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The Stuff of Legend
2008-02-25 05:52
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

We won't know until years from now, but I wonder how history will treat the sluggers of the past twenty years? Or, how home run hitters from the 60s-80s will look in comparison? Which players will be forgotten? Who will be re-discovered? I got to mulling this over recently after reading Laughing on the Outside, John Schulian's wonderful piece on Josh Gibson (SI, June, 2000):

We know just enough about Josh Gibson to now forget him. It's a perverse kind of progress, a strange step up from the days when the mention of his name drew blank looks. He has been a Hall of Fame catcher since 1972, so that's a start. And you can always remind people that he got the Ken Burns treatment and public television, or that he was a character in an HBO movie, or that he inspired Negro leagues memorabilia harding back to his old ball club, the Homestead Grays. Any of it will do to jog memories. Josh Gibson, sure. Hit all those home runs, didn't he? Then he's gone once more,gone as soon as he's remembered.

Gibson died at 35, of "booze and dope and busted dreams," just a few months before Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby entered the major leagues:

Whatever pain he died with lives on in the Negro leaguers who played with him, against him, and maybe even for him if they were fortunate enough to walk where he never could. "I almost hate to talk about Josh," says Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who jumped from the Negro Leagues to the New York Giants in 1949. "It makes me sad, for one thing, on account of he didn't get to play in the major leagues. Then, when you tell people how great he was, they think you're exaggerating."

But that's what greatness is: an exaggeration. Of talent, of charisma, of the acts that live long after the athletes we deem legendary have shuffled of the mortal coil. So it is with Gibson, who opened Irvin's eyes in 1937 by hitting a grounder so hard that it knocked the shortstop who caught it backward. Then there was the night in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, when Gibson bashed a homer and the mayor stopped the game until the ball was found, because he'd never seen one hit that far. "I played with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron," Irvin says. "They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson."

This is no different from Roy Campenella telling one and all that the couldn't carry Gibson's mitt. Or Walter Johnson arguing that Gibson was better than Bill Dickey in the days when Dickey was the benchmark for catchers. Or Dizzy Dean, a true son of the South, wishing his St. Louis Cardinals would sign Gibson--and Satchel Paige--so they could wrap up the pennant by the Fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time. Irvin, with his proclamation, leaves himself no wiggle-room He doesn't just count Gibson among the game's greats; he ranks him first.

If you could go back in time, what player(s) would you most want to see? Gibson is up there for me, Satch too, as well as Pete Reiser, Dick Allen, Walter Johnson, Stan Musial and Yogi Berra (to name just a few).

Comments
2008-02-25 07:13:32
1.   pistolpete
I wish I could sit in the stands for just one game to watch the '27 Yankees. My second choice would probably be '51, so I could see DiMag and Mantle in the same outfield.
2008-02-25 07:32:40
2.   Schteeve
I'm not big on nostalgia and looking backwards, but I would have loved to have been alive during DiMaggio's streak.

I also would have loved watching Bob Gibson or Nolan Ryan in their respective primes.

2008-02-25 07:56:42
3.   Sliced Bread
Great list, Alex. There's so many players I'd love to see in action. Because I was born in '66, and heard and read so much about them as a kid, Koufax, Marichal, and Bob Gibson intrigue me. I'd love to see them in their primes. As a bonus, my dad would be in his early 30's, and while it would be weird to be older than him, I'd love to hang with him for a couple days, and catch a few ballgames with him at that age.
2008-02-25 08:06:35
4.   Todd Drew
I would want to see Paige and Gibson, no question. I love the Monte Irvin line about Gibson: "You saw him hit and you took your hat off."

This was great work by John Schulian.

2008-02-25 08:35:32
5.   murphy
(these two are sure to make me sound like the ultimate anti-yankee)

1. jackie robinson in 1947. sure, i have heard the stories and seen the video, but what i wouldn't give to watch him play every day - both for his on-field achievements and the courage he exhibited by even stepping foot out onto it.

2. ted williams. would love to sit as close to home plate as possible just to see the man hit.

2008-02-25 08:42:59
6.   Alex Belth
Not for nothing, but I would have liked to see Futility Infielder, Don Zimmer play too, just for kicks...
2008-02-25 08:50:06
7.   Yu-Hsing Chen
The Yankees from 1920 to the early 50s were truely the stuff of legends. there's basically not a single game where there isn't a inner circle amoung inner circle hall of famers on the field
2008-02-25 08:55:52
8.   Schteeve
I would add Jackie to my list as well. I think he is the baseball player who had the most meaningful impact on the world at large.
2008-02-25 09:16:20
9.   The Mick 536
Thanks for signalling Foul Balls. She loves the game and knows it. Will get the book referenced here. Love any bits on Joe and MM.

