Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Have you ever played the game?"

       Baseball scorekeeping stories, Part II ...
       The toughest call I think I ever made as an official scorer in baseball, the toughest error I ever charged, also led to the biggest disagreement/argument.
       It was the summer of 1999, the last year the Knoxville Smokies played at old Bill Meyer Stadium just off Interstate 40/75 near downtown Knoxville. And this is about the Birmingham Barons' batting coach yelling at the official scorer: Have you ever played the game?
       Repeat (because that's what he did): Have you ever played the game?
       And the smart-aleck scorer -- that was me, of course -- yelled back: "Have you?"
       Just the start of our pleasant exchange that lasted maybe a minute.
       Coach: "I played in the big leagues!"
       Scorer: "Not for long, and not very well!"
       That was matching lack of respect with lack of respect.   
Arnold Fielkow
      The good part: He was down on the field, standing at the base of the grandstand -- with the big screen and all the stands between him and me, up in the press box atop the stadium roof. A good distance apart, and how nice because I wasn't about to go face-to-face with him.
       It was heated enough that the president of the Southern League (Arnold Fielkow, later executive vice-president of the New Orleans Saints for six years and then a New Orleans city councilman) fined the batting coach a nominal amount -- I think it was $50, or so I was told by a Knoxville team official. 
       I was told to call Fielkow about the incident, and did.  He wasn't happy and said he should fine me ... until I pleaded that I was a parttime  -in for weekday afternoon games -- I had a regular job (as a sportswriter/copy editor) -- and I was making only $25 a game, and just happy to be there. So he settled for a short lecture, telling me not to yell at any more coaches.
       Show some respect, in other words. But that respect should work both ways.
       The play: Bases empty, third inning, right-handed batter hits a screaming ground ball -- a "skinner," as my old friend Coach James Farrar used to call it -- toward right field. The second baseman, moving quickly to his left, somehow stabs the ball, then in one motion, jumps in the air, spins and does a 360 and throws the ball ... 30 feet over the first baseman's head.
       The batter is no more than 3-4 steps out of the batter's box, not halfway to first base when the throw is made. That's how hard the ball was hit, how quickly the second baseman fielded it.
       If the second baseman had stopped himself, pivoted and planted his feet, the throw to first would've had the batter/runner by 30 feet.
       So a spectacular play was followed by a dumb one, just a quick (and unfortunate) reaction. But it was a panicked, unnecessary decision.
       The official scorer -- me -- called it an error. (A tough error.) The visiting team, which was batting, didn't like the call ... at all.
       Have you ever played the game?
       And here's what I found when scoring professional baseball games: Managers, coaches and players think -- believe -- that because they play/played the game, they know more about scorekeeping plays and rules than us pedestrians.
       Of course, I don't agree.  If you've been a scorekeeper for 35 years, read and thought about the scoring rules again and again, watched a thousand games and scored a thousand more, you appreciate how difficult it is to play the game. If you're conscientious about scoring -- and I was -- and as fair as you strive to be, you're qualified.
       It's a judgment call (as I noted in the previous blog piece), and there are going to be people who judge it the other way. I've never thought my judgment was beyond question, and I've changed calls after listening to differing opinions.
       But when I described this play to a friend who loves baseball as I do, he said: "Easy error."
       It wasn't as easy a call that day in '99. I could've taken the easy way, given the second baseman credit for a heckuva play just to get to the ball, and called it a hit, and probably no one would've complained. But I kept thinking: That should have been an out. That was my instinct.
       The batting coach came out of the dugout after I made the error call and waved his arms at the press box, as if to say "what was that?" The Birmingham manager, coaching third base, glared up there, too. The batting coach told a Knoxville team official standing next to the dugout with a walkie-talkie that he wanted to talk to me about the call. I politely refused.
       Just to add to their fury, there was another play in the ninth inning when one of the Barons' players hit a ball toward first base and I again called an error on the Smokies' fielder. I didn't have a doubt about that call, but again there were glares up my way.
       Confession: I knew who the batting coach was, knew he had been a major-league player, a New York Yankees player at that. He didn't know me from first base.
Steve Whitaker (photo from Whitaker Realty)
       Steve Whitaker was -- unfortunately -- a bust with the Yankees in the late 1960s, the supposed successor to Tom Tresh in left field who came to the majors with a big buildup, but didn't live up to the promise. He got to the Yankees in 1966, just as the franchise hit bottom after years of dominance in the American League.
       He was with the Yankees for three years, a .231 hitter (18 home runs, 68 RBI) who had only fairly good season, and he was out of the majors after parts of five seasons. Most notable about him, maybe: He was once traded for Lou Piniella.
       But he was batting coach with Birmingham in the Southern League because it was the Chicago White Sox's Class AA farm team, and Whitaker spent almost three decades in the system guiding young batters.
       Another confession: I knew the Smokies' second baseman who made the play and was charged with the error. Mike Peeples was from Green Cove Springs, Fla., and had been a star at Clay High School -- in the same county (Clay) where we lived when I worked for the Florida Times-Union (in Jacksonville). I remembered him from a few years before when I was prep sports editor for the paper and had talked to him a couple of times before or after Smokies' games.        
         He was a nice young man. When I went to talk to him about that play before the next Smokies' game I scored and said it was a tough error, he said, "That's OK. I made a bad play out of it."
         In doing extensive research for this piece (not really, but it sounds good), I Googled for Steve Whitaker to check on his baseball career and was pleased to find a link to Whitaker Realty in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, home to the Yankees' spring training for 34 years (1962-95). He has been a real estate broker for 35 years; he has his family involved in the business, and it appears highly successful.
         And so I apologize for being disrespectful that day. I don't apologize for the scoring decision. That's just how I saw it, and I haven't changed my mind. But it was a tough call.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Costing Michael Jordan two points

      One late-summer day in 1994, I "robbed" Michael Jordan; I took two points away from him. And when Terry Francona wanted to discuss it, I refused. We're talking baseball here, not basketball.
      As the official scorer for Jacksonville Suns' home games for much of the 1994 season, I had such power.
      Two points here:
      (1) I was the scorer for hundreds of baseball games over the years -- kids, high school, Legion, college, pros. Maybe more than a thousand games, and I loved doing it. Even got paid for it often enough. I received plenty of advice, or suggestions, or help, or -- let's call it like it was -- criticism (and that's a nice term for it). So I've got some stories, and this is one of the best ones.
Michael Jordan, Birmingham Barons,
1994 (sportsillustrated.cnn.com)
      (2) I'm always kidding my good friend O.K. "Buddy" Davis about his "namedropping" of people he's encountered in his sportswriting life. Can't top him, but I figure Michael Jordan is about as good as I can do. (Well, I could use my moments with Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, Tom Landry and Roger Staubach.)
     Anyway, back to 1994 at old Wolfson Park in Jacksonville, Fla., and the Birmingham Barons' second visit there that season.
      It was the year that Michael Jordan -- who I've read and been told is the greatest basketball player ever -- decided he wanted to leave the NBA and play pro baseball, with the intention of making the major leagues. The Chicago White Sox gave him that chance.
      And why not? His presence at any ballpark -- anywhere, really -- was going to draw fans.
      Birmingham, in the Class AA Southern League (two levels from the majors), was the lucky recipient of his services. The White Sox, after seeing Jordan's skills in spring training (he had not played since he was a kid), decided to try him there.
