Results tagged ‘ Winter Meetings ’

RIP: Killer Kane, a baseball writer’s best friend

The Yankees lost one of the most colorful characters in their extended family last week with the passing of Bill “Killer” Kane at the age of 75. Kane served two separate terms as the Yankees’ travel director in the 1970s and ‘80s and in that role especially was a baseball writer’s best friend.

Killer told me that he probably was fired by principal owner George Steinbrenner more than any other Yankees employee – and rehired more often, too. Although they butted heads on a regular basis, Steinbrenner valued Kane’s devotion to the Yankees in a variety of positions. Kane, who was born in Brooklyn and was a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, got his start with the Yankees as a statistician for longtime broadcaster Mel Allen.

In those days, writers traveled on teams’ charter flights on a regular basis, a practice that ended in the early 1990s. I was the last newspaper reporter to travel regularly on the Yankees’ plane in 1991, four years after Kane’s last season as travel director.

I dealt with a lot of those guys over the years but none was better than Killer. On getaway games, the bus to the airport was always scheduled to leave 90 minutes after the last out. Writers with tight deadlines really had to scramble to make that bus. After hitting the clubhouse for postgame quotes, there would be a mad dash to get back to the pressbox to compose writethru stories and then pack up your gear to make the bus.

If a game had a wild finish that forced writers to do extra work, Killer always understood and would hold the bus. He would make up some excuse to the players about something being wrong with the carburetor or some other fib. The players did not take kindly to this and would they ever let us have it when we finally climbed onto the bus. But Killer had our backs, and we appreciated everything he did for us.

My favorite Killer story goes back to the Winter Meetings of 1984 at Houston. I was with the Bergen Record then, and my boss’ decision to cover the meetings was after the deadline to apply for credentials and hotel accommodations. I was able to get a credential but could not get into the main hotel and was booked in one several blocks away.

Killer and I turned out to be on the same commercial flight to Houston. He told me had a car and would drive me to my hotel. As we got into the downtown area, he said to me, “Never mind the other hotel; I’ll get you in the Grand Hyatt with us.”

After talking things over with the front desk, Killer gave me a key and told me I had a room for Saturday and Sunday but that I would have to move to another room Monday. I said okay and did not ask any questions. The only other thing he said to me was, “Whatever you do, don’t eat anything they may have spread out for that room.”

I was not quite sure what that meant until I got into the room. It was a luxury suite with two bedrooms, two baths and an enormous living room. On the coffee table in the main room was a spread of various fruits, vegetables and cheeses, plus several bottles of whiskey and a magnum of champagne. I called Killer’s room and told him they must have made a mistake at the front desk.

“It’s no mistake,” he said. “That’s George’s suite. But he’s not coming until Monday. By that time, I’ll have you in another room. Don’t sweat it.”

Steinbrenner was not a big fan of the Winter Meetings. He considered it an unnecessary junket and wanted nothing to do with the golf outings and other extracurricular activities that baseball executives took part in during the week-long meetings. The Yankees always had the smallest contingent at the meetings with George showing up for one or maybe two days to do business and then leave.

Saturday went well, but I was awakened Sunday morning with a phone call.

“Jack, it’s Killer,” Kane said. “You’ve got to get out of there. You got about an hour. George just landed at the airport.”

Fortunately, it was about an hour’s ride from Houston International to downtown, so I had time. I never took anything out of suitcase in the first place, so I just threw my laundry in the bag, packed up my writing gear and went down to the lobby. I could not find Killer anywhere, so I had a bellman put my stuff in layaway until I got another room. While I was tipping the bellman, Steinbrenner walked through the front door.

A close call, I thought, but everything was cool now. Then I realized that I had not erased the messages from my phone in the suite. I finally tracked Killer down and, sure enough, he had another room for me. I left the suite spotless, I told Killer.

“Yeah,” he said, “except George wants to know how come he keeps getting phone calls for O’Connell?”

