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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they were free agents because they had not signed their contracts in 1975 and thus the reserve or renewal clause was no longer valid.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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Still Aglow from My Third Chautauqua Experience

It's a wonderful feeling in life when one's expectations are exceeded.  Such was my experience last week when I taught for the third time a Baseball and American Culture class in the Special Studies department of the Chautauqua Institution.

 

Chautauqua is an adult education and vibrant cultural mecca in the southwestern corner of New York State near the Pennsylvania border. It was founded shortly after the Civil War as a retreat for Methodist Sunday school teachers. (Am amazed that Branch Rickey evidently never came to Chautauqua though he was probably so busy with baseball and his Delta Tau Delta fraternal activities to come there.) 

 
There's nothing like teaching and talking about what you love in front of students who appreciate your interests and genuinely want to learn more.  I've long believed that a teacher always learns as much from students as they learn from him or her.

 

I felt good about talking about the rich if complicated history of baseball - from the late 19th century labor battles between John Montgomery Ward and Albert Spalding to the rise of the great management leaders Ban Johnson and his replacement as lord high commissioner Landis. And the pioneers Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and the later labor wars surrounding Marvin Miller and Bowie Kuhn and Bud Selig.

 

But the happiest moments for me in teaching are always the unique responses of the students.  Here are some examples:

 

**During the opening session everyone introduces themselves. One woman from western Michigan described how she fell in love with Sandy Koufax when he was a bonus baby starting out with the Brooklyn Dodgers. There was something about seeing him struggle on TV that made her a lifelong fan.

 
As an adult she made pilgrimages to LA to follow him live.  She framed a photo of him and his onetime Brooklyn teammate Sal Maglie and placed it on her bedroom wall. Her husband wasn't too impressed - soon he was an ex-husband. (I don't do justice to her timing in telling this story.)

 

**Another priceless moment was a student writing down from my typed notes the words on an Irish towel that one of my first undergraduate students gave me as a present over a half-century ago: 

 

"Baseball (as explained to a foreign visitor).

YOU HAVE TWO SIDES ONE OUT IN THE FIELD AND ONE IN.

 

EACH MAN THAT'S ON THE SIDE THAT'S IN GOES OUT AND WHEN HE' OUT HE COMES IN AND THE NEXT MAN GOES IN UNTIL HE'S OUT.

 

WHEN THREE MEN ARE OUT THE SIDE THAT'S OUT COMES IN AND THE SIDE THAT'S BEEN IN GOES OUT OAND TRIES TO GET THOSE COMING IN OUT.

 

SOMETIMES YOU GOT MEN STILL IN AND NOT OUT.

 

WHEN BOTH SIDES HAVE BEEN IN AND OUT NINE TIMES INCLUDING THE NOT OUTS

THAT'S THE END OF THE GAME (EMPHASIS ADDED)."

 

**Then there was the moving sight at my last class when 15 students stood up to watch on my little laptop with a weak sound system Buster Keaton's baseball pantomime from "The Cameraman," his last great silent film. Buster had hauled his equipment to Yankee Stadium looking for a story but had read the schedule wrong. NO GAME TODAY appears on the screen.

 
So Buster takes the opportunity to walk to the mound and imitate the pitcher and catcher and umpire and other players on the diamond.  It's a classic clip of just a little over three minutes before a policeman chases him away. 

 
I felt it was particularly appropriate to show some baseball comedy in my class because it was Comedy Week at Chautauqua. It was an event co-sponsored by the newly-established National Comedy Center in nearby Jamestown NY - the hometown of Lucille Ball who, by the way, has recently been honored with a more accurate and artful sculpture. 

 
One of the great highlights of Comedy Week was the Smothers Brothers coming out of retirement to commemorate their law suit against CBS for kicking them off the air nearly 50 years ago. "I'm still pissed" were Tommy's first words to the appreciative audience.

 

Both he and younger brother Dick looked in amazingly good shape for people in their early eighties. They contributed a witty opening skit before discussing their careers with moderator NPR's David Bianculli.  A good selection of skits from their heyday were shown. 

 

It was announced that the Smothers archives will be going to the Jamestown center. The organization already has the papers of George Carlin and Richard Pryor and several other comedians. (By the way, I had to share the classic Carlin skit on "Baseball and Football" with my class.)

 
A panel on Ernie Kovacs, the great comic creator of early TV, was very informative and included trenchant commentary by "The King of Rant" Lewis Black and masterful veteran comic writer Alan Zweibel.  Sirius radio host Ron Bennington and Bianculli also contributed very helpfully to the evening at the Jamestown center. 

 

Also very valuable was a discussion of the legacy of Robin Williams that featured Lew Black again and Williams' longtime manager David Steinberg (not the Canadian-born comedian). During the question period Steinberg confirmed that Jonathan Winters had been a big influence on Williams during their "Mork and Mindy" days.  (Yes, I did share with students a few YouTube selections of Winters' crusty baseball characters.) 

 

I planned my Chautauqua gig this year around two musical performances that didn't disappoint. The first was John Corigliano's 1991 opera "The Ghost of Versailles" with a libretto by William Hoffman. 

 

"Ghosts" is a free-wheeling time-traveling exploration of what would have happened if doomed Marie Antoinette had been saved by "The Marriage of Figaro" creator Beaumarchais.  Happily, the fit-looking 80-year-old Corigliano was on hand to take some deserved bows at the end from the cheering throng at Chautauqua's impressive outdoor Amphitheater.   

 
Last but not least, I saw the Chautauqua Symphony's performance of two pieces that promised to and indeed stirred my Russian-American blood, Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony and Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. 

 

Both pieces have melodies that are reminscent of pop songs - a "La Vie En Rose" descending melody in the first movement of the Prokofiev - and a haunting six-note melody in the adagio late in the Rachmaninoff that I am still humming as I conclude this blog. (I think Chet Baker may have recorded it at one time but I am not sure about that.)

 
Looks like there will be some great pennant race baseball building in the last weeks of the season.  More on that in the next blog.  For now, always remember:

Take it easy but take it!

 

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