      Lucky for Birmingham. Not so lucky for the young outfield prospect with major-league dreams whose place in Double-A was taken by a 31-year-old celebrity trying out a whim.        
      Great year for Birmingham, too ... at the gate. The Barons, with Jordan as the attraction and helped later in the season when the major-league season stopped (and never resumed) because of a players' strike, set a Southern League record for attendance.
       Plus, all the other Southern League cities benefited from Jordan's road appearances -- including two trips to Jacksonville. All the teams' owners and general managers loved the cash rolling in at the games involving Birmingham.
       I didn't attend the first Barons' series at Wolfson Park; I was not yet the official scorer for Suns' home games. (I do have a story about it.)
       But I was in place for the return trip in August. The crowds were much larger -- and more lively -- than for most games.
       By then, it was obvious that Michael Jordan's baseball career was going to be short-lived. If our old Shreveport super sports fan Ace "Dick" Towery had been judging his talent, he would've have written "WB" by Jordan's name. Wrong Business.
       In 127 games that season, Jordan hit 17 doubles, one triple and three home runs, stole 30 bases (in 48 tries), drew 51 walks ... but struck out 114 times and batted .202. (For you non-baseball types who have read this far, .202 is terrible.) 
       And it could've been .204 ... if only I'd given him that hit. I didn't.
       Being the official scorer in baseball isn't difficult. Mostly, it's being able to judge what is a hit and what is an error; that judgment call is 90 percent of the job. The rest is some rules semantics and recording what's happened.
       The hit/error decision is what people will question, mostly what players and managers/coaches will provide input -- sometimes gently, sometimes not. I've been yelled at enough.
       It helps these days to have television replays. But because it's been a while since I scored games and never got to the major-league level, I rarely had that benefit. I got one live look at a play, and that was it.
       But if I had questions, I didn't mind going to players or managers/coaches to ask their opinion, and I changed many a call. I never felt my judgment was infallible and I never felt I was a scoring-rules "expert," as many times as I read them. I misinterpreted several rules, and had to go back and correct my calls.
        What always mattered to me was getting the play right, as best as I could determine it. Some plays, though, are just 50-50 calls. It's just a judgment, and the scorer has to make it -- and take the criticism.
       But when Michael Jordan, in his first at-bat in the first Birmingham-at-Jacksonville game I scored, hit a dribbler that went maybe 45 feet to the first-base side of the field and the Suns' pitcher came in to field it, bobbled it and then threw a little wide to first base as Jordan arrived there. I had no doubt: error on the pitcher. It was a relatively easy play, and he flubbed it.
       The guy who was the official scorer in Jacksonville before me was very helpful in showing me what to do as I moved into the job and told me that on Birmingham's first visit, he had made a scoring call on a ball hit by Jordan and had been summoned to the team's clubhouse afterward to discuss the call with Francona, the Barons' manager. He also got to meet Jordan ... and got his autograph.
       After that visit, the scorer told me he changed his call and gave Jordan a hit.
       An admission: I've never been that enamored with Michael Jordan. Sure, I thought he was a fantastic basketball player, but I never particularly rooted for him or his teams. I thought his playing baseball was a stunt and, to this day, I think there's more to the story than has ever been made public.
Terry Francona, 1994 (comc.com)
       His gambling habits were no secret, and his father was murdered, and I'm a skeptic. That's as far as I'm going; draw your own conclusions.   
       But I wasn't particularly looking to meet him and, as the official scorer, I generally did not go to the clubhouses or dugouts and hang around. I wasn't into star gazing.
       I was familiar with Terry Francona through his college (Arizona) and pro baseball careers and because his father, Tito, had played on Atlanta Braves teams with my friends George Stone and Cecil Upshaw.
       So the "error" call on the ball Jordan tapped went on the scoreboard, and the Barons' turn at bat soon ended. As the Suns were batting in the bottom of the inning, I saw the visiting team clubhouse boy come into the press box.
       He asked for the official scorer, and I replied.
       "Mr. Francona would like to see you in the clubhouse after the game," he said. "He wants to ask you about that play on Michael Jordan."
       I laughed and said, "Tell Mr. Francona, I don't make house calls." He turned and left.
       And I never did visit with Mr. Francona. Didn't feel the need to get his input.
       Three years later he was managing in the big leagues (Philadelphia) and a decade later managed a team I don't like to think about to the first of two World Series championships under him.
       I didn't meet Mr. Jordan, either. Didn't need to.
       A few months after Birmingham's 1994 season ended, Michael was back in the NBA on the road to adding three more NBA championships to the three his team already had won.
       If I had given him that hit -- which he didn't deserve -- he would've hit .204 that season. So I cost him two points, and I suppose, I didn't help his cause to make the majors. Oh, well. (I'm sure Michael and Mr. Francona remember the play well, one of a million in their respective careers.)
       I wasn't in a charitable mood. The play was an error, no question.
       Tell you what else was an error: Jordan trying to play baseball. But it made for a good blog story.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Testifying against a Nazi guard

(20th in a series)
     Because the previous chapter in this series of my father's World War II/Holocaust experiences dealt with the guards -- SS and others -- the Nazis used to watch over and often harass the prisoners in the concentration camps, this chapter is in the same vein ... but it deals with a trial many years later.
     In his 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Dad (Louis Van Thyn) talks a few minutes about going to then-West Germany in April 1986 to testify against a Nazi prison guard accused of shooting 15 to 20 prisoners on the famed "Death March."
     I have written about this previously -- August 2012 -- before I began this series, which is about my Dad's life but centered around his Holocaust interview. I am re-visiting the subject because it now fits into the series.
     Here is a link to my previous entry about the trial: http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/08/dad-takes-on-nazi.html. And here is the link to two stories written in the Shreveport Journal, one before Dad's trip and one after his return:  http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/08/a-trial-in-germany-two-stories-1986.html.
     In his Shoah Foundation interview, Dad offers a little more explanation of the events.
     The background: Late in 1944, as the Russian armed forced advanced toward Germany and Poland (where some of the prominent concentration camps were located, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, where my mother and dad were), it was becoming evident that the Nazis were losing control.
     They abandoned many of the camps, but not before forcing the prisoners -- mostly Jewish -- on "Death Marches," making them walk for miles and miles and days and days to other camps and who knows where.             
     My mother and her companions, for instance, after a couple of weeks wound up in the middle of forests where the Russian army found them, starving and in pitiful health.
     A couple of accounts I've read said there were some 60,000 Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners forced on the "Death March," and that some 15,000 died before they could be rescued by either Russian or American military.
     My Dad did not go on the Death March. He was among the really fortunate prisoners, if you consider being in a camp hospital fortunate. In this case, it was.
     Because he had made a mistake on an assigned task counting prisoners in the Auschwitz satellite mine-work camp of Janina, an SS guard had attacked him with a hammer, struck him in the elbow and caused enough damage that treatment was necessary in the hospital.
     There were 27 men who were left in that hospital when all the other prisoners in camp were marched out. And the Nazis bailed out, too, at Janina -- another piece of good fortune.                   
     Here is what Dad remembered as he brought up the trial in Hannover.
     "Well, two come back [from the Death March], a father and son," he said. "We had carbide light in the coal mines, they were repairing that all the time. They come back in the camp and say everyone was shot. We no believe it.
