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"Drunk On Analytics? Sober Up!" and Other Thoughts On Baseball and The Arts - Mid-June edition

I've never been a master of the sound bite. I did come up with "It's a big book about a big man" to describe my 600-page Branch Rickey biography. 


i surprised myself at the beginning of June when, as the trailer for the 1951 comedy-fantasy "Angels in the Outfield" was being loaded into a DVD player for my talk about that movie at the annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, I blurted the above advice to those drunk on analytics, Sober Up! 


I went on to mention that when Branch Rickey was once asked how much of baseball he really knew, he replied, "No more than 55%." Yet baseball now is overwhelmed with Ivy League and elite business school grads who think their new-fangled statistics will provide answers for baseball's eternal imponderables. 


Too often these young guns dismiss the opinions of eyes and ears scouts with a lot more experience. 

I've often wondered how Branch Rickey - who died almost poetically in December 1965 not long after giving a speech on "Courage--Physical and Spiritual" - would have responded to the wave of high-powered technicians who have taken over virtually every franchise. 


He would have loved new information I am sure of that, but he also would have warned about relying too much on data and forgetting that the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.


One of the things I learned in researching "Angels in the Outfield" was Rickey's role during his first year as Pirates president and general manager in bringing some of the filming to Forbes Field early in the 1951

season.  It was the honeymoon period for Rickey in Pittsburgh after losing the power struggle to Walter

O'Malley for control of the Brooklyn Dodgers after the 1950 season. 


With the encouragement of Rickey and talented producer-director Clarence Brown, Pittsburgh minority owner Bing Crosby was one of four people who made cameo appearances in "Angels," speculating on if angels could possibly help a team.  The other three were Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, and songwriter Harry Ruby.


With partner Bert Kalmar, Ruby wrote such immortal tunes as "Who's Sorry Now?", "A Kiss To Build A Dream On," and "Three Little Words," which was the title of the 1950 bio-pic starring Red Skelton as Ruby and Fred Astaire as Kalmar.  Ruby also wrote "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" for his good friend Groucho Marx, a song that appeared in the movie "Animal Crackers" and later was a theme song on Groucho's quiz show "You Bet Your Life".  


Yet Harry Ruby loved baseball more than anything on earth. Ruby was a so-so infielder who once actually gave up a movie gig to play in an exhibition game for the Washington Senators.  Albert von Tilzer, composer of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," was not a baseball fan and he signed his copy of the song "to Harry Ruby who should have written this song."


An autodidact who never finished high school in NYC, Ruby became an avid collector of original classic editions. it was said that his favorite evening would be spent reading the works of Thomas Aquinas and the latest edition of the Sporting News.   


**Among the highlights of the Cooperstown Symposium was a sweet tone-setting keynote speech by Tyler Kepner, New York Times national baseball writer. Like most of us, he fell in love early with the glass-enclosed bulletin board next to the Hall of Fame that always lists the results of the prior day's games. He added that the difficulties of reaching centrally isolated Cooperstown - 70 miles west of Albany - matches the difficulties of the game of baseball itself. 


**Lipscomb University profs from Nashville, Tenn. Willie Steele and Mark McGee, presented fascinating papers on the genuine baseball love of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and country singer Conway Twitty, respectively.  Born Harold Lloyd Jenkins, Twitty was a star HS baseball player in Helena, Arkansas and had he not been drafted for the Korean War, he might have signed with the Phillies. 


**Judith Hiltner, co-author with Jim Walker of the outstanding Red Barber biography, gave an informative talk on the writings of the memorable broadcaster after he left the radio booth.  As early as 1969 he was calling for baseball to broaden its interest among women and the younger generation. 


**Chris Bell, English professor at U. of N. Georgia, explained how he used the terse and crisp text on the back of baseball cards as a tool for getting students to appreciate clear writing.  In an effort to demystify hallowed texts, he said that he also suggested edits to the awkward language of the Second Amendment!


Next year's Symposium will be held from May 29-31 at the Hall of Fame. For more info, contact either Cassidy Lent at clent@baseballhall.org or Professor Bill Simons at william.simons@oneonta.edu 


And now for news about the high school and college baseball playoffs. Congrats to the PSAL baeeball champions, Hunter winners over Metropolitan, 2-1 in the AA final, and Tottenville conquerors of Luperon, 7-4 in the AAA final. 


Both games were played on M June 12 at Yankee Stadium earlier than schedules because of threatening weather. 


The Final Eight is set for the College World Series starting in Omaha on F June 16. The winners of each

double-elimination bracket will square off in a best-of-three series June 24-26. 


For the first time in recent memory, there are two heavy favorites, #1 seed Wake Forest, seeking to match their only title of 1955, and perennial contender #2 Florida. But the Joaquin Andujar Rule applies to college baseball as well as pro baseball, Youneverknow!   All games to be televised on ESPN/ESPN+ with times listed as EDT.

