As we got older, taller and more daring/stupid we came up with a devious plan.

Hop over the railing, evade security and you're good to go
Hop over the railing, evade security and you’re good to go

The Green Seats butted up against the Blue Seats and were accessible to anyone with a ticket anywhere in the ballpark. My friends and I would find an aisle with no usher and casually walk down towards the field. Then we would leap over the railing into the Blue Seats and run down the aisle and under the stands. I remember being yelled at a few times but it didn’t matter. It was the baseball equivalent of yelling, “Stop, thief!” We would scurry down and resurface in another part of the Blue Seats and enjoy the rest of the game feeling like real outlaws.

The World Series

It was also at Riverfront Stadium that I saw my first and only World Series game in person. Game Two of the 1990 Fall Classic pitted the Reds against the Oakland A’s and we had seats in the upper rows of left field. One of the “features” of Riverfront was that the upper decks had so many seats that the further you went up, the less of the field you could see. You also couldn’t see the scoreboard.

everready1
I bought Rayovacs. Turned out to be a bad move

Being a Riverfront veteran by this time I devised a plan. I had a portable black and white television that ran on batteries. I figured I would bring it with me so me and my buddy could see the entire field and watch replays when necessary. The only problem was the tiny television required nine D-Cell batteries. I was a senior in college and nine D-Cells represented a pretty serious investment so I skimped and bought Rayovacs because they were the cheapest ones I could find.

Turned out not to be a wise choice as they died in about the 7th inning and the game went into extras. But not all was lost as I got to see Billy Bates dash home on Joe Oliver‘s double down the line to give the Reds a 2-0 lead in the series. Unfortunately it’s also the last time the Reds won a World Series game at home.

Memories Galore

A Riverfront staple
A Riverfront staple

My trips to Riverfront included bearing witness to Tony Perez becoming the oldest player to hit a Grand Slam, when he hit one against the Phillies in 1985. I was there when Robby Thompson set a major league record by being thrown out stealing four times in one game. I saw Larry Bowa hit an inside the park homer and I saw Eric Davis, Barry Larkin and Terry Francona hit Opening Day dingers against the Expos in 1987.

By 1995, I was living in Clearwater, Fl, some 938 miles away from Riverfront Stadium, when I got engaged. My wife and I went back to Ohio in July of 1996 to get married and my best man asked me what I wanted to do for my bachelor party. Shunning tradition, I replied that I lived in Florida where there was a strip club approximately every 137 yards  but that we didn’t have Major League Baseball. So it was settled. My bachelor party was a Reds/Pirates game at good old Riverfront Stadium.

I didn’t grow up going to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. I cut my teeth as a baseball fan at the concrete monolith known as Riverfront Stadium.  And that’s just fine with me.

That Time I Met Johnny Bench (Twice)

If you were a kid in southwestern Ohio in the 1970s and you could eat anywhere you wanted,  the answer was clear: Johnny Bench‘s Home Plate.

Bench owned two restaurants in the Cincinnati area at the time and one of them was near the Northgate Mall, which was about 40 minutes from my house. I don’t remember a whole lot about the restaurant except that there was a HUGE catcher’s mitt chair in the lobby. At my age it could easily swallow me up and it was a must-do each time we visited.

Johnny Bench's Homeplate
A Baseball Fan’s Nirvana

I frequently asked to go there for my birthday and it often worked because my father liked their steaks. Worked for me, too. On one occasion we were there for dinner when in strolls Johnny himself.  I was in awe. Unfortunately I didn’t have anything with me for him to sign, but my mother was a college professor and was thus equipped with a piece of paper and a fountain pen. That’s right: A fountain pen. Johnny inked my piece of paper.

So Mr. Bench, We Meet Again

Years later, I worked at WCET-TV (PBS) in Cincinnati. The building had a large studio that we would rent occasionally. Parts of Rain Man and Little Man Tate were shot there. I came to work one day and was informed that Fifth Third Bank would be shooting a commercial in the studio and that Bench would be in the house. Johnny had been working with Fifth Third since the early ’70s and had done lots of commercials and print ads. Someone from our staff needed to be there in case the ad agency needed anything and since I was the resident baseball freak, they gave me the plum assignment. Basically my job was to sit there, watch the show and tell people where the bathroom was.

