Is Free Agency in Baseball Dead?

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Anthony Rizzo – Chicago Cubs

A recent spate of signings this spring continues a trend that began happening in baseball a few years ago. Young players are being signed in their second  year in the big leagues to extended contracts. Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals and Evan Longoria of the Rays were two of the first to ink their name on a dotted line to what were deemed as team-friendly deals. On the other hand, the players signings voided any attempts at arbitration and extended the original five-year length of a major league contract. Recent signings have been by Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs and Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks. Both players knowingly signed their contracts to focus on just playing baseball. Rizzo signed for an additional 7 years and $41 million with escalators and incentives. Goldschmidt signed for five years and $32 million. While Rizzo’s contract was based on less than a 140  game sample, Goldschmidt had almost 2 years under his belt. For Goldschmidt, the signing bought him a release from the pressure and he is having an all-star type year as is Rizzo. But Goldschmidt has not put up these type of numbers before. Rizzo, meanwhile, is on page to hit 40 homers and drive in 110 runs. These players are just two players that might signal a death in free agency as we know it. The test will come when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, who are both in their second year, either reach arbitration or ink similar type deals to keep the players in the fold during their peak years.

Free Agency began shortly after Curt Flood‘s ill-fated lawsuit against Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. However, shortly thereafter, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became the first free agents in 1975. At the time, the average salary for a professional baseball player was less than $30,000 a year. 4 years later, Nolan Ryan signed a 4 year $4.4 million contract with the Astros. One year later, Dave Winfield was making $2.5 million. By the end of the 1980s, Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett inked a 3 year $9 million contract.

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The 1990s saw an unchecked growth in free agency and a rise in steroid use. I, for one, think the two go hand-in-hand as players looked for any advantage to get that big free agent deal. In 1996, Albert (aka Joey) Belle, signed a deal worth over $11 million a year with the White Sox. It took a while for the White Sox to get out from under the deal. On December 10, 2000, Alex Rodriguez signed a 10 year $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. That deal would be torn up in 2007 when he signed a new deal for pretty close to the same numbers with the Yankees.

In response, five events in the 2000s changed how baseball executives looked at free agency.

1. SteroidsThe Mitchell Report (2007)  took away any competitive edge steroid and amphetamine users had in the game. Now, if a players risked using them, they also risked suspension of major dollars. The heydays of the 1990s of McGwire, Sosa, and others grooving mammoth home runs was going to be over. There were now too many dollars at stake. Home runs plummeted after the Mitchell Report from a high of over 5600 in 2000 to a low 4552 in 2011.

(c) John Sherffius

(c) John Sherffius

2. Moneyball – In the early 2000s, the price of competition had created big market teams that could afford to go after high cost free agents and those that could not. Most notably, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane stood out by finding other ways to win by focusing on Sabermetrics like on base and slugging percentages taking on more value than batting average and runs batted in. The resulting book by Michael Lewis highilghted Beane’s methods in evaluating and drafting talent. For teams that did not have cathedrals for ballparks to bring in the much needed cash, Moneyball became another way to compete between the lines with the large market teams.

3. Youth Movement – In the wake of the Mitchell Report, the players got younger as youth was valued more and more. They had fresher legs after all and more strength. In the steroid era, it wasn’t unusual for a player to hit 40 homers at age 36. Alex Rodriguez is now that age, along with many other greats of the 2000s and they are now shells of the players they were in their prime. Steroids were not the only drug that shaped baseball. For years, amphetamines had just as much an influence in the game for players in a grinding 162 game schedule, especially for those who played day games after night games. The need for younger players who could sustain their strength through a season was needed. The Tampa Bay Rays (GM Andrew Friedman) and the Washington Nationals (GM Mike Rizzo) began the trend of signing players to keep them in their prime years (27-30 years of age). The Cubs recently have done the same with Stalin Castro in addition to Anthony Rizzo. For all three teams, they were trying to build teams by developing talent. For Friedman, signing Longoria was the foundation for the franchise as was Ryan Zimmerman for the Nationals. For the Cubs, they refer to the term “core pieces.”

