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Observations From Cooperstown--The Trifecta
2008-02-23 06:11
by Bruce Markusen
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

As I impatiently wait for some sign of spring, I’m thinking about a former Yankee broadcaster, a front office man, and the need for feedback. So let’s try to address all three topics in the latest musings from the home of baseball…

Earlier this week, the Hall of Fame announced the winner of its Ford C. Frick Award, which is given annually to an outstanding baseball broadcaster. Once again, the Frick committee bypassed the man who should have been an obvious selection years ago. He’s someone that most Yankee fans are familiar with, either from his days as a player or for his more recent work for the MSG Network. While I’m not old enough to have seen Tony Kubek play, I can safely so that no one among the broadcasting set has helped me learn as much as he did.

Other than highlights and clips featured on ESPN, I’ve heard very little of the broadcasting done by this year’s Frick winner, Dave Niehaus. I know that he’s extremely popular with Mariners fans, an absolute institution in the Great Northwest. Based on most media reports I’ve read, he’s also very deserving of the award. But I just don’t see how he should receive this award before Kubek, at least based on their resumes.

Niehaus has worked almost exclusively as a play-by-play announcer. Kubek has done extensive amounts of both play-by-play and color commentary. Niehaus has worked only as a local broadcaster, first for the Angels and then for the Mariners, beginning with their birth in 1977. Kubek has worked as both a local broadcaster, for the Yankees and Blue Jays, and at the network level as the lead analyst for NBC. Niehaus has never announced a World Series or an All-Star Game. Kubek has broadcast a slew of World Series games and All-Star games throughout a career that dates back to the mid-1960s. Niehaus is best known for the catch phrase, "My, oh my." Kubek is best known for being analytical and thought provoking during his broadcasts. Again, I don’t mean to demean Niehaus. He deserves this award—just not ahead of Kubek.

As a broadcaster, Kubek has filled almost every role, beginning with those live interviews he used to conduct in the stands during World Series broadcasts. Articulate enough to describe game action and insightful enough to analyze what we were seeing, few ex-athletes or professional broadcasters have been able to match Kubek’s versatile skills in the booth. All the while, Kubek established one of the best-known work ethics in the announcing game, exhaustively researching player backgrounds and tendencies prior to each game or series and always venturing into the clubhouse to find an elusive insider angle.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Kubek is this: I learned something new about baseball almost every game that I heard him work, whether it was the importance of the bench and the bullpen or a coherent definition of a secondary lead. As much as Tony was a broadcaster of the game, he was also a teacher, and that wasn’t easy with students like myself who thought they knew everything about the National Pastime.

For many fans who read about baseball on the Internet, Bill James was their guru. For me, it was Tony Kubek.

***

A baseball genius died on Tuesday; sadly, few people seemed to take notice.

When Bob Howsam joined the front office of the Cincinnati Reds in 1967, the franchise was mired in non-contention. In fact, the Reds had won nothing tangible since 1961, the year of their last pennant, and no world championships dating back to 1940. By the time that Howsam stepped down as the Reds’ chief executive and team president in 1978, the team had won six division titles, four pennants, and two world championships within the span of a dozen seasons. As the primary architect of the "Big Red Machine," Howsam made the Reds relevant for the better part of the 1970s.

Howsam resuscitated the Reds’ franchise by using a two-tiered approach. He simultaneously rebuilt Cincinnati’s farm system while also executing a series of shrewd trades, some of the blockbuster variety and some that failed to create a ripple at the time. The restocking of the farm system laid the foundation for Reds success; the trades provided finishing touches to what would become a mini-dynasty.

Unsuccessful in his two-year stint as the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals (though he did pull off the steal that brought Orlando Cepeda to town), Howsam completely reversed the course of his career in Cincinnati. Under his leadership, the Reds drafted and developed young pitchers like Don Gullett, Gary Nolan, and Wayne Simpson, who all became major contributors to the 1970 National League championship team. Howsam then oversaw the draft selections of Dave Concepcion and Ken Griffey, Sr., who became important supplements to the Big Red Machine of the mid-seventies. With Gullett, Concepcion and Griffey all playing vital roles, the Reds advanced to the World Series in 1972, 1975, and 1976, winning world titles the latter two seasons.