Having seen most of the above mentioned in person and on TV, my wish I would have paid more attention. I was 4 when I saw Joe and The Mick in the same outfield. I went to Ebbetts and the Polo grounds. Saw Willie and the Duke. On June 5, 1960, I saw Ted Williams, The Mick, and Roger hit HRs in a game the Yanks won 5-4. Nobody better than Willie Mays. Saw him with the Giants and the Mets. Just fabulous. Exciting beyond belief.

2008-02-25 09:21:11
10.   Josh Wilker
Buck O'Niell said he heard a certain thunderous bat-connecting-with-a-ball sound just three times in his life, produced by Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, and Bo Jackson.

As for what player I'd like to see (great question): I was just thinking about this the other day, and it's got to be Cobb.

2008-02-25 09:39:35
11.   Scallion
Gehrig, DiMfaggio and Williams, of course. Also: Cobb. Shoeless Joe. Matthewson.

And good call re Richie Allen. I saw him against the Mets at Shea, an afternoon game, when he hit a line drive off the flag pole in deep center. Hardest-hit ball I ever saw in person.

2008-02-25 09:42:26
12.   JL25and3
3 If you build it, he will come.

I'd love to see Mickey Mantle when he was young. When my dad talked about the young Mantle, he'd get this dreamy, faraway look and an almost reverent tone. He never talked that way about any other player, and he went back to the days of ruth and Gehrig (he was at Lou Gehrig Day).

Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner. Ruth, of course. Diz and Satch for entertainment value as much as for their pitching. And I think it would be a hoot to watch the old Orioles play a game.

2008-02-25 09:44:30
13.   wireroom
For me, it would have to be Sandy Koufax after all of the stories I have heard from my dad. Hank Greenberg would be second, I just saw a great documentary on him that my uncle gave me. Gotta stick with my Jewish brothers in arms and sticks I guess.
2008-02-25 09:50:13
14.   OldYanksFan
There are some many different stories and analysis, so I would want to see for myself. And that would be the HR Mantle hit off the facade/light tower in Yankee Stadium RF.

It's interesting you mention "thunderous bat-connecting-with-a-ball sound". You know Yogi has witnessed a lot of greatness. And he is very understated when he tells a story of greatness. 'Yeah... that guy was pretty good'.

But Yogi says when Mantle hit his shot, everyone in the dugout jumped up because of the sound that bat hitting the ball made. Yogi said he never heard anything like it. He said that from the sound, you knew something special had just happened.

Yes... I would eat Mickey's shorts and pay for the privilage.

2008-02-25 10:06:09
15.   weeping for brunnhilde
I don't know, really, but I'd probably choose Ted Williams. I've always heard about what a perfect swing he had and I sure do love a good swing.

Then again, it's hard to imagine a better swing than Alex's, when he's on.

Or Mattingly's, for that matter.

I don't know.

I'd want to watch Rod Carew. I did see him as a kid, after I started following California when Reggie went there, but I was too young to appreciate his mechanics: instead, it was his stats that got me.

I guess I'd want to see Ty Cobb, too. The intensity and whatnot.

Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Dizzy Dean.

But frankly, I had the good fortune to watch Dwight Gooden in 1985 (his 24-4 season?), so I can't imagine watching a more dominant pitcher than he was. It doesn't get any better than that.

Oh, God, bring on the Games!

2008-02-25 10:08:59
16.   weeping for brunnhilde
Oh, and maybe some junkballer.

I'd love to see maybe Gaylord Perry in his prime.

I so prefer to watch a dominating junk-baller to the guy who just blows you away.

2008-02-25 10:11:48
17.   ms october
lots of good names mentioned - i would concur with oyf on mantle; murphy on jackie robinson; sliced on marichal; todd drew on paige; jl with wagner; and definetely the mick on willie mays.

i would have also like to have seen stan musial - my dad has told me a good story about seeing him in cincy when the cards were in town.

i would also liked to have seen joe morgan and reggie in their primes - was a little too young to see either one in their primes or maybe for "my prime" for watching baseball.

2008-02-25 10:16:35
18.   David
Pete, you make me feel old. I remember when Dick Allen came up as a rookie 3rd baseman in 1964. I rooted for the Giants, so I wanted to believe that their rookie 3rd baseman, Jim Ray Hart, was better. He wasn't, of course.
2008-02-25 10:17:38
19.   JL25and3
16 A better choice than Perry would be 1970's Luis Tiant. Easily the most entertaining pitcher I've ever seen.
2008-02-25 10:24:09
20.   Rob Middletown CT
I'd want to see Ruth, both pitching and hitting. Show me some Gehrig while I'm there.