Some years later when the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America roasted Steinbrenner at our annual Pre-Dinner Dinner, I told that story and was glad to see that George enjoyed it. Killer wasn’t so sure. “Be careful, Jack,” he called out from the crowd, “I might get fired again.”

I paid my respects at the wake for him Sunday in the Tremont section of the Bronx where I gave him many lifts home after BBWAA events. He was one of a kind and it was my good fortune to have known him.

Hall for Col. Ruppert; knife for A-Rod

NASHVILLE – There was good news and bad news for Yankees fans coming out of baseball’s Winter Meetings Monday at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

First, the good news; another person associated with the Yankees was elected to the Hall of Fame. The Pre-Integration Era Veterans Committee elected former club owner Jacob Ruppert to the Hall, along with 19th-century catcher-third baseman Deacon White and umpire Hank O’Day.

Among Ruppert’s many contributions to the Yankees in his time as owner was the design of their pinstriped uniforms, the purchase of Babe Ruth’s contract from the Red Sox and the construction of the original Yankee Stadium, a palace among baseball parks in the 1920s. Ruppert’s nickname was “The Colonel,” even though his time as a colonel in the National Guard was short, certainly less than his four terms as a United States congressman from the Democratic Party.

“The election of Jacob Ruppert to the Hall of Fame is a great honor for the Yankees organization,” managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “Under his leadership, the Yankees became the most popular and successful team in baseball, setting the standard which we try to uphold today.”

Ruppert becomes the 48th individual enshrined in the Hall to have played, managed, coached, owned or been a general manager for the Yankees. He joins Ed Barrow, Larry MacPhail, Lee MacPhail and George Weiss among Hall of Famers who had ownership stakes or were general managers of the Yankees but never played for, coached or managed the club.

The bad news, however, is quite grim. Alex Rodriguez will require surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip and will likely miss at least the first half of the 2013 season. The news, first reported by George King in the New York Post, is a severe blow to the Yankees but also serves to explain in part why the third baseman may have struggled so much during the past postseason when he hit .120 with 12 strikeouts in 25 at-bats.

“I do think that it’s a likely scenario that the struggles we saw in September and in October are more likely than not related to this issue,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said during a press conference here. “Clearly Alex was dealing with an issue that although he might be asymptomatic but the lower half and the way the mechanisms work, he wasn’t firing on all cylinders. There were times that we thought watching him that he was all arms and no legs, but again, there were no complaints, no pain, and then in the playoffs when he got pinch hit for, he did have a complaint that he felt his right hip wasn’t working right, and that was all clear.”

According to Cashman, Rodriguez told manager Joe Girardi in the dugout the night of Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Orioles when A-Rod was lifted for pinch hitter Raul Ibanez, who hit a game-tying home run, that his right hip did not feel right. Rodriguez had an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) exam after the game at New York Presbyterian Hospital that did not reveal any damage.

Rodriguez had a checkup during the offseason in Vail, Colo., which showed a tear in the left hip that was confirmed in a second opinion by Dr. Bryan Kelly, who will perform the operation at the Hospital for Special Surgery after A-Rod completes a four- to six-week pre-surgery regimen. The procedure is expected to require four to six months for recovery.

With the surgery likely to be scheduled in January, the earliest Rodriguez could be expected to play would be June and more realistically after the All-Star break in July.

So what do the Yankees do about third base for the first half of next season? Cashman all but ruled out the possibility of Eduardo Nunez playing there (“We see him as a shortstop,” the GM said) and pointed out that the club got through 2012 with several players in left field filling in for injured Brett Gardner.

Jayson Nix, who has re-upped with the Yanks for 2013, could be used in part of a platoon. Eric Chavez, who played in 64 games (50 starts) at the position last season, is now a free agent.

“My sole interest is just improving the entire club,” Cashman said. “Whether we solve any issue specifically at that position of third base, I can’t really answer.”

