Wednesday, October 25, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - Final chapter

Leaving Home Forever
Immediately after the World Series victory, people rushed into the same streets where one year before, police and innocent residents huddled behind cars not wanting to be shot to death by snipers. They were the same streets that saw blood spilled and onto which the charred ruins of thousands of buildings crumbled.
This time, car horns honked in unison, church bells rang and voices screamed in joy until turning hoarse and silent. Those of us who were baby boomers (born after 1946) could not have known how the end of World War II was celebrated, but it was thought this came close.
There was momentary unity among all people – black and white and it was because of the Tigers. Nothing socially had changed; the symbols and scars of the 1967 riots stood for years – unchanged and unchallenged.
By the time 1968 had ended, my family’s extraction from the city of Detroit was, more or less, complete. We’d left for the suburbs and only ventured below the city limits of Eight Mile Road when necessary.
I graduated from a suburban high school in 1970 – having enrolled as the “Inner City Kid” (which was actually funny if one took the time to think about it), played a year of high school football before a back injury forced me to retire (without any pomp or ceremony, sorry) and prepared for my freshman year at the University of Michigan.
I returned to the old stadium for certain cherished moments – when the Tigers clinched the division in 1972 on a single by the grizzled veteran Al Kaline at 11:11 p.m.; to watch rookie pitcher Mark Fidrych talk to the baseball and enchant sellout crowds like no other player in 50 years’ time; or to see big Frank Howard hit a game-winning line-drive home run on a Monday night national broadcast, to beat the dreaded Yankees, after meeting actor George C. Scott in person.
But a new life beckoned me. My mother had passed away suddenly in 1972 and I became estranged from my home even though it was just 30 miles away. It could have been 30,000 miles. I needed to forge a path of my own and see where it would lead me. A Greyhound bus took me southbound to Texas, listening to my radio of another Tiger game (the last I’d hear for years on that medium) as the stadium faded into darkness and distance.
I returned one time in 1990, when my son was 10 and I was attending my 20th high school reunion with him in tow.
We went to see Detroit play Boston and watched a 1-0 shutout. Journeyman Jeff Robinson twirled a masterpiece but the game lasted less than two hours and before we knew it, our adventure was over and out. I felt somewhat cheated that I couldn’t show my son all the glories and all the memories stored inside me like Al Capone’s vault.
I would never again eat a stadium kielbasa, never see a lazy fly ball nestled into the right field upper deck for a home run (while the fielder waited for what he thought would be a sure out), never get to gaze at the centerfield scoreboard as updated scores were posted from out-of-town contests, never see the pennants of each American League team according to current standings fly on top of the stadium roof, never leave through the centerfield bleachers onto Cochrane or Michigan Avenue, talking baseball with total strangers or never see the gray old lady in all he splendor on game day.
Comerica Park is a stranger to me; it might as well be the Pyramids or Eiffel Tower – landmarks I’ve seen on television but visiting in person seems highly doubtful. It is located at a site that used to house many of the city’s grand theater palaces, in the area known as Grand Circus Park (which was neither a park nor that grand). It would feel strange to see a baseball game a few yards away from the place where my family went to se “The Sound of Music” as the Grand Circus Theater.
It’s a multi-purpose facility, where you can watch America’s pastime and let your children romp in a play area. It has a huge television screen on its scoreboard and more advertising on walls than most Sunday newspapers carry in circulars. It also seats less people, almost 20,000 less and allows fans to view the (dubious) Detroit skyline through the outfield fence. Fans apparently for regular season games can buy standing room tickets and watch the game through a porous wrought-iron fence in right field.
In the old days, all you saw was stadium; an enclosed edifice that seems to capture all the sights, smells and sounds of baseball as if one was encased in surround sound stereophonic.
An underdog Tiger team made it to the 1972 American League championship series in 1972, before losing to one of the powerful teams in baseball, the Swinging A’s of Oakland.
In 1984, Detroit collected another powerhouse squad, winning 35 of its first 40 games and ending the season with the same winning percentage. The Tigers swept Kansas City in the ALCS and dismissed San Diego 4-1, capping the clinching game with a prodigious Kirk Gibson three-run home run in the eighth inning off reliever Goose Gossage.
That roster was kept together through 1987, but the Tigers lost the ALCS to Minnesota (the eventual World Series champs) and promptly fell into disrepair. Their decline was metaphorical for the public’s perceived decline of the entire city.
In 2003, Detroit came within one game of posting the all-time worst record for any major league baseball team, challenging the loveable but hapless 1962 New York Mets for that dubious distinction. The future was not bright and those shades people were wearing were to hiked identities.
But true fans are fans regardless of fair weather or stormy conditions. They are called diehards because hopes and dreams SHOULD die hard; the concept of a team – a city – reversing its fortunes and climbing out of the abyss is not only probable, it is absolute. It happens all the time in sports and in life.
Regardless of age and physical whereabouts, the heart dictates where the memories go. In 1968, my heart was at its fullest.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - chapter 7