Ted Williams.
Willy Mays.
Mickey Mantle.
Yogi!
Walter Johnson.
Koufax (compare with vintage Pedro).
Jackie Robinson.

I'm sure I could double that list.

2008-02-25 10:32:01
21.   Alex Belth
Marichal too, of course.
2008-02-25 10:34:45
22.   51cq24
my grandfather swore that he saw a gibson hr that was the hardest hit ball he ever saw. he said that both the pitcher and center fielder could have caught it had they just put their gloves up in time because it was a line drive just over their heads. i'm sure that was an exaggeration but ever since he told me when i was little, it has been the gold standard of a line drive home run in my imagination.
2008-02-25 10:55:15
23.   Yankee Fan In Boston
all of the players mentioned above would also be on my list.

i'd also love to have seen ernie lombardi play. he was the last catcher to win a batting title before mauer recently did so. he was so slow it is mentioned on his HOF plaque, but hit the ball so far in the expansive ballparks of his day that he could still stretch hits into doubles. he was also the bill buckner of his era, remembered for one misplay and his team's subsequent loss, even though his actions weren't solely responsible for the loss.

2008-02-25 10:58:34
24.   The Mick 536
Great discussion.

El Tiante. What a blast from the past. Gaylord Perry. Check out the roster of the 1980 Janks. Both played for the Pinstripers that year. One of my favorite Yankee teams. Won 103 games. Katt. Guidry. Rudy May. Ron Davis. Easy Ed. Goose. Tommy John won 22 and had six shutouts. Went to a slew of games. Willie Randolph. Reggie hit 41. Rick Cerone. Lou Pinella. Bob Watson.

If you saw those boys play, you learned a lot about the game and saw some great baseball players. Oscar Gamble. Jim Spencer. Damn. They was good. Lost to KC in the League Championship series when Brett homered off Gossage in 7th of game 3. He took the loss. Still crying about that hit. Loaded the bases in the eighth and couldn't get it done.

Bucky Dent. Graig. Howser managed great and Georgie fired him (he's dead). Yogi coached. Rupert Jones. Bobby Brown. A couple of games for Paul Blair. Johnny Oates at the end of his career (he's dead).

2008-02-25 11:02:16
25.   JL25and3
22 Jimmy Wynn hit one like that - a line shot to dead center field, Opening Day, 1977. I wouldn't say the pitcher could have caught it, but it looked like it never got more than about 15' off the ground.
2008-02-25 11:10:32
26.   Bama Yankee
What? No one wants to see Karim Garcia in his prime? Well, maybe he never really had a prime, but still... ;-)

I really don't have anyone new to add to the list, but I do like the idea of 3 . Nice thought, Sliced. A sunny day at the ball park with a young version of my dad. That would be cool.

2008-02-25 11:11:13
27.   Yankee Fan In Boston
26 who?
2008-02-25 11:50:42
28.   Raf
I would like to go on a tour; I'd love to see a game at Braves Field. Then I'd shoot down, to NYC, taking in games in Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field. Then take a run down to Philly to take in a game at Shibe Park, then cross the state to see the Pirates at Forbes Field. Then I'd shoot over to Cincy and take in a game at Crosley. Would like to see some old PCL action, AA action as well.
2008-02-25 11:56:45
29.   Chyll Will
I'd wanna watch all the stars from the Negro Leagues, especially Josh Gibson. I'd wanna see Moses "Fleetwood" Walker, too (that they would have to ban the man from competition says something to his ability as well as his skin tone)...

There was a legend that Hank Aaron was cross-handed, which was relived in my Little League days as I was a cross-handed slugger. My coach would always say the same thing about Hank Aaron being cross-handed. Others were concerned that I would break my wrists if I kept hitting that way, but my coach and my Mom defended me because, well, I was hitting pretty (darn) well.

I might have told this story, but it's still fun... My minor league team came in second my first year in LL, and at the awards dinner when they gave out the trophies, the coaches would introduce the player with a short speech about his accomplishments. Then my coach began one particular speech with a sly smile and , "Hank Aaron..."; all heads in the room swiveled towards me. and I lowered my head in embarrassment as he went on about how prodigious a hitter Aaron was and how he became the HR king in baseball.

Then he went further by reciting a couple of my stats: "with a .760 BA and hitting 23 home runs..." which stirred a gasp from the entire hall, not to mention my own jaw being on the floor because I had no idea, I walked up on some pretty shaky feet and accepted my award to the second-loudest applause I've ever gotten. From then on, I was fascinated with Hank Aaron.

