Day Baseball Died
"What a difference a year makes." We're all familiar with the phrase. It's an adage that came to my mind on the seventh day of August, 2007 when the embattled Barry Bonds broke the all-time home run record held for over three decades by Henry Aaron. To be more specific, What a difference thirty-three years makes.
Turn back the clock. I was 11 years old when 40 year old Henry Aaron connected with an Al Downing fastball, launching it into the Brave's bullpen at Atlanta's Fulton-County Stadium. The year was 1974. America, baseball, apple pie, Chevrolet.
Turn the clock forward to August, 2007. 43 year old Barry Bonds blasts an 86 mile per hour fastball from Washington National's pitcher Mike Bacsik 435 feet over the right-center field wall of AT&T Park. Step aside Henry; we have a new number one. America, baseball, steroids, scandal. What a difference thirty-three years makes.
I didn't see it. Frankly, like so many others, I didn't care. Even Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball took a pass. Aaron was asleep at the time. Yawn.
Back to 1974. The weeks and days that led up to this historic moment are forever etched in my mind. Aaron was known as "Hammerin' Hank." He just as well could have been called, "Humble Hank." Reared in the south, a victim of racism, Aaron was (and remains) a man of class. He overcame the obstacles of poverty and discrimination to carve a name for himself in the annals of baseball history. Only years removed from Jim Crow and George Wallace, there were those who hated him simply because his skin was too dark. The recipient of death threats, Aaron went about his business and took the high road.
The entire country, if not the world, watched in anticipation as Aaron moved closer and closer to Ruth the Legend. It was the center of conversation in schools, homes, and offices. Each at bat was captured by the cameras. And then the historic day. Who can forget the Pulitzer moment when two fans rushed the field to pat Aaron on the back as he approached third base.
Earlier this year, the Milwaukee Brewers unveiled a memorial to mark the exact spot where the Hall of Famer's last homer, number 755, touched down. A class act on their part. As a friend of mine later teased, perhaps the spot where Bond's last homer lands could be memorialized with a larGge bronze needle as tribute to a new era.
In 1972, Don Mclean's hit song, American Pie, climbed the charts to number one. The song's famous lyrics, "the day the music died," are said to memorialize the tragic plane crash in 1959 that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Of course, we know that music itself didn't die on that day; for some it would just never be the same. When that baseball fell from the sky in San Francisco nearly fifty years later, maybe, just maybe, history will look back on that moment as the day that baseball died. For us purists at least, the game identified with America, mothers and apple pie will never be the same.
Stadium in Buffalo: Hitters Welcome; Pitchers Beware
In the highly regarded SABR publication, MINOR LEAGUE BASBALL STARS, mention is made of the realtationship between ball parts and hitting records. Nicollet Part in Minneapolis and Sulphur Dell in Nashbille were cited, along with the Sacramento partk of more recent vintagte.
There are other parks that could have been mentioned. The one I know best and where many International League hitting records were set was Offerman Stadium (Nee Olympic Park and Bison Stadium) on Michigan Aveneu at Ferry Street in Buffalo, NY, home of the Bisons from 1889 to 1960.
It's birth pangs were hardly auspicious. First of all, it wsa constructed with second-hand lumber that was hauled from an earlier Olympic Park in another part of the city. Secondly, the contractor who did the hauling was not happhy when his $800 bill was not paid. On opening day of 1889 he planted himself at the gate on Michigan Avenue and made it perfectly clear that he was not going to move until he was paid. Few doubted he meant business after seeing the shotgun cradled by his left arm. This novel method of enforcing payment proved highy effective and the disgruntled contractor was paid in full, permiting the Bisons to open their 1889 season on schedule.
Although the marriage of Buffalo baseball with the Micigan Avenue diamond was a shotgun affair, it developed into a long and fruitful union of 72 seasons. The old structure, rebuilt, patched up and added to many times over the years, was finally torn down between the 1923 and 1924 seasons and repaced with a steel and concrete stadium with 14,000 seats. Olympic Park now became Bison Stadium, the name it was to retain until 1935 when it was renamed Offermann Stadium in memory of its long-time president, Frank J. Offermann.
The Buffalo Park was located in a densely populated part of the city's near east side and had no parking facilities whatsovere. Immediatly behond the rightfield wall on Woodlawn Avenue was a row of two-family homes whose upper porches provided an ideal vantage point for watching the games, provided you stayed alert with lefthanded pull-hitters at the plate. The story is told of one Woodlawn Avenue resident whose attachment to baseball, which he had watched for free for many years, continued to the very end with a long home run off the bat of Buzz Arlett of the Baltimore Orioles crashed throug the front window of his house and came to rest a few feet from the casket in which was was laid out.
The leftfield fence, 12 feet high at the beginning but increased to 32 feet in later years, was bounded by the back yards and garages of the houses that fronted on Masters Avenue to the east. Some of these residents erected bootleg bleachers on their garage roofs, attracting many fans who could not afford to pay their way into the park. In deep centerfieild, 400 feet from home plate, the scene was dominated by a large scoreboard that towered 40 feet above the fence and providced a challenging target for International League sluggers over the years; there would be only one to conquer it.
