Posts Tagged ‘History’

Our Downtown Baseball State of Mind

March 24, 2011

 

Downtown Baseball. Most often, it's an easy drive, in and out.

 

My barber asked me the other day if I had gone to the rodeo this year. Beyond the fact that I am not now, and never have been, a rodeo guy, the thought of the drive from the west side to that congested monster site next to the Astrodome alone is enough to steer me away from such a trip. My barber admitted to the same feelings about the bottle-neck traffic that still controls Kirby at the 610 Loop South area. That problem was one of the same reasons I was happy a few years ago when plans materialized for the downtown baseball park at Union Station. I don’t know how many times I got caught in one of those one or two gate exit traffic clogs at the Astrodome parking lot and went away mumbling “never again.”

Of course, the call of baseball for people like me was strong enough to get me back on a temporarily erased memory of the last traffic jam, but the general effect of Astrodome parking lot and area street congestion was impacting how often I attended games as the years went by. It was just awful. And there wasn’t really any way for it to get better. Texans football fans have the same problem in 2011. Only the tailgaters escape it by arriving early and leaving late. Baseball isn’t a tailgater’s game. At least, the last time I looked, it wasn’t.

So, why is downtown so much better for auto traffic?

The big difference is easy to see. Downtown offers a far more diffuse traffic  situation, one serviced by the same freeways that all serve downtown for daily business, but without the density impact from all those other cars that are involved in our weekly morning and afternoon rush hour traffic. Downtown is a grid of about twelve streets moving north and south and a like number moving east and west –  and they all connect, one way or another with freeways departing downtown in every direction. When baseball schedules itself for a game downtown in the evening, or on weekends, the traffic infrastructure is set up to make the drive to and from the ballpark as easy as it can be for fans coming from and going to all points on the compass.

I can’t help but think of the one condition that would make going to a major league baseball game in Houston even easier – and that would be to live downtown in one of the overdeveloped high rises that sprouted up faster than the area could develop the other kinds of residential services for the neighborhood that are needed to make the downtown residential life an attractive option. For now, there aren’t enough grocery stores and convenient shopping centers and other entertainment/eatery places, not to mention medical, dental, and veterinary services, and gas stations, to get people to cut the cord on their present suburban area dependencies.

Change is big. It comes in parts of letting go of the old and grabbing on to the new. Today, downtown needs a few more amenities we can grab onto and finally say, “That’s it. That’s all I needed. Downtown, here I come.”

For me, for now, the easy ride, to and from the west side out either I-1o or Memorial Drive will have to do. It’s worked for me, so far, since the year 2000.

 

 

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

March 23, 2011

 

Busch Stadium III, St. Louis, Summer of 2007.

 

My first road trip to Busch Stadium III in the summer of 2007 corresponded with my visit with friends and a journey to St. Louis for the annual convention of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. It was a wonderful time, one which also gave me a little first hand exposure to vintage base ball down on the banks of the Mississippi River beneath the imposing Memorial Arch that frames downtown St. Louis.

It was a trip too wonderful in so many ways. Next to my Houston home town, I am more at home in the baseball-crazy city of St. Louis than anywhere else. Maybe that has its roots in the fact that all my friends there are deep red Cardinal or dark earth-toned and orange-hearted Brown fans from ancient days, but so what? When you like the company of the people you meet anywhere, you generally like the place too.

The part of the trip that stands out in my mind this morning is what I found missing in the newest St. Louis ballpark. Unlike our Minute Maid Park, the place has no roof to keep away the threat of rain. That lead picture is for real. Before the first game I watched there even got underway, those clouds rolled in and dumped enough rain to put the playing of the game briefly in doubt, adding about forty minute delay to the first pitch.

I’m not going to argue aesthetics here. There’s no question in mind that ballpark panorama is far more impressive without the presence of a high bulky retractable roof in either closed or open position, but, hey, I’m a Houstonian. I’m spoiled. Thirty-five years of the Astrodome spoiled most of us into expecting that a game scheduled shall always survive as a game played.

No rain checks here. Who needs rain checks in Houston?

 

Allen Russell, Houston Buffs President, 1946-53.

 

Well, there was a time we needed them in Houston too. In fact, some of my earliest experience as a nine-year old first time Buffs fan in 1947 centers on watching Houston Buffs President Allen Russell (the guy I first remembered as “the man in the white shirt”) going out there and pouring gasoline all over the soaked-with-water infield from a similar-to-St.-Louis pre-game rain and then lighting a match and blowing up the whole thing for the sake of recovering the dryness we needed for a game of baseball.

KA-BOOM!!! And the rainwater went away in a quick-rising puff of billowing black smoke.

