Seattle artist commemorates Willie Mays and "The Catch"

Diehard baseball fans still talk about “The Catch” that Willie Mays made at New York’s Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series. But high-rise apartments now cover the ground where the stadium once stood, and the memory of Mays’s unearthly play 55 years ago is fading.
Seattle artist Thom Ross wants to make sure that future generations of fans – especially New Yorkers – remember that moment when Mays did the impossible. He has created a life-sized five-part illustration of the feat that shows Mays from the moment he zeros in on the baseball that Cleveland’s Vic Wertz drove to the deepest part of the stadium until he whirls to throw the ball back to the infield after making the catch.Ross’s illustration of Mays's catch has twice gotten the attention of Sports Illustrated magazine, and he’d like to erect a permanent version of “The Catch” in New York at the spot where Mays performed his feat. He already has a permanent display at Safeco Field in Seattle showing the moment the Seattle Mariners beat the New York Yankees in the 1995 American League Division Series.

Ross hauled his illustration across the U.S. and set it up temporarily at the Polo Grounds Towers last September. The photo at the top of this post shows Ross's display. The exhibit stirred the memories of some older residents who recalled the moment, but it bothered Ross that the kids who saw his work didn’t know anything about what had happened there.
“The little kids that lived there, no one told them that Willie caught the ball where they played,” Ross told me recently. “These kids live in a sacred place, and there’s no one there to pass that story along.”

To erect a permanent version of The Catch at the Polo Grounds Towers, however, he needs permission from New York City officials. He's tried to contact the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but hasn't gotten a response.

Ross and I have been talking about his effort since he recently saw my blog post about the trip I made to the site of the Polo Grounds a couple of years ago with my nephew John Morrow and brother-in-law Bob Morrow.

Around 54,000 people saw Wertz drive a long, towering fly ball to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds in the eighth inning of Game One of the 1954 World Series. Mays probably was the only person in the ballpark who thought the 460-foot blast could be caught. But his opinion was the one that mattered. To the amazement of the crowd and people who still watch the play on video today, Mays chased down the long drive and hauled it in at full gallop.

Jack Brickhouse, who was doing the radio play-by-play broadcast of the game, said Mays’s catch “must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people.” But Mays was nonchalant.

“I had the ball all the way,” Mays told reporters after the game. “There was nothing too hard about it. I’ve made better catches.”

Ross was a toddler living with his family in San Francisco in 1954. He recalls his father telling him about the catch, but he didn’t really become aware of Mays until the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958 and played the New York Yankees in the 1962 World Series.

Ross sees a deeper meaning in Mays’s extraordinary play and thinks it’s “a beacon, and a challenge, to all people who dare to dream.”

The Catch also has become a personal inspiration for Ross.

“I was able to incorporate Willie and his Catch into my philosophy on my own life as an artist, and I saw that the same effort, talent and dedication would be demanded of me,” he says. “And because Mays did indeed catch the ball, I knew my own dreams and wishes were possible. It was all in how much I was willing to put out, what effort I was willing to do.”

(Photo of Mays's catch in 1954 World Series is a Wide World photo)


Baseball's steroids era mirrors America's obsession with excess

So Mark McGwire (above, right) finally has admitted that he was juiced when he and Sammy Sosa (left) resurrected America’s interest in baseball with their spectacular home run duel in 1998.

McGwire and Sosa accounted for 136 home runs that summer, and their chase of Roger Maris’s single-season record of 61 captured the nation’s attention unlike any event since the cancellation of the 1994 World Series because of a contract dispute between the Major League Players Association and team owners.

Author Jacques Barzun once noted that anyone wanting to understand America should learn about baseball. So if baseball is a microcosm of America, maybe our current financial mess was foretold in the cancellation of the ’94 series and the McGwire-Sosa home run extravaganza four years later.

During negotiations for a new labor contract in 1994, team owners wanted to establish a limit on players’ salary increases. The Major League Players Association didn’t want limits and threatened to strike if the owners tried to impose them. Neither side budged by the September 14 deadline, so the rest of the season and the World Series were cancelled.

It was a stunning indicator of how deeply the obsession with money had penetrated our national psyche. Despite the chaos and uncertainty caused by two world wars and the Great Depression, the World Series had been played every year since 1905. But in 1994 this venerable event could not survive the immovable greed of millionaire players and billionaire owners.

Fans were furious and interest in the game plummeted when the 1995 season began.

Yet Major League Baseball’s annual revenue has steadily increased since the strike. Blomberg.com reported that MLB had a record $6.5 billion in revenue for the 2008 season, and that seven teams set attendance records.

