Category Archives: Sports

Entering the World of Strat-O-Matic Baseball

I first learned of Strat-O-Matic while reading a comic book. Somewhere inside the pages of “Superman” was a full page ad inviting me to play “big league baseball” with a board game that incorporated all of the elements of real baseball, including pitching, hitting, fielding, running and managing. All of that sounded nice enough, but the real grabber was the idea that, unlike other sports related board games, Strat-O-Matic simulated baseball by utilizing all of the teams of Major League Baseball, with virtually every big leaguer being represented. All of this seemed too good to be true, and so, for the moment, I passed on the opportunity.

Had there been an internet 50 years ago, I would have read that Strat-O-Matic was the brainchild of Hal Richmond, a Bucknell mathematics student who developed an early version of the game in 1961, and after taking out ads in various comic books and magazines, began selling it out of his basement through mail orders. Plagued by low sales, Richmond, in 1963, revised his game, adding the names of real MLB personal to all of the dozens of Strat-O-Matic player and pitcher cards. Each card contained outcomes (singles, doubles, strikeouts, pop-ups) that would vary depending upon the player it represented, thus a Willie Mays Strat-O Matic card would, over time, produce more offense than, let’s say Hal Lanier. The way it worked was simple…A batter’s card had three columns,1,2,and 3, while a pitcher’s card contained columns 4,5 and 6. Each column had 11 baseball outcomes. Three dice would be rolled, a red die determining which column would be used, the other two die, added together, would specify the result of the at bat. Although the luck of the roll would decide each outcome, the mathematics Richmond employed in developing the game cards made the games come alive for the participants, who, by deciding line-ups, batting orders, and pitching changes, as well as decisions on when to steal, bunt or hit and run, would truly get the feel of managing a baseball team.

Once Strat-O-Matic tweaked its game to mimic actual MLB games, it slowly began to attract a steady cult following. After the 1963 player cards were introduced, the Strat-O-Matic company was compelled to furnish a brand new set of cards each season, updated, of course, to reflect each team’s current lineup, as well as individual player production levels. Over the years, several MLB players and other sports celebrities have revealed their devotion to Strat-O-Matic. Millbrae’s own Keith Hernandez was a fan of the board game, and reportedly could not wait to see his 1979 card, after winning that year’s National League MVP award with a .344 batting average.

Despite never acquiring a Strat-O-Matic game of my own, it was my good fortune to learn that several of my new high school friends were active proponents of the game. John Arnolfo owned the 1965 version of the game, and invited me to observe a series of games played between him and another classmate, Tom Toschi. Although John and Tom had several good teams to choose from, including the 1965 World Champion Dodgers and the second place S.F. Giants lead by National League MVP Willie Mays, they somehow developed a fascination with the ’65 Kansas City Athletics, and played them night after night against different opponents, no doubt feeling that their managerial skill could improve the A’s actual 59-103 record. John was nice enough to loan me his game, and I quickly became hooked on it, although I stopped short of becoming a Kansas City Athletic fan. Soon, I discovered that others in my immediate circle of buddies were actively involved in Strat-O-Matic…Bill Nunan, living five houses down from John, was regularly making use of his 1963 player-pitcher cards, while Jeff and Steve Banchero were reliving the 1964 season, although their brother versus brother contests had more in common with Civil War battles. With so many guys within a close knit group being infatuated with the same game, it was almost inevitable that we would start our own league, with each of us assigned a specific team. Thus was born the great Millbrae Meadows Stat-O-Matic League of 1968.

As the league begin to take form, several decisions had to be made, including the number of teams, a schedule, which teams and which MLB year would be used, and of course, importantly, team assignments. Fortunately (or at least we thought) most of those issues would not have to be argued, as Bill Nunan had already made himself commissioner. No one objected when he expanded the league to eight teams, which meant our good friends Larry Garcia and Bud Harrington would be joining Bill, John, Tom, Jeff, Steve and myself as franchise owner-managers. Bill then decided that our league would be comprised of 1963 MLB teams, which was also fine with us, as we were a nostalgic bunch, and the past was already beginning to look pretty good to us. But it was the matching us with our teams that saw our league’s first major controversy.

Bill had suggested a blind drawing to determine team assignments, a drawing, we assumed would take place with all participants present. It was a surprise to the rest of the league when Bill announced, on the eve of our opening day, that he, Jeff and Steve had gone ahead and conducted the drawing themselves, and the teams were set. When the results of the “drawing” were revealed, some smelled a rat. Jeff had drawn the Giants, complete with Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, while his brother Steve drew the 1963 World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Bill Nunan was almost equally “lucky,” as he ended up with the American League champion New York Yankees, winners of 104 games in ’63. John got the average Chicago Cubs, Larry was assigned the Milwaukee Braves, while Bud was stuck with the pathetic Houston Colt .45’s. Tom and I felt fortunate as his Chicago White Sox and my St. Louis Cardinals were both second place teams in 1963. Still, I had to wonder how the only three guys present at the drawing were able to wind up with the three most coveted teams.

539wIf my memory serves, we were to play a 42 game schedule, with the group meeting at John’s house twice a week to get in as many games as possible each night. Opening night saw more controversy. Soon after Bill distributed everybody’s team cards (they belonged to him) I noticed that Curt Flood was missing from my set. Bill immediately accused me of losing the card, and threatened me with all kinds of physical violence if the card was not found promptly. As I wondered if the actual MLB Commissioner had ever beat up an owner, John offered a short term solution…I would use the 1965 Curt Flood card until the 1963 version turned up, which it eventually did, in Bill’s bedroom. I was also dismayed when I realized that the 1963 Cardinals did not include Lou Brock, as he did not become a Cardinal until the following season. John, knowing my interest in Brock, just happened to have Brock on his Chicago Cubs, and suggested we reenact the Lou Brock-Ernie Broglio trade a year before it happened, which I did, unaware that Brock only hit .258 in 1963, while Broglio was an 18 game winner. John sweetened the pot by adding Bob Buhl while I gave up an aging Stan Musial, who batted .255 in what was his final season.

The opening games at John’s house provided a glimpse into everyone’s Strat-O-Matic personality. Jeff Banchero acted like a manager during his games, fretting over each decision, and recreating discussions between him and his players. John Arnolfo, on the other hand, played the role of announcer, giving play by play accounts of whatever was unfolding in front of him. Then there was Bill Nunan, who played like he was double-parked, growling for everyone to hurry up. A typical Strat-O-Matic game took about 30 minutes…Bill could play a double-header in that amount of time. Of course, there was always the look of disgust he gave while playing against me, and the 1965 Curt Flood would come to the plate. There was also a slight problem with Larry Garcia’s handling of the Milwaukee Braves pitching staff. Players, especially pitchers, are supposed to be used at the same frequency as their real life counterparts, but Larry tried to use Warren Spahn every game, claiming, “I don’t care what you guys say…he’s ready.” From what I remember about the first couple of weeks of the 1968 Millbrae Meadows Strat-O-Matic League, the standings were somewhat bunched up after 18 games, although Tom Toschi’s White Sox won 11 out of their first 12.

I’d love to complete this article by telling you how our league turned out, but I can’t, because, unfortunately, the league folded before the season was halfway finished. Blame it on summer vacations, some guys getting jobs or girlfriends, but the sad fact that it just petered out. Or did it? Unlike the rest of us, Bill Nunan never lost his interest in Strat-O-Matic, playing the game well into adulthood. Some 30 years after our league collapsed, Bill told us his intention of reassembling the eight 1963 teams, and completing our 42 game schedules for us. Of course, by now, Strat-O-Matic had undergone several improvements, and a late 1990’s computerized version allowed Bill to play a game, and print out a box-score in a matter of minutes. Week after week, Bill updated us as to the progress of our teams, which was made doubly fun by the fact that all of us had remained friends. It’s hard for me to remember what happened with Bill’s attempt to finish our season, because, frankly, if you play enough Strat-O-Matic, you start confusing your countless simulations with the real thing.

 

 

 

 

50 Years Ago: Ali-Liston and the Mystery of the Phantom Punch

Longtime boxing fans would be quick to tell you that the recent Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight was not the first bigtime bout that failed to live up to its hype. One of the best examples of this happened 50 years ago this month when Muhammad Ali took on Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine in a highly anticipated rematch. Those expecting an epic battle were instead served a two minute fiasco which resulted in Ali being credited with a 1st round knockout. Half a century later, experts are still debating what happened in Lewiston on the night of May 25, 1965. Although there are many unanswered questions, it really boils down to two…was Liston really knocked out by a solid punch or did he take a dive?

Sunny-Liston-vs-Muhammad-AliThe road to Lewiston actually began 15 months earlier in Miami Beach, Florida on the night of February 25, 1964 when heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston entered the ring a 7-1 favorite to defend his title against the 22 year old Ali, who was still known as Cassius Clay. Liston, coming off two straight one-round knockout wins over Floyd Patterson and considered unbeatable, was totally outclassed for six rounds. When the bell rang for Round 7, Liston, claiming an injured shoulder, refused to leave his corner, thereby forfeiting his crown to his jubilant opponent. Immediately, much of the sporting public became suspicious of the fight’s unsatisfactory ending. While some accused Liston of throwing the fight, a charge made reasonable considering Liston’s ties to organized crime, the probable truth is that Liston was overconfident and undertrained for the fight.