Immediately beyond the home plate portion of the stands was a church. If you were Presbyterian, and so included, you could attend church on Sunday morning and watch the Bisons play in the afternoon, without even crossing the street. The church building, which is still there, bears the scars of mamy foul balls that bounced off its walls over the years.
Offermann Stadium was always known as a hitters' park. Its foul line dimensions (297 feet to right and 321 feet to left) were not nearly so absurd as those at Minneapolis, Nashville, Sacramento, or Baltimore, but what made it a hitters' paradise, particulary if you were rigthanded, was the short distance to left center (346 feet) ane the prevailing wind (or jet stream, as the ballplayers called it) which traditonally helped every ball hit in that direction.
The individual and team batting feats that were performed in the Buffalo park were numerous. Ollie Carnegie, 12 years a Bison, holds the all-time International League records for home runs (258) and runs batted in (1044). While the same thing applied to Billy Webb of the Bisons who hit two homeruns in one inning against Newark in 1925, while George Fisher did the same thing against Jersey City in 1929. On August 4, 1957, shortstop Mike Baxes of the Bisons hit two home runs with the bases full aginst the Havana Sugar Kings--a geat accomplished only four times on the long history of the International Lsague.
But it was a Newark Bear, Bob Seeds, who chose the Buffalo Park to put on what was probably the greatest two-day hitting performance in baseball history. On May 6 and 7, 1938, he hit seven home runs, four of them in successive innings, drove in 17 runs and rolled up an incredible 30 total bases. And then in the ninth inning of the May 7 game, with a chance to add even more to an unbelievable record, he was called out on a 3-2 pitch delivered by a rookie Bioson pitcher named Don Ferris.
Luke Easter, next to Ollie Carnegie as Buffalo's most remembered ballplayer, did on July 14, 1957, what no other player, major, minor, semipro, or Negro League, had been able to do. He hit a low, outside pitch delivered to Bob Kuzava of the Columbus Jets 550 feet over the scoreboard in center field. While this blow is legendary among Buffalo fans, it was not the longest or the hardest ball Luke hit as a Bison. That blow came during the same 1957 season when he fought a high, inside fast ball from Jerry Lane of the Havanaa Sugar Kings and pulled it directly to rightfield, across Woodlawn Avenue, over the houses and into the alley of a house on Emerson Place, the next street south.
The Buffalo Park was the scene of four noteworthy team batting performances, all by the Bisons. The first came on July 13, 1929, when the Bisons set an International League record by making 11 consecutive hits against he Balitmore Orioles. A single by Clayton Sheedy started the string, followed by singles by John Barnes and Jim Cooney, a home run by Buck Elliott, singles by Ollie Sax and Herb Thomas, a double by George Fisher, singles by Hack Miller, Al Moore and Sheedy and a triple by Barnes.
On May 30, 1932, the Bisons put on one of the most devastating doubleheader hitting performances in baseball history beating Toronto 18-1 in the first game, and then compounding the felony by annihilating the Leafs 26-2 in the seven-inning second game. The Bisons failed to score in the first two innings of the first game, but scored every other time they came to bat the rest of the afternoon. In the two games they had 41 hits in 81 at batts, hit eight home runs, one triple and eight doubles. George Detore was six for six in the second game, hitting three home runs and missing a fourth by inches.
The Bisons set another International League record on May 15, 1934, when they hit five home runs in one inning, four of them in succession, in a game agains the Albany Senators. Heinie Mueller led off the second inning against lefty John Milligan by drawing a walk. After a home run by Butch Myers, Link Wasem and Johnny Wilson were retired. Greg Muleavy and Les Mallon then followed with home runs, bringing righthander Art Jones on the scene in relief. He was greeted by home runs four and five by Jack Smith and Bill Regan. What happened next added a tragic footnote to this record performance. Coming to the plate after Regan's homerun was Jake Plummer, a promising young outfielder just called up from the lower minors. The first pitch from Jones caught Plummer flush on the head and knocked him cold. He tried to come back later in the season, but was never the same hitter and soon drifted out of the game.
Ten home runs in one game! That is another International League record set by the Bisons at Offermann Stadium. This time the victims were the Syracuse Chiefs who went to defeat in the first game of a Sunday, June 20, 1948 doubleheader by the football score of 28-11, as some runs were hit by the following Bisons: Anse Moore (3), John Groth (2), pitcher Sol Rogovin (2), John Bero, Chet Laabs and Larry Barton. The Bisons then went on to win the second game by another footbball score of 16-12. It is an oddity that the Bisons scored the same number of runs (48), had the same number of hits (41) and sent to the plate the same number of times (81) as in their memorial day massacre of the Toronto Maple Leafs back in 1932.
After the 1960 season, fabled Offermann Stadium fell to the wrecker's ball to make the site available for a junior high school. This was a sad event for Buffalo fans and for hitters everywhere. There is no record that a single pitcher shed a tear.