Posts Tagged ‘St. Louis Cardinals’

Houston Buffs: “Boke Knucklemann”

October 30, 2009
53Topps204Bokelmann

AKA (TO ME) AS BOKE KNUCKLEMANN!

Dick Bokelmann was Boke Knucklemann! When I was a kid, I tried writing fictional action stories and I always used real people as models for my heroes and main characters. That’s how former Buffs pitcher Dick Bokelmann got to be “Boke Knucklemann.” It happened during the red hot Houston Buffs championship season of 1951. Even though I only wrote for my eyes only, I somehow picked up on the idea that a writer couldn’t use an actual name of a real person in his writings, but that changing the name enough to capture the model’s identity without using his actual name made it OK.

Like his real life namesake, Knucklemann pitched for the Buffs, but when he wasn’t pitching, he was fighting crime on the streets of Houston – knocking out bank robbers with knuckle balls that he carried with him in a bag as his weapon of choice. Well, they weren’t exactly knuckle balls while they were still in the bag, but that’s what they were destined to become – once the good guy  “Bokeymann” got through throwing them.

Boke would run up on a robber coming out of a bank with his gun in one hand and his bag of loot in the other. Boke always stopped running toward his man once he got about 60′ 6″ away and then stare him down to a frightened halt. Then he would reach into his ball bag and pull out a weapon that he unleashed as a knuckler, one invariably heading straight for the robber’s face.

Long before Cassius Clay ever thought of it, these pitches of Boke Knucklemann carried with them the powers to both “dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”  I always tried to convey these ideas in my 13-year old descriptions of all those “good rallies past evil” moments of final redemption. Although I burned or threw away all my original stories long ago, the big moment always went something like this:

“Gypsy Joe Stalinovich stalled in the doorway of the First National Bank on Main Street as he saw the athletic figure of Boke Knucklemann racing toward him. As Boke stopped some short distance away, Gypsy Joe also froze, with his gun in the left hand and his bag of loot in the right. Coming toward him hard was a bobbing, weaving baseball, which his eyes attempted to closely follow in flight. Suddenly, with his peepers now crossed in locked tracking mode on the incoming white meteor, there’s a loud SPLAT sound as Joe takes it right between the baby blues! – Cartoon butterflies encircle the evil Gypsy Joe’s injured cranium as he falls face flat forward to the pavement for one of the easiest robbery arrests in HPD history. Gypsy Joe’s message is one he’d like to pass on to all other mean and evil Houston crooks: ‘The Bokeymann will get you if you don’t watch out!'”

So, folks, I got a lot out of watching Houston Buffs baseball back in the day, and, thankfully, I was realistic enough back then to spare the public my adolescent storytelling efforts. The point of sharing that literary history with you now is simply to make this point: Those guys weren’t merely my baseball heroes. They also were my inspiration for heroic central casting and my writing character models.

The real Dick Bokelmann was a good enough pitcher in reality to actually need no additional superhero alter ego. As a knuckle balling reliever for the 1951 Houston Buffs in 27 of the 30 games he worked, Bokie won 10 and lost 2 as he complied an incredible ERA of 0.74 over 85 innings of work.

Born 10/26/26 in Arlington Heights, Illinois, the recently turned 83-year old Dick Bokelmann posted a career minor league mark of 66-51, with a 3.21 ERA, from 1947-54. He spent four partial years with the Buffs (1950-53) while spending part of that same time with the parent club St. Louis Cardinals (1951-53). Bokie’s Cardinals/Big League mark was 3-4 with a 4.90 ERA.

It is also true that it was two men, Houston Buff knuckleballers Al Papai and Dick Bokelmann,  who prepared me to be a fan of Joe and Phil Niekro a few years later. It was an easy jump to make. I don’t think I’ve ever met a knuckleballer that I didn’t really like.Every one of them has been a remarkably individual and high integrity human being.

Eddie Dyer: Lots of Bang for Mr. Rickey’s Buck.

October 26, 2009

Eddie Dyer Iconic General Manager Branch Rickey of the St. Louis Cardinals had a three-pronged plan for helping himself. (1) He had a deal with club owner Sam Breadon. He got to keep a percentage of the net profits on the club’s operations, which meant, of course, that the less he paid out in personnel salaries, the more he got to keep for himself, as long as the club kept on winning. (2) He counted on the reserve clause and a loaded pipeline of talented players in the farm team system, players with no choice in baseball beyond the Cardinals, to keep him supplied with game-winning material. (3) He needed a few key people in the organization who were capable of doing more than one essential task at one time for the lowest salary he could work out with them for the price of a single employee’s salary.

Branch Rickey hit the jackpot when he met and signed a young pitcher/1st baseman/outfielder/baseball thinker/field manager/accountant/front office businessman named Eddie Dyer.

Born October 11, 1899 in Morgan City, Louisiana, Eddie Dyer’s family moved to Houston when he was still a kid, and he grew up among us as another “got here fast as I can” Houstonian with a talent and love for the game of baseball. After high school, he attended and played baseball at Rice, where he caught the attention of Branch Rickey and the Cardinals. This was around the same time that Mr. Rickey was surreptitiously taking control of the Houston Buffaloes for the Cardinals through a straw man purchaser for the sake of avoiding censure from Commissioner Landis, who thought that major league club control of minor league teams was bad for baseball.

