Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: August 11, 2008
Remembering Babe's House and Saving Lee Smith For Cooperstown
A LAST LOOK BACK AT YANKEE STADIUM
I wrote "House Call" in June 1994, after my first-ever visit to Yankee Stadium, the previous Memorial Day (Monday, May 30). I still recall the shock of the price of a hot dog, but I didn\'t write about that at the time. I saw another game at the Stadium in 1994 -- my last.
Maybe my favorite Stadium story comes from my late father-in-law, Alfred Washburn. In 1961, he decided that his two pre-teen sons should be baptized into baseball, so he took them to a late-season game in the Bronx, traveling several hours from Gloversville, NY. (For a long time, I believed this was the only major league game that Alf ever saw, but it wasn\'t.) As chance would have it, one of the hometown players homered that day, and the reaction of the fans present perplexed Alf. Do they ALWAYS react that way? No, only when Maris breaks Ruth\'s record.
"If Yankee Stadium is the House that Ruth Built, then in Cooperstown is the one he furnished." I made that observation around 1965, and later worked it into my poem on the Hall of Fame. I\'ve since visited the Hall countless times, but -- even though I\'ve lived in Upstate 20 summers -- I had never made the trip down to The Stadium. Until last Memorial Day, that is. It wasn\'t a pilgrimage -- but it wasn\'t just another visit to a ballpark, either.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Yankee Stadium had the image of Mount Olympus: gods lived there, they wore pin-striped suits and went about winning pennants in a correspondingly businesslike way. They ganged up in Rows on NL champs (like the \'27 Pirates) and murdered them. Today it was Mantle & Maris, but they were just the latest generation of dominators, their line was well-known, traced back through DiMaggio and Dickey to Ruth and Gehrig, and the power of these titans raised up those around them, Meusel and Combs and Lazzeri and Henrich and Crosetti and now Berra and Howard and there was no end in sight.
This mythic view was qualified forever by the 1960 World Series, however, when my Bucs, after being shut out 10-0 by Ford in Game 3 (which followed on the heels of a 16-3 shellacking at Forbes), came back to win Games 4 & 5, by 3-2 and 5-2 scores. Both wins ended with tiny Roy Face on the Yankee Stadium mound, lost in those dark shadows that played havoc with color TVs, snuffing out the Bronx bombs before the fuses could even be lit.
After 1960, The Stadium became again what it was before, the place where half of October\'s Games would be played, but it could never again intimidate me; it was safe, there were no gods. Only in recent summers have I become curious to visit The Stadium, but I\'ve always acted too late to book seats on the several bus tours to the Bronx from Utica each season. When I was shut out again this spring -- and I called in April, the earliest ever, I phoned Don Drumm, who writes a local column ("The Fan") and often comments there on his drives south for Yankee games.
By chance, he was planning on a Memorial Day trip, with his wife Heather; there was plenty of room in his Chevy wagon for me and my kids. (My wife Barbara had seen her quota for 1994 already, a game at Camden Yards.) Thanks to ESPN, I suspect, it was a 4 PM start -- perfect. We hit the road about 8:30 AM and were back just after midnight, a holiday spent entirely with the Yankees-White Sox game at its center.
Don had cheered at both the Old and New stadiums many times, and so he proved to be a marvelous guide, which I appreciate when I visit The City, as surely as the city slickers appreciate guides when they prowl the Adirondacks. I was sorry that more of the old wasn\'t around, but I was hardly let down by the new.
While I intended to root for the home team, I found myself impressed by the ChiSox, who took the lead off Jim Abbott with two stolen bases by Lance Johnson (following one of his four hits), built it on a 3-run dinger by Darrin Jackson (it carried suspiciously) following a bruising liner off Abbott by Frank Thomas (a terrifying thought, isn\'t it?), produced three exciting triples (two by that Lance guy), and impolitely muffled the two most popular Yanks, Mattingly (5 LOB) and O\'Neill (who started the day at .456, but 0-fer-4\'d.)
The short porch in right was littered with rabbit balls during BP, but during the game, the Bronxians kept falling short: 18 outfield putouts (half by Lance -- he was all over.) Just one keeper there all day (Daryl Boston\'s) -- Jackson\'s was heaved back, and the ball was soon followed by a dozen or two pairs of socks -- the giveaway du jour. We sat in the upper deck behind home, by the way, a fine perch. Lots of fouls to our left and right, none our way.
