Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Koufax Dons Dodgers Uniform for First Time Since 1980s

                                                  [Paul Sancya/Associated Press]
Sandy Koufax signing autographs in Phoenix on Thursday.
February 22, 2013

By Karen Crouse
New York Times

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ed Farmer, the voice of the Chicago White Sox, will tell you that as a teenager he heard the voice of God and that it belonged to Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers' Hall of Fame left-handed pitcher.

When Farmer heard Friday that Koufax was working with pitchers on a field at the Dodgers' spring-training site at Camelback Ranch, which it shares with the White Sox, he made his way over to pay homage to the man he credits for his 11-year major league career.

At 18, Farmer said, he was introduced to Koufax by Alvin Dark, who was managing Farmer in Cleveland, the team that drafted him in the fifth round of the 1967 draft. According to Farmer, Koufax commented on the size of Farmer's hands and said, "You're going to have a big curve

"He showed me how to throw the curve," Farmer said. "He made me a lot of money."

For the first time since the late 1980s, Koufax is back in a Dodgers uniform. He is spending 10 days at training camp as a pitching instructor, lured back to the franchise that made him famous by the
team's head of marketing, Lon Rosen, and president, Stan Kasten.

During a morning throwing session, he gave pointers to Zach Lee, Chris Capuano, Chad Billingsley and Ryu Hyun-Jin, a left-hander from South Korea who said Koufax is a celebrity in his country too.

"That's because of Chan Ho Park," Koufax said with a shrug, referring to the first South Korean-born player in the majors, who broke in with the Dodgers in 1994.

Koufax, who spent 11 years beginning in 1970 as a Dodgers minor league instructor, said he was approached by Rosen about returning to the franchise in some capacity at a Dodgers game last summer, proof, he said that he is not the J.D. Salinger of baseball as has been written. "I'm at the Final Four, I go to ball games, I go to golf outings, I go to dinner," he said. "I live my life."

Koufax is 77 and wiry, 35 pounds lighter than his pitching weight but nimble enough to toss a baseball and shag balls after bunting practice. Asked about his arthritic left elbow, which hastened his
retirement in 1966, Koufax joked, "You haven't seen me throw anything, have you?"

The art of pitching is summed up in his book in one sentence: "Get people out."

"There are so many ways to pitch," he said. "There's the best way to throw and then there's pitching."

Koufax said he is impressed with what he has seen so far from the Dodgers pitchers, a star-studded group that includes Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett and Zack Greinke.

One of his favorite aspects of baseball, in his day and now, Koufax said, is the camaraderie of the clubhouse. The players, he said, "have kind of included me in some stuff." He added, "It's kind of fun."

He noted that camps are far smaller than in his day. "We had 600 players in camp," he said. "Players were wearing A,B,C,D on their uniforms beside their numbers."

He described baseball as if it were some precursor to today's reality television shows, where a small cast is assembled from mass tryouts. "This was before free agency," Koufax said. "So you'd have 600 players in camp and if 100 players were injured, they went out and signed 100 more."

Now, he added, "It's about protecting your assets because you don't have too many."

In Koufax, the Dodgers have a golden resource. He is able to connect with players young enough to be his grandchildren. Among fans of all ages, he remains a beloved figure. A man approached Koufax to tell him his Southern California-reared Jewish mother grew up with a massive crush on him.

Then there was Farmer, who shook Koufax's hand vigorously. After Farmer told his big hands story, he and Koufax put their palms together to see whose hand was bigger (Koufax appeared to have the
edge, by a fingertip). Farmer produced a black-and-white photo in which he is throwing a curve and showed it to Koufax so he could see that that 18-year-old absorbed his lesson well.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Michael Jordan at 50: Remembering his forgettable baseball career

Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday, and few will
spend much time looking back on his baseball career.

By Steve Politi
February 16, 2013

The P.R. guy for the visiting minor-league team was clear: His right fielder would only do interviews if he made an impact on the game.

So as the fly ball headed toward the left-field wall in Zebulon, N.C., on that sticky night in July 1994, you can forget the rule about no cheering in the press box. It came up a few yards short, as too many of them did for the 31-year-old rookie with the Birmingham Barons that summer, but it was good enough for a sac fly.

And good enough for us.

“I’d like to put in that request for Michael Jordan!” I said.

Maybe the first thing you remember about Jordan is the shot that propelled North Carolina to the national title over Georgetown in 1982, or the mesmerizing layup when he changed hands in midair against the Lakers, or the iconic shot that gave him his sixth and final NBA title.