No such remedial tactics were deployed sixty years later during that still recent summer in St. Louis. Such an approach in recent times would be written off as both inappropriate and too dangerous to fans and employees alike. Although I must add in Allen Russell’s behalf, he never allowed his grounds crew to take the risk of actually starting these ballpark fires. They would help do the ground-soaking with gasoline. Then Russell himself would go out to actually light, throw, and run from the match of ignition. That sight itself was worth the price of admission because he never got far in his escape from the explosion that ensued behind him and the blast itself too always seemed to first shake then stir him to an even quicker pace.

 

 

Houston Papers Loved Russell's War on Rain Checks.

 

As a kid, I thought Allen Russell fought rain-outs because he loved baseball so much that it broke his heart, as it did mine, to hear that a game had been cancelled due to rain. I was too young to understand the role that lost income dollars played in Russell’s war on the weather and just about anything else that hurt the gate.

Years ago, my good friend Jerry Witte, the late slugger of Houston’s 1951 Texas League champions, told me this supportive story of how fine-tuned Allen Russell’s pulse was to factors effecting game attendance. This is not my point, but we already know that Russell installed the first air-conditioned ladies room in baseball because he recognized that “comfort” was big as a factor in attracting more women to Buffs games. No need to cool the men’s room. The guys will come to the ballpark, regardless. Always have. “But we have to make it nicer for the ladies,” Russell boasted.

At any rate, it was early August of 1951 and the Buffs were starting to pull away from the rest of the pack in the Texas League. “We were out there starting our pre-game warm-ups on the field at Buff Stadium when Allen Russell then did something he never did prior to games. He came out on the field as though he wanted to tell us something. Finally, a few of us got tired of just watching him pace and went over to ask what he wanted.”

Russell must have been slightly taken aback by the players’ solicitous turn in his direction, but he chose his words carefully. As Jerry Witte remembers it, Russell answered in these terms: “You guys know how proud I am of your team success, so please take what I’m about to say in the right away. I will never ask you to give anything less than your best, but try to remember too: If the fans start taking it for granted that the Buffs are going to win, some of them may stop coming to see us play. – OK, that being said, – go get ’em.”

Enough said. Nothing stopped the Buffs in 1951 until they reached the Dixie Series. Then they lost to the Birmingham Barons in six games.

 

 

 

Ralph Kiner: Man with a Jack-Hammer Swing.

March 21, 2011

Post WWII MLB Homers? Nobody Did It Better Than Ralph Kiner.

Way earlier than any of our wildest thoughts that players could actually consume or rub on  substances that would enhance their abilities to mash a baseball from here to kingdom come, there was a fellow named Ralph Kiner, doing it better than anyone else in his MLB era, and doing it as a member of a club that even then was regarded as one of the doormats of big league baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Kiner was one of the great heroes of us kids in the minor league boonies because we mainly only heard or read of his explosiveness through the little information we got in our local papers or through the more detailed stories that came our way through The Sporting News. To add to the Kiner intrigue, he also happened to be one of those rare 1950 Bowman cards that was hard to find. The day I finally found a Kiner card in a routine package buy at Haenel’s Groceries helped send a rumble through or little corner of Pecan Park. Kids with more than one nickel to spend descended upon the store in search of their own Kiner – and in the wild hope of also picking up a maverick Musial or Williams card that might have also slipped out of the factory and into our hungry hands with the rare appearance of the Pirate prodigy.

Prodigy he was.

From 1946 through 1952, Ralph Kiner of the Pirates either led or tied for the National League lead in homers in seven consecutive seasons, and sometimes even coming close as a threat to Babe Ruth’s single season record with this line of these straight annual totals: 23, 51, 40, 54, 47, 42, and 37. Kiner’s 40 homers in 1948 tied him with Johnny Mize for  the MLB lead. That happened a second time in 1952, when Kiner tied Hank Sauer for the big league front line in long balls. On four other occasions (1947, 1949, 1950, and 1951), Ralph Kiner led the big leagues in home runs all by himself.

The Pirates traded Ralph Kiner to the Chicago Cubs early in the 1953 season. H continued to hit home runs through the 1955 season, but never lef the league again. He retired from his ten season MLB career (1946-1955) with 369 career home runs and a respectable career batting average of .279. His production highlights also included an NL RBI title in 1949 and slugging average titles in 1947, 1949, and 1951. He also led the NL in walks in 1949, 1951, and 1952, and also took the On Base Percentage crown in 1951.

Ralph Kiner was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975. It was a much deserved individual honor for a guy never got close to a winning team season or a World Series without coming up with a ticket. To those of us who grew up as kids without eyes to see him play, we could only imagine him as a man who swung a bat that contained all the power of a jack-hammer. Given the dream-cloud high arch that the better mike men would tell us about over the radio when Kiner unloaded a blast, we could imagine these hard hit balls as they took flight into the blue.

Funny thing is – some of our fondest childhood baseball memories are the game radio scenes that only played out in our minds through good descriptive broadcasting and our own willingness to let these games unfold across the courses of our boundless imaginations.

Ralph Kiner, now 88, was once one of the really big stars in this theatre of the mind. And on this beautiful first full day of a new spring in 2011, I can only hope that he is doing well.

