Listen up, all you major leaguers who think spring training is too long. You’ve got nothing on the 1911 Boston Red Sox.

A century ago, the Red Sox embarked on one of the most ambitious, grueling and daunting spring training barnstorming junkets in baseball history, traveling by rail and automobile through dusty towns in California and the Southwest, a 60-game swing in which starters and stars routinely played nine innings.

The trip didn’t quite do the trick as far as firing the Red Sox up for the regular season. They finished 78-75, in fifth place, 24 games behind the World Series champion Philadelphia Athletics. Maybe they were, well, out of gas.

Back in the days when newspapers were considered handheld portable devices, the Boston Globe carried accounts of every game. The Red Sox played minor league clubs and town teams in tiny venues that never would have dreamed to see big league ball today.

Every move of the Red Sox tour was chronicled by Globe beat writer Tim Murnane, a jock turned scribe, the 1911 version of a washed up ballplayer serving as a media talking head. Murnane didn’t just write about the Red Sox. He gushed about them. He hung out with the team when they donned their spiffy one-piece swimsuits to hang out at the salt baths.

One of the first significant tour stops was in Los Angeles, where the Red Sox played a few games in Redondo Beach, then a small seaside town not known for millions of dead fish. The Red Sox took a dip in the Pacific, toured downtown L.A. in their convertible chariots wearing full game gear, and stayed long enough for their famous right-hander, Smokey Joe Wood (pictured), to earn his nickname against the Pacific Coast League locals.

“Joe Wood had remarkable speed, fine control and a clever break that kept the locals guessing,” Murnane wrote.

The Globe also sent a cartoonist along for the ride and his drawings reflect the times. When the Red Sox played in Redondo Beach, the Boston players were surprised to see Hispanic fans come out to the game. Cartoonists made it a point to let readers know they had no idea what language the fans were speaking.

It makes you wonder how modern major leaguers (and, ahem, the Players Association) would take to ownership booking 60 barnstorming games in advance of the 153 regular season games the 1911 Red Sox played. You think modern owners are greedy? Nowadays, of course, the fans sunning themselves work harder than the regular starters do in a spring game. Not so back in 1911, a year before Fenway Park opened and before the unsinkable Titanic left the dock.

You can still find the box scores and game summaries if you’ve got a curious mind and a valid library card. The games were played under regular season rules, and starters routinely played all nine innings, out of duty, pride, or fear of losing their jobs.

Catcher Bill Carrigan split open his thumb catching against the University of Nevada baseball team, where “the college boys were a few chips shy in knowledge of the fine points of the game,” The Globe reported.

When the Red Sox got to Dallas for a homecoming game to honor star centerfielder Tris Speaker, leftfielder Duffy Lewis stole the show, and the presence of rightfielder Harry Hooper reminds us that this was one of the game’s great outfields of the early 20th century.

The Red Sox tour didn’t help the team win, but it likely won over some new fans and created some great memories. And most importantly, the team made it back to Boston in one piece. Fortunately, gas in 1911 was somewhat less than four bucks a gallon.

-- John Klima is a regular contributor to and author of "Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend."

Full Story >>

I miss Florida most in March.

Even in a place where there isn’t a notable winter to emerge from, it’s unmistakably spring in the Sunshine State. March is when even the people who live there year-round put their shorts and flip-flops back on. It’s when they return to beaches and boats. And it’s when my friends in Florida inundate my Facebook newsfeed with photos from spring training games.

While it pains me that I can’t be there for the Grapefruit League exhibitions, I suppose it’s just as well. The Spring Training Experience I grew up with is gone.

I’ve attended spring training games in a handful of places in Florida. Small stadiums with great energy, filled with an air of possibility and optimism for the season ahead. But only one field felt like it was the single place in the whole world where spring training really belonged.

There was no better place to spend an afternoon in March than Al Lang Stadium, a 7,000-seat ballpark on St. Petersburg’s waterfront.