Once again I didn’t have anything for Bench to sign, but I did have a car. When the crew broke for lunch, I headed straight to Koch’s Sporting Goods in downtown Cincinnati and bought a baseball. When everyone came back I asked Johnny to sign it.

He was hesitant, probably it was a pretty serious breach of etiquette on my part to ask for an autograph while we were both working. I think he also figured I would sell it. Damage done on the first count, but not the second. He asked me my name and signed the ball to me, which worked out great.

A Treasured Keepsake

My Johnny Bench Autograph
My Johnny Bench Autograph

The ball now sits proudly on a shelf with others signed by Hall-of-Famers. Thanks, J.B!

Have you met one of your baseball heroes from the 1980s? I want to hear about it! Click here for details and tell me your story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Time I Met Eric Davis

Note: This is a guest post from Nate Dunlevy

My love affair with baseball began with the same cliches that every child of the ’80s retells. I don’t know if it was staying up late to watch Bill Buckner make the same error I made a thousand times, or if it was the wood paneling, or just the sheer weight of cultural inevitability that forces smart kids of limited athletic ability to gravitate toward baseball and the infallibility of its countless numbers.  You can take those same basic myths, chop them up 28 different ways, and dust them with names of local heroes and you’ll have an origin story for most every baseball fan between the ages of 36 and 46.

My addiction to AM radio and 6:35 start times began with Eric Davis in 1987. For what amounts to a moment but feels like forever, he was the best player on the planet. Oddly enough, Davis wasn’t my favorite player (that was Buddy Bell, then Chris Sabo and then Barry Larkin), but he was the most captivating. I couldn’t name all five tools, but I knew he had them. Fast. Strong. Davis was the perfect athlete.

His greatness and my own dubious grasp of economics led me to horde dozens of his baseball cards. A friend’s mom heard I was a Reds fan and gave me a few old cards she had lying around. My glee at finding out one was a Fleer Eric Davis rookie card was containable. The fool! It was worth at least $20. She might as well have handed me a brick of gold.

Davis lit up baseball that thrilling summer. He was easily on pace to be the first 40-40 player, needing only three home runs in late August when the pursuit was cut short after he ran into a wall at Wrigley field. (The image of Cubs fans pouring beer on him as he writhed on the warning track birthed its own special kind of hate in my 10 year old heart against that franchise, one that still burns.) For the first of what would be too many times, injuries caused by playing the game without regard for his personal health robbed him of greatness.

The next summer, I begged my parents to take me to Cincinnati for baseball card day. I desperately wanted the first Sabo card ever printed (pictured below), but it was Davis that provided me the perfect memory. He hit the first home run I ever saw in person, a walk-off two-run shot to beat the Braves 2-1. (Technically, Jeff Tredway hit the first homerun I saw, an inside-the-park job earlier that game, but that hardly counts.)

Injuries took their toll on Davis. Sabo moved on from the Reds, and ultimately it was Barry Larkin who defined my fandom as I spent the 90s hanging on his every at bat. Years later, I was there at Cooperstown for his induction. One of my oldest friends, a Cubs fan of all things, came with me, and as we walked the village, we saw Eric Davis. I went up to him and asked if I could shake his hand to say thank you for giving a child a perfect day at the park so many years before. He was warm and gracious and friendly to us.

IMG_0183
Nate’s cache

To everyone who grew up a Reds fan in the 1980s, Davis was the great “what if?” In the end, he had a marvelous career and is much loved, if only for narrative re-writing homerun in the first inning of Game One of the 1990 World Series. It prompted one of the great headlines the next day: “Davis Stuns Goliath”.


It was fitting to meet him in Cooperstown, even if his body betrayed him ever getting there as an inductee. He suffered kidney damage diving for a ball in Game Four of that series and took years to fully recover.He sacrificed his health to win a World Championship, still the only one the Reds have won in my lifetime. Eric Davis made me a baseball fan.If that doesn’t deserve a handshake and a heartfelt thanks, then I don’t know what does.

Have you met one of your baseball heroes from the 1980s? I want to hear about it! Click here for details and tell me your story.

Invincible, Indiana by Nate Dunlevy
Invincible, Indiana
by Nate Dunlevy

ABOUT NATE DUNLEVY: Nate Dunlevy is the author of Invincible, Indiana a novel about basketball and small-town Indiana. His work can occasionally be found at ColtsAuthority.com and his books can be found at MadisonHousePublishing.com. He tweets @natedunlevy

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.