Sunday, July 4, 2010

An All-American Team

1B Lou Gehrig. The best player born in the greatest city in America, or in the world, New York City. Honorable Mention to Hank Greenberg, not that far behind Gehrig as a great New Yorker, and who missed 4 prime seasons to the U.S. Army in World War II.

2B Jackie Robinson. Born Jack Roosevelt Robinson on January 31, 1919, named for former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had died 25 days earlier. An Army Lieutenant in World War II, Robinson's style of play meant that he changed how the game was played, not just by whom. One of the truly great Americans, from any walk of life.

Honorable Mention to Jose Oquendo. Born on July 4, 1963, in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, so, in effect, he is both an American and an immigrant.

SS Maury Wills. Probably the best player born in Washington, D.C., the Nation's Capital. Along with Robinson and Luis Aparicio, restored the stolen base as a serious weapon in baseball.

3B Sparky Adams. Born Earl John Adams, he's the best player with "John Adams" in his name. In 1931, he led the National League in doubles and helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series. (Nobody noticed his achievement, because, in the American League that season, Earl Webb of the Boston Red Sox hit 67 doubles, a single-season record that still stands.)

LF George Case. A native of Trenton and graduate of the posh Peddie School in nearby Hightstown, George Washington Case was a 3-time All-Star for the Washington Senators, led the American League in stolen bases 6 times between 1939 and 1946, and was the best player born with the name "George Washington (something)." Unfortunately, an injury ended his career at age 31.

Honorable Mention to Andrew Jackson Leonard. A member of the first professional baseball team, the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings, and along with some of his Cincinnati teammates, helped form professional baseball's first dynasty, the Boston franchise of the National Association, winners of 4 straight Pennants, 1872-75, and from whom today's Atlanta Braves are descended (as a continuously-operating business, anyway), he was the greatest player with "Andrew Jackson" in his name.

CF Tris Speaker. There's only been one MLB player with the name "Eagle," and he was up for a cup of coffee in 1898. But Speaker was known as "the Gray Eagle," and had a .345 lifetime batting average, collected over 3,500 hits, is the all-time leader in doubles with 793, and was regarded as the best defensive outfielder of all time before Joe DiMaggio.

RF Paul O'Neill. There's never been an MLB player with the name "Christopher Columbus (anything)," but Paulie Pinstripes, who won 1 World Series with his home-State Cincinnati Reds and 4 with the Yankees, and is a sure bet for Monument Park if not for the Hall of Fame, is the best player born in a city or town named for the supposed "discoverer of America."

Frank Howard is another candidate for that title, and was a coach for the Yankees for a few years and briefly managed the Mets. Current Yankee Nick Swisher was also born in Columbus.

C Roy Campanella. The best player born in Philadelphia, the nation's birthplace. Grew up in a neighborhood called Nicetown. It's not a very nice neighborhood, hasn't been for a long time, but Campy was one of the nicest people in baseball, as well as a great catcher and one of the best power hitters of his time, a Hall-of-Famer with 3 Most Valuable Player awards.

The debate over who was the better catcher, Campy of the Brooklyn Dodgers or Yogi Berra of the Yankees, was a big part of the fun of being a baseball fan in the Tri-State Area from 1949 (both men's first full season as a catcher) until 1957 (when the Dodgers left and Campy had his crash).

Come to think of it, as the only man to both fight on D-Day and play Major League Baseball, Yogi should be a candidate for this team, too. And so should Hank Gowdy, the catcher for the 1914 World Champion Boston Braves, who was the only major leaguer to serve in World War I and World War II.

SP Albert "Chief" Bender. There has to be a mention of the original inhabitants of this land, known at various times as the Indians, the Native Americans, Aboriginal Americans, or, as Canada calls them, "the First Nations." Bender, a member of the Chippewa tribe in his native Minnesota, is in the Hall of Fame, and used to silence war-whooping hecklers with shouts of, "You lousy foreigners, go back where you came from!" At a time, around 100 years ago, when the immigrant experience was still very fresh, this had a particular sting: He was a lot more "American" than many of them were.

SP Allie Reynolds. Not quite at Hall of Fame levels, and "only" 1/4 Creek (from Oklahoma), he was good enough to help the Yankees reach 6 World Series in 7 seasons, 1947 to 1953, and win them all. His Plaque at Yankee Stadium's Monument Park was dedicated in 1989, and I was there. He died in 1994, age 77. He was a graduate of Oklahoma State University (then Oklahoma A&M), one of the great college baseball programs, and its baseball stadium is now named for him.

SP Eddie Plank. Hall-of-Famer, winner of over 300 games, and teammate of Bender on Connie Mack's 1910s Philadelphia Athletics, he's the best player born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the Union was saved.

SP Tommy Bridges. Born Thomas Jefferson Davis Bridges, the All-Star pitcher for the 1930s and '40s Detroit Tigers was, by a long shot, the best player with "Thomas Jefferson" in his name, although he could also be disqualified for having "Jefferson Davis" in his name.