In Search of Norm Cash
Whenever anyone asks, “Are you happy with what you did with your life?” I must honestly answer, “Almost.”
I was never unhappy with my chosen profession, but, as a young boy, it wasn’t what I REALLY wanted to be. I harbored the longing desire to replace Norman Dalton Cash as the first baseman of the Detroit Tigers.
Of course, there were a few problems attached to that dream. I wasn’t remotely good enough to do that and … well; everything else essentially flowed from that.
However, it never stunted my desire. It was akin to taking a shower and fantasizing with my air (and water) guitar being as proficient as Eric Clapton. While I ruled the close proximity of that shower head, once I stepped away from the friendly confines, reality took root. The inability to read music was akin to the failure to hit a fastball; it meant you searched elsewhere to earn your daily bread.
But the time Cash retired his Tiger uniform, I had stopped playing baseball and was trying to find a “real” job (as my father would term it) – one that actually filled a bank account and put food on my table. My vocation would be sports¬writing; my avocation would be day-dreaming about that first base opening.
But who WAS the man Tiger announcer Ernie Harwell labeled as “Stormin’ Norman?”
Although he was raised on a ranch in Justiceburg, Texas, Cash attended Post High School (1947-51) a few miles north on U.S. Highway 84. He was regarded as perhaps the finest all-around athlete to ever attend that school. Post, the county seat of Garza County, was known for being a unique colonizing effort from Michigan cereal magnate Charles William Post, who wanted to develop some 200,000 acres of ranchland in west Texas in 1907.
According to the online site, Handbook of Texas, Justiceburg is in southeastern Garza County, some 55 miles southeast of central Lubbock and 110 miles northwest of Abilene. The town site was originally known as LeForrest (also spelled Le Forest) and had a post office using that name from 1902-05.
In 1910, rancher Jefferson Davis Justice purchased the land, and granted the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad right of way. LeForrest was renamed Justiceburg in honor of this development and in 1911, the railroad became a part of the landscape. The railroad, now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe network, still runs through Justiceburg.
It never grew much in its history; according to records, the population was somewhere between 25-76 residents – most of whom were descendants of Jefferson Davis Justice. According to the 2000 census, the population of the Justiceburg ZIP code area (79330) was 60.
There was once a viable schoolhouse and depot, but they were long ago abandoned, as were many of the homes. East of U.S. 84, there still sits an active church while those homes, which still are occupied, are located west of that highway.
On April 23, 1995, the people of Post dedicated Norm Cash Field in memory of the city’s most famous athlete. It would be the home of the Post High School baseball team and where Post Little Leaguers would perform.
There is no formal Norm Cash Museum; there is only a display about him in the Sports Room of the Garza County Historical Museum in Post.
Mentioned in the T. Lindsay Baker book “More Ghost Towns of Texas,” the run¬down state of many structures gives the area the feel of being a “ghost town.”
I was just interested in one ghost.
There’s not much out in that part of America – lots of Mesquite trees, a rolling lilt to the terrain and plenty of weather-beating sun. One could not imagine living that kind of life unless it was ingrained in one’s blood and soul. Communities were distant even as measured by the flight of any crow.
I was living in small-town south Texas at the time when a day trip in my car was going to take me to the Panhandle on business for a regional press association. Up through San Antonio, past Brady, next to Coleman to Sweetwater and a straight shot on U.S. 84 from Snyder to Lubbock. Two hours after that, I would finally settle in Amarillo – a destination as far removed, and remote, from the brush country of my home.
In plotting the best route, I stopped at the stretch between Snyder and Post and the name “Justiceburg” first became visible. It was almost unseen on the map, hiding behind the well-folded crease of the AAA version of Texas. Still, I recognized it immediately and its importance to my child and young adulthood.
“My Gosh, I’ll be able to honor Norm Cash at last,” I told myself and went digging (unsuccessfully) for any old baseball cards hidden inside old scorecards and shoe boxes (where such things go to an eternal resting place).
As I crept closer during that day, the anticipation increased. How would it be? Did I have enough time to see the Tour de Cash that surely had to exist? After all, didn’t these people KNOW how damn important Norm Cash was to the world?!?
Outside of the ranching community of Snyder, I stopped at a convenience store, actually the ONLY convenience store, I asked if this was the right route to Justiceburg. The clerk looked at me as if I asked for directions to Timbuktu or Katmandu. I shrugged off the lack of assistance to being a stranger in a strange, strange land.
In about 17 minutes, I reached my point of worship, but, quickly, I stepped on the brakes as I saw very little in the way of proper homage. Luckily, there was no procession following me to see the birthplace of a great baseball player. I was quite alone in tilting this windmill.
There was a sign, a church with a few mailboxes in front and an abandoned convenience store. I drove up to the store, hoping that someone was in the process of converting it into the Norm Cash Memorial Museum or something akin. Silence and loneliness was all I saw.
I drove around the only crossroad that marked the community in all directions. I saw no signs, no plaques, no statues, no nothing. It was nothing more than a blink of the eye on the road and the tear in my eye showed my extreme disappointment.
I returned to that empty store parking lot and scribbled a note on a piece of paper – “N.C. 25 1968.” I pinned it to a piece of barbed wire on a fence separating some grazing pasture. I figured someone had to do something in terms of memories.
As I continued toward Amarillo, in between hearing about grain and livestock reports, and the newest from Texan George Strait on the only radio station available to break the silence, I thought about my profound sadness. How could these folks not understand; I did. They would be the poorer for it; not me.
However, chasing ghosts was not a productive use of one’s life, I decided.
Going from West Texas to a major industrial Midwestern city must have been more than normal culture shock for a country boy like Cash, but throughout his career, he maintained the “folksiness” that would be his lasting trademark. He wore cowboy boots to the game and entertained everyone with country-western tunes.
“Norm lived to play baseball,” said outfielder Jim Northrup. “I never saw him down; he was always upbeat with a smile on his face. Norm had more fun than anybody.”
Cash then went to San Angelo College (1951-53, now known as Angelo State University) and starred in football and baseball at Sul Rose State University (1953-56) in the Davis Mountains community of Alpine.
In 1955, he was drafted as a running back by the Chicago Bears but another Windy City team, the baseball White Sox signed Cash to a contract. He made it to the parent club in 1958 but played only 71 games in two seasons with the South Siders, showing none of the power that would come.
In 1960, Detroit acquired Cash from Cleveland (who earlier traded for him) in exchange a utility infielder named Steve Demeter. Cash played the next 15 seasons for the Tigers; Demeter had five more at-bats in the big leagues. Seldom have any trades in Major League Baseball history been so one-sided.
In 1961, Cash had statistics that became totally unrealistic to duplicate – hitting a league-high .361, smashing 41 home runs, driving in 132 and scoring 119 in just 535 at bats. Unfortunately he finished fourth in the voting for Most Valuable Player behind two Yankees on a magical mission in the ’61 season. Mickey Mantle was second with 54 home runs to Roger Maris’ MVP winning total of 61 round-trippers.
Neither had the overall numbers that Cash produced but New York finished eight games ahead in the standings despite Detroit’s 101 victories. No team has won more games and finished further behind than the 1961 Tigers.
“Nineteen sixty-one was one of those magical years that some of us have,” noted Hall of Fame teammate Al Kaline. “Later, I think Norm got a little carried away trying to hit homers, but overall he was a tremendous ballplayer and a great friend,”
“It was a freak; even at the time, I realized that,” Cash was quoted later in his life. “Everything I hit seemed to drop in, even when I didn’t make good contact. I never thought I’d do it again.”
Tiger ace hurler Mickey Lolich once told a reporter that he asked Cash why he never hit for a higher average after the 1961 season.
“He (Cash) told me, ‘Jim Campbell pays me to hit home runs,’” Lolich explained, referring to the Tiger general manager during Cash’s tenure. “Norm then said, ‘I can get hits if I want to, just watch tomorrow.’ The next day he went 3-for-4.”
For his career, Cash hit .271 with 377 home runs, 1,103 RBI and 1,046 runs scored. Of his 1,820 hits, 241 were doubles and an astonishing 41 were triples for a first baseman. He was a four-time All-Star (1961, 1966, 1971, 1972) and was a vastly underrated fielder. In the ‘68 World Series, Cash was the team’s leading hitter at .385 with 10 hits and five RBI.
There are enough Norm Cash stories to keep a standup comedian busy for hours – many of which are as ribald and the man himself could be. He was known to party hard and play harder.
Of all the tales tom be told, the most famous Cash story comes from the July 15, 1973 affair between Detroit and California toward the end of a Nolan Ryan no-hitter, fanning 17 Tigers in the process at Tiger Stadium.
The most famous Cash prank occurred July 15, 1973, when Nolan Ryan pitched a no-hitter for the California Angels at Tiger Stadium, striking out 17.
“In his last at-bat, Norm walked up to the plate with a table leg from the locker room,” Northrup related. “The plate umpire, Ron Luciano, says, ‘You can’t use that up here.’ Cash says, ‘Why not, I won’t hit him anyway.’ He then gets a bat, strikes out on three pitches, and walking away he says to Luciano, ‘See, I told ya.’“
When he retired, Cash was still in the public eye, hosting his own show on the Windsor, Canada station CKLW-TV. He had a short stint as a color commentator for Detroit games and was also a manufacturer’s representative.
However in 1979, Cash suffered a stroke that left his face partially paralyzed and caused his speech to be somewhat slurred.
Then on the night of October 11, 1986, at the age of just 51, Cash was walking back to his cabin cruiser, appropriately named the Stormin’ Norman, docked at Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. It is thought that he slipped off the dock and fell into the lake, and subsequently drowning.
To those of us Tiger diehards and secret worshipers of Number 25, the news hit hard in the gut.
“He always had his own style, but you always knew he was going to be there to play,” Campbell eulogized, upon learning of Cash’s death. “He might have gotten his nights and days mixed up now and then, but I’ve never known a ballplayer who got as much fun out of playing baseball. He was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Tiger uniform.”

