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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they were free agents because they had not signed their contracts in 1975 and thus the reserve or renewal clause was no longer valid.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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New York City Pays Homage To Willie Mays & More on Dear Departed Baseball Scouts

Friday September 29 was the 63rd anniversary of Willie Mays’ great catch off Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. Along with a timely Dusty Rhodes home run over the Polo Grounds short right field fence, Mays’ defensive gem sparked the New York Giants to a sweep over the favored Cleveland Indians.

To commemorate this anniversary, New York City's Mayor Bill DeBlasio proclaimed Sept 29 Willie Mays Day. In a noontime ceremony, the sign Willie Mays Drive was unveiled at the northeast corner of 155th Street and the Harlem River Driveway.

Down below stood the Polo Grounds where I saw my first baseball game at the age of 6 in the summer of 1948. Now a school and housing project occupy the space.

One of the prime movers in this celebration was City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez who represents the 10th city council district that includes the Polo Grounds on Harlem’s Sugar Hill. Normally the City of New York does not permit streets to be named for living people but Rodriguez lobbied successfully to make an exception in the case of Mays.

Councilman Rodriguez is a native of the Dominican Republic who came to NYC as a eighteen-year old. He thrust himself into community affairs as a student at City College and has been a longtime advocate for making his constituents aware of the rich athletic history of his neighborhood.

Another honored invitee was fellow Dominican Rico Pena, the coach of the Luperon High School baseball team that in its brief history has already become a contender for the city championship. Pena brought several of his players to the ceremony.

Mays is now 86 — Willie Mays is 86 years old! - and makes his primary home just south of San Francisco (though he has long kept an apartment in the western Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale). He didn’t make the trip for this honor but his adopted son Michael Mays was on hand. So was Mario Alioto, the executive VP of Business Operations for the SF Giants.

“I don’t make history, I just catch fly balls,” Mays once said. He was being modest because he was the epitome of the five-tool player who could run, throw, field, hit for average, and hit with power. In one of his pithiest phrases, Branch Rickey once said of Mays, “The secret to his success is the frivolity in his bloodstream.”

At a reception after the ceremony at the Rio III gallery on the SE corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street, a portrait was unveiled of Mays playing stickball
with neighborhood Harlem kids.

The lower floors of this handsome new building on 898 St. Nicholas Ave. house The Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Arts and Storytelling. This new facility was designed by famed architect David Adjaye who created the acclaimed African-American cultural museum in DC and just was selected to build the new Studio Museum in Harlem.

The Sugar Hill Children's Museum should be a must-visit for parents who want to educate their children about the rich cultural history of their neighborhood and urban and rural life in general.

Before I conclude this first October blog, I want to say a few more words about the achievements of three great baseball people who passed on in recent weeks.

Gene Michael, 79, may have been the classic "good field, no hit" player. But he learned from his failures to become a top-notch player evaluator who somehow survived the George Steinbrenner firing machine to be a key part of the Yankees resurgence in the 1990s.

Gene Bennett, 91, spent his whole career with the Cincinnati Reds. Growing up in Branch Rickey country of Scioto County in southern Ohio, Bennett was advised by Rickey to take a job as scout instead of minor league manager.

"You can get fired if one season you are given a bad team," Rickey sagely advised. A good scout, though, can perform a service to the team if he finds prospects year after year. "TALENT SETS THE STAGE, CHARACTER SETS THE CEILING," was one of Bennett's most memorable adages.

Last but not least, Mel Didier, 91, left a remarkable legacy in baseball. He was the only man to work on the ground floor of three expansion franchises - the Montreal Expos, the Seattle Mariners, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Didier signed future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for Montreal. He tried valiantly to sign Kirk Gibson for Seattle but team owners weren't supportive and Gibson insisted on finishing his athletic career at Michigan State.

Ten years later when working for the LA Dodgers, Didier was instrumental in getting Gibson to sign with LA as a free agent. It was his scouting report on Dennis Eckersley's penchant for throwing sliders on 3-2 counts that Gibson remembered when he hit his walkoff homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series that propelled LA's sweep of the Oakland A's.

Didier wrote often on baseball and its techniques. His memoir with sportswriter T.R. Sullivan, PODNUH LET ME TELL YOU A STORY is one of the best of its kind.

That's all for now. Next time we'll have a better sense of how October baseball is shaping up. I still sentimentally like Cleveland to win the World Series, perhaps over Washington (but another injury to hurler Max Scherzer puts that outcome in doubt.)

In the meantime always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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