April 30: Lou’s career beginning to end

The date April 30 was a memorable one for the Yankees and Lou Gehrig at both the start and finish of his Hall of Fame career.

It was on this date in 1923 that Gehrig, 19, a native New Yorker and a pitcher-first baseman at Columbia University, signed a professional contract with the Yankees. At that time, Gehrig was the second greatest player in Columbia’s baseball history. Already a star in the major leagues at that time was White Sox second baseman Eddie Collins, then in his 18th season.

On this same date in 1939, Gehrig played in the last of his 2,130 consecutive games. He went hitless in four at-bats in a 3-2 loss to the Washington Senators at the original Yankee Stadium. The next day was an open date for the Yankees, who traveled to Detroit. Before the May 2 game against the Tigers, Gehrig asked manager Joe McCarthy to remove him from the lineup.

It was later learned that Gehrig was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The man known as “The Iron Horse” never played another game in the major leagues. The difficult to pronounce disease would soon bear his name as it does today and remains incurable.

At the 1939 Winter Meetings in Cincinnati, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America held a vote to elect Gehrig into the Hall of Fame. The proposal was passed unanimously, but Gehrig was never officially inducted.

Although he is usually listed in the class of 1939, the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies were during that summer when Gehrig was still on the Yankees’ roster. One of those 1939 inductees was Eddie Collins, along with Willie Keeler and George Sisler.

There were no Hall of Fame elections until 1942 when Rogers Hornsby was voted in by the BBWAA. By the time of that induction, however, Gehrig had already died of ALS June 2, 1941 at the age of 37.

The Major League Baseball schedule is made up annually without regard to such coincidences, but this May 2, which is Monday, the Yankees will once again find themselves in Detroit where one of the greatest careers in their franchise’s storied history came to an end.

Heavenly day

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.

While many people around the country are reading the book about George Steinbrenner, “Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball,” its author, Bill Madden, was honored Sunday with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for contributions to baseball writing as part of the induction ceremonies at the Clark Sports Center.

It wasn’t this best-seller alone that earned Madden the honor that is presented annually by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, but the bulk of his 40-year career as a baseball writer was spent covering the Yankees and their volatile owner since he joined the staff of the New York Daily News in 1978 after working for the United Press International wire service. The book is a reflection of that time when the Yankees returned to dynastic proportions as a team under an owner of quite frankly bombastic proportions.

Madden was the Yankees’ beat writer at the News from 1981 through 1988 and has maintained a close relationship with the team since becoming the paper’s national baseball columnist in 1989. He continues to break stories around the team on a regular basis and works closely with beat writer Mark Feinsand to keep Daily News readers informed of Yankees doings.

At UPI, Madden was a protg of Milton Richman, one of the most respected baseball reporters. At the Daily News, Billy was counseled by Dick Young, probably New York’s savviest reporter. Both are winners of the award Madden received Sunday and were saluted in his speech for their contributions in making him deserving of the same honor.

“For more than a century, newspapers and to a certain extent books have been the lifeblood of baseball in that they have been the primary vehicles in which the game has been handed down from generation to generation,” Madden said. “I know I speak for millions of people when I say I became a baseball fan by reading newspapers and learning about it through books. With all due respect to the famous broadcasters who became such a part of the fabric of this game, the printed word is forever. The ready reference to the game’s rich history is preserved forever in libraries and bookstores and newspaper archives.”

I have known Billy for 30 years and was delighted in my role as secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA to notify him of his election the morning of our announcement during the Winter Meetings last December in Indianapolis. The Hall’s Induction Weekend has been an annual sort of working vacation for the two of us the past 15 years. Billy’s time up here goes back even further. He noted that his first induction ceremony was in 1979.

It is akin to a pilgrimage this journey back to the game’s ancestral roots however misplaced historically. The fact is, if baseball didn’t really have its beginnings in this lovely central New York State village, it should have.