Monday, October 23, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - Chapter 6

Sock it to ‘em, Tigers!
The executioner’s sword was not removed from the Tigers’ neck as they traveled to St. Louis for Game 6. The Tiger pitching, aside from Mickey Lolich, had been totally unreliable yet Detroit Manger Mayo Smith had few options.
Still facing elimination, Smith turned to McLain on just two days’ rest to start Game 6. McLain, who had lasted less than three innings in Game 4, was not as taxed as Lolich, responded as befit the 31-game winner he was that season. He scattered nine Cardinal hits and was the recipient of one of the biggest offensive innings in World Series history.
Detroit victimized starter Ray Washburn for two runs in the second inning and then produced 10 runs in the third off Washburn and three other hurlers. The inning was high¬lighted by a grand slam by centerfielder Jim Northrup to help tie the one-inning Series mark for most runs (by the Philadelphia Athletics against the Chicago Cubs in Game 4 – 1929).
The 13-1 final score meant the next afternoon would bring the most exciting concept in team sports – a winner-take-all game for a world championship, known as Game 7.
Again, Smith faced the decision of who to start. While Lolich sat in the Detroit dugout during Game 6, Smith approached him and as if Lolich could start on two days’ rest, despite throwing two complete game victories already.
“Do you think you can pitch five?” Smith asked to which Lolich answered, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“When I came in after five, he asked me could I go one more; which I did,” Lolich continued. “When I came in at the end of the sixth, he said, ‘Can you go one more?’ And then we scored the three runs in the seventh and he asked me if I could finish and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I never thought I was going to pitch in the seventh game.”
This time, Lolich was facing the other pitching star of the Series, Gibson, who also had two complete games. In lightning speed, the Year of the Pitcher crystallized into these two men, mowing down each other’s lineup.
Former Detroit Free Press beat writer and Detroit News columnist George Cantor captured the end of the 1968 World Series in his book “The Tigers of ‘68.”
“The confetti had already been prepared in downtown St. Louis, so sure were they that the Cardinals would win the World Series.
“Bob Gibson, the famous Cardinals pitcher was up for Game 7. He had had three days rest while Lolich had only two and despite his two gallant performances, no one thought he could match up against Gibson. It seemed to be a true prediction. Gibson mowed the Tigers down for the first six innings (except for one hit.)
“But Lolich was doing OK, matching Gibson almost pitch-for-pitch. Then the base stealer, Lou Brock got a single in the sixth (his record-tying 13th hit in the Series). Everyone knew what that meant. He would steal, setting up the winning run.
“Brock edged farther and farther off the bag, daring Lolich to throw the ball to the plate or to make a try for him. Finally, detecting what he thought was the start of Lolich’s delivery, he took off for second. Instead, Lolich threw to first. Cash rifled a perfect throw to Stanley, who was covering the bag like a veteran. Brock was tagged out.”
“Then Curt Flood, another base stealer, also singled. He, too, started a mind game with Lolich, but Lolich threw to first and Flood was out.
“At the end of six innings, in the final game of the series, the score was 0-to-0. Normal life slowed to a halt on this golden Thursday afternoon in Detroit, St. Louis and much of the rest of the nation, too. The drama at Busch Stadium was all that mattered.”
“It was when Mickey picked off Brock,” second baseman Dick McAuliffe told Cantor afterwards. “That was the ball game. We’d talked about it, and Mickey knew he had to make Brock make the first move. He played it perfectly.”
Then Detroit came to hit in the top of the seventh inning. Again, Cantor described the action from his book, “The Tigers of ’68.”
“Gibson disposed of Stanley and Kaline as the seventh inning started. Cash then got Detroit’s second hit.
“Gibson, mildly annoyed, went to work on Horton. Willie drove the ball past shortstop into leftfield. Now there were two on and Northrup coming to bat.”
“When Northrop hit a liner to center, it appeared that Flood would get it without much trouble, though it was hit hard.
“Flood took one quick step in, then tried to pivot ... By then it was too late. The ball was over his head and Northrup was racing into third with a two-run triple.
“In Busch Stadium, a gasp of disbelief went through the capacity crowd. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all ... Detroiters came to their feet, also incredulous at what they were seeing on television.”
“‘I was absolutely sure we were going to win that game,’ said Gibson in retrospect. ‘I knew that Lolich wasn’t exactly what you’d call a finely-tuned athlete. He had to be dog-tired ... on two days’ rest...’
“Next, Freehan doubled getting the third run of the inning. Gibson had lost it all at once.”
Everyone knew the importance of a single play, a single step, a single moment.
“The greatest single moment I’ve ever known in Detroit was Jim Northrup’s triple in the seventh game of the World Series in St. Louis,” said Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell in the Sept. 30, 1991 edition of Baseball Almanac. “It was a stunning moment because not only were the Tigers winning a world championship that meant so much to an entire city, they were beating the best pitcher I ever saw – Bob Gibson.”
An insurance run was added by Detroit in the top of the ninth but it was up to Lolich to seal the deal and enter Tiger and baseball immortality.
He retired Flood on a pop-up to shortstop and Orlando Cepeda, who had homered off Lolich in Game 5, popped out to Freehan. Third baseman Mike Shannon finally dented Lolich for a home run.
“Then it was (Tim) McCarver. He lifted a little pop fly ... Freehan flung aside his mask, settled under it, and tucked away Detroit’s third world championship. It was 4:06 p.m. in Detroit,” Cantor wrote. “In Detroit, within half an hour, every downtown street was filled with pedestrians. Cars inched their way forward in the mob. “No one cared. They didn’t want to go anywhere else.
“‘It’s funny,’ Lolich says, ‘those three games that I won in the World Series are three games that do not count in my lifetime record. But if I hadn’t pitched in the World Series, they wouldn’t have remembered me.’”
Lolich’s performance in the 1968 World Series seemed to buoy his career. He had gone forma journeyman starter to instant hero and he got better over the next few years.
In 1969, he won 19 games, and two years later, he accounted for 25 victories, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting to Oakland’s Vida Blue. In 1971, Lolich started 45 games and completed 29, pitching an astonishing 376 innings. He led the American League with 308 strikeouts.
The following season, Lolich won 22 games helping Detroit to the American League East division title. To do that, he started 41 games and completed 23 of them.
In fact, from 1971-1974, Lolich topped the 300-inning mark every season.
“I guess you could say I’m the redemption of the fat man; a guy will be watching me on TV and see that I don’t look in any better shape than he is. ‘Hey Maude,’ he’ll holler, ‘Get a load of this guy and he’s a 20-game winner,’” Lolich later said.
He lost 18 games in 1975 and was traded by the Tigers to the New York Mets, but not until he had struck out more hitters (2,679) than any other left-handed pitcher in American League history.
He temporarily returned in 1977 but returned for a season with San Diego. However, enough was enough and in 1979, Lolich came back to Detroit, opened a doughnut shop and was involved in other interests. Eventually, he returned to his native Oregon for retirement.
Over 16 years, Lolich won 217 games, struck out 2,832 and had an earned run average of 3.54. He was a three-time All Star in addition to his 1968 World Series heroics.
His name has been one of those bandied about for Hall of Fame consideration, but he probably did not have enough quality seasons to earn inclusion.
Yet … his name hangs around. In 2003, Lolich was one of 26 players chosen to the final ballot by the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee. There were more than 1,000 players eligible for that ballot, but Lolich was the only left-handed pitcher to make it.
Two years later, he earned nine committee votes, and earlier this year (2006), Lolich made the preliminary list for 2007.
The moment of Tiger exaltation was captured in one photograph – Freehan catching a leaping Lolich after the final out.
“As soon as it was over, I jumped on Freehan,” Lolich reminisced. “The main reason I did that was so he wouldn’t jump on me first.”
Detroit became only the third team in baseball history to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a World Series and did it on the road too boot.
Most players understood the importance of the accomplishment.
“It’s a team thing,” said Freehan, an 11-time All-Star (1964-73 and 1975) and five-time Gold Glove winner (1965-69), “and baseball is a team sport. It’s the thing you dream about. The other awards, like the All-Star team or Gold Gloves, are individual accomplishments. But a lot of great players have never had the chance to play in a World Series, so it’s the greatest thrill.”
And it was a perfect way to end what would be regarded as a special year in baseball history.
“So much happened it was hard to keep up with everything,” Harwell added. “We had Denny McLain’s 31 victories, Gates Brown’s great pinch-hitting in the clutch, Tom Matchick’s home run to beat Baltimore in the ninth inning, then Darryl Patterson striking out the side to beat them in the ninth ... excitement every day in the ballpark.”

