Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Marciano vs. Walcott, 1953

     “Boxing was a mystery to me,” said Jersey Joe Walcott. “When I look back and see what I had to go through to get to the top, I find it hard to believe.”
     Walcott fought for the heavyweight championship eight times between 1947 and 1953. He lost gamely in the immortal Joe Louis’s final two title defenses. He split four remarkable bouts with Ezzard Charles—losing twice, then winning once to claim the title and once more to defend it. Then he was defeated in a spirited battle with Rocky Marciano.
     Walcott’s performance against Marciano earned him a rematch eight months later, in the latter’s first title defense.
     It was May 15, 1953. Marciano, 29, had enjoyed a relentless climb through the ranks of pretenders and contenders since donning the gloves only five years before. Though he was small for a heavyweight at 184½ pounds, the son of a Brockton, Massachusetts, shoemaker was a devastating puncher who had won all 43 of his fights, 38 by knockout. He had knocked Louis out of the ring altogether in one of the great man’s unfortunate comeback attempts.
     Walcott came into the rematch at 197¾ pounds. Officially he was 39 years old, but he had confessed to more than that two years earlier. Briefly considering retirement after his second loss to Charles, Walcott had said, “You can tell them the truth; I am 41.” So he might have been 43 when he clambered into the ring to face Marciano. Either way, he was the oldest man to hold the heavyweight title until 45-year-old George Foreman in 1994.
     For the first two minutes, Walcott appeared a bit gun shy. He well remembered the straight right to the jaw with which Marciano had knocked him out in the 13th round of their previous fight. This time, Marciano tried a different tack. He threw a roundhouse left hook that dazed Walcott, then followed with a withering right uppercut before Jersey Joe knew what hit him. “It wasn’t a crushing knockdown,” A.J. Liebling wrote, “the kind that leaves the recipient limp, like a wet hat, or jerky, like a new-caught flatfish. This appeared to be a sit-down-and-think-it-over knockdown, such as you might see in any barroom on a night of full moon.”
     With hundreds of late-arriving fans still searching for their seats and television viewers rummaging through their refrigerators, ring announcer Ben Bentley hoisted Marciano’s hand in the air at 2:25 of the first round.
Walcott and his manager, Felix Bocchicchio, maintained that referee Frank Sikora had quick counted.    “Gentlemen,” Bocchicchio said, “I never saw no robbery equal to this tonight.”
     “I could’ve gotten up at two,” said Walcott, “but I was looking at Felix and he told me to stay down. I never heard the referee count past seven. It’s the most ridiculous thing I ever seen.” Many fans agreed that they hadn’t heard Sikora count to ten, but that was not unusual considering the terrific din inside the Stadium. Moreover, Walcott had remained on the seat of his pants, making no move to get up even after Sikora finished counting him out. “I was surprised he didn’t get up,” Marciano commented matter-of-factly.
     Actually, few did get up after Rocky tagged them. Marciano defended his title five more times, winning four by knockout, then retired undefeated at the age of 32. There was no one left for him to fight.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Ones That Got Away: White Sox, Part 1

Of the three dozen or so most prominent examples of players and managers who left Chicago early in their careers and went on to greater glory elsewhere, refugees from the Cubs outnumber those of the White Sox by a substantial margin. However, the Sox have not been entirely immune themselves. A few noteworthy White Sox castoffs from before 1950 are recalled below.

Gavvy Cravath
White Sox, 1909

     Outfielder Gavvy Cravath had hit one homer in 19 games for the White Sox when he was traded to the Washington Senators for pitcher Sleepy Bill Burns in May 1909. Burns went on to an undistinguished career that was tainted by accusations of complicity with gamblers (after his playing days were over, he became a key figure in the Black Sox scandal of 1919-1920). Cravath, meanwhile, emerged as the greatest slugger the game had seen up to that time.
     Playing for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1912 to 1920, Cravath led the National League in homers six times and tied for the lead another time. His 24 round trippers in 1924 established a new single-season record, which was broken by Babe Ruth in 1919. Cravath retired as baseball's all-time leading home-run hitter with 119. He retained this distinction for one year. In 1921, Ruth hit 59 homers to bring his lifetime total to 162.
     Cravath got off a memorable quote while managing the woeful Phillies. When one of his players complained about the razzing the club was getting from opponents and fans, Cravath did his best to console him. "Don't let anyone tell you that you're not a major leaguer, son," Cravath said. "We might not be a major-league club, but we are playing against major-league clubs."