SP Jim Beattie. Born on July 4, 1954 in Hampton, Virginia, near the nation's largest naval base at Norfolk, but grew up in Portland, Maine. He is now best known as an executive with the Montreal Expos and Baltimore Orioles, and is now a scout with the Toronto Blue Jays. But in 1978, he battled a rookie's wildness to become part of the Yankees' starting rotation, and threw his first career complete game in Game 5 of the World Series, a 12-2 Yankee win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. A year later, he gave up Carl Yastrzemski's 3,000th career hit, was traded to the Seattle Mariners, pitched for them until 1986 and faded, but for a few weeks in the summer and fall of '78, he was exactly what the Yankees needed.

RP Mike Lincoln. A reliever for the Cincinnati Reds, he's the only active player with "Lincoln" in his name. There have been 3 MLB players with the name "Abraham Lincoln (something)," but all were brief, and the last left the majors in 1921 -- four score and nine years ago.

Honorable Mention to the best player named after the Rough Rider, who, unfortunately, was a bum with the Yankees before becoming a better pitcher elsewhere, Theodore Roosevelt "Ted" Lilly; and to the only player with "Franklin Delano Roosevelt," or even "Franklin Roosevelt" in his name, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Wieand, who came up for cups of coffee with the Cincinnati Reds in 1958 and 1960. Strangely, he was known as Ted Wieand. Maybe somebody forgot which President Roosevelt he was named for.

Very Honorable Mention to Lou Brissie, who nearly lost his leg in World War II, came back after multiple surgeries, wore a metal brace over his leg to protect it from line drives -- came in handy when Ted Williams hit one off it, but he remained in the game -- and pitched a few good years for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Cleveland Indians. And to Bert Shepard, who did lose his leg in World War II, but came back to pitch one game for the Washington Senators in 1945.

MGR Chuck Tanner. Born on July 4, 1929 in New Castle, Pennsylvania, in 1955 he made his major league debut as a left fielder for the Milwaukee Braves, and hit a home run on the 1st pitch he ever saw. He only hit 20 more, and in 1957, to add insult to injury, the Braves traded him before he could play for them in the World Series. But he nearly managed the Chicago White Sox to the American League West title in 1972, nearly did the same for the Oakland Athletics in 1976, and took his home team -- New Castle is 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh -- to the 1979 World Championship, the last time the Pirates have appeared in the World Series.

Owner. George Steinbrenner. For better or for worse, he is a real live nephew of his Uncle Sam, and, unlike George Michael Cohan, the great entertainer and huge baseball fan who wrote those words, and was actually born on July 3, 1878, George Michael Steinbrenner III really was born on the 4th of July, in 1930. The Boss is now 80 years old, and due to a series of strokes, it's debatable how aware he is of what's happening with the game today. But, at times, he has represented the best and the worst of the American character. Today is a day to think of the best, and he has done more good than his critics would care to admit.

Most Honorable Mention to those MLB players killed in service in our nation's wars. There are 8, 5 from World War I, 2 from World War II, 1 from the Korean War:

* Eddie Grant, born May 21, 1883 in Franklin, Massachusetts, third base, played for the Cleveland Naps (named for slugger-manager Nap Lajoie, later the Indians) in 1905, the Philadelphia Phillies 1907-10, the Cincinniat Reds 1911-13, and the New York Giants 1913-15; graduate of Harvard Law School, practiced law after leaving the game, Army, Argonne Forest, France, October 5, 1918.

* Ralph Sharman, born April 11, 1895 in Cleveland Ohio, played just 13 games as an outfielder for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1917; drowned in the Alabama River while on a training maneuver, Camp Sheridan, Alabama, May 24, 1918. Although it was not in combat, it counts.

* Bun Troy, born August 27, 1888 in Bad Wurzach, Germany, emigrated to the U.S., pitched 1 game for the Detroit Tigers in 1912; joined U.S. Army to fight the country from which he hailed, killed at Petit Majouym, France, October 7, 1918.

* Alex Burr, born November 1, 1893 in Chicago, Illinois, a real-life “Moonlight Graham” who played in 1 game and didn't come to bat, in center field for the Yankees on April 21, 1914; one of the first American pilots to be killed in war, crashing in Cazeaux, France, October 12, 1918. Despite being the only Yankee ever killed in a war fought by his country, no mention of him has ever been shown in the concourses, the Monument Park, or any other part of either the old or the new Yankee Stadium. He has been totally forgotten by the team.

* Larry Chappell, born February 19, 1890 in McClusky, Illinois, played five season in the outfield, 1913 to 1917, for the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Boston Braves; died at an Army barracks in San Francisco, California of the Spanish Flu epidemic that ended up killing twice as many people –- military and civilian alike –- as the war, just 3 days before the Armistice, on November 8, 1918.

* Elmer Gedeon, born April 15, 1917 in Cleveland, Ohio, star at the University of Michigan, but just 5 games as an outfielder for the 1939 Washington Senators, Army Air Force, Saint-Pol, France, April 20, 1944.

* Harry O'Neill, born May 8, 1917 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1 game as a catcher for the 1939 Philadelphia Athletics, Marine Corps, Iwo Jima, March 6, 1945.

* Bob Neighbors, born November 9, 1917 in Talahina, Oklahoma, 7 games as a shortstop for the 1939 St. Louis Browns -- not sure why the 2 we lost in WWII and the 1 we lost in Korea all played only in that one month, September 1939, and all for teams that no longer exist in their present form -- Air Force, Korea, reported missing on August 8, 1952, never found and presumed dead.

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