The Korean War has the unfortunate nickname of the Forgotten War. The conflict in Korea was wedged between World War II and the Vietnam War, but it was no less horrific for the soldiers. 36,574 Americans were killed in just over 3 years of fighting. The Forgotten War cut short the lives of many soldiers. Among those killed in Korea was Major Robert Neighbors of the Army Air Force.
Major Neighbors joined the Army Air Force on May 8, 1942. He served with the 22nd Air Transport Training Detachment in Wichita Falls, Texas. He also spent part of his time playing baseball for the Sheppard Field Mechanics. After the German and Japanese surrenders, the United States began demobilizing large parts of its military. However, Neighbors decided to stay and make a career in the Army Air Force.
Roughly five years later, on June 25, 1950 North Korea attacked South Korea sparking the Korean War. The conflict was both an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula under one flag and an escalation of the Cold War. The United States was immediately drawn into the conflict defending its South Korean ally and preventing the spread of Communism. Major Neighbors was assigned to the 13th Bomb Squadron of the 3rd Bomb group. On August 8, 1952 Neighbors and his crew, First-Lieutenant William Holcom and Staff-Sergeant Grady Weeks, flew a night mission over North Korea. They were originally not scheduled for the mission but the pilot of the scheduled crew was sick. During their mission Neighbors and his crew were shot down. They radioed they were hit but did not provide a location. The crew bailed out of their Douglas B-26 Invader and were never heard from again. Neighbors and his crew were officially declared dead on December 31, 1953 after they were not among the Prisoners of War repatriated in accordance with the Armistice. He was 34 years old and left behind his second wife, his first wife was hit and killed by a car in 1941, and a 2 year old son. Neighbors was the only Major League player killed during the Korean War, and is the last Major League player killed in combat.
Major Robert Neighbors is the most recent MLB player killed in war. (www.mlb.com)
Neighbors’ spent 6 seasons in the Minor Leagues playing primarily for teams in Texas and Arkansas. He began his professional career in 1936 with the Siloam Springs Travelers of the Class D Arkansas-Missouri League. He returned to Siloam Springs to begin 1937 before joining the Abbeville A’s of the Class D Evangeline League. In 1938, Neighbors played for the Class A1 San Antonio Missions in the Texas League and the Palestine Pals of the Class C East Texas League. In 1939, he joined the Class B Springfield Browns of the Triple I League before his September call up. Neighbors was back in the Minors in 1940 with the Toledo MudHens of the Class AA American Association, before playing for both San Antonio and Palestine. Neighbors spent 1941, his final season of professional ball, with San Antonio. It was during a road trip that his first wife was hit and killed. Across 6 seasons in the Minors, Neighbors hit .268 with a solid to very good glove at Shortstop.
September call ups reward young prospects with a taste of the Major Leagues. Bob Neighbors was not the next super star the Browns were always searching for, but his play earned him a cup of coffee in the Big Leagues. He debuted on September 16, 1939 against the Washington Senators as a Pinch Runner. In 7 games, Neighbors had 2 Hits in 11 At Bats (.182), including a solo Home Run for his only RBI, scored 3 Runs, with 1 Strikeout. In the field, he played 28 Innings at Shortstop. He had 12 Chances, made 5 Putouts, 6 Assists, 1 Error, and turned 1 Double Play.
