Monthly Archives: September 2020

Tony and Farm Boy Records

“It’s work, son,” Father said. “That’s what money is; it’s hard work.”

― Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy

Tony Lee was born to a farming family in rolling rural piedmont country, hidden away in North Carolina’s Lincoln County.  He grew up fast, tall, strong and lean, and went on to set a remarkable and little-known Major League Baseball record that will probably never be broken.

There are many a story of country boys making it big in baseball.  I’ll touch on three of the best known.

Mickey Mantle grew up in rural Oklahoma, along old Route 66. Who knows how many records Mickey Mantle would have set if he hadn’t taken to the bottle? Still, he hit 536 home runs in total – this during an era when baseball players, on average, hit homers only about 60 percent as often as today – and yet “The Mick” stands at #18 on the all-time home run list.  More than a few above him took steroids and should thus be disqualified.

Bob Feller grew up a farming country boy in Iowa.  Playing his entire career with the Indians, and coaching for them until his death at 92, he probably had the fastest fastball in the Majors during the 1940s. He led the league in strike outs seven times (twice in the 1930s as a teenager!). Over a stellar career, Feller amassed 266 victories.  He surely would’ve reached the magical 300 milestone had he not served 3-1/2 years in World War 2 in the prime of his career.  Or, if the Indians had had a slightly better team; they compiled mostly mediocre records in those years, but did manage to win the World Series in 1948. For the five full years of his career that sandwiched his military service he averaged 24 wins a season.  Projecting a bit, that would put him around 350 wins for his career. 

And finally, perhaps the most famous to baseball fans, is pitcher Denton True “Cy” Young.  He grew up working his family’s farm in rural Ohio.  His frame took on great strength and his mind a determined, stern discipline. When baseball found him, he could throw the ball so hard he was nicknamed “Cyclone”; or “Cy” for short.  With a career of just over two decades that spanned the turn of the 20th century, Young won an astounding 511 games at the Major League level – a record that will never be broken.  Since 1956 the Award for the Best Pitcher in each league has been named after him.

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In this time of Covid, I’m not following sports much. Heck, until recently there wasn’t much to follow. But even with this rump of a baseball season coming to its tinny crescendo I have been unable to avert my eyes from box scores and standings completely. 

It’s a lifelong habit and I guess I owe it to my dad.  I can remember him taking me to watch a Cubs game at Wrigley Field during the summer of 1961.  Billy Williams hit a home run.  I could barely follow the game – long periods of sun-drenched boredom with brief moments of athletic excitement where the players and ball moved so quickly that I had little idea what was going on.  All I knew before this was dad tossing whiffle balls to me – as I tried to make contact with a plastic bat – and a cheezy glove that he tossed balls into.  Me, thinking I could catch, or hit! Ha. God Bless him. God blessed me with him.

Within a few years he taught me how to track a game.  How to keep score.  Tricks to playing each position (‘ twas clear from early on I’d never be a pitcher) and what to anticipate what could happen on each at-bat, on each pitch.  I guess he thought I had “Mickey Mantle” potential, as he had me swing from both sides.  Eventually I took to swinging only lefty – even though I am right-handed and right-eyed – which was fine with me.  Billy Williams – who won Rookie of the Year in 1961, later won a batting title, and had become my favorite player – swung the same way, lefty, despite also being right-handed.

Back to 2020. So, I’m tracking some baseball stats this odd year-of-covid, like I always do. This, despite the fact that I’m inclined to believe that nothing about this year should even count.  But, I can’t help myself.  Reasons it shouldn’t count?  Doubleheader games are only 7 innings;  extra innings start off with a runner on second;  and the biggest reason is that even the NL is using the Designated Hitter (DH), which means that – except in the most unusual of circumstances – pitchers don’t have to bat.  Guess I’m just a traditionalist.

One thing I noticed through most of this weird 2020 season is that hitting and run production seem down.  Until a few weeks ago batting averages across both leagues were at historic lows.  And pitchers don’t even have to bat! Run production (scoring) was down only slightly, because players are still hitting home runs at nearly historically high rates.

There was a blip for a few weeks recently when scoring and hitting went way up. Teams started putting up double-digit tallies. In one single day (Sept 9) during that stretch the Brewers scored 19 runs in a game. And the Braves scored 29! In one game. During that Braves explosion, Adam Duvall hit three home runs, one of them a grand slam, and knocked in 9 runs.  This statistic, 9 RBIs, tied a Braves franchise record. Plus a grand slam. [RBI is Run Batted in].