4. The Market Changed – In recent years, many teams have begun to shy away from long-term free agent deals. When players hit free agency for the first time, they are usually in their late 20s. To sign them to a long-term deal is not seen as financially sound anymore. Case in point, Alfonso Soriano. His $18-19 million a year contract was seen as an albatross hanging over the franchise when Theo Epstein too over the team. Unexpectedly, Soriano was seen as not living up to his contract. Then last year, he slugged over 30 home runs and drove in 108 runs. Soriano’s contract with the Cubs has been up and down as has Alex Rodriquez’s when he has been healthy. Most General Managers now view a signing as paying for future performance.

Alex Rodriguez Career Numbers - Baseball Reference

Alex Rodriguez Career Numbers – from Baseball Reference

In the past, while the GMs hoped they were paying for future performance, but in reality, the contract was roll of the dice. Today’s market signings lock up their “future” stars through their prime years and a little beyond. The two winters signing of Albert Pujols for ten years will test those “old” assumptions in the coming years. However, the signing of Josh Hamilton might be a new market force. Hamilton’s contract lasts only for five years but his production is already bringing that contract into question just based on the staggering amount of dollars involved even if only for five years.

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Cubs Pro Scouting Director Joe Bohringer

5. The Branch Rickey Effect – Most people know Branch Rickey cemented his place in history by signing Jackie Robinson. What most people don’t know is that Rickey set up what is today the minor league system in the late 1920s. Rickey’s belief was that by using a farm system that developed players, a team could be competitive indefinitely. The St. Louis Cardinals have not deviated from that philosophy in the 80 years since.

In today’s market, that development of players now includes foreign markets in the Dominican, Japan, Korea, and Venezuela as well as others all over the world. Scouting, whether it be by sabermetrics or old school scouts, or as Cubs Pro Scouting Director Joe Bohringer calls for, a mixture of both, has taken on a new dimension of finding the latest talent at the cheapest price all over the globe. While Rickey did not mine Latin America for players as it is done today, his followers are doing so in his shadow of the minor league system. Why waste $250 million when you get the same production by investing a few million and develop that talent. In fact, for $250 million, you can get 50 or more players rather than just one player. In addition, teams are now pouring money into scouting as well as player development to avoid that large loss of production and dollars via free agency.

Free Agent Trends for the Future: Free Agency, most likely, is not dead. But it is changing. Role players are becoming more in demand. Specialists like a “loogy” (left handed reliever) garner more attention because they fit a certain niche. The team’s need is dictating what teams spend their dollars on. If they can bring up a player like the Orioles did with Manny Machado last fall, teams will. The Pujols, A-Rod, and Soriano contracts are warnings of the dangers of long-term contracts. As the dollars increase for free agents, some teams just will step out of the way, while other GMs and owners will step up, some foolishly. While the Rizzos and Goldschmidts  contemplate their deals, for GMs, the contemplation is smaller and less risky.

In the end, I think Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will set the future role of free agency as they will reach the market at the ripe old ages of 25 and 26. They would still not have reached their prime years of 27-30. That, to me, is unfathomable what they could bring on the open market. Will they be the first $30 million a year players? On the other hand, they might be the outliers rather than the norm. Their GMs will do everything they can to not let them get to the open market.

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Trout and Harper – The Future of Free Agency?

Connie Hawkins: Playground Hard Court Wonder

Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, basketball was a winter staple. For me, I loved basketball as a young kid. Hawkins_350_111004Growing up in Northern Illinois, the winters were rough and the Nerf hoop in the basement was the perfect antidote to a boring winter day. My early idols were Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. I was a huge Lakers fan through the late 1960s. But then someone caught my eye. At 27 years of age, he was a NBA rookie and he was unlike anything I had seen at that point. His name was Connie Hawkins and he played for the Phoenix Suns. At 6’8″, Hawkins did things with a basketball that would reshape the game, influence Julius Erving, George Gervin, Magic Johnson, and through them, Michael Jordan. He would palm a basketball and hold it away from his body and use it to lull the defender into not paying attention to the rest of his body. He would then swoop into the lane dunk, finger roll, or whatever was needed to put the ball in the basket. For that rookie season in 1969-1970, the “Hawk,” as he was affectionately known, averaged 24 ppg and 10 boards a game. But to get to that rookie season, Hawkins lead a life of myth, magic, wonderment, and woe unlike any player of his generation.

Born in 1942, Hawkins grew up in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. By the age of 11, he was dunking the basketball. He became a playground legend defying gravity and word spread of his talent. Hawkins said of his physical gifts to break the laws of science and gravity, “Someone said if I didn’t break them, I was slow to obey them.”