Thanks for the memories, Mr. Kiner!

Marty Marion, Dead at 93

March 17, 2011

Arthur Richman (L) & Marty Marion, 2003.

Marty Marion is dead at 93. He passed away Tuesday night, March 15, 2011, in St. Louis, and leaving this world with the reputation of having been one of the greatest defensive shortstops in baseball history and a Cardinal icon. Over the course of his 13-season career (1940-1950, 1952-1953), Marion batted only .263, never hitting .300, but his defensive ability won him the National League’s 1944 Most Valuable Player Award and eight selections for the NL All Star team. Known as “Slats” for his long and limber frames – and as the “Octopus” for his ability to reach and stop just about every ball hit his way, Marion was respected as the greatest shortstop in Cardinals history until Ozzie Smith came along and, even then, some of the old-timers still hung around to argue his case.

Bud Thomas, Marty Marion, & Stan Musial, 2003.

As a player, Marion was an 11-season Cardinal (1940-1950) and a 2-year limited service guy for the old St. Louis Browns. Marty managed the 1951 Cardinals and then took his talents down the hall at old Sportsman’s Park/Busch Stadium I as the playing manager of the 1952-1953 Browns and the last mentor in that club’s history. He later took over as manager of the 1954 Chicago White Sox during the season and then stayed on to mentor the Sox through the 1955 and 1956 seasons.

In the late 1950s, Marty Marion served as president of a group that purchased the Houston Buffaloes of the AA Texas League and their stadium property from the Cardinals and moved the franchise up to participation in the AAA American Association for three final seasons (1959-1961).

Marion and Company hoped to use their position in Houston to gain the first major league franchise awarded to that booming area, but that 1960 nod went instead to a group led by Judge Roy Hofheinz and their commitment with Harris County to building baseball’s first domed stadium. The competition created enough acrimony to make the subsequent and MLB-required purchase of the minor league territorial rights from the Marion group a tense and expensive proposition for Hofheinz and his Houston Sports Association. The unpleasantness killed any hopes that some of us held for our town going into major league baseball as the “Houston Buffaloes” or “Buffs.” Once settled, Hofheinz then ditched the whole decades old club identity as Buffs in favor of their new his-ego-blessed name, the “Houston Colt .45’s.” Three years later, the club would Hofheinz-morph again into the “Astros,” and the new ballpark would transform into the “Astrodome,” Eighth Wonder of the World.

Very quietly, and little known to most people, Marty Marion was the straw that stirred the drink on Houston’s new Major League Baseball back in the early 1960s.

And now he’s gone. As a player. As a manager. As an entrepreneur. As a living icon of St. Louis baseball history.

Marty Marion & Bill McCurdy, 2003.

Old teammates like Red Schoendienst and Stan Musial will argue forever that Marty “Slats” Marion belongs in the Hall of Fame anyway  for his defensive ability and winning baseball savvy. A story that the late Red Munger once told me strongly suggests that the part about the “savvy” is nothing less than 100% true.

Back in 1947, according to Red Munger, he was pitching against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field when Jackie Robinson reached second base on a double down the left field line and began that little hop-hop dance off the bag in an effort to distract the Cardinal pitcher. All of a sudden. Marty Marion had called a quick timeout and was standing behind Munger with his glove covering his lips as he spoke.

“Hey, Red,” Marion whispered, “I’ve counted the hops this guy takes when he leaves the bag and how many steps he takes going back. We can pick him off. When you hear me sneeze out loud, just turn and throw a low hard one to the third base side of the bag. OK?”

“Gotcha,” Munger whispered into his own glove, as he never even looked in Robinson’s direction. “Let’s pick this guy off!”

Before he could even throw another pitch to the plate, Munger heard the Octopus sneeze. “AH-CHOO!”

Munger stepped off the rubber and wheeled a perfect throw to second. Marion’s glove awaited. ‘YOU’RE OUT!” The umpire called.

Not even close. Munger and Marion had caught Robinson a step off base he could not regain. The embarrassed, but fiery Robinson got up, but he didn’t run straight to his dugout. He first trotted by Munger on the mound, just slow enough in passing to leave a teeth-clenched message:

“You will never get away with doing that again!” Robinson spouted.

“And you know what?” a smiling Red Munger added. “Jackie was right. We never did it to him again, but that one time it worked was worth a lifetime of good memories, – Are you asking me if Marty Marion belongs in the Hall of Fame? Hell fire, man. Open the doors this afternoon.”

The Hugh Roy Cullen Legacy

March 15, 2011
 

 

Ezekiel Cullen Building, University of Houston.

Hugh Roy Cullen was one of those people who did very well in life, but who also came to the clear realization that holding on to money that could be used for some noble and larger purpose was the most foolish form of greed and miserliness. No miser was he.