Signed as a right handed pitcher, the Cardinals assigned Dyer to Syracuse of the International League to sharpen his skills.  Dyer’s progress was slow and mediocre. For the next five years, Eddie shuffled back and forth between the Cards and some of their top farm clubs, trying to break through as a more consistent winner. He seemed to be getting things together in 1927 when, again with Syracuse, he won his first six games before running into one of those life-changing events. An arm injury tagged Dyer with his first loss, but that was the small deficit. That 1927 arm injury ended Eddie Dyer’s pitching career.

From 1928 forward, Eddie Dyer became a Cardinals farm club manager, also continuing his playing career as an outfielder through the 1933 season he split between Greensboro and Elmira. Here’s where the Rickey touch/Dyer ability really started coming together. Wherever he went for the Cards as a manager, Dyer also served as business manager or club president – and all for the same money. What a deal!

In 1937-38, Eddie Dyer pulled leave as a manager, taking over in 1938 as Supervisor for Cardinal Farm Team Operations in the Southern and Southwestern Regions of the United States. He returned for three years (1939-40) as Manager of his home town Houstons Buffs . It turned out to be an impressively successful run, one that that would vault Dyer even higher up the Cardinal ladder of managerial plans in the years immediately following World War II. Dyer led the 1939-41 Buffs to three consecutive first place finishes in the Texas Leage, averaging 102 runs per season. His 1940 Buffs club also won the playoffs for the pennant, but then lost the Dixie Series to Nashville in five games. In 1942, Dyer moved up to the then AA Columbus (O) Redbirds of the American Association, finishing first and also winning the league pennant playoff series.

During World War II (1943-45), Dyer performed admimistrative duties for the Cardinals as Farm System Director in 1943 and then spent a couple of years (1944-45) taking care of his personal businesses in Houston. Then, when Cardinals Manager Billy Southworth suddenly departed St. Louis to take over the helm for the Boston Braves after the ’45 season, the wheel passed to Eddie Dyer to take over as Manager of the St Louis Cardinals in 1946. – What a timely move that turned out to be.

With all the big stars returning from military service, Eddie Dyer led the 1946 Cardinals to a first place tie with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant. The Cardinals then took the flag by winning the first two games of  a best two of three games series with the Dodgers. They then faced off with Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox in that “one for the ages” World Series in which Enos Slaughter’s “mad dash” run-scoring, game and Series-deciding tally from first base in Game Seven became one of the iconic moments in World Series history.

Dyer kept the Cardinals close again in 1947 and 1948, but lost out in the end as second place finishers to the Dodgers and Braves. When the Dyer-led Cards again narrowly missed in 1949, finishing only a game back of the Dodgers, things looked bleak. With Branch Rickey now guiding the Dodgers, the Cards no longer had the talent jam in their system that they once enjoyed. Dyer knew that too. He had worked every phase of the Cardinal operations over the years and really needed no “handwriting on the wall” to tell him what was coming soon. If anything, in fact, Eddie Dyer’s next actions were the writer of things to come for the St. Louis Cardinals.

After finishing the 1950 season in 5th place, Eddie Dyer resigned as manager of the Cardinals and retired to tend his considerable business interests in Houston. Dyer was involved in insurance, real estate, and oil. Marty Marion would take over as Cardinals Manager in 1951, but neither he nor any of the many who followed him would have the answer to winning it all again anytime soon. The Cardinals would not win another World Series until another Houstonian, Johnny Keane, got them there for that thrilling seven-game triumph over the New York Yankees in 1964.

Eddie Dyer’s retirement years in Houston were productive – and presumably content. Sadly, Eddie Dyer suffered a stroke in 1963 and then passed away in Houston on April 20, 1964 at age 65. Part of his legacy will live on as a tribute to Branch Rickey. The great Branch Rickey couldn’t have done it quite as renumeratively in baseball without the help he received from people like Eddie Dyer, but, of ourse,  it took a man like Rickey to recognize from early on what he had on his hands in the kid from Houston that he signed out of Rice (now University) Institute back in 1922.

Johnny Keane: A Manager for (Almost) All Seasons.

October 22, 2009

 

Born November 3, 1911 in St. Louis, Johnny Keane accepted his first minor league managerial job just prior to the start of World War I. – No, wait! – It wasn’t really that early. It just Johnny Keane 02 seems that way. His 17-year minor league playing career (1930-41, 1946-48) as a pretty good hitting middle infielder, however, quickly revealed an even greater talent for leadership. At age 26, Keane was awarded his first managerial assignment from the parent Cardinals as Manager of the Class D Albany, Georgia Travelers. Johnny promptly rewarded the Rickey organization’s judgment of him by reeling off two consecutive first place league pennant winners in Albany in both 1938 and 1939.

Over the course of his 17 seasons as a manager in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system (1938-41, 1946-58), Keane won 4 league championships and lost 8 other playoff appearances.  He had a losing record in only 5 seasons. His winning touch in the minors (1,357 wins, 1,166 losses) finally won him a place on the coaching staff of the Major league Cardinals in 1959, where he remained until he replaced Solly Hemus as manager on July 6, 1961. It is a note of irony that Solly Hemus had first played for Johnny Keane when the latter led the 1947 Houston Buffs to the Texas League title and Dixies Series championship.