They played baseball in the spring at Al Lang starting in 1923, when the Boston Braves and Babe Ruth’s Yankees called it their home away from home. A new field was built for the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1947. Since then, Al Lang’s tenants have included the New York Giants, the Mets, the Orioles and, after the Cardinals played their 50th and final season there in 1997, the Rays.

Even beyond Ruth, the list of players who called this place their home field in the spring requires no first names: Mays, Mantle, Gehrig, Musial, Maris and DiMaggio. It’s where Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton shook the winter rust off their fastballs. The 1986 Amazin' Mets of Gooden, Strawberry and Dykstra spent March at Al Lang before embarking on their storied championship season.

For all the talk about the Tampa Bay area’s lackluster support of Major League Baseball -- and there’s been plenty -- this place has brought people out to see the games that don’t even count for nearly 90 years. For about the last 30, one of them was Uncie.

Uncie, pronounced un-key, is Jim Kennedy and, not coincidentally, he’s my uncle. Even though I’m now a relative grownup, I still call him Uncie and so do my friends.

Uncie decided to get serious with spring training in 1980. Between taking the Florida bar exam and getting the results, the biggest baseball fan I’ve ever known decided to test out different seats around.Al Lang Stadium.

Upon choosing his seats along the first base line, Uncie went more than 26 years without missing a single spring training game at Al Lang, which was named for the first St. Pete mayor who brought pro ball to town, if only for a month each year. This attendance streak is even more impressive when you consider that most games take place in the early afternoon and the family Uncie supported added daughters in 1985 and 1988.

Uncie doesn’t invite you to spring training. He subpoenas you. You receive an envelope from his law office, and inside you find a Circuit Court notice. At the top, the name of the case. IN THE MATTER OF THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES VS. THE ST LOUIS CARDINALS. Even in its most recent incarnations, the unrealistic-slash-outdated rules instructed that cell phones and beepers were strictly prohibited, unless you wished to be held “in contempt of spring training.”

When you showed up to a spring training game with Uncie, you felt like you owned the place. You were introduced to all the important people at the stadium. The beer lady. The hot dog guy. The people sitting around us. The guy who managed the stadium. You went home with autographs, maybe a foul ball, and probably a sunburn on your thighs or your feet.

It sounds like any other spring training game, or maybe even any baseball game for that matter, but there was something about seeing the boats and the water past left field and the tiny planes taking off and landing at Albert Whitted Airfield. Something about the seagulls, who Uncie swore could read the scoreboard, because they always showed up en masse in the 8th inning, no matter what time the game started.

There was something about that intimate stadium and casual atmosphere where players stretched and ran sprints in the outfield, all while the game was being played.

There was Rick, the guy across the aisle who we’d see year after year, who spoke -- and it was more like yelling than speaking -- with the rasp and volume of a cartoon pirate: “What’s the matter ump? Did you forget your seeing eye dog?” Rick wore Hawaiian shirts, caked sunscreen on his nose and showed up to games with different leathery women.

And there were the photographers who enamored me. Armed with their telephoto lenses and light meters, these guys were going to be making pictures for baseball cards. Baseball cards! It was pretty much the coolest thing you could do short of being the guys on the cards. He works for Upper Deck? Oh man, that’s the big time.

Since the end of spring training in 2008, there have been no umps to yell at and no players to take photos of. Al Lang Stadium, or Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park as it’s been called for the last stretch of its existence, has sat empty in March. When the Rays headed 90 minutes south to Port Charlotte, they took March away from Uncie.

And sure, you could go to Tampa for a Yankees game or Clearwater for a Phillies game, or to Dunedin to see the Blue Jays, and Uncie does. But it just isn’t the same.

This year at Al Lang, there are some international exhibition games and a few split squad games that don’t even count in the don’t-count standings of the Grapefruit League. And it’s true that come April, the Rays will have opening day just a dozen blocks away. Uncie will be there game after game, like he was for the 10 years of extreme Devil Rays futility between 1998 and 2007, and as he’s been for the past three seasons cheering on an actual contender. But the domed, air-conditioned, turfed-over dreariness of indoor baseball
couldn’t be further from March afternoons by the bay.