How did MLB overcome fans’ disgust and increase revenue in the wake of the 1994 strike? CNN noted in 2006 that MLB tapped into Internet-driven income sources that didn’t exist at the time of the strike. But the foundation for the revenue surge of the past decade was laid when team owners and league administrators looked the other way while talented athletes boosted their already exceptional skills with steroids. Some players built up muscle mass that seemed supernatural and launched phenomenal home run outbursts at a time in their careers when such totals typically declined among players of earlier eras.

Fan excitement returned when longstanding home run records were shattered by apparent super-athletes who seemed on the verge of eclipsing the careers of legendary earlier stars such as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Crowds filled the stadiums. The damage from the lost World Series of 1994 seemed short-lived and greatly over-estimated.

The home run orgy in Major League baseball coincided with a national obsession with excess that blossomed in the 1990s and continued after the turn of the century. Everyone wanted bigger houses, bigger automobiles, bigger cheeseburgers. Big was in, biggest was best. Merely having enough wasn’t nearly enough. You had to have far more than enough, and you had to display it conspicuously. Never mind that you’d used a junk mortgage – the financial equivalent of steroids – to buy a $600,000 house on a $35,000 income, or that you’d artificially inflated your living standard by making minimum payments at 18 percent interest on a half-dozen maxed-out credit card accounts. You were living large, and that’s what life has been all about for the past 20 years.

And what about those who said this artificial prosperity couldn’t last and sooner or later everything would collapse and there’d be hell to pay? Whiners. Losers. Girly men.

When McGwire’s and Sosa’s home run battle took place in 1998, everyone thought we’d all become Internet millionaires by the Millennium. McGwire hit 70 home runs; Sosa hit 66. Both players surpassed a season home run mark that had been reached only twice in the previous 71 years.

But amid all the excitement, rumors emerged that many Major League players – including McGwire and Sosa – were using steroids. And the rumors escalated in 2001 when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs and started closing in on the record for career home runs held by Hank Aaron.

MLB’s halfhearted effort to police steroids was undermined when the players’ union diluted attempts to monitor players. So the league hired former U.S. Senator George Mitchell to investigate steroid use. He filed his report in December 2007 – about the same time that some people were getting seriously worried about the proliferation of shoddy mortgages and the unheard-of escalation of housing prices.

Mitchell’s report linked some of the game’s most prominent names to steroid use.

New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez admitted in early 2009 that he’d used steroids earlier in his career. Rodriguez’s admission came as an edgy nation watched stock prices tumble and jobs disappear amid revelations of spectacular mismanagement and fraud in the financial industry.

It also was revealed that superstar pitcher Roger Clemens may have lied to Congress during an investigation that followed Mitchell’s report. And Barry Bonds faces trial for allegedly lying to federal investigators about his steroid use.

So now, all those flashy home run records of the late 1990s look as phony as a Bernie Madoff financial statement. Meanwhile, home run totals for seasonal leaders in both Major Leagues have declined and now are closer to the totals compiled by mere mortal players before the era of steroid supermen.

And in the real world, Americans are making do with less as they struggle to clean up the financial wreckage caused by years of mindlessly pursuing a lifestyle of wretched excess.

Baseball survived its painful return to normalcy. We have to hope that this is an indicator that America also will readjust to reality.

(Photo of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire is by CP Photo)


Hinchliffe Stadium was an Art Deco showcase for black baseball legends

It’s been barely a decade since Hinchliffe Stadium hosted a sports event, but judging from the once-grand old stadium’s appearance today, you’d think it’s been much longer.

Still, the old ballpark that overlooks a birthplace of American industry in Paterson, New Jersey has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and there’s hope that it will be restored. Paterson voters recently overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum to issue more than $15 million in bonds to repair the stadium and make other public improvements. The vote essentially gives Paterson officials permission to issue the bonds, but does not require them to do it.

Hinchliffe Stadium would receive about $13.5 million for renovations, and it will need every dollar. Trees are growing in the stadium’s entrances, and long-ago fires have charred a few wooden structures inside the stadium. Piles of trash are everywhere, mostly beer cans and whiskey bottles. But there’s also discarded clothing, socks, sneakers and boots, and even a small safe that’s had the door pried open.

And then there’s the graffiti. In 1986, the New York Times reported that Hinchliffe was “well-guarded” and untouched by graffitists who were painting just about everything else in Paterson. But graffiti artists have found their way to Hinchliffe.

