Friday, March 29, 2013

With release of Jackie Robinson movie, don't forget baseball's other black pioneers

From left, Brooklyn Dodgers baseball players John Jorgensen,
Pee Wee Reese, Ed Stanky and Jackie Robinson pose at
Ebbets Field in New York on April 15, 1947. (AP)

By Fay Vincent
March 29, 2013

In a few days, the new baseball season and a new baseball-centered film arrive. The film, “42,” takes its title from the uniform number of Jackie Robinson and documents his travails and celebrates his achievements as he left the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1947 to become a Brooklyn Dodger and the first black major leaguer.

I have long held the old Negro League ballplayers in special regard for keeping our game alive during the long years when players of color were denied the opportunity to play in the major leagues. Some superb players played only in the Negro Leagues, including Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and others.

But some were young enough when the gates fell to have been able to play in the majors. To my good fortune, three former major league stars who had begun as Negro League players -- Larry Doby, Joe Black and Ernie Banks -- became good friends of mine, as did “Slick” Surratt, who played only in the Negro Leagues, and they had much to tell of their experiences in segregated America.

I wanted to share their stories, so some 20 years ago these four – only the ebullient Banks survives -- accompanied me as we visited several colleges to talk to kids about their baseball lives and especially about the significance of the Negro Leagues.

The number of surviving alumni of the Negro Leagues is now tiny. But many of their stories have been preserved. I did extended interviews of many former Negro League players, and the tapes of those interviews are available at the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.

In those interviews and in the talks that my traveling companions gave at the colleges we visited, it became clear to me these men took their baseball seriously and played with pride at the highest level permitted to them.

Surratt told me the players were paid at essentially the level of high school teachers in the black community, yet a symbol of pride they wore coats and ties when the travelled. Their busses may have been fully depreciated but their dress signaled their self- respect.

The baseball played in those leagues was of a high caliber, and the players were skilled professionals. Yet there were other dimensions to their lives.

I once asked Slick why the players played so hard and to win. He smiled wryly at me and then asked if I wanted the baseball answer or the real reason. I asked for both.

“Well,” he said, “we played hard because we never knew whether there was some young kid named Willie Mays who might be there to try out for the team after the game, and we were afraid of losing our jobs. And then there is the real reason.”

He paused for effect.

“You see the winning team got the best girls.”

Remember, his name was “Slick.”

At one college we visited, after Larry Doby had explained the problems of not being able to eat at the best -- but white only -- restaurants in Southern towns, a young black student challenged him: “Why did you accept that? Why didn’t you just insist on being served? Why were you so laid back?”

Larry was patient and gentle: “Young man, let me explain something to you. If we had been difficult or ornery, one of two things would have happened and maybe both. We surely would have been arrested, and we might have been killed. You understand?”

The student had little familiarity with the Jim Crow era, and as a result, the impact on students of the dignified and elegant black ball players was dramatic.

Wherever we went the kids thronged around the players to hear directly of experiences none of them would ever share and few of them could imagine. The simple eloquence, however, of the players made our visits to the colleges some of the most memorable times of my life. The players explained and the kids recognized how much Rosa Parks had endured and helped to change on that bus in Birmingham.

I will look for the new film on Jackie with interest. I hope the filmmakers have avoided the temptation to add gloss to his story. The simple but piercing facts ought to be sufficient.

As I listened to Larry Doby during those college visits, I recall being so moved as he spoke of the loneliness, fear and doubt he experienced in his first days in the major leagues. Softly, he emphasized the loving support of his wife and of the vital strength he drew from Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians who had brought him to the team as the first black in the American League.

That was the experience Jackie shared. One hopes this film captures what these young players had to accept as this nation suffered through our own form of Apartheid. Think of what black baseball players have meant to our game since 1947, when Jackie first played as a Brooklyn Dodger. Think then of what we would have missed had the color line survived another 10 or 20 years.

I trust this new film will serve as the reminder of the magnificent gift Jackie and Larry and all the other black pioneers gave us.

Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries and from 1989-92 served as the Commissioner of Baseball.

Friday, March 01, 2013

From rookies to legends, Koufax leaves mark on camp

Special advisor to chairman provides
knowledge of game, link to Dodgers' past

Dodgers play-by-play legend Vin Scully sits
down with Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax to
discuss lefties, pitching and the Dodgers
By Ken Gurnick /

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Sandy has left the building.

In Elvis fashion, Sandy Koufax finished his initial 10-day Spring Training assignment as special advisor to the Dodgers chairman Thursday having left an unforgettable impression, even on fellow legends.

"The owners have done so many things correctly that have lifted the spirits of fans and everybody in the organization and by bringing Sandy back have added to the optimism," said another iconic Hall of Famer, Vin Scully.

"They've been able to bring back someone whose name has always been linked to the Dodgers, and I'm sure the fans think the owners have done another smart thing. That's the way I look at it. It's just great."

Zack Greinke might win 20 games this year, but the early leader for best acquisition is the 77-year-old Koufax, who won't throw a pitch. Koufax said he will attend an Old Timers Game at Dodger Stadium on June 8 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 World Series team and perhaps drop in on the club at a series or two on the East Coast.

"Beyond that, I really don't know," he said.

The hiring of Koufax has been universally praised as a coup by the new Guggenheim Partners ownership. In the past, Koufax has been a Spring Training visitor to see staff friends, but always as a private citizen. He hasn't worked for a club since a stint as a Dodgers Minor League instructor from 1979-89.

