instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

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! 

 

Be the first to comment

l"Hustle Beats Talent When Talent Doesn't Hustle": Highlights from My Phoenix Trip + Reflections on Ailing Tom Seaver

A week ago in Phoenix waiting for a return flight to NYC, I noticed a great saying on the back of a fellow's jacket: "Hustle Beats Talent When Talent Doesn't Hustle."

 
I told the man I liked the sentiment.  Best I had seen since a Tampa Bay Rays athletic trainer working for their Hudson Valley Renegades farm team wore a T-shirt that said:  "Champions Are Made When Nobody Is Watching."

 
Turned out my new friend was from Green Bay, Wisconsin, now living in Phoenix area. We shared our mutual love of the UW Badgers. The cagers were blowing out Ohio State on the TV as we chatted eating some of the good food at Matt's Big Breakfast diner in Terminal B at Sky Harbor Airport.

 
The game turned out to be an overtime nail biter that Wisconsin won. Fortunately I missed the agony because was on the flight east. Badgers will limp into the NCAA tourney on Friday against a hot Oregon Ducks team eager for revenge on Wisconsin that knocked them out twice in recent years.

 
Back to my new friend with the nice jacket quote.  He has a son playing on an U-12 baseball team called the Scottsdale Dirt Dogs. They play travel ball more than grade school ball, but the dad assures me they have pitch limits enforced on pitchers. 

 

Sure hope they keep sticking with that policy because all those Tommy John operations have roots in overuse by young kids who should know better. But of course they don't because they are young and fired up to compete. It's up to parents and coaches to set the right guidelines of caution while their kids' bodies are still developing.

 
I was in Arizona for the 26th annual conference sponsored by "NINE: A Magazine of Baseball History and Culture".  Retired White Sox organist Nancy Faust got things off to a rollicking start opening night with tales of her career at the late lamented Comiskey Park.  She entertained us by bringing an organ keyboard to illustrate her stories.

 
Among the stimulating presentations were the NINE debut of Jim Gates, librarian and all-around vital honcho at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He delivered a fascinating paper on the origin of baseball cards.

 
Until the 1950s, we learned that baseball cards were only 10% of the market. They took off early in the 20th century to sell tobacco. They featured many kinds of subjects - food, inventors, gems, and especially actresses and goddesses, known quietly in the more discreet early 20th century as "girly" cards.

 
In my paper, I talked about the too-infrequent times of cooperation between college baseball and MLB.  Before I started my research, I knew how important Ohio Wesleyan U. was to the life and career of Branch Rickey, but didn't realize how big a role the Illinois Wesleyan Titans played in the college game.

 
In one dramatic instance, Bobby Winkles, the great coach that made Phoenix's Arizona State Sun Devils a late 1960s powerhouse, came to play for IWU when the Yankees relinquished their rights to him.

 
The Titans had just lost catcher Cal Neeman to the New Yorkers after his sophomore year. The amateur free agent draft was still 15 years away and IWU officials, led by the amazing man-of-many-sporting-hats Fred Young, insisted that Winkles was not ready for the pros. And that the Yankees had taken away one too many player.

 
I concluded my introduction to this meaty subject by telling the story of how veteran Red  Sox scout Bill Enos helped to administer MLB's cooperation with the Cape Cod Baseball League in the early 1980s.  Before his retirement, he had the rare privilege of naming Ray Fagnant as one of his successors.    

 

Closing night NINE speakers were Jane Leavy, author of the new biography of Babe Ruth "The Big Fella" (who accepted SABR's Seymour medal), and prolific author Curt Smith who has written many books on baseball broadcasting.

 
Turns out that Denny Matthews, who played second base for Illinois Wesleyan in the 1960s, is one of Smith's favorite broadcasters.  I like him too but because he covers the KC Royals, coastal Americans don't get to hear often enough the pipes of a man comparable to Vin Scully.

 
Before I close this post, I was saddened by the news of Tom Seaver's dementia and the announcement that he will no longer make public appearances. He contracted Lyme's disease while still living in Connecticut and picked up a second case, probably in his vineyard in the northern California wine country. 

 

Seaver will be absent in June when the Mets celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mets' 1969 World Series triumph.  I worked with Tom on THE ART OF PITCHING (that came out in 1984 and in paperback in 1994).

 

When I started taping his incisive thoughts on his craft, he urged me to visit him before the exhibition games started in St. Petersburg. Once, after a day's taping, he drove me past a building in Clearwater that he thought might be the biggest or widest in the world -  maybe two blocks long and two blocks wide.

 
He was very entranced and knowledgeable about architecture and art. He scoffed at teammates who made fun of his going to museums when on the road. Marty Noble, in a moving reminiscence posted early Sunday March 17 on the website "Murray Chass on Baseball," caught very well Seaver's scoffing as well as very thoughtful side.

 
I think he had a lot to live up to as the youngest in his accomplished family. He had an artist brother and a father Charles who was a great amateur golfer who beat his Stanford teammate the renowned Lawson Little in 1932 for the school title. Later that year Charles led the US to victory in the Walker Cup. (The Seavers were related to the Walkers and also President #41 George Herbert Walker Bush.)


I met Charles Seaver on the day that Tom won his 300th game, pitching for the White Sox at Yankee Stadium in late August 1983. It was Phil Rizzuto Day, when an actual "holy cow" was given the Scooter and it knocked Phil over.

 
After the game, Charles told me that competition in baseball was similar to that in golf. You want the opponent to do well but yourself to do better, he said. Tom certainly epitomized that ideal on the field.  I hope he continues to stay with us on this earth, however impaired, for as long as he can.

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

3 Comments
Post a comment