He spoke of his influences in Slam Magazine,

 I was so young when I started. But I’ll have to say that going down to Madison Square Garden, I used to watch Elgin Baylor. I watched him play, and I think he was the first guy I’d ever seen who had that certainflair for the game. I adapted my game after his. See, once you learn to play in the schoolyard, you can almost adapt your game to anything. So naturally, with Elgin having that type of skills, I adapted my game to what he was doing on the court.

Connie Hawkins attended Boys & Girls High School in New York City and was an All-City player his junior year averaging in double figures while leading the team to a Public School Athletic championship. His senior year saw Hawkins at 6’6″ average over 25 points a game and the team captured a second Public School Athletic championship. At the time he was hailed as the finest basketball prospect to come out of the city. Connie was also named a Parade magazine High School All-American, the only national honor for high school players at that time.

Hawkins parlayed his fame and talents into a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa. At the time, freshman were not allowed to play varsity basketball in the NCAA. At practice, Hawkins legend grew as he continually outplayed future NBA legend Don Nelson. It was there as a freshman that Connie’s world began to fall apart. A point shaving scandal broke out back in New York City. Connie was implicated by name.

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Connie always claimed his innocence. He was not arrested nor indicted. He did acknowledge borrowing $200 from a man, Jack Molinas, implicated of fixing games, but it was also acknowledge his brother had paid Molinas back well before the scandal broke. The resulting backlash saw Hawkins dismissed from the University of Iowa. After he became of age to be drafted in the NBA, Hawkins went undrafted in 1964, 65, and 66. He would later be barred from the National Basketball Association  - all despite never even being charged in a court room with any crime.

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At the age of 19, Hawkins began what best could be described as a barnstorming lifestyle. He played for semi-pro teams including one in Hawaii just to live there. He spent four years as a Harlem Globetrotter traveling the world. It was with the Globetrotters that Hawkins claims his game was transformed. He states,

If I didn’t have the basic skills to handle the basketball, I never would have been able to adjust to playing four years with the Globetrotters. That’s what turned me and my game around. I was able to incorporate their skills into my game because we played eight days a week, twice on Sunday. Because of that, I was really able to familiarize myself with the basketball. I’m not talking about shooting the ball with a string or anything. I’m talking about having total confidence with the ball and being able to do anything with it. At 6-9, there weren’t too many people able to do that. But because I’d learned the basics, and gaining the confidence of not being afraid to dribble between my legs, or dribble behind my back, you perfect another level of play. Like you and the ball become one.

He added the finger roll during this time,

I started out as a Harlem Globetrotter, playing for Abe Sapirstein in 1964, when I came out of college. Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Geese Ausby. We toured all over the world. And I’m also an ex-ABAer. But what people don’t know is that me and Wilt started the finger roll. We just didn’t call it that. Wilt used to call it the “dipper.” Now I look on TV, at these commercials, and I see George [Gervin] talkin’ about [imitates Iceman’s voice] “the finger roll.” I love George, but he got that from me. I need to start seeing some of his checks. I should be getting some of that money.

In 1967, the big break for Connie Hawkins came. It was a new league called the American Basketball Association. At 25, Hawkins took the league by storm. He averaged 26 points and over 13 rebounds a game. That year, he lead the Pittsburgh Pipers to an ABA championship over the New Orleans Buccaneers. He was named the leagues Most Valuable Player. The next year, the team moved to Minneapolis. Connie averaged 30 ppg and 11 boards in 47 games.  Hawkins became such a draw that his warmup jersey was an advertiser who’s who in a league short on cash.

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In those two years, Connie’s future was changed thanks to a Life magazine article by author David Wolf. The article turned into a book called Foul. It changed everything for Connie Hawkins. Hawkins filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NBA and won! Thanks in part to the book, but more so, the facts spoke for themselves including an affidavit from Molinas stating Hawkins’ innocence. In addition, Hawkins received a $1 million cash settlement to begin paying at age 45.

Chicago Tribune article

Chicago Tribune article

The 1969-1970 saw Hawkins drafted second by the Phoenix Suns, a one year old franchise. The signing of Hawkins instantly legitimized the team. Hawkins said, “I was so happy to play, I didn’t have any problems with animosity or bitterness at all. As soon as I got that Phoenix Suns uniform, I just wanted to play.” At 27, Hawkins had a great season for the Suns. The team went from 16-66 before Hawkins to 39-43 only to lose in the Western Conference semifinals.

