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"Trouble Ahead, Trouble Ahead!': Reflections on An Upcoming Diamond Anniversary, August 28, 1945 - corrected version

[The following blog was posted before the shocking death on Jackie Robinson Day, celebrated on August 28 in 2020,  of Chadwick Boesman, 43, who starred as Robinson in "42" the acclaimed 2013 film that made Boseman a star. He had suffered from colon cancer for four years, a disease that he kept private all this time. His memory will be indelible.

 

Brooklyn Dodger fans have called to my attention that I missed one pennant-winning team prior to Robinson's rookie season of 1947, the first pennant of 1916. So have made the change in the tex below. Otherwise it stands as originally posted.]

 

 

This Friday August 28 marks the 75th anniversary - the diamond jubilee if you will - of the first meeting of Jack Roosevelt Robinson with Wesley Branch Rickey.  It was held in Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers office at 215 Montague Street not far from the Brooklyn Borough Hall. 

 
The encounter between these two Type-A personalities has been the subject of much historical writing as well as the impressive 2013 film "42" starring Harrison Ford as Rickey and Chadwick Boseman as Robinson.  

 
It is an evergreen story - how an unusual partnership was forged between the fiercely proud talented all-around Black athlete and the shrewd but genuinely religious and paternal White executive.  Together they vowed to break the poorly named "gentleman's agreement" that had blocked African-Americans from playing Major League Baseball since the late 19th century.

 
By 1947 Robinson was a Brooklyn Dodger star on his way to a Rookie of the Year title and the Dodgers were headed to the World Series for only the fourth time in their history. Though they lost a tough seven-game Series to the Yankees, Robinson rose to stardom not only in the baseball world but throughout American national culture.  He was voted the second most popular entertainer after Bing Crosby. 

 
It is not coincidental that a year later President Harry Truman issued an executive order desegregating the Armed Forces. And in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court issued an unanimous decision, ruling that public school segregation was unconstitutional.  

 
It is good that Malor League Baseball recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first prominent Negro league by the pioneer black baseball organizer Rube Foster.  But I think the courageous first move to integrate white baseball 25 years later needs remembrance as well. 

 
The road to Robinson's eventual success was not a smooth one.  But Rickey stood squarely behind "The Young Man from the West," as he was dubbed in secret front office code before the announcement of his signing was made public two months later.

 

In "My Own Story," Robinson's 1948 autobiography, he described what it was like to be analyzed and dissected by Branch Rickey. "His piercing eyes roared over me with such meticulous care, I almost felt naked." Once the battle for integration was joined, Robinson would describe Rickey as like "a piece of mobile armor," ready to defend him from any and all attacks.   

 
Rickey was both a spellbinding and folksy story-teller.  Robinson grew solace from one of Rickey's favorite tales about an old couple in rural Scioto County in southern Ohio where Rickey was born, regularly visited, and is buried..  

 
They were traveling for the first time on a railway car through the hills of their home county.   They looked out the window and as the train headed towards a steep curve, the husband cried, "Trouble ahead! Trouble ahead!"  

 
The couple thought the train would fall off the rails and crash.  But it didn't and life went on and the change to faster transportation was accepted. 

 

"Trouble ahead! Trouble ahead!" was a frequent mantra of Rickey's whenever a problem arose. The crisis was usually averted by good strategy and basic courage.

 
Rickey enjoyed Robinson in Brooklyn for only four seasons.  He lost a power struggle to co-owner Walter O'Malley after the 1950 season, and he started at the bottom with the young Pittsburgh Pirates.   

 
I think that part of the reason that Rickey is not remembered for his successful integration strategy is that the subsequent years of his baseball career were not marked by success. 

Also once the black power movmenet erupted in the 1960s, Rickey's motivation was too often seen as mainly economic.

 

Rickey's Pirates finished in or near the basement in during his five years at the helm in Pittsburgh  But it should be noted that Rickey signed the core of the future 1960 World Series champions, including Roberto Clemente, Elroy Face, Dick Groat, and Bill Mazeroski. 

 
In the late 1950s, Rickey's attempt at leading the Continental League, a third major league, to compete with the existing two leagues also failed.  It did lead to expansion of each existing league to ten teams, but it was not the outcome Rickey desired.  He was old enough to remember the ten-team National League of the 1890s that only increased the number of second division teams. 