A rematch was scheduled for November 16, 1964 at the Boston Gardens. After their first meeting, Cassius Clay had joined the Nation of Islam, and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, instantly becoming the most controversial figure in sports. Liston, apparently stung by the loss of his heavyweight title, trained furiously for his second fight with Ali, reportedly getting down to 208 lbs, ten pounds lighter than he was at Miami Beach. But three days before the fight, Ali suffered a hernia, resulting in a six month postponement of the fight. Liston, claiming to be 32 years of age, but probably at least three years older, was disheartened…he had gotten himself in shape for nothing, and now would have to do it all over again.

Rescheduled for May 25th, 1965, the political climate surrounding the fight started to get dicey. The assassination of Malcom X revealed that the American Islam community had become split into warring factions, and some feared Ali could become a target for revenge. The financial entity staging the fight, Inter-Continental Promotions, had been found in violation of contract rules by including a return bout clause with Ali, should he win the first fight, which actually gave Liston, a partner with Inter-Continental, an incentive to lose the Miami Beach contest. Three weeks before the fight, Inter-Continental, rather than battling with the Massachusetts Athletic Commission, pulled the fight out of Boston Garden, and moved it to Lewiston, Maine’s 4,500 seat Central Maine Youth Center…Ali-Liston II was already obtaining a small town carnival atmosphere.

Only 2,434 fans were present as the referee, former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott, gave Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston their pre-fight instructions. The evening had already begun in bizarre fashion when singer Robert Goulet forgot the words to the National Anthem. Ali, fighting at a surprisingly trim 206, started fast by landing a good right hand seconds after the opening bell. Liston, weighing 215, immediately began stalking Ali, but was unable to land anything effective during the fight’s opening minute. After taking another solid right to the head, Liston followed Ali towards the corner and attempted to connect with a long left-jab. While avoiding Liston’s punch, Ali came over the top with a quick right that hit Sonny’s left cheek, sending him to the canvas at the 1:43 mark. As Liston lay on the mat, Ali stood over him, taunting him to get up. Walcott tried to push Ali to a neutral corner, but Ali paid little attention to him, and after looming over Sonny, he took a victory lap around the ring. In attempting to rise, Liston made it to one knee, 5d88a47cbbd84e65b0cc576bd70bafe8-5d88a47cbbd84e65b0cc576bd70bafe8-0rolled over to his back again, and then managed to get to his feet at 2:01, his time on the canvas clocking in at around 18 seconds. As Walcott wiped off Liston’s gloves, his attention turned to ringside, where Ring Magazine editor Nat Fleischer, who was sitting next to timekeeper Frances McDonough, was calling Walcott over to his side of the ring. Leaving the fighters, Walcott, ran across the ring and briefly conferred with McDonough, who informed Jersey Joe that he had counted Liston out, and the fight should be over. Meanwhile Ali and Liston resumed fighting, with Ali raining punches in Liston’s direction but missing virtually all of them. Walcott quickly returned to separate the fighters, declaring Ali the winner at 2:11 of the first round, setting off an immediate storm of protest and disgust from the media and the rest of the small crowd. Cries of “fix”, “setup” and “sham” were heard throughout the arena, with Ali’s winning right described as a “phantom Punch.” For many days and weeks, the fight was discussed, rehashed and debated, while the video of the fight quickly became boxing’s version the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination. Over the years, the second Ali-Liston fight has inspired many different theories, involving everything from a mob fix to Liston being threatened by members of the Black Muslims. But there are a few, including me, who feel the fight was on the level, or at least started out that way, until the 1st round knockdown turned the event into one of confusion and chaos.

First of all, there was a punch. Ali’s right hand, thrown over Liston’s lead left, landed flush, causing Liston’s front foot the elevate a few inches above the mat. If it’s conceded that the knockdown was legitimate, the next question is how badly hurt was Liston? The key moment came when Sonny’s first attempt to rise was unsuccessful, as he fell back to a horizontal position. At that point, most people figure he was either too dazed to get up or was pretending to be hurt. But there is a third possibility. At the point that Liston is on one knee, Ali is racing around the ring, moving quickly behind Sonny. In later interviews, Sonny Liston mentioned that since getting off the floor involves using one’s hands for balance, any fighter would be vulnerable to being hit as they attempt to rise. It could very well be that Liston, seeing Ali approaching him as he was climbing off the canvas, deliberately sought the safety of the floor, and then got up seconds later when Ali was across the ring where he could see him. The fact that this meant being down for five or six extra seconds was entirely the fault of Ali, who was in blatant violation of boxing’s neutral corner rule, and referee Walcott, who obviously lost control of the fight.

In my view, Jersey Joe Walcott should not have stopped the fight when he did. Since Ali never retreated to a neutral corner, and Liston never received the benefit of a referee’s count, Walcott should have overruled the timekeeper’s judgement that Liston be declared counted out. It’s interesting to note that during the brief time that Ali and Liston resumed fighting, Liston deftly avoided all of the blows Ali threw at him, suggesting that Sonny was not in too bad of shape. But although I, or anyone else does not know what really happened, I think we can all agree on one thing…Liston was not going to beat Muhammad Ali that night, or probably any other night going forward.

Liston’s 1st round defeat did untold harm to his career. It would be three years before Sonny could obtain a license to fight anywhere in the United States, as most boxing commissions were a bit skeptical of Sonny’s performance the night of May 25, 1965. Ali would successfully defend his title eight more times, until his 1967 refusal to be drafted into the military resulted in him being stripped of the championship, and a three and a half year layoff from the ring. Ironically, it was during Ali’s hiatus that Sonny was able to put his boxing career somewhat back together, winning enough fights to place himself back into the heavyweight rankings. But time was not on his side…On December 6, 1969, Sonny Liston, now about 40, was knocked out in the ninth round by Leotis Martin in Las Vegas, ruining any chance for another shot at the title.

Liston and Ali’s paths crossed one last time in June of 1970, when Ali showed up in Jersey City, New Jersey to watch Sonny Liston face Chuck Wepner. It was Sonny’s 16th fight since Lewiston, while Ali had not fought in over three years. But their immediate futures could not have been more different. Muhammad Ali would be allowed to resume his career a few months later, and would eventually earn millions of dollars in huge bouts against the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton. Liston, receiving $13,000 for stopping Wepner in nine rounds, never fought again. On January 5, 1971, Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home by his wife, who was returning from a trip…he had been dead for a week. Although the official cause of death was a drug overdose, it has been speculated that he might have been murdered. But like his date of birth and his second fight with Ali, his death remains a mystery.

Notes: In Ali-Liston II, Liston got back to his feet at the 2:01 mark, which coincidently was the winning time for that year’s Kentucky Derby, won by Lucky Debonair. The fight, however, was about one minute shorter than what was the current Billboard Number One song, “Ticket to Ride” by the Beatles, which lasts 3:10.

100 Years Ago: Johnson-Willard and the End of Boxing’s “Great White Hope” Era

Although the general public’s interest in boxing as declined to the point where it currently enjoys only a cult following, the sport’s rich history will always remain intact, with the controversial Jack Johnson-Jess Willard fight being a perfect example. Celebrating its 100th anniversary, Willard’s 26th round knockout over Johnson was significant in sports history, as it not only ended Jack Johnson’s six and a half year reign as the World’s Heavyweight Champion, but also terminated the relentless quest to wrest the title away from boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, or, as it was described at the time, the search for the “great white hope.” But to understand the public’s mindset towards Johnson, and the need for his defeat, one has to go back 30 years, to the beginning of boxing’s modern era.

When John L. Sullivan won the heavyweight title in 1882, most bouts were still fought under London Prize Ring Rules, which meant bare-knuckles and an unlimited number of rounds. It was during Sullivan’s 10 year reign that the sport transitioned to gloves and three minute rounds, conditions that John L. favored. But while Sullivan can be credited with helping modernize the sport, he also began another tradition…drawing the “color line.” Although Sullivan was known for bragging he could beat “anyone in the house,” he also made it quite clear he would never face a black man in the ring. “I’ve never fought a negro,” Sullivan simply stated…”I never have, and I never will.” The “negro” Sullivan probably had in mind when he issued this statement was Peter Jackson, a black Australian fighter of considerable skill, who many felt stood a better than even chance of beating Sullivan. But actually, Sullivan’s refusal to meet Jackson or any other black opponent was not thought to be very unusual in its day, as blacks were denied opportunity in most areas of American society at that time, and boxing’s heavyweight title was considered by most whites as too prestigious to fall into the hands of a black athlete, even by those who felt boxing should be banned altogether.