And my mind drifted back to 1966……

Baseball recruiting started to get aggressive in the late 1950s.  For example, Tony Lee Cloninger, a lanky farm boy from North Carolina, was signed to a professional contract by the Milwaukee Braves in early 1958.  For that, he received a signing bonus of $100,000.  That was a lot of money. He had not yet graduated from high school.

Milwaukee. I lived just outside that Midwest city from Christmas week 1962 until the summer of 1974.  Even though my first love was the Cubs, I could not help but follow the local Braves, as news of them was always in the newspapers. And of course, my sports-minded friends all followed them.  So, I certainly knew of Tony Cloninger.

In fact, several superstars, future Hall of Famers, played for the Milwaukee Braves back then – Aaron, Matthews, Torre, Spahn – and I remember watching them all play at Milwaukee County Stadium.

Cloninger set several team records.  He recorded the modern-day era for most wins in a season by a Brave – 24 wins in 1965 – which matched the count put up by Johnny Sain in 1948 (when the team was in Boston), and years later by John Smoltz in 1996.  Not even the great Brave and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn ever won so many in a season.

Cloninger also threw one of MLB’s few Immaculate Innings (9 pitches, 3 strikeouts) in 1963, a feat that had only been achieved 13 times before.  (As an indicator of how the game has changed – so many more home runs and more strikeouts – it’s been done 87 times since).

1965 was a strange year for the Milwaukee Braves.  The ownership was trying to move the team to Atlanta.  Fans still loved the Braves, but there definitely were some hard feelings.  The case even went to the courts, as the city tried to keep them.  Despite a good record and performance by stars – not just Cloninger’s 24 wins; three Braves ranked in the league’s top ten for home runs: “Hammerin’ ” Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthew and Mack Jones – attendance dwindled to a dismal 555,000, lowest in the entire major leagues.  I can’t blame the fans for not supporting a team that doesn’t love its home city.

Cloninger was a bit of free-spirit, at least on the pitcher’s mound, I would guess, and his career numbers support that theory.  In his great 1965 year (and the next year too), Cloninger led the league in Wild Pitches and Walks issued. During 3-1/2 seasons in the minors he steadily averaged about 7 walks per nine innings: a horrendous ratio at almost any level, especially as a professional. But he also showed a ton of potential and promise. He was promoted to the major league club, the Milwaukee Braves, in the middle of the ’61 season, just shy of 21 years old. He was probably an early poster-child for the term “effectively-wild.”

1966.  Now the Atlanta Braves were hopeful for their prospects, based on a new location, their promising second half of 1965, and a roster full of stars, including Tony Cloninger as their #1 pitcher.  Unexpectedly, both Tony and the Braves got off to a cool start and were definitely under-performing.  For the July 4th weekend, they traveled to San Francisco, to play the first place Giants – they were also loaded with future Hall of Famers.  Prospects didn’t look good.

On a Sunday afternoon, July 3, Tony Cloninger – a much better than average hitting pitcher – pitched for the Braves.  Back then, we Milwaukee-ites all still followed the Braves rather closely – as there was no professional baseball team in Milwaukee to replace them yet (the Brewers arrived in 1970), and we still knew all the Braves’ players, and most (except me) disliked the rival Cubs in nearby Chicago. But we didn’t get a newspaper delivered on Independence Day, July 4th. What happened on July 3rd?

It was not until July 5th that I read what Tony Cloninger had accomplished.  The details were scarce, since the sports section had to cram two days’ worth of news into a single Tuesday edition, typically a publication day of diminutive size.

I first scanned the July 4th results (for some cruel scheduling reason the Braves had to fly all the way to Houston to play an afternoon game the very next day in the new Astrodome against the lowly Astros) and noted that the they had eked out a win.

Then, …  some numbers from the previous day’s box score literally jumped off the pages.  Holy cow! The Braves beat the first place Giants by a score of 17-3.  Tony Cloninger pitched a complete game for the win, and he hit not one, but two, grand slams.  I could not believe my eyes.  A late game single brought his RBI total to 9 for the game.  These are astonishing batting feats for any player, almost unbelievable!! But for a pitcher?  Typically, the lightest hitting player in any lineup.

Tony Cloninger, mid-1960s

Not sure if it was that day or the next, but I remember the Milwaukee Journal showing a grainy photo of Giants’ great Willie Mays looking up helplessly, as a ball Cloninger had clobbered soared over his head, near the fence in Candlestick’s center field. Gosh, I wish I had started saving newsworthy magazines and newspapers a bit earlier.  I’d love to have that now.

