Thursday, June 22, 2017
It says a lot for Dick Hall's longevity that he was a nemesis for my Minnesota Twins in 1969 and 1970. I was emotionally invested in our Twins back then, when I was junior high-age. I hated those Baltimore Orioles. Of course that was a foolish way to think. The Twins seemed snakebit then, this in spite of the fact that they were unquestionably spectacular in regular season play. But when the post-season arrived, I sensed that the fans around me became defeatist. We shrugged and figured it was unlikely that we could get past those Baltimore Orioles with relief ace Dick Hall.
Such a nice, crisp name to pronounce: one syllable for both the first and last names.
Hall made his first post-season appearance in 1969 against our Twins. He was the wily graybeard: 39 years old. Any clues as to his longevity? There is one huge one: It wasn't until he was 16 years old that Hall began to play baseball. He was a member of a 16-year-old team that won the Cardinal Gibbons championship (Baltimore area), and that, he said, "was my first taste of baseball."
So my point is: Hall preserved his body and especially his arm so that he would have the physical resilience for a long career in baseball.
Hall strode out to the pitching mound at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in early fall of 1969. This was the first year of the divisional format. The Twins won the West while Baltimore came out of the East. In the first American League Championship Series ever played, Hall was the Game 1 winning pitcher in a 4-3 Orioles victory. It was the epitome of the kind of heartbreak us Twins fans were dealt in the post-season of both 1969 and '70. You'll recall that 1969 was the year of the "Miracle Mets." Baltimore fell to the Mets in the '69 World Series. Hall was the losing pitcher in Game 4 but he got his World Series creds started.
In 1970 Hall was the oldest active player in the American League. He turned 40 on September 27. His savvy and sound physical health helped him achieve a 10-5 record with an ERA of 3.08 and three saves. He issued just six walks, only four of them unintentionally. Pinpoint control was an absolute hallmark of his career. Ted Williams commented that Hall might look like an easy pitcher to hit when he was warming up. That appearance was totally deceiving.
The 1970 A.L. divisional series was like a carbon copy of '69. Our Twins tore up the opposition in the regular season. Tony O. and Harmon were superlative. But the snakebit quality could not be escaped vs. those Orioles. Again, Hall was the winning pitcher in Game 1 of the divisional playoffs. He allowed just one baserunner in his 4 2/3 innings. Once the Orioles completed business in that series, a sweep again, they went on to face Cincinnati in the World Series. The Orioles were not to be denied this time. Game 2 of the Fall Classic saw Hall enter the game in the bottom of the seventh with runners on first and second and two outs. Hall set down Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, Lee May, Hal McRae, Tommy Helms and pinch-hitter Bernie Carbo and Jim Stewart to save the Orioles' 6-5 victory.
"He keeps getting people out"
Helms' comments about Hall reflected the norm: "His pitches don't seem to be moving, but I guess it's deceiving. He keeps getting people out." It was a long time since Hall showed that "crazy sidearm delivery" against Maris, Mantle and the Yankees. Baseball had gone from one epoch to the next. Hall with his well-preserved arm was able to endure and prosper. What if he had logged the usual number of innings in Little League, Babe Ruth or other levels for young boys? He could have easily over-taxed his arm.
Baseball was not enlightened about such things in the old days. It is tragic how many fine pitchers went into rapid decline, during my youth, due to overwork of the arm. Today we hear all about the "pitch count." What a blessing. A pitcher might be removed from a game even if he has a no-hitter going.
Johnny Bench hollered out at Hall from the dugout: "How can you be out there with that garbage?" The results speak for themselves. Hall had his final big league season in 1971 at at the age of 41. He won six games and saved one. His ERA bulged up a little but he had gas left in the tank for the World Series. On October 11, in Game 2 vs. the Pirates at Memorial Stadium, Hall earned a save for Jim Palmer in what turned out to be Hall's last big league appearance.
Ted Williams described Hall as a "pinpointer" with his control. "You never got a fat pitch to hit."
We must acknowledge that Hall was known as an intelligent and intellectual person. I see no evidence that these traits annoyed other ballplayers, not the way Jim Bouton's erudite traits could.
Breaking the language barrier!