In 1892, Sullivan lost his crown to Jim Corbett, and although Corbett had previously had fought Peter Jackson to a 61 round draw, he had no intention giving Jackson a rematch now that he held the title. Sullivan’s “color line” remained intact as the title passed from Corbett to Bob Fitzsimmons to Jim Jeffries. It was during Jeffries’s title run (1899-1905) that John Arthur Johnson, an African American from Galveston, Texas, began to climb the heavyweight ladder. Jeffries, citing the prevailing custom, refused to fight Jack Johnson, and pretty much defused any speculation of him doing so by retiring undefeated in 1905.

By 1908, the heavyweight championship had fallen into the hands of Tommy Burns, a 5’7 Canadian who proved to be much more interested in money than tradition. Accepting a guarantee of $30,000, Burns defended his title against Jack Johnson in Sydney, Australia on December 26, 1908. Johnson gave Burns a beating, and was awarded the championship in the 14th round. The sporting public was now saddled with grim reality that the world’s heavyweight championship was now in the hands of a black man. The search for a “white hope” had now began.

The mere fact that Jack Johnson was black was bad enough, but in the eyes of many, his personality made things much worse…he wore fine clothes, drove fast cars, and ran around with white women, eventually even marrying one. Reporting from ringside at the Johnson-Burns fight, famed writer Jack London unofficially started the “white hope” frenzy by stating that the golden smile of Johnson needed to be wiped off Johnson’s face. But London already had a particular man in mind to defeat Johnson, writing, “Jeff…it’s up to you.”

Inactive since 1904, Jim Jeffries was lured back into the ring by promoters, who promised him $100,000 plus a share of what figured to be lucrative revenue from the bout’s film. On July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, in what was the biggest sporting event up to that time. Johnson easily dispatched of Jeffries, a result that unfortunately triggered race riots throughout the United States. Jeffries’s loss only intensified the search for a white man talented enough to beat Johnson, and soon the heavyweight ranks swelled with fighters like Gunboat Smith, Frank Moran, Carl Morris, Luther McCarty, and a huge guy from Kansas named Jess Willard.

But while Johnson seemed unbeatable in the ring, the U.S. government saw some vulnerability in his private life, and charged him with violating the Mann Act, a law that prosecuted those who transported women across state lines for immoral purposes. After a sham trial (all of Johnson’s violations of the law occurred before the Mann Act was in effect) Johnson was convicted in June of 1913 by an all-white jury and sentenced to a year in prison. Instead of going to jail, Johnson skipped the country, eventually ending up in Paris, where he performed in night clubs, fought exhibitions and defended his title twice. But in 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, denying Johnson of any more financial opportunities in the region. By early 1915, the high living Johnson was badly in need of money, and was also homesick.

At about this time, a group of promoters, led by Jack Curley, figured Johnson’s crown was ripe for the taking. Johnson was turning 37 years of age, and reportedly was not in the best of condition. Curley began to negotiate with Johnson the terms for a major title defense back in the Western Hemisphere. Since Johnson could not enter the U.S. without being arrested, Havana, Cuba was selected as the site for the April 5th prizefight. As for Johnson’s opponent, it was Jess Willard who promoters chose over the large field of white hopes, probably due to Willard’s 6’6 height and ability to absorb punishment. Receiving a $30,000 guarantee, Johnson accepted the offer to meet Willard, and also agreed, to his later regret, for the fight to be scheduled for 45 rounds…what else was agreed to still a matter for debate.

Over 17,000 spectators made their way into Oriental Racetrack on the day of the fight where ringside temperature was reported to be 100 degrees. Willard entered the ring at 230 lbs., the best shape of his career, while Johnson, at around 220, appeared a dozen lbs. overweight. Johnson started with uncharacteristic aggression, pounding away at Willard in the opening rounds, and intensifying the attack between rounds 10 and 15. Although Johnson was winning most of the rounds, he did not seem to be hurting Willard very much, and by the 20th round, the fight was beginning to sway Willard’s way. Johnson, tiring from the heat, started to fade, and after the 25th round, asked that his wife be escorted out of the arena. In the 26th, Johnson, after taking a wicked body shot, was nailed by a Willard overhand right, causing him to desperately attempt to cling to Willard before falling to the canvas. As seen in Jack Johnson Knocked Out by Jess Willardthe iconic photo, Johnson took referee Jack Welch’s ten count while seemingly shading his eyes from the sun. The large crowd erupted in celebration as Willard’s hand was raised in victory, a joy that was no doubt duplicated around the globe as news of Johnson’s defeat was circulated.

But soon after the fight, Jack Johnson began to muddy the waters as only he could. Johnson claimed that he was assured by the promoters that a loss to Willard would result in his Mann Act conviction being dropped, allowing him entry into the U.S. without having to spend time in prison. Anxious to go home, Johnson said he agreed, for an extra $20,000, to throw the Willard fight, and was now speaking up because the promise of the charges being dropped were not being met. Promoter Jack Curley laughed off Johnson’s accusation, saying that he did not have the political pull to offer Johnson any kind of clemency, and Johnson was never promised anything of the kind. In any event, Johnson continued to claim he took a dive in the Willard fight for the rest of his life, although most boxing historians are skeptical.

In 1920, Jack Johnson crossed the Mexican-U.S. border into Texas, surrendering himself to U.S. officials. After a stretch in Levenworth, Johnson resumed is boxing career in 1921, hoping to get a title shot against the current champ, Jack Dempsey. But the “color line” had been reinstated after Johnson’s loss to Willard, and would not be until 1937 that another black man (Joe Louis) would get a chance to fight for the championship, not that a 45 year old Johnson posed much of a threat anyway. Johnson boxed until age 50, then bounced around through various endeavors, until he died in 1946 when he fittingly, at age 68, lost control of the speeding car he was driving in North Carolina, in route to the Joe Louis-Billy Conn rematch.

Is there a possibility that Jack Johnson went into the tank against Jess Willard? At this point, there is no way to know for sure, but my personal opinion is that he did not. It’s my guess that Johnson, after losing legitimately, truly thought that since he was no longer heavyweight champion, the U.S. government would interest in his case, and the conviction would be reversed. When this didn’t happen, I think an angry Johnson lashed out at everyone he could…plus his ego might not have accepted losing to Jess Willard, who Johnson thought of as a second rater. If Johnson did intend to lose the fight, why wait 26 rounds? He could he be sure Willard would not wilt under the many punches he landed on Jess long before the fight’s ending? As Willard later remarked, “if Johnson really did throw our fight in Havana, I wish he had done it sooner…it was hotter than hell down there.”

Note: The Johnson-Willard fight, at 26 rounds, was the longest heavyweight championship fight in the modern era, and last title bout to be scheduled for 45 rounds. During Willard’s and later Jack Dempsey’s reign, the duration at title matches ranged from 10 to 15 rounds. By the 1930’s, 15 round championship fights became the norm, and remained so until the 1980’s when title fights were shortened to 12 rounds.

75 Years Ago: Joe Louis Wins His Biggest Fight

When boxing was a popular mainstream attraction, any heavyweight championship fight would cause the rest of the sports world to momentarily step aside, allowing the public to devote full attention to the bout. Occasionally, there would be a matchup attractive and culturally significant enough to warrant front page coverage in our nation’s newspapers. Such was the case on June 22, 1938 when Joe Louis defended his heavyweight crown against former champion, Max Schmeling of Germany, in a rematch of their 1936 meeting. From a competitive standpoint, the fight seemed to have everything: Two excellent heavyweights, one trying to avenge his only loss (Louis), the other attempting to be the first ex-champion to regain the title (Schmeling). But the meaning of this contest went far beyond the ring. With the clouds of war hovering over Europe, many saw the Louis-Schmeling fight as a symbolic preview to an almost inevitable conflict between America and Nazi Germany.

Fighting professionally in the decade prior to Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut, Joe Louis was one of this country’s most prominent African Americans during the latter half of the 1930’s, and a major source of pride throughout the Black community. Any Joe Louis fight would be eagerly followed by millions by way of radio, a prelude to today’s Super Bowl parties. Turning pro in 1934, Louis’s rise in the heavyweight division was quick and impressive. An accomplished boxer and devastating puncher, Joe scored knockout wins over former champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer in 1935 and by 1936 was the top contender for Jim Braddock’s heavyweight crown. But Louis had also become a cash cow at the box office…his fights with Carnera and Baer had both drawn over 60,000 fans, and promoters were in no hurry to put Louis into the ring with Braddock. Instead, Joe was matched up with another former champion, Max Schmeling.

Max Schmeling had held the heavyweight title from 1930 to 1932, but going into his June 1936 Yankee Stadium meeting with Louis, was considered past his peak. The 30 year old German was the decided underdog against the unbeaten Louis, but Schmeling, while studying films of Louis in action, noticed that Joe often held his left hand a bit low after throwing a jab, possibly leaving himself open to an overhand right to the head. As 40,000 spectators looked on, Schmeling’s observation proved correct, as he punished Louis with countless right hands to the jaw throughout the fight, finally knocking Joe out in the 12th round. Max’s unexpected win caused a sensation in Germany, making Schmeling a national hero in his native country. The Nazi government was quick to seize on the propaganda value of Max Schmeling’s triumph, holding the fighter up as an example of “Aryan superiority.” Schmeling was even given a private audience with Adolph Hitler, as the two watched a film of Schmeling’s knockout over Louis. Although Max was a proud German, it must be noted that he never joined the Nazi Party, and never bought into the anti-Semitic values of the Third Reich.

