Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Old Reliable and the Voice at 100

February 20, 1913, 100 years ago today: Thomas David Henrich is born in Massillon, Ohio.  If you've never heard of him, you're either too young, or don't know your baseball history, or both.

But you should know the name of the man who hit the first walkoff home run in the history of postseason baseball.

Massillon is a football town, which is sort of like saying Washington is a political town.  It's a short drive from Canton, hometown of a later Yankee legend, Thurman Munson; and 55 miles southwest of Cleveland.  In 1934, Tommy Henrich was signed by his local club, the Cleveland Indians, but an irregularity caused him to appeal his case to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1937, and, in a rare instance, Landis ruled in favor of a player instead of a team, making Henrich a rare free agent -- rare before 1976, anyway.

In spite of having grown up not far from Cleveland, through newspapers and newsreels, Henrich had been a Yankee Fan.  Knowing about his situation, the Yankees pounced, and signed him up.  He starred with their top farm team, the Newark Bears, who in 1937 won the International League Pennant and were often regarded as the best minor league team ever.  He played 67 games for the Yankees that season, and in 1938 became the regular right fielder.  He would end up being the last surviving member of the Yankee teams that won the World Series in 1938, '39 and '41.

With Charlie Keller in left field, Joe DiMaggio in center and Henrich in right, from 1938 to 1949 (with time off during World War II), the Yankees had one of the best outfields ever.  DiMaggio was one of the all-time greats, and Keller seemed to be headed for the Hall of Fame before a back injury curtailed his career.  Henrich was a genuine All-Star, nicknamed "Ol' Reliable" by Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen.  (More about him shortly.)

How reliable was Henrich? In June 1941, the Yankees were playing a doubleheader, away to the Washington Senators, and in the opener, DiMaggio got a hit to tie George Sisler's American League record of hitting in 41 straight games.  But in between games, DiMaggio noticed his bat was gone.  He had used that bat through the entire streak, and had grown attached to it.  Henrich offered DiMaggio the use of his own bat -- which was actually a DiMaggio model.  DiMaggio used that bat in the nightcap, and extended his streak to 42 games, a new AL record.  Joe's regular bat was soon recovered -- possibly through coerced means, if ya know what I mean -- and he extended the record to 56 games, breaking the major league record of 44 set by Willie Keeler.

But Henrich's best-known moment was a strikeout.  The DiMaggio streak sent the Yankees going on a tear: When it began on May 15, they were in 4th place; by the time Joe broke the record on July 2, they were in 1st.  They clinched the Pennant on September 3, the earliest date that first place has ever been clinched in major league history.  (The Yankees clinched the Wild Card earlier in 1998, but not the Division.) The Yankees faced the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series, and were up 2 games to 1, but trailed Game 4, 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th.  Henrich came to bat as the last out, against Dodger reliever Hugh Casey, who induced Henrich to swing and miss.  Everyone presumed it was strike 3, game over, Dodgers win, Series tied, with Game 5 tomorrow, also at Ebbets Field, and the Dodgers in good shape.

Except that the ball got away from Dodger catcher Mickey Owen.  A debate arose over what kind of pitch Casey threw.  Casey insisted that it was a curveball, a very sharp breaking one but a curve and a legal pitch nonetheless, and Henrich backed him up on that.  But Owen said he thought it was a spitball, an illegal pitch, and Phil Rizzuto, the Yankees rookie shortstop, was also sure of this.  The ball rolled all the way to the backstop, and since 1st base was open, Henrich had the right to try for it.  He got there before Owen could make a throw.

The next batter was DiMaggio, and he singled to left.  The next batter was Keller, and he laced a double off the high right field wall, scoring his outfield mates, to turn a 4-3 Dodger lead into a 5-4 Yankee lead.  Keller would later say you could hear a pin drop at Ebbets Field, thinking that the ballpark must never have been so quiet.  The Yankees would score twice more in the inning, and win 7-4, and took the Series the next day.

If ESPN had been around in 1941, Casey and Owen would have become laughingstocks.  As it was, Casey recovered somewhat, and would still be a quality reliever as late as 1947, but drinking and carousing took their toll, and in 1951 his wife heard that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.  Casey assured her that it wasn't true, but killed himself later that day.  He was just 37.  Owen, however, chose to man up, and lived on until 2005, running a renowned youth baseball academy (whose students included Joe Girardi, Michael Jordan and Charlie Sheen), serving as a sheriff in his home County in Missouri, and never ducking reporters who wanted to know about "Mickey Owen's Muff," and accepting responsibility, saying that, even if it was a spitball, he still should have handled it.

In 1942, with America now in World War II, Henrich enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, stationed at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where Lake Superior flows into Lake Huron, and on his down time coached girls basketball at a local high school.

When the war ended, he had the best phase of his career, dividing his time between right field and 1st base.  Prior to the war, he had usually worn Number 7.  After it, he wore Number 15.  So both of Henrich's uniform numbers have been retired, but not for him.  In 1949, the Yankees won the Pennant, with Henrich catching the last out of the final game, a popup to 1st by Boston Red Sox catcher Birdie Tebbetts.  "Ol' Reliable" drove in 2 of the Yanks' runs in that 5-3 win.