There is a fascinating story with Hall's romance that led to his marriage. He met the love of his life while playing winter ball in Mexico. His first winter there saw him meet Maria Elena Nieto. They were married on December 31, 1955. The marriage would produce three daughters and a son. Maria did not speak English when they met. Hall had to learn to speak Spanish. Imagine being in love with someone who didn't speak your language! Quite the story.
Hall's whole story is most inspiring and it might not have happened had he not waited until age 16 to start pitching.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Of course, all war is hell. Mankind is to be scolded for ever having this tendency toward killing conflict come forward.
Perhaps the best war movie is one made on an absurd premise. It reminds us that cinema is not the best vehicle for realizing the awful truths about war. The war becomes a backdrop, an excuse for letting an improbable story come forward. "Zone Troopers" from 1985 employs science fiction. It is the classic sci-fi story of aliens among us. They have weapons which, if in our hands, would shorten the war. The American GIs in the story are so absolutely genuine and likeable. I have read that these characters seemed cliched. The cliche line is so handy for movie reviewers. Fact is, WWII soldiers were within very tight confines for how they could behave. Thus we have some predictability.
But the GIs in "Zone Troopers" break those bounds to seem totally human. They clearly represent the benevolent cause. They pine for home. An alien projects a mirage of a young woman who is the idyllic 1940s young woman - the perfect look. The music is so pure in presenting the 1940s motif. We hear the classic "In The Mood." At movie's end we see a plug for buying war bonds, "available in the lobby."
I wonder if the moviemakers realized how pure this 1940s motif was, how genuine the GIs seemed as they wandered in the morass of war. The movie doesn't preach on how bad war is. We can all just understand the premise. With that premise put aside, we can feel the simple joy of following a sci-fi story.
The setting is Italy. I remember watching the video of an obscure WWII movie called "The Battle for Anzio." Obscure, yes, but it starred the front-line actor for WWII movies, none other than Robert Mitchum. I watched the VHS tape, never having heard of this movie before. The obscurity is well-earned. The movie didn't really seem to have an interesting defining angle. As I recall, Mitchum is a correspondent who behaves like a pacifist. At the end he's finally forced to employ a rifle. If we were supposed to be moved by that, I just yawned. At the very end there's a victory parade scene with Mitchum watching. He says to a bystander: "Well, should we all just choose up sides and start over?" The statement was supposed to seem profound. It just didn't work, in my mind.
Mitchum also starred in the famous flick "The Longest Day." It was strangely made in black and white. John Wayne built the stature of that movie. It was a defining WWII movie with the good vs. evil meme and no truly bloody or gory scenes. We leave the theater feeling exhilarated, not prone to throwing up. D-Day may have been necessary. But it was tragic beyond words. Taking the beach hardly meant we were going to glide forward en route to Berlin. "Saving Private Ryan" would hit us over the head with how sad and violent it all was.
Oliver Stone would tell us that the Red Army from the east is what really crushed the Nazis.
The barter value of Lucky Strikes
"Zone Troopers" is delightful with its escapism. The aliens have weapons that cause targets to dissolve. A GI says "if we had those pea shooters, our boys would be home by Christmas."
The aliens have crash-landed. We see the GI named "Joey" perusing a sci-fi mag called "Fantastic Fiction." We wonder if the movie to come is a product of Joey's imagination. Joey has another piece of reading material in his possession, about "blonde dames from space." The GI named "Mittens" offers a pack of Lucky Strikes in exchange for the "Dames" book. Ah, the allure of a pack of "Luckies" - it surely transports us back to the 1940s. We get introduced to the "Sarge" character played by Tim Thomerson from "Trancers." "Sarge" becomes the defining character with his image of seeming impervious to danger.
This endearing group of GIs is caught behind enemy lines. They get nothing but static on their radio. Their compasses spin around. Along come the Nazis. The film was shot on location in Italy. Our GIs come upon a huge crash-landed spaceship. No wonder their radio and compasses don't work. The movie takes on the tone of action and conflict but the sci-fi element suggests the overriding air of fantasy. We don't need to see the action to appreciate war. What we really appreciate is the sci-fi element and its mystery. Where will this take us?