Born July 3, 1881 in Denton County, Texas to Cicero and Louise Beck Cullen, Hugh Roy Cullen was the grandson of Ezekiel Wimberly Cullen. Ezekiel came from Georgia to Texas in 1835 seeking a better life. He. fought in the Texas Revolution against Mexico, eventually settling in San Augustine, Texas the seat of the new revolutionary government.

Raised by his mother in San Antonio, Cullen left school after the fifth grade, taking work at age 12 as a three dollars per week candy counter for a manufacturing concern. Cullen continued to study on his own, reading the classics and also further honing his math and science skills and knowledge. At age 17, he moved to Schulenburg and took to the cotton business like white on rice, becoming a successful agent in the sale and purchase of cotton. In Schulenburg, Cullen also met his future wife of nearly 55 years in the form of Lillie Kranz. The couple was married in 1902.

The Cullens moved to Houston in 1911, where Hugh Roy transferred his discovered skills in the business of land management to the booming new oil exploration industry, and right at the moment it was exploding as the big new American industry, especially in the area around Houston. Bringing in his first successful oil field, Cullen soon formed partnerships that helped him to put together his own oil company, Quintana Petroleum, and, by the mid to late 1930s, he was well on his way to becoming one of the richest men in America,

Then something happened.

Cullen’s only son, Roy, was killed in a tragic oil field accident in 1936, putting a major heartache on the Cullen family, but also opening the Cullen heart to give of himself in ways he may never before imagined possible. Cullen never forgot the obstacles he faced when circumstances limited his early family education. He looked around and found the University of Houston, just as the new school was struggling to find its feet as a provider of higher education to students could not afford to leave home in pursuit of a college education. In 1938, for starters, Cullen donated $260,000 for the construction of the Roy Gustav Cullen Building on the UH campus in honor of his deceased son.

By 1947, and now established as one of the wealthiest men in America, Cullen established the Cullen Foundation to handle the award of gifts to charitable causes, especially to those serving the needs of students with limited means for higher education. The foundation was governed directly by three of Cullen’s adult daughters and, in 1948, further substantial contributions to new building and program expansion at the University of Houston, Without the help of the Cullens, UH could never have become the force it is today in higher education, and a university now legitimately postured for becoming one of America’s designated Tier One universities.

The Cullen Foundation also provided the money and land purchase assistance that led to the establishment of Texas Southern University in the early years following the conclusion of World War II. Cullen Foundation support also provided support for programs served through Baylor University, In the end, most of the Cullen family wealth was donated to their foundation for distribution to worthy educational causes that primarily benefitted the needs of Houston’s college-age population.

Hugh Roy Cullen passed away on July 4, 1957 in Houston, one day after his 76th birthday. He died a complete success as a human being.

The legacy of Hugh Roy Cullen shall always be that he gave of himself to cause that were larger than any his own modest wishes for personal acquisition. That may have come easier for Cullen than some others for he was one of those people whose wealth was merely a by-product of his passion and never the goal in itself.

Cullen put it this way: “Giving away money is no particular credit to me. Most of it came out of the ground – and while I found the oil in the ground, I didn’t put it there. I’ve got a lot more than Lillie and I and our children and grandchildren can use. I don’t think I deserve any great credit for using it to help people. It’s easier for me to give a million dollars now than it was to give five dollars to the Salvation Army twenty-five years ago.”

The Cullen legacy was love. By any other name you may wish to call it, that’s what it still comes down to. As one of those kids you helped make education affordable, I just want to say again: “Thank you, Mr. Cullen, for being the man you were. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

 

Some Firsts in Colt .45 History

March 14, 2011
 

Some "firsts" performed by the nearly anonymous.

Thanks to Bob Hulsey for planting these bees under my bonnet – and thanks also to Bob for supplying The Pecan Park Eagle with his personal Colt .45 notes and those of Gene Elston, the iconic broadcaster and Ford Frick Award winner who was there to see it all happen as well or better than any other figure in Houston MLB franchise history back in the spring of 1962.

Forty-nine years ago, in early to mid March 1962, the brand new Colt .45s took the field in spring training at Apache Junction, Arizona as the first game representatives of Houston in the major leagues. Bob Hulsey’s materials served as a nudge that, while we have done a good job posting all the “regular season official firsts”  from April 10, 1962, the date of the Houston Colt .45s’ Opening Day debut in the National League with an 11-2 win over the Chicago Cubs at Colt Stadium, but not much on capturing the actual firsts from exhibition game play.

This report doesn’t catch them all, but here are a handful of firsts from earliest play that we need to note, or footnote, for Houston baseball game action posterity (and thanks to the notes of Bob Hulsey and Gene Elston on all accounts):

First Game: March 10, 1962; The Colt .45s visit the Los Angeles Angels for a game in Palm Springs, California.

First Starting Lineup: March 10, 1962: (1) Al Heist, cf; (2) Bob Lillis, 2b; (3) Norm Larker, 1b; (4) Roman Mejias, rf; (5) Jim Pendleton, lf; (6) Merritt Ranew, c; (7) Don Buddin, ss; (8) Bob Aspromonte, 3b; (9) Bob Bruce, p.