Although Schmeling’s win over Louis made Max the logical contender to meet champion Jim Braddock, boxing has never operated on logic. Promoter Mike Jacobs, offering some hard to refuse financial incentives, convinced the champion to instead defend his title against Louis, who had reeled off seven straight wins since his defeat at the hands of Max Schmeling. On June 22, 1937, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Joe Louis stopped Jim Braddock in the eighth round, becoming the first African American heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson had worn the crown from 1908 to 1915. But Joe publicly said that he wouldn’t feel like a real champion until he beat Max Schmeling.

The Louis-Schmeling rematch was set for June 22, 1938 in Yankee Stadium, in the same ring where Schmeling had won their first bout. The buildup for the fight caught the imagination of the public on both sides of the Atlantic, as people began to see Louis-Schmeling II through the lens of international politics, making a prizefight a battle of ideologies. For the first time in history, the vast majority of Americans were openly rooting for a Black man to emerge victorious over a white opponent, a far cry from the “White Hope” phenomenon that took place during the Jack Johnson era. By the time the two fighters entered the ring, Yankee Stadium was packed with over 70,000 onlookers, while tens of millions gathered around radios all over the U.S. A special trans-Atlantic hookup allowed the blow by blow account of the fight to be carried back to Germany, where millions more stayed up past 3:00 a.m. to follow the action.

At the opening bell, Louis eschewed the usual feeling out process, and immediately began scoring with combinations to Schmeling’s head. Schmeling, unprepared for Louis’s quick start, tried unsuccessfully to tie Joe up, and then tried backing away. A Louis overhand right sent Schmeling reeling along the ropes, at which point Joe unleashed a furious volley of punches. At about the 1:30 mark, Schmeling, trapped on the ropes, began to twist his body away from Louis, causing a Louis right, intended for the mid-section, to land on Schmeling’s spine. Schmeling let out an audible grasp, and began to sink to the floor. Referee Arthur Donovan prematurely separated the fighters, but waved Louis back in when he realized that Schmeling had held to his feet. Louis then landed a right to the head, sending Schmeling to the canvas for a count of three. Louis attacked again, knocking Max down for the second time. Back on his feet at the count of two, Schmeling was met with a vicious left to the body, followed by a chopping right to the jaw, dropping him for the third time. At this point a towel was tossed into the ring from Max’s corner, but referee Donovan tossed it aside and began counting. As Donovan reached eight, Schmeling’s corner men rushed into the ring to save their man from further abuse. The fight had lasted 2:04.

Louis’s one round victory was the biggest of his career, and solidified his standing as a great fighter. Joe would hold the title for 11 years, defending it successfully 25 times, both still boxing records. Louis’s toughest opponent ended up being the I.R.S., as Joe was hounded for unpaid taxes for much of his adult life. But aside from his abilities in the ring, Joe Louis’s legacy was being the first Black athlete whose popularity transcended race. There is no doubt that the career of Joe Louis went a long way toward making Jackie Robinson’s entry in Major League Baseball possible.

Max Schmeling’s loss to Joe Louis proved embarrassing to the Nazi government, as their propaganda suggested a Schmeling defeat was not possible. During World War II, Max was given one dangerous assignment after another, as the Nazis were probably hoping he could be useful as a dead hero. In 1941, operating as a paratrooper, Schmeling was injured at the battle of Crete, ending his active duty. After the war, Schmeling became an executive for the German division of Coca Cola, eventually becoming a wealthy man.

The nicest postscript to the Louis-Scheming rivalry is the fact that the two became great friends in later years. Schmeling would always include a visit with Joe whenever he came to the U.S. for business, and Louis reciprocated whenever he journeyed to Europe. When Joe Louis fell ill late in his life, it was Max who quietly paid many of Joe’s medical expenses. When Joe Louis passed away in 1981, Schmeling financed Louis’s military funeral. Max Schmeling died in 2005, at the age of 99.

Note: According to legend, the German broadcast of Louis-Schmeling II was cut off after the first knockdown, depriving Max’s countrymen of hearing the completion of the fight. Although this has been reported as fact for many years, this has recently been disputed, as a few old-timers remember listening to the entire (two minutes) of the contest. One individual even recalls the German announcer’s pleas for Max to get up, before reporting it was over.

 

Benny Kauff: A Forgotten Giant

Although the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame balloting produced no new members to the Hall this year, the list of great players not enshrined at Cooperstown was expanded as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens. Sammy Sosa, Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza joined Mark McGuire and Rafael Palmeiro as elite ballplayers denied entry due to being, or in some cases just suspected of being, involved with steroids. Of course, prior to the so-called steroid era, Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, kept out due to gambling, were the gold standard for non-Hall of Fame greatness. There too, have been individuals with Hall of Fame talent, but had their careers shortened or adversely affected by injury (Pete Reiser and Tony Olivia), and perennial All-Stars who were just too unlikeable to be considered (Dick Allen, Albert Belle). But the name Benny Kauff never comes up when Hall of Fame discussions are being conducted, and although there isn’t a strong case for Kauff, he does fall into the category of excellent players who never reached Cooperstown, but not for any of the reasons listed above…Benny Kauff is in a class of his own.

Two reasons why Benny is largely forgotten is that his career started 100 years ago, and he only played five full seasons of big-league baseball. Kauff, a 5’8 left-handed outfielder from Ohio, first signed with the New York Highlanders (Yankees) in 1912. After languishing in the minors for two seasons, Kauff jumped to the brand new Federal League in 1914, and played for the Indianapolis Hoosers in their inaugural season. Making the most of his rookie year, Kauff’s batting skills and aggressive base-running proved a perfect fit for the style of baseball that was played during the 1910’s, now commonly known as MBL’s “deadball” era. In 1914, Kauff led the Federal League in batting average (.370), runs, hits, on-base percentage, total bases, doubles and stolen bases (75) leading Indianapolis to the Federal League title. Kauff’s performance was impressive enough to earn him the nickname, the “Ty Cobb of the Feds,” much to the chagrin of the real Ty Cobb, who disliked anyone being compared to him.

Following the 1914 campaign, the Indianapolis Hoosier franchise disbanded, and although the Federal League reassigned Kauff to the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, he considered himself a free agent, and began negotiations with the New York Giants, signing a contract with them two weeks into the 1915 season. On April 29, Giant’s manager John McGraw placed Benny Kauff’s name on the lineup card as the starting centerfielder for a Thursday afternoon game against the defending World Series champion Boston Braves. Unfortunately, Braves manager George Stallings correctly pointed out that Kauff’s contract had yet to be approved by National League President John Tener, and refused to play if Benny took the field. Home-plate umpire Ernie Quigley took McGraw and the Giants side in the matter, and declared New York that day’s winner by way of forfeit. Not wanting to hand out refunds to the large Polo Grounds crowd, McGraw convinced Stallings to stay and play an exhibition game, under the understanding that Kauff would sit it out. With Benny watching from the dugout, the Braves walloped the Giants 13-8, in a game shortened to seven innings. The following morning, the Giants received a double dose of bad news. Not only did NL President Tener rule that Kauff was still the property of the Federal League, but went on to say that the previous day’s “exhibition” between the Giants and Braves would be counted as a regular game. Kauff was back with the “Feds.”

Joining the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, Kauff resumed his status in as the Federal League’s best hitter, winning his second straight batting title with a .342 average. After the 1915 season, the Federal League folded, allowing Benny to re-sign with the New York Giants. In acquiring the 26 year old Benny Kauff, the Giants were not just getting one of MLB’s best hitters, but also one of it’s larger than life personalities. Kauff was the epitome of what was known 100 years ago as a “sport.” He was a flashy dresser, full of confidence, as much at home at a saloon or poolroom as he would be on the playing field. Coming to the Giants in 1916, Kauff announced that he would make everybody “forget that a guy named Ty Cobb ever put on a shoe.” Although he never performed at that level, he proved to be a solid player in New York for next two seasons, rarely missing a game, and helping the 1917 Giants win the National League pennant. At times, he showed signs of brilliance, as demonstrated by his finishing second in the league in both stolen bases and triples in 1916. But there were also lapses in concentration, most notably on May 26, 1916 when he became the only major leaguer to be picked off first base three times in one game. Kauff was in the midst of a fine year in 1918 when he was inducted into World War I in July, batting .315 in his half season of action. Returning in 1919, Kauff hit a respectable .277, but events were already unfolding that would ultimately end his career at what should have been its midpoint.