There is a somewhat low-budget look that is no bothersome distraction. We can love this flick in the same way as "Lobster Man From Mars." In "Zone Troopers" we appreciate the healthy mix of comedy, sci-fi and camp. The soldiers are so, well, "American." They are unrefined in an endearing way. We can understand the aliens being attracted to them.
The aliens themselves are most likable. They have a translator device that enables them to communicate. "Mittens" gets to punch Adolf Hitler in the face! Actors Tim Thomerson, Art Lafleur and Timothy Van Patton really lift this movie from the low-budget obscurity where it could have ended up. These characters could be the father of any baby boomer. These guys came home after the war and created the great American middle class. They spoiled their own children. Why not, after all they had been through?
Their own male children were vulnerable to being called to service for Viet Nam. The Viet Nam war was a world apart from World War II. We are learning more and more about the extent of the tragedy of Viet Nam, beyond even the most miserable movies. A primary tragedy, cited by some as the main reason we had to leave, was "fragging," the practice of American troops killing their own colonels. War is hell to an extent that even the most preachy movies don't record.
War movies always give us the premise that our GIs, regardless of the hazards faced, respond to command and support each other. Movies also notoriously support the idea that the battles were so well-organized. Andy Rooney took on this assumption once. He was there for WWII and he once commented that he thought it was "a mess."
Fragging a.k.a. "mutiny" actually happened toward the end of WWII. News of it didn't get out much. If you want to appreciate the impulse toward insubordination, check out "Bridge at Remagen."
Raw charm of our heroes
It's almost a blessing that "Zone Troopers" has a cartoonish tone with the violence. Let's just absorb the escapism and the raw charm of its American heroes. "Zone Troopers" is under 90 minutes and can grip your attention. It has appeared recently on the "Comet" TV network.
Was the movie intended as satire or is it just plain fun? I suggest the latter. Don't evaluate the movie as if it's heavy-lifting cinema. It has a real comic book quality and that's a plus. I grew up consuming stories like this from comic books. It was our escape from the dry school textbooks of our junior high years, to be sure.
There is a defensiveness among many of the reviewers of the movie. It's as if the movie is a guilty pleasure! No need for defensiveness. Let's just revel in the joy of an engaging sci-fi story involving "the greatest generation" in World War II. I love "Zone Troopers" just as I loved "Lobster Man From Mars" (with Tony Curtis).
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - email@example.com
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
Speaking of appearance, the nickname "Moose" needs some clarification. We'd easily assume the "big guy" first baseman got the name based on physique. What? There's another explanation? There most certainly is. The story goes back to his youth in Chicago IL. Bill was playing with the "Cragin Juniors" team. His dad played with the semi-pro "Cragin Merchants." Dad's teammates made note of Bill's crew cut. They observed that the crew cut made young Bill look like Benito Mussolini. The ballplayers, a not-too-subtle crowd, called the young man "Mussolini." It got shortened to "Moose." Benito Mussolini was the notorious prime minister of Italy for World War II.
We all got familiar with "Moose" Skowron when he wore the pinstripes of the New York Yankees. He seemed such an established part of that regime as it ruled in the late '50s and early '60s. We see Skowron portrayed in Billy Crystal's movie about the 1961 baseball season. At one point in the movie, Roger Maris implores the media to pay more attention to Skowron after the big guy played a key role in a win.
Surely Skowron was upstaged by Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961. But he was a very important cog in the wheel. He was never quite a superstar but he had a notable career. It didn't seem right that he got traded before the Yankees' 1960s heyday ended. He was traded because the team had a pitching need. By 1966 the Yankees would need help everywhere. Following 1962, the Bronx crew was still feeling their oats and they sought pitcher Stan Williams. Skowron went out West for Williams on November 26, 1962. The Yankees felt they could replace Skowron at first base with Joe Pepitone. You'll recall Pepitone as a player who never quite lived up to his potential, and did not seem like a good role model.
Skowron out in L.A. did not have a good regular season in 1963. He batted .202. But he had a chance to redeem himself in the World Series against the Yankees. He had already been in seven Fall Classics with the Yankees. He was known as a "money" player for the post-season.
