Around the Horn

October 12,2020

Whiskey and Beer are Alright in Their Place

   One of America’s cultural icons of the past 100 years was the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham. The evangelist preached to an estimated 210 million people in 185 countries at indoor and outdoor “crusades” during a ministry that began in the 1940s. A fundamentalist that believed the Bible was the inspired word of God, Rev. Graham was in the public spotlight for decades and became a celebrity. American presidents sometimes sought his advice and he became close friends with President Nixon, visiting him often. Advancing age slowed Graham down in the early part of the 21st and he passed-away at the age of 99 in 2018.

   Fifty years before Graham’s first crusade, there was fiery orator who mesmerized large crowds preaching a fundamentalist Christian message. Billy Sunday was the “Billy Graham” of his day, preaching to over 100 million people between 1896 and 1935. He, too, became a celebrity and a household name. When Sunday died, the New York Times called him, “the greatest high-pressure and mass Christian evangel that America, or the world has known.”

Billy Sunday

   Sunday’s fame in the pulpit preceded another well-known profession that occupied a portion of his early adult years. Prior to becoming an evangelist, Billy Sunday was a major league baseball player. Even after hanging up his spikes, Sunday expressed his love for baseball and would occasionally preach in a baseball uniform or do things like slide like a ball player on stage to illustrate a point.

   William Ashley Sunday was born in Ames, Iowa on November 19, 1862. His family was poor; his father died of pneumonia and the man who would become his stepfather was a drunkard who later deserted the family. At age of ten, Sunday was sent to live in the Soldier’s Orphans Home in Glenwood, Iowa. He was later shuttled to another orphanage in the state.  It was during his years in orphanages that he was taught personal discipline. By the time he was 14, Sunday had worked several manual labor jobs These often-strenuous employments helped develop the youngster’s core strength and enhanced his athletic ability.

   The lean and solid young man gravitated towards baseball, eventually playing for the Marshalltown, Iowa team in his free time. A speedster on the base paths, a flashy outfielder and a good hitter, Sunday caught the attention of a future Hall-of-Famer in 1882. Chicago White Stocking player-manager Cap Anson, a native of Marshalltown, was told about the dynamo who patrolled the outfield for the hometown team. Anson decided to check the kid out and was suitably impressed. Offered a contract to play for the White Stockings, Sunday signed with the American League club and joined them for the 1883 season.

   Manager Anson used the future evangelist sparingly that first season. In only 55 plate appearances, Sunday batted .241 with a mediocre .255 OBP. Over the next four seasons, he continued the role of a part-timer, never playing in more than 50 games. His batting averages ranged from .222 to .291.  Anson liked the youngster and considered him honest and intelligent enough to be the club’s business manager. For several seasons, Billy handled the team’s travel expenses and ticket receipts.

   As a player, Billy Sunday had the reputation of being extremely fast. A rival league, the American Association, thought they had the fastest player in all of baseball, Arlie Latham. White Stockings skipper Cap Anson disagreed, thinking the fastest player was on his roster so a foot race was arranged between Latham and Billy Sunday.  

   In a 100-yardsprint, Billy won by ten feet.

Sunday was extremely fast on the base paths.

   It was during his later years in Chicago that Billy Sunday converted to fundamentalist Christianity after attending a service at the famous Pacific Garden Mission. Now believing that the Bible was the Word of God, Sunday began to wonder if God was calling him to ministry. He also began to share his new-found faith with everyone around him, including teammates. Ballplayers were a rough-and-tumble bunch those days, hard-nosed and often profane. More-than-a-few thought religion was for the weak and simply did not want to hear it. It is not known if Manager Anson was turned-off by his part-time outfielder’s new religious fervor but soon after his conversion, Sunday was sent to the National League.

   Not ready to say “goodbye” to baseball quite yet, Billy Sunday opened the 1888 campaign as a starting outfielder for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. For the first time in his career, Sunday was a regular. Although his batting average was a less-than-impressive (.236), he did manage to make the most of his times hits by swiping 71 bases. Over the next three campaigns, Sunday would steal 215 bases, an average of 71.6 pilfers per season.

   During the 1890 season, with Sunday hitting a decent .257 and one of the league leaders in stolen bases with 57, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for two players and $1,100. The Alleghenys were in-the-midst-of a terrible season but the Phils had a chance to win it all. Philly thought the fleet-footed outfielder would bolster their chances of capturing the pennant. Sunday played well, contributing a career-high .367 OBP and 28 steals over 31 games but the Phillies faded to finish in third place.