This was the first time in National League history that a player had ever hit two grand slams in one game.  And, I’ll repeat myself: by a pitcher no less.   [It has only happened only twice since, with Fernando Tatis hitting two in the same inning(!), in 1999.  It has been accomplished 10 times in the American League.] This has never been accomplished by a pitcher.  Never.  Before or since.  And it never will be done again, especially with the NL contemplating permanent use of the Designated Hitter – which means pitchers practically never, ever get to bat.

The Braves 1966 season improved thereafter, partly due to changing managers (from Bobby Bragan – loved that name – to Billy Hitchcock).  On the flip side: The Giants’ season sort of collapsed.  And the Dodgers (again, sigh) raced on to the National League pennant, with one of the better pitching  staffs in baseball history, led by Sandy Koufax (who promptly retired, aged only 30, when he was at the top of his game, after the Dodgers surprisingly lost the World Series to Baltimore, swept 4-0, at season’s end).

Tony “the farm boy” Cloninger had been experiencing some shoulder and elbow problems. He was a power pitcher, with a great fastball and nasty slider; both can be very tough on the body. 1966 was still a reasonably good season for him (he finished 14-11) and he was still the Braves #1 pitcher.  But that was the beginning of the end.  Even at age 25 his rugged farm-hardened body could not stand up to the rigors of tossing so many innings.  He pitched for several more years, posting only fair results, at best, and he was traded around a couple times.

With his bonus money and salary, Cloninger had been buying up farmland in his native Lincoln County.  He battled on for a few years, then struggled mightily through the first half of the 1972 season, whereupon he promptly retired mid-season, just before his 32nd birthday. Tony returned to his beloved rural homeland; he began settling in at his farm and its bucolic setting in the North Carolina Piedmont.

Cloninger compiled a career MLB record of 113-97. He once made the league top 10 in strike outs. Good, but not nearly good enough for the Hall of Fame.  He’s also regarded as one of the best hitting pitchers of all time.  Still not good enough to technically be in the Hall of Fame as an individual. But, photographs of him made that day in 1966 are there in the Hall.  As is the bat he borrowed from teammate Denis Menke, the one he used to hit the two grand slams.  They should be: it is a record which will never be broken by any player. Nor will even be tied, by a pitcher.

Cloninger couldn’t stay away from the game forever.  In 1988 he took up an invitation from the New York Yankees to join their coaching staff…starting in the minors and ending up with the major league team. Later he switched over to the player development staff with the Boston Red Sox.  I believe he was still with the BoSox when he passed away, just a couple years ago, in the summer of 2018, aged 77.

Tony, thanks for the memories.  You’re a good old farm boy who did well in the world.

Thanks for reading.  Cheers.

Joe Girard © 2020

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Special Summer

Indian Summer

Idyllic “Indian Summer” image

The first thing we should address, given contemporary sensitivities, is if this is even an appropriate term. 

The sports teams of my undergrad alma mater, Arkansas State University, used to carry the nickname “Indians.” ASU started out as an A&M (Agriculture and Mechanical) school and thus were known for some time as the “Aggies.”  They changed to “Warriors” in 1930, then to “Indians” the next year.  They remained the Indians until 2008.  They then changed to the Red Wolves.

Jumpin’ Joe: Arkansas State mascot when I attended in the 1970s.

Nominally one could argue that the name was not insensitive.  However, the mascot was known as Jumpin’ Joe (see figure), usually portrayed as a hideous visual parody of a native Amerindian. I was always uncomfortable with this, but as a young man finding my way in the world – and coping in the South as a native Yankee – I never made much fuss about it. 

Historic range of the Red Wolf

So, Arkansas State became the Red Wolves.  The Red Wolf is an endangered species, and – if ever seen – is usually in the southeast US.  It’s a mixed beige-reddish/copper colored subspecies of the gray wolf [1], and also evidently quite modern in its evolution, having a genealogy that is only about 50-400,000 years; so not that different than humans.

Interesting that the most successful college sports team in the hometown of my youth (Milwaukee), is Marquette University, and was also called the “Warriors” for decades; definitely an allusion to a supposed war-like nature of the American Native. Marquette, is a smallish Jesuit run school. Yes successful: they won the NCAA Basketball Championship as the “Warriors” in 1977. In time, the nickname was deemed a negative portrayal of native Amerindian culture.  Marquette’s sports teams have been called the Golden Eagles since 1995.

