THE HOT STOVE LEAGUE

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The Old Polo Grounds, my brother-in-laws favorite ballpark

WPCNR THE SUNDAY BAILEY.  News & Comment By John F. Bailey. January 30, 2021:

The best league of all is not any of the professional leagues.

It is the Hot Stove League,  the league where every team and your team wins.

Because you talk about the coming season.

The Lords and Gods of Major League Baseball now are in lock out, arguing over money and tinkering with the rules of the greatest game, so the Old Hot Stove League has a limited schedule this year

The Hot Stove League refers to the decades when baseball was the National Pastime. It no longer is, you rarely see pickup games around town anymore. Now they play  football and basketball, and if they play baseball they are in organized rec leagues, or little league which still places emphasis on playing the best players.

( Full Disclosure: I was 0 for 3 in Little League and struck out three times, and never caught a flyball in rightfield where I was played in the 1957 season. Why? Because the coaches never spent time to teach me how to catch a fly ball. Instruction is sadly lacking, still.)

  But then neither is any professional sport really a national pastime.

They are television entertainment, and as we learn more and more they do not have the health and well-being of players or fans as one of their first concerns.

 In America more people still see baseball games than any other sport. It is still the sport you do not have to be big or tall to play. You have to develop instincts and situational awareness. And if your’re a girl, you can play fast pitch softball a really lightning like game.

When I was a kid we listened to the World Series on the radio in the afternoons during school. Sympathetic teachers occasionally announced the score. It was what you talked about if you were a boy.

We’d race home in Pleasntville (we walked to school then) to catch the last few innings on tv if we had one. Games started at.1 PM or sometimes 12 noon.

Now there are so many playoff games leading in to the World Series that the series is played at night in cold weather and the games end late in the evening when we kids in our 70s have to go to bed.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, baseball’s World Series concluded the first week of October (in glorious autumn  had low sun and fantastic endings.

Brooklyn’s sinker baller, Johnny Podres, 7th Game October 4, 1955, shutting out the Yankees.
The day Brooklyn will never forget.

Podres shutting out the Yankees in Game 7 in 1955; the Don Larsen no-hitter, saved by Mickey Mantle’s one-hand backhand robbery of a Gil Hodges drive in the left center gap, saving the no-hitter.

Mantle Fifth Game 1956, coming from right centerfield in full stride
catching up and backhanding Gil Hodges line drive
o preserve Don Larsen’s perfect game.

Lew Burdette winning three games in 1957; the White Sox playing the Dodgers in 1959; Willie Mays” Over-the-Shoulder robbery of Vic Wertz in 1954; If you saw those moments, or “saw them on the radio,” as Terry Cashman sang, you remembered them always.

Willie” robs Vic Wertz in the 8th– 450 feet from home plate to save Game One–1954

When it is 10 degrees like it is right now on the 30th of January, old-timers would gather around a hot stove in small town general stores across the great continent and talk baseball about the coming season.

Arguments would ensue on who was the best Mantle or Mays or The Duke (at least in NY). In Chicago the lament was the long-suffering Cubs who never had winning season. Until 1969 when the Mets overtook them.

The ‘Hot Stove League” is in lock-down too.

You aren’t having those discussions this year because nobody is making moves because of the lockout.

Baseball today, like baseball has always been does not care about the fans. The old owners would build teams and sell off their good players as Connie Mack did when he built three championship teams  1911 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1930s Philadelphia Athletics and the Philadelphia Athletics of the late 40s, poised to win, they even had a batting champion, Ferris Fain, but Mr. Mack  disbanded that team.

Calvin Grifith did that too with the Washington Senators of the mid-20s, and early 30s, they never contended after the mid-1930s.

Then we have the modern examples the owner of the Montreal Expos, who moved them to Miami. Nowadays in free agency days you never have a great player play a long time for team, or hardly ever. Fans hated it when the Mets traded away Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. 

The Red Sox traded away Babe Ruth for cash and did not win again until 1946.

Are you getting the idea? This is what fans talked about in the cold dead of winter, the shoveling of snow.

At this time of year we could hardly wait for spring training which should start in three weeks. I loved listening to exhibition games on the radio hearing the Yankee play-by-plqy from St. Petersburg and eagerly hearing about Gordon Windhorn who was just tearing the Grapefruit League in Florida apart in 1959. He hit something like 400 in spring training. He made the team and went 0 for 11 in his first two weeks of games and the Yankees traded him. But Gordon gave young fans hope. He had, though a Topps baseball card.

The Hot Stove League warmed us until the ritual of the baseball season would return.

I was reminded of this when the best brother-in-law in America called me last week  while I was trying to put together this week’s White Plains Week.

He is a Giants fan, and he called to tell me about a website devoted to the Polo Grounds, the old home of the New York Giants before they moved to San Francisco, he called to share with me the views of the ghost ballpark, and how the pictures stirred his memory.

In the lee of Coogan’s Bluff. The Polo Grounds
“Willie’s” Rookie Topps Card 1951

He recalled Willie Mays the Giants centerfielder, whom he mused could have become the all time home run leader had he not only played 34 games in 1952 and all of 1953 in  military service. Larry surmised that Willie could have hit 40 to 50 homers in those years of service, giving him 760 possible homers for his career, best Henry Aaron and possibly Barry Bonds, the current homerun all-time leader (762), despite his use of steroids.