In Johnny Keane’s fourth year at the Cardinal helm, he came under fire as the Cardinals seemed to be fading in the stretch of the 1964 National League pennant race. It soon became the worst kept secret in town that the club planned to bury Keane’s St. Louis managerial career at year’s end.

A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.

With some considerable help from Phillies manager Gene Mauch and his misuse of pitchers, the NL’s 1st place Philadelphia club pulled the arguably biggest el foldo job in history over the last two weeks as the Cardinals got hot neough to catch them at the wire for the National League pennant. Now the talk of firing Keane went dark as he then led the club to an exciting seven-game World Series victory in 1964 over the fabled frequent Big Show flying New York Yankees.

Now, before Cardinals owner August Busch could disengage his foot from the brake pedal on a policy reversal and offer Keane a new contract extention with the Cardinals, the New York Yankees and Johnny Keane had a notice of their own, one that called for a quick media conference.  The Yankees announced that they were firing Yogi Berra and hiring Johnny Keane as their new manager for 1965.

I suppose Keane found some revenge for the Cardinals’ lack of faith in him through this move, but further validation of his abilities as a mentor would be unavailable in New York. The talent bank at New York was pretty much bankrupt by 1965 as the once great Mickey Mantle played out in emptiness the four bad last seasons of his career. They were the years that never should have been. All Mantle did from 1965 to 1968 was roughly drop his career batting average below .300 lifetime while adding a few meaningless home runs to his already assured Hall of Fame career, but Keane would not be around long enough to see even half of that period of demise.

After leading the Yankees to a 77-85 record and 6th place finish in 1965, Keane and the Yankees got off to a horrendous 4-16 start in 1966, prompting yet another exercise in the Yankees’ quick trigger finger response policy. On May 7, 1966, the Yankess fired Johnny Keane, replacing him with former Yankee manager Ralph Houk.

Johnny Keane’s managerial record had come to an end at sge 54. He went back to his home in Houston  and private business, but that didn’t last long. On January 6, 1967, Johnny Keane suddenly passed away from a heart condition at age 55. Whoa again! Less than three years after winning the National League Manager of the Year Award, Johnny Keane was gone.

Johnny Keane was loved by the old time baseball community members in Houston who remembered him as either a fellow player or manager. I use the past tense here because most of those who remember Johnny Keane are also now gone. He was a long-time winner with a quick and fast memory for what appeared to him as acts of short term, underhanded disloyalty.

As a manager, Johnny Keane did the five things that I think any winning manager must do: (1) he was a good judge of talent; (2) he managed his pitchers well; (3) he treated his players with respect; (4) he publicly covered for his players; and (5) he took responsiiblity for the outcome of his own decisions. He apparently did not, however, adjust to the change in cultures he experienced when he moved from the Cardinals to the Yankees. As a disciplinarian, his style worked with Cardinal youngesters and veterans there who knew him well. When he moved to New York, however, the proud Yankees did not like the little man who apparently came there to tell the proud Yankees what to do. The Yankees read his authoritative style as disrepect for their proud heritage and ability. Going from the laid-back style of Yankee legend Yogi Berra to the more militant mode of outsider Keane didn’t help matters either. Besides, many of the Yankees felt that Yogi had gotten a raw deal in the post-1964 World Series firing and weren’t about to be open to taking on the man who had defeated them as the Cardinal mentor. As a result, Johnny Keane either never had or quickly lost control of the Yankees in 1965. There was no way that the situation could hold up for a second full year after the club’s horrible 1966 start.

Johnny Keane’s signature was one of the few autographs I ever collected directly as a kid. It was about 1950 and Keane was actually playing in one of those post-season “All Star Games” that President Allen Russell liked to stage at Buff Stadium. Keane and some of his random teammates were having a beer in the clubhouse at game’s end when they opened the door for us kids to greet the players coming out. All I had was a scoring pencil so I grabed a loose paper cup and tore it open flat for Johhny to sign, which he did. – Wish today I had saved it. I used to think back in 1947 that Johnny Keane was the smartest man in the world and, who knows, maybe he was.

Johnny Keane had an ancient Buffs connection. He played a few games for the 1934 Buffs, then returned for three full seasons as a player from 1935-37, batting .265, .272, and and .267. He even had a few times at bat during his three (1946-48) managerial years with the Buffs. Somewhere along the way, Johnny Keane fell in love with Houston and made it his adopted home town – and I’m glad he did. I just wish he could’ve hung around longer, but it was not to be.

Houston Buffs: Fireballing Jack Creel!

October 2, 2009

Jack CreelThe six foot tall, 164 pound stringbean righthander named Jack Dalton Creel was born on April 23, 1915 in a little place called Kyle, Texas. From 1938 through 1953, Creel amassed a fifteen season record of 179 wins, 157 losses, and an earned run average of 3.37 Throw in the 5-4, 4.74 W-L, ERA record he recorded in his one 1945 season with the St. Louis Cardinals and you’re looking at a pretty fair country resume’ for a fellow who played it all out during one of baseball’s most heavily talented personnel eras.

Creel broke in with two 15-win seasons in Class D Ball (1938, Taft, 15-7 & 1939 New Iberia, 15-11). He then capped that great start with his best season ever at Class D Daytona Beach with a 22-7, 1.50 ERA record.

