Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

Forrest City’s Elmer “B” Lindsey: Hall of Famer

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

When Frank Broyles became the head football coach at the University of Arkansas following the 1957 season, he was told by influential boosters to do one thing when it came to recruiting — head to Forrest City and sign Elmer “B” Lindsey.

“B was the first player I recruited to play football for the Razorbacks when I came to Arkansas,” Broyles says. “I had been told that he was, by far, the best athlete in the state. So for my first recruiting trip, I got in my car and drove to Forrest City to recruit B to play for the Razorbacks. Immediately upon meeting him, I offered a full scholarship. His credentials as a four-sport athlete in high school were so impressive that I could envision him forming the foundation of the Razorback backfield corps.”

Lindsey never played a down for the Razorbacks.

Instead, he signed a baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Broyles had faced a similar situation a year earlier when he was the head coach at the University of Missouri. He was hoping to build his team around Mike Shannon, who had starred in multiple sports at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis. Shannon was the first person to be named the Missouri Prep Player of the Year in both basketball and football.

Shannon headed to the University of Missouri but soon signed a baseball contract with the Cardinals. Broyles later said he believed Shannon might have won the Heisman Trophy had he stayed in school.

Lindsey would end up playing baseball for Memphis in the Southern Association with the likes of Shannon and Tim McCarver for part of the 1960 season.

“Coach Broyles spoke at our football banquet after the 1957 season at Forrest City, but there was never a question where I was going to school,” says Lindsey, who now operates family farming and cotton ginning operations in east Arkansas. “Coach Broyles later sent Coach George Cole down to visit with me, and I told him just that. I was going to Arkansas.”

Then came the baseball contract with the Cardinals.

For years, Lindsey wouldn’t talk about the size of his signing bonus. He didn’t want it to sound like he was bragging. It long was believed to have been more than $50,000, the most money ever offered to an Arkansas player to that point.

“It was $60,000 over five years plus $1,200 a month guaranteed for three years,” Lindsey now says. “My dad always loved baseball. He had been a pretty good baseball player himself. He said to me, ‘You would be crazy not to do this.’ I agreed and signed the contract. It would have been nice to see how it would have turned out if I had played football at Arkansas, but I couldn’t do both.”

In recognition of his accomplishments, Lindsey will be inducted Feb. 3 into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Tickets for the annual induction banquet are $100 each and may be obtained by calling Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.

Lindsey is among 11 individual inductees — six from the regular category, three from the senior category and two from the posthumous category — in the Hall of Fame Class of 2012. The Hall of Fame also will induct the 1994 University of Arkansas national championship basketball team.

Lindsey’s younger brother, Jim, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1987 for his football accomplishments at the University of Arkansas and in the NFL. He played for the 1964 national championship team at Arkansas and played in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings from 1966-72.

“B weighed 188 pounds, had 10-flat speed and could cut on a dime,” Jim Lindsey says of his brother. “It has been said by the thousands who watched him play that he was the best high school halfback they had ever seen in Arkansas. … When my time came along, I was not in B’s shadow because the difference between his talent and mine would have been like comparing me to Gayle Sayers or Jim Brown.

“His baseball skills were overshadowed by his football talent. His baseball skills earned him a ‘bonus baby’ contract, and he went on to play in Tulsa and Memphis. … But his football skills far exceeded his baseball talent.”

B Lindsey says his first love as a child was baseball as he participated each summer in the Little League program at Forrest City. His father raised cattle and cotton at Caldwell and would drive him into Forrest City for practice. Beginning in the seventh grade, however, football began to capture his heart.

“I was fortunate enough to be the fastest person in the sixth grade,” says Lindsey, who had three older sisters, a younger sister and a younger brother (Jim). “But I didn’t think I would go out for football in the seventh grade. I was more interested in getting on the bus back to Caldwell so I could fish and hunt. I was watching seventh grade practice one day, though, and decided to give it a try. They gave me a uniform that didn’t fit.”

Lindsey ended up playing football in high school on teams that lost only two games in three years. Both losses were to DeWitt Dragon teams led by Harold Horton, a 1989 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee. DeWitt won 13-0 in 1955 at Forrest City and 14-13 in 1956 on its home field. Horton scored both of DeWitt’s touchdowns in the 1956 game.

“Every time I talk around Harold about how good we were, he says, ‘You never beat us,'” Lindsey says.

By Lindsey’s senior year in high school, Horton was a freshman at Arkansas. Forrest City went undefeated in 1957. DeWitt fell, 21-0, marking Forrest City’s first win over the Dragons since 1951.

Lindsey scored 22 touchdowns that season despite having a broken bone just behind his thumb.

“I broke it in a scrimmage the Friday before the season opener against Conway,” he says.

His father took him to the famed Campbell Clinic at Memphis, which had opened in 1909 and is today recognized as a world leader in sports medicine. Doctors there put a cast on his hand.

Returning to school with the cast, Lindsey went to the principal’s office to get a slip to be admitted to class. Seeing the cast, the principal told Lindsey to go to the office of the Mustang head football coach, Jim DeVazier.

DeVazier would coach from 1954-64 at Forrest City, compiling a 77-36-7 record with five conference championships and two undefeated seasons.

