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Remembering baseball history

The Kansas City edition

I read a great piece the other day written by Fay Vincent. In addition to being the former commissioner, Vincent is also a tremendous writer. In his piece he talks about how old acquaintances help us remember history. He uses several baseball references but also recounts oral history from a wide variety of friends, such as a man named John Lockwood, who as a young man clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes and was able to recount to Vincent stories Holmes had passed to him about seeing former soldiers of the American Revolution in a parade in Boston and from Holmes’ experience fighting at Antietam. Thus, Lockwood was able to link Vincent to Holmes, who linked him to the Civil War and to the American Revolution.

All of us have similar stories. I have a close friend, Dick Harman, who is something of a renaissance man. Dick is an artist, a musician and a master baker among other things. Dick’s great uncle was a child drummer for the Union army. My friend has his uncle’s drum. I’ve held the drum and have heard the story of how his Uncle Mancil left home at the age of 9 years and 7 months, the wages he earned as a child drummer helped support his widowed mother. Dick has recounted to me how his uncle, known as Manny, was wounded in the war at The Wilderness and was later captured and held as a prisoner of war.

Dick has told me the story that after the war ended, President Lincoln was reviewing the troops when he spotted young Manny. Lincoln reached out and took ahold of both of Manny’s hands, and as he gazed upon the small boy’s face, tears rolled down his cheeks and Lincoln said, “I never thought it would come to this”. Manny’s first impression of Lincoln was that he was the homeliest man he’d ever seen. Then after Lincoln had spoken to him in his soft voice, Manny thought, “Here is a beautiful man”. My friend links me to Uncle Mancil, who links me to President Lincoln and to the Civil War.

The oral history of baseball is important. Another former commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, once said that baseball has a special regard for oral histories, and not only those told by players or other insiders. Fans have tales to tell, of who took us to our first game, or the time we met a great player. We tell our children, who tell their children. It always saddens me when I read of a current ballplayer who has little grasp of baseball history. Nothing is worse than some star with no idea about the history of Josh Gibson, Roberto Clemente or Bob Gibson, or of their contribution to the game. In our family, my father and grandfather started this trend, passing on to me their remembrances of the game and of certain players. I’ve continued that with my children.

All of this got me thinking about the history of ball players who have played in Kansas City. Certainly, there must be some interesting stories and some history linking them, and in a small way us, to long ago history. The Royals, by virtue of their youth, wouldn’t have as much history. We’ll get to that in a minute. The first player that caught my eye didn’t even play in Kansas City, but for the Philadelphia Athletics. His name was Harry O’Neill. O’Neill was born in Philadelphia on May 8, 1917 and grew to be a gifted athlete. He attended Gettysburg College, and at 6’3 and 205 lbs., led the school to league championships in baseball, football and basketball.

After graduation, he was the subject of a bidding war between the Washington Senators and his hometown Athletics. O’Neill elected to sign with the Athletics and appeared in just one game, a July 23, 1939 loss to the Detroit Tigers. O’Neill appeared as an 8th inning defensive replacement and did not record a plate appearance. He was then sent to the minors. When World War Two broke out, O’Neill enlisted in the Marine Corps.

In January of 1944, he took part in the amphibious assault on Kwajalein. In June of 1944, during the battle of Saipan, he was wounded by shrapnel and spent several weeks convalescing in the United States before returning to active duty. Eleven days after Marines raised the flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, O’Neill, then 27, and fellow Marines engaged in a fierce battle in the Turkey Knob section of Iwo Jima. In the early evening of March 6, 1945, O’Neill stood in a deep crater that seemed to provide some cover. He was with another soldier, Pfc. James Kontes, when a shot rang out. A Japanese sniper fired a bullet that pieced O’Neill’s throat, severing his spinal cord. He died instantly. Thus, O’Neill became one of only two major league baseball players to die in World War II. The other was Elmer Gedeon, who played briefly for the Cleveland Indians.

Many big leaguers answered the call for World War Two. Yogi Berra was a gunner’s mate on a rocket boat during the D-Day invasion. For Berra, facing big league pitching had to be a breeze after surviving D-Day. Ted Williams famously served in World War II and the Korean conflict, flying 39 missions in Korea. Bob Feller enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and spent 26 months on the USS Alabama. I was fortunate to meet Feller twice and was able to chat with him. He was a fascinating man and I doubt we’ll ever see another like him in our lifetime. Feller made his major league debut on July 19th, 1936 in a relief appearance. Bob Feller was 17 years old. He made his first start on August 23rd of 1936. Feller struck out the side in the first inning and went on to strike out 15 St. Louis Browns, earning his first major league win. As a 17-year-old!! After the season ended, Feller returned to his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa for his senior year of high school.

Bob Feller threw the only opening day no-hitter in baseball history in 1940. He pitched against Ted Williams and barnstormed with Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neal. Have you ever seen the picture of Babe Ruth’s last public appearance at Yankee Stadium, two months before his death? In the photo, the Babe is leaning against a bat as he was being honored by the Yankees. The bat was Bob Feller’s bat and Feller placed the bat in his museum in Van Meter Iowa.