Creel struggled with three clubs at Class B and AA in 1941, going a combined 10-11 in the win-loss column. His move to the then A1-level Houston Buffs in 1942, however, saw Jack Creel grab hold of his good stuff and battle forward to a 13-6, 1.92 ERA year.

After going a combined 19-28 in two seasons at AA Cloumbus, Ohio in 1943-44, Creel moved up to the parent club St. Louis Cardinals in 1945, posting a 5-4, 4.74 ERA record as the whole signature on his big league career.

The return of many talenetd Cardinal picthers from World War II in 1946 sent Jack Creel, and many others, back to the minors, where he posted an 8-11, 4.19 ERA record with the now AAA Columbus club.

Jack Creel then returned to the Houston Buffs for three of his most productive years in the minors (1947-49). Jack’s 14-10, 2.63 ERA mark with the Buffs’ ’47 Texas League and Dixie Series championship club was critical to Houston’s success. His work on two far less talented Buff clubs (1948: 12-10, 3.52; 1949: 16-10, 3.38) was important as the bathtub stopper on two teams that headed mainly toward a fuller drain. Thank God for the presence of Jack Creel in lean times. His ability always made victory a possibility and it drew fans to Buff Stadium who might otherwise have stayed home.

Creel spent the next two years with Portland of the AAA Pacific Coast League (1950-51), combining for a record of 21-20 and an ERA in the “low 4s.” Jack Creel returned to Houston to post a 6-11, 3.12 ERA record for a a very bad last place Buffs team. He then moved over to Beaumont of the Texas League in 1952, where he finished his last season in professional baseball with a record of 8 wins, 15 losses, and and ERA of of 5.20.

After baseball, Jack Creel made his home in Houston. He passed away here on August 13, 2002 at the age of 86.

In the end, I look upon Jack Creel as one of those pitchers from my childhood years who always inspired my desire to go to Buff Stadium on the nights he was scheduled to work. The hope of winning gets planted early in baseball fans and its tease about the harvest lasts a lifetime. Pitchers like Jack Creel were excellent gardeners.

Hal Smith, Catcher: A Tale of Two Smittys!

September 29, 2009

smith hal rsmith hal wHouston Baseball”s two Hal Smths were always being confused for one another. It didn’t help clarity much that they played ball in the same era and, worse, that they played the same position and both batted right handed. I’ve forgotten how often the same statement would come up from different friends at games during the 1962 first seson of the Colt .45s: “Oh yeah,” they’d say, “I remember that guy at catcher, that Hal Smith. He played for the Buffs a few years back.”

“No,” I’d have to answer, “this is not the same Hal Smith. This is the other Hal Smith, the one that got one of the big home runs for Pittsburgh in the 1960 World Series!”

“Oh,” they’d usually reply. “You mean that guy for the Pirates wasn’t the same Hal Smith who used to play for the Buffs?”

If this conversation had been part of an Abbott and Costello routine, this would have ben the point where I went to the big question of the day, “Who’s on first?”

Instead of going the Abbott and Costello way, let’s just try to get these two Hal Smith straight and apart for whom they each actually were. To that end, we’ll go the use of middle name initials to help keep their two identities separate and apart:

Hal R. Smith (Harold Raymond Smith) (BR/TR, 5’10.5″, 185 lbs.) was born June 1, 1931 in Barling Arkansas. – Hal W. Smith (Harold Wayne Smith) (BR/TR, 6’0″, 195 lbs.) was born December 7, 1930 in West Frankfort, Illinois. Both were catchers.

Hal R. Smith played for the Houston Buffs of the Texas League over the course of two seasons (1954-55). He batted .259 with 5 homers and 39 runs batted in for the ’54 Buffs and .299 with 8 HR and 67 RBI for the ’55 Buffs. 1955 concluded Hal R. Smith’s six season minor league career (1949-50, 1952-55). Hal R. Smith the next six seasons catching for the St. Louis Cardinals (1956-61), returning briefly with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1965 for three hitless times at bat.

Hal R. Smith’s little time as a Pirate in 1965 didn’t help keep him straight from Hal W. Smith in the public mind. The Pirates were Hal W. Smith’s old team during the 1960 World Series – and that was the season in which Hal W. Smith’s home run in Game Seven kept Pittsburgh alive for Bill Mazeroski’s winning walk-off homer against the New York Yankees.

Hal R. Smith never played for Houston’s major league Colt. 45s or Astros. His career major league record with St. Louis (and three at bats with Pittsburgh) included a batting average of .258, 23 home runs, and 172 RBI. Hal R. Smith also maintains a website that includes much more information about his personal life and career. Here’s the link:

http://halsmithcards.com/bio.html

Hal W. Smith was an original 1962 original club Houston Colt .45! In fact, he caught the first pitch ever thrown in a Houston major league game and it happened at Colt Stadium on April 10, 1962. Bobby Shantz was the Houston pitcher in that landmark moment; future Hall of Famer Lou Brock was the Chicago Cubs lead-off batter.

Hal W. Smith batted .235 with 12 HR and 35 RBI for Houston during the first big league season. He returned to the Colt .45s in 1963 for limited duty action, batting .241 with 0 homers and 2 RBI. Over a 17-season professional baseball career (1949-64), Hal W. Smith played all or parts of 10 seasons as a major leaguer for Baltimore, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Houston, and Cincinnati. His career major league totals include a batting average of .267, 58 HR, and 323 RBI.

