Sunday, December 29, 2013

1942 Nicknames

Whenever New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy asked for “Lefty” to pitch in 1942, two players jumped up and started throwing. When he summoned “Red,” two more responded. And when he sought his “Buddy,” two other Yankees acknowledged his call.

The Yankees, while a dominating dynasty back then, were a little weak in the nickname game. At least Yanks' pitchers Vernon “Lefty” Gomez and Marius “Lefty” Russo, third baseman Robert “Red” Rolfe and pitcher Charles “Red” Ruffing and catcher Warren “Buddy” Rosar and first baseman John “Buddy” Hassett all thought so.

Sure, the “Yankee Clipper” was a classic nickname for Joe DiMaggio and Joseph “Flash” Gorden was a given, but c'mon, three sets of duplicated names?

One of the quirky, fun things the APBA company does is list players' nicknames on the cards it issues each season. So, while replayers are rolling the games, they are also gleaning yet another tidbit of information from whatever season they are playing.

I've seen some odd nicknames in the 1942 baseball season that I'm nearing completion.

For example, although Washington is the capital of the U.S., the bastion of the development of our country, the Senators embraced a “Hee Haw” hillbilly mentality in its nicknamed players. On the mound, there was William “Goober” Zuber and Hardin “Li'l Abner” Cathey. In New York, the most advanced city in the league at that time, the Giants followed suit with Clifford “Mountain Music” Melton and William “Fiddler Bill” McGee, both pitchers.

Animals reigned as well. John “Big Cat” Mize prowled first base for the Giants and Harry “The Horse” Danning galloped behind the plate for New York's National League team. Smaller animals were also on the field as Lamar “Skeeter” Newsome flitted around like a mosquito on third base for the Red Sox and William “Bullfrog” Dietrich jumped on the mound for the White Sox.

Apparently size was in issue in St. Louis. At times in 1942, the Browns' battery sounded like it needed a Jenny Craig, Inc., nutritional pep talk when Frank “Porky” Biscan threw to catcher Franklin “Blimp” Hayes. But obesity is only in the eye of the beholder. Each player weighed in at a less-than-portly 190 pounds. By comparison today, Prince Fielder, the Texas Rangers first baseman, weighs in at 275 and no one is calling him “Chubby.” But they did call Cleveland Indians pitcher Alfred “Chubby” Dean such in 1942 since he was packing a hefty 181 pounds.

On the other side of the scale was Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, the Dodger's shortstop, who, at 5-10 and 162 pounds, was only dwarfed that season by the Philadelphia outfielder Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner who stood at 5-1 and weighed 151 pounds.

Two of the players in the APBA game shared the odd nickname “Bear Tracks.” Cubs pitcher John Schmitz earned the name for his size 14 shoes and his lumbering way of walking to the pitching mound. The Boston Braves' pitcher Alva Javery also carried that nickname. I couldn't find any information on why he had that name, but he did lead the National League in 1942 with 37 starts. He was also born on June 5, 1918 — a year to the day after my father was born.

The Cardinals had a creative infield. As well as helping anchor the St. Louis team to a World Series title over the two Lefties, Reds and Buddies in New York, they all had creative names. There was the perfectly-named John “Hippity” Hopp at first, the unsettling Frank “Creepy” Crespi at second, Martin “Slats” Marion at short and George “Whitey” Kurowski at third

Their rivals, the Chicago Cubs, showed a cynical sense of humor when naming their players. Outfield William “Swish” Nicholson was given his title for his mighty swing which, sadly, often failed to connect with the ball. He led the league in strikeouts with 83 in 1947 and in 1942, the year I'm doing, he flailed out 80 times. However, in confliction to his nickname, Nicholson led the National League twice in home runs and is only one of six players ever to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded.

The Cubs also named their outfielder Louis Novikoff the “Mad Russian.” Novikoff hailed from the Soviet town of Glendale, Ariz. Backup Cubs' catcher Robert “Grump” Scheffing was named so because of his sour countenance — probably for being the backup Cubs catcher. Later, when he took over as Chicago's manager, his mood worsened. He was then known as “Grumpy.”

But, as is the case in most stories, there's a happy ending. When Scheffing left the field and became a radio broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers, an umpire hollered at him, “Hello, Grumpy.”

“No more,” he called back, according to an April 12, 1964, story in the Toledo Blade that highlighted his move to the radio. “Just call me Smilin' Bob.” Little did Scheffing know that 35 years later his nickname would become the name of the guy touting Enzyte, the enhancement drug.

So, APBA fans, check out those nicknames on the players' cards and learn yet a bit more of the seasons you're replaying. There's hillbillies and large people. There's lions and tigers and bear tracks. And if you get a burning desire for more knowledge, simply call on the 1942 Cincinnati Reds' reliever to put it out. I'm sure Joseph “Fireman” Beggs can help.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

APBA Claus

Even when I was a teenager and I knew the story of Santa Claus, my parents continued to label the big presents each Christmas as those from the jolly guy. Maybe it was their northeastern upbringing to remain humble, divert attention and not take credit for everything.

It didn't matter to me. I knew the Santa gift would always be the best present of the year. The headliner, if you will.

And when I got my first APBA gift — the 1976 football game — Santa's name was emblazoned upon the To and From tag stuck on the present.