     "That was 770 people. They were all shot over there."
     Dad's journey from that hospital camp and his long route home -- although "home" was nothing like it had been before -- is still to come in this series. But he must've spent years, decades, thankful for escaping the Death March and wondering if the horror stories were true.
     And 40-plus years later, the German government contacted him about a trial for Heinrich Niemeier, the guard on trial for randomly shooting prisoners on the Death March.
     "I find that out in 1986," he said in his interview. "I got a letter from the German counsel in Houston [asking] if I was willing to come to Germany to [be a] witness because I was in the camp Janina. They were trying to find witnesses, and they go all over the world [seeking] witnesses from the 27 (in the camp hospital).
     "But nobody had seen this. They found one of the guards [Niemeier] who did the shooting, and they got him in jail over there, and they try to find out, and they nimmer [never] find out who did the shooting. The Germans weren't talking.
     "I was for two weeks in Germany in 1986, and I witnessed a couple of days over there, and it was over."
     Actually, although he had been given the guard's name when the German government contacted him, part of Dad's frustration before the trial was the scant information he had.
     "And you know how I find out [what the trial was about]?" he told the interviewer. "I don't know why I had to go over there."
     Steve Norder, who did the stories for the Shreveport Journal (where I was executive sports editor at the time), had sent letters to the judge in Germany seeking information. But by the time he received a reply, Dad was already on his way to Hannover.
     "I had a sister-in-law [his first wife's sister, also a Holocaust survivor] in Amsterdam and she was real close with that organization there [the Dutch Auschwitz committee]," Dad said, "and I call her and I say I want to know what's going on.
     "She said, 'Where are you?,' and I say in the Holiday Inn in Hannover. And on Sunday afternoon, there was a letter for me from my sister-in-law, and she gave me all the information I need.
     "I could not find that over here [in the U.S.]. We called the Wiesenthal Center, we called New York. Nobody knows, nobody was interested. Nobody was interested. The Dutch Auschwitz Committee found everything out in two days."
     The interviewer: Was it established who did the shooting?
     "No, they never find out exactly what happened," Dad answered. "They know they were shot in the woods. Now I don't know who was looking after that -- the German government or what -- [but] I was in [Hannover] Germany and the day before the trial -- it was a Monday night -- I was invited by two German policemen. They had a friend here in Shreveport; he was a German military policeman [and] he was a policeman here. He was 18 when he immigrated and became a military man and was sent back as a policeman because he spoke the German language. He connected me with these two German policemen. One picked me up at the airport and took me to my hotel.
     "And the night before I had to go to court, he said, 'Now listen, you know that German is an old, sick man. He maybe have do it, maybe not, but I think he is too old to be on trial. You know that was somebody [who was] against the Germans, but he was a policeman.
     "The lawyer from him [the defendant] the next morning come to me, and he was real nice, real friendly -- I didn't know who he was, but I find out later it was his defense lawyer. He asked me if I recognized him, and I said no."
     And here is where I enter the story because Dad then tells the interviewer: "My son said go [to Germany] say yes [that he knew the defendant]. I cannot do that."
     (I don't remember telling him that, but I don't think Dad made it up.) 
     "It was 40 years, 40 years later, and they let me see all kinds of pictures [of the SS guards, including Niemeier]," Dad said. "I tell them all the information I had, and the judge told me later on -- there were seven judges over there, you know the court in Germany is different than from over here -- he said, you know the names from these. I say I know the first names, but nobody introduced me to him, to the German army. And [the judge] laughed.
      "But I knew exactly who some of them were -- I say that was the block fuhrer, that was the [overseeing] fuhrer. But I don't know no names. I saw the pictures from the time they were in German [army] clothes. ... I recognize them, but I don't know no names. And I don't recognize that guard."
      The interviewer: How many witnesses were there?
      "They said there were about 20, but every time somebody else. I got a second letter -- I have it here in my cabinet [at home], [asking] that I had to come back over there."
      The interviewer: Was Niemeier convicted?
      "No, he was not," Dad answered. "No. He was convicted before want [because] he killed an Italian doctor. So he was [already] eight years in jail.
      "And he was not sick at all. He looked real healthy because I saw him sitting over there. He was healthy."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

They'll all wear No. 42 ... for Jackie

        Here is a guarantee: The star of every major-league baseball game tonight will be wearing uniform No. 42.
        Also, if you are working in a newspaper sports department and you have to write a baseball photo cutline tonight, identification might be difficult. "Who is this No. 42 in the photo?" is what I used to ask.
        My yearly joke ... back when I used to work.
        April 15 each year is one of the great days, obviously not because of income-tax filing deadline but because it is Jackie Robinson Day in baseball.
        No sport honors its heroes and the game's history better than baseball, and in my opinion, no honor in baseball is greater than this one.
        In 1997, Jackie Robinson's uniform No. 42 was retired through the game -- only those still using it at the time could keep wearing it. In 2004, baseball declared each April 15 Jackie Robinson Day, and starting with Ken Griffey Jr. asking to wear No. 42 in 2007, players (and some teams) began wearing No. 42.
        In 2009, it became a declared tradition--  every player, manager and coach in uniform will wear No. 42 on April 15 (or April 16, if a team is off the day before).
        In fact, this will be the first year that no active player wears No. 42 regularly because the last one -- fittingly, the classy Mariano Rivera -- retired after last season.
        Seeing everyone lined up in pregame ceremonies wearing No. 42 is special.
        I love it because like millions, I admired what Jackie Robinson stood for, admired his courage and his struggle as he broke baseball's color barrier, starting with his first official game on April 15, 1947.
        That was two months and one day before I was born, and almost all of Jackie's major-league career with the Brooklyn Dodgers was played before I began paying attention to baseball. His last season, 1956, was my first season in the United States, so I really don't remember seeing him play.
        However, I have seen the World Series films of the early and mid 1950s, I have seen the highlight clips of Jackie, and I'm going to say what might surprise you: I would not have liked Jackie as a player.
        I think he was one of those players who if he is on your team, you love him; if he's not, you don't like him at all. You might even despise him.
Jackie Robinson was one of the toughest baserunners in
 baseball history (photo from sports.yahoo.com)
        In Jackie's case, race -- his color -- had much or all to do with that. That would not have mattered to me.
        What would've mattered is that he played for the Dodgers -- and I'm a Yankees fan. In the years Jackie played -- 1947 to '56 -- the Yankees and Dodgers were the best teams in baseball. They faced each other in the World Series six of the 10 seasons.
        As a player, he was (1) a terrific talent, a guy who could beat the opponents with his bat, and (2) an agitator, an aggressive and disruptive baserunner who could frustrate opponents with his legs; and (3) a helluva competitor.
        He helped beat the Yankees in enough games for them to notice. But he and his Dodgers teammates -- the famed "Boys of Summer" team -- won only one of those six World Series. So we were all right with that.
        But my Yankees bias aside, I've grown to be a fan of those Brooklyn Bums.
        Reading Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer -- one of my favorite sports books and published in 1972, the year Jackie died -- and dozens of books and articles about those 1950s Dodgers made me appreciate them and appreciate Jackie's challenges.
        One of the central themes of the poignant remembrance of the lives of the men who were the core of that team and the team's saga was Jackie's heroic entrance into a previously all-white game.
