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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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The Nearing of Spring Training Will Mean A Lot In A Time of Loss

The new year has not started well for me personally.  On the first Sunday in January, my ex-wife died after a courageous two-year bout with cancer. Willie Nelson's lyric about not getting "over" deep losses but getting "through" them is so true.

 

It's also true that grief comes in waves. Tears flowed again yesterday morning when reading Robert Semple's tribute on the Sunday NY Times editorial page to his former colleague the great columnist Russell Baker who died on January 21 at the age of 93. 

 

Baker loved to drive Buicks, a sensible middle-class car, Semple recounted. When he 

asked Baker's neighbor if he still drove a Buick, he was told yes - it was still in front of his house waiting for his return. Boy, was that ever a poignant description for the loss survivors feel. 

 

Baker's legacy is huge.  His memoir "Growing Up," about his transition from rural Virginia to Baltimore, is a classic. His occasional commentary on sports was always humorous and trenchant. 

 

One particular column I remember was his deft put-down of George Steinbrenner when the volatile Yankee owner apologized to the city of New York after the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers.  Baker noted that he had lived in NYC for many years and no one had ever apologized to him for anything. 

 

I learned of another passing this weekend when Peter Magowan died at the age of 76, my age (gulp!)  The former owner of the SF Giants saved the team from transfer to another city in the early 1990s and supervised the building of the sparkling new ballpark on SF Bay.

 

I remember Magowan speaking some years ago at the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Greenwich Village. (The clubhouse, alas, closed last year.) Magowan was born in New York City and like yours truly was a New York Giants fan.

 

He posed a great trivia question:  Can you name the six future MLB managers who were in uniform as players for the momentous Bobby Thomson game on October 3, 1951? (The day incidentally lthat future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was born.) 

 

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, I have no objection to any of the four newest members who will be inducted into the shrine at Cooperstown on Sunday afternoon July 21.  The late Roy Halladay got in on his first try as did Mariano Rivera who is the first unanimous entrant.  (Derek Jeter, the only likely slam-dunk electee in the upcoming 2020 class, should be the second.) 

 

Mike Mussina's 270 wins with only 153 losses and a great walk-strikeout ratio of 785:2813 earned him my hypothetical vote.  Like Catfish Hunter and Greg Maddux, Mussina will go in with a blank cap on his plaque.

 

He didn't want to choose between his first team the Orioles, where he toiled his first 10 years, or the Yankees where he spent his final 8 years, winning 20 games for the first and only time in his last season. 

 

Halladay will wear a Blue Jays cap though he threw a perfect game and a playoff no-hitter for his last team the Phillies.  His stats of 203-105 W-L, 3.38 ERA, and 592:2117 BB-K ratio jump off the page. 

 

His willingness to demote himself to the lowest minor leagues early in his MLB career to retool his mechanics is a testimony to his desire to excel. So sad and even maddening that his desire to compete led him to fly his private plane to an early death at the age of 40, leaving a wife and two small children behind. 

 

No need to explain why closer extraordinaire and no-nonsense compeitor Mariano Rivera got elected unanimously. 

 

Edgar Martinez, the one hitter going in on the writers ballot, was a rare career .300 hitter in this age of the what-me-worry? whiff. Lifetime BA .312, slugging AV: 515, 2247 hits, and also extremely rare these days:  a positive BB:K ratio of 1253:1202. 

 

He is the first primarily designated hitter going into the Hall but that shouldn't have been used against him.  He was a feared hitter whenever he played, and like Halladay he demonstrated an exceptional devotion to his craft. 

 

He used to do eye exercises for at least a half hour before every game.  Hand/eye coordination is not just a God-given gift, it must be practiced and honed. 

 

Glad I could end this blog on an up note.  Back to you again on the eve of spring training that opens the earliest on Feb 11 and Feb 12 for the A's and Mariners who will be opening the season in Tokyo the next-to-last week in March. 

 

Before I sign off, let me heartily recommend Robert Caro's mini-memoir in the Sept. 28, 2019 issue of the New Yorker magazine.  It is filled with wisdom about the practice of journalism and writing and the search for truth. 

 

As always, take it easy but take it!  And oh yes on the trivia question here's a hint:  There was one Dodger and five Giants in player uniform on 10/3/1951 that became MLB skippers.

Answer next time.

 

 

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