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Pastime Passings
2007-04-04 05:14
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

By Bruce Markusen

The baseball world absorbed several significant losses during the month of March. A former commissioner, an All-Star catcher, a World Series stalwart, and two baseball lifers have all passed away in recent weeks. Here are tributes to their lives in the game.

Ed Bailey (Died on March 23 in Knoxville, Tennessee; age 75; throat cancer):

A five-time All-Star, the left-handed hitting Bailey was regarded as one of the National League's premier catchers of the late 1950s and early 1960s. His prime seasons came with the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants, before he bounced to Milwaukee in 1964, came back to San Francisco in 1965, and then finished out his career with the Chicago Cubs and California Angels in '65 and '66. Bailey enjoyed his finest season in 1956, when he hit .300 with a career-high 28 home runs for the Reds. Over the course of a 14-year career, Bailey hit 155 home runs and collected 540 RBIs. He participated in one World Series, hitting a home run for the Giants during their 1963 Series loss to the New York Yankees.

Bowie Kuhn (Died on March 15 in Jacksonville, Florida; age 80; complications from pneumonia):

The second longest tenured commissioner in major league history behind Hall of Famer Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Kuhn served in baseball's highest office from 1969 to 1984. His tenure coincided with one of the most tumultuous eras in the history of the major leagues. During Kuhn's watch, player salaries escalated through arbitration and free agency as the Players Association assumed a far more powerful voice within the game's infrastructure. Kuhn frequently battled union chief Marvin Miller, both at the negotiating table and through the press, with Miller gaining major strides for the players through both collective bargaining and the decisions of independent arbitrators. Known for his law-and-order approach to running the game, Kuhn frequently attempted to discipline players and owners. He attempted to censure Jim Bouton's Ball Four, suspended Denny McLain for his ties to gambling and organized crime, disallowed the player sales of Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, and Joe Rudi by Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley, and suspended three members of the Kansas City Royals (Willie Mays Aikens, Jerry Martin, and Willie Wilson) after they were arrested for buying cocaine.

COMMENTARY: After first learning of the death of Bowie Kuhn, I read and heard several accounts that described the former commissioner as a pompous stuffed shirt who often seemed stiff and uncomfortable. Well, that was never my experience with Kuhn. I talked to him several times during my years at the Hall of Fame, including an interview that I conducted in front of an appreciative crowd in the Hall's Bullpen Theater. The former commissioner struck me as thoughtful and well spoken, even charming at times. He took an interest in my work at the Hall of Fame, which is not always the case with guest speakers who come to Cooperstown. I once gave him a ride from the Otesaga Hotel to the Hall of Fame; he was gracious and open during our conversation, and grateful for having saved him from a long walk.
After talking to Kuhn for awhile, it became obvious that he was both a fan of the game and a believer in old-school values. Those are two characteristics that rank highly with me. He was also knowledgeable about the Negro Leagues, having attended games at old Griffith Stadium in Washington. He had a real interest in preserving baseball history, which motivated him to donate his collection of papers from his days in baseball's front office. He wasn't just a suit who held the office of commissioner while waiting for something better to come around. This was a man who had a genuine love for the game, and took pride in trying to defend some of its values.

Still, as a commissioner, Kuhn was far from perfect. He made his share of mistakes, which the media of the seventies and eighties usually portrayed in earnest. His legacy was mixed, with some obvious failures, some more subtle successes, and a nearly endless supply of controversy and conflict. But I think it's safe to say that he was a very important and significant commissioner, a man who presided over the game at a time when it faced major upheaval because of labor issues, drug problems, expansion, the growth of television, and the presence of strong personalities in both ownership and the union. Rather than skirt these issues, he usually faced them, sometimes for good and other times for bad. In writing a complete history of baseball, I think that an author would have to devote at least one chapter to the reign of Bowie Kuhn.