 
I do like to think that in the great beyond Rickey is smiling at the Toronto Blue Jays for this short season playing in Buffalo.   It is the only one of the eight original CL franchises - Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Minny-St.Paul, New York, and Toronto - never to get a team.  Unfortunately because of the huge role of TV markets in today's baseball, Buffalo is not likely to get a full season team.  

 

Although the Continental League folded in the summer of 1960, Rickey's comment to a reporter when he started the league a year earlier still resonates.  There he was at the age of 77 and plagued by a serious heart condition. Asked by a reporter to name his greatest thrill in baseball. he replied, "It hasn't happened yet." 

 
It's that kind of spirit of adventure and optimism about the future that drew Jackie Robinson and so many other players, friends, and family into his admiring orbit. It's the kind of spirit that we need desperately in all aspects of our society in the year 2020. 

 
So please think of the great adventure that Robinson and Rickey started upon 75 years ago this Friday August 28.  And as September nears and a fraught school year is upon us, it's especially wise to take it easy but take it!  

 

Next time more on the unfolding MLB baseball season and I hope I can write some praise of the Orioles' hitting prospect with the striking name of Ryan Mountcastle.  He made his MLB debut last weekend and held his own and looks like he could be an offensive presence of the future.   

 

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On The Trail of Hot Stove League Baseball: From Las Vegas to Hazelton, Pa. (updated and corrected)

I had never been to Las Vegas until I journeyed to baseball’s winter meetings earlier this December. I am not eager to go back but at least I can say that I walked some of The Strip - which I’d call Coney Island on steroids. I saw facsimiles of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building as well as a huge modern office building now called the Waldorf-Astoria.

As for the baseball meetings themselves, there were none of the major trades and free agent signings that used to be regular events at these gatherings. Historically, the focus of these meetings used to be on the minor leagues - the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, to be exact.

Hardly any press coverage was given minor league events but I've always been attracted to grass roots baseball. The most rewarding event for me occurred on the final night of the meetings.

It was The Scout of the Year presentations that honored four very worthy scouts who had paid their dues over the decades.
The Colorado Rockies’ Danny Montgomery, East Coast winner;
The Red Sox’s Brad Sloan, Midwest winner;
The Yankees’ Damon Oppenheimer, West Coast winner;
The Phillies’ Sal Agostinelli, International Scout winner.

Danny Montgomery has scouted in various capacities for the Colorado Rockies since 1992. He was instrumental in signing future major league outfielders Dexter Fowler and current Rockies stalwart Charlie Blackmon.

Montgomery has also been active in keeping alive the memory of legendary AfAm scout and coach Buck O’Neil. He is Vice-President of the Professional Baseball Scouts and Coaches Association, a group affiliated with Resilience Partners NFP in Chicago.

Montgomery is an inspiring speaker. Among his nuggets were: "It doesn't cost anything to be personable and to listen to people." Drawing perhaps on Dr. Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, he noted that he has found out that "the ones who truly want to change the world and those who cannot wait to get into it."

Brad Sloan finally won a World Series winner’s ring this season while scouting for the 2018 Red Sox (he had been with the 1998 San Diego Padres swept by the Yankees). I’ve always loved his simple explanation of a scout’s job - to bring “good players and good people” into the game.

Damon Oppenheimer also has a Padres connection, starting out as a 16-year-old peanut vendor at Jack Murphy Stadium (a park incidentally named for the sportswriter and brother of Mets’ legendary broadcaster Bob Murphy). Proudly watching the ceremony was Damon’s mother Priscilla, who served many years as director of the Padres’ minor league operations department.

Yankee gm Brian Cashman introduced Oppenheimer, lauding the scout's work since he joined the franchise in 2003. Cashman also gave homage to prior Yankee talent hunters and developers Bill Livesey and Brian Sabean (who went on to great success as San Francisco gm). He said they never got the credit they deserved for building the Yankee dynasty of the late 90s/early 2000s.

(Oppenheimer will also be one of the honorees on Saturday January 12 at Dennis Gilbert’s Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation “In The Spirit of the Game” dinner in Beverly Hills.)