Jordan turns 50 Sunday. He authored far more than 50 transcendent moments in his career, all of them still as fresh now as when they happened – and plenty of them filling the ESPN airwaves and Sports Illustrated pages this week because he is still among the most popular athletes in the world.

That sac fly in tiny Zebulon, home of the Carolina Mudcats, will not make any of these lists. Still: This is how I often remember Jordan now, standing outside the squat cinderblock building where the visiting team dressed with about 200 fans pushing so hard against a nearby fence I worried for their safety.

It couldn’t have been more surreal. Here was a team of so-so prospects and washed-up former big leaguers, all riding a bus – a specially outfitted bus, thanks to him – with a multi-millionaire superstar from another sport who was as famous as anyone on the planet.

Here was Michael Jordan, less than an hour from where his basketball career first exploded, giving interviews about a meaningless sac fly in a Double-A baseball game on the edge of nowhere.

“My teammates – I told them I was going to come out here and play a practical joke that I was going back to basketball and retiring from baseball,” Jordan said, cracking a smile. “But for me to do that, you guys would take it an extra step. And I don’t want to do that.”

That was all that mattered, of course: Getting back to basketball. Jordan leaving the sport was especially hard to comprehend in North Carolina, where he led Dean Smith to his first national title as a freshman in 1982.

His retirement and baseball dalliance wasn’t just a curiosity in his home state. For many, it was a betrayal. I was an intern at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., that summer, assigned to the minors because they were the lowest rung on the ladder. Fans weren’t waiting for him to stop chasing a curveball, but to stop chasing this weird baseball dream, period.

He was 31 and in the prime of his career, and the reasons he stepped away from basketball were real. He was burned out after winning three straight championships with the Bulls. He was emotionally drained after his father was murdered on the side of a highway the summer before.

Still, regardless of the motivation, piling on became fashionable. “Michael Jordan has no more business patrolling right field in Comiskey Park,” Sports Illustrated wrote, “than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls.” Wasn’t he wasting a chance to add to his legacy?

Looking back now, though, that summer only added to it. A lot of athletes have dominated a sport the way Jordan did. A lot were as hungry to win or as feared in the clutch or even successfully returned from retirement.

None was brave enough to try to master another sport entirely – and this excludes two-sport stars such as Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, because Jordan hadn’t played baseball since he was a teenager. He might have been a failure in a baseball uniform, with a Mendoza-line .202 batting average in 127 games that summer. But returning to basketball after a year-and-a-half absence and winning three more titles confirmed his greatness.

The time away, in hindsight, made the legacy stronger. Even if it felt like a bad sports movie at the time.

“There was a lot of speculation made about my announcement of retirement and going back to basketball, and it wasn't started by me,” Jordan said that night in Zebulon. “I think that’s some of the media pressures trying to get me back in the game. That's totally not going to work.

“No, I’m not going back to basketball, as I heard you guys say on the television and the radio,” he said. “I’m here, I’m happy to be here, and I will remain here.”

He played three games that weekend, going 1 for 9 with three strikeouts and two RBI that nobody remembers. Then, as his teammates filed out of that cinderblock clubhouse, he hopped into a Lexus and drove away.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Reversing Course on Reports About a Classic

Gary Cooper portrayed the left-handed slugger
Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees."

February 8, 2013
By Richard Sandomir
New York Times

Before the release of "The Pride of the Yankees," the 1942 biographical film about Lou Gehrig, there were reports that movie magic had been needed to solve a critical problem: making Gary Cooper, a right-handed movie star who was definitely not a ballplayer, into a credible version of the left-handed Gehrig, a Hall of Fame slugger with a .340 career batting average.

Lefty O'Doul, a former major leaguer, had been hired to convert Cooper into someone who could at least pretend he was a left-handed hitter and first baseman. But just days before the film opened, Shirley Povich, a Washington Post columnist, called reports that O'Doul had succeeded in his work "a heap of hokum." Instead, he wrote, "everything you see Cooper doing left-handed in the picture, he's actually doing right-handed."

The effect was achieved, he said, through trickery. Cooper would hit, catch and throw right-handed, but the film would be reversed to make it look as if he were a left-hander. To perpetuate the illusion, Cooper would run to third base on a hit, not first, and would station himself at third instead of first. The letters across the chest of his Yankees uniform would be sewn backward.

Everything, Povich said, "worked out beautifully."