Hal W. Smith came to Houston in the 1961 first player draft stocking of the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s, but he never really went away from the place in Texas that became his home, even though he played two final seasons of pro ball beyond his stay in Houston after the 1963 season. Hal W. Smith and his wife now live in retirement near Houston in Columbus, Texas.

Like most good catchers and pitchers, Hal W. Smith had a memory for hitters’ weaknesses, even among those foes he had faced many years ago. I ran into Hal W. Smith at a 2004 baseball banquet in which I was signng “A Kid From St. Louis,” the book I had written with the late Jerry Witte, a slugging first baseman for the 1950-52 Houston Buffs. Hal W. Smith had played for Beaumont of the same Texas League in 1952 and he remembered Jerry Witte’s weak spot.

“I knew how to get him out,” Hal W. Smith offered, “You threw him a high inside fastball. He’d swing at it and miss just about every time. Couldn’t lay off of it. – You never threw him the same pitch low and outside. He had these long arms that allowed him to go out there and get those low ones out of the zone and send ’em on a long golf ball ride, far over the left field wall.”

Amazing! Almost as amazing as the hope that this little article will now help people keep the identities of Houston baseball’s two “Hal Smith catchers” separate and apart.

Houston Buffs: The Boyer Boys!

September 25, 2009

Cloyd Boyer 002 Cloyd Victor Boyer, Jr. was the eldest of three brothers who all played professional baseball up through the major league level. Born in Alba, MO on September 1, 1930, Cloyd pitched in parts of 14 minor league and 5 major league seasons from 1945 to 1961. Two of those seasons for the 6’1″, 188 lb. right hander included service with the 1948 (16-10, 3.15 ERA) and 1953 (4-2, 2.73) Houston Buff clubs. Boyer was a pitcher with a good variety of variable speed options and fair control. He gave up a lot of hits per game (8.6 per innings, career), but he also was effective in getting batters to put playable outs on the field. Over the course of his entire career, he won 137 games and lost 120, recording a minor league career ERA of 3.52. After his active career concluded, Cloyd managed in the minors on five scattered year occasions from 1963 through 1989. He then retired from baseball to his native area of southwestern Missouri.

Two others among the several rural Boyer brothers also followed older sibling Cloyd down the pro ball trail, and the second of those also passed through Houston on his way to becoming one of the top 3rd basemen in the National League for several years. Ken Boyer (born 5/20/1937 in Liberty, MO) played 15 seasons in the big leagues, mainly for the St. Louis Cardinals,  from 1955 through 1969. He batted .287 with 282 career home runs over the major league haul. He also led the 1954 Buffs to the Texas League crown with a pretty good minor league stick (.319 BA, 21 HR, 116 RBI).  As a big leaguer, Ken appeared in 11 all star games and also played a critical hiting role in the 1964 Cardinals World Series victory over the New York Yankees. Sadly, we lost Ken Boyer o cancer on 9/07/1982 at the age of 51.

Ken Boyer 001 The youngest of these three ballplaying brothers was Clete Boyer, who was born on 2/08/1937 in Cassville, MO. Clete was also a right handed hitting third baseman with superior defensive skills. When Clete and Ken faced off against each other in the 1964 World Series as rival third basemen for the Yankees and Cardinals, it was a mighty big day back in southwestern Missouri. – Clete played most of his career for the Yankees and Braves, finishing his major league career with a .242 BA and 162 HR (1955-71.) He never made it to Houston as a player for the Buffs, Colt .45s, or Astros, but we would have loved having him on our resume too.

Somewhere out there, there must be a few other families with kids who are good enough to do as well as the Boyers.  All we baseball fans can hope for is that they aren’t already lined up to pursue careers in football or basketball first. Clete Boyer 001

Allen Russell: The Believable Barnum and Bailey of Buffs Baseball!

September 12, 2009

Marr WIcker Hawn That’s Houston Buffs President Allen Russell in the business suit and hat at the far left of today’s featured first photo. He’s showing some kind of report in early 1950 to St. Louis Cardinal coaches Runt Marr (next to Russell) and Freddy Hawn (far right). That’s Kemp Wicker, the first of two managers who commanded the Good Ship Buffalo at the start of the ’50 season wearing the “Houston” jersey. Little Benny Borgmann would soon replace Wicker and manage the Buffs for most of their ride into the Texas League cellar that most inglorious year, but that kind of field performance disaster never stopped Allen Russell. It simply provided a different kind of marketing challenge.

Bill Veeck wasn’t the only organized baseball promoter who would try almost anything that worked to draw fans to the ballpark. He was just the most creatively famous owner/president to do it – and he also did it at the major league level. Allen Russell could hold his own with just about anybody in baseball when it came down to bodacious ingenuity – and the 1950 season provided him with one of his brightest and coolest moments of gate-rattling chutzpah – and Allen wasn’t even Jewish!

Late in the 1950 season, when it became apparent that the Buffs had been shortchanged on the minor league talent distribution by the parent Cardinals that year, Russell decided he needed to do something unique in the interest of pumping the gate a little bit on the way to a crippled attendance finish. What he chose to do wasn’t totally unique. The rival Fort  Worth Cats had tried it briefly in 1949, but Russell forged onward, anyway, after talking his club into going along with the gimmick. The Buffs said “OK”, but they gave their consent to the plan with some considerable reservation.

