It Was a Different Game When Don Wilson was Throwing No-Hitters

I still have a collection of old Sporting News (when it was the baseball “bible”) from as far back as the late 1950s.  Today I ran across the issue of July 1, 1967.  One of the big stories was of Houston Astro hurler Don Wilson’s first no hitter.

The amazing thing about Wilson’s feat was not that he did it.  He fanned 15 Atlanta Braves, including Hank Aaron three times with the last being the final out of the game, but that he threw 143 pitches on just three days rest after having served up 155 pitches in a nine inning complete game win against the San Francisco Giants.

Hurlers still throw no hitters a few times each year.  But hardly anyone is allowed to throw so many pitches in a no hitter.  And no one will ever have back to back complete games on short rest with a total of 298 pitches!

That same issue of TSN also recalled the exploits of Jimmy Wynn during June of 1967.  John Wilson, the sportswriter who gave him the nickname, “Toy Cannon” reminded us of Jimmy’s incredible power.  And it was not that he hit home runs, but the distance the 160 pounder could put behind them.

Some examples:  On June 6th Wynn hit the ball off the left field scoreboard in the “new” Busch Stadium.  Yet earlier in his career at the old Busch (Sportsman’s Park) he hit that scoreboard twice.  In Philadelphia he hit the ball over the roof at Connie Mack Stadium with the wind blowing in.  In his home town of Cincinnati the Toy Cannon put on a real show.  First he hit a ball over the 40 foot scoreboard in left center field.  The next day he his one to the left of the scoreboard further than the first one.  This time the ball crossed the edge of the parking lot, landed in a freeway feeder street, bounced up an embankment–heading right toward where Jimmy had grown up as a child.  It finally came to rest some 600 feet from where it started at home plate.

The very next day the Astros were back in the Dome facing the Giants and Wynn went the opposite way to right off Frank Linzy to win the game.   It was only the second opposite field homer Wynn had hit to that point.

Two days later Jimmy hit a ball into the mezzanine…a towering high blast.  But he wasn’t finished.  In the 6th he slammed a ball out of the park in the left field power alley becoming the first Astro ever to hit two home runs in a game at the Astrodome.

He still wasn’t finished.  In the 8th inning he squeezed his third home run of the game just above the fence and inside the left field foul pole to give the Astros another run in their win.

Jimmy would go on to hit 37 home runs that year but lose the HR title to Hank Aaron who hit 39.  Aaron played at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, “the launching pad.”  He hit 23 at home that year.  Wynn hit 15 at the Astrodome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Baseball Evolution (1956-2016)

The first year I really started to pay attention to Major League Baseball was 1956.  I was ten years old then.  I had been taken to my first major league game–Milwaukee Braves at Cincinnati Reds– by my grandfather the previous season.  From that point on I was hooked.

I lived equidistant in official mileage maps from Cincinnati and Chicago (150 miles), but Cincinnati being a much smaller city was easier to get to and from.  The Cubs and White Sox both had radio signals easier to catch (on WGN and WCFL) than WKRC in Cincinnati which was inaudible during the day and would come in and out at night, but only if I had the radio positioned perfectly.  None of the teams had games televised into the Indianapolis market which was where the stations I could see–with an outdoor antenna– were located.

But I was hooked on the Reds because theirs was the first major league park I ever had seen.  From the towering light poles to the deep green of the grass and the slope in the outfield that made left and center fielders have to go uphill on many fly balls, it was magic!  I didn’t really realize just how much different the game was then than the one I followed and worked in for over 25 years until I started clearing up things in my home office and storage room.

I have found many old record books and magazines that date back to my first days being a baseball fan.  One from Sports Illustrated dated April 15, 1957 caught my eye.

In the back of the book someone had put together some statistics from the 1956 season that would be considered quite analytical today, but were rarely shown 60 years ago.  Yet to compare some of them today shows how much the game has changed.