Three days later, on October 5, 1949, the World Series began at the original Yankee Stadium, and again the Yankees played the Dodgers.  Allie Reynolds of the Yankees and Don Newcombe of the Dodgers both had shutouts going into the bottom of the 9th inning, when Henrich led off.  Prior to 1969, the World Series was the only round of postseason baseball, and no player had ever hit a home run as the last play of a Series game.  Newcombe threw Henrich a 2-0 fastball, and he knocked it into the right field seats for a home run.  The Yankees won, 1-0, and won the Series in 5 games.  It was the first time a player had hit what we would later call a "walkoff home run" in a postseason game.

Henrich was injured for much of 1950, and retired, at age 37.  (37 has been a difficult age for a lot of Yankees.) He left the game with a lifetime batting average of .282, 183 home runs, and 6 World Series rings: 1938, '39, '41, '47, '49 and '50.  (He wasn't up long enough to get a ring in '47, and was in the service when the Yankees won in '43.) How good was he? At least as good in his time, and as influential to the ballclub, as  Roger Maris, Lou Piniella and Paul O'Neill would be in later Yankee eras.

He went right to the Yankees' coaching staff, later coached for the New York Giants and Detroit Tigers, and broadcast baseball for ABC in the 1960s.  He was a regular on Old-Timers' Day, and when the 50th Anniversary of DiMaggio's streak was celebrated in 1991, Henrich was one of 5 living teammates to show up, and the only one who did so in uniform.  (At the time, Yankee old-timers who had worn uniform numbers that were later retired were not permitted to wear that number on Old-Timers' Day, so Henrich wore his first number, 17.  This created the oddities of Hank Bauer wearing his first number, 25, and Graig Nettles wearing 2, which he'd worn as a coach after 9 had been retired for Maris.)

Henrich was still appearing in uniform at Old-Timers' Day, as far as I know, in 1994, at age 81.  In his later years, he suffered some strokes, and died on December 1, 2009, at age 96.  At the time, he was the oldest living ex-Yankee, the 5th-oldest living ex-player, the earliest surviving World Series winner (1938), and the last living teammate of Lou Gehrig.


Tommy got the "Ol' Reliable" nickname from Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen.  I should have done a centennial retrospective for him last week.  I'll make up for that now.

Melvin Allen Israel was born in Birmingham, Alabama on February 14, 1913 -- the same exact day as the legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, the infamous Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, and the activist Episcopal bishop James Pike.  (The latter two are probably best known for having disappeared, although Pike's body was found rather quickly when he disappeared in 1969; Hoffa's 1975 disappearance remains officially unsolved.  Hayes died in 1987.)

Mel attended the University of Alabama, and was hired as public address announcer at their football games. (This was when Bear Bryant was playing for them, not coaching them, but make no mistake, 'Bama football was already a huge thing.) Birmingham radio station WBRC needed a play-by-play announcer for the games, and coach Frank Thomas (no relation to the original 1962 Met or the later White Sox "Big Hurt") recommended Mel Israel.

Like Howard Cosell (who was also Jewish, and ended up having to change his name when going into full-time broadcasting), Mel went to law school.  After graduating in 1937, he took the train to New York, intending to stay there on vacation for a week.  But he heard about a position available as a staff announcer at CBS, and auditioned.  Their top sportscaster at the time, Ted Husing, had heard Mel do the Alabama games, and recommended him.  So Mel's week in New York ended up lasting almost 60 years.

In 1939, when the 3 New York baseball teams finally bent to reality and put their games on the radio, Mel was hired to broadcast the Yankees' and Giants' home games.  At the time, most teams' radio stations only home games, as sending men and equipment on the road was considered too expensive.  Some stations tried to test fans' credulity by broadcasting away games by having a telegraph in the studio with them, and, with a few minutes' lag, broadcast an improvised play-by-play, with sound effects provided.  Among the broadcasters who did this was future President Ronald Reagan, doing both home and away games for the Chicago Cubs on WHO, a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, over 300 miles away (so even games in Chicago would have been the equivalent of "away games" for WHO).

Mel left both teams to ender the Army in World War II, but was quickly hired to broadcast on Armed Forces Radio.  This made him a legend to Allied soldiers and sailors stationed everywhere in the world.  When he returned from the war, the Yankees had new owners, and they were willing to pick up the cost to send a broadcast crew (announcers and technicians) on the road, so Mel did only Yankee games from then on.