As umpire Doug Harvey, one of Sunday’s inductees, said in his speech, “In baseball, you have to touch home. This is the home of baseball. And before you die, you should come to Cooperstown to touch home, and I’ll be here to see that you do.”

Madden has done so dozens of times, but it was his own home that he touched on in his speech. Billy was spoon-fed newspapers by his father, Charlie Madden, a New Jersey businessman whose personal favorite was the New York Herald Tribune when young Billy was introduced to the work of Red Smith, Harold Rosenthal and Tommy Holmes. On his own, Billy also discovered the New York Journal American and Jimmy Cannon and the New York World Telegram and cartoonist Willard Mullin.

An irony of Billy’s career was that he made his name at the Daily News, the one paper his father would not let into the house. Charlie would allow Billy to read it in his office, a plumbing supply business. The plumbers brought the tabloid News and would leave copies there.

“My father regarded the Daily News as a scandal rag and would not allow it in our house,” Billy said. “But he did have to admit that Dick Young, who covered the Brooklyn Dodgers and later the Mets, was probably the greatest baseball reporter of them all. And so he would allow me to read Young’s stuff whenever I was in the store. Who then knew that someday I’d be working at the Daily News and have Dick Young as my mentor. I’m sorry, Dad, but the Herald Tribune was out of business when I got out of college, so the News was it.”

Ford C. Frick Award winner for broadcasting Jon Miller, the voice of the Giants and ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, also referred to his father taking him to Giants games at Candlestick Park and that Miller found himself paying more attention to what broadcasters Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons, both former Frick Award winners, were doing in the booth through his binoculars.

“I noticed that Russ would grab a handful of French fries and devour them between pitches,” Miller said. “Then he took a cup of whatever and gulped it down before the next pitch. I thought that’s the life for me.”

Unable to attend were former Yankees coach Don Zimmer, with whom Madden collaborated on two books, and former Yankees player, coach, manager and general manager Lou Piniella, “with whom,” Billy said, “I shared the Steinbrenner experience.” Zimmer’s knees don’t allow him to travel, and Piniella is managing the Cubs, at least for the rest of this season.

Gene Michael, who wore even more hats than Piniella with the Yankees including one as chief scout, did make the ride up from New Jersey for Madden and Hall inductee Andre Dawson, who played for “Stick” when he managed the Cubs in 1987. “Hawk” was the National League Most Valuable Player that year even though the Cubs finished in last place. It is a distinction he shares with 2003 American League MVP Alex Rodriguez, then with the Rangers.

Dawson’s speech, often emotional, ranked in eloquent intensity with that of former teammate Ryne Sandberg’s 2005 address, still the finest I have ever heard. Ryno, one of the most popular players in Cubs history, may well be their next manager once Lou leaves Wrigley Field. Sandberg has toiled in the minors for four years and produced winning teams, but he told me he has been given no indication that he is the first choice. In fact, a Chicago writer told me that there is a strong sense that Illinois native and Northwestern educated Joe Girardi, a former Cubs catcher, would have a step up on Sandberg is he does not stay with the Yankees beyond this year, the last on his current contract.

Whitey Herzog’s humorous speech included further references to Casey Stengel, who befriended the young player when he was an outfielder in the Yankees system and predicted he would become a manager.

“One of the most important things Casey told me was to hire good coaches and not be afraid of their taking your job some day,” Herzog said. “Casey said that unless you own the club or you die on the job, you’re going to get fired anyway, so you might as well have the best coaches.”

Herzog said that while he was managing the Cardinals, former St. Louis outfielder Enos Slaughter, who also played for the Yankees and Stengel briefly in the 1950s, finally got into the Hall of Fame and said in his speech, “It’s about time.”

“But I don’t feel that way,” Whitey said. “I believe that any time you get into the Hall of Fame is the best time. A lot of people have asked me what it’s like to get elected to the Hall of Fame, and I’d say, ‘I don’t know. I won’t know until July 25, the day it happens.’ Well, now I can tell everybody that it’s like going to heaven before you die.”

