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Memories of John Paul Stevens, Jurist and Cubs Fan

I never met the late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who died July 16 at the age of 99.  But he was kind enough to respond to a letter I wrote in the late stages of my research for my Branch Rickey biography. 

 

Stevens had been a law clerk for Wiley Rutledge, Jr., the last Supreme Court Justice appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since Rutledge and Branch Rickey had both been members of the Public Question Club, a discussion group of St. Louis leaders in the inter-world war years, I had wondered whether the name of Rickey had ever come up in chats with the Justice.

 
Stevens wrote me that Rutledge had never mentioned Rickey. But Stevens had met the baseball executive in 1951 when Stevens served as the minority Republican counsel to the House Judiciary sub-committee. Chaired by Brooklyn Democratic Congressman Emanuel Celler, the legislators were investigating possible anti-trust violations in the baseball business. 

 
Stevens shared his remembrance of an informal conversation before Rickey's testimony.  "The key to a successful baseball team is to 'keep 'em hungry'," Stevens recalled Rickey saying.  The executive truly believed players "will have the maximum incentive to strive for excellence on the field in order to justify a better paycheck for next season." (Quoted with Justice Stevens' permission in PB edition of my BRANCH RICKEY: BASEBALL'S FEROCIOUS GENTLEMAN, p. vi.) Stevens was not endorsing that position but just remembering Rickey's firm viewpoint. 

 

The plaudits for Stevens are pouring in, deservedly so. He became over time a voice on the high court for old-fashioned liberalism and minority rights.

 
He came from a wealthy Chicago-area family that owned among other properties the downtown Stevens Hotel.  It was at that hotel in late August 1945 where Branch Rickey's trusted scout Clyde Sukeforth slipped the elevator man some cash enabling Jackie Robinson to come up to his room via the front elevator not the service elevator.

 

It was the beginning of the saga that shortly led Robinson to Brooklyn and his historic first meeting with Branch Rickey.  (see my book, pp. 371-372).

 
Stevens was an unabashed Chicago Cubs fan who I'm glad to say lived to see them finally win a World Series in 2016 after a 108-year drought.  In the July 19 Washington Post. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley wrote a lovely reminiscence of Stevens' as both jurist and Cubs fan. 

 

As a young teenager Stevens attended the famous Babe Ruth "called home run" game at Wrigley Field during the 1932 World Series. Stevens strongly dismissed the legend that the Babe called the home run against pitcher Charlie Root.  He was just pointing out to the pitcher, Stevens insisted, there was one more strike in his at-bat. 

 

The 2019 Cubs are in the hunt for the playoffs again this season. But like the entire NL Central division, they have been inconsistent.  They needed a rare 8-1 force out at second base to help them secure a one-run victory over the Padres this past Saturday July 20.

 
On a swirling windy day at Wrigley, erratic second baseman Addison Russell gave up on a pop fly to short center. Shortstop Javier Baez also tried for the ball leaving second base uncovered.  But relief pitcher Brandon Kintzler alertly covered second base to register the putout on a throw from center fielder Albert Almora.

 
Once again, if you are watching the game carefully (and not obsessed over incessant new statistics), you see something new in every baseball game. I don't think I ever saw an 8-1 putout at second base (and 8-1 putouts at first base are pretty rare, too.)    

 
That's all for this installment.  Congrats to the recent inductees into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I didn't watch all the ceremonies but was taken by the warm gratitude expressed by Edgar Martinez and Lee Smith for those who helped them on their way to immortality.  

 

I for one, however,  welcome an end to the 24/7 coverage of Mariano Rivera's unanimous induction.  I salute his honor but I think baseball in the future would be better if closers worked more than one inning. Like Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Bruce Sutter.  A subject for further discussion. 

 
For now, Always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

 

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"Collecting Lottery Tickets" - What Oriole Baseball Has Come To - Plus A Shout-Out to "Toni Stone"

 

I guess the trade this past weekend of the Orioles' most reliable pitcher Andrew Cashner to division rival Red Sox was not surprising. He will be a free agent at the end of the season, and conventional wisdom says that the Orioles couldn't expect much in value for him.

 
Baltimore got two 17-year-old Venezuelans playing in the Dominican summer leagues, outfielder Elio Prado and infielder Noelwarth Romero. Both are undoubtedly years away from making The Show if they ever come close to the majors.   

 

According to Dan Connolly, the diligent Oriole correspondent for "The Athletic" online subscription website, the Orioles are "collecting lottery tickets" as they go through the complete "rebuild" of their largely unproductive organization. 

 
My response to that explanation is:  Who is going to pitch for the rest of this season?

The once-heralded Dylan Bundy went on the injured list after he gave up seven runs in the first inning of his first post-All Star Game start.  His knee was hurting during his warmup, but he didn't tell anybody until after he got shelled. 

 
Rookie southpaw John Means, the Orioles' lone All-Star this season, got rocked by Tampa Bay in his first post-ASG start.  He can't be expected to carry a full load.

 
Couldn't the Orioles have gotten more for Cashner, 32, who is having a career year - 9-3 for a team that has only 28 wins?  I would hate to think that the hasty trade was made because they feared that he - like Bundy - could get injured before the July 31 trade deadline.

 
What pains me about the Cashner trade is that he wanted to stay in Baltimore. He was committed to the rebuild. The Orioles were his fifth major league organization and he was looking for a home, especially now with his wife expecting. 