“Coach DeVazier looked at that cast,” Lindsey remembers. “He didn’t even ask me how I felt. He just said, ‘You can’t play in that.'”

Lindsey went back to the doctor, who replaced the plaster cast with a lace-up leather cast to wear in practice. In games, he wore a sponge pad that the officials would check before each contest.

“I only had one fumble that season,” Lindsey says. “I also returned punts.”

With Sonny Holmes at quarterback and Lindsey as the main running back, the Mustangs scored 351 points that season.

Largely because of Lindsey’s talents, Forrest City began a high school baseball team his senior year. The summer before his senior year, Lindsey had attracted the attention of numerous pro scouts during the state American Legion baseball tournament at Fort Smith. He played in the outfield, at shortstop, pitched and was even the catcher at times. In that first year of high school baseball in the spring of 1958, the Mustangs advanced to the finals of the state tournament at Lamar Porter Field in Little Rock before losing to Mountainburg.

“If I had come along a bit earlier, I don’t think I would have ever been signed to a baseball contract,” Lindsey says. “If you received a signing bonus of more than $4,000, you had to stay on the roster of the big league club for two years. I wasn’t good enough for them to have me on that roster. But they changed the rule in 1958.”

The bonus rule had been instituted by major league baseball in 1947. Any team that failed to comply with the rule, which required that a player signed to a contract in excess of $4,000 be assigned to the 40-man roster, would lose the rights to that player’s contract.

Lindsey played at Keokuk, Iowa, in the Midwest League in 1958. He was in Hobbs, N.M., in 1959 and then played at Memphis; Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Columbia, S.C., during the 1960 season.

Lindsey was in Billings, Mont., in 1961 and played for Tulsa of the Texas League for two seasons before retiring from baseball at the conclusion of the 1963 season.

“The Cardinals gave me every opportunity,” he says. “My fielding was never an issue. My hitting was the problem. I’ve always been told that you can tell after about five years whether you’re going to make it to the big leagues or not. I knew it was time to hang it up after six years.”

Lindsey remains a Cardinal fan, going to games several times each season. After his retirement from baseball, he took over the farm that had been operated by his father and three uncles. In 1987, Lindsey began a farming partnership with his younger brother. He raises about 4,000 acres of cotton and operates two gins.

“While I never had the privilege of coaching B because of his decision to play professional baseball after high school, I had the utmost admiration and respect for him as an athlete and as a person,” Broyles says. “He had all the qualities of leadership I looked for in a member of our team. He was and is a man of character and integrity, a born leader.”

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Remembering Jack Buck (thanks, Joe)

Friday, October 28th, 2011

“We’ll see you … tomorrow night.”

I’m among those who thought it was perfect.

Just perfect.

Like a lot of Arkansas natives my age, I grew up listening to Jack Buck broadcast Cardinal baseball games on the radio. Whenever Jack would do a network radio or television broadcast (which was often), it was like having a familiar uncle behind the microphone.

Many of us in Arkansas smiled and nodded as Jack Buck called Kirby Puckett’s walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Minnesota defeated Atlanta to force a Game 7.

Ol’ Jack had done it again, we said to ourselves. He had delivered a line for the ages.

How could Joe Buck, raised in St. Louis with the home broadcast booth at Busch Stadium as a second home, not have ended Thursday’s classic Cardinal win over the Rangers with the same words his dad had uttered two decades ago?

Here’s how Ed Heil put it at www.storytellermn.com: “A sportscaster’s call of a game can define the sportscaster. It can define the moment, and it can define the athlete. In many cases, it is recorded in history connecting all three. The most famous sports call of my lifetime is Al Michaels’ ‘Miracle on Ice’ call during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. … You know they’re great calls because you remember them together. There have been great sports moments, with great athletes, but you may not remember the call.”

Heil concluded: ‘We like to own our teams, our players and certainly our moments in sports history — our ‘where were you when’ moments. As people, though, we love our parents. As sons, we love our dads, and when they’re gone we miss them terribly. I’ve never met Joe Buck, but I understand he and his father were extremely close. Joe Buck followed in his father’s steps in his career, and I assume Jack Buck was quite proud of his son.

“This wasn’t the first time Joe Buck has spoken the words of his father in a telecast — he’s recognized him through his words on many occasions in the past. Many Minnesotans want to own the moment in 1991 and keep it as their own. I understand that. Yet as a person whose father passed away 10 years ago, I see last night’s call as a beautiful salute from son to father. … How wonderful it must have been for Joe Buck to pay public tribute to his dad, a person he likely respected and loved dearly. Yep, he said it, and I’m glad he did.”

Cindy Boren wrote for a Washington Post blog that Joe Buck “nailed this call with just a simple, elegant sentence, taken from his dad’s 1991 call. Perfection.”

Thank goodness the Cardinals returned this year to their old home on KMOX-AM, 1120.

I was the master of ceremonies last night for the UAM Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet at Monticello. After the banquet, I drove through those dark pine woods in the rain, listening to Mike Shannon and John Rooney all the way home.

At 10 p.m., as I passed through Pine Bluff with the rain coming down hard, my wife called my cell phone.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m mad at the Cardinals,” I replied. “They’re down by three.”