More than 90 years later, no one alive really knows what exactly happened with Benny Kauff during the 1919 offseason, other than the fact that he was arrested on February 17, 1920 on suspicion of grand larceny. It seems that a car Kauff sold in December of 1919 was stolen. Kauff, insisting the heist was the work of crooked employees of his auto parts business, was freed on bail, and with the trial pending, headed south for the Giants’ spring training. Benny started the 1920 season as the Giants’ starting centerfielder, but team’s management, worried that Kauff’s legal problems might affect the team, sold him to the International League’s Toronto franchise in July. Assured that he would be recalled (unless he was in jail) in time for the 1921 campaign, Kauff stayed in Toronto for the remainder of 1920, batting a lofty .343 for the Maple Leafs.

Benny Kauff’s greatest misfortune wasn’t so much being involved in a car theft, but the timing of the incident. In the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which eight Chicago White Sox players were suspected of throwing that year’s World Series, Major League Baseball appointed its first Commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who would use his position rid baseball of anyone he suspected of being a bad element. In March of 1921, Landis declared all eight “Black Sox” permanently barred from baseball, even before the completion of their trial, which surprisingly found them not guilty of fixing the 1919 Series. On April 7 1921, a week before opening day, Landis ruled Kauff also ineligible to play, and stuck to his decision a month later when Kauff was acquitted in his car theft trial. At the age 31, with a career batting average of .311, Benny Kauff was out of baseball forever. To this day, Judge Landis’s ruling is still one of great injustices in the annals of sports history. Not only was Kauff never found guilty of any crime, but the matter itself happened away from the diamond, and wasn’t of any consequence in terms of the integrity of the game of baseball. Landis defended his actions, claiming that the verdict in Kauff’s trial was simply a miscarriage of justice.

It didn’t take long for Benny Kauff to become forgotten. The New York Giants went on to win the World Series in 1921 and 1922, adding two more National League pennants in ’23 and ’24. But the big baseball story in the 1920’s was Babe Ruth, who took New York by storm after he was purchased by the Yankees, breaking every conceivable home run record. Relegated to obscurity, a few old-timers were reminded of Kauff’s onetime nickname in 1961 when the “Ty Cobb of the Feds” passed away four months after the real Ty Cobb.

 

 

 

 

50 Years Ago: Stevens-Gomez Packs the Cow Palace

San Francisco’s Cow Palace (or Daly City to be accurate) has played host to virtually every kind of major indoor event. Sports, rock concerts, rodeos, political conventions and circuses have all added to the fabled arena’s history since its opening in 1941. But considering all of big names that have appeared there, it may surprise a few of you to learn that the man who sold out the Cow Palace the most times was professional wrestler Ray Stevens. Starting in 1961 as promoter Roy Shire’s top attraction, Stevens filled the Cow Palace 10 times with crowds north of 15,000, and had drawn houses in excess of 10,000 over 50 times by the time that he left the territory in the early 1970’s. Although the professional wrestling business was very profitable in the Bay Area throughout the 1960’s and ‘70’s, it reached its peek in early 1963 when a trio of Cow Palace meetings between Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez was conducted, attracting close to a combined 50,000 patrons. And while pro-wrestling is an enterprise whose matchups and results are subject to the whims of the promoter, the buildup that led to the Stevens-Gomez bouts was shaped largely by events that were beyond the control of anyone involved with the promotion.

Roy Shire began promoting wrestling in the Bay Area in early 1961, and quickly turned a once dormant region into his own personal goldmine. Shire’s formula was simple but effective…he produced a weekly pro-wrestling television show for KTVU Channel 2, and used it to showcase his talent as well as to publicize matches he was staging all over Northern California, with the monthly Cow Palace show being his crown jewel. But TV aside, the most important factor to Shire’s success was his decision to build his wrestling empire around Ray Stevens. Billed as the “United States Heavyweight Champion,” Stevens represented a unique approach to the theater of professional wrestling-a bad-guy that always wins. Cast as a villain, Ray Stevens did everything in his power to make wrestling fans hate him, and in turn, those fans became willing to shell out money to hopefully see him get beat. Month after month, an all-American good-guy would be brought in as Stevens’ opponent, and each time, Stevens would somehow retain his championship, making the fans even more eager to witness his demise.

Ray Stevens had both the personality and athletic tools to make him one of pro-wrestling’s biggest stars. His tough talking gravel voice, delivered from the side of his mouth, produced memorable outrageous interviews, where Stevens would insult everyone from his opponent and the fans, to the announcer and entire San Francisco area in general. But in the ring, he was even better. Now acknowledged by many as one of the best showmen in history of the business, Stevens knew how to work the crowd, and in the process, almost always produced a great match. One of Ray’s best assets was his ability to make his opponents look good. By allowing himself to be flung all over the mat, and occasionally completely out of the ring, Stevens constantly seemed in danger of losing his title, only to bounce back in the end through some kind of foul deed. The fans, of course, ate it up, and kept coming back hoping someone, whether it be Bill Melby, Wilber Snyder, or Bobo Brazil, would give Stevens the beating he deserved.

On the June 17, 1961 Cow Palace card, while Ray Stevens was tangling with Cowboy Bob Ellis, Pepper Gomez quietly made his debut on the undercard. Hailing from Los Angeles, Gomez was billed as being from Mexico City in order to appeal to the many Latino fans. Within a few months, Gomez established himself as one of the top good-guys in Shire’s stable, making him a logical choice for a lucrative showdown with Stevens. But business was so good during the latter half of 1961, continuing into first part of 1962, that Shire decided to hold off on a Stevens-Gomez match, and instead placed Pepper in semi-main event tag team matches. But whatever long term plans Shire had regarding Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez, they all came crashing down during the first week of July, 1962.

Much to Roy Shire’s chagrin, Ray Stevens took up motorized go-cart racing as a hobby, and days after his successful June 30 title defense against Bearcat Wright, Stevens suffered a broken leg while competing in a race, and was sidelined for three months. Stevens’ accident not only deprived Shire of his number one drawing card, but also left the U.S. title vacant. Shire moved quickly. No sooner had wrestling fans been advised of Stevens’ mishap when it was also announced the Pepper Gomez had won a tournament to determine Stevens’ successor, and now wore the belt. The fact that no such tourney ever really took place didn’t really matter…the show would have to go on without Ray Stevens, at least for awhile.

As the complete opposite of Ray Stevens in both personality and ring style, Pepper Gomez proved to be a popular champion, but not quite the box office draw that Stevens had been. Pepper’s first defense of the title against former Oakland Raider turned wrestler Don Manoukian drew 11,123 customers, a drop from the 15,750 people who watched Stevens battle Wright three weeks earlier. Gomez’s matches against Kinji Shibuya and Waldo Von Erich produced even smaller turnouts, so it was a relieved Roy Shire who welcomed Stevens back on October 13 to wrestle on the undercard of a title match between Pepper Gomez and The Sheik. Stevens’ return could not have come quickly enough, as the Gomez-Sheik match drew only 6200, by far the smallest Cow Palace gate Shire had ever experienced. Billed as being more than one year in the making, the first ever Stevens-Gomez bout was scheduled for November 10, 1962.

With a sellout looming, Shire knew a decisive victory for either wrestler could kill the golden goose, so in front of 15,450 fans, Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez fought to an unprecedented 60 minute draw. Usually, an inconclusive ending like that would produce an immediate rematch, but Shire decided to hold off for a couple of months, teasing wrestling fans by having Stevens and Gomez wrestle in Cow Palace “co-main events” for two straight shows against other opponents, all while Stevens used his Friday night TV airtime to constantly clamor for another crack at his title. The ploy worked pretty well, as both cards drew more than 12,000 customers. If the publics appetite wasn’t wetted enough, an on air incident pushed the Stevens-Gomez feud to another level.

In his prime, Pepper Gomez was billed as the “man with the cast iron stomach.” To demonstrate the strength of abdominal muscles, Gomez would allow wrestlers to jump off the top rope of the wrestling ring onto his midsection, thus proving his imperviousness to any attack to that part of his body. During a January 1963 addition of Channel 2’s “National All-Star Wrestling,” Stevens asked if he could give jumping on Pepper’s belly a try. Gomez granted Ray’s request, but in typical Steven’s fashion, he landed on Gomez’s throat instead, severely “injuring” Gomez in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers (don’t worry…Stevens was an expert at that maneuver, and could pull it off without the slightest harm to his foe). A furious Gomez, recovered by the next broadcast, demanded a chance for revenge, so the second Cow Palace Stevens-Gomez meeting was held on January 26, with a no time limit, no disqualification stipulation. With 16,305 fans looking on, Stevens won back his title when Gomez, trying the same move Stevens had pulled on him on television, missed, and was rendered unable to continue.