As far as I know, he never batted cross-handed, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were a player or two in the Negro Leagues who was known for doing so >;)

2008-02-25 12:14:06
30.   JL25and3
24 I loved Oscar Gamble - and not just for his 'fro, which he obviously didn't have as a Yankee. But he could really rake, and he always seemed to be having fun at it. One of his nicknames was Doc, because he was a self-proclaimed Doctor of Hittology.

Good call on that 1980 team in general. I remember going to a doubleheader against Detroit, late in the year, where I saw something both unprecedented and implausible. Game 1 clinched the division for the Yanks, so in game 2 they put a godawful lineup out there. Dennis Werth, Bruce Robinson, Ted Wilborn, and some guy named Roger Holt (http://tinyurl.com/38odup). Jim Spencer, batting third, laid down a pretty bunt for a single. He stole second, then scored on a single to medium left field.

That's right: I saw Jim Spencer manufacture a run with his speed. Jim Spencer's dead, too.

2008-02-25 12:45:56
31.   JL25and3
29 Hank Aaron did indeed bat cross-handed, but he retrained himself in the minor leagues. google "Hank Aaron cross-handed" and you'll get a zillion hits (approximately).

But you're not fooling us, Chyll. The real point of the story was to tell us that you hit .760 with 23 HR, right?

2008-02-25 12:53:51
32.   Shaun P
Oscar Charleston, who was supposed to be maybe even better all around than Josh Gibson. (Or at least Bill James has written that, IIRC.)

Satchel Paige in his prime, going up against the Major Leaguers in one of those barnstorming things they used to do against Ruth and the rest in the 30s. Can you imagine if they had footage of those games? Man.

Poosh Em Up Lazzeri, because I think he was the reason my grandfather, an immigrant from Sicily, started to cheer for the Yanks.

And the "Big 3" of long ago - Reynolds, Raschi, and Lopat - just because their pitching was so important to the 5-in-a-rowers in the 40s/50s.

2008-02-25 13:10:13
33.   Chyll Will
31 A zillion being an irrational number between 16 and 17, right? And I'm not one to toot my own horn, but "beep-beep" >;) I only wish I did that when I was 21, not 11...
2008-02-25 13:16:35
34.   Schteeve
Also, someday, years from now, on Bronx Banter.earth there are going to be baseball fans wishing they had been around to see Mo and A-Rod in their prime. We are all very lucky that we got to/ get to witness that.
2008-02-25 13:17:51
35.   JL25and3
33 Exactly. Better that than 134 .
2008-02-25 13:38:41
36.   Rob Middletown CT
34 - Yes. And people will speak in awed tones about Pedro Martinez in the late 90s-2000, too, even if they're Yankees fans. Perhaps especially so. Artistry.
2008-02-25 13:47:25
37.   horace-clarke-era
Too easy to agree with many of these. Basically we're speaking love of the game, aren't we? I'll take the dreaming a step further ... seeing Satchel or Charleston or Cool Papa Bell or Gibson in the majors in their primes. Redefining excellence and legend.

I'd also love to have seen Walter Johnson, who destroyed batters with his speed yet never threw inside for fear of killing a man.

Koufax in his short, scintillating glory I am old enough to remember ... and my regret there, weirdly, is that I hated him ... for he was battling the Yankees in the 60s.

2008-02-25 14:57:35
38.   weeping for brunnhilde
29 Beautiful, Chyll.
2008-02-25 14:58:58
39.   weeping for brunnhilde
31 Yeah, stats, schmats, I say.
2008-02-25 15:00:07
40.   weeping for brunnhilde
34 36 No kidding.
2008-02-25 16:37:48
41.   Mr OK Jazz TOKYO
Ruth, Mays, Mantle, Oscar Charleston, Bob Gibson, 1969 Reggie, 1970s Nolan Ryan,Sadaharu Oh
2008-02-26 07:23:46
42.   Murray
There are three things I'd like to see.

1. September 23, 1908: Cubs vs. Giants at the Polo Grounds. This is the Merkle game. A unique moment in baseball history. I'd like a front row seat in the first base grandstand so I could yet at Merkle to touch up.

2. October 1, 1932: World Series Game 3, Yankees vs. Cubs at Wrigley Field, Chicago. This is the "Called Shot" game. Wouldn't you like to know? You'd also get to see Ruth and Gehrig go deep twice each.

3. Any Yankees/Tigers game at the old Stadium during the Ruth/Gehrig/DiMaggio era against the Tigers.

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