The Feller museum is one of those terrific, off the interstate finds that all baseball fans should see. As Feller would say, “In Van Meter, Iowa, twelve miles west of Des Moines, south off of I-80”. I’ll always remember taking my boys to meet Mr. Feller and getting our picture taken with him. Feller, always gracious and amicable, chatted easily with my boys and everyone else he met. He was one of the great ambassadors of the game. Afterwards, I explained to my boys who this man was and what he had accomplished.

Years later, while in Cleveland, my daughter and I took a walk through downtown and by Jacobs Field. I got a picture of her next to the statute of Bob Feller. I explained to her who Feller was and his contributions to the game. That oral history linked Bob Feller to me and my children, and thereby to Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. To this day they still remember Bob Feller and someday they will tell their children these stories.

An aside to the Feller story: just inside the gate from the Feller statute is a statute of Royal-killer Jim Thome. The Thome statue stands in the place where his longest career home run landed, a 511-foot blast on July 3, 1999 off Royals right hander Don Wengert. Royals centerfielder Carlos Beltran initially turned to chase the ball, but once he realized the magnitude of the blast, he just stood and watched it disappear. Wengert was reportedly so traumatized by the dong, that he refuses to speak to reporters about it. Like any good tour guide, I relayed this history to my children as well.

The Kansas City Athletics had several players with interesting and colorful histories. Bob Cerv was a slugging first baseman for the Athletics and in 1958, he hit 38 home runs and drove in 104 runs while finishing 4th in the MVP race. Cerv had played for Casey Stengel in New York and was a friend of former president Harry Truman. As a young man, Cerv had been a two-sport standout (baseball and basketball) at the University of Nebraska. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War Two, aboard the USS Claxton in the Pacific theater. When Cerv was 11, his father drove him from their home in Nebraska to New York City. They attended several games at Yankee Stadium, and Cerv said that watching Lou Gehrig hit home runs fueled his desire to become a ball player. Cerv played for the Yankees on three separate occasions and even roomed with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle during the historic 1961 season, as Maris and Mantle dueled each other in an effort to break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record.

Hank Bauer played for the Athletics during the 1960 and 1961 seasons, at the tail end of a 14-year career. As a rookie for the Yankees in 1948, Bauer played with Berra, Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto. Bauer’s first pro season was actually 1941, as an 18-year-old with the Osh Kosh Giants. Bauer, like many young men of his day, enlisted in the Marines one month after Pearl Harbor. In 32 months of combat, Bauer earned 11 campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, the Navy Commendation medal and two Purple Hearts. Bauer was the sergeant in command of a platoon of 64 Marines during the battle of Okinawa. Only six of the 64 Marines survived the Japanese attack.

After returning to the States and recovering from his wounds, Bauer spent two seasons in AAA, where he excelled, before making the jump to the Yankees in 1948. Another of his teammates on that 1948 team was Ralph Houk. Houk was born in Lawrence, Kansas and also had his career interrupted by World War II. Houk became an Army Ranger and rose to the rank of Major. He saw heavy combat, at Bastogne and in the Battle of the Bulge. Houk was awarded the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and the Silver Star for his heroics on the battlefield.

I met Bauer once. He signed a baseball for me. That ball is one of my treasured pieces of baseball memorabilia. We shared a short conversation. I recall Bauer being extremely polite and humble and a little awed that people would want to come out and meet an old-timer like himself. I hope he knew that the honor was ours. Bauer died February 9th, 2007 at the age of 84 and is buried in Lenexa.

Most baseball fans know of Don Larsen, who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history, a game five perfecto in the 1956 classic. Urban legend has it that after the game, Larsen returned to his Bronx apartment to find a Dear John letter on his kitchen table from his wife, informing him that she was leaving. Talk about a day of highs and lows!

Larsen was part of the trade that sent Roger Maris from Kansas City to New York. The Yankees shipped a sore armed Larsen, Hank Bauer and Norm Siebern to the Athletics for Maris, Kent Hadley and Joe DeMaestri. Though Siebern ended up developing into a minor star for Kansas City, the trade was one of many lopsided trades between the two teams, which later fueled the bitterness of Royals fans against the Yankees. Larsen appeared in 30 games for the Athletics during the 1960 and 1961 seasons, compiling a 2-10 record, before the Athletics finally cut bait and traded him to the White Sox. On July 18, 1999, Larsen threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Yogi Berra, on Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium. Larsen and Berra then watched as former Royal David Cone threw a perfect game against the Expos. I also met Larsen once. He was a quiet man with a wry sense of humor. And tall. I’ll never forget shaking his hand and marveling at how large his hands were. I’m a normal sized man, but Larsen’s hands just engulfed mine.

Enos “Country” Slaughter was one of the more high-profile players to have played in Kansas City for the Athletics. Slaughter made his debut in 1938 with the St. Louis Cardinals, but missed the 1943, 1944 and 1945 seasons due to military service. Upon returning to the Cardinals for the 1946 season, Slaughter led the team with 130 RBI and helped lead the Cardinals to a World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox. In the seventh game of that series, Slaughter made his “mad dash” from first to home on a single by Harry Walker in the 8th inning, scoring the run that won the series.