Recently, Uncie became the chairman of St. Petersburg’s city council. I know he loves the city, cares about its future and has a deep sense of civic responsibility. But I want to get my hands on some of those city council meeting agendas to see if luring a new team for spring training comes up. There’s a part of me that believes he’s in it just to find a way to get March back.

-- Jim Darlington is an advertising copywriter in New York City.

Full Story >>

Excerpted from "Remembering Fenway" by Harvey Frommer. Copyright © 2011 Harvey Frommer. All rights reserved. Published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

The Forties
At the start of the new decade, Fenway Park featured new bullpens in place in right field in front of the bleachers. The distance to the right-center wall was cut from 405 feet to just over 380 feet. Bullpens had been moved from the foul lines to the front of the stands in center, creating the center-field triangle.

DOM DIMAGGIO: The first time I walked into Fenway Park was a day in April 1940. It was before the season; there was ice on the field. Coming from California, it was a bit of a shock to me. I was wondering how we were going to start on time.

BOBBY DOERR: Ted Williams (below) was one of the first hitters to go to light bats. In 1941, he had a batch of 32-ouncers brought to Fenway.

Some told him "Ted, you can't get good wood with 32 ounce bats."

Ted's comeback was, "What good is wood if you can't handle it?"

He wanted control of the bat to where he could hit the ball on the fat part. With a heavier bat he felt he couldn't even though he was as quick and strong as anybody. But he still went from a 34 or 35 ounce bat to a 32 once bat.

We became close friends. We were around the same age; we both liked to go to movies and fish and talk fishing. But the thing Ted especially liked was to talk baseball.

SAM MELE: I was going to New York University. My coach Bill McCarthy used to drive me up to Fenway Park to work out for the Red Sox scout Mahoney. One day, I get in the batting cage. Pitching to me was Herb Pennock who had been one of the great pitchers in history.

After a few warm-up pitches, he says "Are you ready now?"

I say, "Yeah." Now he throws a screwball, a change up and boy I had a tough time.

They tell me to take five swings. I took four and I did not swing at the fifth pitch.

"Why did you take that pitch?" a voice behind the cage says.

"Well, it was kind of low," I said.

"It was, but it was over the plate," the voice says.

The voice belonged to Ted Williams. He called me over and started talking to me about hitting. "You move your feet too far away from the plate," he said. "You got to be able to cover the whole plate when you're batting." I never forgot that.

Throughout that 1941 season, the talk all over Boston was about Ted Williams who would be the last batter to hit .400.

"Number 9 did that."

"That's where Number 9 hit one."

"He got another hit today, Number 9."

MONSIGNOR THOMAS J. DALY: In 1941, I was age 14 and started as Stile boy. I got paid $1.50 a day. About the second inning or third, inning you were free for the rest of the time and you could watch the ballgame. And if there was a doubleheader then you had a good day for yourself. Not too many people tried to sneak through into Fenway. There was, however, a note on the bulletin board that I still remember. "Sir, last week I sneaked into the ballgame and I'm sending money to pay for the ticket that I didn't buy." The writer was anonymous, of course.

There was no local TV, and radio was WAAB with Jim Britt and Tom Hussey. All games were in the daylight and lots of children were on hand. Prices of admission for the grandstands were $1.10, bleachers 55 cents, a reserved seat in the grandstand $1.40 and tickets for the box seats were $3.60. It was a pretty quiet environment. The only music was at the beginning of the ballgame when everybody stood for the national anthem. There was just the manual scoreboard.

BOO FERRIS: After my sophomore year at Mississippi State University, the Red Sox got me placed in the Northern League in Vermont. That was in '41. My manager there was Bill Barrett, a former major-leaguer and a Red Sox scout. We had an open day. He took me and two players from the University of Oklahoma to our first big league ballgame.

Bill Barrett says, "They're playing the Cleveland Indians. I'll take you in and you can meet the great Red Sox players."

We drove down in Mr. Barrett's car. When we first saw Fenway Park, we were all pretty bug-eyed, I'll tell you that. We were just on cloud nine you might say--three southern boys. Bill Barrett told us that Lefty Grove was going for his 300th career win that day, July the 25th.

