Thursday, May 25, 2006

Dick Johnston, the best centerfielder before Tris Speaker.

When Baseball Was Big in Kingston

From "Wake the Echoes," Kingston Times, May 25, 2006:
It’s been a long while since Kingston has hosted a minor-league baseball team—July 16, 1950, to be precise, the day the Class “C” Colonial League collapsed, taking the city’s Dodger farm club with it. Though Kingston and its environs have continued to send high school graduates into the professional ranks, and some of these have left their marks in the major-league record books, few have known glory. Kingston’s pride has instead been its long history in the game, especially in the semi-pro ranks.

Many of our hometown heroes have enjoyed only a cup-of-coffee stay in the big leagues, but that is nothing to sneeze at: the best high-school player any of us locals can recall, Tim Cole of Saugerties, never made it to The Show despite being a first draft pick of the Atlanta Braves, and the greatest player on any given local team is not likely even to be offered a pro contract. So give them their due—a life in baseball is an almost impossibly hard dream to follow.

In days of yore, young men played baseball nearly to the exclusion of anything else - football and basketball didn’t beckon as careers in the years before mass media. Back then, boosters in small cities like Kingston, Newburgh, Middletown and Poughkeepsie could be counted on to chip in whenever a promoter got it into his brain to start a new league. Even a village like Saugerties or Catskill might win a minor-league franchise, as they did in the Hudson River League of 1903-07. A “country team” like the Hudson Rivers of Newburgh could compete against the best the big city could throw against them, as it did as early as 1859. A remote Kingston could host a silver-ball tournament drawing champion clubs from New York and Albany, as it did barely six months after the end of the Civil War.

In recent years the New York-Penn League, a short-season circuit of minor-league baseball clubs, has brought joy to residents of burgs to the north and south of us. In Ulster County, however, except for our kids we are in permanent baseball winter, with only distant memories to keep us warm.

There were the visits of Hall of Fame players—Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Joe DiMaggio, Christy Mathewson, Rube Foster, Pie Traynor—to play exhibitions against our tough Colonials (founded in 1921) and Recs (1941). Jim Bouton pitched one summer of his long farewell tour for the Dutchmen of Saugerties. Hall of Fame players were born within what today would be an hour’s drive of us - Dan Brouthers, Johnny Evers, Eddie Collins, Frank Grant, Jack Chesbro, George Davis, King Kelly. And to call the roll of our local lads who made it to the majors is pretty impressive.

Maybe the most colorful character was Mickey McDermott, a left-handed pitcher from Poughkeepsie who pitched 12 years in the big leagues, won a game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series against the Dodgers, drank himself out of baseball, and then won the Arizona State Lottery to collect a cool $7 million. But the best of these players not in the Hall of Fame may well have been Kingston’s Dick Johnston, nonpareil centerfielder for the powerful Boston team of the National League. Born in Kingston on April 6, 1863, he grew up in the printing trade, working for the Freeman while his baseball talents developed. It was, however, the city’s other major newspaper, the Leader, that in 1879 sponsored a ball club. Joining this squad in 1882, he starred at shortstop and at the bat while leading the team to an unbeaten record in 12 games that included defeats of the Brooklyn Atlantics and a couple of prominent Albany clubs.

The team’s pitcher, Myron Allen, went up to the New York club briefly the following year but the Leaders continued to pile up victories behind the pitching of Ed Dugan, whose brother Bill was his battery mate. The two had come to Kingston from Brooklyn, but Ed left his heart in Kingston, where he is buried. Playing at the now long-lost Donovan Field in Kingston, the 1883 Leaders succumbed in hard-fought games to the major-league Mets, Gothams, and Dodgers, but they defeated all other clubs except the powerful Newark nine.

Kingston officials grew so heady with the prospects for their Leaders that on October 20, 1883, at an organizational meeting of a newly brewing rival major league named the Union Association, they applied for a franchise along with New York City, Lancaster, Pa., and Richmond, Va. Ultimately none of the four cities fielded a Union team. With the Leaders in disarray, Johnston and the Dugans joined the Richmond club. Starting the season in the Eastern League, the Virginias, as they were known, leapt up in class to the American Association, a major circuit, in midyear. There he, along with Richmond third baseman Billy Nash, was scouted by Boston. Both moved to Beantown for the 1885 campaign. As reserves they waited their turn but showed enough promise to take over starting positions the following year. In 1888, as Kingston fielded a shaky team in a Hudson River League that disbanded at year end, Johnston led the National League with 18 triples, finishing second in total bases and seventh in batting average.