I pulled up to my home in Little Rock with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. I thought about just listening to the final out on the radio. Deciding that I would watch the Rangers’ celebration, I went inside, where I knew my 14-year-old son (a baseball player who loves the game) would be glued to the television set.

Almost one hour later. . .

You know the rest of that story.

The Cardinals’ connection to KMOX, whose 50,000 watts reach across the country at night, dates back to the 1920s. The club had a consecutive run of games from 1955 through 2005 on KMOX. I wasn’t born until 1959, so I never knew anything else.

Following the 2005 season, the Cardinals moved down the dial to the less powerful KTRS-AM, 550. Now, they’re back home.

I thought about Jack Buck as I listened to the Mighty Mox on the way home last night.

I remembered the call I had placed to KMOX in early 1986 when I was the assistant sports editor at the Arkansas Democrat. I was hoping to interview Buck when he came to town to serve as the master of ceremonies for the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet.

I wondered if he would return my call.

He called back that day.

I would have known the voice anywhere: “Jack Buck returning your call.”

I made my request, and he said: “I’m coming in a day early to go to the races at Oaklawn with my friend Jim Elder. But I have to eat breakfast, don’t I? Meet me in the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel.”

He was resplendent that day in a green blazer. We sat down in the Apple Blossom Cafe in the lobby of the Excelsior for breakfast.

I asked him if he still thought about Don Denkinger’s call from the previous October.

For Cardinal fans, no explanation is needed.

For those of you who are not Cardinal fans, here is the short version of perhaps the worst call in sports history: St. Louis led the Kansas City Royals three games to two in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. The Cardinals had taken a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning on a single by backup catcher Brian Harper.

Todd Worrell came in to pitch for the Cardinals in the ninth. Batter Jorge Orta hit a slow roller to Jack Clark on first base, who tossed it to Worrell for a clear out.

Denkinger called Orta safe. The Royals went on to win Game 6 by a score of 2-1.

The Cardinals were demoralized, losing Game 7 by a score of 11-0.

Here’s how Jack Buck answered my question that morning in February 1986: “I think about it every day. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, doing my call of the play.”

Then, in his best radio voice, he repeated the call as people in the restaurant turned and stared: “Orta, leading off, swings and hits it to the right side, and the pitcher has to cover. He is … SAFE, SAFE, SAFE.”

Later that year, the newspaper sent me to Washington, D.C., to cover Congress.

I lived in the basement of a townhouse on Capitol Hill. I couldn’t pick up KMOX inside, but I could pick it up in my car after dark.

On the night of Oct. 14, 1987, the Cardinals were on the verge of defeating San Francisco in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.

Rather than watching the final inning on television, I decided I wanted to hear Jack Buck proclaim “that’s a winner” on KMOX. So I sat alone in my car to listen.

I would not meet Melissa until the following summer. I had no way of knowing while sitting in my car listening to 1120 AM on that night of Oct. 14, 1987, that my wedding would be exactly two years later — Oct. 14, 1989.

At any rate, it brought back a number of memories listening to Mike Shannon on KMOX last night as I drove home from Monticello.

And Joe Buck’s ending to the Fox telecast brought back even more memories of Jack Buck, one of my broadcasting heroes.

As the home run in the bottom of the 11th sailed over the fence in center, I looked at my son and said: “I don’t believe what I just saw!”

He didn’t understand the context of those words. But I did, and that’s all that mattered.

 

 

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Hall of Fame Class of 2012

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

You remember that night of Monday, April 4, 1994, don’t you?

The national championship in basketball was on the line when a 6-6 junior named Scotty Thurman hit the most famous shot in University of Arkansas basketball history with 51 seconds left.

Thurman’s three-point shot snapped a 70-70 tie against Duke.

Arkansas went on to win the national championship, 76-72, over a Duke team that was amazingly playing in its sixth Final Four in seven years and its fourth championship game.

We all cheered when Russellville native Corliss Williamson was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

I was home alone that night. My wife and son had gone to south Texas to visit relatives. I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time, obsessed with the second year of the Clinton administration and the coming midterm elections. Watching the game on CBS provided a nice respite from politics.

It was a warm night in Little Rock. I can remember going out onto my back deck to listen to the radio postgame coverage once the television coverage had ended. I could hear the cars honking up on Cantrell Road. Over at Reservoir Park, they were setting off fireworks.

Thurman, Williamson, their teammates and their coaches will be honored Feb. 3 when the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012 is inducted during the annual banquet at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

This is the second time in its history that the Hall of Fame has inducted an entire team. Arkansas is still a football state, so it was probably to be expected that the first team to be inducted would be the 1964 national championship Razorback football squad. It was inducted in 2010.

It was a no brainer, however, for the second team to be the Razorback basketball champions from 1994. The man who coached that team, Nolan Richardson, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998. Thurman was inducted in 2010, and Williamson was inducted in 2009.

There also will be 11 individuals inducted as part of the Class of 2012.

One of them is Lee Mayberry, who joined with Todd Day to lead Arkansas to the 1990 Final Four in Denver, where the Hogs lost in the national semifinals to Duke. Day was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.