We walked in the clubhouse and Johnny Orlando the clubhouse guy told us to be quiet. We learned that Lefty Grove who was on the downside of his great career was in the trainer's room. He always took a little nap before the ballgame.

And Orlando said, "He better not be disturbed or he'll tear up the clubhouse."

So we had to tiptoe by the training room and my gosh we got to meet Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Wagner and Joe Cronin, the manager of course.

We shook hands with Red Sox players. Bill Barrett, he knew them all. I didn't think to ask for autographs. getting an autograph wasn't a big thing back in those days. But I still have the program. It cost five cents.
I had a dream that maybe someday I might be back. We sat in box seats behind the dugout and had royal treatment. The ballpark was so compact with seats right down close to the field. The Wall was out there but it wasn't painted green then. Some called it the Iron Monster.

Manager Joe Cronin had told Grove before the game: "Pop, this is a nine inning game. I'm not coming out to get you. Grove was behind 6-4 in the seventh inning, tied in the eighth at 6-6. Then Jimmie Foxx hit a three-run homer. Grove had given up 12 hits but he had his 300th and final win.

BOO FERRIS: He struggled but he made it. An unforgettable day, for sure, for three southern boys. That was my introduction to Fenway. We drove back home and the next day we were playing baseball.

DOM DIMAGGIO (right): The atmosphere heightened a great deal when the Red Sox and Yankees played. I felt that and enjoyed it.

In 1941, when my brother Joe had the hitting streak going, Ted would be talking to the guy in the scoreboard and the guy would keep him posted when Joe got a hit. You couldn't do that at any other park.
There were times at Fenway when Joe would be coming in from centerfield and I would be coming out. I said very little to him on those occasions. What the hell was I going to do, stop in centerfield and have a conversation?

JOHNNY PESKY: Manager Joe Cronin let me play. That was how it all started in 1942. . We played the old Boston Braves, an exhibition City Series, one game at Fenway and one at Braves Field.

The first time I saw Fenway Park it was dark and dreary. I was mainly concerned about playing as well as I could and keeping warm. I made four errors in the exhibition game and felt just terrible about it. I thought Cronin was going to send me down to either Scranton or Louisville. But he didn't say anything to me.

Opening Day, Tuesday April 14th, at Fenway. I was 22 years old. I came up the runway, up the three steps and looked out from the dugout. It was an old park even then. But it was very well kept, clean and nice. And right in the middle of the city. I thought it was beautiful.

We lived on Bay State Road just across from Kenmore Square and could walk across to the ballpark. I batted leadoff ahead of Dom and Ted.

(The Red Sox lineup that April 14, 1942 at Fenway)
6 Johnny Pesky SS
7 Dom DiMaggio CF
9 Ted Williams LF
3 Jimmie Foxx 1B
5 Jim Tabor 3B
12 Pete Fox RF
26 Skeeter Newsome 2B
11 Johnny Peacock C
28 Dick Newsome P

-- Harvey Frommer is the author of 41 books including "Remembering Yankee Stadium," "New York City Baseball: 1947-1957" and biographies of Nolan Ryan, Red Holzman and Tony Dorsett.

Full Story >>

It wouldn’t be completely accurate to call Maribel Vinson-Owen the Bob Knight of figure skating. But it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either. After all, she was a successful coach with a fiery disposition, and she did famously throw a chair at one of her students. This was more than 50 years ago. The student was Ron Ludington, who became the bronze medalist in the pair event at the 1960 Olympics. He went on to coach many skaters to the Olympics himself.

Owen also trained Frank Carroll, who in this analogy would be Mike Krzyzewski. He coached Michelle Kwan and 2010 gold medalist Evan Lysacek. Speaking of Owen, Carroll has admitted on numerous occasions, “I was scared to death of her.”