   It was during the off-season between 1890 and 1891 that Billy Sunday made a decision that would eventually bring him world-wide fame.  Certain that he was being called by God to ministry, he turned away from his 1,800 dollars-a-year salary to play baseball to work for 83 dollars-a-month at the Chicago YMCA. Initially, his duties included praying for and counseling individuals seeking guidance and visiting the sick. Prior to his conversion, Sunday was an occasional imbiber of alcoholic beverages, admitting that he did get drunk on a couple of occasions. In the ministry, he became a passionate devotee to alcohol abstinence. At the YMCA, Sunday was also assigned the task of talking to drunks about the “evils” of alcohol consumption.

   “Whiskey and beer are alright in their place,” he would say, “but their place is in Hell.”

   All-in-all, those early days on the streets of Chicago were a humble beginning for a man who would someday influence the lives of the millions who came to hear him preach.

Sunday would often illustrate sermon points with colorful baseball analogies..

   As a baseball player, Billy Sunday never came close to the fame he would later attain behind the pulpit. His lifetime average was a so-so .248 and OBP a terrible .300. It was almost assuredly his speed that kept him in the big leagues for eight years, swiping a lot of bases whenever he did manage to get on. On defense, he was known as a daring outfielder, diving and sliding for balls that normally would be out-of-reach. But he made a lot of errors, committing as many as 31 in a season. Sunday must have had a good arm because his assist totals are impressive with his four best “kill” totals being 21, 25, 27, and 31.

   Billy Sunday was an average player at best with his greatest asset being blazing speed. Had he not become a well-known preacher his baseball career would probably be long forgotten. But he was very famous and that makes his diamond career an interesting footnote in the annuals of baseball and American history.

Romans 10:9-11

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September 28, 2020

Before he was The Rifleman, Chuck Connors was a “batsman.”

The Big Man Became a Big Star

   From the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, Westerns were all the rage on TV. Cowboys were everywhere with classic programs like Wagon Train, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, and Death Valley Days drawing big audiences. There were plenty of other lesser sagebrush lights and it seemed like America just couldn’t get enough of horse operas.

   One of the most popular shows served-up to oater-hungry audiences was The Rifleman. Starring Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, the program debuted on ABC in September 1958 and ran for five seasons. Not only did The Rifleman pack a lot of action and drama into a half-hour, it also featured a realistically endearing relationship between McCain and his young son Mark, played by Johnny Crawford. According to Connors:

   Basically, the premise of The Rifleman was the simplicity of the love between the father and the son. That was the foundation. The rifle was for show, but the relationship was for real. There was some violence, but at the end, I would explain to the boy that the violence was not something we wanted to do but had to do.

   With a 4th place finish in the ratings that first season, The Rifleman was a smash hit and made Connors a big star. It remains popular in in the 21st century, with reruns airing on cable TV and You Tube.

   It wasn’t the 6’6” actor’s first role, his credits included numerous appearances in movies dating back to the early 1950s, including a major part in Disney’s film Old Yeller. But acting wasn’t the only profession found on his resume. Some fans of the show are surprised to learn Connors also played professional baseball AND basketball for several years.

   Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors was born on April 10, 1921 in Brooklyn, NY. After high school, Connors enrolled at Seton Hall and played baseball and basketball for the university. There are different accounts of how Connors acquired the nickname “Chuck.” Players who played with him on the Pirates’ diamond squad said as the team’s first baseman, he would often tell infielders to “chuck it” to him. In an interview Connors gave a different explanation:

“They called me Chuck when I started playing baseball because they thought Kevin sounded effeminate,” he said.

   No matter the reason, he adopted the nickname and used it professionally for the rest of his life.

   When Connors hit .360 for a semi-pro team in Burlington, VT in 1941, the New York Yankees took notice and signed him to a contract. In 1942, the towering left-handed swinger hit .264 in 72 games for the Yankees’ Class B farm team in the Piedmont League. After the season, he enlisted in the military and served stateside as a tank training instructor. On weekends during the warm months, he played semi-pro baseball and-in-the-fall and winter played pro basketball.     

   After getting out of the military, Connors was invited by the Yankees to join them for Spring Training 1946. His stay with the Bronx Bombers was extremely short as they put him on waivers after a quick look-see. The Brooklyn Dodgers picked him up and then sent him to their Newport News farm team. Connors thrived in the minors, smacking 17 home runs to lead the Piedmont League in 1946.

   Chuck was also a member of the very first Boston Celtics basketball squad that debuted in 1946. Connors didn’t fare-so-well, in limited playing time he shot a mediocre 40% from the field and 41% at the free throw line. The “highlight” of his year with Boston was probably the day he shattered the backboard glass during pre-game warm-ups. Connors said he hadn’t been trying to dunk, it was just a standard set shot that did the damage. It was the first-time that a backboard had been splintered by a pro basketball player.