Edd Roush
White Sox, 1913

     In his brief trial with the White Sox, 20-year-old center fielder Edd Roush managed but one hit in ten at-bats. He signed on with the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the upstart Federal League the next year, lured by the princely salary of $225 per month.
     When the Federal League folded after two seasons, Roush joined the New York Giants, where he took an intense dislike to legendary manager John McGraw. Since the feeling was quite mutual, Roush was soon traded to Cincinnati. With the Reds, Roush became the most popular player in franchise history before the emergence of Pete Rose half a century later.
     Roush was only five-foot-eleven and 170 pounds, but he used the heaviest bat (48 ounces) in major-league history. Because the bat was hardly tapered at all, Roush could bunt, get good wood on inside pitches, and slap balls to the opposite field. From 1917 through 1926, his lowest batting average was a league-leading .321 in 1919. That year, Roush and the Reds triumphed over the "Black Sox" in the World Series.
     Roush retired with a .323 average and two batting titles in 18 seasons. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Dixie Walker
White Sox, 1936-1937

     Early in the 1936 season, the White Sox picked up right fielder Fred "Dixie" Walker on waivers from the New York Yankees, for whom he had been bouncing between Triple-A and the majors since 1931. Walker had a big year for the Sox in 1937, hitting .302 with nine homers, 95 RBIs, and 105 runs scored, while also leading the league with 16 triples. He was promptly traded to the Detroit Tigers.
     When Walker landed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in mid-season 1939, his career took off. In Brooklyn, he soon became known as "the People's Cherce" for his popularity among the fans. Walker was a four-time All-Star for the Dodgers and four times finished in the top ten in MVP balloting. He led the National League in batting average in 1944 and in RBIs in 1945.
     The lefthanded-hitting Walker emphasized contact over power; he never hit more than 15 homers nor struck out more than 28 times in a season. He was a key player on Brooklyn pennant winners in 1941 and 1947. Before the '47 season, Walker balked at playing alongside his new teammate Jackie Robinson and also tried to enlist other Dodgers in a boycott. To his credit, he came to sincerely regret the episode, calling it "the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life."

Ed Lopat
White Sox, 1944-1947

     The prototypical small, crafty lefthander, Ed Lopat had a record of 50-49 in his four years with the White Sox. After the 1947 season, he was traded to the New York Yankees for three players--only one of whom, pitcher Bill Wight, lasted long enough to make an impression (he lost 20 games in his first year with the Sox). Lopat became a mainstay on the Yankee teams that won an unprecedented five successive world championships between 1949 and 1953.
     At five-foot-ten, Lopat was far from overpowering, but he knew how to get people out. Though he yielded about a hit an inning and a walk for every strikeout, Lopat compiled a phenomenal record of 92-40 from 1949 through 1954. He led the American League in winning percentage and earned-run average in 1953. He won four out of five World Series starts, including two complete-game victories in 1951 in which he allowed a total of one run.

Friday, May 13, 2011

'Twas Forty Years Ago: Chicago Sports Memories of 1971

     In 1971, two of the all-time great Chicago athletes called it a career within three weeks of each other. Ernie Banks played the last of his 2,528 games for the Cubs on September 26, and Gale Sayers played the last of his 68 games for the Bears on October 17. Sadly, both players finished up as mere shadows of their former selves. Banks, 40, had only 83 at-bats for the season, hitting .193 with three homers and six runs batted in. Sayers, just 28, played in two games and rushed for 38 yards on 13 carries before conceding that this latest comeback from a succession of knee surgeries had run its course.
     Neither man would have to wait long for the call to join his sport's Hall of Fame.

     The Blackhawks took an immediate liking to their new home in the NHL's Western Division, where they were the only established franchise among six four-year-old expansion teams. The Hawks won 26 and tied 5 of their first 37 games. They did not lose on home ice until January 6, compiling a home record of 16-0-2 prior to that. They ended up at 49-20-9, racking up 107 points to win the division going away. Mainstays of the club were goalie Tony Esposito, center Stan Mikita, forwards Bobby Hull and Dennis Hull, and defensemen Bill White and Pat "Whitey" Stapleton.
     In the playoffs, the Hawks dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers (four games to none) and the New York Rangers (four games to three) to advance to the Stanley Cup finals against the Montreal Canadiens. The Hawks won the first two games at home, dropped the next two at Montreal, then won again at home--in a 2-0 shutout by Esposito--to draw tantalizingly close to capturing the Cup. But the Canadiens won the next game in Montreal to even the series again.
     In Game 7 at the Stadium on May 18, Dennis Hull tallied in the last minute of the first period on a power play and Danny O'Shea lit the lamp seven minutes into the second to give the Hawks a 2-0 lead. The home team was closing in on the championship, and the old barn was rocking. Alas, the Canadiens scored three unanswered goals--two in the second period and one in the third--to win 3-2. As Montreal captain Jean Beliveau hoisted the Cup, the standing-room-only crowd of heartbroken Hawks fans politely applauded the champions. The Cup that Beliveau cradled in his hands would remain beyond the Hawks' grasp for 39 more years.

