Down tradition avenue in baseball

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2013 - 12:53 AM

It’s a tradition-filled sport. But some are disappearing. A list of those should make old-timers and youngsters alike smile at how the game once was.

Pepper was a popular warmup game. It required only a little space on the sidelines and involved a handful of players, one hitting the ball, the others fielding it and throwing it back to the batter. Some ballparks ban it now. Not that anyone plays it.

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There are numerous lost traditions in today’s baseball. The Star Tribune decided to come up with nine innings’ worth of these, a complete game. That happens to be one of the traditions — Bob Gibson had 28 complete games for St. Louis in both 1968 and 1969 — that didn’t make the cut. ¶ Other traditions lost from our list included boiled hot dogs taken from tepid water and slathered with mustard by vendors, and dugout agitators formerly known as “bench jockeys,’’ and bad-breathed managers such as Billy Martin and Earl Weaver kicking dirt on umpires while league officials look at it as entertainment. ¶ A more recent tradition is players engaging in the intake of steroids and human growth hormones, but we aren’t sure that one is lost as of yet, so we skipped it. Here’s our list.

 

1THE SUNDAY DOUBLEHEADER

Bill Veeck became the owner of the Chicago White Sox for the second time in 1975, helping to save the team from a move to St. Petersburg, Fla. His son Mike went to work promoting and selling tickets.

“I think we scheduled nine Sunday doubleheaders in 1976,’’ Mike said. “The theory was the people from Indiana or from Dubuque could drive to Chicago on Sunday morning knowing they would get a full dose of baseball.’’

Veeck’s estimate was close. The White Sox were home for nine Sundays between May 23 and Sept. 12, and seven were scheduled doubleheaders.

“Play nine, hopefully, and come back 22 minutes later and play another one,’’ Veeck said. “Of course, television wasn’t as involved, and we played a lot faster.’’

Indeed. The Twins played a doubleheader in Comiskey on July 28. The opener was 13-8 for the Twins and took what was then an excruciating 3 hours even; the second game was 7-4 Sox and was played in 2:15. You could add 45 minutes, minimum, to each of those games at today’s pace.

Today, owners start a season determined to have 81 home gates — no scheduled doubleheaders, and makeup games as either day-night (split) doubleheaders or on mutual off days.

“The manager, the coaches and the players absolutely would prefer to [have] the second game immediately after the first,’’ Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “With the split, you sit around for hours. Those are the longest days of the season; they wear on the players.’’

 

2fungoes & infield

Fungoes were much in evidence when early arrivers came to the ballpark in days of yore. They were long, lean hunks of wood made by Lousiville Slugger, used to hit fly balls to outfielders and ground balls to infielders.

The legend said they were light, but “not when you’re hitting a couple of hundred ground balls,’’ Gardenhire said. “The new ones are great, made out of that composite wood, and very light.’’

There were fungo magicians in most every organization.

“The most famous fungo guy was Jimmy Reese, with the Angels,’’ Twins coach Scott Ullger said. “They said he could pitch batting practice hitting balls with a fungo.’’

Gardenhire had an old infielder named Johnny Antonelli (not the former Giants pitcher) in the Mets’ organization as a coach and fungo-hitting antagonist.

“He would be barking, ‘Gardenhire, stay down on the ball, hustle, hustle,’ and hit me all the ground balls I could take,’’ Gardenhire said. “I loved the guy.’’

The pregame tradition at nearly all levels of baseball into the 1980s was for the home team to take batting practice, the visitors to take BP, the home team to come back out for a full round of “infield,’’ ground balls, turning double plays, and the visitors would come back to do the same.

“We do all of that during batting practice now,’’ Gardenhire said. “In fact, the managers were given notification before this season that we can’t have pregame infield, because the field belongs to the promotions people and grounds crew for 30, 35 minutes before the game starts.’’

 

3Pepper

Ballplayers (especially visitors) are notorious for getting to the park early and having much time to kill. A pregame staple was players coming down to the field in midafternoon for a robust game of “pepper’’:

One batter, several fielders 10-15 feet away in a line, making tosses that the batter would hit back at the players, hopefully on one, hard-to-handle hop. Generally, the punishment for booting the ball was to be sent to the end of line, and farther from the chance to be the batter.