For instance, in the American League the top ten in on base percentage were all over .400.  Ted Williams was tops at .479.  Ray Boone was 10th at .403.  Mickey Mantle was at .464.  In the National League no player was on base .400.  Duke Snider was tops at .399.  Names like Musial, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews and Willie Mays were all in the top ten, but the .375 point which is what is currently considered minimum for being good was topped by only eight of the NL stars.

The most interesting of all the numbers was the category of strikeout and home runs.  In fact a lead paragraph said, “The concentration of some hitters on home runs leads them to strike out more than they should.  Only Ted Kluszewski and Yogi Berra homered more frequently than they fanned.”

“Only”…now since Barry Bonds, no one ever comes close to even breaking even between home runs and strikeouts. In 2015  the major league top ten in strikeouts ended at 158 with many more players in the +100 category.

The interesting facts from 1956:  Of the top ten home run hitters in both leagues only two in each struck out as many at 100 times.  Larry Doby (104) w/24 homers, and Jim Lemon (138) w/27 homers in the AL.  In the NL, Duke Snider (101) w/ 43 homers and Wally Post (124) w/36 homers did it.

Kluszewski hit 35 homers and only struck out 31 times.  Berra hit 30 homers and only fanned 29 times.

And remember Philadelphia Phillie catcher Stan Lopata.  He his a credible .267 plus he hammered 32 home runs–striking out fewer than 100 times (93)-and led major league baseball in percentage of hits for extra bases.  Over 50% of Lopatas hits were worth more than one base.  He had fewer singles than extra base hits.

Their were a number of other listings in the magazine, but it will be gone soon.  Missing a cover, it will be part of the clean out.  But it found a way to live again before it goes. And we all were remembered just another way how baseball has changed in the last 60 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Calling Ali Fights From Long Range

 

With the news of the passing of Muhammed Ali a few days ago my memory bank needed to be jogged for the two Ali fights I actually called  on radio many years ago for the American Forces Korea Network out of Seoul.

The broadcast covered the entire country and was done using a method that is now being used by some of the major sports networks for international sports and even some college basketball.   My partner and I were in a studio at the AFKN TV and Radio headquarters in Seoul with access to the television broadcast of the fight that was being aired live on Korea’s KBS Network.

In those days, the 70’s, many major fights had transitioned to pay-per-view productions in the United States, but were still made available for “over the air” viewing world wide for a simple rights fee.

As it turned to the two Ali fights, my partners, Howard Halperin for the first and Warren Wilson for the second, were quite significant in Ali’s career.

Howard and I were on the call on October 26, 1970 when Ali returned to the ring after a 3 1/2 year absence following his being banned from the sport for refusing induction into the U.S. military.  He was taking a stand based on his Muslim beliefs, but he never filed for conscientious objector status which would have still placed him in the military, but in a non combat role.  Biographers later indicated while the basics of his statements were true they were guided by both his religion and the fact that he wanted to keep fighting and not have to stop while in the service.

A judge’s ruling and a decision by the boxing commissions ended that idea.  Ali was the Heavyweight Champion until he was stripped of the title as well as banned from fighting. His career was at least put on hiatus when he was still unbeaten as a pro and 29-0. He was only 25 years old.  In 1970 after losing three prime years, Ali was allowed to resume his career.

The state and city of New York which was then still the heart of boxing would not allow Ali to fight within the state even after his bans had been lifted by the courts and boxing commissions elsewhere. Both the city and state would lift their bans soon, but not yet.  So his comeback fight was staged in the old Atlanta City Auditorium.  His opponent would be Jerry Quarry.

Ali’s main goal was the re-claim the heavyweight title from the current unbeaten champ, Joe Frazier.  But he had to have a least a couple fights before that to tune up and to prove he had not lost the skills to compete.

In the Quarry fight he took charge and defeated Quarry in three rounds.  I recall that well since my partner Howard Halperin was from the Atlanta area we used him as much to describe the arena and area as much or more than an analyst.  There wasn’t too much to analyze.  Ali was superior.

While we had the commentary of the Korean announcers available in an audio ear piece and some hard to hear background English announcing, if needed, neither of us spoke Korean, the English speakers were nearly impossible to hear and the Korean crew was actually doing the fight as we were…from a KBS network studio across town.  No matter.  There were no insights we were missing out on .  Ali simply was in command.