The third bout of the Stevens-Gomez series took place on February 23, this time with a special “pin falls” only clause. A record crowd of 17,310 was on hand to witness Stevens successfully retain his U.S. championship in slightly less than 20 minutes. Rumors circulated that the Stevens-Gomez pairing had grown so profitable that promoter Shire was considering an outdoor match at Candlestick Park, but Shire knew that three Cow Palace matches (plus several more throughout the territory) was the logical limit, at least for the time being. Roy Shire’s wrestling promotion was profitable for several more years, and Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez would meet several more times, often in tag matches (in fact, in 1968, Stevens became a “good guy,” and briefly became Gomez’s tag-team partner). But never again did professional wrestling match the popularity it enjoyed from 1961 to early 1963, and now, 50 years later, it’s hard to convince anyone under the age of 45 that there once was a local wrestler named Ray Stevens who, at least among young men, was as well known and popular as any San Francisco 49er or Giant.

 

Alex Smith and the Legend of Wally Pipp

Recently, the biggest story in Bay Area sports has been the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback controversy, as Colin Kaepernick, at least for now, seems to have replaced longtime starter Alex Smith. Although Kaepernick was originally placed in the position due to a concussion Smith suffered against the Rams, his outstanding performance has raised doubts as to whether Smith will get his job back once he has completely recovered. Alex Smith’s dilemma has evoked the inevitable comparison to the saga of Wally Pipp, who, according to legend, lost his job as the New York Yankees starting first-baseman in 1925 when he asked for a day off due to a headache. Those familiar with the story know what happened next. Pipp’s replacement, Lou Gehrig, proved to be Pipp’s superior, and began a streak of playing in 2130 straight games, while Pipp never started again for the Yankees.

So, how much of a parallel is there between Smith’s situation and Pipp’s? One big difference is that Smith was felled by a legitimate injury, while, according to the legend, Pipp’s removal from the Yankee lineup was voluntary, although not intended to be permanent. It was June 2, 1925 when Wally Pipp supposedly approached Yankee manager Miller Huggins, and, citing dizzy-spells, requested a day of rest. Huggins granted Pipp’s request, and gave Lou Gehrig his first start of the season at first-base. Gehrig collected three hits that day, and remained the Yankees’ first-baseman for the next 14 years. In losing his job, Wally Pipp became the poster boy for individuals outshone by their replacements, and the key character in what is now a cautionary tale describing what can happen to those placing themselves in that position. A Wally Pipp-like situation can happen anywhere: business, politics, entertainment and other sports besides baseball. But instead of asking if Alex Smith’s present plight matches that of Wally Pipp, the real question should be how much truth is there in the Pipp story? As with many sports legends, much of the Pipp tale is a myth.

In June of 1925, the New York Yankees were struggling through what would eventually be the teams’ only losing season between 1919 and 1964. Babe Ruth had been stricken ill during spring training, and his slow recovery seemed to affect the entire ballclub. Going into the June 2 game with the Washington Senators, the Yanks had lost five games in a row, and manager Miller Huggins felt he needed to shake things up. Wally Pipp, the regular first-baseman, was marred in an 11 for his last 68 slump, so Huggins benched him in favor of backup Lou Gehrig, who had only 24 at bats going into the Tuesday afternoon Yankee Stadium contest. Gehrig responded with three hits, as New York defeated Washington 8-5, thanks largely to a pair of homers by Bob Meusel. None of the newspapers of the day mentioned anything about Pipp having a headache, although one should consider that no one in June of 1925 knew that Gehrig entering the Yankee starting lineup would prove to be a historic event. But if it was Pipp’s decision to sit-out the June 2nd game, what would explain his absence over the following day, or the fact that he only appeared in 20 more games in 1925, managing only one hit in 14 at bats? It seems obvious that it was Huggins who made the switch, which turned out to be the right one…Gehrig become one of the best hitting first-baseman in MBL history, while Pipp was traded to Cincinnati after the 1925 season, and finished out his career with the Reds. Since it appears the Pipp/headache is false, how and when did the story start?

On July 2, 1925, one month after losing his starting position, Wally Pipp was struck by a pitch while taking batting practice, resulting in a serious concussion. Years later, as Gehrig’s consecutive game streak reached record numbers, some sportswriters, investigating the origin of the streak, began to confuse Pipp’s benching and batting practice mishap as occurring the same day. Pipp himself, either suffering from poor memory or large ego, began suggesting his spot in the lineup was lost due to injury rather than giving way to a better man. Of course, the idea that Pipp chose to sit-out the game that launched Lou Gehrig’s career did give the event a sense of irony, which is probably why Hollywood went with that version of the story, when Lou Gehrig’s life story made it to the screen in 1942, one year after Gehrig’s death. In “Pride of the Yankees,” which featured Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, the Wally Pipp/headache scenario was reenacted by actors George McDonald (Pipp) and Ernie Adams (Miller Huggins), thus cementing the legend forever. As someone once said, when legend becomes fact, print the legend.

We don’t know how the Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick saga will turn out. I’ll go out on a limb right now and predict that Kaepernick will not start at quarterback every game for 14 straight years, and Alex Smith will not quietly fade away. But whatever ends up happening, we should all reflect on the real lesson that Wally Pipp’s story teaches us…none of us are irreplaceable, and sadly, after we’re gone, life will surely go on without us.

 

50 Years Ago: Sonny Liston Becomes Champ

Before there was a Mike Tyson, there was Sonny Liston. A quarter-century before “Iron Mike” became an MTV Generation icon, another heavyweight fighter was striking fear into opponents and fans alike. As we mark the 50th anniversary of Sonny Liston’s first-round knockout of Floyd Patterson to win the World’s Heavyweight Championship, it’s easy to draw parallels between Liston and Mike Tyson, and, indeed, there are some similarities, but a closer look at the two men reveal vast differences…more on that later.

There are several mysteries surrounding the life of Sonny Liston, beginning with his birth. Although Charles L. “Sonny’ Liston was officially listed as being born on May 8, 1932 in Sand Slough, Arkansas, there are no records anywhere that can back that up. Although the 1940 Census listed him as being born in 1929 or 1930, Liston insisted the 1932 date was correct, but it’s probable that Sonny didn’t know his exact age. What we do know is that Liston was one of 25 children, and endured a very harsh childhood, devoid of any schooling, but filled with regular whippings at the hands of his father, Tobe Liston. Sonny was left behind when his mother moved to St Louis, taking only a few of her children with her, but Sonny, at about age 13, was able to locate her after running away from his father.. Within a few years, Liston was pursuing a life of crime, engaging in a series of smalltime armed robberies and petty thefts. In 1950, after being arrested for knocking over two gas stations and a diner, Sonny was convicted on two counts of first-degree robbery and sentenced to five years at Missouri State Penitentiary. It was during his prison stretch that Liston took up boxing, where he showed an almost immediate aptitude. Paroled in 1952 and after a brief but successful amateur career, Liston made his professional debut on September 2, 1953, knocking out Don Smith in one round in St Louis. Liston showed great promise in the heavyweight division, winning 14 of his first 15 bouts, but unfortunately, Sonny was still getting in trouble with the authorities. In May of 1956, Liston was charged with injuring a police officer, leading to another six month stay in the “Big House,” and his suspension from the ring during all of 1957.

Although boxing in the 1950’s is fondly remembered by many as the era of Rocky Marciano and “Sugar” Ray Robinson, the truth is that the sport was dominated by two forces…television and organized crime. During the early days of television, all of the major networks turned to boxing as an easy source of primetime programming. Mob figures, already deeply entrenched in the sport, loved the revenue that TV was injecting into the sport, and began to tighten the grip they already enjoyed. Fixed fights, crooked judging and manipulated ratings were commonplace throughout the decade, and the man most responsible for it all was crime-boss Frankie Carbo, who was known behind the scenes as boxing’s “shadow commissioner.” Although an organization known as the International Boxing Commission supposedly was the major governing body, it was Carbo who often made the key decisions in terms of which fighters would get title shots, who would get television exposure, and how the money would be divided among the many hands in the till. When Sonny Liston resumed his boxing career in 1958, Carbo and his partner Blinky Palmero obtained a controlling interest in Liston, although their names were never to be found in any paperwork. Now connected, Liston’s bouts began appearing on television, and Sonny made the most of the opportunity, defeating one heavyweight after another. By this time, Sonny Liston started to establish his signature persona as a thuggish brute whose pre-fight stare down was enough to make some opponents want to leave the ring before the opening bell. At 6’1, 215 lbs, Sonny was not only among the hardest punchers in the heavyweight division, but was also a skilled boxer, owning one of the best left-jabs in boxing history. By 1961, after beating top contenders Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley and Eddie Machen, Liston was rated number one among heavyweight contenders, and considered the logical man to get a shot at Floyd Patterson’s title. But getting Patterson into the ring would not prove easy.

Fifty years ago, boxing’s World Heavyweight Championship was considered the richest prize in sports, and many felt Sonny Liston’s criminal background and underworld ties made him unworthy at a chance at the title. Various boxing commissions, civic groups and even former champion Jack Dempsey came out against a Liston-Patterson fight. Even more against the bout was Cus D’Amato, Patterson’s manager, who knew a fight with Liston could result in Floyd losing the title. But eventually, the potential amount of money the fight would generate became too high to ignore, and finally, on September 25, 1962, Sonny Liston met in the ring at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

Liston was a slight favorite going into his fight with Patterson, but soon after the opening bell it was apparent that Sonny’s 25 lb weight advantage was too much for Floyd. With Patterson unable to tie Liston up in the clinches, Sonny was able to pound away at will whenever the two fighters were locked up. Midway through the opening round, Patterson was already a beaten man, clinging to the middle strand of the ropes, trying to stay on his feet. A three-punch combination by Liston ended with a left-hook that lifted Patterson off of his feet, and dropped him to the canvas. At 2:06 in round one, Sonny Liston was the new champion.