Pepper was the enemy of groundskeepers. The game usually took place behind home plate, beating up the grass. “No Pepper’’ started appearing in paint on the short wall behind the plate — the area now used for advertising.

“I haven’t seen a pepper game in a long time,’’ Twins coach Joe Vavra said. “It’s gone.’’

 

4old-timers day

The Yankees are the lone protectors of this tradition in the major leagues. They held the annual old-timers celebration in the Bronx on June 23 for the 67th time.

The zaniest of Yankees’ old-timers celebrations came on July 29, 1978. Earlier in the month, manager Billy Martin had this to say of star player Reggie Jackson and owner George Steinbrenner: “They deserve each other. One’s a born liar and the other’s convicted.’’

Steinbrenner had been convicted of an illegal campaign contribution to Richard Nixon. The Boss forced Martin’s resignation July 24, and then five days later he had public address legend Bob Sheppard make the surprise announcement during old-timers introductions that Martin would return as manager in 1980.

When Martin came running out of the dugout in his No. 1 uniform … well, I was there, covering the Twins, and it was the loudest 15-minute standing ovation in recorded sports history.

The Twins had occasional old-timers games at Met Stadium, including one July 17, 1976, when the attractions included Lyman Bostock Sr. He had played in the Negro Leagues and his son, Lyman Jr., was a rising Twins star.

The twist was that Lyman Sr. was long estranged from his son. He showed up a couple of times when Lyman Jr. made it to the big leagues, tried to introduce himself and his son said: “I’ve never met you. How do I know who you are?’’

The Lyman Sr. of 1976 had a pot belly that stretched his jersey but also a sweet swing that resulted in a couple of hits.

The Twins’ most recent old-timers promotion was the “Legends Game’’ on Sept. 5, 2011, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first season in Minnesota. If you missed the game, and Kent Hrbek tearing up the turf chasing a pop-up, there’s a chance it is showing on Fox Sports North right now.

 

5bullpen car

Dick Stigman, the pride of Nimrod, Minn., was acquired by the Twins on April 2, 1962, for Pedro Ramos and was an outstanding lefthanded addition over the four years. He spent his share of time in the bullpen (except for 33 starts in 1963) and took rides to the Met Stadium mound in a Dodge, a Ford and a golf cart.

“One year, the players got free Dodges for the season from the place out by Southview, so we rode in from the bullpen in a Dodge,’’ Stigman said. “Another time we got Fords from Midway, so we rode in a Ford.

“Nobody ran in from the bullpen. I don’t think we could’ve made it. We all smoked.’’

George Tsamis, the manager of the Saints, said: “I saw bullpen cars as a fan of the Giants and the A’s in the Bay Area. I don’t know why they don’t have them these days, the way everything in a big-league ballpark is marketed.’’

Glen Perkins agrees. The ace lefthander of the Twins’ bullpen has campaigned in recent months for a bullpen car at Target Field, mostly through Twitter (@glen_perkins).

 

6keeping score

Amanda Furth is a 35-year-old attorney with a couple of seats in right field as a partial Twins season-ticket holder. As she enters Target Field’s Gate 34 she goes to the small stand where game programs are sold. She spends $1 for a scorecard, and often another buck for a pencil.

“They give you a regular pencil now with an eraser, not those stubby ones you used to get,’’ Furth said. “There’s never a line for scorecards. There are a couple of ladies two rows down who bring their own scorebooks, but they are the only others in our area who I see scoring the game.’’

Furth offers this excuse for the need to fill out a scorecard when in attendance: “I grew up in the grand baseball town of New Ulm. My dad Bill coached or managed or whatever for the [town-team] Brewers, and I first started keeping score at Johnson Park.”

Maxine Putz of Columbia Heights can top that. She keeps score both on occasional visits to Target Field, and also while watching Twins telecasts.

“My grandmother typically records her favorite team’s every action with Dick and Bert, although she enjoys referring to them as ‘Bert and Ernie,’ ” Lance Olson said.

Maxine, at 92, is closer to the demographic of most diligent scorekeepers than Amanda is at 35. It is an art, and if you look around Target Field, you will find it to be almost lost.

 

7averages in sunday newspaper

The averages appeared en masse for the American and National Leagues for decades. You could find them in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune in the 1950s, for sure, before the Twins came to the Bloomington prairie.