Owen demanded respect and got it. When most in the profession were men, Owen guided many athletes to the top of the sport -- most notably 1956 Olympic champion Tenley Albright, who went on to become a surgeon. Owen also coached her own daughters, Laurence, 16, who competed in the 1960 Olympics and was the U.S. national champion in single skating in 1961, and also Maribel, 20, the U.S. national champion in pair skating that same year.

As a skater, Owen won an unprecedented and still unmatched 15 gold medals -- nine in single and six in pair -- at the national championships between 1926 and 1937. She was a three-time Olympian and won the bronze medal for the United States in 1932.

Owen was a remarkable figure outside the rink as well. She was a graduate of Radcliffe, class of 1933. She was the first female sportswriter for The New York Times and wrote three books on the sport. She is described by those who knew her as being “ahead of her time,” and as someone who fought for equality. Not only did she want her skaters to be great, she also wanted them to be educated and was known to quiz them on SAT words while driving them from one rink to another. Widowed early in life, she was a single parent. By coaching and writing, she supported her daughters and also her mother in Winchester, Mass.

Owen was killed at the age of 50 in a plane crash that also took the lives of the entire 1961 U.S. figure skating team that was headed to the world championships in Prague. There were 18 athletes --including Owen's daughters -- six coaches, judges and several family members on board.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this tragedy, US Figure Skating commissioned a film called RISE, which played in 500 theaters across the country on Feb. 17. Due to popular demand, it will be shown again March 7. RISE chronicles the lives of several of the victims of the crash and their influence on the sport.

On screen, Maribel Vinson-Owen emerges as a colorful and complex character. In archival footage, she can be seen coaching Laurence while wearing bright red pants and a cap with a feather in it. During a practice session, she skates right alongside her daughter with intensity, guiding her into place on the ice.

Owen was quite a hands-on coach. It was not uncommon for her to slap a skater’s leg or hips with a plastic skate guard to correct a body position. She would even grab a little girl by the ponytail to get her attention. Of course, this was during an era when this brand of disciplining was more acceptable. Back then, wooden paddles were kept in school classrooms.

So Owen’s students feared her. But they also admired her. Owen could be playful, with a laugh that could be heard from across the rink. She was also dedicated to all of her students. She cared about them and they knew it. In RISE, her former students speak of her with fondness and a solemn reverence.

Ludington says she threw the chair at him because he cursed at her under his breath. They fought it out and the next night, they continued as if nothing had happened. “She didn’t hold grudges,” he says. “I was rough around the edges. If she hadn’t been that way with me, I wouldn’t be who I am today.” Ludington still keeps a photo of Owen in his office. The inscription Owen wrote to him in one of her books reads, “It was fun, most of the time, wasn’t it?”

And Carroll credits much of his coaching success to Owen. He has been thinking about her a lot since Lysacek won the Olympic gold. In RISE, he says, as if speaking to her, "Maribel, if I could only call you and thank you for all you have done for me and helping me to be able to do this for this young man."

After the crash in 1961, the sport of skating in America embarked on the long process of rebuilding. Skaters who had retired were asked to come back to compete, and elite coaches from Europe were invited to come and fill the holes that were left by Owen and her colleagues. A memorial fund was set up to financially assist other skaters in achieving their dreams. This next group of skaters and coaches felt they were continuing what the victims of the crash had started.

By dedicating her life to her students and driving from rink to rink in the Boston area at all hours of the morning and night, Owen impressed them with her passion for the sport. She motivated them and drew out their best. In so doing, she inspired many of her skaters to become not just champions, but, like Ludington and Carroll, to become coaches as well.

Though their coaching methodologies and ways of disciplining aren’t quite like hers, Ludington and Carroll are known to be some of the hardest-working coaches in the business. Many of their students have also gone on to coach subsequent generations, and, in turn, many of those skaters are now entering the coaching profession. In fact, most people in the skating world today are connected to Maribel Vinson-Owen. She is the matriarch of her sport, and in some ways she always will be.

Vinson-Owen and her daughters are buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. Today and every day, Harvard students will walk past her grave on the way to class. Few will know her legend. But anyone who watches a minute of figure skating will appreciate her impact.