The Boston Red Sox were finishing out the 1939 season. Their new super star Ted Williams had arrived in April, slugging 31 Home Runs, a league best 145 RBI, and hitting .327. Boston would finish the season 89-62, but it did not matter. The Yankees won the American League pennant by 17 games. Even good seasons at Fenway were not enough. The St. Louis Browns came to Fenway on September 21, 1939 to play a game because it was on the schedule. The official attendance was 598. Five Hundred and Ninety Eight. In the Bottom of the 6th, the Red Sox loaded the bases with 1 out. Doc Cramer hit a ground ball to Neighbors who threw to Johnny Berardino covering Second to force out Red Nonnenkamp. Instead of throwing to First, Berardino threw to 3rd Baseman Harlond Clift to tag Denny Galehouse. Before the 3rd out was made, Gene Desautels scampered home to score. Only the Browns could turn an inning ending Double Play while allowing a run to score. Neighbors was up second in the Top of the 7th with 1 out. He drove a pitch from Galehouse over the Green Monster for his only career Home Run. Neighbors’ best day in his short Major League career was not enough, the Browns lost 6-2. His final game was nine days later on September 30, 1939 in the second game of a Doubleheader against the White Sox. The Browns went 1-6 with Neighbors on the team, finishing dead last in the American League at 43-111. 1939 was the Browns’ 10th consecutive losing season.
Bob Neighbors did not have a long, memorable career. He, like so many others, had a cup of coffee in the Majors. He is forever listed among the select few who have played Major League Baseball. While his career was far from spectacular, his dedication to his country went beyond the call of duty. Major Robert Neighbors is among those we remember this Memorial Day who gave their lives in defense of our nation. He stands out for playing in the Major Leagues, but he is no different than the thousands of soldiers lost in war. Neighbors is the most recent Major League player killed in war. Hopefully he retains this title forever and fewer sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins go off to war and do not return.
One by one the delaying, postponing, and/or canceling of baseball at every level has created an emptiness baseball fans have never felt. Spring Training was halted. The Regular Season was delayed. The college baseball season, including the College World Series, was canceled. The Little League World Series was canceled. Baseball’s return to the Summer Olympics was delayed, along with the rest of the Tokyo games, until 2021. Hall of Fame Weekend was postponed until next summer. The World Baseball Classic was postponed until 2023. Nearly every amateur baseball league from little league up to the Cape Cod League has either been delayed, postponed, or canceled. Baseball, like everything, has taken a beating from Covid-19. Some are eager to reopen society, while many others do not believe it is safe to do so. If Major League Baseball comes back this season will fans be allowed to attend games? Will fans want to attend games? What impact will the Pandemic have on the game?
There are so many unanswered questions about baseball right now. Dwelling on the problems and missing the game is heartbreaking. While we are selfishly eager for baseball’s return, many of us are also hesitant. We are caught between wanting to return to normal and not sure it is time to return to normal. There is nothing telling us when the perfect time for baseball’s return will be, however it is better to wait a little too long than to return too early. Returning early could restart the entire process.
Empty stadiums could greet MLB’s return. (Jabin Botsford/ The Washington Post)
I do not know if or when baseball will return in 2020. I, like so many others, am following the advice of the public health experts who have devoted their lives to protecting humanity from things like Covid-19. What I do know is swinging a bat and throwing baseballs into a net is therapeutic. They are not a replacement for the game, but a band aid helping to keep me mentally healthy.
As the weather turns warmer it is more difficult to replace the time and energy I normally devote to baseball. Warm weather means I am either umpiring, watching or listening to a game. Not this year. A summer without baseball is strange. The 1981 and 1994 Strikes did not give us an entire summer without baseball. Neither did World War I or World War II. Baseball did not stop for the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which was a mistake. This is an unprecedented stop in the game. Knowing what is right is easy, doing what is right can be more challenging. I know it was the right decision to delay the start of the Major League season. This was an easy decision. What is more challenging is waiting for baseball’s return, and returning at the appropriate time. I am beyond eager for baseball to come back, but I want it to come back when it is safe.
When baseball returns please support your local teams. Public Health experts will be cautious in reopening the country, hopefully the politicians will listen. Major League teams will be fine, they have their millions. Support Minor League and Independent League teams, they are feeling the biggest impact of the shutdown. Many of these teams and leagues operate on the edge of existence in the best of times. The Coronavirus has left many vulnerable to folding.
