Archive for September 9th, 2010

The New York media can be tough for sure. When a team in the city doesn’t play well, several interesting theories often emerge as to the root cause of the problem, and scapegoats are quickly indentified. However, nothing in recent times compares to the article that New York Daily News sports editor Jimmy Powers wrote to explain the Yankees’ drop in the standings during the 1940 season.

Lou Gehrig wipes away a tear during his famous speech on July 4, 1939. One year later, sports columnist Jimmy Powers would imply that Gehrig infected his former teammates with a disease he didn’t even have.

On August 18, 1940, the four-time defending champion Yankees entered action with a pedestrian 56-52 record, which put them in fourth place, 10 games behind the Cleveland Indians. It had been 10 years since the Yankees finished lower than second, so naturally the media spent most of the season trying to figure out the cause of the team’s fall from grace. From an aging pitching staff to a potential injury to Joe DiMaggio, a variety of explanations were advanced, but nothing compared to what screamed from the headlines of the Daily News that morning.

“Has ‘Polio’ Hit the Yankees?,” asked the banner of the city’s mostly widely read tabloid. In the accompanying article, Powers, who was as famous for making news as reporting it, suggested the reason the Yankees were languishing in the standings was because they had contracted polio from Lou Gehrig.

Has the mysterious ‘polio’ germ which felled Lou Gehrig also struck his former teammates, turning a once great team into a floundering non-contender? According to overwhelming opinion of the medical profession, poliomyelitis, similar to infantile paralysis, is communicable. The Yanks were exposed to it at its most acute stage. They played ball with the afflicted Gehrig, dressed and undressed in the locker room with him, traveled, played cards and ate with him. Isn’t it possible some of them also became infected?” – Jimmy Powers, New York Daily News, August 18, 1940.

Powell’s outrageous accusation (Gehrig wasn’t suffering from polio, but amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a non-communicable disease) was quickly denounced by the Yankees, but a retraction was not forthcoming. As a result, on September 9, 1940, Gehrig decided to seek a legal resolution by filing a $1 million libel law suit against Powers and the Daily News. In seeking restitution, Gehrig’s lawsuit sadly stated that the legendary first baseman had become “a pariah whom many people shun”. Shortly thereafter, 10 other Yankees also decided to file a collective libel suit of their own, asking for $2.5 million in damages.

The Daily News finally admitted its mistake over one month latter when its September 26 edition ran a retraction under the headline “Our Apologies To Lou Gehrig And The Yankees.” In the article, Powers admitted that “Gehrig has no communicable disease and was not suffering from the mysterious polio germ that supposedly played havoc with the Yankee ball club,” and apologized for “hurting his feelings”. Gehrig’s suit was subsequently dropped, but media reports as late as October 25, 1940 suggested that the collective libel suit was still being advanced by Gehrig’s teammates. However, no further mention of that suit’s outcome could be found.

Incredibly, Powers not only didn’t lose his job for making such a scandalous suggestion, but went on to continue a controversial career that would include other accusations of libel. Meanwhile, the Yankees went on to post the best record (32-14) in baseball from the date of the original article, dispelling any lingering doubt that Powers story may have caused. Sadly, the only loser was Gehrig, who had to see his name dragged through the mud in what turned out to be his last time in the spotlight.  On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig passed away from ALS.

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The New York Mets long ago faded from the pennant race, but continue to garner their fair share of headlines. Unfortunately for the team, the underlying stories have been mostly negative.

When the Yankees visited Walter Reed back in April, they enjoyed plenty of positive press. Unfortunately, the goodwill surrounding the Mets’ subsequent visit was overwhelmed by the absence of three players (Photo: NY Daily News).

The most recent example stems from the decision of three Mets players to not join their teammates on a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Making matters worse, the three players (Carlos Beltran, Oliver Peres and Luis Castillo) who skipped the trip also happen to be involved in deteoriating relationships with the team (Dillon Gee also did not attend, but he was the starting pitcher in the game later on that day).

Not surprisingly, the absence of the three players quickly created a firestorm that spread from Twitter to the Mike Francesca Show to the city’s tabloids and local television stations. Instead of focusing on an otherwise organization-wide gesture of goodwill, the story became about those who didn’t attend the visit when it should have highlighted those who did. This glass half empty approach to looking at the Mets has become very common, and although appropriate in most cases, seems very unfair this time around. If not for the absence of the three players, one wonders if there would have been any significant reporting at all about the Mets’ visit.

You’d like to see everybody. I don’t think it’s big enough until you get everybody.” – Mets’ 3B David Wright, New York Daily News, September 9, 2010

Reportedly, Fred Wilpon, who is active in veteran’s charities, was angered by the players’ absences, and even other team members expressed concern. In response to the negative reaction by the public, media and team, two of the players, Castillo and Beltran, provided explanations for their failure to attend. Castillo very honestly stated that he didn’t feel comfortable interacting with the hospital’s patients, many of whom are missing arms and legs. Meanwhile, Beltran, who stated that he had visited a Veterans Hospital earlier in the year with Mets owner Fred Wilpon, had a meeting regarding a charitable endeavor he is conducting in Puerto Rico. Not surprisingly, Oliver Peres had nothing to say.