Coming on strong in Fall Classic
Dodgers manager Walt Alston sensed that Skowron was primed for another good World Series. Skowron pulled on his first base glove while Ron Fairly was sidelined some. Alston's hunch panned out. The big guy hit .385 with a home run. The '63 Series was notable in that it revealed Sandy Koufax as the true superstar pitcher. Koufax led the Dodgers' four-game sweep of the pinstripe crew. He went 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA. He set down 23 Yankee batters on strikes. Two years later, we here in Minnesota got our own dose of appreciation of the other-worldly lefty.
David Halberstam's book about the 1964 season gave some background on Koufax's development. It was not a matter of maturity or mastering mechanics, Halberstam pointed out. Rather, it was a matter of "umpires calling the high fastball a strike." Whatever umpires did, it became a real problem by 1968 when pitchers took over the game too much. 1968 was "the year of the pitcher" and it was great if you enjoyed shutouts. But something had to be done. The powers that be lowered the pitching mound.
Skowron had quite the knack for playing with winners. He played for eight pennant-winning teams and nearly made it nine in 1964, when his Chicago White Sox came within a whisker of the flag. The Yankees had their last dynastic year in '64, barely winning the pennant. They lost to St. Louis and a young Lou Brock in the Series. Of the eight pennant-winning teams that had "Moose" on the roster, five won the World Series.
Maris had a talent like Moose, of being on board with high-achieving teams. We might forget that Roger was a big contributor with the '67 and '68 St. Louis Cardinals who were on top of the National League.
He relished baseball and life
Pitcher Bob Turley remembered Skowron as a fun and gregarious person. Forget that "scowling" visage that I alluded to. "He is this big kid who always enjoys things," Turley said of his teammate.
Skowron hit over .300 five times in his career. He along with those "M&M Boys," Mantle and Maris, combined to hit 143 home runs in 1961. That Yankee team beat Cincinnati in five games in the World Series. Skowron had a home run and five RBIs. In 1960 the big guy batted .375 in the Fall Classic against Pittsburgh. He homered twice and drove in six runs, but you'll recall this was the Series where Bill Mazeroski hit his dramatic home run in Game 7 to win for Pittsburgh. Such memories.
Skowron is established in our memories as a Yankee, regardless of his '63 World Series exploits with Los Angeles. Hey, he wears the pinstripes in our memory. And it's not a scowl - just call it resolve or determination.
"Moose" Skowron went to that baseball diamond in the sky on April 27, 2012, in Arlington Heights IL.
- Brian Williams, morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, June 1, 2017
|Here's the card that introduced me to Demeter.|
Don Demeter was a fine 1960s baseball player who had a conflicted youth. His father was a painter and his mother a housewife. The family lived in Oklahoma City. Sounds like a classic American family. They moved to Denver when young Don was age 10. About a year later, the parents broke up - why? - and Don headed back to Oklahoma City to live with grandparents. Grandparents to the rescue again!
But Don got re-joined with his mother after she re-married a man from New Hampshire. Don spent a winter with them but it was an unsettled situation again. It seemed like the only reliable home base for Don was the city of Oklahoma City. He went through high school in Oklahoma City. His family? Don came under the care of foster parents. Surely foster parents can come to the rescue too - bless them.
What issues were so terrible with his biological parents? We don't really know. But Don was able to land on his feet in his hometown. He lauded those foster parents on instilling in him the faith that was an underpinning for the rest of his life. Foster Dad George Stevens was a Sunday School superintendent and chairman of the deacons at a Baptist church. Don said of him: "He was a real witness and testimony for me."
Echoes of my own background
A disrupted or dysfunctional family came close to home for me once. My family provided shelter for an aunt - my mother's sister - who left her husband who she felt might kill her. She had five children, first cousins of mine, who I knew well for a time, then we got separated for many years. Obviously I had problems understanding what could make a family come apart so badly. How could a relationship that began in love end up severed and with poisonous feelings?
I have never been married so I cannot imagine how such a split might develop. It profoundly troubles me. Reading Demeter's bio brings back some of those memories and that sense of puzzlement. He appears to have found his own solution: a deep Christian faith. If that works for you, congrats. My generation of the boomers never really took to that stuff. In older age I think a lot of us are drifting back to it.