His next fight against Oscar Bonevena was not aired on AFKN.  The main reason was because it was fought on December 7, 1970 and as a U.S. government military broadcast operation it was not deemed the thing to do on Pearl Harbor Day.  Ali won that one as well and was now 31-0.  A meeting for the title with Joe Frazier was next.

The AFKN studios were outfitted again for me to call the fight to be held at New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.  My partner this time would be Warren Wilson who had a long officiating career.  A civil service employee of the the U.S., Warren had been an NFL official as well as a boxing referee.

Our broadcast was on the AFKN radio network, but we made frequent mentions that servicemen who had access to TVs could catch the video on KBS and tune in our English-language commentary on the radio.  We were all synched since what they saw was exactly when we were seeing it.  No satellite delays to be concerned with.

As history records it… Frazier won the fight by decision, giving Ali his first professional loss and keeping Joe unbeaten.  But while accounts from ringside indicated Frazier had scored a lot of points early it was not quite as easy to tell from television and the announcers in the AFKN studio (Warren and I)  didn’t always see it that way.

My partner and I saw Ali dancing around and flicking a punch or two and seemingly rarely getting hit as Frazier worked hard.  Those at ringside saw far more of Frazier’s punches solidly catching Ali although he rarely reacted as though they had.

By the time the fight ended we were in agreement that Ali may have re-claimed the title by a narrow margin.  Wrong.  Frazier was awarded a unanimous decision. To our defense each card was very close at least.

The next day I received the following poem which I read on my TV sportscast from an Army captain who had listened:

The stage was set, the anthem sung-though not by Bob Goblet,

When friend Greg Lucas scanned the set, and then commenced to say,

That Cassius Clay had come out strong, that Clay was in command,

For certain Frazier, after four, would surely cease to stand.

The middle rounds were much the same, the lip enjoying cameras,

Welts appeared on loser Joe, as he absorbed those hammers.

Clay hit and bobbed and hit again- too fast for Greg to call it,

Those of us with dough on Joe reached sadly for our wallet.

By big round ten the die was cast, Cassius would be king,

Joe could not get close inside, his punches had no sting.

His fans paid off their bets, with a shame but known to sinners,

When all at once, decision time, and Frazier was the winner!

Oh, somewhere in the world of sport, the sun does shine on high,

And Lucas calls the play by play, from that studio in the sky.

And all the angels have box seats, and come there to be pleased,

By the boy who came there from a bout with foot in mouth disease!

 

More than 45 years later I still have the original script copy of that poem which I read on the air that night.

It is interesting to note from the poem that several years after Ali had changed his name legally from Cassius Clay there were still many who would not use it.  It may partly have been in this case since the poem was written by a military man who was quite active during the Viet Nam War, although not currently serving there.

For all of the good that Ali did during his life and the way he treated all people he was not always the same person when he was young as he was over the last three decades. People of all races did not embrace him as much as they have over time. The universal love for Ali did not exist 50 years ago.  He, and the world, grew into it.

I am just happy to remember I got to call his comeback fight…as well as the first time he ever lost–even if I didn’t think he had at the time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Games Slowing Down as Pitches hit are Reduced

Baseball leadership is concerned that the “pace of play” issues have slid backward and games in 2016 are lasting longer than those in recent years.  They want the trend stopped but are in a rough spot in getting it done.

The reason is that the slowdown is not really caused (to any great extent) by replays of questionable calls or by television’s need for commercial time between innings.  The latter is no different than in recent years.  The former only factors a limited number of times per game and often is not used at all in many games.

No, the problem is the game is played differently than it was years ago.  It became strategically fashionable to try to get pitchers to throw as many pitches as possible or to “work the count” as the phrase went.  This resulted in hitters seeing more pitches per at bat than in the past with far fewer first pitch swingers.