 

He was a Cubs first round draft pick in 2008, signed out of TCU, the same program that produced former Oriole hurler now with Phllies Jake Arrieta and Cardinals corner infielder Matt Carpenter.  Ultimately Cashner was traded to the Padres in the Anthony Rizzo deal and later spent time with the Marlins and Rangers. 

 
Signed to a two-year contract before the 2018 season, Cashner became a leader of the Orioles, not just the pitchers. I think I'm a pretty good judge watching on TV of who is faking intensity and who isn't.  You could see that the bearded 6' 6" hurler cared about competing and winning. 

 
His passion reminded me a little of Pete Vuckovich, the Brewers right-hander who I vividly remember once competed so hard during a playoff game against the Yankees in the 1981 strike-marred season that he refused to leave the mound despite throwing up, evidently battling some kind of ailment.

 
There was another admirable aspect in Cashner's background.  Understanding his son's passion for baseball, Andrew's father built a diamond in the back yard of the family home in Texas for Andrew to practice on. 

 
Oriole manager Brandon Hyde was effusive in his praise of Cashner, wishing him well in Boston except when he pitched against the Orioles.  I enthusiastically second that sentiment as he makes his debut tonight (Tues July 16) at Fenway against the Blue Jays, another "rebuilding" team.

 
Oriole fans are now fearful that first baseman/right fielder Trey Mancini may be the next to go.  He is currently in the worst slump of his career, but he continues to play hard and welcomes the role of young veteran leader on an unproven team. The converted infielder Mychal Givens will probably be dealt to teams looking for bullpen help.

 
We lived through a wave of trades last year at this time: Manny Machado to the Dodgers (now doing fine with the Padres on his $300 million plus contract); Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers (now a regular contributor on the AL Central first-place Twins); Kevin Gausman and Brad Brach to the Braves (where Gausman has been injured and ineffective and Brach, now with the Cubs, is also struggling).   

 
There are glimmers of hope in improved Oriole minor league play at the Double A Bowie level and the lower minors at Delmarva (Low Class A) and Aberdeen (Short Season). But it will be maddening if the Orioles unload Mancini and Givens and other players and get so little in return as what they received for Cashner. 

 
The new regime can't be thinking that Hawaiian shirt and straw hat fedora giveaways will substitute for a real plan for the future, can they?  Don't want to answer that question!

 
At least, for fans of other teams, there is plenty of excitement and weeks of hope, however illusory, ahead.  By its very nature, baseball always surprises.  

 

For example, nothing was more astonishing than former Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud's three-homer game against the Yankees last night Monday July 15. His third dinger, a 9th inning blast off Aroldis Chapman, led the spunky Tampa Bay Rays to a 5-4 victory. It kept alive the Rays' flickering hopes of catching the Yankees in the AL East divisional race.

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT! 
Before I close this latest post, I want to urge you in the New York City area to see "Toni Stone," playing through Sunday August 11 at the Laura Pels Theatre (115 W 46th Street just west of Fifth Avenue). The comfy Pels is one of the theaters that is part of the Roundabout Theater group.

  

Rarely does a solid piece of historical research, Martha Ackmann's "Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone" (Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review Press, 2010), get transformed into exciting theatre. Thanks to Lydia R. Diamond's adaptation, "Toni Stone" succeeds in viscerally bringing to life the remarkable story of the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues. 

 
There is a bravura performance by longtime Off-Broadway luminary April Matthis in the title role. She is aided by a supporting cast of eight talented male actors playing a variety of roles. Kudos must also be given to the crisp direction of Pam McKinnon and the brilliant choreography by Camille A. Brown.

 
I was enthralled from the opening of the first act when Toni Stone delivers a monologue in praise of the wonder and drama of baseball. (The writing reminded me of Roger Angell's elegiac essay, "On The Ball," from a 1976 New Yorker magazine, anthologized in "Five Seasons"). 

 
As a black tomboy in segregated America, Toni Stone had a hard time gaining acceptance.  "People weren't ready for me," she told Martha Ackmann when belatedly - she died in 1996 - she was rediscovered in the last years of her life, living for decades as a nurse in the SF Bay area.  "I wasn't classified. I was a menace to society."

 
But what an exciting achieving life she led - good enough to replace Hank Aaron as second baseman on the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 when he went into the Braves organization. A versatile woman athlete better than the legendary Babe Didrikson.  Good enough to play semi-pro baseball into her 60s in the Bay area. (Many thanks to Minnesota's great baseball historian Stew Thornley for his help in providing some additional details.)

 
It is a credit to Lydia Diamond's script that she has streamlined a lot of the stories in Toni Stone's life. She establishes a good dramatic flow without overburdening us with facts that could overwhelm the non-sports fan. Blessedly, the script rarely gets preachy.

 
My only quibble is in the misleading treatment of Gabby Street, the former major league catcher and World Series-winning manager, who befriended teenaged Toni when she enrolled in 1935 in his St. Paul, Minnesota baseball school.

 
A baseball traditionalist from the Deep South, best known as a member of the Washington Senators who once caught a baseball thrown from the Washington Monument, Street at first wanted nothing to do with Toni's desire for baseball instruction. 

 
She wouldn't accept no for an answer and ultimately Street realized that Toni's passion and talent were genuine.  For her 15th birthday he even gave her a pair of baseball spikes, a gift she always treasured.  So I felt it was a rare cheap shot for Toni in the play to say that Street was a member of the Klan. 


Despite this one jarring note, I still heartily recommend seeing "Toni Stone" at the Laura Pels Theatre through Aug. 11. The play moves to the Arena Theatre in DC in the fall and early next year in San Francisco.

 
That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

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