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Hawkins would have three more good seasons for the Suns, but the wear and tear on his legs began to show. His rebound totals began to drop as did his points. At 31, he could not jump as he once did. He would play for three more years for the Lakers, and, fittingly, the Atlanta Hawks.

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For Hawkins, his imprint on the game is clear. He said,

I’d have to say Doc and Jordan just took my game to another level. Elgin pioneered it, I came after him, and then after me, Doc. Man, Doc took it to a different level. I mean, I used to dunk and do all types of fancy things, but Doc came in and started doing 360 dunks and taking off from the foul line, and all those types of things. Then Michael Jordan just took it to another level. He’s just a phenomenal ballplayer.

Despite his brief NBA career and his ups and downs, Hawkins is not bitter knowing he did reshape the game. Because of this, the Hawk has no regrets.

People always say that they never saw how good I was, really was, because they stole my best years and all that. That bothers me because I look at it like, my first year I made the NBA All-Star team, I made the All-Pro team too. So what did they steal? I showed my capabilities, what I could do, but all most people think about is what was taken from me. Look, I’m in the Hall of Fame. That’s the pinnacle. They saw the best of me. I was fortunate enough to play against the top players in the world. And I know what I did against them.

Sources and Additional Reading

Foul by David Wolf

Connie Hawkins Quotes by Scoop Jackson available online at: http://www.slamonline.com/online/nba/2010/06/original-old-school-new-york-undercover/2/

Additional Information

http://www.nba.com/history/players/hawkins_bio.html

http://espn.go.com/classic/s/addhawkinsconnie.html

Chicago Tribune newspaper articles

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1086325/index.htm

From Minneapolis to LA: The Birth of the Lakers

By Lamar Hull

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Lamar Hull is a former NCAA college basketball player who also played on the European professional circuit. He now writes for Direct2tv.com. He loves researching and discovering new things about the game of basketball and sports. You can also follow Lamar at inspirationalbasketball.com

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The LA Lakers, now considered one of the NBA’s best teams, began their history as the Detroit Gems, a team in the National Basketball League which was disbanded in 1947 after just one season following what many consider to be the worst record of any professional basketball team in existence at the time, with a win-loss record of only 4-40. At that time three men from Minnesota, movie theater owner Ben Berger, local sports writer Sid Hartman and Sports promoter Morris Chalfen, bought them for $15,000.

When they bought the Gems, all they had was the team’s equipment, as all of its players had gone to other basketball teams. So they had to rebuild the team from scratch, getting first choice in the League’s Draft that year, they managed to get famous 6’10 center George Mikan, a college basketball star from DePaul University, who had just recently defunct on a PBLA team, the Chicago American Gears. When both the team and the league folded, Mikan was selected to be the newest center for the Lakers. The team was renamed the Lakers after Minnesota’s nickname, the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

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George Mikan

With this new team, including coach John Kundla who was from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, general manager and future founder of the NFL Minnesota Vikings Max Winter, legendary forwards Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard, as well as Bob Harrison and Slater Martin-and Clyde Lovellette joining in the 1953-54 season, they would become a powerhouse in the first years of the NBA, with a team that would be full of players that would later become hall of famers. They won the NBL championship in the 1948 season, which was their very first season, and the following year they moved to the Basketball Association of America along with three other teams. The Lakers would remain there until the National Basketball Association was formed out of a merger of the two leagues in 1950. As the NBA considers the BAA their direct predecessor, the 1948 NBL championship is not recognized as a victory by the NBA today.

In ’49 and ’50 they won the Championship again with Mikan scoring a 27.4 point average in the ’51 regular season and 31 in the playoffs, and then lost in the 1951 Western division playoffs to the Rochester Royals(now the Sacramento Kings) 4 games to 1. The NBA tried to slow Mikan down by doubling the foul lane’s width to its present width of twelve feet in the 1951 offseason, which actually made his game better, and the Lakers won the championship again from 1952-54, making them the first of the NBA’s true dynasties and the first NBA three-peat championship winners. But that was the last of the Minnesota Lakers’ heydays.

After the 1954 season Mikan retired due to knee injuries, and also due to disagreements concerning the new players’ contract, replacing Max Winter as the Lakers’ new General Manager. That same year the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock partially in response to a 1950 game that the Lakers played against the Fort Wayne Pistons that still ranks as the lowest scoring game in NBA history with a score of 19 to 18. This a now a key component of the game, but at the time these changes forced the Lakers to play their game in an entirely new and alien style to them.

