Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Top 10 Footnote Guys In Sports History

Before I begin, let me eliminate from consideration a guy who you might have heard of, and might have put on this list.

Charlie Caldwell (1901-1957). Best known as the head coach at Princeton from 1945 to 1956, including coaching Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier, he briefly pitched for the Yankees in 1925. And, while pitching batting practice, a pitch got away from him, and hit 1st baseman Wally Pipp in the head.

Pipp complained of a headache to manager Miller Huggins, who told him to take the day off, and put young Lou Gehrig in at 1st. Pipp never played for the Yankees again, and the rest is history.

Except that's not what really happened. Yes, Caldwell accidentally beaned Pipp in batting practice, but it was on July 2, a month after Gehrig became the starter. Pipp -- and also catcher Wally Schang, and 2nd baseman Aaron Ward, and, ironically, the man whose record for consecutive games played Gehrig would break, shortstop Everett Scott -- were all benched on June 2, because they weren't hitting. Pipp, who'd led the American League in home runs 4 times, was now batting .244, on-base .295, slugging .372 -- terrible.

And he did play for the Yankees again, returning on August 7, but, from that point onward, only as a pinch-hitter. He was sold to the Cincinnati Reds, and played 3 more seasons. The story that he'd been replaced only because of a beaning -- quoting him, perhaps falsely, as saying, "I took the 2 most expensive aspirins in history" -- and saying anyone replaced due to an injury has "gotten Pipped" never appeared in the press until Gehrig finally stepped out in 1939.

By which point, Caldwell was the head football coach at Williams College -- later to be the alma mater of George Steinbrenner -- and was on his way to fame at Princeton, and the public forgetting who it was that beaned Wally Pipp. And when. And why Gehrig was really put into the lineup.

Top 10 Footnote Guys In Sports History

10. Don Young (born 1945 and still alive as of this writing). He played just 2 seasons in the major leagues, both for the Chicago Cubs, 4 years apart: 1965 and 1969. But on July 8, 1969, he changed baseball history by mishandling 2 balls hit to center field by Ken Boswell and Donn Clendenon of the Mets.

The Mets won the game, and it is seen as having turned the tide in the National League Eastern Division race. Manager Leo Durocher said, "My 3-year-old could have caught those balls." Team Captain Ron Santo yelled at Young in the clubhouse.

The next day, Santo apologized to him, and apologized again during a press conference. Durocher never apologized, and mismanaged the Cubs the rest of the way, as they went from 9 1/2 games up on the Mets on August 16, and half a game up as late as September 9 (the day of the Black Cat Game), to 6 games back when the Mets clinched on September 24, to 8 games back when the regular season ended on October 2.

Most people blame Durocher for the "September Swoon," which really began earlier. That, or they simply credit the Mets for taking advantage of the opportunity. Which is why this one is only Number 10.

9. George Trafton (1896-1971). He had helped Notre Dame win the 1919 National Championship, their 1st under Knute Rockne. He joined the Chicago Bears, and was one of the 1st NFL stars. He was the 1st center to snap the ball with one hand, enabling him to get a good block up sooner.

He was mean. He was said to be "strongly disliked in every NFL city" except the Bears' natural rivals, Green Bay and Rock Island -- there, he wasn't strongly disliked, "he was hated." But he was respected: He was named to 6 All-Pro Teams. He was an early inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was named the center on the NFL's 1920s All-Decade Team.

He was an assistant coach for the Green Bay Packers when they won the NFL Championship Game in 1944, and for the Rams when they won it for Cleveland in 1945 and lost it for Los Angeles in 1949. In 1953, he was the head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and won the Grey Cup, in the last year before the Canadian Football League was founded.

So he should be more than a "footnote guy," right? Well, he did something that's been almost forgotten, but may have had a tremendous effect upon the history of his sport.

Trafton's 1925 Bears teammate Red Grange, and Grange's manager C.C. Pyle, had founded the 1st league to bear the name of the American Football League, in 1926. Wanting the biggest market, Pyle put Grange in the biggest city, naming the team the New York Yankees. In 1927, after the league folded, he convinced the NFL owners that Grange was still a valuable commodity. So the Yankees were admitted.