   He also played roundball on-and-off for several other pro teams into the early 50s.

   In 1947, Connors played for the Dodger’s farm team in Mobile, Alabama. He had a productive season, launching 15 home runs and plating 82 teammates. It was in the minors that he began to cultivate a reputation for being a bit of clown. Several times, he did cartwheels while rounding the bases after hitting a homer. Years before Jimmy Piersall did it as a member of the Mets, Connors once circled the bases backwards after clearing the fence with a long ball. Another time, a group of boisterous fans were treated to a shower of raw hamburger, courtesy of the man with piercing blue eyes. Occasionally, Connors would treat the umpires with short recitations from the works of Shakespeare.

   Connors was productive so the Dodgers tolerated his occasional goofiness. In 1948, they promoted him to their top farm team in Montreal. The future star actor rewarded their confidence by batting .307. hitting 17 home runs, and driving-in 88. The towering first baseman began the 1949 campaign in Montreal, played well, prompting a call-up to the big club. However, his stay with Brooklyn was brief. The Dodgers didn’t really need his services as durable slugger Gil Hodges had a stranglehold on first base. Connors one plate appearance resulted in a rally-killing double play against the Phillies. Not long afterward, Chuck once again found himself playing ball north of the U.S. border. He finished the season in Class A with 20 home runs, 108 runs-batted-in, and a .319 average.

   Connors spent the entire 1950 campaign with Montreal. His output dropped but was still half-decent (.290 AVG, 68 RBI). By this time, Chuck had given up hopes of being a pro basketball player and realized his future with the Dodgers was less-than-promising. After the season he asked to be traded and Brooklyn honored his request. They shipped him to the Cubs who assigned him to their Los Angeles farm team. Revitalized, Connors sizzled at the plate, hitting .321, slamming 22 homers and knocking-in 77 in the first half of the 1951 season. The big club was suitably impressed and summoned the lefty-swinging first sacker to the majors in June.

   Any excitement was short-lived. Over 66 games, Connors only managed a mediocre .239 average, just two home runs and 18 runs-batted-in. After the season, the Cubs returned him to their farm team in Los Angeles where he played for the entire 1952 campaign.

   “I was a bum of a hitter just not cut out for the majors,” he admitted.

   During his time with the Angels, Connors rubbed elbows with many of the baseball-loving Hollywood elite. They enjoyed his antics on the field and believed he possessed the charisma of an actor.

   “Now who goes to the games in LA? Producers, directors, writers, casting directors. So, because of the good year, I became a kind of favorite of the show businesspeople, unbeknownst to myself,” Connors explained.

  Approached to do a bit part in the film Pat and Mike, he agreed to give it a try and ended up loving the experience.

   “I said right then and there, this is my racket,” he said about his debut in front of a camera.

   With a new-found affection for acting, Connors’ desire to succeed in baseball waned. His performance on the baseball diamond tanked in 1952. With his mind now almost entirely on acting, Chuck retired from professional baseball after the season.  Using his showbiz contacts as steppingstones, Connors secured numerous bit parts in films and TV over the next several years. His television roles included spots on Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Millionaire, Tales of Wells Fargo, General Electric Theater and the Loretta Young Show to name just a few. He also had parts in the movies The Big Country, Move Over Darling, and South Sea Woman. His big break came in 1958 when Walt Disney cast him as the father in the classic movie Old Yeller. This memorable role didn’t make Chuck Connors a household name, full notoriety was achieved when he was given the lead in the TV program The Rifleman.

   From that point on, he was a major star.

Tough guy Lee Van Cleef (right) was one of many famous guest stars to appear on The Rifleman.

   After portraying the rifle-slinging rancher for five years, Connors later starred in another series, Branded. When that show was cancelled in 1966, his handsomely rugged face didn’t disappear from the small screen. For the next twenty years-or-so he found work on numerous programs such as Night Gallery, Here’s Lucy, The Name of the Game, Police Story and The Six Million Dollar Man. He also captured notable parts in the films Support Your Local Gunfighter, The Tourist Trap, Soylent Green and The Mad Bomber and others. Connors was adept at playing both sympathetic and villainous characters. He was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of a slave owner in the lauded TV mini-series Roots.

   A year before he died in 1992, Connors and Johnny Crawford reprised their Rifleman roles as Lucas and Mark McCain in the TV movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw.

   Despite a rough and tough exterior, Connors had a tender heart. He raised over 400,000 dollars for a disabled children’s foundation by holding a “Chuck Connors Invitational Golf Tournament” for several years.