Beats me why only 30,000 showed up to watch two division-leading teams go at it, on a perfect holiday afternoon. But then, we pulled into the Stadium lot right off the highway, we might as well have been on Mars as in the Bronx, for all we saw of the surroundings.
On the island, the fans who did show were well-behaved, and proudly attired: lots of pinstripes, and an amazing variety of Yankee caps were visible everywhere. New Yorkers ... inhabitants of the melting pot, where the struggle goes on to lose or find or maintain an identity, and one\'s own accent, even as The City\'s colors each voice. At the Stadium, it ain\'t over till the Thin Man sings, and (win or lose) Sinatra starts belting out New York, New York after the final out. The song says much about the way the city sees itself, I think. Win or lose, New Yorkers, and proud of it. Successful, because to survive is to succeed. Celebrate it, carpe diem, top of the heap, House That Ruth Built.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LEE SMITH?
When this Mr Smith retired from baseball, he had 478 saves. To put that in perspective, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley, two pitchers in the Hall of Fame, had 341 and 390 saves, respectively. Rich Gossage, the most recent HOF inductee, had 310. It was the ascent of the Goose that brought the question about Lee Smith to my mind.
Let me say up front that I\'m not sure that the "save" is, all by itself, a stat that means so much that the all-time leaders ought to be HOF shoo-ins. We all know that sometimes a pitcher is awarded a save for less-than-stellar work, while a fellow hurler who pitched out of an earlier jam, and delivered the game to the "closer," gets the recognition of a "Hold" or no recognition at all. On the other hand, it does take some talent to finish a game, to get those last, often elusive, final outs. So if Lee Smith\'s stack of 478 saves impresses me, so does his 802 Games Finished.
That\'s right -- 802. Eck finished 577, Gossage 681, Fingers 709. Mariano Rivera is over 700, but I doubt he\'ll pass Lee Smith in this category. John Franco had 774, Trevor Hoffman, still slinging, has over 750, to go with his 548 saves: HOF shoo-in?
Briefly, Smith pitched in 1,022 games (20 more than Goose), had an ERA of 3.03 (Goose was 3.01), and in his 18 seasons, he made the All Star team seven times (Goose was there nine times in 22 summers). Weighing against Smith: just 1,289 innings pitched (to Goose\'s 1,809; 37 games as a starter); and his W-L record was 71-92 (40-51 in his first eight seasons, in a Cub uniform. Rollie Fingers W-L percentage was below .500, too; so was 300-saver Bruce Sutter\'s).
When I asked a couple of extremely knowledgeable friends if it was just me who was bothered that Gossage soared into the Hall past Lee Smith, it touched off a lengthy and complicated debate between them (which may still be raging somewhere in cyberspace). It was the kind of debate I\'d like to think goes on about every candidate for Cooperstown, but I suspect that it does not.
Since reading Bill James\'book (The Politics of Glory was its original title), I realize that "Whatever Happened to Lee Smith?" is probably not the best question to ask about the Hall, and who gets in and who gets ignored. Sure, there may be others more deserving than Smith. But Smith is who was on my mind, last month, in all the Cooperstown hoopla over Rich Gossage.
Maybe a better question would be this: Would Lee Smith have been on the stage, greeting the Goose, if he had racked up those 478 saves while wearing Yankee pinstripes? In that uniform, he might have tallied a few more in the post-season, too. And been a household name, like, well, Mariano Rivera, who will finish his career (someday) with over 500 saves; he\'s around 470 now.
If the answer to that question is painfully obvious, then you might go on to ask if Ken Boyer or Ron Santo would be in the Hall, if they played in New York Yankee uniforms. Or Al Oliver, Vada Pinson, and the list goes on.
Last issue, I mentioned that I didn\'t mind at all, the Hall honoring Buck O\'Neil with a bronze statue; and I suggested that it be captioned, "The Storyteller." Maybe the Hall can commission another statue -- it could be Lee Smith (in my mind, he is always on the mound, right arm dangling low, as he squints at his catcher for the sign for what could be the last pitch of the game) ... or Ken Boyer ... or maybe a six-pack of players who will never have bronze plaques. The caption could be, The Politics of Glory.