Sunday, October 22, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - chapter 5

Finding the right ‘program’The first thing I did when I entered Tiger Stadium on that Monday afternoon was purchase the official World Series program. It cost all of $1 – compared to the 25-cent regular season program/scorecard that I studied and filled out religiously. My father taught me how to keep proper score and at every baseball game I attended from the age of 8, I followed any game – major league or minor league – with a pen, pencil and scorecard.
It was part of the summertime rite of passage.
For a trip back Memory Lane, I thumbed through that 1968 program to see just HOW different things were as compared to today.
On the inside cover, Kmart, a division of Detroit-based S.S. Kresge Company, was advertising its World Series special – the Gillette Techmatic razor for $1.88. It was state-of-that-art back then with the cartridge featuring the long strip of blade that would be forwarded by a lever and adjusted to your skin’s tenderness.
Sadly, the photo that accompanied the ad, of pitcher Denny McLain, was reversed and shoed his as a left-hander, which he wasn’t. No proofing there, I guess.
And since it was the Motor City, car advertisements dominated the Detroit version. Actually, unlike what one would get at this year’s World Series, each city sold its own advertisements and, presumably, kept the money. Hence, the program reflected the community.
There were ads for the new Buick Wildcat, Pontiac Grand Prix, Ford LTD, Chrysler 300, Mercury Marquis, Oldsmobile Regal 88 Royale – all big family-sized cars. The power and the muscle were presented by the Dodge Charger 440 R/T, Chevrolet Camaro and Corvette and Plymouth Road Runner.
Ah, yes, Jeeps were sold and Volkswagen advertised its reliable Beetle. Dodge even had an ad for its camper van.
Whiskeys, mainly made in southern Ontario not far from Detroit in the Seagram’s plant, also were plentiful. A fifth of McMasters, R&R or Lander’s cost around $5. Ball Park Franks were manufactured under the local Hygrade’s label and Krun-Chee Potato Chips were definitely a localized brand. R.G. Dun cigars were sold at two for a quarter. El Productos were more.
Phone numbers posted with ads did not have area code but listed letters for the first two digits. Trader Ray’s Jefferson Chevrolet could be reached at (LO)gan 75750. Other exchanges include (WO)odward and (UN)iversity. Addresses were listed as Detroit 1, Michigan.
The one eliciting the biggest laugh today was for the new General Electric Porta-Color television, that fans could lug to any ballgame and run off household batteries. With a 14-inch screen, the thing weighed a commendable … 37 pounds! Panasonic’s black and white model weighed just … 12 ½ pounds.
Imagine our children today contemplating that!

Game 5 – Oct. 7, 1968, A bloop and a blast erase the past
As an avid sports fan, I am also a collector – autographed baseballs, menus with Jack Dempsey’s John Hancock on it, game programs and old tickets. The most valuable is the Game 5 World Series ticket, framed and displayed in the guest bathroom (of all places), themed for baseball by my wife as some sort of tribute. I have yet to fully comprehend any hidden meanings but I see it almost every day.
Only once did I believe my possession of that ducet was in danger and it was on the morning of the game. In order to be “excused” from school, I had to bring the ticket to classes that morning. However, I refused. I was headed to the office with my father and stopping to possibly get mugged for the ticket (which I thought was a distinct possibility, even in an all-white suburban high school) was not in my plans.
“You have to show proof,” said my counselor, the assistant principal William Scobie.
So I went into North Farmington High School prior to the start of classes and entered his office. My hands were tucked deep inside my jacket and he looked up from his papers.
“Okay, let’s see it!” he demanded.
I looked around as if searching for spies or would-be malcontents behind walls. U took an very audible deep breath and flashed the ticket from inside my jacket, extending my arm straight out like a running back shucking off tacklers.
Mr. Scobie, as we called him, shook his head approvingly and pursed his lips slightly.
“Lucky man, you are,” he said. “Go on and get out of here before …”
He need no say anymore. I was gone in a time that would have made Jesse Owens proud and I was the slowest human being I knew. I was officially ready for The Game.
Under sunny skies, Detroit fans had barely warmed their seats when St. Louis jumped on starter Mickey Lolich in the first inning. Lou Brock doubled and scored on a single by centerfielder Curt Flood. The next hitter, Orlando Cepeda, nicknamed “The baby Bull,” stroked a massively towering fly ball into the leftfield seats and you could have heard molecules drop in Tiger Stadium; it was THAT quiet.
The Tiger offense went meekly in the first three innings, never advancing a runner past first while Lolich continued to pitch out of trouble. Catcher Bill Freehan was finally able to gun down Brock attempting to steal in the third and Lolich ended a St. Louis scoring threat in the fourth with a strikeout of SS Dal Maxvill.
In the Detroit fourth, the Tigers finally broke through against starter Nelson Briles. Mickey Stanley, the centerfielder converted to shortstop, tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly by 1B Norm Cash. Hometown hero Willie Horton then tripled and scored on a single by Jim Northrup, which looked like a routine ground out to Cardinal 2B Julian Javier.
As he crouched to field the ball, it struck a pebble in the infield, bounced over a stunned Javier and into right field, plating Horton.
With one out in the fifth, Brock continued his bedevilment of Detroit pitching with his second double of the game and Javier im¬mediately followed with a line drive single to Horton in left field. Although he was not known as a good defensive out¬fielder, the Detroit native, who one year before stood on a car in full uniform trying to quell the 1967 Detroit riot, fielded the ball on one hop, and came up firing a perfect throw to home plate.
Brock, one of the fastest men in baseball and its premier base stealer, churned toward home, yet chose NOT to slide. Freehan gathered the throw and planted his foot in front of the plate, blocking Brock from touching it.
The stadium crowd exploded as if a bomb had been detonated. Life had been rediscovered in the old ballpark.
It meant something to me with Freehan making the play. We had moved to the suburban community of North Farmington and in our subdivision, Hunter’s Ridge, our neighbors were Freehan’s parents (his father’s name was Ash – of all things).
Detroit loaded the bases in the sixth inning, but Briles induced Freehan into a forceout and the Tigers were beginning to run out of innings. Meanwhile Lolich just keep “roly-poly” along, getting in and out of trouble with strikeouts, eight of them in the game.
Manager Mayo Smith took another gamble on Lolich in the seventh inning with one out. Instead of pinch hitting Gates Brown or Eddie Matthews else against Briles, Smith stayed with Lolich, who singled.
That was all for Briles, replaced by left-handed Cardinal reliever Joe Hoerner. Dick McAullife promptly singled and Stanley followed with a walk to laod the bases.
With the entire Series on the line, Kaline came to bat with the bases loaded.
George Cantor, who became a columnist for the Detroit News after he was the beat writer (and eventual travel writer) for the Detroit Free Press, was also one of three official scorekeepers for the game.
In his book “The Tigers of 68,” Cantor de¬scribes the fateful Kaline at-bat.
“In Kaline’s long career, this may have been the defining moment. Many of the cor¬porate and VIP fans who had been given tickets for the first two game of the Series had jumped off the boat for this one. The people who loved the game were in the ballpark and they screamed for their long-time hero with passion that could not be contained. This is where it had all been leading, their adulation of him for all these long hopeless seasons. It was all this moment. Kaline could not fail them now. If there had been noisy afternoons before in this ballpark’s long history, they were eclipsed by the din that filled it at this moment. The light towers seemed to sway from the sheer volume of it. The big crowd pleaded with him not to fail.
“Hoerner got ahead on the count, and Kaline fouled off one pitch after another on the corners. This was ‘Six,’ one of the smartest hitters in baseball, fully focused on what had to be done. Hoerner finally made one pitch a little too good.
“Kaline who always described himself as a ‘mistake hitter’ pounced on this mistake. He lined it to right-center. Lolich and McAuliffe came racing home and the Tigers went ahead. If there had been noise before in this game, in this season, it was nothing compared to this. The stands had become a cauldron of hysteria. The Line had come through with everything on the line. The last 15 years had been redeemed, stamped ‘paid in full.’”
In all truthfulness, it wasn’t a screaming line drive. It was sort of a humpback blooper over Juli¬an Javier’s head. But a ground ball looks like a line drive in the box score and all that mat¬tered was that Detroit had captured the lead at 4-3.
Cash then singled in Stanley for an insurance tally at 5-3.
In the ninth, St. Louis managed to put the tying runs on base with one out, but Lolich struck out an aging Roger Maris and got Brock to end the game on a grounder back to the mound.
The Monday Miracle on Michigan Avenue was complete. My mind would be seared with the memory of that game forever. My father was happy for me as I replayed each pitch for him, although he probably wished I had just gotten laryn¬gitis and stayed silent on the commute home.
Fortunes for the Tigers were about the change

