Saturday, May 18, 2013

May 17- San Francisco Giants

It’s only fitting that I’d write about the Giants while I’m in the Bay Area; however, like my Baltimore Orioles post from yesterday, the players I chose made their mark while the franchise was still in its original home, New York City. As one of the oldest franchises in Major League Baseball history, the Giants have had their fair share of Memorial Day moments and veterans of war take the field. I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t know who I was going to write about going into this post, but the reality is that there are really only a few guys of note worth mentioning which I’ll get to later in this post.

When it comes to giving back to the troops, one of the biggest names to give back to those who serve is currently Giants pitcher Barry Zito. In 2005 Zito founded Strikeout for the Troops, a program that assists with the most immediate needs, including air flights and lodging, adaptive equipment for an easy transitions at home, help at the Gold Star Family Support Center at Fort Hood, support for Fisher House Foundation, backpacks filled with toiletries and other necessities to those who arrive at the hospital with often just the clothes on their back. Other funds have been dedicated to support morale building events nationwide, research and treatment for  PSTD issues, the purchase of holiday gifts for military children, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, telephone and gift cards, and even paid for transportation and baby sitting so families can stay close. Pretty noble if you ask me.

Something that I probably should have talked about in the first of these Stars and Stripes post is the origin of Memorial Day. The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from "Decoration Day" to "Memorial Day", which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress's change of date within a few years.

Going back to 1971 the Giants have played on 34 of 42 of those days, tallying a record of 16-19 with eight games off. No, my math is not incorrect. Like a few of the other teams I’ve written about the Giants played a doubleheader against the San Diego Padres on May 30, 1977 and lost both ends of the affair. In all the research I did I wasn’t able to find any other real games or patterns of note. Sorry. I thought I found one with the Atlanta Braves as the Giants had lost every game on Memorial Day they played from 1971-2008, but broke the streak in 2009 for a 1-4 record. Other than that, nothing that special.

As I mentioned above I opted to roll with players from the old days of Giants baseball since all of these guys were involved with every war from World War I through the end of the Korean War.

#24- If there has been any one player to personify the Giants organization it has to be Willie Mays. Mays is one of the few players to make the transition from New York to San Francisco and continue to boast solid numbers year-after-year. The “Say Hey Kid” first donned the black and orange on May 25, 1951 and went on to have an electric rookie season consisting of a .274 average, 20 home runs and 68 RBI, which easily won him the Rookie of the Year award.

Starting the 1952 season, Willie batted just .236 in 34 games before he was drafted into the Army, an obligation that would keep him out of the major leagues until 1954. Red Smith chronicled Mays's last game before his military call-up, in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field: "... there was a fine, loud cheer for Willie. This was in Brooklyn, mind you, where 'Giant' is the dirtiest word in the language." At the time of his departure, the Giants were in first place, with a 2 ½ game lead over the Dodgers. The Giants promptly lost eight of ten and were never a factor in the pennant race.

The Army sent Willie to Fort Eustis, Virginia, and assigned him to play baseball for the most part. According to Mays, Durocher kept an eye on him from afar, chiding him when he stole a base with his team leading and sending him money from time to time. The August 13, 1953, edition of
Jet magazine reports that Mays broke a bone in his foot sliding into third base in an Army game and would wear a cast for five weeks. Mays recalled that he also sprained his ankle in a basketball game, prompting another call from Durocher, telling him to stay off the court.

During his time in the service, his mother Anna died, and Willie harbored some bitterness that he wasn't allowed to resume his playing career to support all his half-brothers and -sisters, since his stepfather was unemployed.

Willie estimated that he played 180 games while in the service. When he returned to the Giants in the spring of 1954, he was one-half inch taller and 10 pounds heavier, now 5'11" and 180 pounds. When Mays showed up at the Giants' camp in Phoenix on March 1, the consensus among New York writers seemed to be, "Here comes the pennant," despite the Dodgers' 105 wins in 1953.
Newsweek predicted in its April 5 issue that Mays could mean the difference between "the second division and the pennant in 1954."- John Saccoman, SABR

Even though Mays never saw any combat, his time in the military went a long way to bring a more positive attitude to the men in uniform. When Mays returned to the Giants lineup in 1954 he continued his now-legendary career that started only three years prior. He hit .375, winning him his only batting title of his career. More than that he led the League in triples (13), on-base percentage (.667) and OPS (1.078). Aaaaaand he also won the National League MVP award and his only World Series title that same season.

The rest of his career reads like a grocery list: 20-straight All-Star Game appearances from 1954-1973, 12-straight Gold Gloves from 1957-1968, 3283 hits, 660 home runs (most in Giants history), 1903 RBI, a second NL MVP award in 1965, 12 total Top-six MVP finishes and his enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.

R/C- I actually wrote about both of these guys on January 26th. Rube Marquard and Christy Mathewson both served their country during World War I as members of the Chemical Service program along with Ty Cobb and Branch Rickey. Marquard went on to have a long and fruitful career and life after the war, while Mathewson contracted tuberculosis during a gas test and his career and life cut short.

#20- This is another guy I wrote a little bit about on January 23rd. Monte Irvin didn’t have a long Major League career; however, his time playing in the Negro Leagues more than make up for it. He fashioned a career of dual excellence both with the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues, where he was a teammate of Larry Doby, the first player to break the color barrier in the American League, and with the Giants in the National League. After hitting in the Negro leagues for high marks of .422 and .396 (1940–41), Irvin led the Mexican League with a .397 batting average and 20 home runs in 63 games, being rewarded with the MVP award.

Irvin was drafted by the Army in 1942. He spent three years with the GS Engineers, 1313th Battalion. The battalion was first sent to England, then after D-Day to France and Belgium, where they built bridges and repaired roads. In late 1944, his unit was deployed in Reims, France, as a secondary line in case the Germans broke through at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

Irvin recently explained that black soldiers had a rough time in the Army because white soldiers treated them badly. "The black troops were treated better in Europe than they were in the US," Irvin said. "They got a taste of freedom over there."

He agrees, however, that many white American soldiers realized the incongruity of fighting in Europe to free oppressed people while blacks were oppressed at home, and that may have made things a little easier for the black soldiers when they returned.

In addition to the psychological trauma Irvin faced in combat, he also developed tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that affected his dexterity. That and three years away from baseball made his return to the game difficult.
- Baseball in Wartime

When he returned to the Negro Leagues in 1946, he was approached by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, but having been away from baseball for three years, Irvin felt he was not ready and needed to get into shape. Had he accepted Rickey's offer he may have been the first black Major Leaguer. He returned to the Eagles to lead his team to a league pennant. Irvin won his second batting championship hitting .401, and was instrumental in beating the Kansas City Monarchs in a seven-game Negro League World Series, batting .462 with three home runs. He was a five-time Negro League All-Star (1941, 1946–48, including two games in 1946).

Irvin led the Negro National League hitters in 1946 with a .346 average. In 1949, aged 30, he signed with the New York Giants. He spent eight years in the major leagues with the Giants and Cubs and finished with a lifetime batting average of .293. A back injury forced Irvin to retire after the 1956 season. He became a scout for the Mets in 1967 and in 1968 he became Assistant Director of Public Relations on the Baseball Commissioner's staff. Monte Irvin was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by a special Negro Leagues committee in 1973.

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