In 1910, sixteen years after he had hung up his spikes with a final season at shortstop for the Kingston entry in the New York State League, the Boston Globe observed: “Those of the old-timers who can recall the outfielding of Dicky Johnston will see in Tris Speaker the same qualities of judging a ball from the bat until it is hooked in out of the wet.” The style he perfected was a revolution in its day: rather than drift back under a ball hit over his head, he would turn on a hard hit ball with his back to the infield and then turn just in time to make the catch. This is the way all outfielders have been taught to go after such balls for a century now.

On July 12, 1889 Boston defeated Pittsburgh 13-1 and Johnston hit two homers and a single, perhaps his biggest day as a batsman. But it was his sensational fielding that made him a standout. The Globe reported, “Some of his running catches were miraculous, a memorable one being the capture of a terrific drive from the big bat of Dan Brouthers. Radbourne was pitching for Boston in that game, and he sent up a slow one waist high. Brouthers, the heaviest slugger in the league, landed squarely with his tick and the ball sailed so high and far that the crowd expected to see it clear the center field fence.

“The moment the ball met the bat Johnston turned his back and dug for the fence. When he was within a few feet of the boards he turned and leaped into the air. At the same time he threw up his left hand in the nick of time, for the ball lodged in his glove just as he crashed into the fence. That catch made Dickey Johnston, and he was quickly called the league’s star center fielder, but he soon fell by the wayside because of his habits.”

Dick Johnston was released in 1890 despite having played a vital role in the previous year’s pennant race. Sportswriter Tim Murnane reported that many fans speculated that because manager King Kelly was an Elk he had a preference for playing his fraternal brother Tom Brown in center. But Murnane knew, as everyone in the game did, that Johnston’s drinking had descended so far out of control that even Kelly, hardly an abstemious sort himself, could no longer put him in the lineup. By 1892, only 29 years of age, Dick Johnston was through. After being cut in the spring by the Cincinnati Reds he tried hooking on again with Richmond, hoping to launch a climb back into the limelight, but his skills were gone. He returned to his Kingston home at 105 Abeel Street and, after a final fling in 1894, resumed the printing trade.

--John Thorn

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Once and Future King

I Dreamed I Saw Babe Ruth Last Night

I dreamed I saw Babe Ruth last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I “But Babe, you’re so long dead!”
“I never died,” says he.

“I never died,” says he.

“In your casket, by God,” says I,

Him standing by my bed,
“They laid you out for all to see.”
Says Babe, “But I ain’t dead.”
Says Babe, “But I ain’t dead.”

“Bonds and Aaron passed you, Babe;

They passed you, Babe,” says I.
“Takes more than them to beat my mark,”
Says Babe, “I didn’t die.”
Says Babe, “I didn’t die.”

And standing there as big as life,

And smiling with his eyes,
Babe says, "What they forgot to beat
You now mythologize.
You now mythologize.”

From San Diego up to Maine,

Where fans still seek the truth,
And players love the old ball game,
Says he, "You'll find Babe Ruth.”
Says he, "You'll find Babe Ruth.”

Barry Bonds is at this writing closing in on Babe Ruth’s longtime record of 714 home runs, the last signpost on the rocky road to his ultimate destination, Henry Aaron’s mark of 755. By declaring that Major League Baseball would not commemorate Bonds’ 715th, whenever it came, as that would only create a new entrant into second place, Commissioner Bud Selig was not being unfair, but he may have been engaging in early-warning damage control. If performance-enhancing drugs are determined to have fueled the Giant star’s assault on the record books, the Commissioner will be sure to authorize a rather subdued celebration if and when he hits No. 756.

Last night as I drifted off to sleep, my mind was spinning about the journalists’ umbrage, the fans’ moralistic contempt, and the startling level of venom that follows Barry from one city to the next, as if Hitler were playing left field for San Francisco. What would the Babe feel about all this, I wondered? What would he say to Barry, to Bud, to you?

And in an instant, there he was, ready to reveal all without so much as a question from me.

“Hot as hell, ain’t it, kid? Hot for everybody in baseball, hot for the game itself. Sometimes I look down on all this hubbub and wonder whether anyone can come out of this all right. Me? I’m past reckoning with, but if all I am today is that number, 714, then I sure made a mistake in the way I lived my life. Henry Aaron didn’t take anything away from me when hit more home runs. He just achieved something great that was all his own, and he did it under terrible pressures that I never had to face. See, I’d had the home run record ever since 1921, when I hit my 139th, so 714 meant nothing to me except that it was the first ball to fly out of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and the last I would hit as a big leaguer. Playing ball was a nonstop joyride for me, even with the fusses now and then with Judge Landis or Miller Huggins. My heartaches came earlier and later than my baseball days, that’s why I hate to see Barry trudging forward, having no fun when this should be the greatest time of his life.