Saturday, October 21, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - Chapter 4

The Promise
I never knew my grandfathers nor did I really know my uncle (on my mother’s side). Both grandfathers died before my parents married and my uncle, Don, died when I was very young. Any recollection of him is beyond fuzzy; boiling to one short image when I was a toddler.
But, despite coming from a small family, I had “uncles.” These were friends of the adults, or distant cousins who liked being called “uncle.” Every family has them; putting the obligatory title where it doesn’t belong.
Two cousins by the name of John Gaylord and John Bloom were closer than others to us … and to me. Neither person could have been more different, but they were all “family.”
Cousin John was, in today’s parlance, gay. Except that term was never, ever used in those days. He was called the perennial bachelor, or “a little different,” or the Yiddish term, fagallah. But when you’re a teenager in the 1960s, it never came up.
My father just kept a slight frown and would always stretch his hand flat, palms-down and move turn his wrist, one way and then the other, to describe Cousin John, without actually saying a word.
That might all have been true but Cousin John had one ace up his sleeve. For most of my youth, he owned and operated one of the most macho places in Detroit – Motor City Dragway (which is not an intentional pun). It was where the ground shook every Saturday night where car-crazy Michiganders would gather by the thousands to race one another and see the stars of the sport – “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, “TV” Tommy Ivo, Dick “Mister Unswitchable” Jesse or the turbine jet cars of Art Arfons.
It was the legal version of Woodward Avenue on a summer’s night and it was a young man’s dream. My knowledge of the inner workings of a car was limited to where the key went into the ignition and how much I wished I could inherit my grandmother Gelbard’s 1952 Buick when I grew up (I didn’t but it was a car to worship). I loved attending the races and my parents had no fear about letting go with Cousin/Uncle John on a Saturday night.
The other cousin/uncle was also named John and he was a Tiger season ticket holder. For my 15th birthday, I got an autographed baseball from the 1967 squad, courtesy of Uncle John, along with a promise.
“Chuck, if the Tigers ever make it to the World Series, I promise that you will get a ticket to attend,” he said.
Lo and behold, when the Tigers clinched the pennant in mid-September, Uncle John called my father to tell him that it was a promise to be kept – one ticket for Game 5. All Detroit had to do was avoid being swept and I would be there.
My parents attended Game Four and got their tickets in the normal manner – the luck of the lottery draw. The line of cars at the main Detroit Post Office resembled the last-minute income tax filing on the night of April 15. Postal employees stood outside to take the enveloped requests by hand and on the fly.
Two weeks later, when the tickets were delivered to my parents, their enthusiasm was muted but appreciated. I, however, had to pray for a Tiger victory somewhere along the way to ensure my ticket was valid.
Game 5 was schedule for Sunday, October 6 …or so I thought.

The First Four Games: Screaming in the rain
Unlike 1967, the Tigers were runaway winners of the 1968 American League championship, winning 103 wins. Led by the miraculous season of pitcher Denny McLain, who won 31 games, Detroit roared into its first World Series since 1945.
The opponent would be the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals and enough old-timers were alive to have remembered the 1934 Series when Cardinal star Ducky Medwick was forcibly removed from a Game 7 rout in then Briggs Stadium by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
Medwick, part of the famed Gashouse Gang, slid hard into third base and the Detroit fans, already angered by the scoreboard, grew so belligerent that they pelted Medwick in between innings with a farmer’s market load of fruit and vegetables.
Despite having won more games than St. Louis, the Cardinals, led by the best pitcher in baseball – Bob Gibson – were established as the favorites.
Detroit manager Mayo Smith, never fully acknow¬ledged for his on-field tactics, made a daring strategic move in the final two weeks of the regular season. His veteran superstar, Al Kaline, had been injured and missed much of the year. Yet in the World Series (the only one in which Kaline would ever see action), Smith wanted his de¬fense, his rifle of an arm from right field and his lead¬ership.
That meant one of his four outfielders would either have to sit, or a major change would have to be made. So Smith took his best defensive player, centerfielder Mickey Stanley and moved him to shortstop – apposition he had played since high school – put Kaline in right and Jim Northrup in center.
Starting shortstop Ray Oyler was a smooth fielder but a weak hitter and Smith figured what he would lose in the field would be gained at the plate against the likes of invincible superstar Gibson, en route to the Hall of Fame.
So dominant were pitchers in 1968 – dubbed The Year of the Pitchers – that baseball hierarchy lowered the height of the mound in order to restore offense in the game. Never again would pitchers dominated in such a manner at that season.
And unknown to all, it would be the last World Series without a playoff round preceding it. In many ways, this series would be the end of the old (perhaps golden) era of baseball.
Game One, played in Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis, was the anticipated matchup between Gibson (who had 22 victories, a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts) and McLain (he of the 31 victories).
However, it quickly was established that it would be Gibson’s moment in history.
Gibson broke Sandy Koufax’s single-game strikeout record (15) by blowing away 17 Tiger hitters. McLain surrendered three Cardinal runs in the fourth inning, on a single by 3B Mike Shannon and a two-run base hit by 2B Julian Javier, proving more than enough for Gibson.
Future Hall of Famer Lou Brock hit a seventh-inning home run off reliever Pat Dobson but Gibson allowed just five meaningless hits as he breezed to a 4-0 victory.
In Game 2, Detroit brought out the heavy lumber against starter Nelson Briles. The Tigers slammed three home runs in the first six innings, including the only round-tripper in the hitting career of pitcher Mickey Lolich, who went the distance for an 8-1 win, yielding only six hits. Norm Cash and Willie Horton also went deep for Detroit, leading the 13-hit assault.
The Tigers felt good about coming home for a three-game set and I was ecstatic. That win validated my ticket and I was ready for my Sunday love affair.
There was just one small problem. Mother Nature was not going to cooperate. Friday’s Game Three was washed away, moving Game 5 to Monday afternoon (this was a Series where all games were played under natural sunlight – unheard of in today’s media presen¬ta¬tion). At the Bloom household, it presented something of a conundrum – school or World Series. I had no doubt what SHOULD win but it was a debate of great magnitude, worthy of anything considered by the U.S. Senate during the time of Henry Clay or Daniel Webster.
“Diane, there are times when life is more important than school,” my father told my mother. “He can go to classes every day; he might never get to the World Series again.”
Sometimes, to paraphrase, Fresh Prince Will Smith, parents just DO understand.
In Game 3, Cardinal start Ray Washburn easily outdueled Tiger pitcher Earl Wilson, thanks to catcher Tim McCarver (yes, THAT Tim McCarver that bores listeners to death on TV) who slammed a three-run homer in the fifth inning for 4-2 lead.
Orlando Cepeda followed with a two-run home run in the seventh and Lou Brock stole three bases en route to an easy 7-3 win before a vastly disappointed Detroit crowd.
The Tiger performance in Game 4 matched the weather – miserable. Brock smashed a McLain fast¬ball 420 feet into the right-centerfield bleachers to start the game and it went downhill from there. Brock added a triple and double and swiped his seventh base in the first four games – typing his re¬cord from a year before.
Gibson won his seventh consecutive start, 10-1, and Detroit offered little resistance. Gibson held the Tigers to five hits with the only run coming on a solo home run by Northrup. Cardinal hitters roughed up six Tiger pitchers for 13 hits (Gibson was among those who homered) and four Detroit errors did not help the cause.
The game was interrupted by a 74-minute rain delay and those who attended left miserable, wet and chilled to the bone.
Two of those who complained loud and bitterly about the conditions were a certain Diane and Robert Bloom of Parkside Avenue in Detroit.
“Go ahead and catch pneumonia out there tomorrow like I did,” yelled my other went she finally got home. “If I never go back to that damn place, it will be too soon.”
My father shook his head and he shook off his raincoat.
“Chuck, I’m afraid you’re just going to see them lose tomorrow,” he said forlornly. “Sorry to tell you that, son. They just stink.”
That was my biggest fear. That the last game in Tiger Stadium in 1968 would be the last game of the season.
And I would have to sit there and watch it all.