Demeter would have looked fine in a Minnesota Twins uniform. We were not so fortunate. I got familiar with this big and lanky outfielder through his baseball card on those Post cereal boxes. He was with Philadelphia at the time. He is one of those players who quite arguably was outstanding but for some reason is not well remembered today.
He became known as a player who was part of trades where the other team got the better deal. Can't blame Don for that.
He roamed center field for his high school team which won the state championship his junior and senior years. Eleven boys from that team signed pro contracts. Most signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Demeter was the only one making it into the big leagues. Many are called, few are chosen. Don got an $800 bonus for signing with those old Dodgers in 1953.
He plunged into the typical scenario for aspiring big leaguers, going from one stop to another including winter ball in Venezuela. He socked 41 home runs with Fort Worth in 1956. He got the call to get a taste of big league ball with the Dodgers. He appeared at Ebbets Field in September. He struck out. The next day he stepped up to bat as a pinch-hitter and hit a homer on his first swing. The Dodgers won their second straight National League crown.
Seasoning with the St. Paul Saints
We're proud to note that Don came Minnesota way for 1957, playing the whole season with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. He hit 28 home runs and batted .309.
The Dodgers re-located to Los Angeles in the off-season. Don began 1958 with L.A. but got sent back down to St. Paul. He re-joined L.A. for good on July 30, helping compensate for an ailing Duke Snider. He struggled at the plate.
Bring on 1959 with Ike still in the White House: Demeter hit three two-run home runs in a single game on April 21. The last of these was in the bottom of the eleventh to beat the Giants 9-7. The Dodgers won the pennant as they got past Milwaukee in a two-game playoff. They beat the White Sox in the World Series. Demeter appeared in all six World Series games and went three-for-12 with two runs scored.
In '59 there were rumors that Demeter would come to Calvin Griffith's Washington Senators in a trade. This would have set the stage for the big guy coming to Minnesota again. Alas it did not happen. Legend has it that Griffith backed off due to reports that Demeter might quit baseball for the ministry. Demeter had a serious injury on July 3 of 1960. He was out for the rest of the season, a season that saw him hit .274 with nine home runs. He was still a Dodger for the start of '61.
Don then became a Phillie and did fine, achieving his second three-homer game of his career, putting down the Dodgers and none other than Sandy Koufax. It was a 19-10 win! Demeter had his best season in 1962 as he batted .307 with 29 home runs and 107 RBIs. He started an errorless streak as an outfielder. Demeter claimed batting average didn't mean much to him, rather he stressed RBIs.
In 1963 he traveled to Japan with another noted Christian ballplayer, Bobby Richardson, to spread the gospel. Demeter had another fine season in 1963, socking 22 home runs. In '63 he became a Detroit Tiger. Chuck Dressen, the Detroit manager, claimed Demeter was a better player than Rocky Colavito. I think highly of Demeter but I could not disagree more with Dressen on this. I have written a song about Rocky Colavito.
Demeter held his own but was not outstanding with Detroit. He would get Bibles from fans which he would then autograph. On August 12 of 1965, Demeter drove in seven runs on a single, triple and grand slam in an 11-1 win over Kansas City. The Tigers finished fourth, 13 games behind our Twins. Don declined in productivity in 1966. He joined the Red Sox who weren't exactly on a roll. They finished ninth, a half-game ahead of the sinking New York Yankees. Demeter reported back problems.
In '67 with Boston destined to streak to the top, Demeter did not finish out the campaign with them. He joined Cleveland. He did make some contributions while with Boston. Demeter wrapped up his career with Cleveland, getting two home runs in a game vs. the Yankees. Nagging injuries and a suspect heart took a toll.
Amazingly, his heart problems seemed to get resolved when the big guy just improved his diet! Many of us should take note.
He got two hits in his last start, on August 27, and his final at-bat saw him deliver a single.
Demeter as a retiree appeared in old-timers games for the Dodgers. He became a pastor in his church. He had an unsuccessful run for the state legislature as a Republican in 1976. I seem to recall the '70s not being great for Republicans! In 1999 Don was inducted into the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame. He pastors Grace Community Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. He can be proud of his long big league career with no shortage of thrills.
We wish he had pulled on a Twins uniform for a time.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - email@example.com