   A heavy smoker for over 30 years, Connors largely gave-up cigarettes in the mid1970s. However, in the years that followed he did occasionally light-up a cigarette or two. The habit finally caught up with him when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and then pneumonia, two scourges that claimed his life in November 1992.

   He was 71.

   Connors’ years as a two-sport professional athlete and famous actor is impressive. But athletic prowess wasn’t all that made him special. From all accounts, he wasn’t shallow and narcissistic like many in his chosen fields. His contemporaries thought he was an honest with genuine principles. His co-star on the Rifleman, Johnny Crawford, remained friends with him until Connors passed away.

“Chuck was a great guy, a lot of fun, great sense of humor, bigger than life, and he absolutely loved people. He was very gregarious and friendly, and not at all bashful,” Crawford eulogized at the funeral.

Co-star Johnny Crawford and Connors remained friends after the series was cancelled in 1963.

   Perhaps it is those positive traits that truly mark the legacy of the man who entertained Western fans with a rapid-fire Winchester rifle, Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors.

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September 16,2020

QUIET TONY GONZALEZ

   One of the most-underrated outfielders of the 1960s was Tony Gonzalez. Largely forgotten today, Gonzalez starred for the Phillies from 1960-68 and was a key acquisition by the Braves on their way to the NL Western Division title in ‘69.

   Gonzalez wasn’t flashy, overly-talkative or flamboyant. Unlike contemporaries such as Leon Wagner and Vic Power, he simply came to play, letting his bat and glove do the talking. This reluctance to draw attention to himself is probably the main reason why this talented Cuban has faded from our collective baseball memory.

   Andres Antonio Gonzalez was a good hitter, logging a .286 lifetime average and .350 on-base-percentage. He had some power, hitting as many as 20 home runs in a season (1962) and finished in the league leaders in doubles and triples several seasons. According to Gonzalez, his success was due to the fact that he always went to the plate relaxed:

Tony Gonzalez

I don’t have any tension. Each time I go up to the plate I feel I’m gonna(sic) get a hit…If I hit the ball hard four times, at least I got to get two or three hits.

-pg. 242 The New Phillies Encyclopedia  1993 edition

   Batting stats were down throughout the 1960s, making Tony’s numbers even more impressive. For example, when Gonzalez had an “off-year” in ’68 (.264), he actually hit 23-points higher than the typical National Leaguer that season (.243 league average).

   His best offensive season was 1967 when he finished second in the NL (and the majors) with a .339 batting average.

   The Phillies franchise was painfully slow to integrate black players. In addition, the team’s fans were painted by stars such as Richie Allen and Curt Flood as being more hostile to blacks than just about any city in the majors. Gonzalez, a dark-skinned Hispanic, was often mistaken for being an African-American during his playing career. The man who played for teams in five different cities had a different opinion.

   “I don’t think it was any different in Philadelphia than it was in any major league city in those days,” Gonzalez said.

   He also said that Phillies fans treated him “great from day one.”

   Gonzalez is also an unsung baseball pioneer. How many fans know that Antonio was the first major league baseball player to wear a pre-molded ear flap on his batting helmet? After three seasons of being in the league leaders in being hit-by-a-pitch, Gonzalez was looking to cut down the possibility of a career-threatening beaning.  This addition to the helmet looked weird at the time (1964) but ear flaps are now a mandatory part of equipment in the Bigs.

   As a fielder, Gonzalez was outstanding. Three times he led National outfielders in fielding percentage (’62, ’64 and ’67) and was the first regular centerfielder to field 1.000 for a whole season (’62).

   In 1961, Gonzalez made only 4 errors in the outfield for a Phillies team that lost a record 23-games in-a-row.  He said that season was “a nightmare.”

   “You would walk onto the field feeling like you would never win again,” Gonzalez recalled.

Gonzalez was a starting player on one of the worst teams of all-time, the 1961 Phillies.

   The Phillies did finally win again and GM John Quinn rebuilt the team into a competitive franchise, one that almost stole the pennant in 1964. Gonzalez continued his steady play throughout the decade but by late 60s, the club was fading and needed to retool with younger players.

   In the 1968 expansion draft, the Phillies left the 31-year-old Gonzalez unprotected and the newly-minted San Diego Padres snapped-him-up. He played part of the 1969 campaign for the Padres before being traded to the Braves. His .294 batting average and 59 runs-batted-in for the Atlanta in 89 games helped them capture the National League Western Division.