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - Chapters 2,3

One memory with everything on it!
Prior to most ’68 Detroit Tiger games (or any other sporting event), lunch meant one of two things – a huge, steaming hamburger (cooked in beer) from Nemo’s, a block away from the stadium, or the full “works” from Lafayette Coney Island in the heart of downtown Detroit.
Nemo’s was no honky-tonk (as one would come to know in Texas) nor was it the neigh¬borhood tavern (more of a social meeting place for men rather than a drinking hole). It was a bar with great bar food – notably burgers steamed in, what else, beer. Nemo’s days could be traced back to the time of Damon Runyon, complete with a front that appeared to be hiding a death trap within and a long bar where business-types stood toe-to-toe with factory workers and day laborers, blowing off steam while blowing the heads off many a Stroh’s or a Molson Canadian.
It was one of three classic sports hangouts in Detroit – the other being the late, great Lindell AC. That popular hangout was known better for its connection with the NFL Detroit Lions, through the association of owners Jimmy and Johnny Butsicaris and Lion great Alex Karras (who also owned a piece of the action).
It had two locations, on Michigan Avenue and Cass Avenue and was formerly locate dint he old Lindell Hotel. It received is nickname from famed Detroit News columnist “Doc” Greene in a satirical moment to tweak the nose of the stodgy Detroit Athletic Club, the icon of all things upper-crusty in a city that was best known for its working man image.
Long a popular hangout and perhaps the best known sports bar in Detroit (if not around the world), it closed in December, 2002 and the structure was razed earlier this year to become the site of the new Rosa Parks Transit Center.
Normally at a ballgame, I would probably inhale one (or two) of Kowalski’s better hot dogs, with plenty of mustard, a Vernor’s (and a bag of peanuts) and settle into one of two favorite places – the left-field corner near the Tiger bullpen or the centerfield bleachers, a terrific way to spend a day for just a buck. For Game 5, it was deep in the recesses of the right-field upper deck to await the start of my magic moment.
My pre-game meal took me to nirvana, otherwise known as Lafayette Coney Island just a block from the very center of downtown.
Two competing institutions – Lafayette and American – stood side by side, although owned by members of the same family.
In 1903, Constantine “Gust” Keros, a sheepherder in his native Greece came to American through the portal of freedom – Ellis Island. In an interview in the Chicago Tribune in 2005, Karos’ great-grandson, Chris, explained to reporter Alan Solomon how his family came to open the famous emporium.
“That was as good as it was ever going to get, and he (Gust Karos) wasn’t going to accept that,” Chris Karos explained. “He gets to Ellis Island, but while he’s on the boat they told him, ‘If you want to be an American, when you get to New York, go to Coney Island and eat a hot dog. That’s what American people do.’
“He goes to Coney Island, eats the hot dog, looks for work, and they’re telling him, ‘Go to Detroit. Henry Ford’s paying $5 a day to build cars.’ That was incredible (because) they were making $5 a week then. Obviously, Henry Ford wasn’t going to hire a Greek sheep farmer who barely spoke English, let alone know anything about an automobile.”
So Gust Karos followed the immigrant’s dream that many sought at the turn of the 20th century. He swept floors at a local store until the owner gave him a real job. Through stringent savings despite meager pay, Karos purchased a popcorn cart, which he pushed for a few years, again saving towards something bigger.
The “bigger” was called American Hat Cleaning and Shoe Shine on Lafayette Avenue. Karos cleaned men’s hat and shined shoes, but eventually discovered that street urchins, charging much less than he, were undercutting his business.
“And it dawned on him. ‘Wait a minute. I was in New York, and there was this Coney Island, this big, gorgeous amusement park, and there’s none of that here,’” Chris added.
Since Gust Karos was proud to be an American, the business was renamed American Coney Island. There were flashing lights on the windows and the new owner did all he could to make the place resemble the famed New York landmark.
In New York, the king of Coney Island is Nathan’s and it served its hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut, a commodity not readily seen or eaten in Detroit.
“He had an idea. ‘I’m going to chop onions up, we’ll put mustard on it, and when I have enough money, I’ll go with the sauerkraut,” Chris continued, adding that his great-grandfather also made a side batch of chili for customers – normal for the day.
And because ingenuity is the mother of all invention, inevitably, a customer asked for some chili to be put on one of Karos’ hot dogs, with the onions and mustard.
The real is gastric history, sold for a mere nickel apiece.
“It was the talk of the town,” noted Chris Karos. “‘You gotta go to the American Coney Island and ask Gust for the hot dog with the mustard and onions and chili on it. And that’s how it was born: chili, mustard and onions.”
Karos did so well, that when the store next door became vacant, he bought it and opened Lafayette Coney Island. He imported his brother to run the place and a friendly rivalry was immediately initiated.
Lafayette is largely unchanged since the day it first opened its doors, The Formica tables and cramped interior, which is as narrow as most men’s restrooms in decent hotels, made for cozy dining, but at no one, that I can recall, was a trip to Lafayette ever deemed “rushed” (although it rarely took more than 10-15 minutes to polish off a meal and leave felling exquisitely full).
The menu is very basic – a coney island is a hotdog covered in chili, mustard and onions on a steamed hot dog bun; a hamburger is loosely cooked ground beef with onions and mustard on the same hot dog bun (also known as a “loosey”).
You can also get a hot bowl of chili (with or without beans), fresh homemade pie and (as a concession to modern times) chili fries. Such is the apparent price to pay for progress.
The restaurant is open 24/7, regardless of weather or season; win or lose. And, with the state of ballpark cuisine changing with the times, American coney islands are served today at Detroit’s Comerica Park.
The clientele between the two shops is like day and night. American expanded its menu and in 1989, purchased the old United Shirt Building next door and reinvented itself into a truer restaurant (in the sense of what most people recognize) – tables, waiters, menus. You can get a spinach salad at American for God’s sake, which is as far away from a “loosey” as one can imagine.
But inside Lafayette Coney Island, the people you see are the same as the ones, say, in 1968 – office workers, police officers on the beat and patrol, students, sports fans, society women, working girls, conservative thinkers and liberal drinkers. They came from the inner city, outlying regions and suburbs.
Other cities might “claim” to sell an item with the same name. But it isn’t the same.
It isn’t Detroit.

