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NINE Magazine Baseball Conference Scores A Ten In Phoenix

The 25th annual conference of NINE Baseball Magazine was a rousing success in Phoenix last week. I find it hard to believe that it has been ten years since I delivered the keynote address, “Whatever Happened To The Marvelous Importance of the Unimportant?”

I still like the title and the idea - that baseball should be entertaining and fun, not a matter of life and death, not a vehicle for obtaining and showing off great wealth and celebrity. I’m a realist, though. In an increasingly violent and insecure world, baseball and almost all sports remain a high-growth industry.

One of the charms of the NINE conference has been there are no simultaneous panels, everyone can hear each other’s presentations without missing any one paper. Too many highlights to mention them all but here are a few:

**The opening night talk by Felipe Alou, the first Dominican star in major league baseball history. He talked about his new book from U of Nebraska Press, “Alou: A Baseball Journey,” with an introduction by Pedro Martinez. Collaborator/sportswriter Peter Kerasotis has captured well the rags-to-riches story of a man who is known to speak in parables.

**California Whittier College professor Charles S. Adams’s wry look filled with gallows humor at Seattle Mariners’ history and their lack of “an adequate myth”.

**Larry Baldassaro’s probing and good-natured look at Italian-American baseball players since the 1930s.

**Ed Edmonds and Frank Houdek's take on the California state law that actress Olivia deHavilland utilized to get out of her long-term movie studio contract and how it might apply to baseball players, perhaps especially Mike Trout of the Angels.
(Still feisty at 101, DeHavilland - who made her screen debut at age 19 opposite Joe E Brown in "Alibi Ike" (1935) - recently sued to prevent unauthorized use of her personage in a current movie.)

There was no keynote at NINE this year because Jane Leavy begged out for a variety of reasons. It turned out that the closing panel “Baseball and the West” sufficed very nicely as an alternative.

It featured three winners of the SABR Seymour medal for the best book of the given year - latest winner Jerald Podair for “City of Light” about the building of Dodger Stadium, Andy McCue for his monumental bio of Walter O’Malley “Mover and Shaker” and yours truly for my “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman”.

The fourth member of the panel was Rob Garratt, emeritus professor of Irish-American literature at the University of Puget Sound outside Seattle, whose history of the SF Giants “Home Team” was runner-up to Podair. Rob made the good point that Horace Stoneham doesn’t get enough credit for actually making up his mind to leave NY long before O’Malley did.

If I had grown up in Brooklyn, I doubt I could have had the dispassion to be part of this panel. When Branch Rickey was forced out of Brooklyn by Walter O'Malley after the 1950 season, the road was clear for an ultimate relocation. Banished to Pittsburgh, Rickey said many times until his death in 1965 he never would have moved the team.

I was a New York Giants fan but their players didn’t live in Harlem where the Polo Grounds was located. So the loss of the Jints of Willie Mays and company wasn’t felt as acutely as the departure from Flatbush of the Dodgers, many of whom made their homes in Brooklyn.

I was pleased that the evening was filled with reason and passion on all sides including very informed questions from the audience of around 80 people.
Baseball certainly needed to open up to the west coast by the 1950s. I still feel it was tragic that the cost of progress was the loss to New York of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry.

So I’m glad I was able to recite the lyrics from folk singer/social activist Dan Bern’s 2002 classic, “If The Dodgers Had Stayed In Brooklyn.” It opens:
“If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe things would be different today/
Maybe John F. Kennedy would have been president til 1968 . . .”

Another verse begins:
"If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn maybe Watergate would be some obscure hotel/Tienamen [sic] square would be a square & Vietnam a vacation spot that travel agencies would try to sell . . . " (Of course those agencies are selling trips to Vietnam these days but that as they say is another story.)

Before I leave, I must mention that one of the long-time benefits of NINE attendance is “field research” as conference founder Bill Kirwin used to call going to spring training games. The must-see spot in Arizona spring training is the Talking Stick Salt River Fields complex not far from Scottsdale.

We saw the Milwaukee Brewers visit the Colorado Rockies (Colorado shares the complex with the Arizona Diamondbacks). Former Oriole farmhand Zach Davies looked sharp for the Brew Crew in his two innings though he did give up a solo home run. (Don’t get me started on how my team has been foolhardy in trading promising arms with little in return.)

What separates Salt River from other Arizona facilities is the quality of the concessions and the wide open spaces. They even provide free sun screen behind the center field scoreboard. Didn’t need much because it was somewhat chilly during my stay.

At a sparsely attended game at Mesa's HoHoKam field, where the A's now play, Willie Calhoun caught my eye when he roped a home run over the right field fence. He reminds me of a left-handed Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn former Astros star. Where the key player in the Yu Darvish trade plays is still a question. That's what spring training is for.

