baseball field

Crossing Over

‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome…’
October 20, 1910-July 11, 2010

bob sheppardThe stadium voice of the New York Yankees (1951-2007) and the New York Giants (1956-2006) passed away at his home in Baldwin, NY, on July 11, three months shy of his 100th birthday. Elegant, dignified and classy, Sheppard, he of the precise diction and professorial tone, epitomized what the Yankees wanted the franchise to stand for, even when things were at their craziest on the field during late owner George Steinbrenner’s early years. For half a century he was the public address announcer at Giants games, working solely on a handshake agreement with team owner Wellington Mara. The half-century-plus he spent in the Yankee Stadium PA booth can be summarized with his soothing, reverberant game time greeting to the fans: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen…and welcome to Yankee Stadium.” More recently, his announcement of the at-bat of a particular player entered in to legend: “Now batting for the Yankees…number two…Derek Je-tah.” Ultimately, health problems waylaid Sheppard, starting with an injured hip in 2006 that forced him to miss his first Yankee home opener since 1951. In 2007 he was hospitalized with a bronchial infection after calling what turned out to be his final game, on September 5 against Seattle. He was asked to call the final game at the old Yankee Stadium on September 21, 2008, but bowed out. “I don’t have my best stuff,” he said. He did, however, pre-record the starting lineups for the game. In 2008 Yankee captain Jeter asked Sheppard to record his at-bat introduction, and still uses it whenever he comes to the plate. This season, when the Yankees played their first home game after Sheppard’s passing, not only did the players sport commemorative patches in his honor, but the PA booth remained empty and no public address announcements were made during the game. Sheppard is memorialized with a plaque at the Stadium’s Monument Park, along with other Yankee greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle and others. It should also be noted that Sheppard—or rather his voice—also figured in three separate episode of Seinfeld, “The Letter,” “The Masseuse” and “The Chaperone.” Though he never played an inning on the field, Bob Sheppard made baseball a better game and in the process made himself one of the sport’s immortals.

Of all the accolades showered upon Sheppard after his death was announced, the most touching and most memorable came from his son Paul. To wit: “I know St. Peter will now recruit him. If you’re lucky enough to go to Heaven, you’ll be greeted by a voice saying, ‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Heaven.” —David McGee

The Major
August 9, 1919-July 21, 2010

ralph houkTen days following Bob Sheppard’s death, eight days following George Steinbrenner’s, the Yankees organization suffered another blow when Ralph Houk, who as manager guided the team to three straight American League pennants and two World Series championships in the early ‘60s, died at his home in Winter Haven, FL. He was 90.

A manager for 20 seasons, with the Yankees, the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox, Houk, who had distinguished himself on the field of battle as an armored corps office in World War II, earning him his baseball nickname of “The Major,” replaced the legendary Casey Stengel, who had won 10 pennants and seven World Series. A third-string catcher for the Yankees during his playing days (he appeared in 91 games and had 158 at-bats in seven seasons; his best season was hit first, when he hit .272 in 41 games), Houk put on no airs and trusted his players to make the proper on-field decisions. “There’s only one Casey Stengel,” he said upon assuming the manager’s job in 1961. ‘I’m Ralph Houk.”

Yankees third baseman Clete Boyer remembered Houk’s first address to the team in 1961: “Ralph said we knew how to play the game better than he did. So if we wanted to bunt, bunt. If we wanted to hit and run, then hit and run.”

A lieutenant in the Army during WWII, Houk took part in the Normandy Invasion of June 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge the following December. He was awarded a Silver Star for exposing himself to enemy fire while driving off German tanks near a village in Luxembourg. At war’s end he returned home with one souvenir: the helmet he had worn at Omaha Beach on D-Day with holes in the front and back from a bullet that tore through the metal but missed his skull.

Following the 1963 season, Houk moved to the Yankees front office as General Manager, with Yogi Berra replacing him at the helm. Although the team won a pennant under Berra, it lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the 1964 World Series. Berra was fired (many, including Yankees who played during that era, say Yogi was a target of Houk’s jealousy and unjustly dismissed for the trumped-up reason that he had not won the players’ respect—Clete Boyer, in fact, told one writer: “The truth was that Houk was jealous of Yogi. Houk had been nothing but a scrub, a backup, for years, and he resented the fact that Yogi was a much greater player and much more popular. And, in my opinion, just as good a manager.”) and replaced by the Cardinals’ manager, Johnny Keane, who had quit following the World Series triumph as part of what turned out to be a nefarious deal between him and the Yankees that had been initiated before the World Series started—Yogi was going to be fired, win or lose the Series, and replaced by Keane.