In 1955, the Lakers had their worst season since coming to Minnesota, losing the Western Division playoffs to the Fort Wayne Pistons, and combined with the age of the teammates now averaging between 26 and 30, making them some of the oldest in the league at the time, George Mikan was convinced to come out of retirement for the next year while Jim Pollard retired.

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Elgin Baylor

The injuries he had sustained to his knees and his ankles during his glory days had taken their toll however, and his play wasn’t what fans expected or hoped for. So, in 1956, Mikan retired from the sport in the midst of the season, never to return as a player. Attendance at games dropped sharply and never recovered, worsened by the fact that there wasn’t a single home venue for the team. Instead, they leapfrogged between two coliseums in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 1957 after the team lost the playoffs twice to the St. Louis Hawks, the team was nearly sold and moved to Kansas City, and was only kept in Minneapolis after a group of roughly 100 Twin Cities area businessmen, led by trucking executive Bob Short, bought the team from Berger for $150,000. Short himself became the Team’s president and owner.

George Mikan did return however as head coach in 1958 while Kundla became Manager for the team, but it wasn’t long before both the team and Mikan himself discovered how completely unsuited he was to the task. He quit midseason with a dismal win-loss record and Kundla returned, too late to keep the team from suffering a crushing 19-53 record, putting them in last place in the NBA standings and giving the Lakers their worst seasonal record in Minnesota. This last place finish however turned out to be a lucky break, as it gave them first pick in the following year’s NBA Draft, and they were able to pick up 6’5 Elgin Baylor as their new star forward.

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In 1959 with his help, they made it to the playoffs, and Baylor himself became the NBA Rookie of the year, but they were beaten by the up-and-coming Boston Celtics in the league’s first four-game sweep, starting a classic rivalry that lasts to this very day despite the Lakers’ change of address. In 1959, Kundla retired as head coach and was replaced by Elgin Baylor’s old coach at Seattle University, John Castellani. He left mid-season because of his lackluster win-loss record and was replaced by former player Jim Pollard, who himself fared any better. 1960 was their last season in Minnesota, and although they made it to the playoffs with a 25-50 record and Baylor continued to be the team’s shining star, they were once again beaten by the St. Louis Hawks.

During this last season in Minnesota, Short noticed how well the Brooklyn Dodgers did after becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958, the first Baseball team on the west coast. Their attendance was higher, the team played better than they had done in years and the team was consequently making money, a sharp contrast to the Lakers at the time. The Twin Cities were turning toward professional Hockey as their sport of choice. With low attendance (despite Baylor revitalizing the team) and severe and worsening financial problems in the Twin Cities, Short tried to move the team to either Chicago or San Francisco before moving the team in Los Angeles in 1961 making them the first NBA team on the west coast. Despite the lack of natural lakes around the city, Short decided to keep the name Lakers. Minnesota, meanwhile, would have to wait 28 years before they got another NBA team of their own, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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The Greatest Catch: Rick Monday and the American Flag

rick_monday_autographFrom the second Rick Monday was drafted, his place in history was written in stone. Monday was the first player ever selected in a draft for amateur talent in 1965. The Kansas City Athletics selected Monday who had a stellar career at Arizona State University. His selection marked a turning point in baseball. No longer would the richest teams select and over pay for the best talent, teams would select players in order based on their record from the season before. It was a new era.

The era also was a time of great upheaval. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and the Vietnam War was reaching its zenith. These two great moments in history created a combustion of frustration and protest unlike anything America had seen since the Civil War. Monday reached the majors quickly in 1966 at the age of  20. He made his debut for the Athletics and soon would play alongside his college teammate Reggie Jackson beginning in 1967.

Monday was a good player, not great, but good. He had some power, played CF, and had a good glove.

Courtesy of baseball Reference

Courtesy of Baseball Reference

After the 1971 season, Monday was traded from the A’s to the Cubs for pitcher Ken Holtzman. After the trade the A’s went on to win three World Series Championships in a row without Monday.

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With the Cubs, Monday wore #7 and hit leadoff most days for the next four years. When the 1976 season began, Monday got off to hot start. It would be his best season as a pro. On April 25, 1976, the Cubs traveled to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers.