Pre-Game: Jose, Can You Sing?
My father dropped me off at the stadium in plenty of time, right as the gates opened around noon – which enabled me to watch batting practice, one of my favorite non-game related activities. I marveled at the long, arching flights of each baseball that flew lazily into the bleacher seats in right and left field from various hitters.
I would close my eyes and imagine that either I was in the batter’s box, or on the receiving end of one of those moonshots. The players made it look SO easy; as if everyone could accomplish what has been labeled as the most difficult thing to do in sports – hitting a pitched baseball.
Then I would watch the precision at which infield practice was conducted – the repetition of the coach slapping grounders to each fielder and the accuracy with which each throw was made. There was symmetrical beauty to the field and the men are they moved from base to base, tossing a small leather-covered sphere as if it were a hot baked potato.
Around 12:30 p.m., the center field fence (actually a large swinging gate) opened and a stadium worker quietly walked to the left-field flag pole (which, in Tiger Stadium, put down a metal folder chair and a microphone, with a cord attached under the centerfield stands. A couple of moments later, a young man strode to the chair with a guitar in hand and a German Shepherd leader dog (named Trudy as it turned out).
Unknown to anyone, a relatively new singer had flown into Detroit early that morning from Las Vegas, where he was performing at Caesar’s Palace as the opening act for none other than Frank Sinatra.
He sat down, clicked off a few chords, spoke into the microphone, which boomed all over the cavernous stadium (first opened in 1912 before another baseball shrine – Fenway Park). He completed his sound check and continued to sit there, occasionally looking around as if someone was going to come for him … yet no one did.
After a few minutes passed, the young man propped the guitar on his lap and said to the crowd, “Well obviously, I’m not going anywhere for awhile, If it’s OK with you, I think I’ll play a little.”
For a crowd that knew little beyond Motown, it was the first exposure to the brilliance of Jose Feliciano and the young blind Puerto Rican singer ran his most of his first album (self titled “Feliciano”). Of all the music he has produced, the first album, on RCA Records, was by far the best thing he ever did and it was a treat – odd as it seemed that afternoon – to hear his renditions of “Light My Fire,” “California Dreamin’,” “In My Life,” “(There) Always Something There to Remind Me,” and “Sunny.” His flamenco-style of guitar playing was fascinating as was his courage to simply sit in a stadium, in front of more than 56,000 people, and just play. He earned some quick respect from the most jaded of Tiger fans in a very surreal moment (before such things became common place).
After the field was prepped and the teams were introduced, they lined up along each base line as stadium public address announcer Joe Gentile proclaimed, “and now ladies and gentlemen, please rise and join RCA recording artist Jose Feliciano in the singing of our National Anthem.”
Together, more than 56,000 voices, most off-key and many already lathered in a few Stroh’s beers or four, began to warble, “Oh say can you see …” Suddenly, most of them went silent as Feliciano was NOT keeping to tradition and was off into a completely different version of the anthem than had EVER been heard before prior to a major American sporting event.
If he wanted a rapt audience, he got it … but not in the way I believed he imagine. Mouths sat wide open, eyes darted among strangers seeking validation that what was being heard was actually being played. It wasn’t anything vulgar or disrespectful; it just wasn’t the traditional rousing Mormon Tabernacle Choir version that was the usual Tiger Stadium rendition.
According to Feliciano’s website, “He wanted to sing an anthem of gratitude to a country that had given him a chance; who had allowed a blind kid with a dream reach far above his limitations, far beyond the expected to a place few at his young age, had achieved. He wanted to sing an anthem of praise to a country that had given a better life to him and his family.”
Sadly, that was not how it was received. And, again from his website, Feliciano sensed something was amiss.
“Before he had completed his performance, however, he could feel the discontent within the waves of cheers and applause that spurred on the first pitch. ‘Wonder what that was about?,’ he thought, as he was escorted to the press box to enjoy a couple of innings before his flight back to Vegas for his shows later that evening.
“‘Do you know what you did?’ he was asked by someone in the box. “You’re causing a furor! The switchboard is lighting up with calls from people complaining about your singing The National Anthem!”
The next morning, sharing the front page headlines in the Detroit Free Press (the morning half of the Detroit newspaper duo) with the World Series game outcome was the Feliciano rendition of the Anthem and the “culprit” in this so-called heinous crime against humanity – beloved Tiger broadcaster Ernie Harwell. It seems as though Harwell was in “charge” of securing the talent for the pre-game performance and word had filtered to him about Feliciano’s “unusual” version.
So, instead of having the game dominated the water cooler conversation, all anyone could talk about was these two minutes on a sunny, cool day in Tiger Stadium.
According to Feliciano’s website, “Veterans, reportedly, threw their shoes at the television as he sang. Others questioned his right to stay in the United States, suggesting he should be deported (to where, exactly, had never been mentioned as those from Puerto Rico are, of course, American citizens)! Still others just attributed it to the times and felt sad for the state of our country.
“There were, obviously, many who understood the depth and breadth of his rendition. Those, young and old, who weren’t jaded by the negativity which surrounded anything new, anything a little different. It was unusual. It was beautifully done. It certainly was sincere.”
Feliciano, who enjoyed a long, distinguished, Grammy-winning music career, constantly was reminded of that brief moment in the left-centerfield sun. Nowadays, crowds have had to endure tortured renditions from the likes of Roseanne Barr and every contestant who ever appeared on “American Idol,” including William Hung who sounds like a dog and cat fighting at the same time.
But on October 7, 1968, it had never happened; until Jose Feliciano broke “the Anthem barrier.” Not exactly Rosa Parks stuff … but it WAS history in the making.

Friday, October 20, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - chapter 1