In his Jockbeat column for the Village Voice on July 23, headlined, “Ralph Houk and Yogi Berra: Let’s Not Forget the Facts,” Allen Barra, while researching a biography of Yogi, found both Boyer and star pitcher-turned-best-selling-author Jim Bouton offering spirited defenses of Yogi’s managerial prowess, especially in the way he rallied the team to the pennant and nearly to another World Series title. He terms the Yogi-Keane fiasco “a raw deal no matter how you cut it,” and concludes: “Yes, Ralph Houk was a brave man and risked his life for his country at Normandy. But that doesn’t excuse his complicity in a moment in Yankee history more shameful than anything perpetrated by George Steinbrenner.” (Presumably this includes Steinbrenner’s banishment from baseball for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, and his hiring of two-bit creep Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield’s charities.)

But the aging Yankees struggled to a sixth-place finish in 1965, got off to a 4-16 start the next season, and Houk replaced Keane as manager. Unable to do much with a team stocked with over the hill and otherwise inept players, Houk suffered through a season in which the team hit rock bottom, finishing 10th and last in the league. He returned to managing in 1973 after a Steinbrenner-led syndicate purchased the team from CBS, but quit at the end of the season following a fourth-place finish, dismayed at his own performance (“I blame no one but myself”) and annoyed by Steinbrenner’s intrusive style.

He then managed the Tigers for five seasons, retired to his Florida home, but was lured back into the dugout in 1981 by the Boston Red Sox. Four seasons later, he retired again, and for good, with a career record that placed him 10th on the list of games managed, won and lost. His last hurrah in baseball came in 1986, when as vice president of the Minnesota Twins he helped construct the team that won the World Series the next season.

Like George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard, Ralph Houk is being remembered with a patch on the Yankees’ uniforms this season.

Houk is survived by his daughter, Donna Slaboden, of Westerville, OH; a son, Robert, of Bainbridge Island, WA; four grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife, Bette, died in 2006.

‘I lost it in the sun’
December 13, 1929-July 15, 2010

billy loesA mainstay of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitching staff from 1952 through the team’s 1955 World Championship, Billy Loes died on July 15 at a hospice in Tuscson, AZ, at age 80. His wife, Irene, said her husband had suffered from diabetes for years.

During his Dodgers career, Loes won 50 games and lost 25, his best season coming in 1952, when he recorded a 13-8 record, four shutouts and a 2.69 earned run average.

He is better remembered in baseball lore, however, as an odd duck who stood out on a team of odd ducks. As the 1952 World Series was about to get underway, Loes was asked by a reporter for his prediction about the matchup with the Yankees. He picked the Bronx Bombers to win in six. (Loes later claimed he had been misquoted and had actually picked the Yankees to win in seven.)

That was nothing to compare with his game six feat, which he described in such a way that his response has become nearly as legendary as anything Yogi Berra ever said.

Pitching in the seventh inning with a 1-0 lead, Loes first gave up a game-tying home run to Berra, followed by a Gene Woodling single. As he stood on the mound facing the next batter, the ball slipped out of his hand. A balk was called and Woodling went to third. Vic Raschi, the Yankees’ starting pitcher, hit a grounder back to the mound, but it caromed off Loes’s leg into right field, scoring Woodling. The 3-2 Yankees lead held up, and the Series was tied at three-three.

When asked afterwards how Raschi’s grounder got away from him, Loes replied, “I lost it in the sun”—an excuse that has since been used jocularly (and perhaps seriously) at every level of the game, from Little League to the Major Leagues.

Never mind that Loes’s teammate and fellow pitcher Carl Erskine later explained (in Peter Golenbock’s 2000 book, Bums, an oral history of the Brooklyn Dodgers) that the way Ebbets Field was constructed behind home plate, the setting sun would stream through two decks behind home plate for a few minutes every afternoon, especially in October.

“When Loes said he lost it in the sun everybody laughed,” Erskine said, “and the fact is, if you ever pitched in Ebbets Field, you know that’s possible in October with a ball that’s hit with a little bounce on it.”

Sold to the Baltimore Orioles during the 1956 season, Loes pitched in the 1957 American League All-Star game. He concluded his career pitching two seasons with the San Francisco Giants, retiring with a career record of 80-63 after eleven seasons. Asked once about his chances of winning 20 games in a season, Loes said it wasn’t one of his priorities, owing to his concern that once he reached that plateau, management would expect him to do it every year.

Nevertheless, he told the New York Times in a 1957 interview that some of his quotes had been exaggerated. “It got to the point where I told a few writers, ‘Go ahead, write what you want about me and say I said it. You’ve been doing it right along anyway.”

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