“Looking back on my boyhood, I honestly don’t remember being aware of the difference between right and wrong. I was a bad kid. My parents tossed me into an orphanage in Baltimore — St. Mary’s Industrial Home — when I was seven and they never came to visit, not one Sunday in twelve years. Well, I guess I was just too big and ugly for anyone to come see me. It wasn’t until I signed a baseball contract with the Orioles that I left St. Mary’s, at age nineteen. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the school or the way the Xavierian Brothers treated me. Brother Matthias was the man who introduced me to baseball and gave me my life’s calling — though it wasn’t much compared to his, that’s for certain. What I became, what I had, what I left behind me — all this I owe to the game of baseball, without which I would have come out of St. Mary’s a tailor, and a pretty bad one, at that.

“Barry, you seem to have led a charmed life early, but maybe your troubles were just waiting for you to reach the top so that the tumble would be more bruising. I don’t know what you did that made you become so great a home run hitter in your late years, when all the rest of us players would be winding down. Life may begin at forty for people in other lines of work, but that’s where it ends, more or less, for the baseball player. For me, I knew it was time to quit when it started to feel as if all the baselines ran uphill. Maybe what you did to stay in peak condition wrinkled somebody’s nose, maybe it upset the Commissioner or broke some rule, or maybe you even broke the law. I did the same, in my own day and in my own way, so I’m not one to judge. We had a thing called the Volstead Act and I broke it every day until it was repealed. I’ll tell you, Barry, I admire your God-given ability, your work habits and conditioning (these were not exactly priorities for me), your dedication to being the best, and not letting the bastards get you down.

“When I was a ballplayer, if I made a home run every time I came to bat, the fans would think I was all right. If I didn’t, they thought they could call me anything they liked. They had vile mouths then, those bums in the stands, even worse than today’s boo-birds, and I charged in after them more than once I’m sorry to say.

“Barry, don’t ever forget two things I’m going to tell you. One, don’t believe everything that’s written about you. Two, don’t pick up too many checks. Even with today’s big paychecks, a guy could go broke. Oh, and I guess there’s a third thing: scallions. Flaxseed oil may be great stuff, but scallions are the sure cure for any batting slump.

“Commissioners? I never had much use for them. Ford Frick was a friend going back to when he was a newspaper writer, but he came on the job long after I was through. Judge Landis was a ham actor from a tank town thrust onto a Broadway stage. A petty tyrant, yes, but I’ll give him this: despite his many wrongheaded ideas and decisions, at least he thought he was acting in the best interests of the game. To Bud Selig I would offer the same advice I give to young players just learning the game of ball: never let the fear of striking out get in your way. Sure, the owners hired and they can fire you, but so what? Take care of the game, the game that has given so much to so many, including you. Don’t kowtow to Congress or cozy up to the bankers or forget fair play. Do the right thing by the game, always the game.

“To the fans I would say baseball was, is, and always will be to me the best game in the world. It’s bigger than the players, the owners, and the fans. As I once said of Ty Cobb, who later became my friendly golf partner in charity events, you might say about Barry Bonds—that he is a *****. But he sure can hit. God Almighty, that man can hit. Give him his due.

“I’ve heard people say that the trouble with the world is that we haven’t enough great leaders. I think we haven’t enough great followers. I have stood side by side with great thinkers — surgeons, engineers, economists, men who deserve a great following — and have heard the crowd cheer me instead. If there’s a mess in baseball right now, you fans don’t exactly have clean hands. You wanted home runs from all spots up and down the lineup, and you cheered as the ballparks became smaller and the ballplayers grew larger. Didn’t some Boston writer once say, ‘Beware of what you want ... you just might get it?’

“I honestly don’t know anybody who wanted to live more than I did. It was a driving wish that was always with me in those days after I left baseball, a wish that only a person who has been close to death can know and understand. It was hell to get older. But now I see that I get to live forever. Every home run recalls my name. I hope it will for Barry too, and Henry Aaron, and Maris, McGwire, Sosa, and more.”

And then Babe faded from view. I had more questions for him, about his own life, his legendary feats, how he thought he would fare as a player today, what his stats would look like. And I really wanted to know what he thought about baseball’s future, as a national pastime and an increasingly international one.

Maybe he’ll check in again after Bonds hits No. 715.

--John Thorn

Friday, May 05, 2006

If the slipper doesn't fit, you must submit.

Rangers in a Strange Land

It was a Cinderella season for New York’s hockey team, almost down to the end. But in a sorry turn on the Grimm tale, the coach that had brought the Blueshirts to the ball turned into a pumpkin. The silver skates on which they had once sped so dazzlingly no longer fit. Prince Charming, a.k.a. Lord Stanley, ceased to smile upon them as midnight drew near; turning his gaze to the other side of the river, he resumed his search for a suitable recipient of his prized cup.