Still, when you look a little closer at some of the architectural details, it’s obvious that Hinchliffe Stadium was a gem of Art Deco design. There’s the Cuban tile on the roofs of the ticket offices, the ceramic tile ornamentation above the ticket windows and the rounded corners of the stadium’s concrete walls.

The most elegant reminders of Hinchliffe’s former glory, however, are small bas-relief sculptures of classical athletes on the stadium’s exterior walls. They depict Olympic athletes hurling the discus, running races, throwing the javelin.

Years ago, Hinchliffe undoubtedly was one of the best small stadiums in the Northeast to watch a sports event. Fans sitting in the upper levels of the 10,000-seat U-shaped stadium could see the New York City skyline about 15 miles away.

Hinchliffe Stadium was this year’s stop on the annual pre-New Year’s search for forgotten baseball parks. This is the fourth year that my nephew, John Morrow and my brother-in-law, Bob Morrow, and I have chased the ghosts of summers past in New York and New Jersey. That's John standing at a stadium entrance in the top photo. Links to the other posts about old ballparks are at the end of this post.

The stadium, a WPA project, was named for Paterson Mayor John V. Hinchliffe and opened in 1932. It was a focal point of local pride in a city that doesn’t get enough respect for its place in American history. In 1792, Alexander Hamilton formed the Society of Useful Manufactures, an investment group created to develop the fledgling nation’s first planned industrial city. Paterson was the result.

A strong-armed outfielder probably could throw a baseball from Hinchliffe’s right field gate to the roaring Great Falls of the Passaic River. Early industries used the falls’ energy to power factories. Paterson became famous for textile mills, Colt firearms, locomotive manufacturing and silk production. The engine that powered Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” airplane across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 was built in a Paterson factory.

Hinchliffe was an all-purpose stadium, hosting high school, college and professional football; boxing; professional soccer; and even midget automobile races. But what has put the stadium on a short list of historic athletic arenas is the fact that in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the home field for two teams in the old Negro League.

In the days before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, about two dozen all-black teams played in larger cities across the U.S. Hinchliffe is one of only three surviving stadiums where Negro League teams played.

The New York Black Yankees of the Negro National League started playing their home games in Hinchliffe Stadium in 1934, a banner year for the stadium. Besides the Black Yankees’ home games, Dizzy Dean pitched an exhibition game in Paterson a few days after leading his St. Louis Cardinals to the 1934 World Series title. And in December 1934, the NFL champion New York Giants played an exhibition football game in Hinchliffe against the Paterson Panthers of the American Professional Football League. The Giants took a hard-fought 10-0 win over the Panthers.

In 1936, the New York Cubans of the Negro American League played some of their home games at Hinchliffe Stadium.

Hinchliffe became a showcase for black baseball talent, including local stars and future Hall of Fame members Larry Doby and Monte Irvin. Doby, a stellar athlete at Paterson’s Eastside High School, tried out for the Negro League’s Newark Eagles at Hinchliffe Stadium and starred for the Eagles before World War II. After spending three years in the service, he became the first black player in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians in July 1947, a few months after Robinson debuted with the National League Dodgers.

Irvin was a high school baseball star in nearby Orange when the Eagles gave him a tryout at Hinchliffe in 1937. He went on to star with the Eagles before being signed by the New York Giants baseball team in 1949.

The Black Yankees played their last season in Hinchliffe Stadium in 1945. The stadium was used for other events for another 50 years, however, including high school football and baseball and midget auto racing. And it was the scene of a tragedy. On Friday, September 13, 1946, driver Ray Jackson was killed when his car struck a guard rail during a race.

Hinchliffe Stadium was used for high school football games in 1997 and then closed. It has been unused and deteriorating since then. But Paterson native Brian LoPinto, a founder of the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, has been working to change that.

LoPinto would like to see the stadium restored to its appearance when it opened, and hopes that eventually, fans will return to Hinchliffe Stadium to watch the same events that drew them 70 years ago.

Despite the stadium’s current dilapidated state, LoPinto thinks it’s still salvageable.

“It’s still pretty sturdy, it’s made of pretty good material,” he said. “It’s an amazing survivor of the neglect that’s happened over the years.”

Other links: Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, http://www.hinchliffestadium.org/; Roosevelt Stadium, http://wdryegoods.blogspot.com/2009/01/site-where-color-barrier-was-broken-is.html; Polo Grounds, http://wdryegoods.blogspot.com/2008/01/once-it-was-quite-thing-to-go-to-polo.html; Ebbets Field, http://sidesalad.net/archives/003056.html.