Minor League and Independent League teams are often in smaller cities than Major League teams. They are more connected to the well being of their city as they depend on local support for survival. These teams lack the regional or national fan bases of MLB. Minor League teams can rely on their Major League affiliate to pay players through Player Development Contracts. MiLB teams fund everything else including stadium maintenance, game day staff, front office, and concessions. Independent League teams do this too and must also pay their players. Baseball teams draw visitors to their city and its economy. Fans pay the salaries of team employees, but they also go to restaurants and bars, or other attractions, before or after games. Baseball teams attract visitors and their money, and give the community something to rally around.
Growing baseball means reaching people, such as expanding television and radio coverage. However, the excitement of watching a game in person is quite different than watching or listening from home. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is pushing a plan to cut 40 or more Minor League teams in favor of the Dream League, an Independent League with some MLB support. This is foolish. MLB continues to see record profits, while MiLB players are paid criminally low contracts. Reducing the number of teams affiliated with MiLB is about reducing cost and increasing profits for MLB teams. Baseball is a business, but MLB must be careful to not stifle the future of the game to save a little money to increase record profits.
How can you not be romantic about baseball? View of the 2016 South Atlantic League All Star Game at Whitaker Ball Park, home of the Lexington Legends. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Not everyone lives close to an MLB or MiLB team. Obviously baseball cannot have a team in every city, nor can every family afford to take their baseball crazed kids to a game several hours away. There are some fans who live in a baseball desert. The cost hinders the exposure of the in person experience and could ultimately lose the fandom of kids and adults. Baseball has already priced out many low income youth players due to the ever expanding expense of travel baseball. Why would MLB and Manfred build more obstacles to the game?
Teams have contracts with cable providers for broadcast rights, including MLB.tv, which is another expense not every baseball fan can afford. MLB is strong financially, but they need to consider the finances of the fans. Reducing the number of MiLB teams eliminates access to professional baseball for many and could have unintended consequences. Cities like Erie, Lexington, Chattanooga, Billings, Danville, Great Falls, Missoula, and Colorado Springs will be changed by losing their teams if the proposed cuts are made. Some cities are close to other teams for a baseball day trip. Others create a professional baseball desert. MLB needs to think about the long term health of the game before cutting MiLB teams. Baseball should not trade saving a few dollars for losing a generation of fans.
Al Kaline passed away Monday at the age of 85. He played 22 seasons for the Detroit Tigers. He began his Major League career in June 1953 as an 18 year old and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1954. In 1955, Kaline won the American League Batting Title with a .340 BA, easily outpacing second place Vic Power’s .319 BA. Mr. Tiger remains the youngest player ever, 20, to win the American League Batting Title. He was one day younger than Ty Cobb when the Georgia Peach won the 1907 Batting Title. Kaline finished second behind Yogi Berra in the American League MVP voting. He finished in the top three of MVP voting four times but never won the award.
The numbers show Al Kaline’s greatness on the diamond. In 22 seasons, Mr. Tiger played 2,834 Games, 10,116 At Bats, scored 1,622 Runs, collected 3,007 Hits, 498 Doubles, 75 Triples, 399 Home Runs, 1,582 RBI, Stole 137 Bases, 1,277 Walks, 1,020 Strikeouts, 55 HBP, .297 BA, .376 OBP, .480 SLG, .855 OPS, 134 OPS+. Kaline’s career 92.8 WAR still ranks 42nd over 40 seasons after he retired. His statistics were not heavily padded by the DH, which was created in 1973. Kaline was the Tigers DH in 1974, his final season.
Al Kaline was an all time great ball player, but an even better person. Mr. Tiger was baseball in Detroit. (Louis Requena/ MLB via Getty Images)
Kaline patrolled the outfield at Tiger Stadium. He won 10 Gold Gloves in an 11 year span, 1955-1967, playing primarily in Right. He was an 18 time All Star in 15 seasons, playing in both Midsummer Classics from 1959-1961. Kaline remained an elite player for much of his career.