Sonny Liston wearing the heavyweight crown was unsettling to a lot of people. Famed sportswriter Jim Murray described it as like waking up on Christmas morning and finding a bat hanging from the tree. But Sonny tried to change that, and for the next year, did his best to soften his image by sitting down for a series of friendly interviews on various TV shows, and even appearing on Ed Sullivan, where he skipped rope accompanied by a recording of “Night Train.” Sonny Liston, at times, revealed a sly sense of humor and a soft side, but unfortunately continued to associate with shady characters, and more than once had run-ins with the authorities. A rematch with Floyd Patterson in July 1963 resulted in another first round win for Sonny, and by now, boxing experts were beginning to place Sonny among the top heavyweights of all time. It seemed that, despite his failings, Sonny Liston was there to stay.

Sonny Liston’s aura of invincibility was short-lived. On February 25, 1964, Liston, a 7-1 favorite, was beaten by Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in Miami Beach. Sonny, after being outfought for six rounds, quit on his stool claiming an injured shoulder. The Ali-Liston rematch in May, 1965, saw Sonny being counted out in the first round, after Ali may or may not have hit him with a right hand. The suspicious endings of both fights permanently removed Liston from the heavyweight title picture, although Sonny started a comeback in 1966, that resulted in 14 straight wins, mostly against non-entities. In December, 1969, Sonny Liston suffered a ninth round knockout at the hands of Leotis Martin, ending any chance of a title bout. Sonny fought once more, traveling to New Jersey, where he defeated Chuck Wepner in June, 1970. Sonny then returned home to Las Vegas, where he was reported spending much of his spare time with undesirables. On January 5, 1971, Sonny’s lifeless body was discovered in his bedroom by his wife Geraldine, who had returned from a trip…he may have been dead for a week. Although officially ruled as lung congestion and heart failure, rumors persist to this day that Sonny Liston may have been murdered.

As stated earlier, the rise and fall of Mike Tyson invited inevitable comparisons to Sonny Liston. Both were fearsome men, who relied on intimidation as much as punching power…both spent time in prison, and both were considered unbeatable until flaws were discovered in their abilities and character. But I see more differences than similarities. Mike Tyson was a New York City boy, Liston from rural Arkansas. Mike Tyson was the ultimate man-child with the little boy voice, while Sonny was the strong, silent type. Tyson won his world title at the age of 20, while Liston may have been well into his 30’s before getting his chance. Tyson beat up parking-lot attendants, waiters, and hotel clerks…Liston beat up cops. But the biggest difference may well be how their lives turned out. Tyson, while no scholar, is a student of boxing history. Against all odds, Tyson might have learned enough to reach middle-age. Sadly, Sonny Liston never got that chance.

 

What Became of Roller Derby?

As we’ve stated before, professional sports are a business. History is littered with unprofitable sporting events, teams that have folded, and entire leagues that have disappeared. But in the case of Roller Derby, we have an entire sport that has practically vanished from the mainstream. Now relegated to that of a fringe sport, Roller Derby was once a thriving enterprise, selling out arenas coast to coast and attracting millions of regular viewers by way of television. The demise of Roller Derby was felt the hardest in Northern California, as the San Francisco area was the epicenter of the sport in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, serving as the home base of Roller Derby’s most fabled team, the Bay Bombers. There probably is no easy answer why “the derby” faded away, but I think it’s worth looking into.

Conceived in the mid-1930’s, Roller Derby was the brainchild of Leo Seltzer, a motion picture theater operator, turned promoter. Wanting to capitalize on the popularity of roller skating, Seltzer’s initial concept, which he trademarked as Roller Derby, was a series of marathon skating races involving teams comprised of men and women couples. Twenty thousand spectators crowded into the Chicago Coliseum on August 13, 1935, to watch the first “Transcontinental Roller Derby,” an event with which Seltzer planned to tour the country. Business eventually cooled off, until one night in Miami, when famed sportswriter Damon Runyan provided Seltzer with the germ of a great idea. Runyan pointed out to Seltzer that the best part of his races were when skaters collided into each other, often resulting in entertaining chaos. To increase skater contact, Seltzer immediately began to tinker with his creation, until he came up an entirely new sport. Roller Derby was now a contest between two teams with five skaters each, moving around a banked track in the same direction. Both teams would designate one skater as a “jammer”, whose job would be to roll ahead of the pack, and be awarded a point for every opposition skater he/she could pass. The rest of the skaters would physically be engaged with each other, bumping opponents with shoulders, knees and elbows, attempting to either allow their fellow jammer to score, or to prevent the other team’s jammer from doing so…or something like that. Each team would have men and women units, alternating the eight, 12 minute periods that made up a match. By 1939, Leo Seltzer had four pairs of teams traveling the country, going town to town much like the circus.

It was in its earliest days that Roller Derby developed some its most familiar characteristics. Although Roller Derby was a barnstorming sport, each contest would include a “home” team, even if that evening’s crowd had never heard of them before. The other team would always be billed from elsewhere, typically New York or Chicago, thus giving fans a rooting interest. The other important element had to do with the legitimacy of the games themselves. Those involved with the sport understood that if Roller Derby was played the way it was drawn up, injuries would soon decimate the rooster. Also, skaters soon realized that fans loved spectacular falls, intense contact and frequent fights…plus it didn’t hurt if the games were close enough to usually be decided in the final minutes. To Seltzer’s chagrin, Roller Derby became like professional wrestling, more show than contest.

By 1941, Roller Derby had built a modest, blue-collar following, but World War II dealt a crushing blow to the business, as many of the skaters enlisted in the military, and fuel rationing made the constant travel difficult. Roller Derby staggered through the war years, but got its biggest shot in the arm yet, with the development of television. Eager to fill up airtime, networks started showing Roller Derby in 1948, with CBS televising matches from the 69th Regiment Armory four nights a week. The exposure on TV jump-started interest in the sport, and soon Roller Derby began attracting large crowds for many of its live events, including a five-day run at New York’s Madison Square Garden that saw Roller Derby draw over 55,000 fans. Leo Seltzer sought to make his sport more like a mainstream team sport, and so by 1949 he formed the National Roller Derby League (NRDL), which had six teams, a regular schedule, and standings, which would appear in many newspapers. Skaters like Ken Monte, Bert Wall and Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn were pulling down between $200 and $250 a week, performing for such teams as the New York Chiefs, Chicago Westerners, and the Jersey Jolters. Like boxing and pro-wrestling, Roller Derby’s action was confined to a small area, which made it easy for early television’s primitive cameras to follow.

Unfortunately, network television’s love affair with Roller Derby was short-lived, as frequent showings began to saturate fan interest, and by the early 1950’s, Roller Derby was only being shown on a handful of independent stations. Crowds had become so small, that Seltzer more or less abandoned the East Coast altogether, and in 1954, moved his entire operation to the Bay Area, founding the San Francisco Bay Bombers in the process. Business continued to fall off, and so in 1958, Leo Seltzer turned Roller Derby over to his son Jerry. One of Jerry’s first moves was a crucial one…he worked out a deal with the brand new independent television station, KTVU, having the Bomber’s matches carried on a weekly basis. In addition to having Roller Derby exposed to Northern California TV audiences, the younger Seltzer also was able to put together a syndication package that eventually was picked up by over 100 stations across the country…Roller Derby was back in business.

Jerry Seltzer’s formula was a winning one. The Bay Bombers became, more or less, the permanent home team, playing a nine month schedule against teams like the Midwest Pioneers, the New England Braves and the Northwest Cardinals. Every Sunday night, KTVU would broadcast a game from Kezar Pavilion, using the telecast to promote upcoming matches held throughout the region, including San Jose, Sacramento, Stockton and Richmond. Bomber stars Charlie O’Connell and Joanie Weston became household names throughout the Bay Area, as did a few of their many opponents, including Bob Woodberry, John “Porky” Parker, and Roller Derby’s all-time bad-girl, Ann Calvello. Once a month, a huge match would be skated at the Cow Palace, with bloody halftime “match Races” used to swell the crowd count beyond 10,000. After completing an April-December season, Roller Derby would barnstorm the country for three months, taking advantage of whatever interest might have been generated by the syndicated broadcasts. Seltzer and Roller Derby’s new found success prompted competition, and in 1961, a new enterprise called Roller Games (“Roller Derby” is a trademarked term) was founded, with an outfit known as the L.A. T-Birds becoming the darling of a league that was a much more theatrical version of what Roller Derby had become. (“Roller Games” had a cult following in the Bay Area, with syndicated matches being shown on KBHK 44. Jim Trotter, Ronnie Rains and Lester Quarles were the main stars of what was more soap opera than sports).