But he was so well-regarded for his wartime broadcasts that Fox hired him to narrate the sports segments for their Movietone News newsreels, and NBC hired him for the World Series in 1946, '48, '54 and '59, even though those were the only years between the end of the war and 1964 that the Yankees didn't win the American League Pennant.  When NBC started broadcasting the Series on television in 1947, their traditional format was to take the lead broadcaster from each of the competing teams, and so, in '47, '49, '52 and '53, they had the Yankees' Mel Allen and the Dodgers' Red Barber.  When Barber fell out with Dodger owner Walter O'Malley after the '53 season, he was hired by the Yankee broadcast crew, and he and Mel were together for 11 seasons.  But due to his national Series broadcasts, and calling 14 Rose Bowls for NBC, Mel became nationally known.  For many people far from New York, the World Series meant hearing the voice of Mel Allen, even in years when they didn't see the Yankee Pinstripes.

Mel is often credited with nicknaming DiMaggio "The Yankee Clipper" and Rizzuto "the Scooter." Those nicknames were already in place.  But he did call Henrich "Ol' Reliable," Hank Bauer "the Man of the Hour," Joe Page "the Fireman," and Whitey Ford "the Chairman of the Board." Whitey loved the nickname, not just because it rhymed, but because he was a huge fan of Frank Sinatra, who also had that as one of his nicknames.

Like Rizzuto, who would join the broadcast crew in 1957 and stay for nearly 40 years, and current Yankee radio man John Sterling, Mel Allen was a man full of enthusiasm and an unabashed homer.  He would begin his broadcasts with, "Hello there, everybody, this is Mel Allen," and his catchphrases became legend.  A full count led to him saying, "Three and two, what'll he do?" An exciting play would lead to, "How 'bout that play!" which, if it was particularly memorable, would become "How a-BOUT that!"

He also popularized the phrase, "Going, going, GONE!" for a home run.  Since sponsors' names had to be dropped frequently, he would sell beer by saying, "That's a Ballantine blast for Mickey Mantle!" and cigars by saying, "It's a White Owl wallop by Yogi Berra!"

But, also like Rizzuto and Sterling, he often got fly balls wrong.  Barber noted in his memoirs that Mel followed the ball, whereas Red himself followed the outfielder: By following the outfielder, Red would see whether the outfielder thought he could catch it, therefore he had a better idea of whether it would be caught.  Much like Sterling with his, "It is high! It is far! It is... GONE!" Mel would sometimes have to say, "That ball is going, it is going, it is... off the wall!" Or "caught at the wall!" or "a foul ball!" He usually moved on, as if he hadn't messed up, as opposed to Sterling, who might say, "Man, Suzyn (Waldman), that ball was GONE," or Rizzuto, who might say, "Holy cow, he caught it!" or, "No, why don't I just shut up!"

In 1964, Mel was fired by the Yankees.  It's still not clear why.  Mel said that Ballantine was blaming him for what had become poor sales.  (If true, it was stupid: Except maybe for Harry Caray for Budwieser on St. Louis Cardinal broadcast, no baseball announcer ever "sold more beer.") Some people thought that it had been found out that Mel had a drinking or prescription drug problem.  Also, Mel never married, and some suspected that he was fired for being gay (which has never been proven).  There was also a suggestion that he'd "suffered a nervous breakdown" -- which, like "exhaustion," was, in those days, code for one of those aforementioned issues.

But with a change in ownership, Mel was brought back for Old-Timers' Days, and would announce the old-timers' games.  In 1976, when SportsChannel began cable-TV broadcasts, they hired Mel, and he stayed with them until 1985.

In 1977, before saturation coverage of sports, highlights were rare.  To counter NFL Films' award-winning This Is the NFL, Major League Baseball Productions started a new show, and hired Mel as the narrator: "Hello there, everybody! This is Mel Allen! Welcome to This Week in Baseball!" And that's how my generation met Mel, and learned how to say, "How a-bout that!" and, "Going, going, GONE!" (But, of course, we didn't drink Ballantine or smoke White Owls.)

In 1978, Mel and Red were honored as the first recipients of the Baseball Hall of Fame's Ford Frick Award for broadcasting.  In 1979, the Yankees invited them to Opening Day to raise the previous season's World Championship flag.  In the 1990s, Mel was hired to do the narration for baseball-themed computer games.

Mel died of heart disease on June 16, 1996.  he was 83.  Two years later, on July 25, 1998, the Yankees honored him with a Plaque in Monument Park.  To this day, he is the only non-playing broadcaster honored there.  He is still called "The Voice of the Yankees."

And when Fox revived TWIB in 2000, running it until 2011 (by which point, various cable shows had rendered the once-groundbreaking show obsolete), they had a claymation Mel, in period suit and hat, and in a period studio, giving the intro.  Although, when they had the announcement, "This Week in Baseball is brought to you by... " they put a claymation can of Pepsi, with the up-to-date design, in his hand.  Pepsi did not sponsor the show in its original version -- usually it was Gillette shaving products, and while there are surviving recordings of Mel advertising Gillette, there are none of him advertising Pepsi (Coke was a huge sponsor of MLB broadcasts through most of Mel's career), and so the Pepsi portion of it had to be done by the show's new narrator, Buzz Brainard.
As Mel himself would say, "That's all for now, folks.  See you next time!"

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