The Class of 2012 will consist of six people from the regular category, three from the senior category and two from the posthumous category.

In addition to Mayberry, those being inducted from the regular category are former Oaklawn Park track announcer Terry Wallace, former Newport High School head football coach Bill Keedy, former Razorback basketball player U.S. Reed, former Razorback football player “Light Horse” Harry Jones and Little Rock native and former Oklahoma State University head football coach Pat Jones.

Those being inducted from the senior category are former Forrest City star athlete Elmer “B” Lindsey, former college coach and NFL scout Bob Ford of Wynne and former Southern Arkansas University women’s basketball coach Margaret Downing.

Those being inducted from the posthumous category are former University of Central Arkansas head football coach Raymond Bright and 1892 Kentucky Derby winning jockey Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton.

The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inducted its first class way back in 1959. Here’s a short look at some of those in the Class of 2012:

— Harry Jones: The Enid, Okla., native lettered for the Razorback football team from 1964-66. He was an All-Southwest Conference selection in 1965 and developed a national reputation for his breakaway runs on offense, earning the nickname “Light Horse.”

Jones played safety on the 1964 national championship team, ending the season with 44 tackles and two interceptions. During the 1965 and 1966 seasons, Jones rushed 166 times for 974 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 29 passes for 598 yards and five touchdowns.

He was the first Razorback to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated following Arkansas’ 1965 win over Texas. Jones was selected in the first round of the 1967 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and played for the Eagles from 1967-70.

— Pat Jones: The future coach developed an interest in football while growing up in Little Rock. He was a lineman for the Forest Heights Eagles in junior high, a guard for the Hall High Warriors in high school and a linebacker and nose guard for the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys in college before transferring after his freshman season to the University of Arkansas.

Jones was the head coach at Oklahoma State from 1984-94 after having served five years as an assistant at OSU under Jimmy Johnson. His teams compiled a 62-60-3 record and went 3-1 in bowl games. During the five-year stretch from 1984 through 1988, the Cowboys were 44-15 with records of 10-2 in ’84, 8-4 in ’85, 6-5 in ’86, 10-2 in ’87 and 10-2 in ’88.

Oklahoma State won the Gator Bowl after the ’84 season, the Sun Bowl after the ’87 season and the Holiday Bowl following the ’88 season.

Jones coached nine All-America players at Oklahoma State and later was an assistant coach for the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders under Johnson, Dave Wannstadt and Norv Turner.

— Bill Keedy: A Newport native, Keedy attended Arkansas State University and is still a member of the radio broadcast team for Red Wolf football games. Keedy had a successful run as the head football coach at Paragould High School in the early 1970s. Following the 1975 season, he went to Sylvan Hills. After just one season as the head coach there, Keedy returned to his hometown of Newport in 1977. He compiled a 175-48-3 record at Newport before retiring. His overall record as a high school head coach was 199-55-4.

Keedy was the district coach of the year 17 times, and his teams reached the playoffs 19 times. Newport won state championships under his leadership in 1981 and 1991. Greyhound teams also reached the championship games of 1988 and 1989. Newport made it as far as the semifinals eight times.

Keedy, who was a member of the high school all-star coaching staff 10 times, was later inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

— Lee Mayberry: Nolan Richardson recruited Mayberry out of Will Rogers High School at Tulsa, where he had led his team to the 1988 state championship. Mayberry would wind up scoring 1,940 points during his college career at Arkansas.

Mayberry, one of the best point guards in school history, was an All-Southwest Conference selection in 1990 and 1991 and an All-Southeastern Conference selection in 1992. The four teams Mayberry played on at Arkansas had a combined record of 115-24 and made the NCAA Tournament all four seasons. The Razorbacks were 25-7 his freshman season, 30-5 his sophomore year, 34-4 his junior year and 26-8 his senior season.

Mayberry was selected in the first round of the 1992 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. He played from 1992-96 for the Bucks and from 1996-99 for the Vancouver Grizzlies.

— U.S. Reed: If Thurman made the most famous shot in Razorback basketball history, the second most famous shot was almost certainly made by U.S. Reed. He hit a shot from just past the half-court line at the horn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Austin in 1981 as the Razorbacks defeated the defending national champions from Louisville, 74-73.

I was sitting at courtside that afternoon in Austin, covering the game for Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald. I’ll never forget it. Abe Lemons, then the head basketball coach at the University of Texas, came out of his office after the game and led the Arkansas pep band in calling the Hogs. What a day.

You can still watch the shot (and hear Paul Eells’ radio call of “Arkansas did it, Arkansas did it, Arkansas did it”) by going to YouTube.

Arkansas lost its next game in the tournament to LSU at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans (I was at that game also), but Reed’s shot in Austin will always live in Razorback lore.

Reed had helped lead Pine Bluff High School to a state championship in 1977 and was part of the Razorback team that made it to the 1978 Final Four. Reed, a guard, was a starter by his sophomore year. The Razorbacks made the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament in 1979, losing to an Indiana State team led by Larry Bird.