In the 1940s up to the 1970s games were routinely played in less than 2:30 and some barely got past the two hour mark.  Hitters swung the bat.  Now, perhaps the result of detailed scouting reports they swing much less and almost look as though they are waiting for the perfect pitch the reports say the pitcher will ultimately throw.

The end result is higher pitch counts that result in more strikeouts and walks…and thus more pitches and time expended.

What is worse than the time is that the game is less interesting to watch.  Putting the ball in play gets things going.  Watching pitch after pitch resulting in a walk to first base or back to the dugout is not going to attract many new fans.

This is not likely going to change either.  Oh, a suggestion to cut the number of pitches needed for either a walk or a strikeout will be suggested, but that no answer.  Hitters would be dispatched quicker with the end result even more walks and strikeouts.

When the NBA discovered defense and the NFL started playing offense more conservatively both those games suffered.  And guess what?  They have the same problem  NBA and NFL games are getting longer and longer, too!

Guess died-in-the wool sports fans will either have to put up with the longer games, switch to soccer or don’t go in person anymore and just watch recorded games on TV that can be put on fast forward during slow periods or during breaks.  There is a whole lot of nothing on the field or court these days…way more than there should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Are All Sports Becoming the Same?

I was listening to a discussion on the radio the other day about the Houston Astros baseball team.  The team surprised a lot of fans last year by holding first place in the American League West most of the season and while faltering down the stretch still was able to take a Wild Card spot and win the Wild Card game against the Yankees.

The conversation turned to the makeup of that winning team.  The consensus was that it was all because of pitching and home run hitting.  That is true. The Astros had the best pitching earned run average in the American League.  They also hit 230 home runs.  A number of other offensive things they did not do well.  They struck out way too much…didn’t have an outstanding on base percentage and pretty much relied on the home run to score runs.

Then I thought of pro basketball.  Teams that win now are good on defense and hit a lot of three point shots.  Defense in basketball is like pitching in baseball.  Don’t let the other team score much.  Then, on offense fire up a bunch of three pointers.  Hitting one of every three provided points at the same rate has hitting one of every two two-point shots.  In other words go for the long ball.  Don’t worry about the little things like making extra passes of hitting the short shots (the singles of baseball). Extra passes mean more chances to screw up with a turnover.

Next game football.  Again we start with defense.  Have a strong defense.  Offensively have a team that can score quickly with few plays.  That can be accomplished by a solid deep passing game or runners who have the skill to break off huge chunks of the field on the ground.  The more plays needed to get down the field the more chances there are to fail or make mistakes.  Thats like a baseball team that needs to string three singles together to score.  One breakdown and nothing happens.  One home run and something is guaranteed on the scoreboard.

See the patterns?  In all three cases it would seem the numbers have shown teams and coaches the method to win is to swing hard and hope you hit it, but always play solid defense (or pitch).

The problem is that this philosophy may win a lot of games, but it is really the best strategy to win the big ones?

In Houston the shoot quick from three point range got the Rockets to the NBA Western Finals last season. This year the offensive strategy hasn’t changed but the team has been floundering because they have ignored the defensive part of the plan.  They are not guarding anyone well consistently.

In football, the Texans had the defensive part down pat, but had an offense that could not get the ball downfield quickly and in few plays so scoring was a challenge unless the defense had already set them up with good field position.

We don’t know what the Astro season will provide, but if the pitching–which is the cornerstone of baseball defense– falls off, the team might fail to meet expectations because they have few ways to score runs in close games if the home runs don’t come.

It would seem that the number crunchers who are essentially running pro sports these days have taken a lot of the fun out of sports. The big play is the thing. But a team that relies on three point shooting, but can’t hit them and doesn’t really run plays providing other alternatives is awful to watch.  A baseball team that strikes out frequently and can’t squeeze out runs without home runs is the same. A football team that heaves pass after pass downfield with most falling uncaught will will wind up punting a lot.

It is also true in football a team that cannot execute a consistent running game that is capable of conducting a drive without the big play is just a punt waiting to happen, too, …or a penalty or turnover away from having to play defense. The option for the long pass play is necessary as an option.  But just bombing away hoping one will hit is not.