        Jackie certainly had plenty of detractors -- those who didn't want blacks in baseball, period -- and those who didn't like the way he played.
        He was an in-your-face, do-what-you-can-to-win player. And after those first couple of years when Dodgers GM Branch Rickey asked him to take the verbal and physical abuse and not react, he was an outspoken critic -- and I emphasize "outspoken" -- of those who opposed integration and he was an up-front advocate for social progress. He did not hold back.
        Among his rivals, none was greater than the next-door neighbor New York Giants, managed through the early 1950s by ex-Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, who in the chapter on Jackie from The Boys of Summer ("The Lion at Dusk") said in classic, crude Durocher fashion: "Ya want a guy that comes to play. This guy didn't just come to play. He come to beat ya. He come to stuff the (blank blank) bat right up your [behind]."
Rachel Robinson (left), Sharon Robinson and the last active
No. 42, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera last season
        Wow, thank you, Leo.
        Also among Robinson's critics was Casey Stengel, surprisingly perhaps as we look back because The Ol' Professor is regarded as one of baseball's most beloved and most colorful characters. But he and Jackie were often bitterly critical of each other in public. I can cite examples, but space is limited.
        I suspect that as much as Stengel liked to win (and did), he wouldn't have minded having Mr. Robinson on his team. That's not the way history unfolded.
       So now, in each major-league ballpark, the No. 42 is symbolized on an outfield wall or in a monument park such as the one at Yankee Stadium. Baseball treats the still-lovely Mrs. Robinson, Jackie's widow -- her name is Rachel, and there's no name better than that -- as royalty; same for Jackie's daughter, Sharon. They've helped carry on the man's legacy with their grace.  
         Baseball always has its flaws and its controversies. But retiring the No. 42 for all time -- except for April 15, one day per season when everyone wears the number, is about as good as it gets in the game.
          And you want symbolism? This year it has been 42 years -- 42 -- since Jackie Robinson left us -- far too soon at age 53. He is never to be forgotten, always to be honored, and that's the way it should be.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The camp guards: Men without faces

(19th in a series)
       The question came up deep into my Dad's 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview recalling his Holocaust and concentration-camp experiences: "Did you remember any of the German guards?"
       Dad (Louis Van Thyn) was great at remembering events and places, and in many instances remembering faces and names. But not always and to this question, not at all ... at first.
       His first reply to the question: "No, I don't remember the camp guards." His explanation: [Nazi] SS guards didn't come into the camps; they didn't want to take the chance of going into the places where it was dark or in the coal mines."
       Dad had plenty of time working in the coal mines at the Auschwitz satellite camps of Jawischowitz and Janina, so he knew what he was talking about.
       But earlier in the interview, when he talked of being sent -- by mistake -- to a railroad work crew for a few days, he mentioned two guards by name: Otto and Bill. And as we shall see in a moment, one of those names returns to the conversation.
       From fcit.usf.edu/holocaust/people: The SS -- short for Schutzstaffelnor -- began in 1925 as a small personal guard unit to protect Hitler and other party leaders and developed into the elite corps, the BlackShirts, under the direction of Heinrich Himller.
        In gathering information for this chapter, I read on the web site en.auschwitz.org, that in the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau -- where both my parents were imprisoned for about 2 1/2 years -- the SS garrison was estimated to number 700 in 1941, 2,000 in June 1942, 3,000 in April 1944, about 3,300 men and female overseers in August 1944, and a peak number of 4,480 men and 71 female supervisors in mid-January 1945, just before the final evacuation of the camp.
         Each prisoner "block" -- my mother, for instance, was in the famed Block 10 (medical experiment) for women -- had a supervisor (blockfuhrer) and a prisoner labor detail (kommandofuhrer).
        The hierarchy, as you can imagine, came down from the leaders who made the decisions that ultimately led to the thousands/millions of Jewish prisoners (and non-Jewish, as well) sent to the gas chambers or killed by other means (shootings, hangings, beatings, etc.). 
An SS guard unit at Auschwitz (photo from http://ww2db.com)
       But much of the everyday involvement with the prisoners was left to either the haftlinge -- the German criminals taken from prisons and made to oversee the concentration-camp prisoners -- or the kapos -- the trustee inmates, many of them Jewish, the Nazis used to oversee their fellow prisoners.
         I can just imagine how faceless these guards must've been to Dad and his fellow prisoners, probably just as faceless (and nameless) as the prisoners were to the guards. Remember those numbers tattooed into the prisoners' arms (Dad was 70726) were their identification.
         And again from en.auschwitz.org: Theodor Eicke, commandant of the Dachau concentration camp, issued instructions to SS guard units -- as early as Oct. 1, 1933 -- and "stressed the necessity of treating the prisoners harshly, as enemies of the Third Reich and the German people. Showing any kind of human impulses toward them was not only frowned upon by superiors, but also sneered at among the SS men themselves as being 'soft' and showing a 'lack of character.' ”
           No question the SS officers and guards totally bought into the Nazi Party hysteria. But you have to wonder how many of the guards dealing daily with the prisoners themselves were there because they were forced to be, had no choice but to support their country and serve in the military.
           Surely, they must've known that treating people without any shred of dignity was just plain criminal.
            So, in talking about the guards he didn't remember by name, Dad said, "We had Germans who were real bad." Apparently he felt that way about the previously mentioned Otto and Bill, who were kapos. But then he remembered a later instance.
          "Now that we were in that camp Janina, that same Bill that was in the strafcommando in Jawischowitz, he came to our camp and he recognized us, about 10 men we were there," Dad said. "And he was changed. You know, he came there in early '44, and he did everything good for us.
          "We know how bad he was in Jawischowitz, and he changed all the way. We could do everything for him, and he did everything for us."
          The interviewer asked Dad, "How come?"
          "He was thinking [that] when the war is over, that he was safe," Dad answered. "You know they killed many kapos in Auschwitz, and on the Death March, too. But they took the gentile [guards],  took all the German [guards] out of our camp in November '44 [a couple of months before the camp abandonment]."
          However, as he pointed out, that was no relief for those guards.
          "Two were volunteers in the East [the Germans' battle on that front against the advancing Russian forces]," Dad said. "They took four kapos, or block elders -- they were the leaders in our camp -- and they volunteered for the German wehrmacht (united forces). Two came back -- one with one arm and one with one leg.
          "They were free then. They guaranteed them that if they went to the East -- and we couldn't laugh," he said, laughing now at the thought.
          "When they came back [from the Eastern front], they wanted to see what [our] camp was like.
          "Later on, we had a couple that came back there, and I don't know what they did with them."
          The interviewer asked again about "Bill," about his full name.
          "His name was Bill. Second name we don't know," Dad answered. "You know we don't know the second name of the inmates."
          What happened to him?
          "I don't know," Dad answered. "I think he went back [to Germany]. You know he was a politician; he was not a criminal. You know the redshirts. We had some red ones that were real good, but the green [shirts] and black ones."
          Again, as I view Dad's interview years later, this part is vague. I assume that the redshirts were the kapos. He tried to explain what green and black shirts meant, but didn't follow through. Another assumption: Those were bad guys.