The early 1970’s were a great time for Roller Derby. An outdoor match at the Oakland Coliseum between the Bay Bombers and Northeast Braves on July 4, 1970 drew 28,314, and that figure was topped the following year, when the Bombers attracted 34,418 at the same venue. In 1972, an interleague match between the Derby’s Midwest Pioneers and Roller Games’ L.A. T-Birds was arranged at Chicago’s Comiskey, drawing a record 50,118 fans. But soon after Roller Derby seemed to reach unprecedented heights, everything fell apart. Attempts to grow the sport by developing new “home” teams across the country failed, and in late 1973, citing increasing fuel costs and other growing expenses, Jerry Seltzer pulled the plug, and the Bay Bombers, along with Roller Derby as we knew it, disappeared.

Roller Games continued for a few years, but its pro-wrestling like presentation was never appreciated by hardcore Roller Derby fans, and that too was gone by the mid 1970’s. Attempts to revive Roller Derby have been numerous since its demise, occasionally bringing back the Bay Bomber name along with a handful of aging stars, each time garnering little success. In 1986, ESPN televised a tournament held by the International Roller Skating League, and it was hoped that the IRSL might repeat the success the World Wrestling Federation was experiencing at that time, but no long term TV contract was forthcoming, and the IRSL was shut down in 1987. Roller Derby continues to exist to this day, but with no television exposure, it’s only a tiny fragment of what it once was.

So why did Roller Derby all but die out? My theory is that the expansion of mainstream sports on both network and cable television has left very room for anything else. Roller Derby thrived when the San Francisco Giants only did limited television, and the 49ers would only be seen when on the road. With NBA, NHL dominating cable sports channels during the winter, and an increasing number of college games being shown as well, Roller Derby lost whatever niche it once had. But all is not lost. When jogging on the Foster City levy, I often see people of all ages rolling along on skates. If I’m patient and observant, I’ll spot an occasional collision, and if I’m lucky, a fight will sometimes break out.

1962 San Francisco Giants…great year, great team

As the 2012 Major League Baseball season heads into its final two months, there is every indication that the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers may be heading towards another classic battle for the National League West title. This provides a perfect segue for the Daley Planet to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the 1962 MLB season, which featured one of the most exciting pennant chases in National League history, and truly one of the high points in the 120 plus years of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry. It’s always been my contention that the thrilling finish to the 1962 regular season, and its subsequent heart-stopping three game Giants-Dodger playoff, has always overshadowed the entirety of the ’62 campaign. A Major League Baseball season is a six month, 162 game journey, whose destination is often not determined until the completion. Simply put, the 1962 San Francisco Giants were one of the best teams in franchise history. This edition of the Daley Planet will center on the Giants’ 1962 ballclub as a whole, focusing on the season’s closing days in a late September issue.

Allow me to add a personal note. It was in 1962 that I first started following baseball on a day by day basis, and my affection for that year’s Giants remains as strong today as it was 50 years ago. Like everyone else, I experienced the ’62 season by way of the technology of the era…mostly through newspapers, radio and a limited amount of television. Only nine regular season Giants games were televised in 1962 (the road games against L.A.) and very little game footage was featured on any of the 15 minute local TV news broadcasts of the day. Most of my visual memories of 1962 MLB are those that I created in my mind as I listened to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons describe the action from all of those legendary locales, including Forbes Field, Busch Stadium, Wrigley Field and Connie Mack Stadium on radio station KSFO.

At first glance, one might assume that it was the presence of five future Hall of Fame players that made the 1962 San Francisco Giants a great team, but a closer look reveals a solid ballclub, top to bottom. Willie Mays, as one would suspect, was the biggest factor, as the “Say Hey Kid” hit 49 home runs, while driving in 141 runs and posting a .304 batting average. Mays was joined in the outfield by Harvey Kuenn and Felipe Alou, who batted .304 and .316 respectively. Orlando Cepeda belted 35 home runs and knocked in 114 runs, while shortstop Jose Pagan (.259) and second baseman Chuck Hiller (.276) were a productive double-play combination. Third baseman Jim Davenport won the National League Gold Glove award, and put up career highs in home runs (14) and batting average (.297). Catchers Tom Haller and Ed Bailey combined for 35 homers and 100 RBI’s. Still a year away from his breakout season, Willie McCovey smacked 20 home runs in just 229 at bats.

The Giants 1962 pitching staff might not have been the all-time San Francisco best, but it certainly was the most successful. The four man rotation of Jack Sanford, Billy O’Dell, Juan Marichal and Billy Pierce combined for 77 wins with 62 complete games. Jack Sanford had a career year, posting a 24-7 record, while O’Dell went 19-14, his personal high for wins. Juan Marichal was solid at 18-11, but the most pleasant surprise was Billy Pierce, the 35 year old left-hander who came to the Giants as part of a six player trade with the Chicago White Sox. Playing in his 17th big-league season, Pierce finished 1962 with a 16-6 mark, including a 12-0 record at Candlestick Park. The Giants bullpen was anchored by Stu Miller, who led the team in appearances (59) and saves (19). Pitching in the National League was no picnic in 1962, as Frank Robinson (Reds), Ernie Banks (Cubs), Hank Aaron (Braves), and Roberto Clemente (Pirates) were all at or near their prime…even 41 year old Stan Musial was still dangerous, hitting .330.

Despite a powerhouse lineup, skipper Alvin Dark was not a push button manager, as the one time major league shortstop was a strategic innovator, utilizing the suicide-squeeze, the double-switch, and always having the Candlestick infield watered down wherever the speedy Dodgers were in town. In 1962, the National League was comprised of 10 teams, with no sub-divisions, playoff system or wildcard berths. Winning the pennant meant finishing ahead of nine other teams. The 1962 Giants ended up with 103 wins, and they would need every one of them, thanks to an unbelievably great performance by that team from L.A.

The Giants started fast in 1962, opening the season with a 6-0 win over the Milwaukee Braves, with Willie Mays blasting a home run of off Warren Spahn in his first at bat, while Juan Marichal threw a 3 hitter. Thanks in part to a 10 game winning streak that started in late- April, San Francisco took sole possession of first-place on April 30, and were 4 ½ games ahead of Los Angeles when two teams met on May 21 at brand new Dodger Stadium, for the first contest of a two game series. Broadcast on KTVU Channel 2, these were the first two Giant-Dodger telecasts I ever watched, and unfortunately, I didn’t like what I saw. Behind the hitting of Tommy Davis (who homered in both games) and some strong pitching from Sandy Koufax and Stan Williams, the Giants were swept, 8-1 and 5-1. This began an 11 game winning streak for Los Angeles, and by June 1, the Giants and Dodgers were tied at the top of the National League at 36-15.

The Dodgers edged ahead of the Giants on June 8, but first place would change hands six more times over the next month before the Dodgers would take firm control of the race in mid-July. For the Giants, the low point of the summer happened on July 29 when the Dodgers beat the Giants in L.A. 11-1, completing a three game sweep, extending their first place lead to 4 games. Trailing by 5 ½ games on August 10, the Giants fought their way back into the race by beating the Dodgers three straight at Candlestick, a series highlighted by a 3 run homer hit by Willie McCovey off of Don Drysdale to win the second game. The Dodgers’ margin stood at 3 ½ games on September 3 when the Giants made their final 1962 scheduled visit to Dodger Stadium to begin a four game series. With Willie Mays leading the way with a home run in the first game, and two runs knocked in during the third game, the Giants made it 3 out of 4 when Harvey Kuenn unloaded the bases with double in the 9th inning of fourth game, moving San Francisco just 1 ½ games behind L.A. The next day, Jack Sanford won his 15th straight decision, as the Giants beat the Cubs 6-5 at Candlestick, pulling within a game of L.A., as the Dodgers were clobbered 10-1 by the Pirates. The Dodgers hovered one-half game in front of the Giants for five days, until the Giants finally blinked, losing six straight games in mid-September, including a horrendous four game lacing at Forbes Field at the hands of the Pirates. By September 22, the Dodgers were 4 games in front of the Giants with only seven games left in the regular season. Truly, the Giants would need to win most of their remaining games, while relying on some help from the Dodgers final two opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Colt .45’s…Stay Tuned.

Note: In 1962, the National League added the New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45’s to the league, expanding the schedule to 162 games. The Giants were 14-4 against the Mets and 11-7 versus the Colt .45’s. The Dodgers were 12-6 against Houston and 16-2 versus the Mets.

Trivia: 1962 was the final year of Major League Baseball’s four year experiment of holding two All-Star games (the second game was used to raise funds for the player’s pension plan). The concept was abandoned after 1962, as it was determined that two games watered down the impact of the event. Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou and Jim Davenport all saw action in the first All-Star Game, while the same group, sans Alou, made the squad for the second summer classic. It’s amazing that Jack Sanford, who was 13-6 by the time of the second game, was not selected.

No products found.