     In their fifth year of existence, the Bulls had their first 50-win season in 1970-71. They played an intense, physical style of ball that mirrored the pugnacious personality of their coach, Dick Motta, and they had the Stadium turnstiles spinning. Forwards Bob Love and Chet Walker were All-Stars, guard Jerry Sloan was named second-team All-Defense, and Motta was voted Coach of the Year. Although the Bulls lost a hard-fought first-round playoff series to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games, with the home team winning each game, the future was still bright. They won 50 or more games in each of the next three seasons, and they proved that a pro basketball franchise could not only survive but thrive in Chicago.

     The Cubs plodded to an 83-79 mark in Banks's 19th and final season, finishing tied for third place in the National League East, 14 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. The lanky and elegant 28-year-old righthander Fergie Jenkins went 24-13 with a 2.77 earned-run average and 277 strikeouts to earn the Cy Young Award. It was the fifth of six consecutive seasons in which Jenkins won 20 or more times. The future Hall of Famer was joined in the All-Star Game by second baseman Glenn Beckert, shortstop Don Kessinger, and third baseman Ron Santo.

     After bottoming out with a 56-106 record the year before, the White Sox welcomed a new manager, Chuck Tanner, and a new broadcaster, Harry Caray, and then welcomed a return to respectability. The Sox finished at 79-83, and attendance at Comiskey Park nearly doubled. Tanner and pitching coach Johnny Sain converted knuckleballing lefty reliever Wilbur Wood into a starter, and the experiment proved a success, to say the least. Wood went 22-13 with a 1.91 ERA while logging 334 innings. He finished third in Cy Young balloting and established himself as the South Siders' ace for the next several years. Wood and 25-year-old third baseman Bill Melton, who led the American League (and tied his own club record) with 33 home runs, represented the Sox in the All-Star Game.

     After several years of mediocrity, the Bears galvanized fans by winning six of their first nine games. On November 14 against the Washington Redskins, a 40-yard touchdown run by Cyril Pinder tied the score 15-15 late in the fourth quarter. On the extra-point attempt, the snap went awry, but holder Bobby Douglass (also the Bears' quarterback) picked up the ball, scrambled around a while, and then fired a strike to Dick Butkus (of all people) in the corner of the end zone to give the Bears a dramatic 16-15 win.
     At 6-3, the Bears seemed headed for the playoffs, but they lost the next five games--four of them by very lopsided scores--to finish 6-8. Head coach Jim Dooley was fired after compiling a record of 20-36 for four seasons; he would be replaced by Abe Gibron, who didn't fare much better.
     The Bears' game at Detroit on October 24 was marred by the on-field death of Lions receiver Chuck Hughes from an apparent heart attack.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Derrick Rose Updates His Resume

Resume of Bulls point guard Derrick Rose (recently updated):
  • McDonald's High School All-American, representing Chicago's Simeon Career Academy, 2007.
  • Third-team All-American, representing the University of Memphis, in his first and only year of college ball, 2008.
  • First player selected in NBA draft, 2008.
  • NBA Rookie of the Year, 2009.
  • NBA All-Star in his second year in the league, 2010.
  • All-Star Game starter in his third year in the league, 2011.
  • NBA Most Valuable Player (the youngest in league history), 2011.

References (partial list):
  • "If you don't see something special in Derrick Rose, then you're blind." -- Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
  • "What a humble star! How humble is that kid, and how great is he and how great will he be." -- former Bulls forward Horace Grant.
  • "He has handled everything with such class and grace." -- Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.
  • "That kid is out of this world." -- Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel.
  • "In addition to being a great basketball player, he's a very nice and well-rounded young man." -- NBA commissioner David Stern.

Athletes who have won Most Valuable Player award for a Chicago team (in chronological order):

  • Frank "Wildfire" Schulte, Cubs outfielder 1911
  • Rogers Hornsby, Cubs second baseman 1929
  • Gabby Hartnett, Cubs catcher 1935
  • Sid Luckman, Bears quarterback 1943
  • Phil Cavarretta, Cubs first baseman 1945
  • Max Bentley, Blackhawks center 1946
  • Hank Sauer, Cubs outfielder 1952
  • Al Rollins, Blackhawks goalie 1954
  • Ernie Banks, Cubs shortstop 1958, 1959
  • Nellie Fox, White Sox second baseman 1959
  • Bobby Hull, Blackhawks left wing 1965, 1966
  • Stan Mikita, Blackhawks center 1967, 1968
  • Dick Allen, White Sox first baseman 1972
  • Walter Payton, Bears runnning back 1977
  • Ryne Sandberg, Cubs second baseman 1984
  • Andre Dawson, Cubs outfielder 1987
  • Michael Jordan, Bulls guard 1988, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998
  • Frank Thomas, White Sox first baseman 1993, 1994
  • Sammy Sosa, Cubs outfielder 1998
  • Derrick Rose, Bulls guard 2011