The only bummer of my trip was being unable to see the Arizona State Sun Devils play the opening game of their three-game series against Oklahoma State. The Friday Night Game is the big event in college baseball and ten NINE attendees looked forward to the evening.

However, we ran afoul of the rules at Phoenix Municipal Stadium where ASU now plays off-campus. Some of the bags and purses of a few members of our group were ruled too large. It became a perfect storm of frustration.
**We came by hotel van so no cars were available to store the offending items.
**There were no lockers available.
**We were told that clear bags were possible but we weren't season ticket holders.
Adding insult to injury, we paid for tickets but they were not refunded.

Written complaints have been filed but so far no response has been received.
I hope I have some news in the next blog. The ASU Ten of NINE will not be denied!

That's all for now as the regular season nears. So, as always, remember: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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thoughts on rickey and robinson

Entry of May 14, 2009
“Some Thoughts On Rickey and Robinson and The Intriguing Musings Of ‘If’ History”

Last night I passed up TV baseball watching (just as well because Andy Pettitte of the Yankees dominated the Jays for six innings and the Orioles couldn’t hold off the Rays). I opted instead for dinner witha dear friend coming into town from DC for a job interview.

The story of the unique and courageous partnership of executive-owner Branch Rickey and race pioneer-player Jackie Robinson is one that never grows old. My friend Alan did his college thesis on the Robinson story over 30 years ago and we became friends because of it, and there is something new to learn about the saga virtually every day.

I told Alan that last month before speaking to a faculty seminar at Touro Law school on Long Island, I met Richard Robinson, a handyman on the campus who had been a great high school athlete and later a player in the Negro Leagues. Signed by George Sisler, Rickey’s revered scout and the Hall of Fame first baseman whom Rickey had converted from pitcher, R. Robinson was invited to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1949 spring training camp in Vero Beach. He was greeted by Jackie Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella who made the Dodgers in 1948, pitcher Don Newcombe who would make it in 1949, and two other Afro-American players who didn’t stick, pitcher Dan Bankhead and infielder-outfielder Jim Pendleton.

Sadly, before Richard Robinson had a chance to show his wares, someone in the Brooklyn organization told him, “We have too many niggers here already.” It certainly wasn’t one of the people closest to Branch Rickey though the executive was facing great pressure not to sign too many players of color. Richard Robinson returned to his home town of Huntington, Long Island and became a pioneer in his own way, the first black police sergeant, but he never had a chance to see how far he might have risen in baseball.

1949 turned out to be the season when Horace Stoneham, owner of the New York Giants, enthusiastically dove into the market for Afro-American players, promoting to the big leagues in July outfielder Monte Irvin and infielder-outfielder Hank Thompson. Coming along in May 1951 would be the incomparable Willie Mays. As an experienced baseball businessman (who too many historians have not treated seriously because he was an alcoholic), Stoneham thought to himself, “Why should the Dodgers corner the market on the good black players?” Stoneham later admitted that he had thought of signing Irvin before World War II. “I said it was too soon. I wish I had been braver.” By 1949 with the success of Robinson and Campanella assured, Stoneham acted and Branch Rickey was happy that he had another partner in the integration movement. It enabled the fierce local Giant-Dodger rivalry to take on an added component, more color if you will.

Unfortunately, Rickey was not around to enjoy first-hand the intra-city battles of the 1950s because he was bought out by Walter O’Malley after the 1950 season. The death in July 1950 of Pfizer Chemical millionaire John L. Smith, the quiet but important third partner in the Brooklyn ownership group, assured O’Malley’s triumph. O’Malley had wooed Mary Louise “Mae” Smith, the chemist’s wife and now widow, and Rickey’s goose was cooked (though he left Brooklyn with a good price for his stake in the team).

I love questions of “If-History” and Alan and I, who are well versed in the actual story, kicked around a few of them at dinner last night. What if John L. Smith lived? Rickey would not likely have been exiled to Pittsburgh. And if Rickey had stayed in Brooklyn, might not Jackie Robinson have stayed on perhaps as manager after he retired? And backtracking a bit what if Jackie Robinson had not succeeded and not made the major leagues? That is the most unlikely speculation of all because Robinson embodied an unconquerable will to win. He never would have allowed himself to “grow accustomed to the emotions of continuous defeat,” to quote one of Rickey’s favorite expressions.

The juiciest of “If History” questions we batted around last night was: What if baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had not died in November 1944 but lived on and was faced with the contract of Jack Roosevelt Robinson placed on his desk by Wesley Branch Rickey sometime late in 1945? It is one that I will address in an upcoming post.  Read More 
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