First Run: March 10, 1962; Bob Aspromonte scores on an error by Marlan Coughtry.

First Hit: March 10, 1962; Roman Mejias singles off Eli Grba. Mejias goes 3 for 4 on the day, with a double that may have been the first extra base hit in franchise history but I would have to see a box score or full game report to accurately report that accomplishment as a fact.

First Team Loss: March 10, 1962; Colt .45’s lose to the Angels, 7-3; first starter Bob Bruce takes the first club pitching loss.

First Home Run: March 11, 1962; In a second game, 8-7 loss to the Angels at Palm Springs, Jim McDaniels blast a three-run home run for the first long ball in franchise history. With 13 hits, it probably also is Houston’s first double-digit hit game, but, again, box score confirmation is needed.

First AB for Rusty Staub: March 12, 1962; back at Geronimo Park in Apache Junction for their first home game, the Colt .45’s lose for the third straight time in their brief history, dropping a 6-1 decision to the San Francisco Giants. Taking over for starter and loser Ken Johnson, Dean Stone becomes the first franchise reliever in history to pitch three perfect innings, retiring all nine men he faces. Rusty Staub strikes out swinging as a pinch hitter in the fourth inning of his professional debut.

Scored 1st team winning run.

 

First Team Win: March 13, 1962; Houston travels to Tucson, Arizona to pick up their first victory as a major club, a 2-1 win over the Cleveland Indians.

First Pitching Win: March 13, 1962; Starter Jim Umbricht earns the first win in franchise history, helping his own cause with an RBI single in the second inning.

First Team Winning Run & RBI: March 13, 1962, with Jim Pendleton on second base in the third inning, a god of anonymity named Jack Waters singled up the middle to provide what would prove to be the winning run in a 2-1 first ever victory for the Colt .45s over the Indians. Journeyman major leaguer Jim Pendleton scored the first winning run in franchise history and journeyman minor leaguer Jack Waters provided the first game-winning RBI in Houston major league ball.

Jim Pendleton would go on to play often as the left fielder for the 1962 Colt .45’s, batting .248 in 117 game appearances before finishing his career as a Colt .45 minor leaguer in 1963. Pendleton batted .255 for eight seasons (1953-1959, 1962) as a big leaguer and  .293 as a minor leaguer over ten years of ball he played variously for teams below the majors from 1949 through 1963.

Jack Waters ran through a less blessed baseball field of dreams over the years, but his eventual fate matched Pendleton’s retirement after the 1963 season. Waters simply never got a major league at bat in one of the regular season games. Waters batted .279 for twelve seasons (1952-1963) in the minors. His .268 BA with 12 home runs as a BR/TR outfielder for the last 1961 Buffs club helped him get the spring training opportunity with the Colt .45’s the next spring, but his age and lack of impressive productivity in camp eventually got him demoted to the fate of  finishing out his career as a minor leaguer in 1962 and 1963.

At least, Jack Waters can now look back and still know that time will never erase his one major accomplishment in baseball, even if its value has no cash translation. Once upon a time, Jack Waters knocked in the first winning run in Houston major league baseball history. Back then, anything you could do to show that winning baseball existed as a possibility for Houston was important to the fans, even in those early and almost always forgettable early exhibition games, and Jack Waters was the first Colt .45  to pull the trigger on that hope.

As a member of the 1961 Buffs, I only remember Waters now as a non-flashy, unremarkable, but steady guy. It was enough to get him a spin and no one can ever take away from the man that short-lived stroke up the middle that makes Jack Waters today a forever footnote in team history. I would love to show you his picture, but Jack Waters didn’t stay here long enough to leave much of a visual impression that he had ever even been to Houston.

Good day, Jack Waters, wherever you are!

Baseball All Star Game: First and Best

March 12, 2011

The AL won the 1948 Game in St. Louis, 5-2.

All Star Games were the brainchild of a Chicago newspaperman named Arch Ward, and this was back in the early 1930’s, when baseball was pretty much the only game in town and the true national pastime. There was no NBA back then and the NFL survived as hardly anything more than a minor diversion in a handful of midwestern and eastern cities in the dead winter months of a nation that had yet to taste the attractive lure of television. Major League Baseball, sixteen clubs that lived and played in the north from the Atlantic Ocean to St. Louis, plus hundreds of minor league clubs and thousands of semi-pro and amateur teams were the residence of America’s active investment in the game – and all other fan fannies found comfortable places to sit in thousands of great to rickety ballparks across the land.

Mr. Ward saw the intensity of rivalry that  existed between his own two home clubs, the AL Chicago White Sox and the NL Chicago Cubs, and he witnessed the fierce loyalty of each fan group and their equally intense hatred for their opposite numbers in the same city. It didn’t take him long to hatch his plan for an annual baseball all-star game that would capitalize on the appeal of such a contest and to gain support for holding the first MLB All Star Game in Chicago at Comiskey Park on July 6, 1933. Babe Ruth would hit the first home run in All Star Game history on that day and the AL would defeat the NL by a score of 4-2 before a large crowd.