Fri at 2p Oral Roberts vs. TCU followed at 7p Virginia vs. Florida

Sat at 2p Stanford vs. Wake Forest followed at 7p by Tennessee vs. LSU 


Before I close, here is a tip on an excellent play closing Su June 18 at the Manhattan Theater Club's home in the historic City Center on 55th St between 6-7 Aves in Manhattan.

Rajiv Joseph's absorbing and humorous two-character play "King James" set in Cleveland from 2008 through 2016 during the years of Lebron James' arrival/departure/return. 


Without ovedramatizing the black-white differences in the characters, playwright Joseph and director Kenny Leon drive home salient points but the love of basketball exudes throughout. Excellent performances by Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis, the latter artistic director of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater where the play originated. 


Su Jun 18 Father's Day PBS Channel 13 and other areas of the country will get to see Ted Green's documentary, "The Best We've Got: The Carl Erskine Story".  Narrated by Charley Steiner, Long Island native and former Yankee/now Dodger broadcaster, this is must-see fare.


The first half is devoted to Carl's emergence as a Brooklyn Dodger pitcher and proud teammate of Jackie Robinson.  The second half is the story of Carl and Betty Erskine's devotion to their son Jimmy who was born with cognitive challenges.


Thanks to the efforts of the Erskines, both of whom are still with us, Jimmy and others have led full lives, competing in Special Olympics and holding down jobs. Indiana, once a state that lagged miserably in the area of support for the challenged, is now a national leader. 


That's all for now.  Always remember: Take it easy but take it,  and stay positive and test negative. 









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Reflections on Jackie Robinson Day + Thoughts on the Early 2023 Season (slightly expanded edition)

Major League Baseball has been celebrating April 15th as Jackie Robinson Day since 1997,  the year that was the 50th anniversary of Opening Day at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's 20th century color line by starting at first base for the Dodgers.


Thanks to a suggestion by future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., every player now wears the number 42 on April 15.  (I'm glad I'm not an inexperienced official scorer on that day.)


This year I decided shortly before Apr 15 to visit the newly opened Jackie Robinson Museum on 75 Varick Street in downtown Manhattan at the corner of Canal Street not far from the Holland Tunnel. (Varick is the extension of 7th Avenue South).   


The modern 20,000 square foot museum is well-equipped with all kinds of devices that bring to life the story of Robinson's event-filled 53 years as ballplayer and civil rights pioneer. They should especially appeal to the youngsters who may have just heard the name of Robinson in a book. 


Robinson received many letters from admirers who were awed by his courage. Among the more traditional exhibits was a letter to "dearest Jackie" that came from a sophomore in a segregated high school in Johnson City, Tennessee. He wrote his hero that he was following his every move, he was playing first base, and hoped to one day follow in his footsteps at UCLA. (Of course, Robinson only

played first base in 1947 and then moved to second and later third base.) 


A museum visitor can also click a button and watch such notable people as pitcher Carl Erskine  - who at 95 is the oldest of Robinson's surviving teammates - tell the story of how Jackie "literally changed the face of America." He calls it "a piece of history I was glad to see." 


(For more on Carl Erskine's remarkable life story, check out "The Best We've Got," Indianapolis film maker Ted Green's full-length documentary now available on DVD. It is narrated by Long Island native Charlie Steiner, LA Dodgers broadcaster and former Yankees broadcaster.)


As a Branch Rickey biographer, I was glad that letters from Rickey and Robinson are exhibited that show the genuine paternal relationship that existed between the two Type-A personalities who changed the face of baseball and this country. 


The Jackie Robinson Museum is open Thursday through Sundays from 11-6 PM. I highly recommend a visit.



As for the first few weeks of the 2023 baseball-history-in-the-making, the old adage remains very true.  You can't win a pennant in April, but you sure can lose one this early even during a time when 12 of 30 teams make the post-season.   


I have been increasingly concerned about the disparity between haves and have-nots in today's MLB.  2022 was the first year in MLB history that four teams finished with 100 or more wins AND four finished with 100 or more losses.  


I have doubts that there will be that many 100 game winners in 2023, but the outlook sure looks grim for Royals, Nats, Rockies, and especially A's who seem destined for Las Vegas. It's one thing to support the short season of football and a longer but not baseball-long hockey season. That MLB will be

successful in Las Vegas is hardly a slam dunk. 


As an Oriole fan, I am happy that before games on Friday Apr 21, we are four games over .500 which is where we finished 2022.  It will all come down to pitching and defense and just enough offense for Baltimore and all teams.


I will have more to say about 2023 developments in MLB and on the college baseball front in the

next post. Also I'll share some highlights from the round of interviews I've been doing for my new book on scouting. You can order BASEBALL'S ENDANGERED SPECIES on the main page of this blog. 


That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it, and these days especially remember:

Stay positive, test negative.  









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