Slaughter played in Kansas City during the 1955 and 1956 seasons before being traded to the Yankees, of course. One of Slaughter’s teammates on that 1938 Cardinals team was Hall of Famer, Joe “Ducky” Medwick. Slaughter closed out his career with the 1959 Milwaukee Brewers, playing alongside Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn and a young Hank Aaron. Warren Spahn had also enlisted in the United States Army after the 1942 season. He served with distinction and was awarded a Purple Heart. Spahn saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge during the Battle of Remagen. Spahn ended his Hall of Fame career with 363 wins and many thought had he not missed three full seasons to the war, he may have won 400 games.

One of Spahn’s teammates with the Boston Braves in 1948 was a right-handed pitcher named Johnny Sain. The duo was so dominant that a Boston Post editor, Gerald Hern, wrote a poem about the pair, which was later reduced to the line “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain”. Sain had the distinction of being the last pitcher to face Babe Ruth and the first to pitch against Jackie Robinson in the majors. Sain also broke into the majors in 1942, with Boston, before missing the 1943, 1944 and 1945 seasons as well to military service. Sain closed out his career by appearing in 25 games for the 1955 Kansas City Athletics. By that time, he was 37 years old and his arm was shot. After his playing days ended, Sain became one of the top pitching coaches in baseball. He played or coached for six World Series champions.

Old time baseball history with the Royals can be linked to two men: Joe Gordon and Bob Lemon. Gordon’s playing career lasted from 1938 to 1950, interrupted by a two-year military hitch (1944-45). He ended his career as a 57 WAR player and won the American League MVP in 1942. Gordon was a nine time All-Star and won five World Series Championships as a member of the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009. Gordon played with Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Red Ruffing, Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, Bob Feller and Bob Lemon. Gordon also holds the distinction of being the only man to manage both Kansas City squads: The Athletics in 1961 and as the first skipper of the expansion Royals in 1969, where he managed a rookie by the name of Lou Piniella. From Piniella to Gordon to Gehrig.

One of Gordon’s teammates with the Indians was Bob Lemon. Lemon signed with Cleveland as a 17-year-old third baseman in 1938 but did not make his Major League debut until 1946. He missed the 1943, 1944 and 1945 seasons to military service. While serving in the U.S. Navy and playing ball for the Naval team, Lemon tried pitching and was so successful, that when he returned to the states, he became a pitcher. During the 1946 and 1947 seasons, Lemon played third base and outfield, and saw action as a pitcher in 69 games over those two seasons.

He converted to a full-time pitcher in the 1948 season and went on to a 207-128 career record. He led the American League in wins on three separate occasions and led the league in innings pitched four other seasons. Lemon was playing center field for the Indians on opening day 1946. Bob Feller was hanging onto a 1-0 lead with a runner on second and one out when a White Sox batter, Jake Jones, sent a drive to right-center field. Lemon sprinted to his left and at the last second, dove for the ball. He fully extended himself and made the catch. Lemon sprang to his feet and his throw to second doubled off the runner for the game ending double play. Feller called the catch “the greatest outfield play I have ever seen”, high praise considering both men were in the dugout when Willie Mays made his miraculous, over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series. Lemon struggled to hit Major League pitching and soon lost his job in the outfield. “I could hit anything else they threw at me, but not the change up, and word got around pretty quick,” Lemon said in later years, “pretty soon that’s all I saw. Fastball out of the strike zone. Curve ball out of the strike zone. Then the damned change up.”

After retiring as a player, Lemon coached for the Indians, Phillies and Angels before the Royals hired him as their pitching coach in 1970. The Royals fired manager Charlie Metro in June of 1970 and promoted Lemon to the top job. In 1971 Lemon guided the young Royals to their first winning season (85-76) and a second-place finish in the American League West Division, in only their third season of existence. That showing earned Lemon the Manager of the year award.

Lemon was fired after a disappointing fourth place finish in 1972 (76-78). Lou Piniella was a vocal critic of Lemon’s firing, saying that he deserved another season. Lemon won another Manger of the Year award in 1977, after taking over a Chicago White Sox team that had finished in last place in 1976 and guided them to 90 wins in 1977. He was fired by the White Sox midway through the 1978 season, but rebounded with the Yankees, taking over as manager after Billy Martin’s famous “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted” monologue. The Yankees were in fourth place when Lemon took the helm. He guided them to a 48-20 finish and a one game playoff victory over Boston. As all of you know, that Yankee team then beat our Royals, three games to one in the American League Championship Series, before dispatching the Dodgers for the World Series Championship. George Brett and Hal McRae were members of that 1978 Royals team. Thus, we close with the link from Brett and McRae to Piniella to Lemon to Gordon to Feller to Gehrig to Ruth.

This is how we keep the history of the game alive, be it through this online community or through oral history and pictures shared with others.