In 1979, Reed also played on the U.S. team that won a gold medal at the World University Games. The four Razorback teams on which Reed played went 32-4, 25-5, 21-9 and 24-8, making the NCAA Tournament all four seasons.

We’ll take a look at the other members of the Class of 2012 in a later post.

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Bobby Thomson and Red Nelson

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Bobby Thomson died Monday night.

He was at his home in Savannah, Ga. Thomson was 86 years old and had been in failing health for several years. He had moved to the South about five years ago to be closer to one of his daughters.

Those of us who love the game of baseball never really tire of hearing Russ Hodges’ call of The Shot Heard Round the World.

“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

Yes, he said it four times. It was October 1951.

Thomson’s three-run home run off Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth inning secured the pennant for the Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. It will forever be one of the most famous moments in baseball history.

“I never thought it was going to be that big,” Branca told The Associated Press. “Hell no. When we went into the next season, I thought it would be forgotten. I’ll miss him. I mellowed over the years, and we became good friends. I enjoyed being around him.”

There’s an outstanding book by Joshua Prager titled “The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World.”

Prager, a former Wall Street Journal writer and a 2011 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, says he made literally thousands of phone calls while researching and writing that book.

As it turns out, one of those calls was to my parents’ house in Arkadelphia.

Here’s the story:

My father joined the Army Air Forces as it was known at the time in 1943 following his freshman year of college at Ouachita. He was sent for training to Saint John’s University, an all-male Catholic school in central Minnesota that’s surrounded by thousands of acres of forests, prairies and lakes. It was not unusual for college campuses to be used for training during World War II. George Wallace, for instance, received his training on the Ouachita campus in Arkadelphia long before becoming the governor of Alabama and a presidential candidate.

It was quite a change of scenery for my dad, a poor boy from Benton whose family had no money to travel during the Great Depression.

He occasionally would mention how beautiful it was there. He saw more snow than he had ever seen. Unable to return home for Christmas, he accompanied a fellow recruit to the family home in South Dakota for the holidays. He remembers more snow, seeing pheasants for the first time and staying at the house to watch young children while his friend and the other adults attended midnight mass (my dad is Baptist).

Beyond that, however, Dad never talked much about that time and certainly would never have dreamed of bragging about any personal accomplishments. As I’ve written on this blog before, he truly is part of the Greatest Generation, one of those silent men who did their duty during World War II and then returned home to raise families and build businesses.

By the time the call from Josh Prager came, my dad’s hearing was such that he was unable to carry on a telephone conversation.

Here’s what my mother remembered: A nice man called from New York, said he was working on a book about a famous baseball player and wanted to confirm that this was the home of the Red Nelson who had spent time at Saint John’s in Minnesota during World War II.

Mom confirmed that he indeed had the right Red Nelson but told him my dad was unable to do a telephone interview.

Prager, in turn, told her that he initially had been under the impression that Thomson had been voted “most athletic” among that group of Air Force recruits. In interviewing someone who was there, however, he was told that the “most athletic” was not Bobby Thomson. It was a guy named Red Nelson from Arkansas.

I anxiously waited for the book to come out so I could buy my father a copy. His name wasn’t mentioned. After all, there was no reason for Prager to mention any awards Thomson didn’t win. Still, Dad enjoyed reading the book, and our family had a great story to tell.

Dad had remembered a Bobby Thomson. He said he had just never made the connection that it was that Bobby Thomson.

I asked him why he had never mentioned being “most athletic.” He said he saw no reason to mention it.

The more I’ve read about Bobby Thomson since his death Monday, the more I’ve become convinced that he and my dad were a lot alike.

Prager wrote this earlier today at www.tnr.com, the website for The New Republic: “Bobby Thomson did not recognize his own renown. No matter that the home run he had hit in a Harlem horseshoe on Oct. 3, 1951, remained 49 years later the unsurpassable high point of a national pastime, a life marker for a generation of Americans who remembered where they were when the Giants won the pennant (the Giants won the pennant!) as vividly as they did the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of Kennedy. And so, after we agreed over the phone to meet at his New Jersey church, he was sure to tell me, lest I not recognize him, what he looked like.”

Prager said Thomson told him, “I’m tall and thin and I wear glasses.”

Thomson’s late wife had once said of him, “He’s sensitive and humble to a fault with a tendency to play himself down.”

Thomson was a three-time All-Star who hit .270 with 264 career home runs and 1,026 RBIs in a career that spanned from 1946 until 1960. He often would call himself “the accidental hero.”

It later was revealed that the Giants had a system that season for stealing signals from opposing catchers. Thomson always insisted he did not know what pitch was coming when he hit The Shot Heard Round the World.

Prager, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize four times, says Thomson later admitted that he had made use of stolen signs in his first three at-bats that day but not the last.

Thomson had been born in Glasgow, Scotland, and named after an uncle who died in World War I. He came to this country in 1926 when he was just 3 as his family settled in Staten Island. He signed a contract with the Giants in 1942 but ended up spending three years in the military.

Prager writes that Thomson’s father, a cabinetmaker, “ingrained in Bobby and his five older siblings the importance of reserve.”

“We were brought up to be seen and not heard,” he told Prager.

