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Good Things Happen To Those Who Wait: Ted Simmons Makes The Hall of Fame + David Lamb's "Stolen Season" Sheds Light on Importance of Minor League Baseball

I never get deeply involved in arguments about the Hall of Fame because the voting always comes down to a popularity contest.  Ted Simmons even admitted as much when he spoke publicly on Monday Dec 9 after his somewhat surprising election to baseball's Cooperstown shrine.

 
"I knew everybody on the [14-man veterans] committee and they knew me so I thought

I had a chance," he said on MLB TV.  It is actually more surprising that Simmons got less than 5% when he was first eligible on the regular ballot in the 1990s.  Because his vote total was so low, he was removed from the ballot until some veterans committees gave him extra chances.

 
Certainly Simmons's numbers are impressive:  21 seasons, 13 with Cardinals, 5 with Brewers (where he made his only World Series appearance in 1982), and 3 with Braves.

Lifetime stats:  248 HR, 483 doubles (indicating that he had significant power in the gaps), 1,389 RBI.

 

And for someone at times maligned for his defense, he threw out 34% of runners attempting to steal. On ESPN.com's list of best catchers in MLB history, he is tied for 10th place with Hall of Famer Gary Carter.  And everyone above them is enshrined in Cooperstown except for still-active Buster Posey of the Giants.

 
Ted Simmons will be one of the most original and intelligent members of the Hall of Fame. I had some memorable encounters with him in the 1980s.   


He liked my first book, co-authored with former major leaguer Tony Lupien,  "The Imperfect Diamond: The Story of Baseball's Reserve System and The Men Who Fought To Change It."  I was flattered when I learned that Simmons had told his Brewers teammate Paul Molitor to read it.

 
Simmons is part of my book because in 1972 he almost became Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally three years before impartial arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled they were free agents because they had not signed their contracts in 1975 and thus the reserve or renewal clause was no longer valid.   

 
Simmons did sign a rare two-year contract in the middle of the 1972 season, becoming probably the first player in MLB history to start a season without signing a contract. 

The dispute was about money, not a principle, Simmons refreshingly told future Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Broeg in an incisive June 1973 "Baseball Digest" article.


The piece was called "Losing Drives Me Crazy" and Ted declared, "Everyone strives to win, but it's 10,000 times easier to lose."  He also cited the wisdom of one of the great Cardinal minor league instructors George Kissell: "When things go wrong, check your own closet first."

 
Congrats again to Ted Simmons, the onetime University of Michigan speech major who never played for the Wolverines because he started his MLB career as a teenager. Not surprisingly, Simmons said that he is honored to go into Cooperstown with players union leader Marvin Miller who he served vigorously and effectively as a player rep.

 
A CLOSING NOTE ON THE MLB-MILB IMPASSE

As of this post goes up at the winter solstice of Dec. 21, the dispute continues between MLB and the officials of Minor League Baseball.  The majors are proposing the elimination of 42 minor league teams including some entire rookie leagues.

 

If the snafu is not straightened out, there will likely be law suits from some of the municipalities who have invested millions in improved facilities. As J. J. Cooper suggested in the Dec. 14 "Baseball America" post on line, MLB's master plan may well be that by the 2021 season, a whole new landscape will be in place with MLB controlling the teams in almost every lower league. 

 
Compromise has never been MLB's strong suit, but as someone who loves baseball on the lower levels, I sure hope some reconcilation happens early in the new year. For a body that endlessly intones the phrase "growing the game," cutting forty-plus teams seems very odd.

 

Coincidentally, I recently re-read a wonderful 1991 book, David Lamb, "STOLEN SEASON: A Journey Through America and Baseball's Minor Leagues." It is a lovely paean to the importance of a special American institution.  The book may be technically out of print, but I think an internet search can find a copy or I sure hope public libraries have it.


The late David Lamb was a foreign correspondent for the "LA Times" who needed a break from covering the wars in the Middle East.  The opening sentence of the book drew me in immediately:  "This baseball journey was born in the rubble of Beirut while some maniacs were blowing away my hotel with tanks, chunk by chunk."

 
So at the age of 49 Lamb decided to re-connect with his baseball-loving youth when he was such an ardent Boston and Milwaukee Braves fan that he wrote for their fan publications.  The Wisconsin team liked his work so much that he was invited to spend a week covering the team as a fully-credentialed teenager. 

 
Lamb's wife endorsed his mid-life crisis trip as long as he didn't come home chewing tobacco.  Hilarious and prescient insights like this one fill the book. He captures the joy of seeing baseball in small towns and meeting the local characters that make the game so unique.

 
Names of future major leaguers dot the pages of the book such as infielder Ron Washington who wound up managing the Texas Rangers to a World Series and told Lamb that every AB is an opportunity. We discover that the double play combination in Stockton California was Charlie Montoyo (now Blue Jays manager) and Pat Listach, who made The Show with the Brewers.

 
Lamb's visits to the Milwaukee heroes of his youth are revealing - among them: frank Eddie Mathews, thoughtful Warren Spahn, analytical Del Crandall, utility man Chuck Tanner who found far greater success as a MLB manager, and Bob "Hurricane" Hazle, the unheralded minor leaguer who rallied the Braves to their 1957 pennant but only received a 2/3 World Series-winners' share.  Now just "a backwoods whiskey salesman," he's more philosophical than embittered about life. 