The Golden Eagle is a very successful species.  It’s one of the most widespread birds of prey across all of the northern hemisphere. So that was probably a good choice by Marquette. Pick success.

And let’s not forget the team that can be called “That team formerly known as the Washington Redskins.” Or maybe the official name is just the “Washington Football Team.”  Or something like that.  Not following sports much lately.

In any case, Indian Summer is a wonderful time.  Typically, it refers to a period of pleasant weather late in the year.  It could also be a wonderful period of time late in one’s life.  I may be having my own Indian Summer right now, in early retirement, and before Old Man Time tatters and frays my neurons and sinews even further.  

The term might have even originated with “Indians”, as some oral traditions tell of how American Natives explained the phenomenon of this weather to new arrivals: fear not, an unexpectedly nice time of year will arrive.  You can hunt, and sometimes even fetch a late harvest of berries.  Northern Europeans would likely have expected no such thing after a blast of Jack Frost and wintery chills.

The thing about Indian Summer is you don’t actually know if, or when, it is going to arrive.  It’s kind of a “bonus summer.”   An end of year “bonanza.”  A happy surprise.

The US Weather Service prefers to apply the term to a stretch of summery weather that occurs in the autumn after a killing freeze.  Annuals have all perished.  Budding has ceased.  Perennials are into dormancy.  Deciduous trees are shutting down. It’s best if there is even some snow; a warning of the deep dark nights and short days to follow.

And then: bam!  Sun.  Warmth.  Hope you didn’t put those shorts away, or that sunscreen.

Colorado is Not currently in Indian Summer, although one could be forgiven for thinking that.  The temperatures are back into the 80s – and might even soon touch 90.  Yet last week we had three days of freezing temperatures and even several inches of snow in most places.

But it’s not autumn yet.  Fall has yet to fall.

It’s just one of those things.  One of those crazy Colorado things. [3] Even though we were over 100 degrees just a few days before the snow and freezing temperature.  It’s not Indian Summer, yet.  I hope we get one again this year.

Anyhow, should we call it Indian Summer?  As opposed to Bonus Summer, or Extra Summer?  The Cajuns of Louisiana have a cute term: Lagniappe (Lan-yap), for an unexpected pleasant little add-on. [2]

I rather like Indian Summer, both the event and the term.  But Lagniappe Summer works fine, too.  All so multi-cultural.

Wishing you a lovely rest of summer and a blissful Indian/Bonus/Lagniappe Summer as well.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

[1] The taxonomy of the Red Wolf is much debated – sort of like whether the names Indian, Warrior and Redskin are insensitive or not.  Many believe that it is a cross between the Gray Wolf and Coyote. Others say it is a blend with an additional wolf species.

[2] The story of Lagniappe.  https://culinarylore.com/food-history:what-is-a-lagniappe/

[3] Apologies to song writer Cole Porter, and every great singer-artist who sang it, for poaching and re-appropriating these words. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOg3B9cELgQ

Indispensable Servants

It was the day before Labor Day. It was many, many years ago – when only ½ of US households had a television set, the vast majority showed only black and white, and there were only three stations to choose from.  That fateful red-letter Sunday my mother went into labor.  It must have frightened her, even though she was a woman of great faith, for this was her first child.

For me and my existence, this was essential labor.  Without it, I would not be on this earth.  I’ve expressed gratitude and praise to her – both in person and to her soul – for her countless sacrifices and many achievements.  She passed before I ever thought to thank her for this specific essential labor. 

This delivery – and those of my two sisters within the following three years – occurred at the old St Anne’s hospital, on the near north-west side of Chicago.  Well, things change, and St Anne’s was shuttered in 1988.  Over the following decade or so most of the grounds and nearby surrounding region were re-purposed; most significant among them being the arrival of Beth-Anne Residences.  This facility is dedicated to low-income and disabled elderly, many of whom require assisted living.  It is run by a 501-c-3 organization. So perhaps I can “slip the surly bonds of earth” at the same place I arrived.

Labor Day: it’s the day we honor workers in America – even though much of the rest of the world does this on May 1.  As we get out, have fun, fire up the grill, crack a beer, hike, bike, safely visit family and friends, and do the things we do on this end-of-summer holiday, we are tasked with recalling the importance of the American worker – the laborer.  And we recall the struggle of the labor movement, especially from the last decades of the 19th century through the first few of the 20th – their victories in achieving reasonable rights, among them: safe labor conditions, 40-hour workweeks, end of child labor, and yes, the right to collective bargaining.