After his famous hit, Thomson told the Daily News of New York: “It was a pitch that Musial or any other good hitter would have taken. It was high and inside. I didn’t deserve to do a thing like that.”

My father will turn 86 on Oct. 14, which incidentally will be my 21st wedding anniversary.

The dementia is such now that I can’t really carry on a conversation with him. If I could, though, I’m sure he would continue to maintain that he never knew it was the famous Bobby Thomson he beat out for “most athletic” all those years ago in the woods of Minnesota.

And even had he known, he wouldn’t have felt it was anything worth mentioning to his son.

Yes, they raised them differently back in those days.

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Sports in Arkansas

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Those who visit this blog on a regular basis (thank you, by the way) probably get more than enough of what I write.

I do, however, want to alert those of you who love sports and those of you who love Arkansas to a fun project I’ve taken on in recent months.

I’ve long been a member of the board of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. In an attempt to take that organization to the next level, we’ve recently upgraded our website, added a Facebook page, the whole social media nine yards.

If you get a chance, visit the website at www.arksportshalloffame.org and check it out. It’s a work in progress, but you’ll find a lot of fresh content there.

I’ve been writing an e-newsletter for several months that you can sign up to receive. We won’t bombard you with e-mails. I promise you that much. Three or four times each month, you’ll get something I’ve written that pertains to famous Arkansans who made their names in the world of sports.

I also would urge you to join the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Regular memberships are $50 annually. Membership allows you to vote on the inductees each year, gives you an opportunity to purchase tickets to the induction banquet and, as we take things to the next level, provides another benefit — a quarterly magazine called Legends that we’re now publishing. Steve Brawner is doing an outstanding job as the publisher of this magazine, and a subscription comes with your membership.

Also, if you’ve not visited the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Museum in the Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, you should do so. The museum is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. each Monday through Saturday. The cost for adults is $6. Seniors (those ages 62 and above) can get in for $4. Kids and active military personnel with proper identification are charged $3. It’s well worth it. Tell Ray Tucker, who does a tremendous job as executive director, I sent you.

As I have dug deeply into the history of sports in our state, I’ve been amazed at the number of nationally known sports figures we’ve turned out.

Did you realize that seven members of the Baseball Hall of Fame also are members of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame — Bill Dickey, Brooks Robinson, Dizzy Dean, Lou Brock, George Kell, Arky Vaughan and Travis Jackson?

Bill Dickey might just be the most famous baseball player to ever come from Arkansas. In fact, some baseball historians consider Dickey the best catcher in the game’s history. He was a member of the first class of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1959.

Famed sportswriter Dan Daniel once said, “Bill Dickey isn’t just a catcher. He’s a ballclub.”

Dickey actually was born in north Louisiana at Bastrop as one of seven children, but he always considered himself an Arkansan. When he was just 3, his family moved to Kensett in White County. The Dickey family moved to Little Rock when Bill was 15.

Dickey was assigned by the Yankess to the Little Rock Travelers for the 1928 season, but he was moved up to New York later in the season. He became the Yankees’ regular catcher in 1929 and batted .324. His longevity from that point forward was amazing. Dickey would play for the Yankees until 1946. He was an All-Star selection in 1933, ’34, ’36, ’37, ’38, ’39, ’40, ’41, ’42, ’43 and ’46.

Dickey’s best friend on the team was Lou Gehrig. Dickey was the only Yankee teammate to be invited to Gehrig’s wedding and the first Yankee that Gehrig told of the disease that would end his life. Dickey played himself in the move about Gehrig, “Pride of the Yankees,” that starred Gary Cooper.

Inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1979, Little Rock native Brooks Robinson remains a legendary figure in Baltimore, where he spent his major league career. Following his retirement at the end of the 1977 season, Robinson began a 16-year career as a television announcer for the Orioles. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983 in his first year of eligibility. He’s one of only six former Orioles to have had a number retired by the team.

Was Robinson the best third baseman to ever play the game? Some baseball historians think so. He began playing about as soon as he could walk. Robinson’s father, a fireman, had played semipro baseball and also was a member of the 1937 International Harvester softball team from Little Rock that played in the finals of the World Softball Championship in Chicago.

Known as the Human Vacuum Cleaner, Brooks Robinson won an amazing 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1960-75) during his career. His best season offensively came in 1964 when he batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. He was the American League MVP that year, receiving 18 of the 20 first-place votes. Mickey Mantle was second in the voting.

Dizzy Dean was born on Jan. 16, 1910, in the small, rural community of Lucas in Logan County. Lucas no longer exists on the official state map put out by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1983. On the same night, his brother, Paul Dee “Daffy” Dean, also was inducted.

Dizzy’s real name was Jay Hanna Dean.

He once said, “The dumber a pitcher is, the better. When he gets smart and begins to experiment with a lot of different pitches, he’s in trouble. All I ever had was a fastball, a curve and a changeup, and I did pretty good.”

Pretty good indeed. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, Dean posted a career pitching record of 150-83 and went on to be one of the country’s most famous and beloved sportscasters from 1941-74. He led the National League in strikeouts four times in 1932, ’33, ’34 and ’35. He won 30 games in 1934, earned National League Most Valuable Player honors and led the Cardinals to a World Series championship against the Detroit Tigers.