   In the League Championship series, he hit a blistering .357 but did commit a key-error in the Brave’s opening game loss. Gonzalez was sold to the Angels in August of 1970 and played his last major league game with the Halos in September ’71.

   After calling-it-quits, the soft-spoken Gonzalez failed to find a job in baseball as a coach. For years, he worked as a security guard in Miami, FL while making other rounds, signing autographs at baseball card shows, mainly in the Philadelphia area.

   Tony Gonzalez was not one of the greatest outfielders of the 1960s. That designation belongs to names like Mays, Aaron, Yastrzemski, Clemente and several others.  Overshadowed by these “greats” and limited publicity-wise by his unobtrusive personality, Gonzalez quietly compiled impressive stats over a 12-year-career.

   There won’t be a plaque in Cooperstown for Andres Antonio Gonzalez.

But, in his time, Number 25 was one of the best and deserves a little retrospective appreciation and recognition.

   Done quietly, of course.

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September 9, 2020

A Family Affair

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said he was “appalled” but didn’t have the authority to stop it.

   “We may have to call off ‘Family Day’ this season,” Yankees GM Lee McPhail joked when he heard the news.

   “We didn’t trade wives, we traded lives,” Mike Kekich explained when he and fellow Yankee hurler Fritz Peterson announced that they were swapping spouses in 1973.

   At separate news conferences held on the same day in March, the pitchers shared their plan to trade wives, kids and family pets. At the time, Fritz Peterson was one of the anchors of the Yankee pitching staff. In ‘72, he won 17 games while posting a good 3.24 era. Two years earlier, Peterson had won 20 games and earned a berth on the American League All-Star team. Kekich was coming off a season in which he won 10 and complied a career-low 3.70 era.

   Since Peterson and Kekich played in America’s largest media market, the story received tons of coverage. Many fans across the country were shocked by what they felt was blatant immorality. In public, the Yankees feigned amusement but behind closed doors, new owner George Steinbrenner was not happy.

   The two pitchers became close friends in 1969. According to Peterson, the whole “wife swap” thing got started at a party in the summer of ’72. After sharing some laughs over a few drinks, Peterson suggested he drive Susanne Kekich over to an eatery in Fort Lee, NJ and that Kekich take Marilyn Peterson. Everyone agreed and off they went.

   They had a wonderful time and decided to repeat the driving arrangement to the same restaurant the next evening. The couples enjoyed themselves again and before too long, everyone had fallen in love with each other’s spouses.

   “It just happened. It wasn’t planned,” Peterson said.

Sue and Fritz Peterson (L) and Marilyn and Mike Kekich (R) before the swap that shocked baseball.

   1973 wasn’t that far removed from the swinging, open-minded 1960s, so in keeping with the zeitgeist of the era, the couples thought that it would be a good idea to swap spouses and families. Mike Kekich says that all four had agreed that if anyone wasn’t happy, the whole thing would be called off.

   After a few months of the new arrangement, Marilyn Peterson began to have serious doubts but it was too late. Her husband and Susanne Kekich were deeply-in-love and had no desire to return to their original spouses.

Kekich said his career “went into a black hole” after the swap.

   During the 1973 season, Peterson and Kekich were booed ferociously nearly every time they took the mound. The negativity adversely affected Kekich, who posted an astronomical 9.20 era for the Yankees before they dealt him to the Indians later in the season. Over the next three years, he won 5, lost 8 and was out-of-baseball by the end of 1977.

.

   Peterson fared a little better. His 8-15 record in ’73 also earned him a one-way ticket to the then-baseball-hinterlands of Cleveland where he toiled before being traded to Texas for the ’76 season, his final year in the majors.

   It’s possible that both pitchers would have seen declines in their performances had they not subjected themselves to an avalanche of ridicule by going public with their wife swap. Kekich, in particular, was never a great pitcher and may have been entering the decline phase of a so-so career in 1973 anyway.

   Peterson, on-the-other-hand, had been a good pitcher and his stats in ’73, the year of the “trade,” took a sharp nose-dive. He did rebound to record 14 wins in 1975 but was clearly not the force as he had been prior after all the marital controversy. Career-wise, the whole affair seems to have hurt him the most.

   Mike Kekich and Marilyn Peterson never tied-the-knot; he remarried and took up residence near Albuquerque, NM.

   Fritz Peterson married the former Susanne Kekich in 1974 and they had four children together.

   Did he have any regrets?

   “I could not be happier with anybody else in the world,” Peterson said in 2013.

    The big lefthander has battled prostrate cancer twice and in 2018 announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Click the link below for more Diamond Memories from AROUND THE HORN:

https://authorchriswilliams.com/blog/around-the-horn/

  


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