On October 16, 1927, Trafton tackled Grange, and wrecked his knee. "After that," the Galloping Ghost said, "I was just another straight-ahead runner, and the world is full of straight-ahead runners." The greatest player in the game missed the rest of the 1927 season and all of 1928, before going back to the Bears in 1929, and, like many great athletes forced to go both ways, changed his focus and improved his defense, making a game-saving tackle at the end of the 1933 NFL Championship Game.

But Grange played his last game at age 31, and was essentially done as a superstar at 24. And the reason was a bad tackle by George Trafton. To be fair, while Trafton was considered a dirty player, no one has ever suggested that this tackle was dirty, only that it had an awful result.

If Grange had failed in his rookie season of 1925, the NFL might well have folded. But, going in the other direction, if Grange had been able to do in New York what he'd done in Chicago, the NFL might have gotten much bigger much sooner.

8. Chris Harker (1937-2014). I will bet that not 1 American in 100,000 knows this name. Maybe 1 in 1,000 knows the name of the man whose playing career he virtually ended, in much the same way that Trafton curtailed Grange's.

On December 26, 1962, Harker was playing for Bury Football Club, of Greater Manchester, away to Sunderland AFC, in the North-East of England, in a driving rainstorm in very cold weather. By modern standards, this game would have been postponed.

But it wasn't. Sunderland's star striker, who had already scored 24 goals that season, was through, with only Harker to beat. But they collided, and the striker's knee was torn up. As with Grange, it was the kind of knee injury which, today, could have been surgically repaired. You would have missed the rest of the season, but at the beginning of the next season, you would have been ready to go. Instead, the striker missed 2 years, got into only 3 more games, and retired before he was 30, effectively done at 28.

Sunderland offered him the job of coaching their youth team, and the rest is history. His name was Brian Clough, and he would manage Derby County to the 1972 Football League title, and manage Nottingham Forest to the 1978 League title and the 1979 and 1980 European Cups.

If that collision hadn't happened, he might have played a few more years, and might not have gone into management, changing the history of English soccer in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Then again, his great rival, Don Revie, a fellow Middlesbrough native and former Sunderland player, went from being a great striker to being a great manager. So they both belied my theory that most great players, whatever the sport, don't become great head coaches.

7. Norm Sherry (born 1931). He was born in New York but moved to Los Angeles, then repeated this process by signing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and moving with them to L.A. He was a catcher, but not much of a hitter, batting .215.

He and his brother Larry Sherry became the 1st all-Jewish battery (pitcher-catcher combination) in MLB history, and were members of the Dodgers' 1st West Coast title-winners in 1959, but while Larry was named the Series' Most Valuable Player, Norm was really a footnote player.

After the 1962 season, his hitting completely gone, the Dodgers sent him home, trading him to the Mets. He played the 1963 season with them, while the Dodgers won another World Series.

He went back to the Dodgers and managed in their organization, was hired by the nearby California Angels, and in 1976 he was named their manager, lasting under a year. He never managed again, although he was over .500 (76-71). He later coached under his former Angels boss, Dick Williams, in Montreal and San Diego, and under his former Dodger teammate Roger Craig in San Francisco.

But his best coaching job came in Spring Training in 1961. He was catching a wild lefthander, also a Jewish New Yorker, and told him to stop trying to strike everybody out, and work on his curveball more. Result? He found his control, and struck everybody out anyway. His name was Sandy Koufax.

6. Kevin Walker (born 1965). A native of West Milford, Passaic County, New Jersey, he played linebacker on the University of Maryland's Atlantic Coast Conference Champions of the mid-1980s, with quarterbacks Boomer Esiason and Frank Reich. Esiason recommended him to the Cincinnati Bengals, and he played 5 season with them.