Greatness was not confined to the Regular Season. Kaline helped guide the Tigers to a World Series victory over Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968. He played in all 7 Games, in 29 At Bats he had 11 Hits, including 2 Doubles, 2 Home Runs, 8 RBI, scored 6 Runs, 1 HBP, .379 BA, .400 OBP, .655 SLG, and 1.055 OPS. Great players often rise to the occasion in the World Series.
Al Kaline retired after the 1974 season. His 3,000 hits solidified his greatness. In 1980, Kaline received two of baseball’s highest honors. The Tigers retired his #6, the first Tiger to have his number retired; players did not wear numbers during Ty Cobb’s career. Mr. Tiger was also inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Kaline entered Cooperstown on the 1st ballot with 88.3% of the vote.
The numbers and accolades are wonderful. However, the reaction from those who knew Al Kaline speaks about the man. Referring to him as Mr. Kaline, he had the love and respect of his peers, the city of Detroit, and all of baseball. There is no better tribute than an outpouring of love and affection for the man rather than his accomplishments.
Rest easy Mr. Kaline, you are already missed.
Baseball has warts. Imperfect people create a flawed baseball system. We love the game, but some things need to change. Many of the warts are off the field and behind the scenes. They often impact vulnerable players progressing through the Minor Leagues. Some warts become public with dramatic headlines and scandals, but they often exist out of sight to most fans. Removing the warts is painful, but necessary. People like Eddie Dominguez work to clean up baseball every day.
In the aftermath of the Mitchell Report, Major League Baseball created the Department of Investigations (DOI). Baseball’s own investigators assigned to root out problems surrounding the game. Eddie Dominguez was an original member of the DOI. He previously worked with MLB and the Red Sox while with the Boston Police Department. Dominguez recounts his work with the DOI in Baseball Cop: The Dark Side of America’s National Pastime.
Eddie Dominguez’s work with MLB and the DOI is a gripping story. Multiple scandals played out in public, while others stayed in the shadows. Dominguez translates the DOI’s work, steering away from a police story designed only for those well versed in law enforcement. There is a need to police baseball and the world revolving around the game. When money can be made, people can show their worst side. The most vulnerable within the game need protecting.
Baseball Cop is an engaging book that follows baseball’s recent dark history. Baseball Cop: The Dark Side of America’s National Pastime by Eddie Dominguez hits a solid Triple (7) in our score book.
Spoilers if you continue reading beyond this point. You have been warned.
Baseball Cop is worth your time to learn about the ugly side of baseball. (Hachette Books)
Baseball produces many positives, however there are negatives. The DOI is tasked with investigating and stopping those harming people and the game. Human traffickers control the futures of players, particularly those defecting from Cuba. The traffickers harass, intimidate, and extort players after they arrive in the United States and sign professional contracts. Living their baseball dreams can turn a player’s life into a nightmare.
The abuse of players can start the moment their professional career begins. Coaches and advisers skim part or all of a player’s signing bonus. Signing a professional contract changes the lives of many players and their family, especially those from Latin America. Skimming the signing bonus perpetuates the poverty players are trying to escape.
Beyond the abuse of players, baseball’s concern focuses on what players put in their bodies. The Mitchell Report was an embarrassment, and MLB has sought, at least publicly, to clean itself up. Cracking down on Performance-Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) was top priority for then Commissioner Bud Selig. Baseball instituted harsher penalties for failed drug tests and began investigating the sources of the PEDs. The DOI focused on a Florida health clinic, Biogenesis, run by Tony Bosch. Their investigation connected several players to the clinic and its PEDs. The most prominent player associated with Biogenesis, and Bosch, was Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez eventually received the longest suspension in baseball history for his involvement.
The investigation into Biogenesis exposed cracks between the DOI and MLB. The investigation included the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Baseball did not want another public embarrassment like the Mitchell Report. MLB wanted the Biogenesis case handled in house. The clash between the DOI and MLB played out alongside the investigation.