Jerry Witte in ShortsAs modeled in the photo by the Buffs’ sluggung first baseman Jerry Witte, the Buffs agreed to wear shorts, as I also covered in a recent article. The ostensible reason given for this change was that the Buffs wanted to do all they could to make sure their players were made as comfortable as possible in the searing, humid Houston summer heat.

A lot of fans weren’t concerned with the comfort problems of a team that was already well on its comfortable way to a dead last finish, but that was not Russell’s concern. If he couldn’t give them winning baseball without the Cardinal home club’s help, he could at least provide the fans with something with the gawk-value of grown men playing baseball in short pants, that a fan had to buy a ticket to see.

“Players who aren’t comfortable losing should either find a way to win or be given a ticket down to Class A Omaha!” was a fairly typical conservative fan attitude, but that didn’t stop the short pants experiment.

The blousy short pants created a short term curiosity spike in attendance, but that thrill soon wore thin. Fans don’t like watching losers and short pants don’t make it more OK in the long run. Besides, the players hated the extra easy mosquito bites and sliding strawberry wounds they were getting from the goofy looking sawed-off uniform pants. Seeing all these things for himself, Allen Russell soon restored the Buffs to regular long pants before season’s end – and the Buffs marched on to a last place finish like real men.

During his eight seasons as Buffs President (1946-53), Allen Russell was largely responsible for a major growth in attendance at Buff Stadium for Houston Buff Texas Leaue games. Throw in the extra facts that this was arguably the halcyon era of baseball game attendance popularity. From 1946 through about 1953, the year that TV and a diversification of other leisure time interests pretty much changed everything  – baseball held the stage for a bull market run at new attendance records. All a city needed was a promoter like Allen Russell to make it happen – and easy access to the ballpark. Houston built their first freeway right past Buff Stadium in 1948 and the old ballpark was still very accessible to the bus lines and middle class neighborhoods that surrounded the place. Russell took advantage of every break that swung his way – and he also  pretty much declared war on rain-outs and the loss of income they produced. Russell would get out there on the field himself and pour gasoline into all standing waters on the infield and then set it on fire. He would literally burn the water off the field before he ever called a game because of rain. If he could’ve stopped the rain from ever falling on game days with a little voodoo ceremony, he probably woul d have done that too.

Allen Russell & Rain In 1946, the year that Russell took over as Buffs President, the Buffs drew 161,000 fans and the major league St. Louis Browns drew 526,000. The very next year, 1947, the Buffs outdrew the Browns by 326,000 to 282,000. By 1948, the Buffs again won the gate battle, 401,000 to 336,000. The Browns edged a bad Buffs team in 1949 by 271,000 to 254,000, but an 8th places Buffs club in 1950 still edged a 7th place Browns club by 256.000 to 247,000. The Buffs won again in 1951 by 333,000 ro 294,000 By 1952, St. Louis was reaping the benefits of Bill Veeck’s second year at the Browns helm. The Browns outdrew the Buffs by 519,000 to 195,000 in 1952 – and they edged them again in 1953, the last year of the Browns, by a 297,000 to 204,000 count.

In spite of the lapses in his twofinal  Buff seasons, Russell had made his point before leaving Houston to take over running the nearby Beaumont Exporters. The St. Louis Cardinals even considered moving to Houston prior to the 1953 season because of some serious ownership problems, but that possibility was quashed by the purchase of the club by August Busch and the Budweiser Beer Company.

After 1953, it would be the Browns who moved from St. Louis, but that relocation would not be to Houston. It would be to Baltimore. Still, Allen Russell supplied the original rachet for others who would now pursue major league baseball for Houston with great passion and political savvy. They would succeed seven years later when Houston was awarded an expansion club franchise in 1960 to start playing in 1962.

Now we just need to make sure we remember the man who made it all possible. His name was Allen Russell and, as far as I’m concerned, he’s also the real father of major league baseball in Houston.

 

********************

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

Octavio Rubert: A Cubano Cut Above Most Others Today!

September 9, 2009

octavio rubertBy the time the young man from Sancti Spiritus, Cuba arrived here  in 1951 as a member of the Houston Buffs pitching staff, the 26 year old righthander was already drawing favorable comparisons to the  great big league Cuban hurler of the 1920s, Adolfo Luque of the Cincinnati Reds. Rubert had stormed onto the scene in 1946, going 13-6 with a 1.72 ERA for  the Class C West Palm Beach club. – He then bettered that mark with the same team in 1947 by pumping his record up to 23-12 1ith a 1.76 ERA.  Want more? Rubert went over to Class C Tampa in 1948 and pulled off a 22-7 record with a 2.11 ERA.

The next three seasons sometimes happen to international players who pitch twelve months a year. Rubert spent most of his winters pitching well for Almendares in his native Cuba, but that also meant that his arm also tired or experienced injury that briefly limited his state side service during “our” baseball season. After going only 2-0 consecutively as a reliever in limited action for the AAA Rochester Redwings in 1948-49, Rubert moved down to Houston after the season was underway in 1949 to go 3-10 with a 4.68 ERA for the AA Buffs. Based on his 10.13 ERA at Rochester in 1949, I’d say this move was more of a “find his right level” transfer than it was due to any arm problems. Still, he had to be tired. At age 24, he’d been pitching all year over the course of his enire walking, breathing, ballplaying life.