So began the love affair I have with this game now 36 years later.

Gone now in my adult world is the magic of Santa leaving gifts. Gone, even, is the Christmas tree that I used to put up in my house for the season. I work at my newspaper job on the holiday, and will do so again this year, to avoid sitting home alone on the day reserved for families and gift-giving and over-eating and noise.

But the magic of the APBA game will always remain.

When I got that football game in 1977, it was the last gift my parents had for me that Christmas. My father slid it from beneath the tree, handing it to me almost sacredly, as a monk would present some handwritten script he had completed after 30 years in seclusion. It was a heavy gift; those who play the football game know this. The game contained nearly 1,000 cards of players. It was hefty.

I opened it up and spread it out across the living room floor. Later, I retired to my bedroom and stayed up into the early morning hours learning the intricacies of the game, rolling the dice, checking numbers on the players' cards and practicing playing. Eventually, I played a game and became addicted to the magic of the game.

Twenty-one years later, I captured that magic again, albeit in a more serene, older way. Most people begin their APBA lives with the baseball contest. I started with football and then migrated to basketball and even hockey before getting into baseball. I did it backwards.

In 1998, I ordered the game. Both my parents were deceased and my wife, while accepting my sports addiction, did not enable it by buying me the games. There would not be a game from Santa under the tree for me. So, I ordered the game and waited.

A week or so before Christmas, my wife and I went to Memphis to shop. She dropped in some outlet mall toy store to find coloring books for the grandkids and I spotted an APBA baseball game on a shelf. I knew my order for the full set would arrive soon, but the Santa magic took hold of me. I grabbed the game and paid the $5 for it. It contained only three teams, but I reasoned I would practice playing that set so I could work out the kinks before the real game came in.

I got the full 1998 season on Dec. 28 and began playing it immediately. I've not stopped since, rolling seven full seasons, about half of the 1925 season and 80 percent of the 1942 season I'm on now. It's a good game, especially to last this long in my life.

There won't be a Santa at my house this year. But the game remains in my world and it continues to bring the magic that I first experienced as a youngster when Santa was delivering the good stuff.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hope in a Vikings' Game

As my friend's wife languished in the Intensive Care Unit, I watched the constant life and death dramas unfold in the nearby waiting room. Families huddled around tables. A doctor whispered information. People cried.

It was the same routine I had witnessed years ago when my own wife was dealing with kidney failure. I recognized the faces; the faces of jubilation, of hope, of sorrow and of loss. It's a morality play of types I've seen repeated over and over in my past.

So, when the going got rough enough to bring back the memories, and things turned too close to home, I turned to sports, as usual.

Mounted on the wall was a small television set that was tuned to the Minnesota-Baltimore football game. Having grown up in northern Minnesota, I've been a Vikings fan since I could understand the sport. I lived through the glory days of Bud Grant and the four Super Bowls, the Purple People Eaters, Fran Tarkington and Chuck Foreman. I watched them practice in the mid 1960s on the college football field where my father taught; I had a Roy Winston No. 60 jersey as a kid.

I also lived through the second heydays of the 1990s and 2000s and Brad Johnson and Brett Favre. And I suffered through the dismal years, including this season.

All that to say the Vikings' game was a great distraction to the trauma I was witnessing in that waiting room.

My friend's wife had some kidney issues of her own and her autoimmune system had been weakened. A bacterial infection began festering in her lungs earlier that week and within 48 hours, she was on a ventilator and in poor shape. My friend went into that stage where he looked for any signs of hope, signs that, in a normal setting would seem insane. When doctors took 6 pounds of fluid from her lungs, rather than the 8 pounds they had done earlier, it seemed a positive sign. A lung specialist said she was retaining 100 percent of the oxygen pumped into her via the tube —again, some faint hope to cling upon.

But there was also the bad. Once, doctors told my friend that his wife's kidneys were failing. Her lungs were also filling fast with fluid and they were concerned. It was the roller coaster of health those in the Intensive Care Unit become accustomed to.

I realized the game I was watching that day mirrored the situation with my friend's wife's health. The Vikings took the lead late in the game on a 41-yard run. Baltimore responded with a kickoff return for a touchdown. Matt Cassell then threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to give the Vikes back their lead.

But with 4 seconds left in the game, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco hit Marlon Brown for 9 yards and the win, 29-26. The game, too, was a roller coaster of emotions. When Flacco threw that last touchdown pass, I blurted out a bad word and kicked the air in frustration. The game was insignificant to the others in that room who were clinging on to whatever hope they could summon. But to me, at that point, it was key.

Was it insensitive to be emotionally attached to a football game in that ICU waiting room? Probably. Was it necessary I do so? I'm sure.

When the game ended on that snowy field in Baltimore Sunday, most people moved on with their lives. Even the players probably moved on. But for me, someone who has seen hope leave a lot of times, the game provided a respite of the fear and sorrow I was seeing and remembering of my own. And, even though the Vikings eventually lost, there was hope. Dammit, there was hope.

UPDATE: On Dec. 18, my friend's wife passed away after 16 days in  a coma in Intensive Care. She had a MRSA infection that wreaked havoc on her within 48 hours of her feeling bad. Hope left and now we deal with loss.