Amen.

Memories of the Boss and the Voice

The media were all over the place at Yankee Stadium Friday night trying to get all the reaction they could about the passing of principal owner George Steinbrenner. The reality of the situation is that most of the players in uniform these days didn’t really know him. He has been out of the public eye largely for quite a few years now. Those who did have relationships with the Boss – Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and manager Joe Girardi, especially – gave their opinions during the All-Star Game break at Anaheim.

It is about an hour and a half before the tribute planned at Yankee Stadium for Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard, the legendary public address announcer, is to start. I decided rather than waste my time talking to people who have no personal history with either man; I’ll share some thoughts with you about both.

I’ll start with Sheppard because this is easy. The most accurate description I heard of him the other day came from Gene Monahan, the Yankees’ trainer who has been a part of the organization for 37 years. Geno called Bob “the most polite man I have ever met in baseball.”

Perfect. It was my privilege on many occasions to sit at Bob’s table in the Stadium dining room and talk about topics ranging from baseball to literature. One night, the discussion centered on Joe DiMaggio and the fact that he was the subject of so many song lyrics, such as the 1940s hit, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” and Paul Simon’s 1968 opus, “Mrs. Robinson.”

I mentioned the lyric Oscar Hammerstein II wrote in the song about the character Bloody Mary in “South Pacific,” one of the great shows in his long collaboration with Richard Rodgers.

Bloody Mary is the girl I love;
Her skin’s as tender as DiMaggio’s glove

I was surprised when Bob said he had not heard of that. He was practically an encyclopedia of theatrical language, so I figured he would know anything from such a classic. I let it pass. A few days later, Bob came up to me in the press box and said, “You know, I played my recording of ‘South Pacific’ last night and listened very closely to the song, ‘Bloody Mary.’ My God, I thought, Jack was right. I’ll have to let him know.’ And so I am. For the life of me, I cannot understand how I listened to that song over the years and never picked up the reference to DiMaggio.”

We were pals from then on. For years, the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America tried to get Sheppard to be a subject of our annual roasts in what is known as the Pre Dinner Dinner, an informal affair that is held about 10 days before the annual New York Baseball Writers’ Dinner. Bob attended other of our events, especially the Indoor Outing, a dance that he and wife Mary were our version of Vernon and Irene Castle.

He would never agree to being roasted, however. “I am flattered,” he told me, “but let me ask you this, Jack? Could my daughter attend this?”

Well, he had me there. Language at a roast can get pretty blue. One of Bob’s daughters is a Roman Catholic nun. I never bothered him about it again. Instead, we pushed to honor him at the big dinner one year with the William J. Slocum Long and Meritorious Award, and the standing ovation he received was one of the longest ever accorded an honoree.

Now on to the Boss; let me get it right out front that covering a team that was owned by George Steinbrenner was not as easy assignment for a beat writer because he was a beat all to himself. With other teams, owners are seldom seen and rarely heard. There have been exceptions, of course, such as Charlie Finley and Ted Turner. But they did not run the New York Yankees. The combination of Steinbrenner and the Yankees was a daily double of absolutely epic proportions.

Back in the day before mobile phone, texting, twittering and the like, contact with George was through regular phone lines. So on those days you needed to get him, you have to call his secretary, leave your number and wait for him to return the call. That meant you were a prisoner in your hotel room and couldn’t go anywhere for fear you’d miss his call, which he didn’t always make, anyway.

That reminds me of the line former publicist Harvey Greene had about George and the telephone. Harvey said that in his job there were only two reasons he got a phone call after midnight – it was either a death in the family or Mr. Steinbrenner trying to reach him. “It got to the point,” Harvey said, “that I started rooting for a death in the family.”

The weird thing about some phone conversations with George is that he never wanted to discuss what you wanted to talk about. “No, I’m not interested in that, but here’s something you should write instead,” he would say. He would be adamant about it, as if he were my sports editor.