Octavio found his level in 1950, going 17-8 with a 3.07 ERA for Class A Omaha – and stirring the anticipation of his return to the Buffs in 1951. He did not disappoint.

Rubert posted a 19-5, 2.28 ERA for the “blow ’em all away” 19651 Texas League Champion Houston Buffs, second only in wins to Al Papai at 23-9, 2.44 ERA mark. It was a starting rotation that also included Vinegar Bend Mizell (16-14, 1.96), Freddy Martin (15-11, 2.55), and spot starter/reliever Mike Clark (10-7, 2.78) Throw in the big support bats of first basemann Jerry WItte (38 HR) and Larry Miggins (28 HR) and you walk over to the competition oven with most of the marinated ingredients for a championship year in the Texas League. – And, of yeah, and let’s not forget third baseman Eddie Kazak (.304) and knuckleballing reliever Dick Bokelmann (10-2, 0.73 ERA) for a little extra spice.

Mike Clark That’s “Black Mike” Clark and the bust of Eddie Kazak showing up in this cropping from a team photo – and they were just two of the guys who helped Octavio Rubert and the ’51 Buffs make their day in the baseball sun a mostly happy one. The party was only spoiled by Houston’s six-game loss to Birmingham in the Dixie Series. Our excuse? A mysterious stomach illness hospitalized Vinegar Bend Mizell and made him unavailable for the Buffs’ Series cause at crunch time.

Octavio Rubert had good stuff and good command, but he never got to pitch in the big leagues, probably for the ususal reasons – an  abundant supply of options controlled completely by the clubs through the reserve clause and a baseball cultural attitude of the time  that predominantly played out by the clubs as “we’ll use the guys who eventually are good, strong, and ucky enough to not get hurt trying too hard.” Survival of the fittest, and the luckiest, was the rule.

Octavio Rubert ran out of steam and luck after 1951. He became a hittable pitcher. He won only 22 more minor league games over the next four seasons and was out of baseball after 1955. Years later, his native country still celebrated his home cooking days. Octavio Rubert was admitted to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Former Buffs – Movin’ On Up!

September 7, 2009

Three BuffsThe goal of every young and upcoming Houston Buff from 1923 through 1958 was to play well enough in the Texas League to either move up the following season to AAA ball, or even better, to do so well that that they went straight on up to the roster of the St. Louis Cardinals. I’m bracketing the era as 1923 through 1958 for one simple reason: That’s the time period in Buffs history in which the Cardinals either controlled or owned the futures of all ballplayers who passed through Houston professional baseball.

In our featured photo, shortstop Don Blasingame (far left), outfielder Russell Rac (center), and outfielder Rip Repulski (far right) were certainly no variants from that common aspirational goal. In this picture, from what most likely is the spring of 1955, the three eager Buffs shown here pause together for their own “raring-to-go” pictorial on baseball ambition. Two of the three young men shown here would play on to see that dream come true.

Three Buffs BlasingameThree Buffs Repulski

Don Blasingame enjoyed a 12-year MLB career (1955-66) as a middle infielder for the the Cardinals, Giants, Reds, Senators, and Athletics, one that was highlighted by a 1961 World Series appearance with the Reds. Rip Repulski hit .269 with 106 homers over nine seasons (1953-61) with the Cardinals, Phillies, Dodgers, and Red Sox.

Three Buffs Rac2 The third man, Russell Rac, never got a single time at bat in the big leagues in spite of some pretty good hitting and fielding success with the Buffs in seven of his eleven season (1948-58) all minor league career. He began in Houston in 1948 – and he left as a Buff ten years later with a .312 season average, 12 homers, and 71 runs batted in for 1958. Few, if any, other players spent as many seasons as an active member of the Houston Buffs roster. Russell Rac went back to Galveston and into business from baseball following the 1958 season, where he continues to live in retirement as a man whose heart still belongs to baseball.

Once upon a time, Russell Rac also had a moment in Latin American winter ball that few hitters ever have, anywhere. He hit four home runs in a single game. I know he did because he told me he did once at a baseball dinner reception and I have no reason to doubt the word of this very good man. If I can ever recapture the details of where, when, and for whom he performed this rarest of baseball feats, I promise to report the whole story here on WordPress.Com in a fresh article about what had to be the most amazing day in the career of former Houston Buff Russell Rac.

Russell Rac was certainly good enough over time to have earned an opportunity to play in the big leagues, but the breaks simply weren’t there for him in the crowded talent pipeline that once was the St. Louis Cardinals farm system – and during an era in which there were only sixteen major league clubs, not the thirty separate organizations that exist today.

Many of the older players who remain with us from the 1940s and 1950s will tell you. – You had be both good and lucky to make it to the big leagues back in the day. – You also had to play hurt. A former Houston Buff, the late Jim Basso, once put it to me this way: “You take a day off to heal a sore arm or a leg cramp back then and some other guy’s going to be wearing your jock strap and sitting at your locker when you come back!”