There are limits to baseball’s willingness to clean itself up. Baseball Cop exposes the good and the bad within baseball. Hopefully the good has a winning record.
Happy Opening Day! Wait…there are no games today?
This is the first time since 1995 with no games on what should be Opening Day. The reasons for no games in 1995 and 2020 are quite different. The Player’s Strike delayed the start of the 1995 season, while a global pandemic is delaying this season.
It is a sad day without baseball. However, there are more pressing issues at the moment. People are getting sick, some are dying, and our healthcare system could be overrun if we continued with business as usual. Baseball is far down the list of critical activities at the moment. No baseball on Opening Day is a strange feeling, but I completely understand why there are no games.
Josh Harrison showing everyone how to stop the spread of the Covid-19. (MLB)
Eventually Covid-19 will fade and the world will move on. We are not there yet. Listen to medical experts. Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. This is a team effort. Pretend you are the winning run, but are caught in a run down. If they tag you we all lose. It is a great time to impersonate Josh Harrison.
Umpires never want to draw attention to themselves. If players and fans are talking about an umpire it is rarely a good thing. Any umpire worth their weight wants to get the call right, even if it means changing their call. The intent of replay in baseball is getting the call right. No one wants a mistake by an umpire to alter the outcome of a game.
After many close calls players will signal the dugout to challenge the call. The manager has seconds to decide whether to challenge the call. In 2019, there were 2,429 games played and 1,171 challenges, roughly once every two games. 558 calls were overturned, 47.7%. Managers were successful 525 times in 1,053 challenges, 49.9%. Umpires overturned their own calls 33 times out of 118, 28%. Major League umpires make the right call more often than players and fans realize. The players on the diamond are not the only elites at the ballpark.
Replay today is quicker and teams better understand what they can challenge than in the beginning. Each team averaged 35 challenges in 2019, successfully overturned 17.5 calls. The Padres under Andy Green were the most aggressive, challenging 54 times. San Diego successfully overturned 25 calls, 46%. Conversely, the Yankees and Aaron Boone made the fewest challenges, 22, yet were successful 15 times, 68%. Brandon Hyde and the Orioles challenged just 30 times. Like the Yankees, Baltimore was selective with their challenges. Unlike New York, the Orioles overturned only 11 calls, 36%, the fewest in baseball. The American League loved going to replay in 2019. The Rangers had the most calls overturned. Texas and manager Chris Woodward were successful on 29 of 46 challenges, 63%. Rocco Baldelli and the Twins hated replay. Minnesota had the lowest success rate, 30%, winning just 12 of 39 challenges. Ned Yost and his Royals used their challenges well. Kansas City was successful with 82% of their challenges, 23 of 28. While teams can benefit from challenges, they can also create frustration when replay is unsuccessful.
Talking to the replay umpire in New York to get the call right. A brief delay to ensure the players decide the outcome of a game and not the umpires. (Steven Ryan/ News Day)
Replay allows the umpire in New York to overturn, up hold, or let stand the call in question. Clear and convincing evidence is necessary to overturn any call. Unfortunately without infinite camera angles some calls stand due to a lack of clear and convincing evidence. Replay is not perfect, but it aids in getting more calls right than ever before.
When a player asks the dugout to challenge and the team waives him in, umpires unofficially confirm another call. It is only calls that were clearly missed or are extremely close that are reviewed. Managers have only one challenge guaranteed per game. If they are successful with their first challenge, they receive one more. Managers are careful to use their challenges only when they believe a call will be overturned. Umpires usually get the call right and no challenge occurs. They see the play once, at full speed. Their training helps, but they are also elite at their craft.
Replay puts more eyes on umpires. Suddenly every fan is an expert after watching the play multiple times at slow speed. Everyone has their opinion. However, fans should understand the arbiters of the game make the right call almost every time, thus allowing the players to decide the outcome of each game.