From 1933 through 2010, eighty-one All Star Games have been played out in just about every ballpark that every city in the Big Leagues. Each league has enjoyed runs in which one club dominated for extended periods of time, but the running tally on games won today is about as even as it could be. The National League has won 40 games, the American League has taken 39 contests, and there have been two ties, one in 1961 and the most recent in 2002.

That last tie produced embarrassment too. Essentially, the game had to be stopped in extra innings as a 7-7 tie in Milwaukee on July 9, 2002 because both teams had used up all their pitchers earlier in service to the goal of getting everyone into the game. Commissioner Bud Selig had to make the call of stopping the game as a tie – and he had to do it in own back yard of Milwaukee. There was no place to hide or cover up the fact that baseball, under Selig’s watch, had not come into this situation with an adequate game plan for dealing with this kind of situation.

Disregarding the old adage that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” Commissioner Selig then followed the 2002 All Star mistake by pushing through a change in the All Star Game format. In an effort to make the game more about managers handling their personnel for the sake of winning, the All Star Game winner from 2003 forward  was anointed as the determining factor in which league club would enjoy home field advantage in the World Series.

I hated the new rule then and nothing has changed. Next to the Designated Hitter rule, the All Star Game power over the World Series is my second most hated variance from the traditions of baseball. I didn’t like the annual rotation of World Series home field advantage over giving the honor to the World Series club with the best season record, but even that formula seems more fair than the determination of that important edge by players who most probably will not be in the World Series themselves.

Having said that, I Still think the MLB All Star Game is a better contest than either its NFL or NBA counterparts. The NBA Game is little more than a basketball version of a non-stop home run contest or, borrowing from its own homer form, a non-stop slam dunk contest where it’s all about scoring with flair and playing no defense. The NFL all-star contest is little more than a sandlot game played at the end of the season as the Pro Bowl, using popular players who have survived the season among the walking wounded.

Three MLB All Star Games have been played here in Houston, in 1968, 1986, and 2004. The National League took the first one, 1-0, and the American League has captured the last two, 3-2 and 9-4. The first two of these Houston games were played at the Astrodome; the 2004 game took place at Minute Maid Park.

Over the years, baseball has tried various combinations for selecting their All Star rosters. 1957 proved that job could not be left up to the fans totally. That was the year that Cincinnati fans stuffed the ballot boxes, assuring that their hometown Reds, deserved or not, would be the starting lineup for the National League at seven positions. Only first baseman Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals had survived the voting ruse. The travesty was obvious, and traceable to an organized scheme in Cincinnati to print an overwhelming number of ballots for use by Reds fans. The facts gave  the Commissioner easy, but also embarrassing grounds for intervening and making sure that seven Reds would not start for the National League in 1957. Commissioner Ford Frick appointed Willie Mays of the New York Giants and Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves to replace Reds outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post in the starting NL All Stars lineup.

The Cincinnati debacle of 1957 resulted in the vote being taken away from the fans until 1970. Until that time, managers, coaches, and players picked the teams, a system I would prefer to the Internet fan-blitz voting en mass we have returned to use through 2011. Let the field personnel pick the position players from their peer opponent teams of their same league. Let the All Star manager pick his own choice group of healthy, deserving, and available pitchers. And forget about fans picking their Mendoza Line (.200 BA) favorites for positions they do not deserve this year – no matter how great they have been in the past. Then play the game as a real game. Don’t substitute to showcase unless you want each club to carry a roster of fifty players each into the game.

And please ditch that hogwash award of World Series home field advantage to the league that wins the All Star Game. While you’re at it, give that deserved advantage to the league champion who finishes with the best season record. It shouldn’t be that hard to figure out the tie-breaker rules that will govern those years when two teams enter the World Series with identical records.

OK, so as baseball fans, we retain the right to dream on, form opinions, and make recommendations to all the baseball moguls who get paid the big bucks to do right by baseball on purpose. We don’t expect you to be perfect. We jut want to see you get it right more often than not. The All Star Game will never be perfect either, but imperfect as it may be, the Baseball All Star Game remains as the first and best of its kind. I believe we can make it better by taking the voting away from Internet geeks and ditching that bogus connection of the All Star Game to the World Series. Fans will still support the game, if they know the most qualified judges, the players, managers, and coaches themselves, are picking the best rosters based on current year productivity.

Some Pecan Park History Notes

March 10, 2011

Once upon a time, in the late 19th century. there really was a rather large Pecan tree orchard in the area southeast of downtown Houston. As the city grew in that direction, the demand for residential space resulted in the purchase or managerial acquirement of the orchard area for the purpose of building and selling homes. The Magnolia Land Company sat in the middle of this new enterprise and began plating the land for individual property and street construction n 1925. Shell was the original building material for new streets and roads, but asphalt and concrete took over as the major infrastructure upgrades by the mid-1930s..