The Associated Press still sends out these league statistics, even though you won’t find them in nearly as many Sunday newspapers. The hitters are listed by batting average and the pitchers by earned run average for each league. There are a minimum of at-bats and innings pitched required to be among the names listed.

It was those Sunday stats that led to perhaps the best of all the great quotes uttered by George Brett. In 1980, he said, “The first thing I look at in the Sunday paper is who is below the Mendoza line.’’

This was a reference to Mario Mendoza, a light-hitting shortstop who often was stuck below .200 and near the bottom of the listed hitters.

“I got off to a great start with the Mets in 1982,’’ Gardenhire said. “The first week the averages were in the Sunday paper, I was leading the league, hitting .420-something. I got a scissors, clipped out the top few names, and still have that tiny piece of the Sunday paper.’’

 

8the baseball bible

The Sporting News was founded in 1886 and owned by the Spink family until 1977. It carried “The Baseball Bible’’ on its masthead for many decades. You could find a week’s worth of boxscores, and feature stories and notes for each big-league team.

I was a Sporting News correspondent for the Twins for a few years in the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s. By then, the baseball emphasis was lessened to some degree, and mostly what the editors wanted in the winter was a notebook.

Ron Jackson had come to the Twins along with Danny Goodwin for Disco Dan Ford in December 1978. His nickname of “Papa Jack’’ fit his gregarious personality. He had a good first season in 1979, and a poor one in 1980.

That winter, the TSN correspondent used a throwaway line about Papa Jack being more like Papa Up the previous season. And that spring, when I first arrived at Tinker Field, Jackson came roaring in my direction in a rage.

That was the danger of covering the hometown ballclub for the Sporting News — everyone read it.

The Sporting News’ de-emphasis of the game has continued until it’s more a baseball verse these days, with a website and publication heavy on NFL coverage, this century’s national pastime.

 

9collecting baseball cards

The basic of baseball-card collecting in the 1950s was to buy a Topps pack that included five cards and a stick of cardboard-like bubble gum. The heartbreak was to open a pack and find Wilmer “Vinegar Bend’’ Mizell as the biggest name … no Mays, no Mantle, no Campanella, not even a Moose Skowron.

Through the years, other card companies have surfaced, thrived and left, multiple cards were issued for players during the year by each company, and collectors moved to buying full, boxed sets.

Tsamis made 41 appearances for the Twins as a lefthanded reliever with a 6.19 ERA.

“I collected every Ken Griffey Jr. card I could get my hands on, and my brother collected every Frank Thomas,’’ Tsamis said. “I must have 30, 40 Griffeys; whatever companies were issuing cards, I’d get the Griffeys.’’

Tsamis wound up facing Griffey four times (2-for-4, one RBI) in 1993. And he also earned a handful of baseball cards, a few of which were taped to his office wall at Met Stadium.

“You know what I loved about baseball cards as a player?’’ Tsamis said. “You could be completely [lousy] like me, and they’d still say something good about you on the back of the card.

“Look at this one: It says that I ‘quickly established myself as having one of the best pickoff moves in the American League.’ ’’





















 

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  • Texas Rangers’, from left, Ian Kinsler, Gerald Laird, Hank Blalock and Michael Young share a laugh as they participate in a pepper drill during morning practice at baseball spring training in Surprise, Ariz., Tuesday, March 13, 2007. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) ORG XMIT: AZTG115

  • Boston Red Sox pitcher Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd pops up an inside pitch during a pepper drill at the first day of workouts at training camp in Winter Haven, Florida on Monday, Feb. 24, 1986. Boyd led the Red Sox in wins with a 15-13 record in 1985. (AP Photo/Peter Southwick) ORG XMIT: APHS412726

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  • Frank Quilici, above left, and Jim “Mudcat” Grant, two former Twins, fooled around at a old-timers game in 1976.Former batterymates Yogi Berra, left, and Whitey Ford rode in a golf cart during the Yankees’ old-timers day last month.

  • Hall of Famer catcher Yogi Berra, left, and pitcher Whitey Ford ride in the shade of a golf cart before the New York Yankees 67th annual Old Timers Day baseball game Sunday, June 23, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) ORG XMIT: MIN2013071219200186

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