            The subject of camp guards comes up again a couple of minutes later because in 1986, Dad was contacted by the German government to testify against a Nazi officer. I have written about this previously in the blog -- almost two years ago -- and in the next chapter of this series will re-visit those pieces and Dad's recollections during his Shoah Foundation interview.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

'A great moment for all of us'

      (Second of two parts)
      I saw the moment live in the stadium, and I've seen it hundreds of times on television or on my computer. It still brings chill bumps.
      I've had more sports thrills than many people; it is a lengthy list. That night at Atlanta Stadium, 40 years ago tonight, when Hank Aaron hit home run No. 715 and broke Babe Ruth's unbreakable record, had me literally jumping on my seat.
      Proof that I was there: The certificate handed out to spectators at the stadium that night, and the Atlanta newspapers from the next day.
       Maybe it wasn't the greatest moment of Aaron's baseball life -- he was on a World Series championship team, the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, a season he was the National League's Most Valuable Player that year -- but little doubt it was the greatest of his 755 career MLB home runs.
        It was a home run heard and seen around the country, and the world.
        There were three significant play-by-play calls of the moment -- Braves announcer Milo Hamilton, NBC-TV's Curt Gowdy, and Dodgers announcer Vin Scully. Hamilton's is the most replayed version. Scully, in my opinion the greatest sports announcer of our lifetime, sets the best scene (again, my opinion). I will end this piece with his commentary.
         What I remember most is the explosion of noise at the realization that the ball was going over the left-field fence and then the mob scene at home plate and the ceremonies thereafter.
         And, as you see it again, the joy and relief on Hank Aaron's face. The quiet, graceful man was the most-deserved king of baseball that night. He remains royalty to this day; he always will.
         In Part I, I told the story of why and how I was there that night.  Some other recollections ...
         -- As some of my friends like to kid me, I can connect most anything to my hometown of 25 years, Shreveport.  The Braves that season (1974) had six ex-Shreveport Braves players on their roster. Three of them were starters that night -- third baseman Darrell Evans, center fielder Dusty Baker and right fielder Ralph Garr. One was a reserve shortstop, Leo Foster. Two were pitchers, Carl Morton and Tom House.
         -- It was House, who pitched the first game in 1968 when Shreveport returned to pro baseball after a six-year absence, who caught Aaron's home run on the fly in the Braves' bullpen and carried to home plate to present it to Hank.
         -- Garr was the Braves' leadoff batter that night. The very fast young man (nickname: "The Roadrunner"), one of our favorites because he was from Ruston, La., and a superstar at Grambling College the year I was a freshman at Louisiana Tech, was sensational that season, the National League batting champ with a .353 average.
         -- Dusty (actually Johnnie B.) Baker, who played in Shreveport at age 20, wound up the 1974 season with the exact numbers as Aaron (20 home runs, 69 RBI). He was the on-deck batter when Hank connected for 715. Wearing No. 12 and down on one knee, Dusty raises up and raises his left hand as he starts toward the plate.
         -- Evans was the man on base when Aaron -- who had drawn a walk in the first inning -- hit the home run in the third and tied the score 3-3.
         -- The pitcher who gave up the home run (it's an easy trivia question) was a personal favorite, Dodgers left-hander Al Downing. For seven seasons, starting in 1963, he was a regular for my team, the Yankees (72-57 record, two big World Series losses).
         -- After giving up the home run to Aaron, Downing faced only one more batter (the Braves scored four runs in the inning en route to a 7-4 victory). The guy who relieved, Mike Marshall, that season would be the majors' best relief pitcher, the NL Cy Young Award winner and leader of a pennant-winning Dodgers team.
         -- Phil Niekro was the Braves' pitching ace (as he was for a decade), but that night's starting and winning pitcher was Ron Reed, the ex-Notre Dame basketball and baseball star.
         -- The Braves' team included two future major-league managers of note -- catcher Johnny Oates and second baseman Davey Johnson. Forgettable starters that night: catcher Vic Correll, first baseman Mike Lum and shortstop Craig Robinson.
         -- This for my umpiring buddies: The crew was Satch Davidson, Frank Pulli, Ed Sudol and big Lee Weyer.
        -- The Dodgers' left fielder, the guy who jumped and leaned over the fence trying to catch the ball, was Bill Buckner. You might remember him for another baseball moment.
        -- The Dodgers' starting infield that night was the same as it was for a very successful decade: Steve Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second, Bill Russell at shortstop, Ron Cey (The Penguin) at third. One other notable starter: Jimmy Wynn -- the "Toy Cannon" and former Astros star -- in center field.
        -- It was only a so-so Braves team, 88-74 record, third in the NL West. The manager, Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews, was fired after 99 games (50-49). Clyde King replaced him.
        -- The Braves' general manager was Eddie Robinson (from Paris, Texas), who succeeded Paul Richards in that job and went from Atlanta to be GM of the Texas Rangers. The farm director was Bill Lucas, who was Hank Aaron's brother-in-law, succeeded Robinson in the GM position (to become the first black GM in the majors) and died in 1979, far too young at 43.
        Milo Hamilton's call:
         "He's sitting on 714. Here's the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There's a drive into left-center field. That ball is gonna be ... out of here! It's gone! It's 715! There's a new home-run champion of all time, and it's Henry Aaron.
         "The fireworks are going. Henry Aaron is coming around third. His teammates are at home plate, and listen to this crowd."
        After a moment of silence, Hamilton continued: "A sellout crowd is cheering. Henry Aaron, the home-run king of all time. 715 came on a one-ball, no-strike count. It was into left-center. Bill Buckner, the left fielder, tried to go up and get it. He climbed the fence, he couldn't get it.
        "This crowd is going crazy. Now Henry is over by his lovely wife, Billye, over by his parents and the rest of his family."
        Curt Gowdy's call:
        "There's a long drive. Ball's hit deep. Deep. It is gone! He did it! He did it! Henry Aaron is the all-time home run leader now. ... Listen to this (crowd)! He did it!
        Vin Scully's call:
        "... One ball and no strikes. Aaron waiting. The outfield deep and straight away. Fastball. There's a high drive into deep left-center field. Buckner goes back, to the fence ... it is gone!"
        And then Scully lets the moment sink in, with one minute and 45 seconds of silence (I timed this on a YouTube clip. You. (Fireworks going off).
        When he speaks again, he sums it up wonderfully:
        “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.
        "And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves but by his father and mother. He threw his arms around his father and as he left the home-plate area, his mother came running across the grass, threw her arms around his neck, kissed him for all she was worth.
       "As Aaron circled the bases, the Dodgers on the infield shook his hand, and that was a memorable moment. Aaron is being mobbed by photographers, he's holding his right hand high in the air and for the first time in a long time, that poker face of Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”
        "It is over. At 10 minutes after 9 in Atlanta, Georgia, Henry Aaron has eclipsed the mark set by Babe Ruth."
          There is more from Scully, but I'll end here. Except to add that being in the stadium that night is something I hope to never forget, and to know that the next time I watch the moment, the chill bumps will be there again.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hank's home run No. 715 ... I was there

      (First of two parts)
      I was there; I saw it happen live at Atlanta Stadium. It is the most significant sports event I have witnessed, and I don't mind bragging about being in the stands.
      Forty years ago Tuesday night -- Monday, April 8, 1974 -- Henry Aaron hit one of baseball's most memorable home runs: No. 715 of his major-league career.