In addition to the obvious public relations bonanza of the hiring, management wanted to tap into Koufax's teaching strengths, as well as fortify an ongoing mission of reconnecting with players from the Dodgers' glory years.

"I grew up like that with the Yankees," said manager Don Mattingly. "[Mickey] Mantle, Catfish [Hunter], Whitey [Ford]. The Yankees would bring all of them back. Mickey just kind of hung around being Mickey. He was great. Catfish, he and I would go to a back field and he would pitch seven innings to me. He could still throw all right, and he'd try to get me out.

"If you have resources like that, it's just foolish not to use them. And having them around helps your players understand the history of the game. I want guys like that and Tommy Lasorda around, I want them asking why I did this and why I did that. I want the best information. I want Sandy challenging our way of doing things if he thinks there's a better way."

The Dodgers quickly slid Koufax into their daily program, and he worked one on one with many pitchers in camp, especially three of the starters he has counseled in the past -- Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett and Chris Capuano.

But Koufax also worked with relievers like Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra, and young Major Leaguers like Josh Wall. Midway through his stay, the role expanded to one-on-one morning sessions with the top pitching prospects in Minor League camp -- Zack Lee, Chris Reed, Angel Sanchez, Jose Dominguez and converted third baseman Pedro Baez, who Koufax said shocked him by displaying "four Major League pitches" even though he's thrown only one inning in his life, in instructional league.

"When I came back to the organization in 2001, one of the major goals was to get the Dodgers back to the way they taught pitching for so many years," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "They had gotten away from it, from the way it was taught by the great pitching coaches like Red Adams, Ron Perranoski, Dave Wallace and Sandy.

"The great thing about having Sandy around is to listen to the stories of success, not just his great talent pitching, but his ability to say in simple terms what we're trying to accomplish. I've always felt that I'm an extension of him in that way. And it was especially great for him to work with our Minor League coaches so we're all on the same page. Who better to learn from than the best?"

Koufax's presence lured autograph seekers in such numbers that management had to deploy metal crowd barriers after he was nearly overwhelmed the second day walking from one field to another.

If shy in public, Koufax was anything but when in his baseball element.

"All the great moments in my life that I cherish came back to the surface, being able to relive them with Sandy," said former teammate Maury Wills, still a bunting instructor at age 80. "Since he's been here, it's like reliving all those great moments.

"Surprisingly, he seems to be enjoying participating. He's so quiet and humble. But just to see him get involved is such a pleasure. I feel that two days from now, he'll realize how much he enjoyed it. It might get to the point where he's missing being here."

Koufax had a different but undeniable impact on players like catcher A.J. Ellis.

"What his presence says from the standpoint of the players and the people in the organization is that, through the ownership change, they are bringing back a Dodger legend and royalty that has earned and deserves to be part of the organization," said Ellis.

"The time between innings and bullpens, I'll never forget the insight he's given me to the mental side of pitching and game-calling, and it's something I'll carry into the season."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Disabled Navy veteran Jacobs is part of Dodgers' tryout thanks to Lasorda

Daniel "Doc" Jacobs at Dodger Tryout
[San Gabriel Valley Tribune]

By J.P. Hoornstra, Staff Writer

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Like a mouse creeping up an elephant, the thought of playing baseball with Dodgers officials watching made Daniel "Doc" Jacobs nervous.

"I still am nervous," Jacobs said Thursday, minutes after his audition was over.

On a back field at Camelback Ranch with the other participants in an open tryout with the Dodgers, Jacobs was a world away from Ramadi, Iraq. Seven years and three days earlier, he was on a battlefield in Ramadi when an IED exploded beneath him, killing the Marine with him and shattering his body.

Jacobs underwent more than 50 surgeries, including an amputation of his left leg below the knee. Within years, he became the first amputee to return to active duty in the Navy.

On Thursday, the 27-year-old was number 627 – nothing more than the number on his back, nothing less than a hero.

"Once we kicked off the war in Iraq, I decided that I wanted to go in and serve and carry on my family heritage," he said. "Everybody in every generation in my family has served. I didn't know if we were ever going to fight a war again so I wanted to definitely go fight in a war, really fight for our freedom."

Jacobs said his great-grandfather fought in World War II, and an ancestor on his mother's side fought in the Civil War.

His other dream was to play Major League Baseball.

The opportunity arose a year ago when Jacobs met former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda at a California Disabled Veterans Business Alliance meeting and shared his dream. Lasorda invited Jacobs to try out on the spot; Jacobs obliged and decided not to wear the hat of his childhood team, the Cleveland Indians.

"I didn't want to disrespect him by that," Jacobs said.

Unless you were looking closely at his left leg, Jacobs' tryout was indistinguishable from most. He fielded a pair of ground balls cleanly but long-hopped both throws. A backhand was hit to his right side, but it went under his glove and rolled onto the outfield grass. Another backhand met Jacobs' glove cleanly, but he short-hopped that throw.

For Jacobs, there was more to the tryout than what could fit in a scouting report.

"It's all about the experience, and letting America and these guys know that not all disabled veterans are going to be a statistic in the news," he said. "I'm here to combat the suicide rate, homicide rate, divorce rate statistics. I just want to get out there and prove to America there are awesome disabled veterans out there and we are making a stand against that."