Now, more than 70 years later, one researcher believes that reports by Povich and others about the cinematic sleight of hand were largely untrue but that a small amount of flipping probably took place. The researcher said that O'Doul's tutelage probably enabled Cooper, who was 40 when the film was made, to bat and catch left-handed with passable skill, although throwing was another matter.

"O'Doul knew a lot about teaching baseball," said the researcher, Tom Shieber, a senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "You can't sell Cooper short. I heard he wasn't much of an athlete, but if you look at his swing, it had a funny loop to it, but it wasn't bad."

Shieber began analyzing the film last month and ended up spelling out his conclusions in a lengthy article early this week on his personal blog,

As he pored over the film's frames, Shieber began to see how difficult it would have been for the director Sam Wood and the film's technicians to execute all the changes needed on the field for the film to be successfully reversed.

All the players in the shot with Cooper would have had to have the letters on their jerseys sewn backward to be read correctly when the film was flipped.

If Cooper wore a glove on the opposite hand, the other infielders would have had to do so, too. And if the first-base running lane was erased, an exact replica would have had to be drawn down third base.

Too many dominoes had to fall for the trickery to be worth the filmmakers' trouble, Shieber said. "Like a complicated conspiracy theory, every aspect of the plan would have to have been carefully planned out and perfectly executed," he wrote.

With an expertise in assessing the authenticity of historic uniforms, Shieber concluded that Cooper's Columbia University jersey in the movie "buttons together such that the left portion of the shirt placket is on top of the right," which is common for men's shirts. The same holds true of the way Cooper's Yankee jersey buttoned.

Shieber even compared the fly of Cooper and Gehrig's road uniform pants: they lay the same way, left side over right. If Cooper's fly followed the correct pattern, Shieber said, the film was not flipped.

Another clue in Shieber's research was the bat in Gehrig's hands: the "Powerized" logo above the Louisville Slugger brand name was angled correctly. Does anyone believe, he asked, that the filmmakers ordered backward-branded bats for the film?

"Why go to all that trouble?" he said.

Unlike Kevin Costner, who played well in "Bull Durham," Cooper was a novice. But "Pride of the Yankees" relied far less, relatively, on his athleticism than on the love story between Cooper and Teresa Wright, who portrayed Gehrig's wife, Eleanor.

O'Doul built Cooper's swing by having him chop trees, but he told Cooper, "You throw a ball like an old woman tossing a hot biscuit." Years later, Cooper wrote that after "some painful weeks, he got my arm to work in a reasonable duplicate of Gehrig's throwing."

As for the flipping that probably did occur, Shieber said he noticed that the bandage that was seen on Cooper's left hand while throwing looked quite similar to a bandage on his right hand as he adjusted his cap, apparent evidence that that part of the film was flipped. In another sequence, Shieber saw that Cooper's jersey buttoned the wrong way — right placket over left — an indication of more flipping.

Shieber acknowledged that more flipping may have been left on the cutting room floor or that the filmmakers may have taken a shot at reversing all of Cooper's playing sequences before it "got too unruly."

Cooper's own words, in a 1956 Saturday Evening Post article, dispute Shieber's findings. He wrote that he knew the difficulties of playing the left-handed Gehrig but that a solution had been found.

"To remedy this in close-ups," he wrote, "the letters on my uniform were reversed as in mirror writing, and the film was processed with the back side to the front. My right hand thus appeared to be my left."

Was Cooper exaggerating?

Maria Cooper Janis, Cooper's daughter, backs her father. "My mother told me that he tried like the dickens to do it as a lefty," she said by phone. "But he couldn't."

Shieber's conclusion, though, may create some renewed, and welcome, curiosity about a movie now 71 years old.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The oldest baseball you have ever seen

Via Slate, the story (and image) of a really old baseball. I mean, really, really old ...

"During the War Between the States, the game was played on the battlefields and even in wartime prison camps. Baseball was, after all, portable, and even amid the horrors of war, soldiers sometimes found opportunities to play on the vast open fields where they needed only a bat, a ball, and a few willing participants.

This ball was found and retrieved in 1862 in Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee, on the grounds of one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles. The ball is inscribed: "Picked Up on the Battle Field at Shiloh by G.F. Hellum." Giles Hellum was an African-American who worked as an orderly for the Union Army at Shiloh. He later enlisted as a soldier in the 69th Colored Infantry."

Above is the actual baseball in question; this spring, this and many other artifacts will be featured in a new online museum, The National Pastime.*