Another former player from the Dodger organization, Larry (now Lawrence) Ludtke, told me the same thing in these words: “I pitched for the big club down in Florida until my arm fell off. When it finally didn’t heal, I just had to look for another line of work. That’s how things were back then. You tell them your arm hurt back then and they would just look behind you in line to the next guy and holler out, ‘Next!’ ” Ludtke may have caught his career break right there in 1956 when a damaged arm forced him off the pitching mound and out of baseball. He went on from there to become Lawrence Ludtke, a Houston-based, world renowned sculptor.

Ludtke 2 Ludtke 1

God’s Grace through serendipity works things out in it’s own curious, but always amazing way – and that’s a truth that lands on all of us, not just professional baseball players. We only need open eyes to see it working in all things. If we don’t see it, it’s just because we are still in the painful lessons tunnel and haven’t yet come to the light on the other side of whatever the big obstacle mountain may be.

Wilmer David Mizell: The Buff from Vinegar Bend!

September 2, 2009

Mizell 003The young man they were already calling Vinegar Bend Mizell arrived in Houston with the Buffs  in the spring of 1951, heralded full bore as the lefthanded second coming of Dizzy Dean from twenty years earlier. Buff fans, sportswriters, club president Allen Russell, and the parent team St. Louis Cardinals all hoped the “Lil Abner Look-n-Sound-Alike” would turn out to be everything his growing legend screamed out that he was going to be: a sure-fire and consistent twenty game wins per season superstar and future Hall of Famer. Mizell wasn’t quite the young braggart that Dean had been, but he opened his mouth enough to create words that some writers ran to type as promises for use as future nails, should he fail to deliver.

Born in Leakesville, Mississippi on August 13, 1930, the still 20-year old new 1951 Houston Buffs pitching “phenom” claimed the nearby community of Vinegar Bend, Alabama as his hometown. When Cardinals superscout Buddy Lewis went to Vinegar Bend to sign Wilmer a couple of years earlier, he found him just where his mother said he was: literally up a creek in the nearby woods, killing squirrels from about sixty feet away with small thrown stones. “Wait a minte,” the observant Lewis quickly cried out, “I thought you were lefthanded! You’re killing those squirrels with righthanded throws! What’s the deal?

“I am lefthanded,” Mizell supposedly replied, “but I had to give up squirrel-huntin’ with my left hand. – It messes ’em up too bad!”

Lewis had Mizell’s signature on a Cardinals contract before nightfall.

Mizell’s first two seasons of minor league seasoning had marinated all the hope in his future to the “nth” degree. Pitching for Class D Albany, Georgia in 1949, Mizell posted an very impressive record of 12-3 with a lights out ERA of 1.98. His promotion to Class B Winston-Salem, NC in 1950 just pumped expectations all the higher, as Wilmer finished there with a record of 17-7 and an ERA of 2.48.

Mizell 001Mizell was critical to the success of Houston’s 1951 Texas League pennant drive, posting a 16-14 record that wasn’t altogether his fault on the short side of his wins to losses ratio. The club just had one of those seasons in which they often had trouble giving Mizell the offensive support he needed to take the win. His 1951 Earned Run Average of 1.96 still spoke volumes about his bright future as a prospect.

In appreciation of Mizell, and as a late season gate pump, Buffs President Allen Russell declared September 7, 1951 at Buff Stadium as “Vingear Bend Night.” Russell crowned the night such by picking up the bus travel and overnight room tab to bring all eighty residents of Vinegar Bend, Alabama to Houston to watch their favorite son pitch. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those nights I just mentioned. Mizell struck out 15 of the Shreveport Sports he faced that night, but he gave up three runs. Buff bats were absent and Mizell took the loss, 3-1.

A mysterious stomach ailment caused Mizell to be hospitalized for part of the playffs and all of the Dixie Series content with the Brimingham Barons. As a result, the Buffs lost to Brimingham, but Mizell was well and well on his majors the following spring.

The pattern from here flattened out for Mizell. He became a competent big league pitcher with a mediocre career record over nine seasons with the Cardinals (1952-53, 1956-60), the Pirates (1960-62), and the Mets (1962). He finished with  areer mark of 90 wins, 88 lossess, and an ERA of 3.85 – not the kind of stuff that gets any pitcher to Cooperstown.

After baseball, Vinegar Bend Mizell had a few surprises left up his sleeve. He ran for Congress from his adopted home state of North Carolina and was then elected for several terms as a Republican.

Mizell 002I had the good fortune of finally meeting Wilmer David Mizell when we were seated together at the same table at the banquet hall for the Spetember 1995 “Last Round Up of the Houston Buffs.” I had a chance to ask him if the squirrel hunting story were true. “Did you like the story?” Mizell asked me in return?” “Oh yeah! I always loved it!” I told Mizell. “In that case, it was absolutely true!” Mizell shot back with a wink and a smile.

“Here’s another one for you!” Mizell said, and I will leave you toady on this Mizell story note:

“The worst thing that happened to us back home in Vinegar Bend was the time we had the fire. – It started in the bathroom. – Fortunately, we were able to put it out before it reached the house.”

Sadly, we lost Wilmer Mizell early. At age 68,  he dropped dead of a heart atack on February 21, 1999 while visiting with friends in Kerrville, Texas. We miss you, Wilmer. And we miss all your funny true stories. We will also never forget how great you once were as a member of the 1951 Houston Buffs. Thanks for the memories.