I remembered that Mickey Mantle, the Yankee young star did not lose any years to military service.  Larry was surprised by that.

Mickey Mantle’s Rookie Card, 1951.

According to Major League Baseball and I quote, “ While playing high school football, Mantle was kicked in the left ankle. An infection developed which resulted in chronic osteomyelitis. Mantle was classified 4-F the first time he was examined, but his draft board decided to re-examine him and disqualifed him twice more. We mused that Mays may have very well hit over two hundred homers naturally. Based on his record.

This led  Larry to remember the winningest left-hander of all-time—Spahnie, Warren Spahn who won 363 games.

Spahnie–Baseball’s Winningest Southpaw

I said yeah, I saw him pitch in 1958 in the World Series shutting out the Yankees, 3-0, and then again in 1965, losing 2-1 in a game I think against the Giants in Shea Stadium. Even in his 40s, he went  8 innings. And he pitched every 4th day. He was crafty, had a sweeping curve ball that sunk and was unafraid to use it. Spahn served in the Navy in World War II losing 4 seasons  serving his country in the Pacific.

 He returned to the Boston Braves in 1946 and in his first six years back from the Navy he won 21, 15,21,21,22 and 23 games with the old Braves.

If he had been pitching in his service years he possible could have won at least 15 or 20 a year in those 4 years giving him 423 wins lifetime.  We talked about his pitching motion, the high leg kick, and his pitching deep into games. (He went 10 innings against the Yankees in the sixth game of the 1958 World Series.)

In the cold 36 degree day Larry was experiencing that day last week in the south, and I was experiencing at 17 degrees in White Plains, the Hot Stove League of our own was keeping us warm, feeling the sunshine on our faces of early spring.

Larry remembered the first game he ever saw, in Yankee Stadium no less.

“I remember the thing most was how green the grass was as we walked into the lower box seats.’ I agreed with a huge smile over the miles of phone line, “Absolutely it hit me with its emerald majesty, the blasts of color from the billboards in the farflung bleacher adds “FYING A,’ “BALLENTINE BEER & ALE” ”.  Images of the Big ball Park were real again in our recall of our shared experience in a ballpark.

We warmed to the task. Talk turned to the Giants-Dodgers Playoff of 1951, and he wondered who had pitched for the Dodgers. I said I could not understand why Charlie Dressen the Dodger manager at the time called in Ralph Branca to face Bobby Thompson, who had homered off Branca earlier in the series.

Then I remembered Willie Mays was on deck. However I had to leave the phone to see what pitcher had Branca relieved. I was shocked to discover it was “Big Newk,” who had entered the 9th inning after going 8 innings, handcuffing the Giants.

Dressen figured Newcombe was done after he coughed up three hits and Dressen took him out.

But Branca was not a regular reliever.  He won 1, lost 2, and saved 3 in relief in 1951. He came in fired two fastballs to Thompson and the second fastball landed in the left field stands winning the pennant. If Thompson knew the second fastball was coming he still had to hit it.

Just talking with Larry about that game brought me back from my January  bad news-17 degrees- covid funk.

This faded into conversation about pitching and baseball memories came rushing back.

Larry recalled when Juan Marichal , then 24 years old the great Giant righthander was locked in a late inning pitching duel with Warren Spahn. Alvin Dark, the Giant Manager, Larry remembered asked Marichal whether he wanted to come out. Marichal, “I ain’t coming out. As long as that old man is pitching. I’m pitching.’

Usually in the Hot Stove League, we’d be talking about the coming season, and in the Hot Stove League every team had made changes which would have them be contenders. Just anticipating the lazy atmosphere of spring training made you impatient if you were a fan in the ‘50s.

I loved that old ball park, the Polo Grounds. It had soul. I loved the old Yankee Stadium with its grand stand to the sky with original façade with a rake in the upper deck stands that hung over the box seats giving you God’s view of the game.

 In my last moments of life I will be thinking baseball, my daughter and my wife, my parents, the day in 1961 when my father took me to a Yankee-Tiger night game in sweltering 95 degree heat. (My Dad hated the heat, especially humid heat). 

The game goes 9 innings, 3 hours, with the Tigers putting ducks on the pond every inning. Casey changing pitchers every inning. Then the Yankees string 3 singles together in the bottom of the ninth with 2 out to win it. My father never even mentioned leaving the game early.

There was the first game he took me to in Yankee Stadium in 1956 when I was 11. It was Indians and the Yankees in a Wednesday afternoon game. The Yanks won 3-2 when Billy Martin kicked the ball out of the thirdbaseman’s bare hand as the third sacker was trying to tag him out. Martin was a dead duck, but he kicked the ball out of his hand and scored. My father in the only burst of fan interest I ever saw from him, said “Did you see that? He kicked the ball out of his hand.”

I see that play in my replay of memory perfectly to this day.

I miss that Hot Stove League, where there’s never a losing season, you can taste the crisp refresher and stretch in the middle of the 7th, and the great plays, the greats play and cavort on the endless green once more.

So thanks Larry for that call. It was like old times.

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