The big plays are exciting, but no matter what the sport, they don’t come that frequently.  It behooves teams to learn to play the full game no matter what sport if they want to win the ultimate prize.

I name New England (defending NFL champs), the Kansas City Royals and the Golden State Warriors and I rest my case.  All three were capable of doing it all and did not rely on the long pass, home run or three pointer to win.  They played the full game.

 

 

 

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World Coming to Houston

The top weightlifters from over 105 countries in the world…a total of nearly 750 lifters are filtering into Houston.  The 2015 International Weightlifting Federation World Championships will be staged in the cavernous George R. Brown Convention Center starting Thursday with opening ceremonies.

Already many teams can be seen wandering through the Center on the third floor with work out areas, warm up areas, training areas and other locations for the athletes to get ready already in operation. Teams from Great Britain, South Korea, Ajerbaijan, India and North Korea were spotted in the halls wearing team gear.  More teams are arriving by the hour

I am very lucky to be been hired to handle the television ” lift by lift” for  the “A” class competition which will go out on a world wide international feed starting Friday.  A potential audience from Great Britain to China of over one-billion viewers will have access.

Visiting the GRB this morning to meet some folks and tour the facility I was greatly impressed.  The television facilities are being handled by a group from Europe that specializes in international events.  This was the same crew that handled the world feed of the recent Cricket exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles and Houston.

A complete television control room is being constructed on site.  And this is not some mini operation.  More than 30 tons of gear is being un-packed and built. Switchers, audio, graphics and much recording gear for the live show as well as later video. The telecast itself will use eleven cameras in stable positions, with two hand held and one or two lipstick cameras in the warm up room.  This is for a sport in which all the action is in one four meter by four meter lifting spot in the middle of a stage.  This is a major production.  And it will be  very long hours.  In addition to the “A” level competition in eight men’s weight divisions and seven for the women…running roughly two hours in each…the lower level divisions will have video recorded.  (Fortunately the announcers won’t work much of that and be focused on the top divisions.)

You will see a good number of the competitors even if you don’t make it into the GRB or watch the U.S. live feed on ESPN3.  The lifters have been invited and encouraged to take part in Houston’s Thanksgiving Parade wearing the colors of their nations. If you are on hand for that or watch the telecast you will see much of the world pass before your eyes.

For the United States a second show will be prepared for delay telecast on ESPN2.  That show will feature some interviews with competitors and have more of a U.S. feel than the International live TV feed which will be purely focused on the top lifters and their stories.

The actual lifting competition will be staged on the third floor in one of the large arena facilities. Signs are everywhere to point the way.  The rules are simple.  The competition to help nations qualify the maximum number of lifters for the Olympics next year is on the line.  And, of course, being able to add a gold medal in a World Championship to one’s resume is pretty special itself.

And it is all happening in Houston starting later this week!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What I Saw on Saturday

Because the the regular weekend rain we had in Houston on Saturday I was pretty much locked into the house and watched more football than I normally do.  I am usually only a viewer of the Texans game on Sunday and will check in if the University of Houston or Rice or Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor or TCU are playing.  The latter two are only on my “check-in” list because they have been having such good seasons.

But yesterday I watched all the the Houston-Cincinnati game.  The Cougars were one lucky team to stay unbeaten.  When they could put pressure on Gunnar Kiel they were fine.  But when the big guy had any time to throw Houston was in big trouble.  Kiel put on quite a passing show.  Meanwhile the Cougars offense was likely as ineffective as it has been all year.  Without some Cincinnati turnovers and dumb plays and officials errors the Bearcats could (should they would say) have won the game.

Kiel’s huge passing numbers reminded me of another game the Cougars won despite the other QB going wild.  Ed Biles and I were calling the game from the Astrodome in 1990 when TCU’s Matt Vogler threw for 690 yards against the Cougs.  Houston won that one because David Klinger connected on seven touchdown passes!