In the time period, burning the American flag was seen as a sign of protest. To Monday, a former Marine Corps Reservist in the 60s, it was desecration. In the fourth inning, Monday noticed two men running on to the field to try to burn an American flag. The quick thinking Monday did them one better. He stole it from them before they could burn it.

Flag Burning on the Field Stopped by Rick Monday

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Rick’s actions caught the nation’s attention. To many he was a hero.

Chicago Tribune Headline

Chicago Tribune Headline

For Monday, he never thought twice – his actions were just reaction.

He said:

“In between the top and bottom of the fourth inning, I was just getting loose in the outfield, throwing the ball back and forth. Jose Cardenal was in left field and I was in center. I don’t know if I heard the crowd first or saw the guys first, but two people ran on the field. After a number of years of playing, when someone comes on the field, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it because they had too much to drink? Is it because they’re trying to win a bet? Is it because they don’t like you or do they have a message that they’re trying to present?Rick Monday
“When these two guys ran on the field, something wasn’t right. And it wasn’t right from the standpoint that one of them had something cradled under his arm. It turned out to be an American flag. They came from the left-field corner, went past Cardenal to shallow left-center field. That’s when I saw the flag. They unfurled it as if it was a picnic blanket. They knelt beside it, not to pay homage but to harm it as one of the guys was pulling out of his pocket somewhere a big can of lighter fluid. He began to douse it. What they were doing was wrong then, in 1976. In my mind, it’s wrong now, in 2006. It’s the way I was raised. My thoughts were reinforced with my six years in the Marine Corp Reserves. It was also reinforced by a lot of friends who lost their lives protecting the rights and freedoms that flag represented.

So I started to run after them. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what was running through my mind except I was mad, I was angry and it was wrong for a lot of reasons. Then the wind blew the first match out. There was hardly ever any wind at Dodger Stadium. The second match was lit, just as I got there. I did think that if I could bowl them over, they can’t do what they’re trying to do. I saw them go and put the match down to the flag. It’s soaked in lighter fluid at this time. Well, they can’t light it if they don’t have it. So I just scooped it up. My first thought was, ‘Is this on fire?’ Well, fortunately, it was not. I continue to run. One of the men threw the can of lighter fluid at me. We found out he was not a prospect. He did not have a good arm. Thank goodness.”

Monday would go on to have his best season as a professional. That winter he would be traded from the Cubs after a contract dispute. Ironically, he would be traded to the Dodgers on January 11, 1977, for Bill Buckner and Ivan DeJesus, and he would win a World Championship with them in 1981.

Former Teammate Darold Knowles said of the incident:

Monday with the now famous photograph

Monday with an artist’s rendering of the now famous photograph

“Rick got more recognition out of the flag incident than he got as a player. He was getting letters from all over the country, all the time _ from VFWs (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and American Legions organizations. Every place we’d go, somebody would honor him with a plaque. He let us read some of the letters (from) people thanking him.”

Monday added,

“The letters I’ve received from that day have run the gamut of emotions. They’ve been from children who were not born yet and had only heard about it. They’ve been from Vietnam veterans, including one yesterday. This soldier wrote that there were two things that he had with him in two tours of Vietnam. These two things kept him in check with reality. One was a small picture of his wife. The other was a small American flag that was neatly folded. The picture was folded inside the flag and in the left breast pocket of his uniform.
He would be in mud for weeks and months at a time. Those two things were what he looked at to connect him with reality, other than his buddies, and some of them were lost in battle. He wrote in the letter, ‘Thanks for protecting what those of us who were in Vietnam held onto dearly.’
That means something, because this wasn’t just a flag on the field. This was a flag that people looked at with respect. We have a lot of rights and freedoms — not to sound corny — but we all have the option if we don’t like something to make it better. Or you also have the option, if you don’t like it, [to] pack up and leave. But don’t come onto the field and burn an American flag.”

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Monday with the Flag at Wrigley Field

Later that season, Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis gave Monday the flag back. Monday still has the flag is always eager to talk about the incident. It has survived hurricanes and still hangs proudly at his home in Vero Beach, Florida. Monday now is immortalized in the Hall of Fame as the first player taken in the Amateur Draft and for what many Americans think is the greatest catch in baseball history.