On January 13, 1991, a crowd of 92,045 jammed into the Los Angeles Coliseum to see the Los Angeles Raiders play the Bengals in the AFC Divisional Playoff. The Raiders won, 20-10, but the fans walked away troubled, because Walker tackled Bo Jackson in such a way that Jackson's hip was dislocated. In spite of the Raiders' nasty reputation, it wasn't a dirty play. No penalty was called. It was just a freak thing.

Jackson never played football again, and his baseball career was sabotaged as well. Only 28 years old, the most sensational 2-sport athlete since the days of Jim Thorpe was done with one sport and pretty much done with the other. And Walker's career would end with a knee injury in 1992.

5. Walt Kiesling (1903-1962). Like Trafton, Kiesling was an offensive lineman who was named to the NFL's 1920s All-Decade Team. He was a guard and a tackle, mostly for the Chicago Cardinals, and won a title with the Packers in 1936. In 1937 and '38, he played for the football version of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and his playing career came to an end.

He then went into coaching in 1939, with the Pirates. The next season, 1940, was the team's 1st with the name "Pittsburgh Steelers." He was essentially their head coach from 1939 to 1944, and again 1954 to 1956. He was kept on because Steelers' founding owner Art Rooney liked him. If Rooney liked you, you had a job for life, no matter how bad you were at your job.

And Kiesling was terrible at his job, mainly because he didn't understand how throwing the football was changing the game. He let 3 great quarterbacks go in the latter half of the 1950s alone.

One was Jack Kemp, who led the Buffalo Bills to 2 AFL titles. One was Len Dawson, who led the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs to 3 AFL titles and the 1969 World Championship (Super Bowl IV in 1970). And one was Johnny Unitas, who led the Baltimore Colts to 3 World Championships and became perhaps the greatest quarterback who ever lived -- at the very least, the one against whom all quarterbacks were measured until Joe Montana came along.

4. Miguel Uline (1874-1959). He owned a minor-league hockey team in the nation's capital, the Washington Lions, and in 1941 built Uline Ice Arena behind Union Station. In 1946, he became a charter owner in what later became the NBA, with the Washington Capitols. In 1950, he became the 1st NBA owner whose team fielded a black player, as Earl Lloyd took the court for them.

The Capitols reached the NBA Finals in the 1949 season, losing to the Minneapolis Lakers. But the 1949-50 season was not a good one, and Uline's coach said he needed money to make deals. Uline, whose ice business allowed him to build a hockey arena next-door, refused. Maybe if he'd had an NHL team, he might have done it. But he wouldn't, and the coach resigned. A year later, the Capitols went out of business.

The coach's name? Arnold Jacob "Red" Auerbach. By the time Uline died, Auerbach had led the Boston Celtics to 2 NBA Championships, with many more to come. That dynasty could have been built in D.C., but Uline was too stubborn and too cheap to accept the possibility.

Uline's nickname, by the way, was Uncle Mike, which I didn't know until I began the research for this post. The arena he built would be renamed the Washington Coliseum. It would host the Beatles' 1st full U.S. concert in 1964, and the Washington Caps of the ABA in the 1969-70 season. It still stands, and is being redeveloped for office and retail space.

3. Fred Saigh (1905-1999). A lawyer and real estate investor, Saigh (pronounced like "sigh") bought the St. Louis Cardinals in 1947, as they were coming off their greatest period (1942-46). But he had to work a tax scheme to afford it. In 1953, he plead no contest to tax evasion, and was sentenced to prison.

He was told he would be banned from baseball for life, even after getting out of prison, if he didn't sell the Cardinals. And he nearly sold them to a group from Houston, whose minor-league club was part of the Cards' farm system. It would have been the 1st move in baseball since 1902 -- ironically, the survival of the St. Louis Browns, whose long-term future, very shaky for a generation, would be assured if the Cards left town. There was also a rumor that the Cards -- or, failing them, the Browns -- would move to Milwaukee.

But a local buyer was found: August Anheuser Busch Jr., a.k.a. Gussie Busch, the beer baron. Once he bought the Cards, the Browns were doomed. And when the Boston Braves pounced and moved to Milwaukee, whose territorial rights they owned, that forced the Browns to move instead to Baltimore (at the time, America's 3rd-largest brewing city, behind Milwaukee and St. Louis), where they became the Orioles.

