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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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First 2019 YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) Blog

“I can imagine a world without baseball, but can’t imagine wanting to live in one.”
The late great sportswriter Leonard Koppett expressed that spot-on feeling in 2002 a year before he died. (Quoted by his son David in the posthumous edition of “Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball," p478.)

In less than a month the greatest words in the English language will ring true again: “The pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training.” Yet I must admit as an Orioles fan I am not too excited. It’s unlikely that a team that lost 115 games in 2018 and has no recognizable strength at any position will improve significantly.

Yes, there is new management that is drenched in the analytic “advanced metric” side of the game. And I have never dismissed out of hand new information about our wonderfully confounding and complicated yet sweet and simple game of baseball.

But I also adamantly believe that you must never lose sight of character issues and aspects of the game that cannot be quantified. So I'll wait and see what happens with the new breed of "decision science" brainiacs led by new gm Mike Elias, a former Yale pitcher, and his right-hand man Sig Megdal (pronounced May-dell), a former NASA specialist who worked on, among other things, models to enhance astronaut sleeping habits.

As I write in mid-January, there are still no new teams for the marquee free agents in this year’s class, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, both only 26. Many in the establishment sports media are wailing about the broken free agency system.

In fact, I think the issue rests more in a player agent rivalry as much as in a broken system. Dan Lozano represents Machado, the same agent that conned Angels owner Arte Moreno into a 10-year deal with now-fading Albert Pujols.

Harper, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated 10 years ago as a 16-year-old and his ego has soared since, is in the stable of Scott Boras. Boras' professed hero is Marvin Miller, the Players Association leader who was always confident some owner would break down and give what the player(s) wanted.

In 2019, however, it is light years from the heyday of Miller and his unheralded chief counsel Dick Moss who shepherded players through legal thickets to free agency.
Players now are far richer and perhaps sated, and managements are getting smarter.

After seeing Machado and Harper play for six years with their former teams (the Orioles and Dodgers for Manny, the Nationals for Bryce), it is clear that while both are great numbers producers, they are not the kind of leaders that make everyone on the team better.

If owners and managements are getting more careful about committing multi-million dollars in long term contracts, I am not complaining. As always, though, it is hard to side with the fat cat owners against players whose skills are extremely perishable.

So with well over a hundred serviceable veterans still unsigned, I hope it isn’t like last year when the Players Association had to hastily put together a spring training base in Florida for those still without contracts.

Turning to another big off-field subject, the Hall of Fame will announce next week the results of the regular voting for the Cooperstown class of 2019. Mariano Rivera will be virtually a unanimous choice.

Three other candidates have strong cases. Former stellar Oriole and Yankee RHP Mike Mussina compiled a 270-153 record with a 3.68 ERA. His walk-strikeout ratio was a superb mere 785 BBs and 2813 K's. His WHIP (combining walks and hits per inning) was an outstanding 1.192.

Even better stats were accumulated by the late outstanding RHP Roy Halladay who lost his life in his private plane accident in 2017. With the Blue Jays and Phillies, Halladay went 203-105, 3.38 ERA, WHIP 1.178, and an impressive BB/K ratio of 592/2117.

The case for the outstanding Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez is also strong but perhaps not as strong because his injuries confined him to a DH role for most of his career. He hit .312 for a career, very impressive in the age of multiple relievers. Slugging average of .309 with 2247 hits, 309 HRs and 2161. Also over his career he drew more walks 1283 than strikeouts 1202.

His stats to me are more favorable than Harold Baines were and Baines was elected
to the shrine last month in a vote by a special Veterans Committee. The former White Sox-Ranger-Oriole hit .289, slugged .465 with 384 HRs and 1628 in a 20-year career, much of it like Edgar M. limited to the DH role because of injury. He also had a negative BB/SO ratio of 1062/1441.

When eligible in the regular vote of the writers, Baines didn't receive even ten per cent of any vote. With his former White Sox manager Tony LaRussa on the veterans committee, it is hard not to see favoritism in his selection. (Longtime closer Lee Smith was also voted in last month, a less controversial choice but not one that I would have chosen.)

Baines' election brought back memories of decades ago when the affable genuine Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch openly and successfully lobbied for several of his former Giant and Cardinal teammates to get selected to Cooperstown.

A Hall of Fame should be for the truly great not the merely good or very good. But since selections almost always are turned into a popularity contest, there is not much that I can do about that.

Before I close, I am distressed to report that my alma mater college basketball teams, Columbia and Wisconsin, have hit hard times. The Badgers looked very good in the pre-Big Ten season, but they have lost their winning touch in league play.
Likely All-American fifth-year senior Ethan Happ can only do so much, especially since he has great trouble at the foul line and never shoots outside the paint.

Columbia lost its best player, gifted if erratic point guard Mike Smith, to a season-ending injury. Unlike the resurgent football team under coach Al Bagnoli that produced a winning season despite multiple injuries, basketball has not yet learned how to win.

Yet the cage season is not even half-over so I try to believe in change for the better, and, of course, I always root, root, root for my team.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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