For every young man, there is a year, a season, that is a coming of age. For some, it plays out like “Summer of ‘42” when it is a sexual awakening at the hands and body of a beautiful widow that looks like Jennifer O’Neill in her absolute prime.
With others, far less experienced, it comes in front of a favorite sports franchise in one’s hometown. For me, the year was 1968; the place was Tiger Stadium at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Trumbell Avenue – just an Al Kaline throw from downtown Detroit.
It was the year I turned 16; it was the year I left the comfort of a tight-knit neighborhood for a more “glamorous” life; it was the year I entered high school (10th grade was the starting point in Detroit Public Schools in those days).
It was the year I developed my first crush on a girl and gladly knocked down her ex-boyfriend when she batted her eyes in my direction (and in defense of her honor). It was the year of my first actual paycheck receiving job (pool attendant for our apartment complex)
And it was the year I spent most of the summer at Tiger Stadium when I wasn’t working. I sat and watched one of the best teams ever to don the Old English “D” reach its ultimate goal – a World Series victory, the first since 1945.
What follows are memories and recollections (historical and hysterical) from that point in my history and that of the city of my birth – Detroit, Michigan.
The Year of Burning Embers
Baseball was the last thing of importance in the summer of 1967 in Detroit. Survival was. A pennant race, and visiting the ballpark to root for your heroes, was rendered totally inconsequential.
It manifested itself on Sunday, July 23, when in the early hours of that date, a police raid on a blind pig (slang for an after-hours speakeasy) turned con¬frontational. Things on that hot summer night escalated and quickly became lethal.
Within hours, two violent forces collided, based solely on racial lines, and the city of Detroit essentially was destroyed as I knew it.
Late that morning, I pedaled my bicycle to the Jewish Community Center, a couple miles form my home in north Detroit, and was pleasantly surprised to find the center almost empty. It meant I would have the run of the pool without distraction.
A radio was dialed into a local rock and roll station and it made the time pass quickly and easily. Suddenly, a news bulletin announced that trouble was afoot along Clairmount Avenue, a couple of miles form my home, and the news announcer sounded concerned.
I exited the pool, got dressed and rode home along fairly deserted roadways.
When I ran inside, I found my parents sitting with another couple. “Do you know there’s a riot going on in the city?” I announced. My father looks skeptical but I ran to the television set and turned it on. In all its Philco black and white glory was the revelation.
My father’s friend, John Stamler, immediately phoned his house and excused himself to leave. We later learned that he spent the next four days perched in front of his storefront – shotgun in his lap and ammu¬nition visible for all to see. He, like countless others, would protect their property with their lives and, if needed, the lives of others – the unwritten code was to shoot first and never ask questions later.
By late afternoon and early evening, as disen¬fran¬chised people went on a riotous rampage, flames en¬gulfed stores, homes and cars that could be seen from many other neighborhoods, including mine … from my front lawn. I stood at my front door and could easily see the tops of the funeral pyres.
Nothing would stop the carnage – not even celebrity. Tiger left fielder Willie Horton, who grew up not far from the scene of the riot, drove to the area after Sunday’s home game and stood on the roof of his car, in full Tiger uniform, in the middle of the mob, pleading for the rioters to stop. It did not work.
On Monday night, the 24th, our quiet neighborhood was rocked by an explosion and the sounds of repeated pop!-pop!-pop! Surely, my parents theorized, there as a fierce gun battle raging in the distance and only fools would venture outside to examine. And no fools lived at 18603 Parkside – three blocks from the mayor’s house and one block more than that to our rabbi’s home. This could NOT be happening here?!?
In the morning, when the smoke literally had cleared, we crept to where the incident had happened. Someone had firebombed the Merchandise Mart – a Detroit-based hardware store, and all the popping was actually paint aerosol cans combusting in the fire. But it was enough to throw a horrific fright into all the residents.
It got no better for the next few days. People huddles around their televisions to see live documentation of snipers firing upon citizens, police, reporters and anything that moved. Pleas for calm and rational thinking/behavior went unheeded. Trust was destroyed as quickly as abandoned buildings in the fire of hatred that swept like a tsunami.
Places I had known while riding alone on Detroit city buses, or speeding past on my bicycle, became war zones, complete with troops in full battle gear, tanks and armament previously only seen on the news in Vietnam.
Then on Thursday morning, I stood along Liv¬ernois Avenue, nicknamed the Avenue of Fashion for some silly reason, and watched federalized Michigan National Guard troops oc¬cupy my city, to quell what Gov. George Romney termed “a state of insurrection.” It was a strange feeling to see tanks roll past the neigh¬borhood luncheonette where you regularly purchase your baseball cards and new Spi¬derman, Green Lantern and Batman comics.
Somehow I knew, my life would never be the same. My childhood notions of my home were forever changed … for the worse. It wasn’t safe anymore to take those bicycle rides, even within my neighborhood, or to the Jewish Community Center for swimming lessons, or on the bus to the Detroit Public Library for research or to the Institute of Arts to see priceless works of genius.
One would be looking over his or her shoulder around almost every corner – regardless of skin color. It simply wasn’t the same place to which almost everyone had seen. The sweet symphonic Motown sound went from the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Four Tops to the cries of emergency service sirens wailing in the night.
Hell, even Motown Records left town, for the sunny, and presumably safer, confines of Los Angeles. Nothing was sacred or spared.
When the smoke literally cleared, 43 people had died and 1,179 more were injured. There had been 7,000 arrests and more than 1,400 buildings were burned beyond salvage. The financial cost was $45 million (astronomical for that era) and indescribable in terms of the emotional damage. People fled the city limits as if it was a modern-day gold rush to anywhere but there. Detroit lost half of its population from 1967 to 2000, falling from 1.8 million residents to less than 950,000.
The city never ever recovered … to this day. What once was one of America’s top five populated cities is not among the top 12 currently. A legacy of death and negativity followed and permanently stained Detroit in all aspects – from the movies to the nation’s front pages. A pre-Halloween childhood ritual, known as Devil’s Night (when adolescent mischief preceded trick-or-treating) became a ridiculous excuse for arson and murder. Darkness descended upon the Motor City.
The Bloom family was not yet ready to be one of those evacuees … but we did relocate to the area known as Lafayette Park in downtown Detroit. It was upscale for the time, and at any moment, you could meet members of the Detroit Tigers or Pistons while playing in the open spaces, chat with a former Michigan governor or hear impromptu jam sessions in the condominium backyard of Berry Gordy’s sister’s (he was the fonder of Motown Records) as friends who were superstars during the day were just guest and plain folks late in the night.
At the corner of Michigan and Trumbell, the Tigers plodded along in the 1967 pennant chase. It was a three-team battle between the all-pitch, no-hit Chicago White Sox and the surprising Boston Red Sox, being led by the last Triple Crown winner, Carl Yas¬tremzski, and the pitcher du jour, righty Jim Lonborg.
The race came down to the final day – Chicago had been eli¬mi¬nated on Saturday and Boston had won. Detroit needed to sweep a doubleheader from the California Angels and in the ninth inning of the last game, second baseman Dick McAuliffe, who had grounded into only four double plays all season, hit into his fifth and Detroit was through.
The Red Sox became Cinderella and battled St. Louis in the 1967 Series, before losing in seven games.
People feared for the worse in 1968. The tensions had only been eased by the coldness of winter. Nerves were frazzles in all sectors of the city. Only one thing calmed the water.
A baseball team.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Cats in my belfry

Author's Note: The following column appeared in the Collin County Opinions section of the Dallas Morning News, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006.

For those who don’t know me, I hold a certain disdain for ... cats. It goes back a few ... decades, but needless to say, el gato y moi do not get along.
When I was a freshman in college and housed in a three-man, dormitory room no bigger than most bathrooms, one of the fellas brought his cat to complete a foursome. Having been a dog person all my life (lively wire-hair terriers at that), I knew nothing of the attitudes and needs of felines. Cats had only served as objects to chase for Frisky and Fuzzy, my two canine pals.
But I soon discovered, to my chagrin, that cats were uppity, aloof and, in this particular case, liked to use MY body for a scratching pole. In the middle of the night. While I tried to sleep. In places that cannot be fully described in a family newspaper. (But since this is cyrbersapce, it scratched the crap out of my ... BALLS!)
Needless to say, it hurt … a lot! And the discharge within a room the size of a refrigerator box just reeked to high heaven. The others didn’t seem to mind but it drove me crazy to the point of hatching elaborate plots of demise against this cat. Such scarring of one’s psyche can carry over for years and it did.
So what had God wrought? He has brought a cat into my home – a young black female that my wife, Jodie, actually “adopted” after discovering it hiding under our outside storage shed (apparently chasing away the field rabbits, and having decided to be sensible and get out of the Texas heat).
Eventually she gained enough trust to eat out of Jodie’s hand and got brave enough to enter the garage when the door opened. Here’s the mistake I made: I said if the cat was going to perch among the boxes, like some living statue, (gulp!) “it might as well come into the house.”
I know! I have only myself to blame. I knew it was a cat (or snake) when I let it in. And on the day we decided to let Miss Kitty enter the house, Jodie found one of those signals from God in the front bushes. There was a cat collar in the half-dead rose bush, which had not been there the day before.
“Someone is trying to tell us something,” she said. “It’s fate.”
“I have a different four-letter word in mind,” I groused.
The cat purrs all the time and seems quite fond of large male tummies and spongy male legs. She refuses to play with any of the toys we emptied out of Petsmart. It just wants to rub against things – reams of computer paper, leather couches, my forearm. Catnip temporarily sends the cat into an orbit around Pluto, but this kitty seems fairly immune to long-lasting side effects.
Here’s my problem ... IT’S A FREAKING CAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! A dog I can handle; it’s just stupid enough to eat, bark (especially when it rains), bathroom itself and sleep most of the time (at least our blind 16-year-old Jack Russell resembles that remark). Cats are awfully finicky and are way too independent and act like ... CATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
In my older age, I don’t want to continue to act like an ogre. I can do the Otis Redding thing and try a little tenderness, but I don’t know a cat from a hole in the ground I used to think they belonged in. How do I get her to stop this kneading thing? She can’t be that “kneady!” What does a cat like to do other than sharpen its nails on your upholstery and/or body parts?
Why can’t a cat be more like a ... dog? Then again, I am asking why God has done this to me.
So I seek information and wise, sage advice from family and friends on how to treat and act with a cat. Perhaps I could pen a follow-up article, sharing the good, the bad and the uglier comments (well, not THAT ugly!).
But this much is for sure. I need help! PLEASE! Before something gross happens.
Like she sleeps in my lap at night. Or licks me. Or cuddles.
And I grow fond of having her around. And I start singing “Cat Scratch Fever” all the time. Or I memorize the words to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
Oh, the horror.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

All the news that's fit to eat

And this just in:
Olive Oyl has been arrested (perp walked actually on Nancy Grace) for the mysterious death of a naval seaman named Popeye -- last name undisclosed pending notification of next of kin ... or Wimpy, which ever comes first.
Police are charging Ms. Oyl with death by spinach which she denies claiming, "He was strong to the finish because he ate his spinach ..."
Fox News Channel is asking if Clinton was secretly involved with Oyl.
Democrats claim Popeye knew Jack Abramoff.
News at 10 (or 11 on each coast).