Clem Labine (Died on March 2 in Vero Beach, Florida; age 80):

A two-time All-Star and a five-time participant in World Series play, Labine was a terrific relief pitcher who provided some of his best pitching as part of the Dodgers' only World Championship in Brooklyn. In the 1955 World Series, the right-hander pitched in four games, posted an ERA of 2.89, and won his only decision. Labine was also masterful during the regular season, winning 13 games with a tidy ERA of 3.25. Although Labine spent most of his career in the bullpen, some Brooklyn observers felt that he would have thrived as a starter, too. Labine started the sixth game of the 1956 World Series, pitched ten innings, and outlasted the New York Yankees, 1-0. That performance tends to be forgotten since it came one day after Don Larsen threw a perfect game for the Yankees.

With the passing of Labine, only nine Dodgers who participated in the 1955 World Series are still alive. The group includes third baseman Don Zimmer, outfielders Duke Snider and George Shuba, and pitchers Don Newcombe, Johnny Podres, Carl Erskine, Billy Loes, Roger Craig, and Ed Roebuck. A tenth player, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, was a member of the Dodgers' bullpen but did not appear in the '55 Series.

Emil Mailho (Died on March 7 in Hayward, California; age 97):

A longtime minor league outfielder, Mailho finally made his major league debut with the old Philadelphia A's in 1936. In his lone big league season, Mailho picked up one hit in 18 at-bats.

Marty Martinez (Died on March 15 in the Dominican Republic; age 65; heart attack):

A native of Cuba, Orlando "Marty" Martinez played for seven seasons as a backup infielder in the major leagues. The versatile switch-hitter, who played every position (including pitcher) during his career, broke in with the Minnesota Twins in 1962, but didn't return to the major leagues until five years later, managing to crack the roster of the Atlanta Braves in 1967. After his playing days, Martinez became a scout and infield instructor with the Seattle Mariners. As a scout, he signed such talents as Edgar Martinez and Omar Vizquel.

COMMENTARY: Martinez never achieved much glory as a utility infielder; that's the nature of the job. In 1972, he managed to play in 22 games for the World Champion Oakland A's, but didn't stick around around long enough to savor their title victory over the Cincinnati Reds. The A's traded him in mid-season to the lowly Texas Rangers, thereby denying Martinez of what would have been his lone postseason appearance.

Thankfully, fortunes turned better for Martinez after his playing days. He became a Latin American scout with the Mariners and displayed a keen eye for talent, signing two potential Hall of Famers in Martinez and Vizquel. Martinez also worked as an infield instructor, honing the skills of middle infielders like Vizquel, Harold Reynolds, and Spike Owen. Along the way, Martinez emerged as an institution in Seattle, gaining such popularity that he became known as "Baseball Marty." In 1986, the Mariners gave Martinez a reward by handing him the managerial reigns for a day. Although he was the interim manager for the briefest of tenures—in between the regimes of Chuck Cottier and Dick Williams—Mariners players were thrilled that the beloved Martinez had received his chance to call the shots.

Gene Oliver (Died on March 3 in Rock Island, Illinois; age 71; complications from lung surgery):

A catcher with the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, and both the Atlanta and Milwaukee Braves, Oliver is best remembered for his performance in 1965. He hit 21 home runs for Milwaukee that season, making him one of six Braves to reach 20 home runs that season—a National League record. (The others were Hank Aaron, Felipe Alou, Mack Jones, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Torre.) Known for his strong arm and ability to block the plate, Oliver was also a backup catcher on the 1969 Cubs, who famously lost the National League East despite leading the division by nine and a half games in early August. After his playing days, the outgoing Oliver became a popular figure at old-timers games and fantasy camps involving his former teams.

John Vukovich (Died on March 8 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; age 59; brain tumor):

Despite hitting only .161 over his career, Vukovich managed to last ten seasons in the major leagues. Known for his versatility and excellent defensive play at third base, Vukovich played for the Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, and Cincinnati Reds from 1970 to 1981. He won two World Championship rings—one with the 1975 Reds, with whom he began the season as the starting third baseman, and the other with the 1980 Phillies. After his playing career, Vukovich became a highly respected and beloved coach with both the Phillies and the Chicago Cubs. He also served two brief stints as an interim manager, with the 1986 Cubs and the 1988 Phillies. While with the Cubs, Vukovich had actually been hired as the club's fulltime manager, but team president Dallas Green was fired before he could make the announcement official at a press conference.