The Rangers’ fall from grace had been truly shocking. Requiring only a single point from a sixty-minute tie to secure first place in their division and home-ice advantage, they lost their last five games of the regular season and then were swept from Stanley Cup play in four depressing losses in which they were outscored 18-4. Providing further sting was that the skaters who had overtaken them in the final days and then manhandled them in the playoffs were New Jersey’s Devils, hated rivals whose last win over the Rangers was their fifteenth straight.

What kind of justice was this, in which the evil stepdaughters got to stay at the ball while the long suffering Cinderella was thrown back into ignominy? Well, justice of a sort. After seven years of subjugation in which they had failed to earn a playoff spot, and an eighth in which the whole league was put on ice, the Rangers had rebuilt their squad around a single superstar, Jaromir Jagr. They added a gaggle of Czech mates whose passing and skating skills in previous years had been blanketed by the National Hockey League’s tolerance of hooking, holding, interference, and generalized mayhem. For the 2005-06 campaign however — coming after an entire year lost to labor-management hara-kiri — the league had instituted many new rules that benefited the smaller “skill players” and minimized the advantages that had accrued to the sport’s behemoths.

As the season wore on, the Rangers’ mighty mites wore down. The attributes that had carried them to victory in the regular campaign — nifty cross-ice passing, intricate power-play patterns, acrobatic net minding — were not the ones most valued in the playoffs, when defense and discipline were paramount. To advance in Stanley Cup play, the historical requisites for success have been responsible positional play at center ice; vigorous checking at both ends; muscle and resolve in front of the net; good special-teams play; and reliable goaltending. Repeated spectacular saves were not as important as avoiding the bad goal and, so important, the first goal. Until their season-ending loss, in which Jed Ortmeyer scored to put the Rangers up 1-0, the Rangers had not led in a game for two weeks.

The boys in blue fell short not for lack of pluck or luck or character, but simply because they weren’t built for hockey’s “second season,” the one in which a champion is crowned. Still, it is important to recognize that while their Cinderella story did not end in triumph, nor did it thrust the Rangers back to their former status as household char girls. Because of their long exclusion from the NHL’s glory road, the Rangers of 2005-06 fielded few players who had ever played in a Stanley Cup contest before, and experience counts. Now the younger Rangers have it, but not all of them showed enough to be assured a spot on next year’s club ... and this is the best news about the Rangers’ future. They now have enough talent backed up in Hartford and in junior hockey that the over-30 contingent will not have to dominate the team’s first two lines and power-play unit.

Jagr is a great player, and to these eyes the league’s regular-season MVP, even though he was overtaken for the lead in goals and scoring in the disastrous final days. No team in recent memory was so dependent upon one man who was not a goalie. Jagr’s great skill and amazing energy bedeviled opponents and blessed his linemates. Michael Nylander had a wonderful season playing alongside him, and Czech journeymen Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, Petr Sykora, and rookie Petr Prucha also played well when they were paired with him, and less well when they were not. Not all of these men will be back next year. Jason Ward, Ryan Hollweg, Blair Betts, and the aforementioned Ortmeyer played a gritty game and provided the season’s all-too-few hard hits. Colton Orr’s physicality in his 15-game audition makes him an appealing fourth-liner for next season. Still, the Rangers need more balanced scoring and even a goal now and then from their checking lines. Veteran center Steve Rucchin was the team’s top face-off man but the team will look to add strength at his spot. Bright prospects for seasons to come are wingers Dominic Moore (though he must score more), and even the frustrating Marcel Hossa, whose formidable skills are unequaled by energy.

On defense, Darius Kasparaitis, Michael Rozsival and Marek Malik had charmed seasons that they will be hard pressed to replicate. Tom Poti had a fine second half and young Fedor Tyutin displayed great promise that far exceeded his puzzling lapses. Jason Strudwick will probably cede his spot on the back line next year to Thomas Pock, and Sandis Ozolinsh, a veteran star and power-play specialist acquired late, is on the bubble. The Rangers will be scouring the free-agent list for defensemen who play more of a physical game than the current finesse-oriented contingent.

Goaltending was a huge surprise, as Swedish rookie Henrik Lundqvist beat out veteran Kevin Weekes for the top spot early and held on. By year’s end, however, both were disappointments. Lundqvist, who led the Swedish national team to Olympic gold, appears to have a bright future with the Rangers, barring a sophomore jinx that extends from his weak late-season play. The mechanical Weekes is likely to be replaced by a farmhand.

Next year’s free-agent crop will be plentiful, and stars who in previous seasons overcame their repugnance of the Rangers’ losing ways only through laughably lavish inducements may now come to Broadway to build a Stanley Cup winner. The Rangers did not complete their Cinderella story this time around, but they are no longer the laughingstock of the league. And that is a first step toward constructing a tale with a happy ending.

--John Thorn