Yet, it was at the trading table where Howsam displayed the height of his brilliance. In 1971, he pulled off two deals that sealed Cincinnati’s fortunes as a future world champion. The first one came in May, producing few headlines with its announcement. Knowing that Concepcion would fill the shortstop role for years to come, Howsam peddled light-hitting infielder Frank Duffy and an obscure minor league pitcher named Vern Geishert to the San Francisco Giants for spare outfielder George Foster. (Frank Duffy for George Foster? That became a running joke throughout the 1970s.) Facing a logjam of outfielders in San Francisco, Foster would eventually become the Reds’ everyday left fielder, one of the league’s top right-handed power sources, and the 1977 National League MVP.

Then came Howsam’s master stroke during the 1971 winter meetings. With his lineup leaning too heavily to the right and the Reds’ defense shaky in spots, Howsam dealt Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros for Joe Morgan, Denis Menke, Cesar Geronimo, Ed Armbrister, and Jack Billingham. In one fell swoop, Howsam improved the Reds defensively at three infield positions (with the new configuration moving Tony Perez from third base to first base), found a new center fielder in Gold Glover Geronimo, and bolstered the starting rotation with Billingham. Most critically, Howsam obtained one of the greatest players of the seventies in Morgan, who would win two MVP awards while adding speed, range, on-base percentage, and a left-handed bat to the Cincinnati equation. That trade, engineered by Howsam, remains one of the most significant in major league history.

Bob Howsam died on Tuesday at the age of 89, a victim of heart failure. Since he was overshadowed by so many great components of the Big Red Machine—a machine that he helped construct—very few people outside of Cincinnati paid much attention to his passing. Hopefully that will change one day, when Howsam takes his deserving place in the plaque gallery at Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

***

It’s been just about one year since I started writing these columns for Baseball Toaster. Given that time frame, it’s overdue for me to solicit some feedback from our regular readers. Of the features that we do regularly—"Card Corner," "Pastime Passings," "Observations from Cooperstown," "Rumor Mills"—what do you like to read the most? What could you do without? Are there any additional features that you’d like to see done here? Would you like to hear more about Cooperstown and the inner workings of the Hall of Fame? Do you prefer the content that is directly related to the Yankees, or do you want material that represents a change of pace from the usual conversation?

Feel free to post feedback here, or to send me an e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com. And, as always, thanks for reading and taking the time to provide us with input.

Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com. He, his wife Sue, and their daughter Madeline live in Cooperstown, just a short drive from the Hall of Fame.

Comments
2008-02-23 06:28:33
1.   OldYanksFan
To change the subject a bit:
SG has a wonderful post on Jeter and breaks down his 2007 year in terms of BRAA and FRAA. He also posts where Jeter would fall in BRAA if he played one of the other positions.

I may be reading it wrong, but unless we can someone who can (close to) equal Jeter's run production (BRAA + FRAA) at SS, it appears that in terms of team value, he is best off where he is. IF he GIVES UP more runs AND produces LESS runs in the future, it may be a different story. But as I read it, it looks like SS is still the best position for Jetes for a few years.

2008-02-23 07:54:32
2.   Bagel Boy
I'm new around here, but one thing I tend to like is links embedded within posts. That's a great recollection on Howsam's impact. Imagine including something like an obit from the Cincy paper.

Just a thought. Thanks.

2008-02-23 09:34:04
3.   markp
Before I retired, my boss was probably the most intelligent person I've ever met concerning MLB (despite being a Mets fan). Back when Scully and Garagiola were the #1 team for NBC, we both used to hope their game got rained out so we could see Costas (back when he was cool) and especially Tony Kubek. As a hitter, Kubek rarely walked and yet he seemed to understand the importance of walks as soon as he entered the booth. He told us things like how the running game can hurt a team unless the outs on the basepaths were a lot fewer than the extra (including SBs) bases gotten. He was simply the most intelligent announcer by far.

Joe Morgan seemed to be the most intelligent player in the field. He and Tony went in the opposite direction on their way to the booth.

I'd prefer Yankee stuff-past or present.

2008-02-23 10:37:42
4.   Chyll Will
I wish there was more of your own perspectives on minor leaguers; either what's going on with the guys who are likely to make it to the club soon, or some really interesting anecdotes on an interesting minor leaguer. I loved the back stories that showed up about Joba last year, for example. I like a good story!

That and some cartoons would be nice >;)

2008-02-23 10:50:48
5.   The Mick 536
First, I like any baseball stuff whether it be Yankee related or not. This includes the business of baseball, the playing of baseball, the reporting of baseball, the writing of baseball, the folklore of baseball, and, especially the obits. But since this is a Yankee blog, and since there is a ton of stuff about the team that I don't know, the more it relates to the Bombers, the better.