The larger region soon became known and was advertised as “Pecan Park,” and it covered an area that basically stretched out through multiple smaller neighborhoods that shared these current informal borders: Griggs Road boundaried the northern line; Broadway stood as the eastern wall; and old Winkler Drive and now the Gulf Freeway (I-10 S) covering the southern boundary and, curving around, and also becoming the western frontier of the area.

Most of the homes of Pecan Park were built during the 1930s and 1940s, with all of the original construction of usable space tapping out about 1955. Lot size typically fit into the 5,000 square feet zone, with houses ranging in size from 1,100 to 1,600 square feet. Almost all of them were one-story wood or brick bungalows, with styles ranging from Tudor, Cape Cod, and Ranch class architectures being the preferred choices. Homes typically had two, and sometimes three bedrooms, with a living room, kitchen, one bath, and a one-car garage, Hardly anyone had a “den.” For those of us who grew up there, “dens” and multiple bath rooms were simply an upscale concept, amenities to expect, if you lived in River Oaks, but not in Pecan Park.

My family of origin lived in Pecan Park at 6646 Japonica Street from 1945 to 1958. Mom and Dad paid $5,000 for our little 2-bedroom house when we moved in, but Dad added another bedroom when my little sister was born in 1949. My folks kept the place for a few years as a rental house after we all grew up and moved out. I don’t recall what Dad got for the place when he sold it in the mid-1960s, but it wasn’t a lot. Now I look on the Harris County property valuation site and see that the house is currently appraised at $89,000.

How can that be? With some homes in the nearby neighborhood literally falling down, how can that be? Apparently, it’s mostly, if not all, about location, location, location. The people who now own my childhood home seem to be doing a good job on its upkeep, but that may not be the big deal. Fifteen years ago, the house, and others around it, were appraised in the low 30K range, but something has happened since then.

Some Houstonians apparently are moving back inside the loop from the far suburbs these days. OK. So, Pecan Park is only seven miles from downtown Houston, tops, from my old place on Japonica. The location of these homes is driving up the cost of the land upon which all the old homes still rest. You will even see some evidence of new construction in Pecan Park now, and to the extent that some people are razing older houses and putting up two-stories in their places.

I should have bought my old house back at 30K when it was on the market for same a few years ago, but that thought rests among the least original I’ve ever embraced. When it comes to the “Land of Real Estate Deal Passovers,” how many of us have subsequently found ourselves lost in the land of “Woulda’, Coulda’, Shoulda?”

The shakier our dollar becomes, the harder it gets to think about where we should put the ones we have left, but real estate has a special attraction for me. Unlike stock values, real estate doesn’t disappear with the dawn. You might wake up one morning and read that your land is no longer worth anything, but, at least, you can still look out the window as the sun rises higher in the sky and see that it’s still there.

Being able to see it still counts for something.

As for Pecan Park, she will always be home to me, even if I didn’t buy my old house back when I had the chance, and even with all the changes the neighborhood has gone through over the passage of time. There’s just a part of my early years there that soaked into my bloodstream and never went away.

Have a nice day, everybody, and save some time for your own favorite healthy passions and reveries of life. Pecan Park covers a lot of that ground for me. In many ways, Pecan Park is simply the shell that once held the yolk of everything I am. And I like that idea.

Remembering the Eastwood

March 9, 2011

Eastwood Theatre, Houston, Opened in 1936.

The Eastwood Theatre once stood at the corner of Leeland Avenue and Telephone Road like the gatekeeper to the deep southeastern section of Houston’s even larger Eaat End. Opened in March 1936, the Eastwood stood as merely one of the legion movies houses of the suburbs, one of those close to home places where most Houstonians saw their movies in the days prior to television, dvd, dvr, and Netflick-like movie mail services. If you were a kid back in that day, it was also one of the places where you got your Saturday morning kid movie fix, usually some kind of blended diet of Roy Rogers, Charlie Chan, The East Side Kids, The Crimson Ghost, and Bugs Bunny. How good was that? Words defy description, and, even though my home field for the Saturday morning kid movie fare was the smaller Avalon Theatre at nearby 75th and Lawndale, the Eastwood ranked high on our available list of local movies houses. Others in our territory included the Wayside and Santa Rosa, both located further down the winding tour route that was Telephone Road – and also the Broadway over near Milby High School,

We could list movie places all day long and deep into the night, In the end, it was the part of our childhood in Houston and America that these places played in the lives of us who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They were the spark that lit the fuse and fed the hunger of our new and growing imaginations about a better life in a bigger world beyond the fences and gates of our own little cultures. Little did we all know back then how well we already had it on our sandlots, with our friends, and in our families. For the most part, we had it all. Except for the money that could buy us the cars, clothes, travel, and adventure that we saw on the movie screen, we pretty much had it all – and all we had to do was keep up with our homework. We didn’t have to spend January, February, and March either working on, or procrastinating about, filing our federal income tax reports.