Arkansas has always been St. Louis Cardinals territory, and few Cardinals were more popular with fans in this state than native Arkansan Lou Brock. Brock, who turned 71 last month, was born in El Dorado as the seventh of nine children. His father left the family when Brock was just 2. After the father’s abrupt departure, Brock’s mother moved her family to a cotton plantation near tiny Collinston in Morehouse Parish in north Louisiana.

Brock’s mother worked long hours as a field laborer and a domestic employee. Beginning at a young age, her seventh child worked alongside her in the fields. He was quiet and introverted. No one could have guessed at the time that Brock would retire as baseball’s all-time stolen bases leader, a record that stood until 1991.

Born in Swifton in August 1922, George Kell began playing baseball at an early age. His father, a barber, loved baseball and played for a local semipro team. Kell graduated from high school and attended what’s now Arkansas State University in Jonesboro for one year. In 1940, however, he was offered a contract with the Newport team in the Northeast Arkansas League.

With many major league players serving in World War II, Kell (who had been rejected by the military due to a bad knee) was called up to the Philadelphia Athletics. He played there for Athletics Manager Connie Mack before being traded to the Detroit Tigers during the 1946 season. Kell blossomed in the Motor City. As a player and later a longtime broadcaster in Detroit, Kell always made sure people knew he was from Arkansas. He loved the state and its people.

When baseball statistical wizard Bill James finished rating major league players at all positions, he wound up with Joseph Floyd “Arky” Vaughan as the second-best shortstop in the history of the game. The top spot went to Honus Wagner. It’s quite an achievement for a man from tiny Clifty in the hills of Madison County.

Vaughan was one of six children. When he was an infant, his father became an oilfield worker and the family moved to Fullerton, Calif. But the nickname “Arky” stuck, and the people of this state have long claimed this native Arkansan as one of their own. Vaughan was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.

Travis Jackson, meanwhile was born in Waldo and died in Waldo. Jackson was widely considered the best shortstop in the National League during the Roaring ’20s when major league baseball captivated the attention of Americans. He earned the nickname “Stonewall” for his defense. Jackson was a member of just the second class of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1960. In 1982, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Jackson, the son of a storekeeper, was born in November 1903. He excelled early in baseball and played for a time for the state’s college baseball powerhouse at Ouachita. Manager John McGraw of the New York Giants eventually would sign Jackson even though the Giants had a shortstop, Dave Bancroft, who would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jackson was just 5-foot-10, 160 pounds but was known for his range as a shortstop.

All of these stories are are archived at www.arksportshalloffame.org. I hope you will check them out. While you’re at it, sign up to have future stories e-mailed to you.

There are some amazing sports stories to tell in Arkansas.

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The baseball men

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

The Arkansas Travelers have their first home game tonight.

I won’t be at Dickey-Stephens Park. I’ll be out of town, attending the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association.

But I didn’t want to let opening day in North Little Rock pass without noting the fact that Bert Parke is stepping down after three decades as the president of the Travelers. Parke, 80, announced his intentions last week during a Travelers board meeting that I attended. The Travelers made it official yesterday with a news release.

Thank you, Mr. Parke.

I serve on the board of the Travelers, but most of us don’t do much. The club actually is run by a five-person executive committee that consists of Parke, Ben Scroggin (who has been on the board even longer than Parke), Charles Logan, Frank Thomas and Russ Meeks.

Working hand in hand for many years with former Travelers general manager Bill Valentine, these men are largely responsible for keeping professional baseball in Central Arkansas.

Valentine, Parke, Scroggin, Logan, Thomas and Meeks — if you like Texas League baseball, you have these six men to thank (along with Warren Stephens and the less than 51 percent of North Little Rock voters who approved the tax needed to build Dickey-Stephens Park).

Meeks, a Little Rock attorney, has replaced Parke as only the fifth team president since the Travelers became a fan-owned entity 50 years ago. Parke will remain on the executive committee with the title of president emeritus.

“I love the Travelers and the game of baseball more than I can express,” Parke said. “I’m proud to have helped accomplish the goal of keeping professional baseball here in Central Arkansas during my tenure.”

It hasn’t been easy. As Ray Winder Field aged, professional baseball officials outside the state placed more and more pressure on the Travelers to build a new facility. At one time, I was one of the biggest advocates for simply fixing up Ray Winder, our Arkansas version of Fenway Park. Meeks, however, convinced me that there simply wasn’t enough room at Ray Winder to do all of the things the professional baseball powers that be were demanding.

Without a new ballpark, we eventually would have lost our professional affiliation. At best, the Travelers would have played in an independent league. It was that simple.

I’m still sick that the city of Little Rock made no effort whatsoever to save historic Ray Winder for amateur baseball. That says a lot about the priorities (or lack thereof) of those at City Hall. Those priorities never seem to include the youth of this community. But that’s another post for another day.

Our Travs remain in the Texas League, where they’ve been since 1966. It’s a league with a raft of new ballparks — including the beautiful Arvest Park in Springdale — that’s as strong as any league in professional baseball. The Travelers have now been an Angels affiliate since 2001, so that relationship seems solid.

