Friday, October 3, 2008

Champions often overcome handicaps, including having a bad temper

Many people have come from the rolls of the handicapped and acclaimed great status. In the sports world especially, many great champions were physically challenged.

Tommy Milton, whose name you probably won't remember, was the first race car driver to win the Indianapolis Grind twice. It was the most grueling 500-mile race in the world, and Milton accomplished his victories despite the fact that he only had one eye.

I remember this one very well. In 1945, a fellow named Gray wanted to play major league baseball, so he played his way through a couple of minor leagues and the St. Louis Browns signed him to a big league contract.

He played 77 games and batted .218 as the Browns leadoff hitter.

His full name was Pete Gray and he had only one arm, but he swung the bat very well, considering his handicap.

Once there was a boy named Johnny who was doomed to a life of illness. He was frail and weak, and the doctors suggested he take swimming exercises.

Until age 12, Johnny had never been in water deeper than that in the bathtub, but he finally learned to swim.

Johnny swam some in Lake Michigan and decided he liked it. The more he swam, the stronger he got, and he finally became the world's most famous swimmer.

His full name was Johnny Weissmuller, who was a champion swimmer and became Tarzan in the movies.

This has nothing to do with lameness, unless it was lameness of the brain. Babe Ruth was pitching against the Washington Senators in 1917 when umpire Brick Owens called his first three pitches balls. Ruth stormed off the mound and gave Owens a piece of his mind and told the umpire if he called the next pitch a ball, he would punch him on the nose.

Sure enough, the ball missed the plate, the batter walked, and Ruth punched Owens in the face.

He was promptly thrown out of the game and Ernie Shore came on in relief. The runner on first was caught stealing, and Shore retired the next 26 men, pitching a perfect game.

This one was not a cripple, but he once made a crack that created consternation in church. A student at Notre Dame, Knute Rockne was playing baseball on a warm day while Mass was being celebrated in a nearby chapel.

With windows open, the congregants were still rather warm when the priest asked, “How are you going to enter the kingdom of heaven?” and from outside, Rockne's voice boomed clearly through the open windows, “Slide, damn it, slide!”

Vernon (Lefty) Gomez, a great Yankee pitcher, was a clown. After his playing career he came to Asheville many times to scout ball players. He told funny stories. Here's one:

Tony Lazzeri, a Yankee infielder, was in the midst of a great fielding streak, and the New York newspapers were filled with his exploits. When a batter hit a ball back to Gomez, instead of throwing to first for the out, he threw to Lazerri.

After the game, Lazerri asked Gomez why he threw the ball to him, and Gomez answered, “I didn't know what to do with it, Tony, and I've been reading all week that you're the smartest fielder in the world, so I thought I'd let you decide where to throw it.”

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mickey Vernon Came Close to Being A Brownie

Mickey Vernon died recently at age 90 at his home in Pennsylvania.

For 20 seasons, Vernon played in the major leagues with the Washington
Senators, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates. He was named to seven all-star teams, and won two American League batting titles. After his playing career ended in 1960, he remained in baseball as a manager, coach and scout, retiring as a scout for the New York Yankees in 1988.

Last month, the baseball Hall of Fame's veterans committee chose Mr. Vernon as one of 10 finalists, whose playing careers started before 1942, for induction into the Hall this year.

For most of his career, Mr. Vernon played for Washington. Unlike the baseball player for a fictional team inspired by the Senators in Damn Yankees, Mr. Vernon never sold his soul to the devil and never got to go to the World Series as a player.

Though he was a first-base coach when the Pirates won the World Series in 1960, Mr. Vernon said that not playing for a World Series team was the only regret he had.

Mr. Vernon left the Pirates to manage the Senators for two-plus seasons. In his 70s, he was still fielding balls at old-timers' games, and played in golf tournaments this summer, said his daughter, Gay.

Mr. Vernon grew up playing sandlot baseball. He graduated from Eddystone High School. In 1937, he dropped out in his first year at Villanova University after he was recruited by the St. Louis Browns.

He played for Washington from 1939 to 1943, and then served in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II. He returned to the team in 1946.