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Baseball history unpacked, March 21

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a few words about the Bird and other stories

Mark Fidrych...
The Bird in action

Previously, baseball history unpacked looked at the natal anniversary of David Ross, the pivotal era of baseball, and the sad and sordid tale of Denny McLain, plus the one and only Skyrocket Smith.

Today, we do some light unpacking of TV/Radio rights fees in 1957, walk on the AstroTurf, say a couple of words about the Kansas City Monarchs, and decry the sad end of Mark Fidrych’s career.

Today in baseball history:

(information from the National Pastime, Today in Baseball History, BBRef.)

  • 1957 - The owners will receive 9.3 million dollars in revenue for the 1957 TV-Radio rights. The breakdown includes $3.2 million for the World Series/All-Star rights, $1.26 million for two Saturday games of the week, and the remaining $4.84 million for local rights fees.

This is a direct result of the agreements we talked about in the previous installment. Those numbers look so small by today’s standards. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $28,354,846.98, $11,164,721.00, and $42,886,000.71. Still puny, even 786.1% bigger. $82,405,568.69 — just about enough to pay 3/5 of a modern pitching staff, or the Miami Marlins.

  • 1966 - In a spring training game in Houston’s Astrodome, the Dodgers and Astros become the first major league teams to play on artificial grass. The material, which will become known as AstroTurf, was developed by Monsanto to overcome the team’s inability to grow grass indoors.

Back in the Mets’ locker room, McGraw laughed and said that he might get in trouble for something he said as a guest on a San Francisco TV talk show the day before. “A young boy called up and asked me if I preferred grass or astroturf,” chuckled Tug. “And I told him that I had never smoked astroturf. I guess that I shouldn’t have said that.

“But I think that is part of why baseball isn’t as popular today as it used to be before World War II. People don’t look at players as human beings like they used to.” — quote investigator

Turf is ubiquitous now, but it wasn’t received very warmly at the beginning. Judge Roy Hofheinz wanted a domed, atmospherically-controlled stadium more or less because of mosquitoes (with a name inspired by the space program), according to an article in Adweek. But the plexiglass roof created a glare problem.

The solution to that problem, tinting the panels, killed the grass. So a substitute needed to be found. Monsanto had previously developed a product known as ChemGrass, which was rebranded to suit the 8th Wonder of the World.

AstroTurf was a huge hit with the NFL as more than half of the teams in that league adopted the surface. It was a somewhat lesser hit in Major League baseball, though quite a few teams adopted it also.

Baseball teams that had speed loved the stuff. It was cheap and durable, and never mind the rug burns. The ball bounced wonderfully on it, given that AstroTurf usually overlaid a carpet pad and a foot or two of concrete. Those of us who starting growing up before the stuff arrived can remember how revolutionary it seemed.

As time went on, though, the sad truth about turf became evident — all of that concrete wasn’t good for the players. The shock of landing was multiplied by the surface, and careers were cut short by damage, especially to the knee joint.

AstroTurf was partially responsible for the Cubs losing to the Giants in the 1989 playoffs — Andre Dawson was one of those players who had been hurt by the turf. His knees were so bad that he iced them for two hours before each game, and he could barely stand during that series, let alone hit 90 mile per hour fastballs.

I’d rather blame the turf than Will Clark, anyway. Never could stand that guy.

The surface is still widely used in high school and college, not so much in pro sports any more. I don’t recommend putting it in your pipe and smoking it any more than I recommend playing on it, which I did in high school and college.

  • 1968 - The new American League team in Kansas City announces its nickname. The expansion club, which will join the circuit in 1969, will be now known as the “Royals,” paying tribute to the Negro League Monarchs that played in the City of Fountains from 1920 through 1965 (1).

The Kansas City Monarchs were the longest-running franchise in the history of baseball’s Negro Leagues. Operating in Kansas City, Missouri, they were members of the Negro National League from its founding in 1920 until its demise in 1930, and were members of the Negro American League throughout its existence from 1937 until 1962. Founded and owned by J.L. Wilkinson, the Monarchs became the first professional baseball team to use a portable lighting system to play games at night in 1930, five years before any major league team did. (BBRef)

Former manager Buck O’Neil became a scout for the Cubs in 1955, after Wilkinson sold the team. Hall of Famers primarily associated with the Monarchs are Bullet Rogan, J.L. Wilkinson, Jose Mendez, Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, and Willard Brown. Other Hall of Famers who spent a season or more with the Monarchs are Cristobal Torriente, Andy Cooper, Turkey Stearnes, Cool Papa Bell, Bill Foster, Willie Wells, Ernie Banks, and Jackie Robinson.

The Royals are saluting the Monarchs and the Negro Leagues on Sunday, May 6.

(1) The Monarchs apparently played in Grand Rapids for a few years: “The team was sold to Ted Rasberry and moved its base to Grand Rapids, Michigan, though retaining the name “Kansas City Monarchs”. The Negro American League ceased operations in 1962, and the Monarchs finally disbanded in 1965.” (wiki)

  • 1977 - Mark Fidrych, the 1976 Rookie of the Year, rips the cartilage in his left knee and will undergo surgery 10 days later. The injury will effectively end the fabled career of the Bird.

This was one of those infamous flameouts like David Clyde and Mark Prior. Fidrych was every bit as good as Prior his rookie year (1976), when he won the Rookie of the Year award, going 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games, with a 1.079 WHIP and four shutouts (Clyde was never that good, he just threw hard). That was his only full year, though he spent four more years as a member of the Detroit Tigers, starting 27 more games over that span.

He passed away as the result of a vehicular accident in 2009. His antics were enchanting...though I can imagine that they’d have gotten old after a while.

“Baseball will miss him. They missed him because he didn’t have as long as a career as everybody would have liked in the first place. It’s just horrible,” former Orioles pitcher and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer said. “He did embrace life. I remember him trying to play golf when he couldn’t play golf and enjoying every minute of it.

”He was a marvelous pitcher and I just hate to see him go.” — ESPN

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