In having less, we had more. We just didn’t know it. The fact was beyond our experience of those times. And we felt no tax on our movie-inspired dreams.

My memories of the Eastwood, in particular, include the fact that it was the place I got my first taste of the real world. You see, at age 14 in 1952, I decided to apply for my first job there. I saw being an usher as a nice way to pick up some money and watch even more movies for free. So, I got all dressed up one day.and went down to the Eastwood to talk with the manager, a nice man we all knew as “Mr. Vallone.” I think his full name was Rocco Vallone, but I am only sure of the surname.

Mr. Vallone listened kindly to my job request and then invited me to fill out an employment application. It was about April of 1952 when I applied, hoping to start after the summer break, but June came and I never heard anything. Finally, after a few quick jobs in the neighborhood, I hooked on with A&P Grocery as a package boy and forgot all about the Eastwood.

And now the rest of the story.

Flash forward twenty-five years. I walk into a doughnut shop on Gessner over on the Westside one morning and guess who’s in line ahead of me? Of course, as fate would have it, it’s “Mr. Vallone,” the same guy who took and, for all I knew, was still holding my open application for a job at the Eastwood. Should I just let this moment slide and say nothing?

No way. I could not resist the opportunity for a little fun.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, “aren’t you Mr. Vallone, the fellow who used to manage the Eastwood Theatre?’

“Why, yes I am,” said the startled, but smiling Vallone, as he turned to shake my hand.

“Well, twenty-five years ago, you took my application for work as an usher and promised to get back with me, but you never called.” I said. “I just wanted to know if you’ve yet made  decision. – Did I get the job or not?”

Mr. Vallone almost fell on the floor laughing. We small talked our way through both our doughnut orders with a few fond shared memories of the Eastwood, but I told Vallone, as we parted, “Nothing will ever top this moment in my Eastwood file.”

We said goodbye and Mr. Vallone, the man who always physically reminded me of William Bendix, this time, was gone from my life forever once he walked out the door of the doughnut shop.

For the record, I didn’t get the job. Some kids who showed up looking for work on the last day of school got the work as ushers. Mr. Vallone told me again what I already knew. “You  should have checked back with me,” he said,

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Worst. Baseball Team. Forever.

March 7, 2011

Most of you know the story, but it bears repeating for the faint of heart who only now may be digging in to the research feast that is baseball history. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders have almost forever been the worst team of all time – and they likely shall retain that title from here to crack of doom. The reasons for both extreme assignment and prediction is one and the same: The Cleveland Spiders were the unfortunate product of an 1899 condition in baseball that will not (must not) ever occur again,

Here’s how it happened, starting with the bottom line on final results. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders finished their National League season with a record of only 20 wins against 134 losses, bad enough for last place in the 12-club circuit. The Spiders finished the year a full 84 games behind the first place Brooklyn Superbas – and  35 games behind the 11th place Washington Senators. The season was a total waste. Whereas, nearly 389,000 fans showed up to watch the 3rd place Philadelphia Phillies play at home, only 6,088 fans turned out to watch the hapless Spiders play in Cleveland.

Here’s the deal. A fellow named Frank Robison owned the Cleveland Spiders, but then, as the rules of the game then permitted, he also bought the St. Louis Perfectos of the same league. For some reason, the National League could neither spell “conflict of interest” nor foresee the obvious problem coming from this dual ownership situation. All they apparently saw was Robison as the man who would keep the St. Louis franchise from folding.

What they got was deserved.

Robison effectively turned his Spiders club in Cleveland into a farm club of service to the St. Louis Perfectos, almost immediately transferring Cleveland’s biggest stars, including future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, and Bobby Wallace, to St. Louis. That pattern was the operative two-way elevator for the balance of the season.  Cleveland players who did well moved up to St. Louis, and vice-versa.

Cleveland rage set in pretty quickly. Fans were so outraged that fear for the safety of available Spider players forced the club to play the balance of their many remaining home games on the road.

Dual franchise ownership was banned after the 1899 season, but that action came too late to alter the role of the Cleveland Spiders as the worst. club. ever.

One Cleveland tradition did take root in 1899 – and it wasn’t losing. In 1899, they signed Chief Sockalexis, the first Native American big leaguer of true big league playing ability and value – and they got keep him in Cleveland beyond their unfortunately unforgettable season. That fact would historical importance for another reason. Once Cleveland got passed naming their new American League club the “Naps” in honor of star player and manager Napoleon Lajoie, they became the Cleveland Indians in 1915, a named adopted in honor of Chief Sockalexis, the only good thing to come out of 1899 in Cleveland beyond the rule against dual team ownership itself.

Spiders may appear sinister, but humans are the really nasty trap-builders. “Oh! What tangled webs we weave!”