His opening line to me was always the same, “O’Connell, this is George, you know, my mother was Irish.” He only told me this about 380 times. Then he’d follow that with, “How’s the elevator running?”

The elevator situation at old Yankee Stadium was basically my introduction to the Steinbrenner world. I had been covering the Mets for four years at the Bergen Record in New Jersey when I was asked to switch to the Yankees after the All-Star break in 1983. Our Yankees writer, Filip Bondy, had just gone to the Daily News. With the Mets out of contention, I was moved to the Yankees, who were challenging the Orioles for the American League East.

With the Mets, I never had to call Nelson Doubleday or Fred Wilpon. With the Yankees, if they lost three or four games in a row, reporters had to call Steinbrenner. I covered a Detroit Tigers team in 1975 that lost 19 games in a row at one point and not once did I pick up the phone and dial John Fetzer’s number.

One of the problems I was confronted with at Yankee Stadium was that there was not an express elevator run from the press box to the clubhouse after games, which was the case at nearly every other ballpark in the major leagues, including Shea Stadium. There was no stairwell to use, either, so writers had to wait while on deadline or head down the ramps where they were forced to wade through clusters of fans exiting the Stadium.

As a chapter officer in the BBWAA, the more I looked into what could be done about this the more frustrated I got. Everybody passed the buck. But I was now around the Yankees long enough to realize there could be one possible solution, so I got hold of some BBWAA stationery and wrote a detailed letter to Steinbrenner because I had become convinced that he was the only guy who could get anything done around here.

It was probably the line about the Yankees not doing something that the Mets did regularly that shot him into action. By the next homestand, by order of the owner there were two express runs of the elevator for the press immediately after games. If you didn’t make it, that was too bad. It was good enough for me.

My other favorite George story revolves around the 1984 Winter Meetings in Houston. My paper had been late in applying for credentials. I was unable to get a room in the headquarters hotel and was booked in another hotel a few blocks away. On the flight out of Newark I happened to be on the same plane as Bill “Killer” Kane, the Yankees’ travel director who I got to know in my brief time with the team.

Killer said he had a car and would drive me into town. On the way, he told me to come with him and he’d set me up with a room at the regular hotel. Get this. The room turned out to be Steinbrenner’s suite.

“George doesn’t like to come to these things for more than a day,” Killer told me. “He won’t be here until Monday. By then, a room will open for you, and we’ll move you. In the meantime, enjoy, but don’t touch anything!”

This was on a Saturday, which went well. There was a huge, covered fruit basket and a magnum of champagne on a table. They were tempting, but I left them alone. Come Sunday morning, everything changed. The phone rang
early. It was Killer.

“Jackie, you gotta vacate that room,” he said. “Just pack up and get out in the hallway. George changed his plans. He’s on his way here. He just called me from the limo.”

Fortunately, the ride from the Houston airport to downtown is nearly an hour, which gave me time to pack up and get out of there. But to where? I envisioned having to sleep in the lobby until Monday. Somehow, Killer found me a room and met me in the hallway with a key for a room down the hall. I reached the room just moments before the elevator (another elevator yet) door opened and Steinbrenner stormed out heading for the suite.

Later in the day, I asked Killer how everything went. “Not bad,” he said. “George just doesn’t know why he keeps getting phone messages for Jack O’Connell.”

That was a private story between Killer and me before he allowed me to tell it at a roast we had for George at the Stadium in the late 1990s, and nobody laughed heartier at the tale than the Boss himself.

When I came off the beat to become the national baseball columnist at the Hartford Courant in 2000, George called to congratulate me for what he knew was a promotion. I was stunned. I was nowhere near as close to him as some of the other writers.

“I wish you luck, but I’ll miss you,” George told me. “There are too many new faces in the press box. I kind of hate to see an old one go; stay in touch.”

I have to admit that in recent years I have missed George, but in all honesty I do not miss covering the Yankees when he was around. Believe me when I say I am sure he understands.
  

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