      Hank beat The Babe. Finally.
      In the words of Atlanta Braves' play-by-play announcer Milo Hamilton as Aaron turned past second base on his greatest home-run trot: " ... There's a new home run champion of all time, and it's Henry Aaron."
       I have witnesses I was there -- my good friends, the Tucker family of Clarkston, Ga. (our connection was their house was my "home away from home" just around the block for several years in the old neighborhood -- Sunset Acres in Shreveport).
      We were there together that night, with great seats, just to the left of home plate high in the lower deck and very proud to have been among 53,775 paid spectators.
      I was determined to see Hank hit No. 715 and eclipse the supposed "untouchable" 714 of Babe Ruth. I was prepared to watch 14 consecutive Atlanta Braves games, if that's what it took.
      It was an idea formulated over the off-season between 1973 and 1974, and it took (1) a lot of help and (2) good luck.
      The idea was inspired two men and two events.
      The first was Jack Fiser. In his farewell column as sports editor of The Shreveport Times in 1962, he wrote about figuratively -- maybe literally -- hanging out of the Tiger Stadium press box after Billy Cannon's Halloween punt return against Ole Miss (the greatest play in LSU football history) and LSU's goalline stand at the end of that game.
       The second was Irv Zeidman, the 1950s/'60s Shreveport Sports baseball/Centenary basketball play-by-play announcer and later an excellent Tevye in a Shreveport production of Fiddler on the Roof. I remember him telling me that he was at Yankee Stadium for Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series in 1956.
         Of course, the tale is that there are 500,000 who claim to be part of the 64,519 (paid) at Yankee Stadium that day.  But if IZ told me he was there, I believed it.
          I wanted my own monumental moment. Mr. Aaron would provide.
          First piece of luck: Hank ended the 1973 season with 713 home runs -- one short of The Babe. He hit No. 713 in the Braves' next-to-last game of '73; in the season finale, he went 3-for-4 ... but no home run.  So the world spent all winter waiting for his first two home runs of the '74 season.
          The decades-long speculation of whether anyone would ever top Babe's record -- the most talked-about baseball subject of our lifetime, in my opinion, with only Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier as a challenger -- had really ramped up in the 1972 season.
          The most likely challengers -- Mantle, Williams, Frank Robinson and Mays -- had all come up short with age, injury, service time stepping in. Aaron had been in the majors since 1954, a huge all-around talent, but quiet and maybe even somewhat underappreciated. He had not been talked about that much in the home-run chase for years, but he just kept hitting 'em out of the park.
           He had seven seasons with 40 or more home runs and the realization that Aaron, not Mays, would be the one to break the record came finally came in 1971 when Hank hit a career-high 47.
           In 1972, when he passed Mays with homer No. 649, there was no one between him and The Babe. The chase was in the final stretch. But I still didn't dream I'd get a chance to see No. 715.
            Second piece of luck: The 1974 National League schedule. As soon as I saw it, I knew there was a chance. The Braves opened with three games in Cincinnati, then had 10 in a row in Atlanta ... and the next four in Houston.
             So I could go to Atlanta for all those games and, if necessary, fly to Houston, where I'd often seen games at the Astrodome. All I had to do was make the arrangements.
             Now for the help.
             -- Bill McIntyre, sports editor of The Times and my boss, said he would let me take my two weeks of vacation that year in April, with days off at the front and back ends, too.
              -- The Braves' and Astros' public-relations departments. This was still an era when baseball PR departments provided free tickets upon request, if available, to sports department people. I had done that for Astros, Braves and Texas Rangers' games for a decade; so had many others. It was an era when newspapers didn't have ethical rules about that, and when baseball crowds weren't so huge, not was the game's financial status.
               So the Braves and Astros were willing to give me two comp tickets for every game of my possible 14-game journey ... except the home opener in Atlanta, for which there was great demand.
              -- The Tuckers were willing to put up with me, and give me a place to stay, for 10 days. I had made trips to Atlanta, and stayed with them, on at least three vacations in the previous seven years. Like I said above, they were my second family.
               And because we knew I couldn't get comp tickets for the Braves' home opener, they purchased five tickets for that night.
Hank Aaron arrives at home plate after career home run No. 714 ... this was
 in Cincinnati on Opening Day, 1974 (photo from mearsonliveauctions.com)
              Third piece of luck: Hank Aaron did not hit two home runs in the first three games of the 1974 season in Cincinnati. But he did hit No. 714 to tie the Babe -- on his first at-bat of the season.
              I was still in Shreveport at that point, happy for Hank, dismayed that my plan was going to be foiled. I was catching a flight to Atlanta the next day.
              After that, we had to sweat out six at-bats against the Reds. No rooting against him, of course, but just hoping he'd keep the ball in the ballpark at Riverfront Stadium.
             In the season opener, he had three more at-bats after his first-inning homer off Jack Billingham before he came out of the game. Groundout to third, walk, flyout to center ... pulled from the game.
             Because the Braves, especially manager Eddie Mathews (Hank's teammate for 13 years, the first 12 in Milwaukee), wanted to see the record broken in Atlanta, they held Aaron out of the season's second game. That so irritated Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that, citing his stiff-necked "best interest of baseball" clause, he ordered them to play him the next day in Cincinnati.
             So on that Sunday, as I attended my first National Hockey League game -- the second-year Atlanta Flames' regular-season finale at The Omni against the Pittsburgh Penguins -- Aaron was in the lineup against the Reds.
             The hockey game was fun; my friends had season tickets and an on-site tutorial for me. But the baseball game was on TV in the concourse area, so every time we knew Aaron was going to bat, we ran up there to watch.
             Hank struck out looking in the second inning, struck out looking in the third, and grounded out to third in the fifth. Then -- mercifully -- he was pulled from the game for a defensive replacement (in left field) after the top of the seventh.
             He was coming home to Atlanta for No. 715. How lucky for us, and Braves' fans.
             Next: "A great moment for all of us" (Part II)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Our man Ikey, a legend at Tech

Ikey Sanderson
          For a dozen college basketball trips while I was at Louisiana Tech University 45-50 years ago, my roommate was the Mayor of Choudrant, La.
         He also was the chief electrician at La. Tech, a master of sound systems and lighting. He was, as I described him then several times in the school newspaper, "an all-around handyman." He could do and fix just anything.
          But people also knew him, perhaps most of all, for the reason he was on the basketball trips -- he was our bus driver. The driver of Tech's famed "Blue Goose," the trailways-like big bus painted in Tech's red-and-blue colors. It wasn't always a cozy ride, but it was ours.
          His name was William Lynn Sanderson. Few people called him that, or maybe even knew that. He was simply "Ikey."
          Ikey Sanderson. A legend at Louisiana Tech.
          He was another of the great people in my life. I am sure many people feel the same way.
          A description I've used for several people I've known and written about: He was a character ... with great character.
          He was as jolly as Santa Claus. In fact, he looked like Santa Claus -- a dark-haired version without the beard. Well, he had the belly for it; didn't need any padding.
          He was a wiseguy, full of jokes and stories and cracks that could just level people. But it was all good-spirited; there was nothing mean about Ikey. He also was a wise man; one could learn a lot being around him.
          He was a world-class jokester, a practical joker (as you will see as you read on). He was also an even-tempered, mild-mannered guy, devoted to his family, to Tech and its people, to Choudrant, and to his church (taught a college Sunday School class and was on the board of deacons, at one point with his father).