Monday’s selfless act was quite shocking considering the time period. Many players did not take stands about the Vietnam War. But for Monday, this was not a political act. His actions dictate his thoughts only about the flag. For that time period, it was a radical action (as in the Latin definition)  that evoked something America hadn’t seen in a while.

Here is a video tribute from the Dodgers on the 30th anniversary of the catch.

This blog was suggested by Clark Lorensen of the famous Larcher and Lorensen Sports Show in Chicago.

Sources
Chicago Tribune Newspapers Articles from the time period

Quotes came from
MLB.com

and the

Washington Post

42: A Movie Review

Yesterday, my lovely wife and I went and saw the movie 42. The baseball period piece looks at the trials and tribulations Jackie and Rachel Robinson went through when Jackie broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

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If you are looking for an accurate, and historical, depiction of the challenges Robinson faced, you will not get that in a two-hour film. If you want an accurate account of the historical record, that will not happen in this film either. If you want to get the essence of the historical moment, good acting, and an entertaining docudrama, then that is what you will good.

The film begins with Branch Rickey seeking ways to win the National League Pennant. Rickey, who had only been the Dodgers general manager for three years, wanted to steal the thunder from the rival New York Giants, but more so from the Cardinals, the team he built through player development in a minor league system he helped established some 20 years prior. Excellently played by Harrison Ford, the acting echoes Ford’s finest work since Witness and Blade Runner. My wife and I forgot we were watching the same man who was Han Solo, Indiana Jones,  the President in Air Force One, and Jack Ryan. We really believed he embodied Branch Rickey. The relationship between Rickey and Robinson is a key element in the film and touching at many key points in the film and in Jackie’s journey.

However, the key relationship in the movie is the one between Jackie and his wife, Rachel, also well performed by Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie. You do feel the tension and the chaos they endured from the historical significance that the time period placed on them. Other excellent performers include Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith, and Alan Tudyk’s racist rants as the Phillies manager Ben Chapman. It was uncomfortable at times to listen to the language and hate being spewed at Jackie, but Tudyk’s performance created “sympathy” for Robinson, something the character Branch Rickey pointed out that it would.

The film does claim its fine share of historical inaccuracies including the events surrounding Leo Durocher’s 1947 suspension. The film portrays Durocher’s suspension as something to do with an affair with a Hollywood starlet while in reality the suspension involved gambling with players.

The film also does not include the thoughts of Happy Chandler, the newly appointed commissioner of baseball. Chandler said of the inclusion of blacks into baseball,

“If they can fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal (and) in the South Pacific, they can play ball in America.”
While these details are minor, it is after all a film designed to entertain first and foremost. My wife loved the film and wants to see it again. I, for one, would not object. The whole time I sat watching it, I was stunned by the cinematography and by Harrison Ford. The recreations of Ebbet’s Field, Shibe Park, the Polo Grounds, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, and Sportsman Park in St. Louis. The CGI effects were amazing to see those old ballparks come to life.
Ebbet's Field

Ebbet’s Field – Home of the Brooklyn Dodgers

Sure, the director, Brian Helgeland, took a few liberties with history, but I think the essence of the story is what matters. I did visit the website for the film and was disappointed that there were few resources for teachers.
As soon as the film was over, my wife turned to me and mentioned that I would not be able to show the film in my history classes because of the use of the use of the “N” word. I told I could if the parents signed off. I then told her that Jackie Robinson is not even in the textbook for the history class I teach. Thankfully, I don’t use the textbook to decide what to teach. Over the years I have collected student news magazine articles from Junior Scholastic and UpFront to fill in the missing part of Jackie Robinson.  The film is something I would consider using combined with historical documents. I don’t think you can teach Jackie’s story without telling what he went through on and off the field (Here’s a sample of some hate mail). The film does a good job of describing that, but as an historian, I wanted more details.
But in the end, it is a film. If you want an accurate historical account, go watch a documentary. If you want an entertaining film, 42 will do it.
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The 1992 Lithuanian Basketball Team: Not Too Far From Me

I grew up idolizing 1970s basketball players like Gail Goodrich, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, David Thompson, and Julius Erving. They were my dream team. When it was announced that the 1992 US Olympic Basketball team would be made up of American professional athletes, the press immediately labeled it “The Dream Team.”

The root for the change was that in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, the USSR team defeated American college (amateur) team 82-76. This was the second in three times the USSR had won the basketball gold. In 1980 and 1984, the two Cold War enemies did not meet due to boycotts. In Barcelona, the world would see American basketball at its finest. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson headlined the roster.