Here’s what we have in Central Arkansas:

1. One of the finest minor league ballparks in the country in Dickey-Stephens Park and a quality, full-service restaurant, Ump’s, that’s actually located in the stadium.

2. A talented new team president in Meeks, who served 16 years as vice president and has donated literally thousands of hours of legal work to the club through the decades just because he loves baseball.

3. The great mind of Frank Thomas, who not only works for Warren Stephens at Stephens Inc. but also serves as the chairman of the River Cities Sports Commission.

4. Oldtimers such as Parke, Scroggin and Logan still around to offer sage advice.

5. One of the best young general managers in baseball in Pete Laven.

6. One of the best baseball play-by-play men in Phil Elson and a strong radio home at KARN-AM, 920.

7. Perhaps most important, the fact that the Travelers are the Green Bay Packers of minor league baseball. In other words, the club is owned by the fans. That prevents some millionaire owner from courting other cities and moving the club. Had the club been owned by an individual, I frankly think we would have lost it long ago.

Games tonight and Friday begin at 7:10 p.m. Saturday’s game begins at 6 p.m. Sunday’s game begins at 4 p.m. I plan to be there Sunday.

If you run into one of “the baseball men,” tell them thanks for keeping professional baseball alive in Central Arkansas.

Meanwhile, please let me know:

1. Your favorite minor league ballparks and why.

2. Your favorite major league ballparks and why.

Thanks goodness it’s April. Thank goodness it’s baseball season.

Play ball.

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Hot Stove

Friday, February 5th, 2010

The ice storm came a few days early this year.

The Arkansas Travelers held their annual hot stove meeting Tuesday night in North Little Rock. When the Travelers host the hot stove gathering, it’s usually a recipe for either winter weather or, as was the case two years ago, tornadoes.

My friend Mike Dugan, who knows as much about the sport of baseball and its history as anyone I’ve met, always drives up from Hot Springs for the hot stove meeting. He can tell some horror stories of sliding back to Hot Springs on slick roads following these winter gatherings in years past.

It was a bit chilly this year, but otherwise the weather was fine. The term “hot stove” often is used in baseball lingo to refer to offseason activities. The daily offseason show of record on the MLB Network is titled “Hot Stove,” in fact.

Having attended this event for the past 20 years, I can never remember a larger crowd for a Travelers hot stove meeting. There has been a renewal of interest in minor league baseball nationwide in recent years. And rather than having fan interest drop off significantly after the first season of playing games at Dickey-Stephens Park, interest in the Travelers seems at an all-time high as they prepare to play their fourth season there.

I have great memories of that first Dickey-Stephens game on the evening of Thursday, April 12, 2007. Walking around the ballpark, you could tell this was a place where virtually everything had been done correctly. For once, the architects had listened to the baseball people. You knew attendance would be high that season. People would come simply because they wanted to check out a new facility. But they kept coming in 2008 and 2009. I expect good crowds again this year.

Travelers fans might be interested in knowing that there’s an informative blog called Travs and Such, which can be found at www.travsandsuch.blogspot.com. Here’s what that blog had to say about Tuesday’s event at the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce: “For what is essentially a non-event, I sure do look forward to the hot stove every year. Look, the hot stove is basically hot dogs, beer, some giveaways, the usual smoke being blown about the organization and how they love their affiliates, the Travs staff and a roomful of people who care way too much about baseball. There is nothing going on worth the effort it takes to get out on a cold February night. Yet there I was, in a standing-room-only crowd, dreaming of April evenings at the ballpark.”

Yes, we were all dreaming of April. The older I get, the less tolerant I become of winter. I realize there are still several weeks of winter staring us in the face (it appears as if it will be cold all of next week). But we can dream.

The Travelers open the season on April 8 in Midland. The home opener is Thursday, April 15, also against Midland. Those wanting to buy season tickets can call 664-1555.

Once again this year, all of the Travelers games will be on KARN-AM, 920, their traditional home back in the days when Jim Elder did homes games and re-created the road games from a Little Rock studio. For a number of years, there was no coverage at all of Trav road games, making them one of the few AA teams not to broadcast games on the road. The Travs finally moved into the 20th century early in the 21st century when Phil Elson was hired in 2001 as the club’s first full-time broadcaster.

Luckily for Arkansas fans, Elson, now 33, found a home and decided to stick around for the past decade. Continuity is a good thing — and a rare thing — in minor league baseball. Elson recently was named the Arkansas Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Assocation. For much of the past decade, Elson’s broadcasts were bounced from station to station, sometimes on signals that were even hard to pick up at night at my home near Foxwood. So it’s good to have the Travelers on KARN’s 5,000-watt AM signal for a second consecutive season.

By the way, I may take off work on May 11. The Travelers and the Springdale Cardinals play an 11 a.m. game that day. At 7 p.m. the same day, the University of Arkansas baseball team will take on Louisiana Tech. Thus in its fourth season, Dickey-Stephens Park will host its first day-night doubleheader — one professional game and one college game. It should be fun.

With football ending Sunday (Geaux Saints!), spring cannot get here soon enough. I have the winter blues. The cure is to remind myself that pitchers and catchers report later this month.

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