COMMENTARY: As someone who has attended spring training about a dozen times, I had several opportunities to approach Vukovich and try to interview him. I never did. Why? With that grizzled face, hardcore mustache, and perpetual scowl, I was just too damn intimidated. Vukovich simply didn't look approachable. I figured some other interview target would be easier, more accommodating. That was my mistake, my loss.

If I had done my own informal background check, I would have found out the real story with the man affectionately known as Vuk. Unfortunately, I'm only realizing this now, after having read the tributes written to him in recent weeks. Although gruff on the exterior, Vukovich actually liked to talk to fans before games, both in spring training and during the regular season. He willingly signed autographs for fans, no matter their age or appearance. As tough as he appeared to be, he could be just as funny and kind, though he didn't always show it. And he loved baseball so much that he worked in the game for 41 of his 59 years, including five as a minor league ballplayer, ten as a major league, and roughly 25 as a coach. Anybody who loved baseball that much would rank as OK with me. That's someone I would have wanted to talk to.

There are a few other attributes of Vuk that I've come to admire. He took pride in wearing the uniform, believed that there was a proper way to wear it, and a proper way to behave while in it. He believed in playing hard and smart. Some would call all of that being old-fashioned; I would call it being proud and professional in the life work that you have chosen. If Vukovich saw a player doing something inappropriate, or making some kind of fundamental mistake, he didn't run and complain about it to another coach or the manager. He told the player directly, usually with a scowl and a raised voice, that he had done something wrong. I'm sure that many of the players didn't enjoy being on the receiving end of one of his stern lectures, but most of them must have appreciated being told face-to-face rather than behind-the-back.

For someone who didn't have much physical talent, Vuk made the most of his career in baseball. A right-handed hitter with little power or speed, he batted .161 over the span of ten seasons with the Phillies, Brewers, and Reds. In fact, of any player eligible for election to the Hall of Fame, Vukovich had the lowest batting average in major league history. Just how did he manage to last for ten seasons? Well, he compensated for his lack of hitting by becoming a terrific defensive third basemen. As well as he played the hot corner, he willingly played anywhere the manager asked him, from third base to shortstop to first base to second base. He did what he was told, usually without question or complaint. He became a good guy to be around, and sometimes that became the tiebreaker between himself and another player who might have had a little more talent, but not the best attitude.
Perhaps there's a lesson in there for all of us.

Finally, we've learned of an additional death from 2006:

Paul Penson (Died on May 4, 2006 in Merriam, Kansas; age 74):

A veteran of one major league season, Penson debuted for the Philadelphia Phillies as a 22-year-old in 1954. Pitching in five games, Penson posted a record of 1-1 and an ERA of 4.50 in 16 innings of work.

Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's and the writer of Cooperstown Confidential, a blog at MLB.com. Bruce, his wife Sue, and daughter Madeline reside in Cooperstown, NY.

Comments
2007-04-04 06:35:11
1.   Sliced Bread
Thanks for another great piece, Bruce.

I never heard of Marty Martinez, Baseball Marty. I love learning about guys like this. Wonder what kind of manager he might have made. Was he ever interested in managing? Did he ever interview for jobs?

re: Vukovich. I don't know if he was Ukrainian, but that sounds like a Ukie surname. My mother-in-law is 100% off the boat Ukie, and she and her father, brothers, and son have those stern Vukovich'esqe features. Sometimes their expressions, even just an inquisitive squint, can easily be misread as intimidating, or unapproachable -- when, in fact, they're great people. Funny how after avoiding him all those years you later learned Vukovich's mug belied his warmth!

2007-04-04 07:50:20
2.   Bob Timmermann
I think "Vukovich" with that spelling is Hungarian, but I could easily be mistaken.
2007-04-04 08:35:27
3.   markp
Ed Bailey was a productive player, with the type numbers sabermaticians put more stock in than others.
That's why I began to realize Bill James wasn't nearly as honest a writer as I had thought. (Read the comments about the 61 Reds in the historical abstract.)
The Giants had one of the stranger 1-2 at catcher for a while with both he and Haller having similar skill sets and both being lefties.

(Of course his comments about Hornsby sealed the deal as far as him being dishonest.)

2007-04-04 10:02:37
4.   C2Coke
It's great to get to know the people who had helped to shape baseball into what we know and love today. Thanks, Bruce.

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