But the team that won everybody’s hearts at the tournament was not this collection of millionaire athletes. Rather, it was a rag-tag group of athletes from a tiny new country that had been under the thumb of Soviet control since the end of World War II. The 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Basketball Team captured the Olympic spirit. To get to the Olympics almost did not happen.

A poster for the documentary on the team

A poster for the documentary on the team

The country of modern Lithuania was born during the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. During the 1920s and 1930s, the country experienced a brief period of freedom. Then Stalin came. In 1940, the tiny country of only 65,000+ square miles was overtaken by Stalin. The next 50 years were not kind. First Stalin’s iron grip over thought, the economy, and any freedoms was more like strangulation. It continued long after Stalin’s death in 1953. The world of control continued long into the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. It was in this world that Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis were born.

In their teenage years, the young Lithuanians discovered basketball and they discovered they were good at it. They began their professional careers playing in Soviet leagues in the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, the two were part of the Soviet National Team. The team, however, was strictly controlled by the USSR. Every movement, every word spoken was under strict

Sabonis in the mid 1980s playing for the USSR national team. At 7'4" he dominated the floor.

Sabonis in the mid 1980s playing for the USSR national team. At 7’4″ he dominated the floor.

control of the Soviets. Sabonis was first drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the 1985 NBA draft. This pick was voided when it was found he was under 21. It did not stop the Portland Trailblazers from drafting him the next year. Marčiulionis was drafted in 1987 by the Golden State Warriors. The picks were controversial because they were considered wasted picks because there was no way to get the two men out from under the Soviet thumb.

In 1988, the two represented the Soviet Union in the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul where they defeated a group of American college all-stars to advance to the gold medal game where they defeated a loaded Yugoslavian team. For Sabonis and Marčiulionis the victory was bittersweet. They were happy they won the gold, but they were not playing for their homeland of Lithuania.

In 1989, everything changed. The USSR was beginning to crumble. Travel restrictions were being lifted by some Eastern European Communist States. Marčiulionis, with his sweet left-handed moves, came to the NBA that fall. At 6’5”, Marčiulionis flourished in the NBA averaging 12 points a game his first year. In the 1991-92 season, he averaged 18.9 points a game.

Šarūnas Marčiulionis  playing for the Golden State Warriors

Šarūnas Marčiulionis playing for the Golden State Warriors

1992 also saw Marčiulionis began trying to assemble a team that could compete in the Barcelona games. The problem was his brand new country was broke. He called on the 7’4″ Sabonis to help assemble the players. With the help of the Bay Area band the Grateful Dead, the team traveled to Barcelona to represent their country. A George Shirk article spurred the aid and the band stepped up. They held a concert to raise funds for the team. The band also supplied the team with some tie-dyed shirts and shorts. The apparel became the must have attire of the games.

The two dream teams in one photo

The two dream teams in one photo

Lead by Marčiulionis and Sabonis, the team went 4-1 in group play and advanced to the medal rounds. In the semifinal round, the Lithuanians went up against the Americans and lost handily 127-76. But for Lithuania, their gold medal game was the bronze medal game where they took on the Russians (aka Unified team), their former masters. Marčiulionis lead the team to victory over the Russians 82-78. At the medal ceremony, the team wore the tie-dye shirts and shorts that had become their signature off the court look as a thank you to the band.

The team marked the beginning of freedom for many people in the country and still serves as inspiration and a source of pride. For Sabonis and Marčiulionis, their careers as basketball players would soon be on the downhill side. Sabonis eventually played for the Trail Blazers in the mid-1990s and averaged 16 points a game but he was well past his prime physically. But you could still see the skills evident. The deft touch around the basket, soft hands, and an intensity to win still remained.

1992 LOBT

Today, both men live in Lithuania still involved with basketball. Their drive to represent their country is the Olympic Spirit and inspires many of Lithuania’s 3 million inhabitants to pick up a ball and find a hoop. It is sad how for most of my childhood, I was taught to hate the Soviet Union. To come to find out, they were just like us. Both Sabonis and Marčiulionis could have idolized Gail Goodrich, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, David Thompson, and Julius Erving, just like me had they been free.

*A special thanks goes out to Andrew Rehn for suggesting this post*

Lithuania Bronze Medal Game Recap