My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
· It has become an Easter tradition on this blog to pay tribute to ex-big league slugger Luke Easter on Easter Sunday. “Luscious Luke” was a hulking, 6-foot-4, 240-pound slugger who became the 11th African-American to compete in the big leagues when he debuted with the Cleveland Indians on August 11, 1949. Known for clubbing tape-measure homers – including a 477-foot blast that was the longest ever recorded at Municipal Stadium – Easter, due to segregation, didn’t make his big league debut until he was 34. After three seasons in which he never socked less than 27 homers for the Indians, Easter, hobbled by knee and ankle injuries, was released, but he continued to belt moonshot round-trippers in the International League (IL) for the Ottawa Athletics in 1954. Later he starred with the IL’s Buffalo Bisons and Rochester Red Wings. A jovial, easygoing man who rarely refused an autograph request, Easter was once approached by a fan who told him that he saw him hit his longest home run, to which Easter responded, “If it came down, it wasn’t my longest.” Sadly, Easter was murdered in a bank parking lot in Euclid, Ohio on March 29, 1979.
· I wanted to extend my deepest condolences to Canadian Baseball Network managing director, Ryan Isaac, on the passing of his much-loved aunt Hertha (Isaac) Kornhaus. She died of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Sarasota, Fla., on April 2 at the age of 80. You can read an article about Hertha here, but in talking to Ryan, it’s clear that Hertha was a vibrant, loving and kind aunt. My thoughts and prayers are with Ryan and his family at this difficult time.
· On Thursday, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., officially announced that they were postponing their 2020 induction festivities. The museum and ball fields on the 32-acre site will also remain closed until further notice. This is a very tough time for the museum, which is a non-profit organization that relies largely on money raised during the induction festivities. You can support them by buying a membership or merchandise online or by a simply making a donation. For more information, visit their website.
· Detroit Tigers legend Al Kaline passed away on Monday at the age of 85. The 18-time American League all-star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner played all 22 of his major league seasons (1953 to 1974) with the Tigers and recorded 3,007 hits, including 399 home runs. Following his career, he worked as an analyst on Tigers broadcasts and then as an ambassador for the club. Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee John Hiller (Toronto, Ont.) was Kaline’s teammate for parts of nine seasons and he shared memories of the Hall of Famer with Sportsnet’s Jeff Blair on Tuesday, in one of the best interviews I’ve heard in a long time. In the interview, Hiller recalled how Kaline was one of the first to welcome him to the big league when he was called up. He also spoke about Kaline’s “beautiful” swing and the Tiger great’s defensive skills that rivaled those of Roberto Clemente. You can listen to the entire interview here.
· Former Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame president and CEO and longtime baseball executive and scout, Tom Valcke, grew up in Windsor, Ont., as a Tigers fan. He shared some of his recollections of Kaline via email. “I believe Kaline was a piece of Canadian baseball history. Before the Blue Jays, our whole wing of Southwestern Ontario had an inbred passion for baseball thanks to the Tigers, and, Kaline was known as Mr. Tiger,” wrote Valcke. Valcke attended many games at Tiger Stadium as a kid and always preferred to sit in the right-field overhang where he felt like he could “whisper in Kaline’s ear.” “I was Al Kaline, in my mind, playing for years upon years in my youth with a crappy old waterlogged wood bat that had previously snapped, but my dad, or possibly one of my brothers, had screwed back together and taped. The backyard and front yard were different ‘stadiums,’ with different rules/parameters for each venue. But while he was the Tigers’ all-time home run leader, I remember trying to mimic Al Kaline the outfielder. I don’t ever recall hearing him say so, but in my mind, the Kaline I remember took great pride in his defence, and he played like a guy who would rather throw out a runner at home plate than hit a homerun.”
· Canadian baseball legend Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.) also shared his memories of Kaline in an interview with MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. Though nearly 46 years have passed since Jenkins faced Kaline in a major league game, the Canadian Cooperstowner could remember Kaline hitting two home runs off him during the 1974 season. Jenkins also shared how he got to know Kaline in his post-playing career on golf outings. “The thing was,” Jenkins told Bastian, “even on the bench, you could see he talked to the players and he had a sense of the way he carried himself as a professional athlete. He was a true professional.” You can read Bastian’s full article here.
· Here’s an interesting tidbit that I learned from reading the tweet below about Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Kirk McCaskill (Kapuskasing, Ont.) on Friday. On September 27, 1993, he got the final out for the Chicago White Sox when they clinched the American League West division title that year. He pitched the final 1 1/3 innings in the White Sox 4-2 win over the Seattle Mariners at Comiskey Park to pick up the save. He got M’s catcher Dave Valle to fly out to right field for the final out. The White Sox then advanced to play the Toronto Blue Jays in American League Championship Series. They would lose that series in six games, but McCaskill would toss 3 2/3 scoreless innings in three appearances.
· A few years ago, someone sent me this photo (below) of what they contend is a young Ken Griffey Jr. wearing a Montreal Expos cap. It’s possible that it could be him. His father, who turned 70 on Friday, played part of 1971 and the entire 1972 season with the Cincinnati Reds’ double-A Trois-Rivieres Aigles in Quebec. In 125 games with the Aigles in 1972, Griffey Sr. hit .318 and had 14 home runs and 31 stolen bases. Can anyone out there confirm this is Griffey Jr. in the photo?
· It seems like we have been inundated with bad news during the COVID-19 epidemic, so I’ve been trying to post an uplifting baseball photo or a video every day on social media. Below is my favourite from this week. And on behalf of every kid (like me) who grew up in Dorchester, Ont., dreaming of hitting a home run in the big leagues, thank you, Chris Robinson. Click on the video and listen to the wonderful call of the home run.
· Please take a moment to remember former Montreal Expos pitcher Carl Morton who died 37 years ago today when he was just 39. Morton died of a heart attack after jogging. Though he made 18 starts for the triple-A Vancouver Canadians in 1969, he’s best remembered by Canadian baseball fans for his 1970 season in which he went 18-11 with a 3.60 ERA and pitched a whopping 284 2/3 innings and became the first Expo to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. He pitched two more seasons with the Expos before being traded to the Atlanta Braves where he had three strong campaigns from 1973 to 1975, never winning less than 15 games in a season. He posted a 4.17 ERA in 26 games for the Braves in 1976 and then spent 1977 in double-A in the Philadelphia Phillies organization before retiring.
· This week’s trivia question: As noted, Carl Morton won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1970. Who is the only other Expos player to win the award? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below. Please note: I’m going to hold off awarding prizes until after the COVID-19 epidemic. Hope you understand.
· The answer to last week’s trivia question (This Canadian was the first batter that Babe Ruth, who began his career as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, ever faced in a major league game. Can you name him?) was Jack Graney (St. Thomas, Ont.) on July 11, 1914.