Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Few R.I.P.s, Including the Other Neil Young: 1944-2011

Nice win by the Devils last night. Under 3 minutes to play, trailing the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 at home, and they tie it up, and then win it 3-2 in overtime. This is important because the Canes would be, if the current standings hold, the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, and it was the first of 3 games the Devils play against them in the next 2 weeks. Gotta put the pressure on.

The Devils have gotten better since the firings of coach John MacLean (sorry, Johnny Mac, I know it wasn't all your fault) and captain Jamie Langenbrunner (and former captain Patrik Elias may not have gotten the C back, but he has improved a lot since the trade). They've climbed out of the Atlantic Division basement (have fun down there, Islanders), and now look like a Playoff team. But they've got a long way to go.


Roy Hartsfield died 3 weeks ago. He wasn't much of a ballplayer, spending only 3 years in the majors, all with the Braves, their last 3 years in Boston. But he moved on to the Dodger organization, was one of their top scouts, and won Pacific Coast League Pennants managing the Spokane Indians and the Hawaii Islanders. He was the first manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, from 1977 to 1999, although the expansion team lost 318 games in those seasons. A native of rural Georgia, Hartsfield was 85 when he died in a town down there, appropriately named Ball Ground.

George Crowe died 3 days later. He was a teammate of Hartsfield on the '52 Braves, stayed with them as they moved to Milwaukee, and was one of the first black players for the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals. He was an All-Star in 1958, and once held the record for most career pinch-hit home runs, with 14. (The record now belongs to Matt Stairs, with 23.)

He was also a sensational basketball player. In 1939, graduating from Franklin High School in Indianapolis, Crowe was the first recipient of the highest honor the State of Indiana can bestow on one of its citizens: "Mr. Basketball." Subsequent winners have included Oscar Robertson, Dick and Tom Van Arsdale (the twins shared the award in 1961), Kent Benson, Steve Alford, Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson and Greg Oden. Crowe played on a semipro basketball team in Los Angeles with a Pasadena native who, like him, also played baseball, first in the Negro Leagues and then in the majors: Jackie Robinson. Crowe died at age 89.

Gus Zernial died 2 days after Crowe. He hit more home runs than any player whose last name begins with a Z. Big deal? Try 237 home runs, which is 237 more home runs than most of us will hit in the majors. In 1951, he led the American League in homers and RBIs. In 1953, he peaked with 42 homers, although that didn't lead the League. He was the last great slugger for the Philadelphia Athletics, and moved with them to Kansas City. His career OPS+ was 116.

In 2003, when Interleague play finally brought the Oakland version of the A's back to Philadelphia for their first game in the city since 1954, Zernial was one of the Athletics invited to take part in a pregame ceremony at Veterans Stadium, along with 1952 AL Most Valuable Player Bobby Schantz. I was there that day, and it was a good way for the city to finally do what it never had the chance to do almost half a century earlier: Say goodbye to what remains the most successful sports team in the city's history. (The A's won 9 Pennants and 5 World Series. Philadelphia football teams have won a combined 4 NFL titles, the Warriors and 76ers have 4 NBA titles between them, and the Flyers 2 Stanley Cups.) A native of Beaumont, Texas, Zernial died at age 87.

And Woodrow Thompson "Woodie" Fryman died last week. A lefthanded reliever, he did a lot of difficult things. He pitched for the Phillies in their last few years at Connie Mack Stadium. He pitched for Billy Martin. He pitched home games at Tiger Stadium. He pitched home games at Wrigley Field. And he played for the Montreal Expos.

As a starter, he had 5 seasons where he won at least 12 games, despite pitching for some lousy teams. As a reliever, he saved 45 games for the Expos from 1979 to 1982, at ages 39 to 42. The Kentucky native never appeared in a World Series, although he did reach the postseason with the '72 Tigers and '81 Expos. He was 70.


And Neil Young died. No, not the Canadian rock star. This was a sports legend.

Neil James Young was born on February 17, 1944 in Manchester, England. From his bedroom window, he could see Maine Road, the stadium of Manchester City Football Club.

The joke goes that everybody from Manchester supports Man City, while it's only people from outside Manchester that support Manchester United, especially foreigners attracted by Man United's constant winning from 1993 onward. This is a gross exaggeration, but, within the City of Manchester, Man City remain the most popular soccer team. Sorry, forgot to "speak English" there: The most popular football club.

Neil Young played for youth team Manchester Boys, and was signed by Man City at age 15. In 1961, he made his debut for the club, but they were relegated from the Football League's Division One to its Division Two. In 1965, legendary Arsenal centreback Joe Mercer was named their manager. He brought Malcolm Allison in as his assistant. Joe and "Big Mal" got City back to the top flight in 1966, making moves like taking Neil from the left wing to a forward position.

With a defense anchored by Captain Tony Book, Mike Doyle, and goalkeeper Harry Dowd, and an attack of Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee and Young, Man City won the League in 1968. In the regular-season finale, needing a win to take the title, they beat Newcastle United 4-3, with Young scoring twice and having another disallowed for offside.

In 1969, they reached the Final of the FA Cup, England's national tournament, against Leicester City. Young scored the only goal of the game, in the 24th minute. At this point -- 3 months before Woodstock, and just over a year before the massacre at Kent State University led to the writing of a classic song -- Neil Young the soccer player was a much bigger figure than Neil Young the rocker.

In 1970, Man City won the League Cup, although Young did not play in the Final. As holders of the FA Cup, they were entered in the European Cup Winners' Cup (a tournament since folded into the UEFA Europa League), and reached the Final. This time, Young did play, against Polish side Gornik Zabrze. He scored, and was going for another when he was brought down for a penalty. Franny Lee scored it. Those goals were enough to give City the Cup, 2-1.

(Lee took City's penalties then. He was also one of the 1st players in the English league accused of diving. The joke was that he was actually Chinese and that his real name was "Lee Won Pen.")

Early the next season, Neil's brother Chris died, and this affected him both emotionally and on the field. He was never the same player. He made his last appearance for City a year later, and played for Preston North End and Rochdale before retiring in 1975.

With his 1st wife, Margaret, he had a son and 2 daughters. He later married a woman named Susan and had another daughter, and still later married a woman named Carmen. But he never found a permanent job, trying managing a sporting goods store and insurance sales. He developed cancer and died on February 3, not quite 67 years old.


May they all rest in peace, and take their places in the great ballpark in the sky. Okay, Gus, let's see if you can hit Woodie's curve.

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