Full Story >>

This story has mustard on it, but that makes it even better. Once, Henry Aaron struck out three times in one game. The pitcher in question used to nibble on a toothpick as comfortably as Aaron rolled his bat in the palms of his hands. This time the pick topped the hammer.

“That was the most embarrassing feeling in the world,” Aaron told David Letterman on the CBS Late Show last week. “I remember my third year, I faced Sam Jones and he struck me out three times in Chicago.”

Aaron held up three fingers for emphasis and said he met Jones for dinner that night: “I told him, ‘You’ll never have that opportunity against me again’ –- and I meant it. From that day on, he and I had an understanding.”

The understanding was that Aaron would never let Toothpick Sam Jones beat him like that again –- and he never did. That was no easy feat. One time, Jones stuck out nine Milwaukee Braves. He punched out everyone in the lineup except Aaron.

“Toothpick Sam” was so named because he rolled a toothpick between his teeth when he pitched –- a stylistic forerunner to Dusty Baker, one of Henry’s young teammates in Atlanta during the early 70s. Sportswriters looked at Sam’s droopy face and called him “Sad Sam” Jones, after a white pitcher in the 1920s. But black ballplayers never called him Sad Sam. He was always Toothpick –- toothpick thin, toothpick in the mouth, curveball that snapped like a twig.

Toothpick Sam was lean, lanky and loose, a smooth and explosive right-hander who led the National League in strikeouts three times. A clever scout might call his arm action “whippy,” might describe his tight curveball as a hard downer and his fastball as a two-seam demon with a tail. Twice, Jones whipped NL hitters for more than 200 strikeouts, including 225 with the 1958 Cardinals.

Jones was pitching for the Cubs in the game that Aaron recalled on Letterman. A careful study of box scores revealed it was April 20, 1955 at Wrigley Field.

Aaron thought it was his third year in the big leagues. It was actually his second. He said Jones struck him out three times, but Aaron was better than he remembered. Jones struck him out twice –- swinging in the first inning and looking in the second, which alone had to burn itself into Aaron’s memory because he almost never struck out twice in a row when he was young.

In between Aaron’s misery, the Braves ambushed Jones for 1 2/3 innings. Bobby Thomson hit a grand slam to chase him. Maybe the story is just better if Toothpick strikes out Aaron a third time.

But Aaron did strike out three times in that game, which also rarely happened, and probably still stings the inner gamer of a man who recently turned 77. Or, it’s a white lie to make a good story great and a tip of the hat to Toothpick, like Aaron, a former Negro Leaguer.

In the top of the sixth, Aaron faced a right-handed reliever named John Andre, who pitched only 22 major league games, all in 1955, and had 19 strikeouts. One of those was a strikeout Aaron never forgot, even if he changes the pitcher in the re-telling as a way of saluting Toothpick.

While Aaron showed some of his old fire while sitting on Letterman’s couch, there was also camaraderie in his words. When Aaron recounted that he and Jones had dinner after the game, it offered a reminder of how former Negro League ballplayers in the 1950s remained tightly knit in the majors –- all they had was each other. They had come up through the segregated minor leagues, segregated spring training and still faced travel segregation in some major league towns. They were the few and lucky ones who had seen life on both ends.

Aaron played a short hitch at shortstop with the Indianapolis Clowns before the Boston Braves signed him in 1952. Jones, shy and light skinned but fiercely proud of his heritage, followed the money through various clubs, most notably as ace of the Cleveland Buckeyes, where he got the attention of the hometown Indians and was signed in 1950.

The Hammer is a ham now –- the consummate storyteller. It’s hard to imagine that this was once a scared kid from Alabama who told interviewers that he didn’t care what anybody threw him, or such an aggressive ballplayer that in 1959 he slid so hard into Jones covering third base that he spiked him and jammed the toothpick into his throat.

Henry probably took Sam out to dinner that night, too, but that’s a story best kept between the Hammer and the Toothpick, who died in 1971 and never lived to see the home run trot Letterman asked about, and never again owned Henry the same way he did one afternoon in Wrigley Field.

Full Story >>