 

I wish the prestigious Random House publisher had included an index and that Bill Bruton's and minor league flame-thrower Steve Dalkowski's name had been spelled correctly. But STOLEN SEASON is a most worthy read.  

 
Keep the faith, dear readers, in both baseball and the USA though both are certainly going through difficult times these days.  And always remember:  Take it easy but take it.

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77th Birthday Thoughts As Mets Limp Home to Celebrate Golden Anniversary of 1969 Triumph

The disappointing Mets will stumble back to CitiField this weekend to face the surging first-place Braves. I, for one, didn't expect much of this year's Mets because of holes in the lineup, mediocre defense, and a bullpen that matches my Orioles for ineptitude (and that means trouble right here in East River City).    

 
Forgive me a little reference to "The Music Man" because I've just completed my trombone year of 76 and start walking 77 Sunset Strip as I type this blog.  (If any dear readers want to lend Kookie Kookie a comb, please do -and while you're at it, send along a tape of Efrem Zimbalist's Sr. great violin playing.)   

 
A golden anniversary year like the Mets are celebrating brings back many memories. Kudos to the Met organization for selling some tickets to the ESPN Sunday night game at 1969 prices.

 
I was still living in Baltimore on June 27, 1969 after one year of teaching at Goucher College, just north of Baltimore. For my first Baltimore birthday I treated myself to the Birds playing the defending World Series Tigers.  

 
It was a steamy Friday on Bethlehem Steel night.  The factories were still brimming in Charm City and the steelworkers brought along a contraption placed behind the outfield fence that blasted smoke into the stifling humid air every time the Orioles did something good.   

 
Funny how memory can be deceptive. I was sure that the Birds annihilated former Cy Young award-winner Denny McLain in a rout. And that damned boiler gizmo added more hot air into the already stifling atmosphere.  

 

Thanks to a glance at retrosheet.org - SABR's indispensable guide to virtually every box score ever -, the Orioles did take an early lead and beat Detroit 4-1 behind Dave McNally's complete-game 5-hitter. But it was hardly a rout.

 
McLain did pitch the next night in a loss and didn't get out of the 6th inning but that too wasn't exactly an annihilation.  The Tigers wound up winning 90 games in 1969 but still finished far behind the Orioles, winners of 109 games.


The Birds were fated to meet the Mets in the World Series and lose in five games after beating Tom Seaver in Game One in Baltimore.  I attended Game Two in the right field upper deck nosebleeds and I have to admit like most New Yorkers (except for those sullen Yankee fans living through a rare dark decade of non-contention), I was rooting for a Mets victory.   


I reasoned it would be a good thing for the city of New York and the country itself.  It was the height of anti-Vietnam war opposition amidst Richard Nixon's succession to the Presidency earlier in 1969. 

 
If you want to relive that time, I highly recommend Wayne Coffey's new book from Crown Archetype:  "They Said It Couldn't Be Done: The '69 Mets, New York City, And The Most Astounding Season In Baseball History."  

 

It recreates very well the magical year where the Mets scored only 15 runs more than their hapless maiden version of 1962 but wound up winning it all. Ace Tom Seaver was so exuberant that he even took out an ad saying that if Mets could win World Series, America could end Vietnam war.

 
Coffey is a veteran columnist and reporter for the New York "Daily News".  Among his prior books are "The Boys of Winter" (about the USA hockey team that upset the Russians at the 1980 Winter Olympics) and "Wherever I Wind Up," his collaboration with former Mets Cy Young award-winner R. A. Dickey on his memoir.  

 
I felt drawn into this book from the opening epigraphs, quotes from Booker T. Washington and St. Francis Assisi.  Some of the baseball material will not be new to ardent Mets fans. But Coffey has done new interviews with pitcher Jerry Koosman - Tom Seaver's too-often neglected second banana -, Ed Kranepool, and probably the last interview with the Mets' platoon-third baseman and poet in residence Ed Charles.

 

Too many other of the Mets' 1969 heroes are gone now, starting with manager Gil Hodges who left us so shockingly of a heart attack on the dawn of the strike-delayed 1972 season.  Tom Seaver's ongoing battle with dementia caused by lyme disease will keep him away from this weekend's festivities.

 

Of the quartet of key AfricanAmerican Mets core players, only Cleon Jones remains. He remains actively involved in restoring his Mobile, Alabama neighborhood of Africatown, the last port where slave ships arrived. His friend and neighbor Tommy Agee is gone as in the mid-1969 acquisition, slugging first baseman Donn Clendenon.

 

Happily, they all come back to life on Coffey's pages.  We learn such new details (new at least to me) that Clendenon turned down a bigtime college football scholarship to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. A person serving as his unofficial big brother made the recommendation, . . . the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  

 

"They Said" is also enhanced by the still-vivid memories of Mets broadcasters Gary Cohen and Howie Rose both of whom like Coffey were teenagers in that special year of 1969.

 

My only criticism of Coffey's book is that there is no index.  A work of this quality needed one.

 

Well, that's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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