         The worst thing I ever heard him say -- in the rare instances when he was upset, such as when the Blue Goose was acting up -- was, "Aw, foot."
          I've never heard anyone else say, "Aw, foot." Only Ikey.
          And he was a politician. But don't get the wrong idea. He hardly had to run for anything.
          He was mayor of the Village of Choudrant -- seven miles east of Ruston, just off Interstate-20 -- for 42 years. He was appointed to the job by the governor when the town was incorporated in 1949; he never had an opponent in an election until 1988, and of course, he won easily.
          He was not only the most popular man in Choudrant, he might've been the most popular in all his time at Louisiana Tech -- again from 1949 through his retirement in 1978.
          Two people at Tech in the 1950s, '60s and '70s who I came to know knew almost everyone at the university -- and had a story or tale for them. One was Berry Hinton, the longtime alumni director/baseball coach. The other was Ikey.
          Coach Hinton could be quite salty but was a genuinely nice man ... and a helluva baseball coach in his time. But for meeting people or for popularity, no one could top Ikey Sanderson.
           Harper Hall was a women's dorm at Tech and one day word got out there that a man was in the building. There was mild panic and some scrambling until one girl yelled, "Don't worry. It's just Ikey. He's here to change the lights."                  
           Choudrant is now the home of the prestigious Squire Creek Country Club, which probably has helped boost the population to 845 (2010 census), so I guess by now it has at least one stoplight that does more than blink.
          It is a suburb of sorts to the nearby "big city," Ruston (I know you're laughing). Here's the way I see it: Choudrant is a metropolis compared to my wife's hometown, Jamestown, La. (latest population: 139).
          Choudrant's town slogan -- on its web site -- is "Louisiana's Front Porch." I like that.
          The town is full of Sandersons, and in fact, a Sanderson has been mayor for 65 years now; Ikey's look-alike son, Bill, succeeded him after Ikey's passing after a massive heart attack in 1991. (And Bill and his family live 175 yards where he grew with Ikey and Clarice (Mrs. Ikey). 
          This is where Ikey spent most of his life; his father was the town druggist at the drug store there. It's where Ikey learned to deal with electronics; just after World War II, he helped set up the town for an electric system.  
          Here's something I think few people knew about Ikey: In World War II, he served with the U.S. Army in Italy, and he earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He didn't talk about that.
          What he saw in that war might've given him a soft spot for my family. Having learned of my parents' background, he always made a point of speaking to my Dad at Tech athletic events in the mid- to late 1960s. He knew about the suffering in Europe.
          He came back to the U.S. and worked for a while at Western Electric in Corpus Christi, Texas. He learned to operate bigger vehicles, driving a watermelon truck in the area around Choudrant and then trucks carrying cotton from the gins in town (his great grandparents were cotton farmers).
          Then, in 1949, the job opened at Louisiana Tech. When they needed sound systems or lighting set up, Ikey was the man. If there was an event on campus -- athletics, music, theater -- Ikey was there.
          "He was involved with the band, orchestra, theater, sports, whatever," Bill remembered. "Mostly, he just loved dealing with people."
          And those people also meant the people on the Blue Goose -- any group of 20-40 people traveling to represent Tech. That meant athletic teams -- coaches, players, even student sports information assistants.
          Maybe the Blue Goose had some other drivers; I don't know. But not many, I can assure you. If it was rolling across Louisiana (or elsewhere), Ikey was probably at the wheel.
We knew we were in good hands.
          He drove the Goose from its purchase in 1950 until it was replaced, about 1980. He kept driving even after his official retirement from his Tech job in 1978. They had replaced the engine and the transmission, changed out the entire transmission system. But they never replaced the driver. He even drove the new Trailways purchase a few times after the Goose was done.
            You'd get on the bus for a trip of some length and there was a bin with sandwiches, milk and chips, etc., provided by the cafeteria people. The biggest problem was keeping Ikey out of it.         
             About those road trips: Rooming with Ikey was fun, except ...
            He was a world champion at snoring. He roared. Guarantee you that wherever we were -- South Louisiana, South Texas -- they could him snoring back in Choudrant.
            Plus, because he was the bus driver, he needed his sleep. So when we got back to the hotel after games, he was in bed like two minutes after we got to the room.
            For me, having to compile statistics or write a story and -- as is still the case -- trying to unwind from the game, that meant bailing out and a lot of lobby-sitting time. And then trying to go to sleep with Mr. Sanderson's blasts ... ha!
             The way I figure it, the Sanderson family owes me for about a month's worth of lost sleeping time.
              But Ikey was always prompt. We left and arrived on time. And he didn't rattle, if traffic was tough or a parking spot was hard to find. Coach Scotty Robertson was always pretty sure of himself and could be quite dictatorial, and when (or if) he had directions for Ikey, Ikey would listen ... and then do what he knew was best.
              Here's what else about Ikey: He could, and would, pick on anyone if he found a reason. My friend Keith Prince, for 25 years the sports information director at Tech, was laughing about this recently. "Didn't matter if it was the school president or the janitor," he recalled, "if Ikey found something to tease someone about, he'd do it."
              Yep, Ikey had something for everyone.
              We had two basketball players -- let's call them Watson and Gregory -- who nearly came to blows on one bus trip. Ikey heard the commotion.
               Next time we were getting on the bus, Ikey turned and said, "Some of you guys sit between Watson and Gregory. Keep 'em apart."
                Maybe the next time, it was: "Watson, you and Gregory can sit next to each other, and be nice."
                 And Ikey loved to pick on me, the Jewish kid. I didn't keep kosher, but that didn't matter to Ikey. The subject matter was that ham wasn't kosher. So on one of our first trips to South Louisiana, Ikey pulled the bus up to Lea's Lunchroom -- a traditional stop in Lecompte (just below Alexandria), well-known for its ham sandwiches.
               "OK, everyone, let's eat," Ikey announced. "Nico, you can just stay on the bus."
                Another story, same vein, my senior year at Tech. Ikey invited my Tech sportswriting partner, O.K. "Buddy" Davis, and me to lunch at the Sanderson home in Choudrant. We sat down to eat and the sweet Miss Clarice served up soup in a bowl. Pea soup.
                 "See those pink specks," Ikey quickly pointed out to me. "That's ham. You can just pick those out and put 'em aside on this plate." Very funny, Ikey.
                 But here was the worst thing he did to me. We were in Thibodaux, La., to play Nicholls State, and the team sat for the pregame meal -- baked potato, green beans, a nice steak. They served everyone, and I was the last to be served.
                  My plate had one sliver of steak ... with the little blue tab "medium rare" stuck in it.
                  I looked at that piece and looked up to the other end of the table. The jolly little round man was just chuckling. Ikey's practical joke, and the joke was on me.
                  I don't know if Ikey Sanderson is in any Louisiana Tech Hall of Fame. He should be. I know he is in my people Hall of Fame. He was one special man.

Three views of Louisiana Tech's old Blue Goose,
still alive (sort of) at the bus barn 
(photos provided by Philip Neaville)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Baseball in Houston ... it feels right

     The New York Yankees open this season tonight in Houston, and other than Yankee Stadium, that's a great setting, in my opinon. I'm very partial to baseball to Houston.