This year I extend that to “essential labor.”  We’ll go here, as many businesses (and hence their workers in many cases) were deemed non-essential during this coronavirus pandemic.   The best synonym, I submit, is “indispensable servant”; those without whom society could not function with any sense of decency.

Of course, we all mandatorily identify those who serve in the health care industries as such.  From doctors, physicians assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners; – to psychologists, pharmacists, emergency medical technicians.  The breadth is wide indeed: who administers hospitals, keeps the lights on, cleans the toilets, keeps ambulances and fire trucks operational, manufactures and ships drugs & vaccines, fills and drops off liquid oxygen, cleans surgical devices …? All those people who answer the phone and answer your billing and insurance questions. It is a breathtaking list.  Appreciate them all.

What would we do without food?  Grocery store workers are essential.  But so is everyone who works in the food supply chain.  Migrants who harvest food.  Fishermen. Workers who process food – often migrants as well.  How many among us raise hogs, chickens?  Collect eggs? Don’t forget the truck drivers, truck maintenance personnel, truck stop employees, truck and dock loaders and unloaders, even longshoremen who help us get our food.  I’m sure I missed some.  Appreciate them all.

What would we do without energy?  Who keeps the electric power flowing to our houses so that our food stays fresh in our refrigerators and freezers?  How many could work from home – or communicate with the world at all – without linemen, power plant workers, engineers and technicians who keep substations, transformers, and transmission lines operational.   It’s been a hot summer in much of the country: jeepers creepers, what would we do without A/C?  Even that is rather essential. Appreciate them all.

As humans, we are naturally social.  Yet we’ve had to “socially distance” (a new verb there).  To stay “in touch” is essential to our nature.  So, don’t forget telephone and cell phone employees.  And workers for internet providers.

Sanitation.  What happens to your poop?  What happens to your garbage?  We’ve been in shut down for 6 months now.  What if each one of us had to dispose of all that shit?  Thank the garbage collectors, and anyone who supports them, like landfill workers. Thank the municipal laborers, engineers, chemists and technicians who work at and support the wastewater treatment plants – ensuring that the waste we flush, and all the stuff we send down the sink, does not ruin our environment.

Clean water.  Water is essential to life.  And steady access to clean water is essential to a healthy life.  And good coffee.  Many careers are dedicated to acquiring, treating and delivery of clean water to every household. That is surely indispensable. 

Come to think of it: With clean water and wastewater disposal as essential, well, we have to add plumbers to the list of essential workers.

Protection.  Law Enforcement has been in the spotlight a lot lately.  It’s certainly not perfect.  Yet it is critical – essential – to a society that respects individual rights.  I include fire and rescue personnel here as well as in the medical section. 

Even with reduced traffic we need to get out occasionally, if just to buy groceries.  City engineers and technicians keep the traffic lights running. 

And there’s protection at the national level.  We can have a discussion about the size of our government and our nation’s defense: but we do need them.  From scanning the skies and oceans, to cyberattacks of all sorts. 

I know I missed some.  And quite a few more that are nearly-indispensable.  Child care.   The natural gas industry (by which most of us heat our water, and will soon be heating our residences). Education: teachers, professors, para-professionals and cafeteria workers. School janitors, maintenance, and IT personnel. Transportation: mass transit workers (who often help essential workers get to work, or the grocery story), road maintenance.  Even the evil banking and financial industry has kept the wheels of the economy creaking along; who maintains ATMs and answers your calls, and processes your quarantine on-line credit card purchases?

Many simply do not make the essential or nearly-indispensable list, like swaths of government and the entire entertainment industry.  And that includes professional sports.  Not gonna apologize; you all are simply not essential to life.  We don’t need you Robert Redford, DiCaprio, Duval, LeBron, ad nauseum.  

The “not even remotely indispensable” includes anyone who works for CNN, Fox, etc.  Yep, don’t need you at all; I’m talking to you Don Lemon and Tucker Carlson. I turned you all off long ago and don’t miss you one bit.  Life rolls merrily along, and much more calmly, without you.

Happy Labor Day! Enjoy, and also be grateful for those who labor. Thank the indispensable servants among us.  This year, I task you all with identifying the less obvious indispensables. Especially those who do the things we cannot do or choose not to do. Appreciate them.

And mothers, thank them too.  Thanks mom. See you someday.

Honor the American Worker

Joe Girard © 2020

note: my mom gave birth 6 times. My siblings and I are all lucky and grateful for her many labors. After the first 3, the next was delivered in Evanston at St Francis Hospital. The last two (brothers) were in Wisconsin — I think Menominee Falls.