The excuses offered by the three Mets are really irrelevant. Whether they are legitimate or not, excoriating them for not attending turns what should have been a voluntary gesture of goodwill into a mandatory routine. In a way, the decision of Beltran, Castillo and Peres actually makes the rest of the team’s appearance all the more meaningful. After all, they actually wanted to be there. By subjecting those who don’t attend similar endeavors to intense criticism, we are effectively making their attendance compulsory, which kind of defeats the purpose. If I was soldier at Walter Reed, I would like to think that my visitors were there of their own free will…not because they didn’t want to get slammed in the media.

Knowing the Mets, this story will probably have more twists and turns before it fades from the radar, but one only hopes the soldiers at Walter Reed are not exposed to any of them. Being in the middle of such a public tussle is probably not a comfortable position for men with the amount pride you’d expect from a soldier.

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In his latest column, Tom Verducci offers a solution to “fix” major league baseball’s playoff system. The only problem, however, is he provides no evidence to suggest that it is broken.

The thrust of Verducci’s argument is that because the NFL is dominating media attention in September, MLB should expand its playoff format in attempt to compete for headlines and sound bites. For some reason, media types always seem preoccupied by the importance of the buzz they create. Just because the NFL generates more national media attention doesn’t mean the game is more popular. Baseball is and has always been a regional sport. Interest is generated on a local level, not by national media outlets seeking to promote their rights holdings.

Another factor that accounts for why an NFL preseason game seems to be more popular than a pennant race baseball game is because of scarcity. There are only 20 games per team in the NFL. Baseball teams play that many in three weeks. Clearly, the incentive to watch every NFL game is much greater, so it is only natural that the ratings will be much higher.

Every NFL game has the feeling of being self-contained, with the stand-alone quality of say a movie as opposed to the serial quality of a baseball series. Baseball games rise to that level of urgency when they are ‘ultimate’ games.” – Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated, September 7, 2010

Baseball’s strength is its 162 game schedule. Following a team throughout the season comes with an ebb and flow, much like life itself. There are very few short bursts that absolutely demand attention. Although Verducci may think that’s a bad thing, it’s actually baseball’s greatest asset. The number one reason baseball has exploding revenues is because the sport finally learned to leverage the 162 game schedule. Baseball’s massive inventory of games is a boon in a time when media outlets are starving for content. From satellite radio to local RSNs to MLBAM’s on-line initiatives, baseball’s growth has been fueled by its ability to fill the airwaves and the internet. Would it be fair to compare both sports on metrics like total attendance, total viewers and the number of fans who fly across country to watch exhibition games? Of course not…so why do so many keep judging MLB on terms that clearly favor the NFL?

Now, just because MLB is doing very well, aside from and relative to the NFL, doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made. In his column, Verducci does advance one proposal that he thinks would make the game better: having two wild cards per league engage in a one game playoff to advance to the LDS.

One underlying reason for the proposal is to boost September buzz, but as we’ve already discussed, that is not only unnecessary, but potentially damaging to the integrity of the 162 game schedule. Just ask the NBA and NHL about the impact of expanded playoff structures on interest in the regular season.

The second motivation for the proposal, however, has some merit: the need to place an emphasis on winning the division. Although MLB would be wise to pursue this end, the aforementioned suggestion would cause more harm than good. Take this year, for example. Under Verducci’s plan, the Yankees and Rays, who are both assured of a playoff spot, would have a greater incentive to play all out in September. That is undeniable. However, think about the other ramifications. Let’s assume that with three games to go the Red Sox have the second wild card spot wrapped up, while the Rays are still locked in a battle with the Yankees. Under this scenario, the loser of the Yankees/Rays battle could wind up with their third or fourth best pitcher on the mound in a one game playoff against a rested John Lester. In other words, they would be penalized for trying to win the division.

Another cause for concern with expanding the playoffs is you increase the chances of an undeserving team winning the World Series. The point of a 162 game schedule is not to have weaker teams sneak into the playoffs. On the contrary, the marathon that is the baseball season is designed to weed out those teams. Is it really worth sacrificing this integrity for a couple of “ultimate games” and added media attention? I don’t think so. Hopefully, Bud Selig feels the same way.

For whatever reason, baseball executives, writers, fans, players, etc. suffer from excessive hand wringing when it comes to evaluating their sport. Baseball is a wildly popular game that takes a back to seat to no sport. Just because the NFL has found a formula that combines reality TV, gambling and athletics doesn’t mean MLB should resort to similar gimmicks.

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