      Because other than Shreveport's ballparks, the ones in Houston meant the most to me. And the cities shared a Texas League history -- with teams in Dallas and Fort Worth, too -- for more than 40 years.
Colt Stadium (bottom right) in Houston, where I saw my
first major-league games, predecessor to the Astrodome.
(Houston Chronicle photo) 
       I never went to Buff Stadium, the longtime home of Houston's minor-league teams that stood four miles southeast of downtown along the Gulf Freeway (Interstate 45). It's long gone, torn down; there is a Houston baseball museum as part of the grounds there.
       But I can identify with Houston's major-league stadiums -- old and new.
       I saw my first MLB games at makeshift  Colt Stadium, in 1963. Johnny Podres almost pitched a no-hitter for the Dodgers in the first game I saw; Juan Marichal pitched and Willie McCovey and Willie Mays hit home runs for the Giants the next night. More on these games below.
       I saw Sandy Koufax pitch in the Astrodome the year it opened, 1965 -- in a packed house of more than 50,000; Dad and I sat in the fifth deck, high up in right field ... behind the foul pole.
       I made almost yearly trips to that giant structure -- the Eighth Wonder of the World, as they called, through the middle 1970s. Took Jason to a game there when he was still a kid; covered the MLB All-Star Game there in 1986.
       This blog piece primarily is for my old friends from Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana because they can identify with this. For a decade -- from the time Houston joined the National League in 1962 through 1971 -- it was the closest major-league team we had in proximity.
       Many baseball fans in my area were partial to the St. Louis Cardinals because before the Colt .45s/Astros, the Cardinals' games were on radio in our area ... with Harry Caray and then Jack Buck and Joe Garagiola as the announcers.
      When the Texas Rangers came into existence in 1972, it brought the American League into our area and gave the Astros a challenge for fans from North Louisiana and East Texas.
       Before Houston had an MLB team, I know some of my friends saw their first major-league games at old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. You could make the lengthy drive up there or take the train out of Shreveport, and the Athletics -- never very good -- had a local tie; the Shreveport Sports were their Double-A farm team from 1959 to 1961. So some of the Sports players moved up to KC.
      Even if the Colt .45s/Astros weren't our favorite team, we got all their games on radio (with the very professional Gene Elston as the main play-by-play man and the biggest "homer" in MLB history, Houston legend/cheerleader Loel Passe, as his partner) and we got a 15- to 20-game package on TV -- almost all on weekends.  Harry Kalas joined the broadcast team for six years, starting the year the 'Dome opened.
      (The only TV alternative in those 1960s years was the major network's "Game of the Week," first on CBS with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese, which after the network bought ownership of the New York Yankees meant just Yankees games, and later on NBC, with Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek announcing.)
      Many a night I didn't go to sleep or begin studying until the Astros' game was finished on radio. And because you didn't have up-to-the-second updates available everywhere then, it was a way to keep up with what the Yankees were doing; I was always waiting for Gene, Loel or Harry to give the American League scores and game details.
      We became very familiar with the Astros, who never won much or rarely contended for their first 18 seasons. But they had a lot of stars and we had our favorites -- Rusty Staub (the kid from New Orleans who made the majors at age 19; Jimmy Wynn ("The Toy Cannon"), Little Joe Morgan, John Mayberry, John Bateman, Larry Dierker.
      And much later, when the Astros did become a power in the years of Nolan Ryan and James Rodney Richard, I felt good for them and their fans, and felt their heartbreak when they lost thrilling National League Championship Series in 1980 and 1986.
      It was even better in 2005 when they finally did win the National League pennant. But still there was more agony; they didn't win one World Series game.
      Now that they're in the American League, they're the Yankees' rival. So, no, I won't be pulling for the Astros the next three nights.
      Colt Stadium was built in less than a year, a bare-bones stadium with absolutely no shade. So it was miserable there during the typical humid -- and hot -- Houston nights and many day games were a true test of character. It seated about 33,000 -- more than three times what Buff Stadium held -- and was built as a stopgap until the Harris County Domed Stadium -- the world's first indoor football/baseball stadium -- next door would be ready.
      Dad and I didn't go down there during the first season, but I broke into the big leagues, so to speak, the next year. I still have the programs from those first two nights, including the play-by-play on the middle (scorebook) pages.
      The dates were Sunday and Monday, Aug. 4-5, 1963, and the crowds were relatively small -- 14,237 for the Dodgers' game; 11,822 for the Giants the next night.
    The Colt .45s, a year after becoming an expansion team, would finish 30 games below .500
    The Giants were the defending NL champions, having lost to the Yankees in seven games in the '62 World Series (I was thrilled). The Dodgers that year would win the NL and sweep the World Series (I was not thrilled).      
      Both teams were loaded with future Hall of Famers. This was the first time I'd ever seen black ballplayers in person; the Dodgers' lineup included Maury Wills, Jim "Junior" Gilliam, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis and John Roseboro. We missed seeing Don Drysdale and Koufax pitch the two previous games, but Podres -- hero of the Brooklyn Dodgers' 1955 World Series victory -- was great that Sunday night.
      Although it was so hot, and trainers were fanning him with towels between innings -- from our seats, we could easily see into the Dodgers' dugout -- he stayed in the game because the Colt .45s didn't have a hit through eight innings. Podres even hit a two-run double off opposing pitcher Ken Johnson.
      Thought I might see a no-hitter in my first big-league game, but in the ninth, Johnny Temple -- the old Cincinnati Reds' star second baseman -- led off with a single up the middle. Podres hit the next batter, and promptly was pulled from the game. Larry Sherry came in and quickly finished off the 4-0 victory.
      The next night, the Giants came to town with four future Hall of Fame players in their lineup (the three previously mentioned, and Orlando Cepeda). The great Marichal -- No. 27, with the giant leg kick during his windup -- pitched for San Francisco, but the Colt .45s scored twice off him in the seventh inning to break a 2-2 tie. Then Don Nottebart, pitching for Houston, weakened and McCovey hit a home run in the eighth, his 33rd of the season, as the Giants tied it 4-4. In the ninth, Mays broke the tie with a two-out homer to left field, his 28th of the season.
      Surprisingly, the Colt .45s then won it with two runs in the bottom of the ninth off reliever Jack Fisher -- born in Shreveport. A single by Bob Aspromonte started the inning; singles to center by Al Spanger and Carl Warwick drove in the tying and winning runs.
      Great memories of my first two major-league games.
      I've made one visit to Houston's current ballpark, Minute Maid Park. Love the location at the edge of downtown, beautiful building, love the retractable roof, the grass field (not the brick-like Astroturf). I'm not crazy about the quirky outfield twists -- the hill in center, the way the fence juts out where the bullpen is located -- or the cozy (for hitters) left-field wall, above which the replica train runs, but that's just me.
      The Astros have fallen on hard times (again) in recent years and that's too bad because Houston -- the fourth-largest city in the country -- deserves better. Maybe the team's new ownership and the Ryan family influence (Reid and now Nolan) will help revive the franchise.
      I know that for now the Rangers enjoy having the Astros in their division (Texas won 17 of their 19 meetings last year). And I know that the Yankees will be expecting a tough time in Houston  the next three nights.
      I assure you this -- they will be playing in a city that loves its baseball. It always has.