Last but not least among the winners on Wed. Dec. 12 was irrepressible Bronx-born Sal Agostinelli. Originally signed by the Cardinals by former 1950s catcher-turned-scout Tim Thompson in a late 20s round of the draft, Sal was traded to Philadelphia in a minor league deal and has worked for the Phillies ever since.

Sal’s acceptance speech combined great mirth and genuine emotion. Away from his family more than half the year scouting, Sal quipped that after he was home for a while, his family asked, “When are you leaving?” He also made reference to a batting academy he runs with the slogan, “Even you can hit .222.”

Turning serious, Agostinelli gave heartfelt thanks to the Latin American community for making him feel so welcome. He expressed scouting’s collegial spirit at its best when he said, “There’s enough to go around - if I can’t get a player I hope you do.”

He added that it was “so rewarding to see Carlos Ruiz catch the last pitch” of the Phillies’ 2008 World Series victory over the Tampa Rays (on a strikeout from Brad Lidge). Agostinelli had signed Ruiz out of Davi, Panama for $8000.

The Scout of the Year organization is a longtime labor of love of Roberta Mazur. Born outside Pittsburgh, Roberta was an avid Pirates fan in the Roberto Clemente years. She continued her love for baseball when she went to work as secretary for California Angels executive Larry Himes. In the early 1990s she moved to West Palm Beach, Florida and worked for the Expos and has remained there since the Expos' 2004 demise.

She was on the ground floor of the Scout of the Year organization when it was founded in 1984 by scouting legends Hugh Alexander, Tony Pacheco, and Jim Russo. Kudos to Roberta Mazur for keeping this tradition alive for 35 years. Here’s to many many more.

ANOTHER LAS VEGAS HIGHLIGHT
I was fortunate earlier in the winter meetings to sit in on sessions sponsored by the on-line scouting school run by Sports Management World Wide. Rick White, successor to the late Joe Klein as president of the independent Atlantic League, spelled out in great detail the kind of 24/7 life an aspiring baseball executive can look forward to.

He gave some fascinating advice to job-seekers. Groundskeepers, scouts, and concession employees are the least consulted people at the ballparks. Contact them and pick their minds, he advised, and build your networks immediately and efficiently.


My adventures last week ended at the annual dinner benefit for Joe Maddon’s hometown Hazelton Integration Project (HIP). Joe Namath flew in for the occasion from Florida. Though he didn’t stay too long, he signed autographs and mingled with some of the attendees.

In an interview with the local Standard-Speaker newspaper, Namath expressed his love of baseball. He paid tribute to the late Tim Thompson, another Pennsylvania native and his roommate at the University of Alabama. Thompson pitched for the Crimson Tide and in the minor leagues before a career in coaching and scouting. (Namath’s Tim Thompson was no relation to the scout of the same name that inked Sal Agostinelli.)

On the Saturday after the benefit dinner, I was able to see HIP in operation at the abandoned Catholic school that has been turned into a vibrant community center.
It was State Police Day and the officers came in with pizzas to share with the largely Dominican community.

In the six years since HIP’s center opened, it has done remarkable work providing language classes, arts and music education as well as many athletic activities. HIP recently won a Renewal award from the Atlantic Monthly magazine, beating out many larger cities in a national competition.

Kudos to Joe Maddon, his first cousin Elaine Maddon Curry and longtime friends John Stahura and Bob Curry and HIP athletic director Daniel Jorge for the outstanding work they are doing. For more information check out hazeltonintegrationproject.com

One last item to mention in my rewarding last weeks of 2018. On a Sunday in late November I took part in a New York Sports Tour. It is a new project that takes participants on a luxury van tour past sports landmarks in midtown Manhattan.

I was able to tell stories of my life as a midtown Manhattanite born a block from Carnegie Hall and barely a half mile from Madison Square Garden and St. Nicholas Arena. The group also watched videotaped tales of sports in the city narrated by tennis great/commentator Mary Carrillo and baseball scorer Jordan Sprechman.

The adventure ended with a scrumptious meal at Keen’s Steak House, established in 1885 and still standing on W 36th Street just east of 6th Avenue. Not coincidentally, Keen’s is located two blocks north of the McAlpin Hotel where Jackie Robinson lived during the first months of his historic rookie of the year 1947 season.

For more information, check out newyorksports.tours

That’s all for 2018. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Back to you early in 2019. In the meantime always remember:
Take it easy but take it!
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