The Braves' move to Milwaukee inspired Walter O'Malley to move the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, and Horace Stoneham to move the New York Giants to the city where his Triple-A team was, Minneapolis, until O'Malley convinced him to move to San Francisco instead, although Minnesota was moved up as a possible expansion location, as was Houston.

Had Saigh sold the Cards to the Houston group, baseball history might be very different. But his own history recovered: He was released from prison early for good behavior, and worked with Busch again, becoming Anheuser-Busch's largest individual stockholder outside the Busch family, though he and Gussie clashed on how the Cardinals should be run. When he died in 1999, Fred Saigh's reputation was restored, and his fortune was $500 million.

2. Mo Lewis (born 1969). For 13 years, he was a linebacker for the Jets, including 3 Pro Bowl seasons. His sons have turned to basketball instead: Mo Lewis IV plays at the Naval Academy, and Chris is a high school senior accepted to Harvard, where he is expected to play on their team.

Mo Lewis was perhaps the best athlete on this list. But he'll forever be remembered for September 23, 2001, when his hit on New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe knocked him out for most of the season, leading to backup Tom Brady coming in. If Mo hadn't made that hit, Bledsoe could have been the Pats' quarterback for the next 5 years, and who knows what would have happened to Brady.

One thing is for sure: Brady and head coach Bill Belichick wouldn't have cheated their way to 5 wins in 7 Super Bowls. So, thanks a lot, Mo.

1. Carl Mays (1891-1971). Pitching for the Yankees on August 16, 1920, he hit Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians in the head with a pitch. Chapman died the next day, the only on-field fatality in Major League Baseball history. For the rest of his life, Mays insisted that he hadn't hit Chapman on purpose.

He would help the Yankees win their 1st 3 American League Pennants, and their 1st World Series in 1923. He finished with a career record of 207-126, which might have been enough to get him into the Hall of Fame if he hadn't hit Chapman.

But that's not why he's on this list. In 1919, he was pitching for the Boston Red Sox, whom he had helped win the World Series the year before. But it had been a bad year: Not only was he not pitching well, but his house had burned down under suspicious circumstances. After a particularly frustrating game on July 13, he walked off the field, changed, and left the team. He said he wanted a fresh start, since the team wasn't winning with him, and said he didn't care where he went.

On July 30, the Sox traded him to the Yankees for Bob McGraw, Allen Russell and $40,000. AL President Ban Johnson tried to block the trade, because he'd suspended Mays for jumping the club, and it was illegal to trade a player who was under suspension. Three teams -- the 2 involved and the Chicago White Sox -- defied Johnson. The end result was that those clubs held a majority of the League's board of directors, and Johnson was overruled.

This had 3 major effects on the history of baseball. One was that the National Commission -- the League Presidents and an allegedly impartial 3rd man -- was replaced with a single Commissioner, federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who ruled the game with an iron hand, for both good and ill, from 1921 until his death in 1944.

Another is that the 5 teams that remained loyal to Johnson refused to make deals with the Yanks and the 2 Sox-named teams, so those 3 could only make deals with each other. This led to Red Sox owner Harry Frazee making the deals that wrecked the Boston dynasty of the 1910s and made the New York dynasty of the 1920s, including the sale of Babe Ruth, possible. If Frazee could have traded with the rest of the League, and spread those ex-Sox around, who knows if the Yankees would have developed their 1st dynasty?

And, once the Mays deal was completed, it led to the death of Chapman, which led to new rules: Fresh balls always to be put into play, so they'd be clean and white and easier to see; and no tampering with the balls, including foreign substances (resulting in several pitches that would fall under the category of "spitballs"). This helped make the Lively Ball Era possible.

And it was all because Carl Mays was having an uncharacteristic lousy season, 98 years ago. Or maybe this Number 1 "Footnote Guy In Sports History" should actually be the arsonist Mays always said set fire to his house, but could never identify or prove.

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