As for Tony, rookie of the year in 1957. Bob Grim was in 1954 (he's dead). Saw him play a lot. Not fast. Steady. He played all the infield and outfield positions, spelling the Mick in center a few times. Learned from great players. Check out the infielders from those years--Billy Martin, Andy Carey, Bobby Richardson, Gil Macdougal, Jerry Coleman, Joe Collins, Moose, Horace Clark, and Phil Linz, just to name a few. I recall he had a strong arm and threw rather upright. Andy Carey had a real gun, come to think about it.

Obviously, tony will be remembered for the ball in the throat, but I always blamed the field, a notoriously bad one Forbes was, and not him. Played in pain for his last two years (only had nine) and his numbers suffered. He was better than his career .267 would indicate.

As for his announcing, loved him, too. Quite unemotional. Garagolia keynoted spectacularly at the Sabr convention in St Louis this summer. He referred to his years with Tony in the booth and suggested that the they were let go because they were too honest and too analytical. Tony was a perfect shill. Do you or anyone else know what happened. BTW, I think the politics behind the announcers is real interesting.

2008-02-23 13:09:00
6.   fgasparini
Remember when the Yankees were on MSG? I loved Kubek. I came late to baseball and listening to him helped me learn the game.

I remember in 1994 he was taking the Yankees to task for not promoting Bernie Williams more in the Spanish-speaking community surrounding the Stadium. I thought, "Uh-oh, he's gone." And he was. I don't know if he was fired, or felt he could speak out because he was going to quit, but can you imagine Sterling or Waldman saying that?

No you can't.

2008-02-23 13:09:26
7.   buddaley
Well-said about Tony Kubek. I saw him play and also loved listening to him in the booth. Exactly as you describe it, a thoughtful analyst and informed commentator who eschewed hype and phony melodrama for expert insight.

Same question as above. What happened to him? What is he doing now?

2008-02-23 15:10:12
8.   horace-clarke-era
5 "Check out the infielders from those years--Billy Martin, Andy Carey, Bobby Richardson, Gil Macdougal, Jerry Coleman, Joe Collins, Moose, Horace Clark, and Phil Linz, just to name a few. "

Thanks, Mickey. Beers on me.

2008-02-23 15:29:53
9.   OldYanksFan
8 Let's not leave out possibly the greatest fielding 3rd baseman of all time.
2008-02-23 16:37:17
10.   The Mick 536
9 I don't want to play spoilsport, but does ya mean Greg Nettles or Brooks Robinson (Hall of Fame triva question)? The latter didn't play for my team. the former didn't come to the Janks until 1973, after Tony had been retired for a few years. He started in Minnesota where Billy and Lem coached. A real sleeper. Not very adept at the beginning. Moved on to Cleveland. Alvin Dark, an infielder himself, added to his repetoire. Would like to know more about him, too. How did he get to the Janks?

Gonna watch SNL.

2008-02-23 17:00:12
11.   JL25and3
10 I assume OYF meant Clete Boyer.

Great piece on Joba in the Times: http://tinyurl.com/2rl6wf

2008-02-23 19:49:21
12.   OldYanksFan
Brooks is considered the best fielding 3rd baseman of all time, but there are plenty who think Clete was. Clete actually said he thought his brother Ken was better.

Robinson, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1953, won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves at third base from 1960 to 1975.

"Brooks Robinson beat me out of about seven Gold Gloves," Boyer said

Boyer also played more then a seasons worth off SS with the same excellence he had at 3rd.

"But, with me, Pepitone, Bobby and Tony, that was the best infield I ever saw."

2008-02-24 06:34:44
13.   Bruce Markusen
Thanks for the feedback, everyone. Keep it coming.

Tony Kubek is retired now and living in Wisconsin. He left the Yankees' broadcast booth in the mid-1990s, in part because of bad experiences he had in the Yankee clubhouse, in particular with Buck Showalter. I think he was also unhappy with the labor troubles that were plaguing baseball at the time. Unfortunately, that has been baseball's loss.

2008-02-24 08:39:08
14.   The Mick 536
12 11 8 My apologies. How could I have forgotten Clete? Clete be dead.

Met him in Cooperstown at his diner. He finished the 1960 WS game in Pittsburg at SS. He hated Casey. Coached four years for the Janks. Another guy who should receive more play. Probably not lauded because he finished his career in the NL where he won his one Gold glove.

2008-02-25 06:11:03
15.   Sliced Bread
Bruce,
Your essays (is that the word I'm looking for?) are consistently interesting and insightful. I would only request that you keep up the great work.

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