Had the 2015 Cougars lost Saturday that would have been a real downer for next week when unbeaten Memphis came to town.  But, oops!  Memphis is no longer undefeated.  Navy sank their boat later on Saturday. But Cougar fans can’t take much heart in that.  A wounded animal (Memphis) is often much more dangerous than a healthy one.  If the Cougars don’t watch out the Tigers can still easily win a catfight with them next week. And Navy, though, like Memphis, has only one loss and they are also on the Houston future schedule.

If Houston is going to make it undefeated to the AAC title game they will certainly have earned it.

Meanwhile over in the Big12 which doesn’t have a championship game TCU’s loss has likely eliminated the school from national championship contention.  Actually Oklahoma State elevated itself into contention thanks to their convincing win over TCU.  The Cowboys, like Baylor, remain unbeaten.  One of them will win in their upcoming head to head meeting.  The winner will be the B12 champ and rightly represent the league in the final four.  But who gets left out?   In the SEC LSU is on the bubble after being defeated by Alabama which now is the favorite to win the West and also be the favorite in the SEC championship game.  A division runner up surely can’t make the final four and even a championship game winner should not be by-passed.  However, that could happen some day if one half of a league is deemed much weaker than the other and an upset took place in the championship game.  Personally, I think that would be very wrong and only league champions should be eligible for final four spots.  No one has asked me to make the rules though.

Of course, if that were written in stone as the case then these polls have even less value.  If two SEC teams are in the top four what good is that if only one can make the show?  Furthermore if the championship of the league was going to decide which was eligible what does the poll really mean?  With only four slots one of the Big 5 conferences will be left out annually.  Last season it was the Big 12.  Who will fail to make the cut in 2016?

Nice that the Rockets won late in LA last night to climb over .500 at 4-3.  Great numbers for Harden and Howard, but this team surely doesn’t play well together yet at all.  Perhaps when the team has all their “bigs” back and playing things will look better.  Right now each game is such a scramble…

Astros offered Colby Rasmus an offer sheet.  That means three things.  First if the wish they are now eligible to enter the bidding for the free agent.  Second, if Rasmus doesn’t get the sort of offers he wants he has a guaranteed home in Houston for 2016 at just under $16-million for one season.  And third, if Rasmus signs with someone else the Astros will receive a draft pick as compensation for losing him.

The majority of insiders seem to think the third option is what the Astros really want, but if Rasmus does take them up on the offer sheet they will be OK with it for just one year.

Don’t know if you have noticed but post season baseball is being played in Korea and Japan still.  An all-star like series involving several teams from around the world is underway.  A number of MLB scouts are in the stands since some of the players are eligible  for “posting” and possible signing.  Others are being watched for the future.  A brand new domed stadium in Seoul was used to get things started.  A similar stadium in Sapporo, Japan, was used last night.  Good thing they have one in Sapporo.  That is in the North  and it is ski country.  The 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics were staged there.

I am proud of my college alma mater, Butler University in Indianapolis for all its success in college basketball over the last 15 years.  Now in the Big East the experienced NCAA tournament school has seen interest in the program boom.  Indiana, is dominated by graduates for Indiana University and Purdue University, but Butler has had the most successful hoops program for most of the last decade.  Last night they played the second of two pre season exhibitions before a sell out crowd and live local television.  The local guys aired the game because it will be their last chance.  All but one of their regular season games will be aired nationally by FS1, CBSSportsnet, FSN, Fox or ESPN.

When I was in school Gary Nash and I were the first announcers to air all the games on local radio!

Today’s project–with no Texans action–will be to see if they can take first place in the AFC South by having the day off.  Colts lose and they are in!  By the way, while I went to school in Indianapolis and grew up in Central Indiana I am not a Colt fan or follower.  I was gone before they packed up the truck and snuck out of Baltimore.  My boyhood had me as a Chicago Bear fan.

Final thought:  Did you know Bob Harrison, who later played several years in the NBA in the early days, once scored 139 points in a single game?  It was an 8th grade battle between his Lagrange Junior High and Arch Street Junior High.  Bob not only scored 139 but scored ALL of his team’s points in a 139-8 win.   James Harden, despite taking most of the shots and scoring most of the points for the Rockets still has a long way to go!

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